In 2005, John Erick and Drew, now better known as The Dowdle Brothers, set out to make The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a cinema verite-style horror film about a serial killer obsessed with video taping his victims' demise. Shot in real-time using handheld cameras, the project was nothing short of breathtaking. It was quickly scooped up by MGM, and set for release sometime in 2008. While the brothers waited for their tiny little masterpiece to see the light of day, they headed over to Sony Studios to make another film. An almost shot-for-shot remake of the Spanish horror phenom [Rec]. Now, it seems that this reimagining of the rabies classic, entitled Quarantine, is going to hit theaters before The Poughkeepsie Tapes ever has a chance to breath amongst general audiences, as it has been put on indefinite hold. Which is too bad. Because John Erik Dowdle has seemingly perfected his signature style with Quarantine, and once we sift through its horrifying images, The Poughkeepsie Tapes is only going to seem like a step in the backwards direction.
Director John Erick Dowdle has earned a reputation amongst horror fans as one of the true genre pioneers of this decade. Funny, since not many people have even seen his work yet. But there is no denying that he, along with his producing partner brother Drew, has taken the faux pseudo-documentary style first perfected in The Blair Witch Project and later utilized in Cloverfield (a film created after it's team had seen The Poughkeepsie Tapes), and turned it into something all his own. Basically, these two own this particular sub-genre at the moment. And the upcoming Quarantine is a true testament to that fact.
The movie is, basically, about the quick spread of super rabies and its effect on people. The story follows one night in the life of up-and-coming television news reporter Angela (the stunning Jennifer Carpenter) and her cameraman as they are assigned to spend the night with a Los Angeles Fire department. During the shoot, a routine 911 call finds them visiting a small apartment building half way across town. Upon arriving, they find the Police already there in response to some blood-curdling screams leaking out from one of the apartment units. They soon learn that some unknown disease has infected a woman living in the building. Angela, her cameraman, a couple of the firemen, and two of the police officers enter the building to take a look around. After a few of the residents are viciously attacked, they all try to escape with the news crew in tow, only to find that the CDC has quarantined the building.
Internet, television and cell phone access has been cut-off, and officials are not relaying information to those locked inside. When the quarantine is finally lifted, the only evidence of what took place is the news crew's videotape. The film has an ensemble cast that, along with Carpenter, also includes Jay Hernandez, Columbus Short, Greg Germann, Steve Harris, Dania Ramirez, Rade Sherbedgia, and Jonathon Schaech. We recently visited the Sony Studios lot where they were shooting this truly horrifying film for a look at a couple of the scenes and a chat with two of its stars, Columbus Short and Jonathon Schaech.
Upon arriving at the scene, we were treated to a few moments of the film as it was captured in real time. Jennifer Carpenter and Jay Hernandez aren't necessarily one take wonders, but they have been crammed together in an elevator shaft with a single cameraman. It's a tight fit, and right away we are aware of how important the cameraman actually is to this particular project. His lens is one of the characters, and when a rabid woman goes on the attack, he is as carefully to stay out of her way as he is to capture all the action on film. Hernandez manages to wallop the infected woman, and all three of our heroes escape without harm. This is done in one fluid movement, and director John Erick Dowdle is more than ecstatic about capturing it all in one great take.
After watching them shoot the scene three more times for posterity reasons, we hooked up with Jonathon Schaech for a quick conversation about his character Fletcher, who happens to be one of the firemen. Here is what he had to say:
Johnathon Schaech: I'm from engine twenty-two. I am one of the heroes.
Can you talk about your character a little bit.
Johnathon Schaech: I'm one of the firemen, if you remember that from the original. This is set up a little differently. We go into the building. We get a medical call and we go inside. First, they follow the medical crew. There is a camera crew that is following a fire company. We are a twenty-four hour fire company. We go on platoons every three days. We stay there, and then the next one comes in. And the cameraman is staying there with us. We get a call. We slide down the pole, jump in the truck, and go on this medical call. All of the firemen are EMTs, so that is why they go on these medical calls. When they get there, this lady is freaking out. She has blood all over her. Something is very wrong with this woman. We go to treat her, and she turns on one of us. She physically takes control of one of the officers and takes him out. Jay and me have to seduce her. Wait. We don't seduce her. We sedate her. That would be a totally different movie. So, then it gets chaotic from there.
Going from Prom Night, which was relatively blood-free, to this...Have you become a horror fan?
Johnathon Schaech: I am going to go see Tobe Hooper after this. I think I am going to go hang out with Tobe. But this here is a completely different style of storytelling. It is absolutely frightening. It is based on reality. If they can pull it off, there is a sense that this could actually happen. Nowadays, we have youtube. We have the news constantly coming at us. The visual images are compelling us. We can't turn away from the television. When we saw that plane, we had to look and see if it hit the building. That stuff is stuck in our subconscious. If you can grab onto that with horror, I think you can scare the shit out of people. Some of it becomes about what you don't see. That has always been one of the rules of horror anyway, right?
How was the filming technique different for you on this movie?
Johnathon Schaech: I went to the fire station because I wanted to make it as real as possible. We were given a speech by Clint Culpepper that he wanted to make this as real as possible so that people would really enjoy the experience. We wanted to blur the lines between what was real and what was not. That is why I grew this mustache. I didn't want anybody to recognize me. I went into the fire station, and more than fifty percent of those guys have big mustaches. Just like this. I stayed there with them, and tried to find all of the nuances. What they had to do every single night. I tried to bring as much realism as I could to the piece.
They are filming this in really long takes. Does that change the way you approach a scene at all? Or how you prepare for it?
Johnathon Schaech: I think the performance mentality is always about the other actors that are there. What the give and take is of the two of them. You don't get your close-up. But you have to be very camera aware so that you can tell the story as you go along. If that makes any sense. The acting is all about the other person. The interaction. If they capture it. If you are on camera. This is a lot more fun. Knowing that you are not getting a close-up, you don't have to prepare for it. You just have to go. It is like a play. It takes a long time to set up. A lot longer than setting up something on the stage.
The Dowdle brothers are fairly new to the horror scene. What is it like to work with these guys that are still a little wet behind the ears?
Johnathon Schaech: Exciting. Both of those guys are really, really smart. I got to see their The Poughkeepsie Tapes movie. Has anyone seen it yet? It is frightening. It is a whole different world. It is about bending reality, but scary. This stuff could totally be real. Tobe Hooper did that years ago with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it wasn't shot through a video camera. Because the concept was real. And they made a movie about it. These guys are doing the same thing.
With the aspect of the rabies, how quickly does it happen?
Johnathon Schaech: I think it takes six weeks to really kick in. It is a very real, very deadly disease. If you are infected and you don't get it taken care of right away, you will die. It affects your oxygen intake. You are not able to swallow. It grabs at the brain and makes the thought process unbearable. It really makes people aggressive and agitated. That's why dogs and squirrels are so aggressive when they have it. I swear a squirrel attacked me one time that had rabies. They are just so angry. They become very angry with you.
Is it accelerated in the film?
Johnathon Schaech: In the movie, it is a real disease. They have taken it and made a hybrid version of it. It happens really fast. It turns people into this zombie like person that is trying to eat your flesh. These guys try to have human qualities. They have emotions. I have had fun being a rabid person. Trying to ask for help, but being so agitated by the moment.
Did you study the youtube video with the rabid kid that everyone has been talking about?
Johnathon Schaech: It was always at the back of my head. It is so hard to describe it. It is so sad. His eyes roll into the back of his head. I guess the thought of water is so horrible. They are like vampires. They don't want to be touched by the holy water. That is real.
How does that affect you physically? Is portraying someone with rabies taxing?
Johnathon Schaech: I had to walk on a broken leg. That was pretty taxing. As I was moving forward, the leg was shattering more and more. It is a great moment. A really great horror moment that I can't wait to see. It is fun. You get to make these physical choices, and then follow through with them. See if you can actually do them. The breathing, and the noises. The twitching, Which, I am really good at twitching. I haven't had a problem with that.
Can you talk about just working on the set.
Johnathon Schaech: Yeah, I watched this thing get built. They built it so fast. I want to get these guys to build my house. You get a contractor to come do your house, it will take more than four months. These guys would get it done in three weeks. It is good quality too. A lot cheaper. The set just adds such a quality to it. It is taken from the original film. Everything keeps getting smaller and smaller in terms of what you get to see.
Do you guys find yourselves getting into some clumsy moments on set, especially with the cameramen being right on top of you?
Johnathon Schaech: It is a free for all half of the time. Someone got stepped on yesterday, and his ankle is all swollen up today. I don't know who did it. They were pointing fingers. "You did it!"
What do you think is scarier? A film that has a villain? Or a film like this, where there really is no villain? People are just trying to survive.
Johnathon Schaech: The disease is the villain. The unknown is really the scariest. And I don't think these characters know what they are dealing with. That is what is scary. When they start to figure out who the villain is in "Prom Night" it isn't as scary. You don't know what this is. And the unknown is always scary. I think. When I am walking into my house, and my door is open. If I knew that this guy Fenton was in there, I could do something about it. But if I don't know what the situation is, that is a lot scarier. Right?
In terms of this film, how would you compare it to a script where you don't have something to compare it too?
Johnathon Schaech: Like when I played Harry Houdini? I could take things from this real person I was playing. I could identify with this person. His voice, his mannerisms. But I don't want to do that with a remake. I want to create a new character. This is a remake? "Prom Night" was something that we redid completely. This is similar to the original. This is an Americanization. Yeah. That seems to happen a lot nowadays. Especially in horror. You want to get across the same parts of the story. I can look at that character that I am portraying. But I don't want to steal from him. I would never mimic someone else. Especially since I couldn't understand a word he was saying. I had to read everything he was saying. Actually, they are different characters. They wanted to make my character more boisterous and outgoing. Smiley. A moustache guy that was really confident. You think everybody is going to be okay with him, and then shit hits the fan.
Next up, we talked a bit with Columbus Short about his character...
Are you inside or outside of the building?
Columbus Short: I'm inside the building for the entire movie. When they get to the scene of the emergency, my partner and me are the officers briefing them. Then the madness ensues. It leaves me, Jay, and Jennifer's characters to deal with the situation. We must deal with the pandemonium. The anxiety. The angst.
You had to do a lot of choreography in "Stomp the Yard". Are there any similarities in this? You seem to have to be running around in a lot of tight spaces.
Columbus Short: That is a great question. This type of choreography is the type of choreography I've been doing the longest. This is one shot. They are seven or eight minute shots. There is no messing up. If you mess up a take, you have to start over. Whether it is one minute in or seven minutes in. That has reminded me of when I used to do plays, and the blocking that goes along with that. I have had to learn choreography, and I've had to move my body like the guy next to me.
What are the repercussions?
Columbus Short: Well, you blow just one take and it makes for a very long day.
Everybody hates you.
Columbus Short: Yeah. But it has been great. After we lock it down for the studio, they give us the freedom to go with it afterwards. And some great stuff has come out of it. Of course, you have to do the scripted version. On any project, you come and do the way that it is scripted. Sometimes, if you start to journey out of that, you find great things as well. Dowdle has been great in doing that with us.
Have you found some kind of emotional ease with shooting this in chronological order?
Columbus Short: I have. Because you get to go through the highs and lows. But in this situation, there is nothing to study emotionally. I have never been in this situation, and the people in it have never been in a situation like this.
Really? You've never been in a situation like this?
Columbus Short: Neither have the characters. When you come onto something like this, you just go with it. That is the beauty of acting. Some things you want to research. But sometimes, when you are a fish without water, it is good to go in fresh and learn it. You experience it through the shooting of the movie. I think that is what we are all doing.
Is the experience of doing something like this allowing you to move through different genres that you haven't experienced yet? Or was there just something about the character that appealed to you?
Columbus Short: I could give you the stroke fest answer. But I am going to give you the real answer. That is exactly what it is. You get stuck in a certain lane. And you want to broaden your horizons. So you try to step to the next level. I am an actor, and I just want to do good work. No matter what it is. But a few projects allow you to get a little picky afterwards. You know? And it points you in the direction that you want to go.
Has Dowdle shown you the original film?
Columbus Short: Yeah, I saw the original film. When I saw the original film, that's when I decided I wanted to do it. It's not just an experimental thing. Like The Blair Witch Project or "28 Days Later". The way that it is shot is so special and interesting. It is a great role. I just had to do it. I am an African-American playing Danny Wilensky. I am crossing barriers right now. I am changing it.
Because of the way it is shot, do you have to be conscious of where the camera is?
Columbus Short: The camera is there. There is no fourth wall. It is like Cops, bro. When the camera comes, you have to get out of the way. The cameramen have taken some blows. I am serious. I am manhandling them. They have to have pads behind them, because I am jabbing them into walls. It is fun, but it is pretty physical. The tuna sandwich. That is part of Danny Wilensky's daily regime. That is my method.
Did you find it easier to have the original performance to play off of?
Columbus Short: No. I watched the original for the original's sake. But I didn't want to be that cop. There is a different type of cop that would be in this situation. How would he deal with it. He is still overeager. But how am I overeager, and how am I overwhelmed? It is all to scale. I tried to find it for me.
Do you find that you are spending a lot of time figuring out what you will be doing with the other actors? Or do you just do your own thing, and see how that works?
Columbus Short: It is a choreographed thing with the Dps and the other actors. We all come together. It is cohesive. The cinematographer is part of the action now. We have to figure out where we are all going to be. Everything has to be safe. So you are being mindful of the things around you while being organic. That is daunting in itself, but that is also the challenge. That is why they hired us. That is why we get paid...The big bucks?
How much do you guys rehearse, though?
Columbus Short: It depends. We will rehearse four or five times before the camera is up. We will go get dressed, and then come back and rehearse it again. We do a thing called R-rehearsal. It is a rehearsal, but they are shooting it. In case it is great. We do three of those, and then we will do the regular take. But there has been some magic happening. There has been some stuff on the cuff that wasn't in the script. Stuff that will take this movie to the next level. Beyond the original. Because we have a whole different set of actors, you know? Jen Carpenter is great. I cal her J. Carp.
Does the fact that you are on a set make any difference than, say, if you were on a real location that is more palpable?
Columbus Short: I don't one hundred percent understand your question, but I am going to think. I am going to field this one and say that being on the set feels like I am in an apartment. I feel like we have actually been quarantined. You feel like you are in an apartment building just about anywhere on set. So, you are in. Once you are in, and you go up into those apartments, the set decoration is amazing. I remember the first rehearsal we had. They gave me the prop gun. They didn't tell me the woman was going to be standing there. I opened the door and was like, "Holy shit!" Johnathon Schaech screams, "There she is!" It is all done in real time. And it is brilliant. It is all real emotion.
Schaech plays your partner?
Columbus Short: No, he plays Jay Hernandez's partner. They are both fireman. Andrew Fiscella plays my partner McCreedy.
Have you thought about how you would act in this situation?
Columbus Short: Yeah, I have gone against how Columbus would react. And how Wilensky would act, just for cinematic purposes. Because I don't know. I'm the kind of guy that looks forward to getting out of situations. When I get a flat tire on the side of the road, I think, "Okay, how am I going to make this work?" I'm like href="/tv/show/TVEbrKEGnmqwIG" class="tv">MacGyver in that way. I have to ramp it up. Make it more intense.
What is more challenging for you? The action scenes or the long passages of dialogue?
Columbus Short: That stuff is all easy. There have been a couple of scenes where I had to go home after shooting this lady, and I had to lye down. I did it a lot of times, so when I closed my eyes I was just seeing the scene. My mind was going off. I kept seeing the squibs explode. And I was thinking, "I shot someone today!" It was crazy. To go there and be the first guy to shoot someone was great. It was a challenge. But it stretched me a little bit. I won't even lie.
How gory is the movie?
Columbus Short: The movie is not so much gory as it is just, "Oh, man!" You are going to be all, "No! No! Don't go downstairs. Get out of the apartment!" It is going to be like, "Just stay there!" There is more suspense then there is gore. To see what rabies really does to humans is really sad. I watched this video of a rabid kid on youtube. Have you seen that?
No, but they just mentioned it. I am going to go to youtube right now.
Columbus Short: It is sad. To see that in this movie. I needed to know that it was real, so that I could adjust my thinking. I didn't want to think that we were doing a zombie movie. When it gets real, it gets real. That is what I hope the audience who sees it takes from it. That it is not a zombie movie. This is a real life situation. This is what could really happen if rabies was tampered with, and there was an outbreak in humans.
That sounds kind of depressing. What about the movie from an entertainment standpoint?
Columbus Short: Entertainment? What about The Blair Witch Project? I never saw a witch. But the entertainment in this is just that situation. We watch Cops for that reason. We want to see people getting arrested and jumping over fences. That is just normal, everyday routine stuff. To see an extreme circumstance caught ala Cops? That is going to be great ratings.
Does it get pretty messy with the blood?
Columbus Short: I hate the blood. But there is new blood on the market. We are pressing forward leaps and bounds. The old stuff was like syrupy and sticky. It is like watery and nice now. It just falls off.
They've added laundry detergent to the new mixture now.
Columbus Short: Yeah. It is nice. It is not as brutal.
How is your skin doing with it?
Columbus Short: My skin is great. I just went and had a facial this morning.
Despite being a black man, you do not die first?
Columbus Short: Don't you see what we are doing? Do you see the pattern? Everything that you think is formulaic with me, Bro, we are going the other way. Yeah. I was laughing about that with my boy, "I don't die first! It is crazy!" It is fantastic. And my last name is Wilensky. That is amazing.
Do you think audiences will pick up on that?
Columbus Short: I don't know if they ever say my name in the movie. I have tried to drop it, but there is no reason. "Don't you know who I am? I am officer Danny Wilensky!" It is on my badge. I think Bernard says my name a couple of times. If anyone ever asks, I was adopted by a Polish family. I moved to New York, and then came down to Los Angeles. My dad was LAPD. Not that my back-story really matters here.
Do you come up with that stuff? Or is that something they provide you with in the script?
Columbus Short: I just came up with that right now.
Suffice it to say, a back-story wasn't important when you came onto the film?
Columbus Short: It's important to have those things in your head, because you might be dealing with that internally in a scene. It might not be spoken. But sometimes an actor has to go internal, and the visual personification of that is great. That is what makes a movie great. Some of the greats do it well. Christian Bale. Robert DeNiro. Blah, blah, blah.
You mentioned that you want to do other genres.
Columbus Short: I don't necessarily want to do other genres. I want to do movies that are going to challenge me. I'm a person that questions the establishment. I question everything, so why not question myself? I want to see myself in a new light in different roles. I am looking to the next movie, and it is with Matt Dillon. I start that next month. It is called Armored. That is a completely different role. It is a completely different type of guy.
How does making this film improve you as an actor.
Columbus Short: It has tightened me up. With Armored, I pretty much have to carry that movie. You know? Just like "Stomp the Yard". But I have the best actors in the world surrounding me. So I am not really carrying anything. This movie was great exercise. It got me working out again. I hadn't worked out in six months, since I did "Whiteout". It was a great exercise. Being on your game, knowing the dialogue, trusting the words. It is just getting you ready for the next one. On every movie, I learn something. I am working with Dennis O'Hare right now. He is one of the Broadway greats. He is a fantastic theater actor. So, you take something away from everything. You get better. If you don't get better, there is a problem. If you are not getting better, you better stop. Tom Hanks better be better in his next movie. Same goes for Will Smith. Come on. He did get better. Did you see how ripped he was?
What? You call getting ripped getting better as an actor?
Columbus Short: He is putting in the work. It is work. It is getting there on time. It is knowing your lines. Doing good work. What are we talking about here?
Quarantine opens October 17th, 2008.