In his feature-length debut, writer/director Jimmy Loweree tells the story of a woman who wakes up one morning with a wound on her stomach and her close to term child no longer inside of her. With no memory of who did this to her, how, or why, her brother starts filming her transition into having a somewhat normal life in the face of this tragedy. What follows is a point of view horror film that poses multiple questions and multiple answers, but ultimately leaves the situation in the hands of the viewer. I recommend checking it out, but there are mild spoilers in the interview, so if you want to know nothing, than read no further!
Erin Way and Ryan Smale
WolfMan: The film opens with statistics of how many pregnancies are stolen right out of their mothers stomachs. Were these statistics and the reality of these crimes the inspiration for the story or was it a way to tie the violent abduction into reality? Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration of the story?
Jimmy Loweree: The statistic was something I found after the fact. It was probably 6 or 7 months ago, definitely after we were done with the movie. When I found it, it was definitely a shock. I did not expect to find something that so clearly and horrifically grounded the movie in some sort of reality. I wanted to play with that because, as awful that is, it’s very much…I just didn’t expect to see something so shocking and real. I also didn’t want to sell the movie as “real”, because it’s found footage and everyone knows that it’s fake and I think if you shove it in their face, it just becomes even more annoying. I wanted to do that in a more gentle, organic way. As far as the actual inspiration for the story, it’s kind of silly, but essentially, I saw this movie Communion when I was 11 years old. It’s this terrible alien abduction film that Christopher Walken is in. Terrible is being harsh, it’s actually really fun, but it’s a cheesy film. It scared the shit out of me. I saw the first ten minutes and I could not sleep for years. Every single night I would talk myself back to sleep because I was afraid that would be the night I’d get abducted. I read every single book in the library and watched every single show on the History Channel, I was obsessed with this topic. That was the initial inspiration, and I just happened to have the concept of a woman losing her baby well into her pregnancy, without a trace, is something that kind of lives in that world, as far as it being a known thing that has happened and can happen.
WM: I think aliens are absolutely terrifying, ever since…every episode of The X Files and trying to go to sleep after those. Aliens totally do it for me. Good job on making them scary.
JL: I hope we did make them scary again. It was full-on inspired by the very same reaction. The X Files killed me. That was a show I was obsessed with because…oh man, I don’t know why it got me, but it really did.
Aliens from The X Files
WM: Instead of spending our entire interview talking about how terrifying aliens are, I figured we should talk about your movie. As you mentioned, the format of found footage has really been flooding the horror market lately, but I thought your film successfully pulled it off by coming right out and addressing a film student making a documentary. Did you know the whole time you were developing the story that it would be shot in that format or did it come later in the process?
JL: That was a choice, right at the beginning, and it was for a couple of reasons. It’s a very simple way to make a film and be able to make a film without having to break the bank. There are a lot of versions of this movie, there’s an infinite number of ways you could have told this story, but I wanted to make a movie and not just sit around and think about making a movie, talking about it like a lot of people do. I really wanted to figure out how to do it. It seemed like a really simple way to make that happen and I didn’t feel like it was forced. It wasn’t like I thought, “I want to make a found footage movie, let’s see what I can figure out,” it was “I want to make THIS movie, how do I make it? Oh, this could be a really cool way to make it.” Hopefully do it in an honest way and having it serve the story, as opposed to having the story be secondary to the sub-genre.
Ryan Smale and (headless) Stephanie Scholz
WM: The movie is a more personal, smaller scale story, and with a cast that small, there’s a lot riding on them to engage, entertain, and connect with the audience. How did you get everyone prepared for the shoot? Was there any improvisation on the set? How did you build that chemistry?
JL: The first thing was that we happened to cast very close friends, and it wasn’t the only bias. I won’t say there was no bias, but they just auditioned really well. Having them together, they were just a really good fit. From there, I spent quite a bit of time with them. I had a very thorough character breakdown for each of them and I basically made sure we were fully on the same page, down to slight nuances of the character. We then got them together and did a bunch of rehearsals and did scenes that would never be in the film but would maybe give them a history to draw from or a wealth of memories they could have that were real memories, and then, after the rehearsal process, we kind of just went for it. There was quite a bit of improv in the terms of specific line choices, but every single scene was constructed very carefully, within reason. We definitely had every single scene laid out with the exact beginning, middle, and end, and the types of things they would say, and some specific dialogue, or at least hints of specific dialogue, that way they wouldn’t have to come up with everything. It was very clear what needed to happen in every scene, and then they knew their characters so well, it was just a matter of shooting it. It was really easy.
WM: In addition to the cast, a strength of the film, I found, was the pacing of it. It was really only every ten or fifteen minutes you’d give a small hint at those more mysterious things, and that kind of pacing, and because it was found footage, reminded me a lot of the pacing of The Blair Witch Project. I was curious if there were any horror films, found footage films, alien films that you were actively taking cues or inspiration from. Maybe there were things you tried to avoid while shooting?
JL: Blair Witch, I totally agree, that was another film that just scared the crap out of me. After that, there wasn’t really a lot that’s really gotten me, but that one was a very strong reaction. I think, like you were saying, I don’t know of any other film where literally nothing happens, but you’re terrified. I love that they could trick me into scaring the shit out of myself so thoroughly and I wanted to kind of follow that. We obviously are much more direct, in some ways, compared to Blair Witch, but we really wanted to have it be about the characters and hopefully if the audience engaged with the characters, then they would be surprised when something happened. We tried to build that tension into their lives and not so much of a forced way, we hope. We worked with the editor quite a bit, especially recently, to make sure we could give you those clues so you wouldn’t forget. I just didn’t want you to forget that something was wrong because maybe the characters were having a good time. Despite that, something was wrong, we needed to not lose sight of that.
WM: I thought that Absence was drawing on the audience to actively engage with the audience to take an involvement in what was going on. You can wait and have everything shown to you, but your film would instead make your audience question when and what was going to happen and challenge the us.
JL: I like that. When I have to think about it a bit, walking away and wondering what was happening. I wanted to toy with the idea of Liz (Erin Way) being the killer or does (her husband) Rick (Eric Matheny) know more than what he’s letting on, what’s actually going on was more fun to play with that than be on the nose about it.
The Blair Witch Project
WM: Lastly, a big problem with more current found footage movies and the advancement of technology is that your average person can shoot anything they want in super high-definition. With Blair Witch, 15 years ago, you have these grainy videotapes where you aren’t really sure what you’re seeing, as opposed to now where you see every detail of what’s on-screen. Could you talk about what you decided to show the audience or not show the audience and the balance?
JL: That’s another thing that I really like, which would be aesthetics. I really like what you DON’T see. The moment in a scary movie where there’s the full-on reveal, it becomes a meaningless character to me. As effective as Signs was, growing up, it was a scary movie and I remember seeing the trailer and it really freaking me out, and the first two-thirds of that film are really effective, but when they do the final reveal, it became less scary. Every moment up until then, I was really hooked, but then it was a lot less scary. It’s broad daylight and I could see what was happening and it was a little less threatening. Still a pretty cool scene, but less threatening. I wanted to find that balance with this film, to see if we could allude to it and see if the audience would actually have to squint to try to catch things and maybe give it a second viewing to see the two creatures standing outside the car looking at them while everything’s hitting the fan. These little things that you can kind of feel and get a glimpse of. As far as the camera work, that was really a balance. It was kind of a battle going both ways. How much do we want to show and is it going to be enough to allude to it. That was really clever work, I think. It was thinking with the shot and coming up with ways to light it that was efficient but not obvious. It’s just a bit distracting.
WM: It’s funny that you mentioned Signs, because I recently revisited it. That sequence with the kids at the birthday party looking out the window and the alien just walks into frame, the first time you saw that movie, it was terrifying. Ten years later you realize that other than that birthday party, everyone else walking down the street just saw a giant alien walking down the streets of Mexico, so it’s not really that scary.
JL: (laughs) And why did they come to a place that was 70% death for them?
WM: Well just because they can build spaceships doesn’t mean that they’re smart. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. But I’m glad you took the chance to make aliens scary again. I could get abducted right now! It could happen to me when I go home to go to sleep. The randomness of it is terrifying.
JL: It really is. I remember going to bed and would think, “Why would they abduct me tonight? Why would they choose me tonight?” It wouldn’t make any sense. Then I would think about if I would remember it, and realized I probably wouldn’t remember it. The dialogue of fear.
WM: I remember having a little alien statue and I watched an episode of The X Files and wondered if the aliens would see that and think it was cool to abduct me and that I’d have to get rid of that thing.
JL: I fully understand the completely illogical, but totally rational thinking there. That’s true, of course it would happen.
WM: Aliens. They’re the worst.
Absence is currently in a limited theatrical release.