Elliot spoke to us about the marketing of a filmmaker’s vision, the inner workings of found footage, and whether it is a genre or a style of filmmaking. During our discussion he also touched upon the influence of the individual filmmaker, horror masterpieces directed by directors outside of the genre, as well as the terrifying presence of Richard Burton and Snow White’s nemesis.
The experience of a film can be radically different to what the poster quotes lead you to expect, as is possibly the case here. But then film like all art forms is dependent on the subjective reaction of a broad audience.
Well it’s interesting to have an idea of a film as you are making it and then seeing how the film is eventually marketed. Metrodome’s angle with the art work etc seems to be that they are selling it as a capital H horror film that is going to scare the pants off you. And I’ve had plenty of people tell me how scared they were, which is great. But I see The Borderlands as a bit of a hybrid – although I don’t know how easy that is to market. The film is quite light-hearted along the way with funny bits…before it gradually descends into the darkness.
The Borderlands builds to the third act, at which point past events are revealed and it begins to dawn on us that their supernatural encounter is a genuine one.
Making the film you were seeing how long you could keep the plates spinning. You were seeing how long you could convince people that this ‘stuff’ happening might still have a rational explanation. So it was a point of interest to see how long we could keep that going for. It was later in the edit that I realised that the audience can have their revelation at a different time to the characters in the film. It doesn’t spoil things because it is still interesting to watch the characters labour under their illusions. In fact it’s better if the audience know or at least get a sense of it so that they can feel the characters sleepwalking into danger.
Found footage films are essentially told in a first-person narrative. So they tend to have to build up slowly otherwise with most of them there wouldn’t be any characters left alive by the third act – you’d just have some cameras lying on the floor. So the nature of the genre means it has to slowly build towards an eventual climax.
Slow burn drama especially in television with shows the likes of Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, The Wire and most recently True Detective has grown in popularity. But it seems to be more prominent in television than film.
I discovered for myself that it is difficult with film. When I was writing the script I found myself becoming jealous of people writing for television shows like the ones you mentioned. In those series if there is no character resolution you have the option to just put it off until the following week/season. But with a film you feel the need to provide some kind of closure at the end of it regardless of how slow or how long it takes to get there.
Whilst it’s in a totally different genre The Simpson’s movie annoyed me because that show normally has such an irreverent attitude towards narrative with stories that never go in a way you would expect. But as soon as it becomes a film it suddenly has to fit this three-act structure. So you know there’s going to be this arc. I’d prefer it if it didn’t go anywhere you expect but instead ended up going off on a different path.
The Borderlands is categorised as a found footage film, but is there confusion regarding the distinction between found footage and pseudo-documentary?
Yeah as with any categorisation there are always grey areas. The Blair Witch Project was the first time I heard the term, but it’s not the first found footage film. Of the examples one could list, Cannibal Holocaust and the Vietnam mockumentary movie 84 Charlie MoPic are amongst them, but no-one called it found footage then. But when The Blair Witch Project came out the whole marketing concept was that it was actually ‘real’ footage. I’m not sure that many people went with it, but they did try to make out it was a real recording that they had found out in the woods.
Whilst our film is a found footage movie, we are not trying to convince the audience that they are not watching anything other than a film. Of course you suspend your disbelief and we as filmmakers try and make it feel as authentic and immediate as possible, but there’s no point trying to pretend that it’s actually real. That’s kind of moved on to the internet now, people posting fake videos on Youtube. That girl twerking who set herself on fire is a prime example – I personally fell for that one and was suitably taken aback when it turned out to be made by Jimmy Kimmel. I guess Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man could be said to be ‘true’ found footage. And You’ve Been Framed on Saturday night ITV!
I’ve heard people arguing whether it’s a genre in itself or just a style of filmmaking, and it’s fun that you can play with it. I didn’t want to make The Borderlands just like another found footage film, rather do something that felt a little different. But I’ll leave it to other people to categorise.
Found footage comes with a bit of a stigma, particularly amongst horror fans who have seen so many of them by now. There are definitely good found footage films you can hold up as prime examples of the form. But often it seems like filmmakers think it’s an excuse to not to have to write a script, to just do a found footage and run around the woods, swear a lot and hope they’ll come out with a film at the end of it.
How about you? Do you enjoy found footage?
As long as it’s a good film that’s done well, style doesn’t overly concern me. My emphasis is on a well-made film, with a well-told story that has an interesting cast of characters to entertain or to take me on a journey.
I’m the same as you. When I got involved in the project I would never have called myself a horror fan. Now that’s not to say I don’t like horror films, but I’d define a horror fan as someone who only or predominately watches horror films. I have a very broad interest in different styles of film. As long as it’s good I tend to like it. Hopefully there is a different slant to The Borderlands than there would have been if a quote unquote ‘horror director’ had made it. I have always been more into the psychological angle than the more gory films like SAW. I definitely wanted to tick all the horror boxes, have a good scare quota. But I also wanted to make a film that I would want to watch, where you might find out some interesting things along the way.
The influences of the individual will ultimately shape the film, and a film in one person’s hands will be different in someone else’s.
Something I realised recently, if you look at some of these top one hundred horror films lists, near the top of that list a large number were directed by filmmakers who would not claim to be horror directors, the likes of William Friedkin and Richard Donner. These guys are not necessarily horror directors; it’s just that they happened to make a damn good horror film. Whilst there is a darkness running through Polanski’s work, you would never identify him as a horror director.
It’s definitely fun to scare people; it’s good to get a reaction out of the audience, but I also love making people laugh. That’s one of the interesting things about watching the film when it premiered at FrightFest, and a couple of the other film festivals – just watching the audience react. You can just about hear them if they are scared, maybe if they are jumping at a shock, but you can really hear them laughing at a funny line. It’s always a nice feeling to know the audience is still alive when they are watching your film.
In The Borderlands you deliberately balance the suspense with comedy. This is a classic trait in the genre, with directors like Dario Argento exploiting the comedic value, but perhaps no one has exploited it quite as successfully as John Landis.
As we talked about, this kind of film by its nature has to have a slow build up. Found footage is often anti-narrative at the start – the fact that nothing seems to be happening starts to ratchet up the tension. Actually with The Borderlands there is more character development and backstory than is normal, and you are finding out about the nature of their work, so it’s not just literally driving around aimlessly for forty minutes. But you do need a bit of that to set-up the ‘reality’. But if not much is going to be happening plot wise I still want people to be entertained. It’s really amusing just to watch Rob and Gordon interacting, bickering. We shot hours of it, it was a lot of fun – but then you need to distil it down. My background is comedy, and though I cast people who could be funny, I was consciously trying to make a film that was different to my previous work. Whilst we had plenty of comic lines in the script, it started to develop on set through improvisation. We needed to create a level of actuality for this kind of film, and you can’t succeed at that just by having people reading lines off the page, you need a bit of spontaneity.
But what happened was they were getting funnier and funnier and I was actually beginning to get a little concerned about it. I found myself thinking, this is turning into a comedy, and when we watched the footage back it felt like an episode of Peep Show [laughs]. I remember taking Jen the producer to one side to ask, “Are we still making a horror film here?” Because we were shooting it semi-chronologically for the most part, my fears were unfounded as the dark stuff was yet to come. Well the people who say how terrified they were will attest to that. But I’m glad the characters are engaging and hopefully you enjoy the ride with them. By the time you get to the end if you believe in that friendship that has grown between the two characters then what transpires will hopefully be that much more gut wrenching.
You cannot have one without the other, and more importantly the audience needs that release, whether it is a jump scare or a laugh. You can’t expect an audience to stay perched on the edge of their seat for the whole film.
Exactly and there are a lot of films that need those moments of lightness to make the darkness that bit extra dark – think about the opening of Poltergeist. But as well as a laugh, with a film that tries to build tension you need some other releases of tension along the way, namely some jump scares. As I was writing I learned about the terminology for different types of scare. At one point we needed a scare but one that had no supernatural origin. And I found out that is called a ‘cat scare’ – named after the moment where someone is walking through the haunted house or the gloomy alley and WAAARGH, something jumps out…but it was just a cat. I remember at one point going through the script and drawing a graph, seeing where it needed spikes at certain moments, to ease that pressure so that it won’t boil over until the very end.
Can you remember the moment you first discovered the horror genre?
It may have been The Medusa Touch starring Richard Burton when I was eight or nine years old. I stayed up late at night to watch it on television, had nightmares and that was the point I realised that film could really scare you. Actually my mum told me I was hiding under my seat when the witch came on screen in Disney’s Snow White, but I think I was three so that doesn’t count!
The Omen and The Exorcist were two films that particularly resonated with me when I was growing up. I came from the Friday The 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street generation. Those were the films that were going around school, and the films we would go around to each other’s houses to watch VHS tapes of. I really enjoyed them but especially with the A Nightmare on Elm Street series as it went on I felt it became a bit ironic, camp almost. Whereas watching The Omen somehow felt much more serious. The Satanic stuff just felt like it was more of a real kind of horror, the kind you carried on thinking about long afterwards.
The Borderlands is released on March 28th. Create your own screening for the film here.