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HomeCraftsCameraJohn Erick Dowdle Explores an Underground Netherworld in As Above, So Below

John Erick Dowdle Explores an Underground Netherworld in As Above, So Below

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As Above, So Below (Photo by Bruno Calvo).
As Above, So Below (Photo by Bruno Calvo).
With such claustrophobic horror films as Quarantine and Devil to his credits, director John Erick Dowdle had much to live up to in staging his next film. But he found a setting that had rarely been previously mined in the genre: the underground catacombs of Paris. Such was the platform for his current project, As Above, So Below, which combines a found-footage template with the shifting perspective of the story’s multiple characters who all descend into a surreal netherworld.

Of course, Dowdle’s projects all start with a high concept which he draws out with his brother Drew. “I co-write with my brother who also produces,” John Erick Dowdle stated. “We have this list of 200 movie ideas that go up and down the list depending where were are at in life. We are all over the place until something starts to snowball. Three or four ideas come together. We wanted to do a female Indiana Jones, a fearless archaeologist searching for the occult in found-footage style. At one point, we had studied the catacombs, but we dropped that. We had [the female lead of] Scarlett Marlowe, but we didn’t have anywhere to go.”

As Above, So BelowLike many other genre projects, the eventual answer to their project quandary resided in combining the two earlier ideas. “What about Scarlett in that setting?” Dowdle wondered aloud with his brother about the catacombs’ existence. “We put those two ideas together, more than five years ago – 2008. I went to Paris in 2007 and tried to see the catacombs then. They were closed due to vandalism. Scarlett came to life in 2010 in that zone. We like to give it a little more depth. The horror movie trope is five sexy teens do — blank — then die. We tried to stay away from that type of filmmaking.”

Thus, four years ago, they created a script with the idea that John Erick would direct. “We wanted to go as practical as possible,” he said of the plan to make the film. “For the six-week shoot, we shot five underground. When they go underwater, that was built [on a stage], but we shot in a real bell tower and in the actual catacombs. We went down there. It would be so hard to fake that unless you spent $100 million.”

With a script and a concept, Dowdle and his team had to venture into the famed Paris catacombs to choose locales. “We had never been in the catacombs,” he said. “The first location scout, Drew and I pulled into this old Parisian residential neighborhood. We were put in rubber waders that went up to our chest. We went into a hole just like that. It was a five-hour tour with real skulls and femurs; there were real bones down there. Two hours into it, we’d go down a staircase to a deeper level.”

LR-3-AABSBPK001_TP_00017RSurely, the actual French underworld provided ample shooting locations. “There are 200 miles of catacombs,” Dowdle explained. “We saw so many of them. In the six-week prep period, we spent four work weeks in the catacombs and a week above ground, and we did a week of pickups, stage stuff.”

Modestly shot, As Above, So Below provided Dowdle with a principal photography concept – for the actors to wear cameras and headlamps on their heads, covering all of the action. “The actors lit the whole movie with their headlamps,” he said. “90% of the time, the actors were shooting the movie. We tried to embrace reality. We were very lucky that we had permission.”

Naturally, shooting underground provided myriad production problems. “Getting cast and crew down there was really difficult,” Dowdle noted. “Getting back down there after lunch was really difficult. It was cold and damp down there. One location was six flights of stairs down. One was through a little hole in the ground. Walkie-talkies didn’t work; wireless monitors didn’t work. There were no restrooms, electricity; you couldn’t run gennys. It was a battery-operated film.”

Many of the film’s most notable gags were actually shot in the catacombs, even the items which would be more easily achieved on a stage. “We did the burning car underground; we brought the piano underground,” Dowdle detailed. “We brought the weirdness to that real space – it brought that energy. Over the course of the movie, everyone took a couple of headers: you hit your head on the ceiling.”

As Above, So BelowGiven the Dowdle brothers’ penchant for infusing the genre with complexity, audiences are treated to various levels of storytelling with As Above, So Below. “We took a page from Dante’s inferno – punishment according to the crime,” Dowdle said of his characters’ physical and metaphysical descent in the narrative. “What would your personal hell be? Something you feel terrible about. I can relate to the guy who made a mistake and his brother got hurt as a result. Drew and I wanted to focus on that, even if you just get clues. We didn’t want to spell out everyone and do this exposition. We really wanted to explore – what would that be like if you could explore inside the minds of each person? Going through psychotherapy – you go deeper and get out by going to the deepest level. You have to go deep to find peace.”

Throughout production, even the film’s esoteric title was a basis for the Dowdles’ ideas. “The first rule of magic is: As Above, So Below,” he related. “Any magic a person is able to manifest is not their own. It’s God’s magic working through them. We see the external world as we are internally. You could be in heaven or hell, depending on where you are at internally or emotionally. It’s a metaphor of what Scarlett is going for.”

For his camera coverage, Dowdle had a strategy going forward, or downward, into the catacombs. “We shot the A-camera with the RED, and B, C and D were Panasonic action-cams,” he remarked. “The camera department outfitted a small helmet with this action-cam in it. We put it on the real actor with a neckbrace. Where they look is where the camera is going. Being able to see the actors’ arms and legs when they look down, you are in their skin a little bit.”

LR-5AABSBPK001_TP_00014RNonetheless, even with his actors’ acquiring substantial coverage, Dowdle sought traditional narrative structure during production. “We didn’t want to make a point of documentary-style shooting,” he said. “We wanted that to fall into the background and become the tapestry of the movie. Found footage is too often the point of those movies. We didn’t want that.”

Armed with due mountains of footage, the Dowdles ventured into the editing room to shape their film. “It came pretty easily,” John Erick Dowdle conveyed. “In editorial, Elliot Greenberg has been our editor. We work with him a lot, and Drew and I are there every second of the day. Between the three of us, we remember what we have on film, and what we don’t. It irons out in the end.”

Adding a wrinkle to the fray was the reality of another fast-track project surfacing while As Above, So Below was in postproduction. “Elliot is editing while we are shooting, but we had another film [The Coup] greenlit at the same time,” Dowdle said. “We did a seven-week directors’ cut, then got on a plane, went to Thailand, [filmed The Coup] came back, and edited both movies at the same time. The Coup comes out March 6, 2015 from the Weinstein Company. It was a crazy year. It was amazing — it was so exciting. As a director, you rarely get a chance to show up to set warm. To be seven weeks from the last movie you shot, you get to show up in fighting shape.”

As can be expected, editing two movies simultaneously was invigorating for the Dowdles, who seem to have a prolific career ahead. “It was pretty wild,” said John Erick Dowdle. “Elliot Greenberg came with us to Thailand [on The Coup] while his assistant finished As Above, So Below. After The Coup wrapped we would jump back and forth between editorials. We had to trust that things would work out. One would go into hiatus briefly – for Marco Beltrami to be ready to do the music for The Coup – and we’d jump back onto As Above, So Below. This was like an action sport.”

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