Movies and TV
As Above / So Below Brings Fictional Horrors to the Real Paris Catacombs

Elizabeth Harper | 28 Aug 2014 16:00
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John and Drew Dowdle

The catacombs presented a unique challenge... but also a unique opportunity. Located nearly 5 stories underground, most of the catacombs' 180 miles of tunnels are off-limits to tourists, and they made for cramped, awkward spaces to film in. "We really had to go with a minimal crew and were just on top of each other," explains Drew. "Running through those tunnels, you'd have the entire cast, the camera, a focus puller, a boom operator, and us all trailing the camera and trying to stay out of the frame, all in pitch darkness and banging our heads."

Finding the right locations to shoot in this massive space was nearly as time-consuming as the shoot itself -- the Dowdles spent six weeks prepping and location-scouting before the filming started, mostly underground. "We'd written the script but as we explored more we'd be like 'this would be cool, we could do a thing here with this' and we'd write that in," says John. The majority of the film is found locations -- like a tunnel the group descends through, which was originally use to lower ink to Capuchin monks in the 1500s -- but occasionally they had to augment the spaces they found. As the film's characters confront their personal demons within the catacombs, the set dressing became more complicated -- for one scene, a car was brought in (and set on fire), for another, a piano was needed.

Of the scenes filmed, the car scene is a favorite of both John and Drew. "It's a really strange moment," explains John. Despite the presence of a burning car that the crew has had to carry five stories underground, the scene is understated: you see the car and one of the characters says 'It wasn't my fault.' "We decided early on that we weren't going to belabor the explanation of the backstory for each character," says Drew. "For Scarlett and George we learn a lot more about what's haunting them but for some of these other characters we might just have one line, like 'It wasn't my fault.' Clearly something happened here that probably was his fault, but I like not telling the whole story but giving just a piece of it."

The cramped quarters, on-location shoot didn't allow for traditional filmmaking techniques, but going with the found footage style offered a degree of creative freedom as well. "There's a bit of form and function," says John. "We wanted to go guerrilla, into the real catacombs and shoot the real thing." With no marks for the actors or complicated camera and lighting setups, it was easy to make changes on the fly. "It allows you to play more jazz than shooting the storyboards. It creates an energy that I feel is really fun to play with."

Plus, the self-documenting style that the helmet cameras offered just worked with the story. "These people would document what they were going to see," says Drew. "The justification of the camera was never an issue. The addition of the head cameras allowed us to have a little bit more coverage and have a little more flexibility in the editorial to jump around. It's just so much more immediate."

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