The horror movie As Above, So Below, opening this week, isn't just set inside the catacombs beneath Paris; it was almost entirely filmed there. We sat down with director John Erick Dowdle and his co-writer Drew Dowdle to talk about the challenges and advantages of filming in the catacombs.
It's about the catacombs in Paris, and that's all I know. They go to the catacombs and shit goes down? Why are they in the catacombs in the first place?
John Erick Dowdle: They're searching for a relic. Scarlett, our lead protagonist, is an urban archeologist. And she's searching for a relic. Five people go with her, searching for this, and as they go deeper and deeper they come face-to-face with their own personal demons.
It's like Event Horizon meets exploration footage of the catacombs?
John: You know, I think that's fair. There's something to it.
Drew Dowdle: There's an Event Horizon element to is where there's certain things you see in that movie like, "this boy does not belong on the ship." And we found that when we went down there, that if you saw a ghost or a creature of something, that's almost what you expect to see down there [in the catacombs]. But seeing a telephone ringing when someone is on the other end of the line that you know, things that don't belong down there are especially terrifying. We really liked going with the more psychological, digging into your subconscious. Finding the things that weigh on your soul, and those things manifesting in that space.
How much of your own personal issues are we going to see manifest on screen?
John: Of, our stuff? Quite a bit, now that I think about it. I'm like, "Oh yeah, I can track that back and I can track that back." The piano we used to jump off.
You put a piano in this from your childhood?
Drew: Yeah the piano we used to jump off. We designed it to be just like a piano we had as kids.
John: And a character mentions that he and his brother used to jump off this piano when they were kids.
It's also interesting because it looks like the set design attempts to integrate what these people are manifesting into the surroundings. It's not just a piano, it's a piano that's all damaged and dusty that looks like it's been living down in the catacombs forever. How do you go about bringing stuff like into the catacombs where you shot?
John: Well, we really wanted to match the feel of the space, as far as putting a piano down there. There are a number of different systems of the catacombs and we shot in a number of different systems. That one was six stories down, only accessible by a manhole cover with like a chimney under it and a super long staircase. So to get the piano down there, the crew asked "Can we just do a hollow piano?" And we were like, "No, it has to be a real piano!" So we got a piano mover to it into the catacombs, and we shot it, and then moved it back out. That was just the most thankless job, that poor guy.
Drew: In the beginning of the movie when you first enter the catacombs, the space is just so creepy and claustrophobic. It really has, it provides its own scares in a lot of ways, the deeper you get. And then we pass through a threshold. And then we open it up a little bit, but bring in certain, specific elements from [the characters'] past. Specific things that don't belong down there and it triggers something in your brain; it just doesn't belong. And that's where it really starts to get scary, I think.
So wait, you shot most of this inside the actual ancient, catacombs? How much of this was on a stage?
John: Almost the whole thing.
Drew: Yeah. Almost all of it.
John: I mean it is genuinely scary down there. Our first location scout, we went through a tiny hole like the size a raccoon would climb through in the tunnels. We were in waders, we had water up to our chests with a stone ceiling at our heads. We went for close to five hours, and there were sections where we had to climb under giant rocks. It was genuinely scary. We got maybe as far away from the exit. There's no cell reception; there's no walkies that work. There were moments where the voice inside of me was screaming, "Run!" One of the people in our initial scout totally lost his mind down there. He went crazy. It was scary. He was screaming, "We need to get out of here." And it just echoes.
Drew: We did have one guide who took four of us down here and I kept thinking "if this guy drops dead of a heart attack we would be so screwed." We would never find our way out. Once you ran out of battery and light, you simply wouldn't be able to find your way out.
What sort of legal contracts do you have to draw up to be allowed to shoot a movie inside the catacombs?
John: We had structural people go in and there were a couple sections that we were were told, "Oh you can't shoot there because the ceiling might fall." And we were like, "Oh but it's so perfect," and they were like, "Shut up." There were a couple things like that, and they tested the air quality and the water quality down there. They did stuff like that to make sure people weren't walking through battery acid.
Drew: By and large, it was a very safe location. It was just a very uncomfortable location.
And you're allowed to light things on fire down there?
Drew: That we did in a quarry. So we shot in four or five systems of the catacombs and then we shot in a quarry in Paris as well, but it was larger spaces that were more open.
So no canned sets?
Drew: No, we had a water moment where the cast goes underwater and that we couldn't do in the catacombs so we build a small section so we could accomplish that. But really almost none.
John: We explored system and system of catacomb. A huge part of the production was really just mapping the journey through those spaces. So it's not "more gray-brown walls"
Drew: It evolves and as we go deeper it opens up and really evolves into this hellish space.
How did you deal with having cameras in this tight space, was it mostly handhelds?
John: Handhelds. We shot with Red Epic, so pretty normal sized cameras. But we shot it documentary style. But you can't go down there and say, "We're going to light this like a traditional movie." Set up and then everyone has to move with the lights. The actors actually lit it themselves with their headlamps. And one light on the camera, that was most of the movie. It was so strangely freeing. In that limitation, it was so freeing because you could turn around and shoot a full 180 degrees.
Did you have a gaffer on set?
John: Oh yeah.
Drew: We did a small amount of source lighting.
John: Not too much, because sometimes it felt like someone left the closet light on.
Drew: But we had FX in the headlamps would come on and off at times. The gaffer actually had a surprisingly hard job given that we really let the light fall where it may. And played with the unplanned accidental lighting as much as we could. You get so many happy accidents that way.
There area lot of POV horror movies out right now. How do you break away from everything we're seeing right now (besides the obvious location shooting)?
John: I think the key is character. If you create character that people love and can connect to, that transcends genre. Whatever genre you're watching, whatever style it's shot in, if you're connecting with the people on a human level that's really why you show up to a movie. No matter what you're seeing.
So why are these characters so great?
John: Well Scarlett Marlowe is our lead character. Drew and I always talked about "Wouldn't it be cool to do a found footage film Indiana Jones movie with a female lead?"
Yes. That would be great.
John: And Scarlett is kind of our version of that. She's adventurous and she's so fixated to discover this secret. She'll go to any length. She's just so driven. There's something about watching somebody who is really passionate about finding something and really good at what they do. Those two things are always fun to watch.