Ah, Paris. City of love, romance—and a terrifying network of skull-filled catacombs where filmmaking brothers Drew and John Erick Dowdle shot their new horror-thriller As Above So Below. “It is an extremely creepy place,” says director John Erick (Quarantine, Devil). “It really tweaks at the mind. You go down there and your pulse slows. It’s really weird.”
Drew Dowdle, who produced the film and cowrote it with his brother, sounds no less glad to be back above ground. “Yeah, it’s a very tough place to shoot.” he explains. “Obviously, in preproduction, there’s always talk of, ‘Do we find something that looks like it?’ [But] if you’re doing a catacombs movie, you’ve got to shoot in the real catacombs.
Below, the Dowdles talk more about As Above So Below, which stars Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, and Edwin Hodge and opens in cinemas tonight.
EW: What was the genesis of As Above So Below?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: We had always wanted to do a found footage or documentary-style Indiana Jones-type movie with a female lead. Thomas Tull, the head of Legendary, called us and said, “I would love to do something in the Parisian catacombs. And were like, “Oh my god, that would be perfect, if they were searching for something down there.”
DREW DOWDLE: Yeah, we said, “We’ve got this character developed and we haven’t quite written a story. But we have her background and it seems like the perfect setting.”
What is the setup of the film?
JOHN ERICK: Well, Scarlett Marlowe [Perdita Weeks] is our lead character. She’s searching for Nicholas Flamel’s philosopher’s stone and it leads her into the catacombs.
DREW: Yeah, she’s the daughter of a world famous alchemist, who was a big believer in Nicholas Flamel, and she’s setting out to not only find the stone but to prove her father wasn’t insane.
Nicholas Flamel was a real person?
DREW: Yes. He’s kind of like the father of alchemy and he lived in Paris in the 1400s.
JOHN ERICK: He was a middle-class book-dealer that [according to legend] got hold of this book that had the secrets of alchemy and he traveled to Spain to uncode it and quickly became one of the richest men in Paris. A lot of people thought he developed a philosopher’s stone that gave him riches and eternal life.
DREW: The myth goes that he didn’t really die, that they buried empty caskets and he’s still alive today.
Tell us more about filming in the actual catacombs.
JOHN ERICK: That was crazy. They’re 200 miles of tunnels, five stories underground, that hold the remains of six million bodies. So there’s bones and skulls. It was cold, it was dark, there was no bathroom down there. Water up to your waist some days. You’d sometimes have to crawl around on all fours for an hour at a time. It was gnarly.
Was it easy to get permission to shoot there?
JOHN ERICK: No
JOHNERICK: We’re the first feature to get permission to shoot in the off-limits areas. We were like, “We’re not bringing lights, we’ll just do it docu-style.” In a lot of scenes the actors light the scene themselves with their head lamps.
DREW: We took a very realistic approach to the camera and lighting and just said to our DP, “It’s going to be imperfect but that feels real.”
Did you eat down there?
DREW: We’d come out for lunch. It was always very hard spending even four hours down there and the coming out into Parisian June. Everyone became mole people. We really couldn’t handle any sunlight.
JOHN ERICK: We’d come up, scarf down food real quick, and then go back down.
Found footage films are often very successful, but have come in for a lot of criticism over the past couple of years. Presumably you think there’s still juice in the genre, or that you can bring a fresh approach to it.
DREW: I would call it more docu-style than found footage. It’s not “These tapes were found mysteriously some place.”
JOHN ERICK: Yeah, and it takes a very supernatural, surreal take where it’s not trying to be real. It’s not trying to position the film as real footage, it’s really more of that sense of immediacy and reality within a movie which is clearly fictional.
You’re being a bit cagey about the actual plot of the film. Is it a ghost story? What genre would you put it in?
JOHN ERICK: I would say it’s…
DREW: …More of a hellscape. [Laughs]
JOHNERICK: It’s more akin to The Shining. Like The Shining is sort of a ghost story but sort of not.
DREW: It’s more psychological.
But terrible things happen?
DREW: Terrible things always happen in a Dowdle movie
JOHN ERICK: Yeah. There are really nice people—and terrible things happen to them!