Arriving in theaters August 29th is As Above, So Below, a documentary-style horror directed by John Erick Dowdle from a script he co-wrote with brother Drew Dowdle. The film centers on a team of archeologists who venture deep into the Parisian Catacombs in search of an ancient relic, but soon find themselves trapped underground where they’re confronted by the demons of their past.
Following their Hall H panel at Comic-Con last weekend, I sat down with the pair to chat about the film. They talked about filming in the Catacombs of Paris, delving into the site’s amazing history, the film’s unexpected alchemical element, their approach to “found footage” filmmaking, collaborating with Legendary CEO Thomas Tull, and a lot more. They also talked about their upcoming film The Coup. Check out what they had to say about As Above So Below after the jump.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: The panel was good. We didn’t fall over.
DREW DOWDLE: Didn’t throw up on stage, or anything [laughs].
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: This is the biggest room full of people we’ve ever spoken to for sure.
DREW DOWDLE: Yeah.
Have you guys done the Comic-Con experience before?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Not like this. We haven’t done a panel-
DREW DOWDLE: We haven’t done a Hall H panel, I’ll say that. We’ve done smaller panels here, but never the full Hall H experience.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: That’s something. You feel like Bono walking up [laughs]. You’re like, “Oh my god, how do people do this?” You can hear your own voice echoing back at yourself. It’s a little unnerving.
DREW DOWDLE: I tried not to let my eyes get past the third row or so. That’s as far as I would go to keep it intimate [laughs].
Set up As Above, So Below for folks who might not be familiar with it yet.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: As Above, So Below is a horror film set in the Paris catacombs, which is a winding labyrinth of 200 miles of stone tunnels holding the remains of 6 million corpses.
DREW DOWDLE: We wanted to create a search for a hidden relic, that’s really our jumping off point, but as we go deeper and deeper into the catacombs our characters start to experience elements from their past that are coming back. They face elements – demons from their past on a personal level. So we wanted to really lead with the characters and make the characters really strong and then really start to discover more about their backstories through what we find down there.
Did you guys shoot this in the actual catacombs or on a sound stage?
DREW DOWDLE: In the catacombs.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Yeah, we shot the real deal. And god love Legendary. We’re like, “Let’s shoot in the real thing. Let’s not build it in Romania or something, let’s really do it.” And they’re like, “Alright, great.” We were the first production to get permission to shoot the off-limits areas of the catacombs, and then we also got permission to shoot the public catacombs section. We’re also the first production for that too. It took some doing, but yeah, we’re allowed to go down there as long as we didn’t deface the walls or do anything stupid [laughs].
Did they say why this was the first film they allowed?
DREW DOWDLE: I mean, it took a lot of arm twisting. There’s two key locations and two different instances where literally the night before we were scheduled to shoot there we finally got official permission. It still wasn’t easy. You know, it’s a historical site. The French are huge – they’re such a cinema country and such a cinemaphile country, but they don’t have a many horror films. I think that was a little bit – they were resistant.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Yeah, the Spanish do that, but the French really don’t. They’re not really big horror people. So they were like, “You want to shoot down there? What?”
DREW DOWDLE: If we were making a really artistic indie down there I think they would have been a little more open. When they knew it was a horror film, I think that created a little bit more resistance. We had a very good French Line producer who helped navigate those permits.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: I think also, it’s so hard to shoot down there you almost have to shoot found footage or shoot it in a documentary style. It just wouldn’t make any sense to try and shoot traditional coverage because there’s not electricity down there, there’s no bathrooms down there, there’s nothing. You’re in there.
DREW DOWDLE: You’re in it.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: We used the actors – the actors lit the scenes themselves with their own head lamps. I mean we really did it in a really documentary style. I think that would be the only way to do without 100 million dollars, then you just have to rebuild the set.
Do you see this as very specifically a documentary style film rather than a broader found footage film? Some filmmakers I’ve spoken to are very keen on specifying the difference.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Yeah, I’d say it’s documentary style. It’s not technically found footage. But I think people see the two as synonymous. It does fall into the background, it’s not the point of the movie – if that makes sense. I feel like often found footage movies get a bad rap when that’s the point. When that’s why you want to see it. Nobody wants to see it. It’s just a style of shooting. With this movie you forget that it’s a found footage movie pretty quickly.
DREW DOWDLE: And with a location like this and if you’re in search of some very important relic, I think it makes perfect sense that you would document that going in. It’s something we spend very little time setting up, the conceit of the cameras, and we really don’t draw attention to that too much over the course of the movie. It feels natural.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: But the logic is good. We’re big believers that if you’re gong to do a found footage, then don’t fucking have a camera suddenly show up where it shouldn’t be, because that’s irritating. You might think we’re not paying attention, but that just pisses me up [laughs].
DREW DOWDLE: Some technocrane shot in the middle. No, we didn’t do any of that [laughs].
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: You’ve got to commit if you’re going to do it.
Did you ever run into the logic issue of camera justification? Why do the characters keep filming when shit gets crazy?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: They need the light, because there’s a light on the camera. Boom, done! And then there’s a camera on the head lamps.
DREW DOWDLE: Which are just there.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Yeah, so that was kind of the same gag in Quarantine [laughs]. “Hey there’s a light on the camera!”
DREW DOWDLE: In that one it was kind of a light and a bit of a weapon. It could create distance in Quarantine, so it had two purposes. But it’s such a dark space and it’s so incredibly creepy that the light on the camera is the best light they have, so it makes sense that they continue to use it as a flashlight.
For sure. I saw a bit of this in the trailer, but I can only imagine that it’s really claustrophobic down there, is that something that plays into the fear element of the film?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: It does, it does. It’s funny, the claustrophobia, strangely as they get deeper and deeper it gets wider and wider open. We don’t do the thing where as they go it gets tighter and tighter, because the first thing you feel when you go down there is [laughs] “Oh my god, I’m in this tiny little tube.” It’s so scary, but we didn’t want to drive that through the whole movie. We didn’t want that to be kind of thing – “OK, we get it, it’s tight.” So that’s kind of the first level of fear, but as they go it becomes more and more unconscious. It’s claustrophobic in the same way that The Shining is claustrophobic. You have these big empty hallways, but there’s something that makes you feel scared of the space. We really wanted to do it more in that kind of way. There are a couple really claustrophobic moments.
DREW DOWDLE: Yeah, there are. And we wanted to convey the sense that you’re getting deeper. It’s not necessarily getting tighter, but you’re getting deeper and when you get deeper you’re kind of birthed into this new space that has more supernatural elements than maybe we were in the beginning. Those spaces tend to be bigger and more open caverns versus the super tight hallways.
Can you talk a little bit about the supernatural element in your film? I imagine you’re keeping it a bit mysterious, but what’s going on down there?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: As the characters go deeper and deeper into the catacombs they come face to face with their own personal demons. So those dark secrets, that one thing you would never tell anyone. Or that deep regret that you wish you had done differently, those things come back at them and haunt them.
DREW DOWDLE: We have an alchemical theme going on in the movie too, where Scarlett Marlowe alchemical theme going on in the movie too, where Scarlett Marlowe our lead character is an urban archaeologist, but she has a real deep understanding of alchemy. Her father is one of the world’s preeminent alchemists and the idea of purification, purifying one’s soul, is a theme that she’s very well versed in and as we get deeper that knowledge comes more and more into play.
Well, that’s fascinating. You officially have peaked my interest [laughs].
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Cool!
DREW DOWDLE: [Laughs] We haven’t said that really. We keep forgetting to talk about that.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: We keep not talking about that, but it is that Nicholas Flamel is from Paris and he allegedly discovered the philosopher’s stone and his grave was found empty when grave robbers dug it up.
DREW DOWDLE: He and his wife also happen to be in the first cemetery that they moved into, so the tunnels that the catacombs now were first built in the 14th century and then it became the catacombs in the 18th century when they started digging up all these cemeteries and putting all the bodies down there. So their cemetery was the very first cemetery to be relocated into the underground. So there’s this really cool tie with Flamel and alchemy and the philosopher’s stone.
That’s awesome. I’m super intrigued by alchemy.
DREW DOWDLE: Yeah, we really wanted a historical kind of factual jumping off point that could help us really achieve a supernatural element that feels like it has a basis in reality.
Yeah, it sounds like you guys really dug into the history of that space.
DREW DOWDLE: We did.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Oh, it really does. You go down there and you see graffiti from the French Revolution. That’s amazing. There’s this one quarry we were in and apparently during World War II the Nazis were hiding bombs in there. There was this one sign that said “Adolf Hitler Strasse”. That’s crazy!
DREW DOWDLE: You turn a corner and suddenly the whole ceiling because the allies air raided…
Bombed the shit out of it.
DREW DOWDLE: Bombed the living hell out of this quarry and so some of it was structurally unsound and – [laughs].
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: We couldn’t shoot. We were like, “We want to shoot here.” And they we’re like, “That ceilings going to fall, no!”
DREW DOWDLE: We’re like, “Is it really going to fall? Or is it just maybe going to fall?” [laughs]
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: “Come on. It hasn’t fallen yet.”
DREW DOWDLE: No, we were very careful. We listened to the safety people.
I read an interview with Thomas Tull and he sounded very excited about this film. What do you think it is about the film that has him so pumped up?
DREW DOWDLE: Thomas-
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: He’s awesome.
DREW DOWDLE: Yeah, he’s amazing.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: He was overjoyed with the way it turned out. We pitched him the idea and then seven months later we had a director’s cut.
DREW DOWDLE: [Laughs] Yeah, it was crazy fast.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: And he loved it. I really think Scarlett Marlowe, our lead character, you can’t help but fall in love with her. She’s smart and funny and adventurous and warm. There’s just something so great about her, and I think a lot of guys just totally – we’ve had more people like, “Is she really like this in real life?” It’s amazing. It’s really fun. You can’t help but – there’s something really nice in that character.
DREW DOWDLE: Thomas is a huge fan of hers as well. Thomas was really involved in the origin, the inception of the idea. We always had this idea for kind of a female Indiana Jones like driven archaeologist. We had the Scarlett character, we just didn’t totally have the story. It was a bit on the side burner, and we had a meeting with Thomas and he brought up the catacombs, that he would love to do a movie in the catacombs, and we thought – you know what? These two ideas are a really good match. We said, give up a couple weeks. Then we came pitched this whole alchemy backstory wit Flamel and her father as this preeminent alchemist. He was just like, “Oh my god guys, this is great.” Thomas immediately got it and he said, “Let’s start writing this script. Let’s get you guys on a location scout in a month.” We’ve never worked on a project that moved faster. From meeting one to picture wrap was six months or something. So he, right out of the gate, just loved the concept and was intimately involved in the inception of the concept. It’s been a really fun collaboration with him.
I have to wrap with you guys, but tell me about The Coup real quick.
DREW DOWDLE: The Coup is coming out March 6th.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: The Weinstein Company.
DREW DOWDLE: It’s about an American family, a husband, wife and two young daughters, who relocated to Southeast Asia for the father’s job and the day they get there the Prime Minister is assassinated and the coup erupts and it’s a very violent and dangerous situation that they find themselves in and they need to escape the country not knowing anyone, not even having made contact with the company they work for.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: With two little girls with them. Owen Wilson plays the father, Lake Bell plays the mother, Pierce Brosnan is in the film as well. It’s fun to see Owen doing a role that’s really tense. He does action, he does moments where he’s yelling at his little kids.
DREW DOWDLE: Really alarming.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: It’s really alarming when you see Owen losing his shit. You’re like, “Wait, you’re supposed to be level. You’re not supposed to be losing it.”
DREW DOWDLE: We really wanted to cast someone like Owen that feels like someone you know and like as a friend versus an action star that you know is going to find a way out of this. This character doesn’t have that particular set of skills, this is not someone who’s prepared for this situation. He’s very much caught off guard. It keeps it very tense.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Yeah, it does. It feels like one of your buddies or yourself. You’re like, “I don’t know if he’s going to pull it off.” [Laughs] It turned out really well.
DREW DOWDLE: Thomas allowed us to do a director’s cut, go to Thailand make that movie and come back and finish As Above, So Below. Thank god for Thomas.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Yeah, we did both at the same time.