Interview: Eduardo Sanchez

Eduardo Sanchez was one of those crazy kids who lit up the box office for pennies in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project. It was his first project as co-writer/director and a pretty tough act to follow. But, as a filmmaker with a deep love for the genre, he’s continued to plug away in the low budget horror arena over the last decade with projects like Altered and Seventh Moon.

Sanchez’s latest film Lovely Molly has a similar scale to his previous efforts and is probably his most interesting project since sending those unfortunate film students off into the woods. It’s about a troubled young woman who experiences intense disturbances when left alone in her house any time her newlywed husband skips town for work. Sanchez never makes it completely clear whether these disturbances are the result of hauntings, drug abuse, possession, or just a good old-fashioned mental breakdown. That ambiguity makes the horror film far more intriguing and disturbing than most genre outings, with open-ended mysteries that can be further explored on a creatively creepy tie in website (thankfully this online component is an optional online extension to the movie, not like that The Devil Inside bullshit). We got a chance to chat with Eduardo Sanchez about his latest film, the challenges of being an indie horror filmmaker, and his upcoming Bigfoot movie (yep, you read that right).

Dork Shelf: So, how did this project start? I read something about it being your take on The Exorcist initially.

Eduardo Sanchez: Yeah, I always wanted to make an exorcism movie like The Exorcist. That’s probably the scariest movie ever made, there’s something about that film that’s not right, you know? I always admired the reaction that film provokes and knew I wanted to make an exorcism movie. But I was always kind of afraid do it as well. I grew up catholic and my mother would always warn me about opening up those doors because you don’t know what’s going to come in. But, it just finally reached a point where I decided it was time to try it. Actually, it was prompted by my writing partner Jamie Nash coming up with the basic idea, which was “imagine if we followed someone who thinks that they are possessed and start videotaping themselves to document what’s happening.” So, that’s where it started and that was our twist.

DS: Did you have any apprehensions about doing a found footage movie since you’ve consciously been avoiding that since Blair Witch?

ES: Oh yeah, I thought it was a great premise, but I didn’t really want to make a found footage movie. This was actually before Paranormal Activity came out. [Rec] had come out and Cloverfield, but the first person found footage thing hadn’t really exploded yet. And to be honest, since Blair Witch hit, it just wasn’t something that we were really interested in doing. But, I started writing and while I was doing that someone sent me a DVD of Paranormal Activity. I really liked it. I thought they were smart about it. You know, I get sent a lot of found footage movies because people seem to think I’m the expert or whatever. It’s difficult to make one of those movies that works. So, I realized that the found footage thing still works, but I didn’t really want to make a pure found footage movie. So, I started to think about ways of mixing genres and having my cake and eating it too. Basically, that meant finding a way to use to the power of found footage without being stuck in that form all the way through. By the time Paranormal Activity came out I was about halfway through the script and started mixing up the style a little bit so that there were found footage sequences rather than it being an entirely found footage movie.

And also, while I was writing it, it started to change even as an exorcism movie and become less conventional. I originally planned to have a traditional third act exorcism where a hero comes in to save the day and liberate the girl from the possession, very much like The Exorcist and other demonic possession movies. Then I got to the end of the script I realized that, “hey there’s no exorcism in this movie.” But I was happy where I was. I felt like I came up with something fairly original and it was completely unexpected that I wrote it. I honestly still don’t know where some of that stuff came from (laughs). The movie was called The Possession while we were writing and it really did possess me while we were writing it. There was something about it. I’m not exactly sure where this movie came from.

DS: It also felt like you were combing different genres of horror throughout, not just found footage, so that as an audience you’re never quite sure if you’re watching a haunted house story, a mental breakdown, or a possession.

ES: Absolutely. Going back to The Exorcist, one of the things I love about that movie that there is a backstory with the demon and the priest, but they never say this is who the demon is and this is what it wants. There was always an ambiguity that I thought was really powerful about the movie. And that was a recipe that we tried to follow on Blair Witch. You want to give people just enough information to get into it, but you also kind of want to give the imagination of the audience a chance to come up with their own explanation. So, yeah, I wanted to try and walk that line between whether what’s happening to Molly is the result of possession or drug use or psychosis. I definitely didn’t want to give too many answers.

But even then, the movie right now is different that what we had in the final edit. We had a test screening with some filmmaker friends of ours and a few other people. Afterwards we had a basic discussion about the movie and what was working. A lot of the people liked the movie, but felt that we set up the possession thing without paying it off. My thing was that I didn’t really want to pay it off because I didn’t want to push in one direction or the other. But at the end of the day, we’re making a horror movie, so we decided to take another look and see if there was any way we could push the ending a little bit. So that’s when we came up with that shot at the end when she walks into the demon. Originally that shot was just supposed to be her walking into the woods and then an effects house in LA shot the demon and put it in. I kind of like it, because it does give some further evidence to suggest that she’s become possessed, but at the same time it could so easily just be something happening in her mind. I thought that it was just on the edge of ambiguity, because it’s kind of barely discernable in the darkness. So I thought it was a good way to keep that ambiguity, but pay off the possession aspect in a way that more audiences would appreciate.

DS: When you were writing, did you try to work out a specific mythology for the demon for yourself even if you never planned to use it in the movie?

ES: I think the big part of the fun of the writing was just knowing enough. It reminded me of Blair Witch in that way where we decided to work out just enough. We didn’t want to become experts on it. We wanted to keep it mysterious even to ourselves. So when we were writing it, I knew that if there was a demon it had something to do with the father. The father had worshiped this demon and had fallen prey to it, or the demon was using the horrible event that happened with the father to get close to Molly. Beyond that, I kind of left it up to interpretation. But actually on there’s a whole bunch of extra material we made about what the demon is, it’s origin, whether it’s psychosis or a haunting. So I kind of wanted to leave it up to that and be more of a transmedia thing. In the movie we tried to keep it simple and a mystery even to myself to a certain extent.

DS: Yeah, I actually wanted to ask about the website because it is quite detailed and creating an online expansion to a movie is something that you kind of pioneered back with Blair Witch. What about that interests you?

ES: Well you know, the two guys who deserve a lot of credit for that Lovely Molly stuff are Jamie Nash and Gregg Hale. They designed the campaign and did a fantastic job with it. To me, it’s hard to do it for your own film. With Blair Witch, we had to do it out of necessity. Like we were saying before, I think it’s important to keep a certain mount of ambiguity to a horror film. So, I like to keep my distance on that stuff to a certain extent, which is why the Lovely Molly campaign was mostly done by Gregg and Jamie. To me, it’s just something that feels like a natural progression of filmmaking. It’s akin to a novelization or a comic book. I think that most movies have other lives beyond the actual film. That’s not true of all films, but with something like this that has so many unanswered questions at the end of the movie, I think it works well. I’m developing a TV show right now and was just on the phone with my partner and we’re already discussing the transmedia possibilities. When you’re making a film, you come up with so much material and so much of that material ends up going unused. So, I think transmedia gives you a chance to use that extra material. You know, with Blair Witch we did a whole documentary using at least 50% of unused footage from the first movie. So as a filmmaker, it’s a great opportunity to dive into your story more and gives you a chance to explore any unused ideas. You know, it opens things up and keeps things fresh. Especially because when you write a film, shoot a film, and edit a film, you’re stuck in that world and narrative for so long and I think transmedia gives you a great opportunity to step outside of that for a moment and work on something else without abandoning the project entirely.

DS: How would you compare the experience of working as an indie horror filmmaker these days vs. when you started? How has that landscape changed?

ES: Well, when I started I made Blair Witch for $30,000 and even though Lovely Molly was still very low budget, it was not made for $30,000, thankfully. But as far as the business and what has been going on, the big difference is that the DVD and home entertainment market has changed dramatically and is quite strange right now. In 2007, the video market collapsed and that was always how we made our money. Most of the time, we guaranteed the budget for our movie based on DVD returns. There was a healthy market there and a lot of talented filmmakers made their living off of straight-to-DVD horror movies. Now, that market is almost non-existent. Now you have to start your project trying to plan for a theatrical release and if you want to do that right, it’s a several million dollar endeavor. So, that’s really the big challenge right now. Everybody making films wants some sort of pre-existing media to start with whether it’s a book or comics to try and offset that because it costs so much to market a movie. It helps to have a brand that’s already established.

So, it’s hard for independent filmmakers when you don’t have a franchise to go to. Your movie has to be really, really great to get any kind of theatrical release and even then it doesn’t mean that anyone will see it. It’s a difficult time and then there’s this really sophisticated and widespread form of piracy that’s cutting into profits as well.  Yeah, it hurts the studios, but who it really hurts are the filmmakers. There are so many independent filmmakers who I know even just in my area of Maryland who cannot make a living making movies anymore. They still make movies for $25000-$50000, but they have to keep day jobs because they don’t make any money off of the movies because of piracy. It’s definitely a changing world, but there seems to be some kind of model coming that will work. Video is starting to come back a bit. It’s definitely doing far better than it was five years ago. And then theatrical releases are becoming a little more accessible because of digital projection. You can do a four wall release much cheaper now. You can actually rent a theater to show your movie. Advertising on the web has gotten cheaper. But at the same time, you still need a large amount of money to open a film the right way in theaters.

It’s just a very weird place that we’re in right now. And then also, there are very few horror movies getting made by the studios, especially low budget. They mostly wait to acquire them at film festivals. So it’s up to us as independent filmmakers to somehow pull the money together and then we’re at the mercy of the studios. So it’s difficult. Now, because of Blair Witch, I definitely have an advantage over most people. But even for me, every film is a different challenge. How do you put a business plan together that makes sense and doesn’t lose your investors money? It’s difficult to figure that out every time.

DS: I’m very excited about that found footage Bigfoot movie Exists that you’re working on. How is that coming together? Have you done a rough cut yet?

ES: We just wrapped shooting two weeks ago, so we are working on the edit. We cut a trailer for the investors and we’re really happy with it. It looks great. I’ve been wanting to make a Bigfoot movie since I was 12-years-old and this is actually the third Bigfoot script that I’ve been involved in developing. Each time, you go to the studios and the people you know and at the end of the day people are always afraid of making Bigfoot movies. No one knows what they’re going to get. So, it’s up to us to try and prove our vision. I think it turned out great, but who knows? You never really know how it went until you’re sitting in a theater, but it seems really fun. It looks like the Bigfoot movie that I’ve been  to see since I’m was a kid. I don’t want to talk it up too much or anything, but I’m really excited.

DS: What was your approach to creating Bigfoot? Please don’t say CGI.

ES: No! No way. It’s a guy in a suit. We spent a ton of money on the suit, we got WETA from Lord of The Rings to design the suit and Spectral Motion from Hellboy built the suit and then Ryan Steele who played Predator and a few other monsters was the Bigfoot. He gave a really, really incredible performance and I think it works. I mean, it is a guy in a suit, so we’ve done what we can to try and hide that and make it look cool, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I follow Bigfoot movies and normally you can tell where you’re at based on the fact they don’t show Bigfoot in the trailer. But our trailer has Bigfoot all over it. I’m telling you man, I don’t know how the movie is going to work. I’m pretty confident, but you just never know. But at the very least as far as the creature goes, it looks pretty fantastic.