As the creators were very quick to point out in the following interview, They're Watching is anything but your traditional "found footage" (don't call it that in front of them) Horror Comedy. They're Watching follows a "House Hunters International" Reality Show Film Crew deep into the heart of a backwater Eastern European village and down the rabbit hole of its storied past. They're Watching is exactly aware of what it's doing and offers a fresh take on an often stale genre. I had the opportunity to send some questions to Writer/Directors Jay Lender & Micah Wright to get some more info on the unconventional They're Watching.
Jay and Micah, you guys come from a long and impressive background in Video Games and Animation, how did your experience and time in these industries translate to the live action film production world? This being your first time directing, what challenges did you face bridging that medium gap?
In a very real way, it didn't feel like a big leap. We've both managed crews before, Jay on Phineas and Ferb, and Micah on his own pilot, so wrangling people wasn't all that strange. And animation is a much less forgiving medium than live action. Everything has to be planned to the tiniest detail before you ever film a frame of film. There are no retakes in animation, and it takes months before you see the results of your work. In that sense making a live-action movie was a snap! We told people what we wanted, we called "action" and everybody did their job. If they were doing it well, and we had been clear about what we wanted, then we got what we needed... but then we could play... and in live-action, you can have unexpected moments that make things better than you could have imagined. There are no happy accidents in animation. You either plan for happiness or you don't get it.
Through your work history, it seems you guys have been friends for some time, at what point did They're Watching come along, what was the inception of it? How long did you guys have it kicking around before you decided you should make it?
We're always thinking about what to do next, and we have files full of story ideas in various forms of completion. Single paragraphs, full outlines, completed screenplays--the works. Micah was watching an episode of House Hunters International one day and--as in every episode--this hapless American decides to maroon herself in some backwater European village where she doesn't speak the language--and as though that weren't stupid enough, she's going to renovate this ruin of a house in 6 months! How can that possibly have a happy ending?! So that idea went into the file. At around the same time Jay finished his run on Phineas and Ferb and our producer, Mark Lagrimas found us an investor. So the idea moved to the front burner and we were off to Romania in just a few months.
Due to their ability to be made on a low budget, the current market is (as I'm sure you know) saturated with found-footage horror films. Was it intimidating stepping into that world?
Well, we don't like to say "found footage". There's nothing "found" about this movie. One of our characters survives the experience, and that survivor is a professional filmmaker, so this movie was created for you "by" that survivor. It allows us to use real editing and add a score and take advantage of other film techniques that don't make sense if you're claiming that the raw videotapes were found in a ditch by the side of the road. And we don't like to say "horror" either because we're at least as much about watching funny people dealing with professional troubles as we are about gutting them like fish. So we say instead that we are a "first person workplace comedy that goes terribly, terribly wrong".
That said, your point is well taken, and we have an answer. We're experienced writers and filmmakers with more than just a hook and a prosumer camera to bring to the party, so we had no doubt that we'd be able to make a better film than all that shaky-cam nonsense that glutted the market for the past few years--so that wasn't a concern. What was intimidating was the dual challenge of overcoming the bad associations that found footage movies have created for first-person camerawork and the expectations of non-stop dread and blood that the mere mention of the word "horror" engenders. And we never really cracked that nut, though we think that if we get the opportunity to make a sequel, we'll have a built-in audience of people who know that we can deliver something unique and entertaining, even if it doesn't fit any particular mold. It's heartening to know that even the great Guillermo del Toro fell victim to the curse of the misapplied "horror" label this past year with Crimson Peak.
They're Watching clearly takes DNA from The Blair Witch Project while still managing to be unique and original in its own right. Was this a tough balancing act? How much care did you put into shaking off the genre tropes of past found footage horror?
Yeah, They're Watching has witch lore and first person camerawork like Blair Witch Project, but those things are superficial. We think we have much more in common with, say, Taxi Driver, which, like our movie, is a slice of life workplace story about dimensional characters, with a slow burn to a completely insane finish--only They're Watching is a lot funnier and a lot bloodier.
The tropes we were playing with had more to do with Haunted House and Slasher movies, where you throw those well-worn character types into the pressure cooker: the jock, the good girl, the bitch, the clown--then pick them off one by one. But where most movies that scratch a horror itch are deeply concerned with the details of their characters' murders, we were more concerned with who they were. That's why our movie concentrates on the characters for so long before the mayhem hits. We want you to hope they won't die. And, in a very real way, that's the most subversive thing about our movie. If all you're after is blood, you'll get it--buckets of it--but you'll have to earn it. If you're after a more nuanced experience, this is the movie for you. All the things you expect in a movie like this are there, but deepened, and imbued with meaning. The subtext of the film deals with issues of American cultural imperialism, narcissism, and voyeurism. Most films like this never get deeper than: "sex is bad!"
Shooting on location in Romania is a really ambitious move for a film of this size and added a lot to the naturalistic feel of the film. Did you know you were going to shoot in Romania from the very beginning or did you explore other options? How extensive was the Pre-Production?
We had the basic idea for the story worked out, and a working script before we started looking for locations. We knew that it would take place somewhere in Eastern Europe because that gave us the European Ozarks flavor we were looking for. There was no way we're going to do one of these films where we shoot in Vancouver and call it Czechoslovakia. It always looks and feels wrong. We needed the audience to feel the foreignness in every frame of this film; weird cars, cobblestone streets, unusual buildings. We approached several film production companies in the region for bids, and the ones with the best combination of experience, personality and price were the amazing people at Alien Film in Romania. We wrote the film to take place right next door in Moldova, so it worked out… but that said, the movie takes place in a fictionalized, fairy-tale, bolshevik version of Moldova. What They're Watching is by no means a travel guide.
We did as much pre-production as we could from home. Most of our makeup effects were done here in the states. Jay storyboarded the crap out of the last 12 minutes of the movie. We only had 2 weeks in Romania to scout locations, design sets, choose costumes, handle graphic design, interview and choose local actors, extras, and musicians, and refine the schedule and shooting script. Most of the actors arrived 2 days before shooting. We had time for 2 table-reads. It was insane, but it made everybody sharp.
What was the film community like in Romania? It looks like you guys hired a lot of local crew over there, what was that experience like?
The crew we worked with was incredibly experienced and professional--all veterans of dozens of pictures. But most of the work they had done was art-house stuff by auteurs; beautiful, intimate, "important" films about long conversations and penetrating looks. They were used to incredibly detailed lighting set-ups, and scenes that shot for days, but we wanted and needed to work fast and loose, both because we needed the actors to stay fresh to sustain the believability of the format, which depends on naturalism, and because we simply had no time for reshoots. None. Our Assistant Director told us the pace we wanted would be impossible, but after 4 days of shooting--each day breaking more than 4 hours early--we completely rewrote the shooting schedule. And the crew loved the new pace. Many of them had simply never worked on a movie that was intended to be fun, and they just ate it up.
What was it about this particular story that made you want to get in the director's chair? What does this story mean to each of you?
You've got it backward! After a career of writing for other people in animation and video games-- industries where there are no residuals for writers-- the goal was to be in the director's chair, and to own the material. We set out to write a film that we could afford to direct. We knew that it would be in the Horror genre--or, at least, tangential to it--since there's a big audience out there that will see a recommended horror film. In time, we knew we'd make money. But once the story idea presented itself, we did what we always do, which is try to come up with compelling characters and tell a story with them that's about something. House Hunters International is about voyeurism and American Imperialism. There's an undercurrent of paternalism in every episode. Most of the people they follow wouldn't be caught dead moving in amongst the poor of their own nation, but poverty in other countries is somehow quaint! Our movie deals with that Ugly Americanism, with all of the things we do unthinkingly because of the protective distance we get from geography, or from the use of cameras--and how that feeling of invulnerability allows us to hurt others.
They’re Watching clearly is very knowledgeable of modern horror tropes and at times both subverts and plays into them in a tongue-in-cheek capacity. What role has horror played in your film careers and experiences?
You couldn't grow up in the 70s and 80s without seeing a ton of horror. It was a golden age, with endless slasher schlock, and also brilliant gems like The Exorcist, The Omen, or David Cronenberg's The Fly or John Carpenter's The Thing. Halloween is the slasher archetype because of its unbelievable purity. There's no explaining or knowing Michael Myers. He just is. The imitators can never get close.
What was great about the time was the willingness to mix things up. We're going through a phase now where horror films are almost exclusively about one tone: dread. You have your haunted house, your haunted videotape, your haunted doll, your haunted mirror, or your haunted ham sandwich or whatever, and then we have 2 hours of long slow drifting shots and things appearing out of the darkness, punctuated by blood. It's like a drug designed to do one thing--make you tense--but we think that's boring. We design our stories so the audience will have a good experience... that experience may include a scare, but we're partial to a full meal. We think a tense moment comes better after a funny moment when you can really feel that tone shift. And the reason we think that is because we're movie people--not Horror people. Good movies are good movies. Genre is just a limiting factor. Jay's favorite movie is Richard Rush's The Stunt Man. What the hell genre is that movie?!
What was your best day and worst day on set?
The worst day on set was probably when we shot the musical number. The entire crew and 20 extras were packed into the 85-degree loft of the Bucharest restaurant that doubled as our Moldovan pub. It was the end of a long day, the air was filled with fake smoke, we were tired, and the scene was a single take that ran well over 4 minutes... tensions were high. It was only by dint of sheer professionalism on the part of cast and crew that bloodshed was avoided.
The best day was almost certainly one of our animal days. Working with animals is always a crap shoot. You just can't guarantee that they'll do anything you want them to, and on this particular day we needed a frog to do something very specific. It was the last shot of the day, and we had seconds to go before we went into overtime, and then we would be bleeding buckets of money. And that little frog SO exceeded expectations. It was amazing. But nobody wanted to mess up the sound for the shot, so, as we looked around 50 Romanians were mutely dancing and miming cheers. We don't want to ruin the moment for your readers, but it's pretty spectacular.
What were the challenges in writing a naturalistic found footage script as opposed to a traditional script? Was there a very strict script or a lot of improvisation?
All of our characters are professional filmmakers, so there's none of the excessive shaky-cam in other first-person perspective movies. After writing the script we went through it scene by scene and figured out who had the camera--then that notation was added to the scene heading: HOTEL ROOM - SARAH'S CAMERA.
We had a very tight screenplay--it would have been a disaster to go overseas on our tight schedule with something that wouldn't have worked as written. We always had those words to fall back on, but before each scene, we'd talk to the actors about what information needed to be conveyed to the viewer, and then let them feel their way through it. In the end, the actors will know their characters' minds better than you will, and with encouragement, they'll take you to places you couldn't imagine on your own. The farther into the production we got the more comfortable everybody got with that method. Some of the best moments in the movie come from our actors improvisations around our ideas, and the performances are so comfortable and loose that we were sometimes surprised to find that lines we thought were improvised came from our screenplay verbatim.
Without going into too much detail, They're Watching plays into a lot of old Eastern European Witch mythology, why did you guys choose this specific setting and mythos?
Micah spoke to a family friend who advises foreign countries on how to privatize their state-run electrical grids. He asked what was the weirdest country that man had ever worked in, and without missing a beat he said “Moldova. Definitely Moldova.” The more research we did, the more sad and underdeveloped it seemed that Moldova was compared to some of its neighbors, and that cemented the location, which we then used to inform the story. Why not take advantage of the things that feel like they're from somewhere else? None of the architecture in this movie could ever be mistaken for the USA. We wanted to show it off! As for our villagers being obsessed with witches, well, when we started the script, we hadn’t seen anything with witches in it on film or TV for several years… and then in the time between when we filmed the movie, worked on the effects, then found a distributor and when we went into theaters, suddenly it seemed like everyone on Earth was trying to beat us to the punch — between SALEM on TV and The VVitch at the movies, everyone had glommed onto the idea of witches. What can you do… that’s how the universe of ideas works. It was clearly in the air somehow.
As a film crew member myself, your portrayal of a reality TV film crew was surprisingly accurate for the size of the team. How much research did you do into that profession?
We're entertainers, not documentarians, so our philosophy is that believability should always trump accuracy, but to get some of that believability we picked the brain of a friend who produces reality TV. She gave us a rundown of what happens when a crew goes on location for this kind of guerilla-style shooting. But honestly, a lot of what you see in the movie was just our gut feeling about what it ought to feel like. At one point our cameraman character, Greg, tries to remember how he achieved a certain shot 6 months ago when they filmed the "before" segment. Things like that go a long way toward adding to the appearance of authenticity. But the thing that really makes it feel right is the camaraderie between the crew members--people who have no problem saying anything in front of each other because they've been living in close quarters for months and years. It's the same feeling on the animated TV show crews where we spent years working, so we know it well.
You’ve got an infinite budget and all the time you need, what kind of project do you tackle?
Nothing scares us more than an infinite budget and limitless time. It's an invitation to gild the lily. We'd never finish anything. So let's just stop all that talk right now. But... if we had a few million dollars, we'd make a film of our graphic novel, Duster--a story about a war-widowed crop duster who saves her West Texas town from Nazis just after VE Day. It's full of awesome action, great comedy, and pointed social commentary--which is just what we do.
With a few more million we'd do a kickass TV Maxiseries based on Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination. With a lot of millions, we have a great action franchise called GET LUCKY. We'd also consider doing a movie starring Superman and Batman, but we don't think there's a market for it.
Lastly, what do you guys have coming up next?
Well... how much money have you got?
If we're called upon to do a sequel to They're Watching, we already know what it will be, and it will dramatically shift in style to reflect the different kind of show we plan to spoof. We plan to move our survivor character's story forward, introduce some new coworkers, and then murder all of them in completely new and gruesome ways. No witches next time, but we’ll be doing something else, something not a lot of other horror films try.
And if there’s no sequel, well, we also have a few finished screenplays on file and a bunch of outlines in various stages of completion. Any one of them could jump to script at a moment's notice. We also love television and animation, and we have various show pitches ready to go there, too. We'll go where we're needed. Otherwise, there's always work at the Post Office!