Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A chat with Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, co-director of Radio Silence's DEVIL'S DUE - Part 2

We continue our chat with Matt Bettinelli-Olpin of Radio Silence and co-director of DEVIL'S DUE.

Part 1 

I saw an early cut of this film and one of the things that struck me was how much time you spend building up the characters so that we care about them when things go horribly wrong. It's rare to get a horror film where the characters feel like real people, and surely some of that is because you don't often have the luxury of doing a purely character scene. Was it challenging to preserve that character depth as you went through the post-production process? 

We had to fight a little to keep in a couple scenes that were more character based, but for us that's what we love about all great movies. And it's one of the things that at the end of the day we could have easily cut down but Fox acknowledged that it's falling in love with Sam and Zach that makes the rest of the movie work, it's out linchpin. It's part of makes ROSEMARY'S BABY so incredibly special -- the amount of time you get to really understand Rosemary and who she truly is.

JOYRIDE, one of our collective favorites, does the same thing -- you get to fall in love with the Fuller brothers and laugh with them for a large part of the first act so that when Rusty Nail begins fucking with them, you hope them survive on a guttural level, not just a surface "I hope the hero lives" type thing, but a deeper feeling of "I truly like these people, they feel like my friends, I want to spend more time with them. And I hope some psycho doesn't kill them!"

It's pretty obvious of course, every great movie is about the characters, but unfortunately FF doesn't always lend itself to that type of storytelling but we really wanted to hold onto that from day one. Hopefully it comes through.

DEVIL'S DUE also marks the first time you four work on a script that you didn't generate yourselves. What was that process like?

It was a fun challenge but everyone involved was up for it and we really spent a lot of time molding the script into something that we felt was unique and ours, something we could go out and have fun with and tell a story that might have familiar themes but that ultimately we could make our own. It felt like a very malleable story that was constantly shifting as we tried to discover out the version we loved. We also had the extra job on constant camera justification. And after DEVIL'S DUE, V/H/S and the shorts, we've had way too many conversations and way too many headaches about why the camera is filming, but it's only because of those conversations and headaches that we're ultimately able to tell the story we want to tell in an authentic and intimate way.

Also, on set Zach Gilford and Allison Miller's (Zach and Sam) contributions were invaluable. We spoke at length during the entire process about camera motivation. Zach (who actually films a lot of the scenes his character is filming in the movie) was instrumental in helping us never lose sight of the camera as an extension of his character. We really functioned as a team throughout and that dialogue was always happening.

Let's talk about casting. Most of the time, found-footage films go for total unknowns or nearly-unknowns. While Zach Gilford and Allison Miller aren't quite household names, they've become fairly familiar faces on TV. The same could be said of Sam Anderson, who's recurred on everything from Growing Pains, to Angel to Lost. We don't usually see actors like that in found-footage because of the attempt to preserve the "this all actually happened" artifice. Was there any discussion of this? Why go in this direction? 

That was a very intentional choice during casting. Initially, we had talked about casting unknowns but with Zach (we're all huge fans of FNL) we decided he was the best for the role and shouldn't NOT get it because people might recognize him. We never wanted to pretend this is real. As soon as we settled on that we solidified the idea by casting Sam Anderson, who we loved on Lost.

Our thinking, and CHRONICLE did this wonderfully, was that we should focus on making an entertaining movie, not just a FF movie. That doesn't me we abandoned the rules of FF (we didn't) but it allowed us to be more creative with the story and the casting and everything in between.

For us, the movie should feel emotionally real, that's the ultimate goal -- audiences are way too smart to have the "this is real" FF wool pulled over their eyes anymore.

What were the most important things you guys learned from screening early cuts to an audience, both for this film specifically and for the process of shaping a film in general? 

Besides previews being nerve-wrecking part of the experience, they're actually pretty enlightening. Don't get me wrong, it's an awful experience but even if they go great, it's generally acknowledged that they don't ultimately mean much. Great movies get horrible numbers and vice versa.

But regardless of all that, I actually think they're incredibly helpful. An audience filled with strangers doesn't lie. They love it or hate it and either way we don't get to explain our choices or make excuses. They talk, we listen. But we got lucky, I think, because Fox let us take what was useful from the feedback and make those changes but none of it was do or die. Most of it was left up to us.

When you're sitting with an audience of strangers, there's a deep feeling in your gut when things aren't working and it sucks but it's much better during a preview than on opening night, right? And regardless of the feedback being negative or positive, those gut something-is-wrong-here moments are things you want to change. And ultimately, I think our movie is better for having gone through that process -- you get so close to the material that at a certain point it's impossible to see the big picture.

DEVIL'S DUE hits theaters this Friday!

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