Today’s interview is with one half of the Brothers Dowdle team. John Erick Dowdle, pictured right (on the left), and his brother Drew (on the right), began producing films together in 2005, with The Dry Spell. In 2007, they made The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a faux documentary featuring a serial killer’s home movies. The success of The Poughkeepsie Tapes led to a production deal for Quarantine, a 2008 horror film. John Dowdle was kind enough to spend some time earlier this month chatting with BlueCat discussing topics ranging from his early interests in filmmaking to the struggles of making an independent production. Following up Quarantine, the Brothers Dowdle are slated to release an M. Night Shyamalan-produced film entitled Devil, later this year.
BlueCat: How did you first become interested in film?
John Dowdle: Growing up, I’ve always been interested in film. But it never occurred to me that there was an actual living to be had in that world. I decided to be a writer when I was 19. I didn’t know what capacity or how I’d make a living or anything like that. I was studying English and writing and stuff at the University of Iowa, and I happened to take a Survey of Film course while I was there. It just blew my mind. I had known the Hollywood film. But I didn’t know, I hadn’t ever seen anything like Tarkovsky, or Godard. These kinds of film [were] so different than anything I had ever seen. Immediately I knew, ‘This was it.’ This is the thing I want to do: I want to write for movies. And I read an article to the effect of [a] screenwriter saying ‘Aww, it’s awful. You write this masterpiece and these directors come in and screw it up.’ At that point, if a director has to come in and screw up my work, it’s going to be me. So then I decided I would study film from a production standpoint, and learn how to make movies so that I could screw up my own movies.
In switching gears to his days of actual production, the interviewer mentions that he has seen the, as of yet, unreleased film The Poughkeepsie Tapes online.
JD: What kills me, is that online there’s a rough cut online, which is not the completed film. I wouldn’t mind the piracy as much if it was at least the right movie. The rough cut that got leaked…the movie is actually much better when you see the actual finished film.
BC: Where did the idea for The Poughkeepsie Tapes come from?
JD: You know my brother and I, we’re a filmmaking duo. And we were sitting at lunch one day. Just going through all sorts of ideas, and it was just one of those things where we were trying to find a way where we could make a lower budget movie that looked like it cost more money to make. We were thinking it’d be ideal if we could do something that had video aspects and film aspects. And you know, we were sort of brainstorming and I said, ‘What if we did a faux documentary on a serial killer’s home movies?’ And Drew was like, ‘That’s it.’ We were actually comedy people before that, and we didn’t know if we could actually do this. Do a horror film, or anything scary. And Drew said, basically, ‘Drop everything. You should write that. I’ll put the money together. And we’ll make this.’ [S]ix months later, we had shot the whole movie.
BC: What’s the current status of the film? Wasn’t it slated for a theatrical release?
JD: MGM bought it. We premiered it at Tribeca in 07, and MGM bought it out of there. [T]hey were going to give it a wide release. [They] spent a lot of money on advertising. And five weeks before the release they pulled the plug on that and a handful of other movies. It was just devastating to us. It’s basically unreleased. A couple of other companies are trying to buy it from MGM and release it. We’re excited about it, so hopefully, it will get into theaters shortly. When MGM wanted to go really wide with it, we were a little nervous about that honestly. It’s not really a crowd pleaser kind of film, it’s a really upsetting movie. We were like, ‘Are you sure you want to go big like this?’ Our thought was you should trickle it out. Let people discover it for themselves versus going, you know, major release. It doesn’t feel like a studio movie. It feels like the kind of thing you find and show to a friend. It plays great on DVD. It plays great at home, by yourself. It’s moody, it’s creepy. We’ll see how it shakes out. Hopefully, it’ll be out there shortly.
BC: How did you decide to use the first person point of view as a story device?
JD: It seemed to make sense. We figured that if a killer was shooting these videos of his victims, then it would just be really scary. The closer we the audience get to a person, the more endangered that person is. We thought that was such a cool, interesting way to show a horror film. There’s a scene in the original Halloween from through the eyes of the mask. It sort of did a similar kind of thing, where, the closer you get to the victim, the more you are scared for them. It’s kind of fun to make the audience the killer, sort of.
BC: Is it challenging to write dialogue for a faux documentary, so that it seems authentic, and as real as possible?
Absolutely. It’s funny. Real life is full of non-sequiturs. It’s full of choppy, hackneyed dialogue. And usually, film is the spruced-up version of that. It’s really fun to having that POV, reality style. The long one-shots we use are really…reality. Real-time. It’s a big challenge, but it’s a really fun challenge to write it as realistic as possible. There’s one scene where he picks up a woman on the side of the road, she’s in the back of the car, he traps her. It’s a six-minute long scene, and the entire thing is done in one close-up, one take. It’s all dialogue, you don’t see anything happen. And it’s the scariest scene in the movie. And it’s terrific, and it’s awful, but it’s all dialogue.
BC: So after the success, you had with The Poughkeepsie Tapes, you were given Quarantine. What was the transition like, going from being an independent to a studio picture?
JD: It’s tricky. You know the studio world is filled with such difficult challenges. And they’re very different ones. In the indie world, you spend half the film thinking, ‘Oh my god, I hope our checks don’t bounce. If the art department crashes another truck, we’re gonna be ruined.’ On a studio movie, that’s somebody else’s problem in a way, not completely, but the money is there. If something doesn’t show up and it should have, it’s not going to ruin you, personally, financially. And there’s distribution guarantee, which is such a huge weight off. The Poughkeepsie Tapes, when we made that, we didn’t know for sure that we’d be able to sell it. Very few things that year sold. We had borrowed money, invested half a million dollars, and we had no idea whether we’d [get a] return, and we hoped we’d get a return. Everyone believes they will, but you don’t know for sure. It was our second film, and the first one hadn’t made a profit. With a studio movie, that’s not a problem. The other side of that, both good and bad, is that you have other people pushing you in a direction, or sometimes multiple directions. And that can be difficult at moments, and that can be helpful at moments. There are moments in The Poughkeepsie Tapes where Drew and I were staring at the editing screen saying, ‘I wish somebody who was really smart, and knew the marketplace really well could give us a couple of tips. If we just had a couple of more smart people sitting in the room giving us notes and stuff, that would just help.’ Sometimes you just don’t know at the end of the day. With a studio movie, there’s a lot of people with a vested interest in it. And a lot of really smart people, and that’s really helpful at moments. But the fact that you have to listen to them, is very difficult at moments.
BC: What is your approach to screenwriting? Do you have a writing process? What is the collaborative process with your brother like?
JD: Basically, we discuss everything up and down. Then usually I’ll pull myself away for a weekend, or a three-day weekend or something like that, and try to bang out a first draft. Then we will get together and analyze it and study it, then make a bunch of notes, then start to do it like that. We’re not huge outliners. By the time we sit down to write something, we have a pretty clear sense of what it is, but not exact. When we were kids, I used to basically rewrite song lyrics. And I’d show them to Drew. And Drew would tell me what he did and didn’t like. And then I’d go back and rework it. And that’s sort of how even our process is. I sort of throw a bunch of paint at the wall, and he comes in and helps me sculpt it. It’s great–he has a great analytical mind, and I’ve got a more intuitive mind–where the combination of the two works really well together.
BC: What filmmakers have influenced you?
JD: So many. Let’s see. We just finished a movie with M. Night Shyamalan. And he was, he’s become a wonderful mentor to us. He’s a smart, smart cookie. Really, really, nice guy. He’s high up on the list. Kurosawa, Scorsese, Hitchcock is way up there. Oliver Stone, he made those really personal earthshaking movies when I was growing up. Fellini, 8 ½ is one of my favorite movies. I’ll stop there. I could list all day.
BC: What can you tell us about your most recent project, Devil?
JD: That it is a supernatural thriller. And honestly, I don’t know what I can tell you. M. Night Shyamalan is very secretive about things and. The financier is also very secretive. I worry about what I can and cannot say. We just finished shooting on December 16th. We’re starting post tomorrow. We’ll be in post until June sometime, I believe the movie will be coming out in October.
BC: What was it like working with M. Night Shyamalan?
JD: It was wonderful. It’s sort of great having someone like Night Shyamalan available and around and just sort of discussing how he would do something, and how I would normally do something. It became this wonderful chance to get a lot of wonderful insight from someone who’s been doing this successfully for a number of years. We learned so much in this process. It was nice too because he theologically has a similar sense of shooting. We, in Quarantine we did a lot of long one-shots without shooting much coverage, and that kind of stuff, it’s a very difficult thing to do, and he shared a similar sensibility about that. He’s definitely not a very ‘edity’ filmmaker. He depends more on blocking, on getting it right on set. It was nice for us to do a bigger studio movie, getting the studio-level talent to work with us. Having someone like Night Shamalan available to bounce ideas off of and to brainstorm pieces of the script. It was pretty amazing. It’s great having smart people available. I think a lot of why people get better as they go as filmmakers is they get to surround themselves with smarter and smarter people. And I think that’s absolutely true in our case. You know, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, my brother in law Steve Chbosky, who is a wonderful writer, came on as an exec producer early on, and helped with a lot of advice that helped us immensely. On Quarantine, we had a lot of really smart people involved. Night Shyamalan is a wonderful producer.
BC: What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters?
JD: My advice, more than anything else, would be: just keep doing it. Just keep working. One thing I realized a long time ago was, right before we started getting a lot of stuff out there, I was always so nervous about showing any people anything I had worked on. There’s this insecurity, like if I show people what I’ve written and they don’t think it’s good, then that means I’m not good. There was a point at which I realized, the people who get respect, are the people who are doing it. The people who, the quality doesn’t matter if its good or bad at the end of the day. If someone is showing up making a movie a year, eventually that’s going to work. Those are the people I found myself really respecting. ‘Hey this guy is a terrible filmmaker, but he makes a movie every year.’ That’s incredible. Those are the people that I respect. Versus the genius who’s never shown anyone anything, he’s written. We decided let’s be like that, let’s get our stuff out there, and take our lumps. But let’s keep pushing. Let’s keep fighting forward. There was one year, where I wrote 12 scripts in one year. All told there was 65 total drafts–I tallied this at the end of the year, it was an insane year for me. I wrote 65 drafts of scripts that year. Not one of those scripts has ever been produced, but that gave me the tools going forward that I needed. I think it’s just a matter of just keeping doing it, and just keep putting yourself out there. Don’t stop.
Read more screenwriting tips, career advice, and interviews with other industry professionals like John Erick Dowdle on BlueCat’s blog.