I won’t know it until later in the evening when I run into them at a party during the Toronto International Film Festival last September, but I was apparently the first person to interview filmmakers and actors Clif Prowse and Derek Lee about their debut feature Afflicted (in theatres this Friday). The Canadian filmmakers and friends were incredibly gracious and thankful that their first interview experience was a good one. I made a joke that hopefully their fate turns out better than their on screen counterparts.
It most certainly has turned out for the better, especially with regards to their film. Conceived of as a simple “found footage” style travelogue gone wrong, Prowse and Lee were able to stumble onto a concept that their studio had such faith in that money kept getting pumped into the project instead of taken away from it. The result has garnered a lot of buzz for the pair who have made the jump from short filmmaking to features with a great amount of ease and confidence.
In the film, Lee and Prowse play heavily fictionalized versions of themselves as a pair of friends who take off on a whirlwind, yearlong tour around the world. Derek has been suffering from a neurological condition where he could potentially suffer a brain aneurysm at any time and die on the spot. Following an ill-fated hook up with a girl in Paris, Derek begins to get sick, but he refuses to end the trip. Clif abandons the pair’s initial documenting of their trip and starts filming their search for answers or for a potential way to cure Derek’s increasingly unusual behaviour.
We chatted in a Toronto hotel room early on the morning of their film’s debut at TIFF about taking the time to get to know their characters, why their movie isn’t specifically a “found footage” film, their individual strengths as filmmakers, and how having a small crew freed up money to create more ambitious action sequences.
Dork Shelf: I think this film does what a lot of first person shot films do right which is to spend a lot of time with the characters before anything major happens. The set up is this really crappy CITY-TV styled travelogue that’s actually kind of funny in its own way. Was that a part of the concept that you always had from the beginning to balance the character stuff with not taking yourselves or your on screen counterparts too seriously?
Derek Lee: First, it’s amazing that you pointed that out and that you liked that because that was one of the things in the film that we always wanted to do very specifically. Obviously we had to think really long and hard about just how long you could spend getting to know these characters in this style of film in that sort of way. We had a lot of fun with it, though. We actually have hours of footage that was shot like that where it was just the two of us making this travel blog where we just kind of goof around with ways you can get to know these characters before they go off on this crazy genre ride. I’m so glad you pointed that out because that makes us feel pretty awesome. (laughs)
Clif Prowse: And one of the things about the journey of these characters in the movie is that we wanted at the beginning to allow the aesthetic at the beginning to be a lot prettier and a lot more fun and more composed. As stuff gets crazier and crazier, you really lose that kind of repetitive feeling that those kinds of travel blog type things tend to fall into, and the cinematography gets grittier and grittier, and the music starts to go away. Ultimately once (things get really bad) for Derek, that’s when the film is at its rawest. We really wanted the film to be as much of a journey visually, as well.
DS: It also has to be an opening that can’t really act as a set up for what’s going to happen later in the film, because what ends up happening is something no one can prepare for. The movie has to be able to turn on a dime.
CP: It’s like Derek was saying about finding how long to make the set-up because we focused on that a lot. We wanted it to feel like there was a reason for these characters to be filming because there would be a story worth telling BEFORE everything hits. We really wanted the film to take as sharp of a left turn as possible, and I think that’s one of the things people have appreciated about the movie the most when they’ve shown it to them, especially if they don’t know anything about it. They come in to this film that has a crazy genre movie coming at them from out of nowhere.
DS: You guys are also clearly having fun with the film as you’re making it. You’re playing a lot with the editing and the performances to show how these guys are trying really hard to be as entertaining as possible and not acting organically unless they know its footage that they won’t use for their blog. It’s a good set up because it’s disarming to watch two people going around sort of performing for the camera who need something crazy in their lives to happen for them to start acting realistically about things. I think some people from the outset might be more put off at the prospect of spending 85 minutes with your characters than they will be by everything that comes after.
DL: Absolutely. We’re hoping by the time people reach the end of the film people will realize why they were there in the first place and that’s it’s all a big set up for this awesome kind of finale where I become something else entirely.
DS: The film is cleverly divided into thirds. The first is the set-up we were talking about. The second is about finding a way to build sympathy for Derek once he starts changing. And the third is just a flat out action movie. Was it a conscious decision to make the audience sort of work to get to the bits that make this movie that fun sort of genre experience you guys wanted to create? I’m sure in a lot of ways you guys have been getting positive comparisons to something like Chronicle, which tells a different story but has a similar kind of structure to it.
CP: We were very conscious, like you said, that in these movies you really don’t get to know the characters and their personalities in these found footage type movies. The more we can get people to care about these two guys and present them as regular people with distinctive personalities, the bigger the dramatic payoff will be later.
DS: When you guys hear the term “found footage” do you guys cringe a little? Because this is one of those films where the footage was never technically lost to begin with.
DL: (laughs) You’re my favourite person right now. (laughs) One of the things with us is that we don’t love the moniker “found footage,” but we certainly understand where people are going to think that about the film, and that’s totally fine with us. But we always knew that someone would ultimately be the final author of this project and that someone is out there editing this. We never meant for it to ever feel like someone was just going around shooting this with a camera and you picked up the tape and you already have a perfectly formed movie somehow. We wanted to take that one step further and stop people and make them realize very early on that someone sat down and crafted this to document this crazy journey that almost functions like a goodbye letter. It’s about someone on a crazy journey who wants to give people closure. I guess we would prefer the term faux-documentary, but I guess that’s also just a semantic thing.
And one of the things that we didn’t realize that I don’t think a lot of people do, is that “found footage” is really difficult. We definitely didn’t know that going in. The technical qualities between making something feel haphazard while trying to incorporate this horror-fantasy element into the story is tough. It’s hard to frame everything up correctly and it’s hard to make even individual scenes that might require some editing to feel like one continuous shot where someone presses record and just goes for it. As a director, I never knew how technically demanding it would be going in. We definitely have an overwhelming amount of respect for those guys who came before us and we able to make this style work.
DS: Derek, since you are on screen almost all of the time, and since Clif is continually popping up, did you guys work extensively with an outside director of photography to help you guys with the technical aspects of what you were trying to accomplish so you could stay focused on the story and direction?
DL: Absolutely. There were plenty of times where we would have to defer to them and hand things off.
CP: And in a lot of ways, that’s also character work for him even though he’s never in the actual scenes of the film or is a written character.
DL: Our DP, Norm Li, actually had to learn how to move like Clif and like me.
CP: He would always ask us “Is this scene going to be ‘Clif shitty’ or ‘Derek shitty.’” (laughs) I don’t think he needed to take it that far. (laughs)
DL: Well, that’s Norm! (laughs)
CP: But that is definitely one of those learning curve things. You want to feel these people not as actors on screen in a movie, but as real people in real situations, and a big part of that is having a cinematographer that can understand what that means to the film. As soon as you feel the artifice of the filmmaking – everything is framed too perfectly, everything is too focused, or the camera lands in a perfect place – then all of a sudden the audience starts to get lost when they’ve caught on to the artifice. We would often do takes and turn to each other and do it again because it looked too good, and I think this is one of the few kinds of films where you can ever get away with saying that. (laughs)
DL: It’s such a difficult thing to tell that to a DP, too, because you know this guy is working his butt off trying to make things perfect for you and your film, but sometimes things turned out a bit too perfect. You can spend your entire filmmaking career trying to find the perfect angle to capture something and make things feel as dramatic as possible. Here that kind of thing works against you because that’s when you feel the filmmaking the most.
CP: The second it feels like a movie is the second you lose sight of what you’re doing.
DL: And to Norm’s credit, he really embraced that aspect of the film. By the end he was telling us when he was telling us when things didn’t seem right. We were so grateful to have someone like him especially because we were wearing so many different hats on this one. He was our first and last layer of defense in case something didn’t feel right.
DS: The film gets a lot more ambitious as it goes on because you end up having some pretty elaborate sequences and set ups that most films don’t necessarily get the chance to explore, especially in the big action sequences that lead to the climax. What was it like trying to do this on a film with such filmmaking constraints and a limited amount of time and money to make it all work?
CP: One of the things that was really nice was that because we were able to shoot this style of film with such a small crew, it allowed us to afford more money to do other cool things. We thankfully had the money to actually send people to Paris and Barcelona to help us with the more elaborate stuff. Even if you’re doing a conventional film with ten times the budget of our film, you still might not be able to do that. The style actually afforded us that luxury.
DL: I think that really speaks to the hard work and talent of our crew and our producers and our team that we basically were able to break every rule. You’re not supposed to shoot on location if you’re this low budget Canadian independent film. You’re not supposed to shoot an action movie on a low budget. You’re not supposed to have cranes on set that can launch people into space for stunts. You don’t do practical effects. You don’t go back and add visual effects. You don’t have dozens of separate locations that have to be lit and blocked out in detail. These are all pretty well established rules, but because we had the right people and an audacious producer we really decided to just go out there and bleed for this. We scraped together what we needed to make it work and we were working almost 24 hours a day helping us with this really ambitious project for a fraction of the budget and the pay you might get from a bigger film where most of this stuff still might not be possible.
CP: One of the funny things is that we actually did have a pretty great schedule to work with; maybe not compared to a big budget movie, but compared to a lot of low budget movies we did. Basically because it was just a few people with a camera and a boom most of the time – and because the lead actors are also the writers and directors – we paying less than a quarter of the people who would have been on set. We could just pick up cameras, do lots of takes, and make sure everything was turning out okay. I think the movie is so much better for that because we could take that time and really work those scenes.
DS: Derek, your role is certainly a lot more physical, too, on top of being the director. So when you are on screen is that kind of where Clif takes over and you just focus on the character?
DL: I am so lucky that I am allowed to do something like that because Clif and I always had the same vision for the movie. It was great to just be able to shut down the director side and be an actor, especially for that physical stuff. I can’t be screaming, yelling, convulsing, or running around like an ape or whatever and still objectively be able to direct the film. (laughs) I always trusted Clif implicitly to know what our game plan was going in.
Going into every scene it was agreed that when we first shoot something we would get exactly what we had on the page and what we agreed upon before we tried anything else. Then we would get to a point where we think we got what we needed and then would could play around a bit more. That speaks again to how much time we had to shoot the movie. Instead of having to do this all on a 15 day schedule, we had thirty days. It really helps when you are trying to actively create something that’s supposed to have that documentary kind of feeling and can’t seem as crafted.
DS: What do you guys think are your individual strengths as filmmakers and as actors?
CP: I think the role of Clif Prowse was the role I was born to play. (laughs) I think there’s probably not any other role I will ever get to play. I am just waiting for the review where someone tells me I’m not believable as Clif Prowse.
But with Derek, he has acted in all of the short films that we have done together, and he is a very strong actor. Because of the concept of the movie and how we wanted to ground it in as much reality as we could, we just sort of dropped the movie into our actual lives. We have our own friends playing our friends in the movie. Everyone’s playing themselves. We used the photos and videos from stuff that we worked on back when we were 15 in the movie.
That was a role that I could fulfil and since I still had access to all that stuff, that was when it was decided that I should even be in the movie. I know I can play myself, but we had to work very hard for me to get to be where I needed to be for the film. (laughs)
DL: I would say that Clif’s greatest strength is to have a very intimate and on point understanding of the story. He knows exactly why every scene is there and why every character says what they’re saying. He was the guideline. He’s also exceptionally good at organizing, which is probably because he’s worked as a first AD a lot. There’s this ability he has to keep this whole story as a project working in his brain all at once and he really kept things working even if we were shooting out of order or weather conditions were horrible and it was three degrees out and freezing. Clif always knew where we needed to be and what we needed to do to get there. That’s an incredible feat when you’re working almost 24 hours a day on a project.