Q&A: “ABSENCE” Director Jimmy Loweree
In ABSENCE, opening today from Cinedigm at New York’s Quad Cinema and Columbus, Ohio’s Gateway Film Center, young expectant mother Liz (Erin Way) mysteriously loses her unborn child—and things only get scarier for her from there. Fango spoke with Jimmy Loweree, director and (with Jake Moreno) writer of the found-footage chiller.
The movie also stars Eric Matheny as Liz’s husband Rick and Ryan Smale as her film-student brother Evan, who decides to document their recovery trip to a remote mountain cabin, in an attempt to show the world she’s not covering up any complicity in the baby’s disappearance. What he instead captures on his camera is evidence of the bizarre truth behind her trauma, which comes to threaten them all…
FANGORIA: Did the idea for ABSENCE’s story come first, or the notion to do a found-footage film, and the plot grew out of that?
JIMMY LOWEREE [pictured right]: It was the storyline first—the concept of a woman who wakes up with no explanation for what has happened to her pregnancy. That was such a haunting and disturbing idea that I couldn’t shake it, and I had to figure out how to have it make sense. I felt that found footage served the concept, so we went for that.
FANG: What lead you to that decision?
LOWEREE: A couple of things. Economics is the honest answer, since it’s cheaper in some ways, because it forces you to create within very specific confines. The other reason is that I felt it was an interesting way to get into these people’s lives, making it feel more intimate and personal. Once I had that initial idea, I had to figure out how Evan might be justified in participating in this story, which became that Liz is in a full-on Casey Anthony situation. She’s under attack by the police and the press, and he doesn’t believe [their suspicions] for a second, and he wants to get to the bottom of it and try to figure it out. That becomes superseded by his interest in her doing well as the movie progresses, but initially, he just wants to show that she’s not insane and would not have killed her baby.
FANG: He’s also kind of a wiseguy…
LOWEREE: Yeah, he’s totally an asshole.
FANG: Which is kind of a risky proposition in terms of audience sympathy, so what led you to that decision?
LOWEREE: Honestly, I just wanted real people who are relatable, even if you don’t like them a lot, or balance liking them with also kind of hating them. We felt like Evan is very insecure, and when the camera is running, I felt it would be more honest if he’s sort of “on,” trying to be funny and engaging because of that, but also, he wants to help his sister out a little bit, so he hams it up. I know people like that, and I wanted to see if we could play with that idea.
FANG: Do you think the proliferation of mobile cameras these days encourages people to act out in ways they didn’t used to before?
LOWEREE: Absolutely. You see it all the time, and most people are guilty of it. A camera turns on, and they either clam up and can’t figure out what to say, or they do crazy things they would not normally do, because they think it might get on YouTube and they want to be entertaining. That’s a very common trait these days.
FANG: Can you tell us a bit about ABSENCE’s guerrilla production?
LOWEREE: We filmed in two cabins that we got permission to stay in; some friends of ours had the property available, and we were very lucky to be able to use it. But aside from that, all the stuff in the town and on the roads was totally, “Let’s time it right so we can get out there, get it done and hopefully not get arrested.” For the early scene in the convenience store, we basically walked in and said, “Hey, we’d love to do a little quick shoot in here.” It wasn’t like Los Angeles, where everybody’s used to people coming in and asking for favors. They were like, “Sure!” And we were out of there in maybe 20 minutes; we decided on the shot, got a couple of takes that were pretty much the same, and that was that.
FANG: What about the mountain town, and the scenes on the street with the public around?
LOWEREE: Absolutely [no permission]. We put up a sign saying we were shooting, and just shot. It was pretty risky. We come from this idea—which applies to indie filmmaking in general—of, “Get the movie made and just figure it out.” My 1st AD and producer and DP come from New York, and guerrilla filmmaking is how you get projects done there. We were often keeping an eye out to make sure we weren’t getting too much attention, like when we had Erin out in the middle of the field; we timed that and got in and out as quickly as we could. We didn’t want to attract too much attention.
FANG: Did any passersby act out in front of your camera, the way you were describing before?
LOWEREE: Not acting out, because we were so quiet and focused about it; we weren’t making too much of a scene. People did stop and ask, “What’s happening?” An inside joke for us is the “frozen people”: When they’re driving through town looking for Liz, at one point the camera pans up and these people on the street are completely motionless. It was the weirdest timing issue; they just stopped and looked at what we were doing, but the way it appears in the movie is like they’re totally frozen.
FANG: Did you get into trouble at any point during shooting?
LOWEREE: Not really direct trouble. We had a police officer come by at one point just to check things out, and then he figured it was innocent enough and cruised on his way. We did scare the crap out of a neighbor in the very first apartment scene, when Liz is screaming. We shot that at a friend’s place in LA and let everyone know we were shooting, but I guess she didn’t get the message and heard this violent screaming. I went over there and knocked on the door, saying, “Just to let you know, we’re shooting a film, it’s totally fine, nobody’s getting hurt,” and she just would not open the door or respond!
FANG: How much of ABSENCE was improvised? Did you have a script?
LOWEREE: Barely. It was a “scriptment,” about 60 pages. It was a detailed outline of every single scene, but it wasn’t dialogue- or action-driven. It was, “Here’s the exact situation. Here’s what each of the characters is doing, what they might say and how they might respond to each other.” We rehearsed with the actors ahead of time, just so they knew these people, and then put them in the situations we’d come up with, so by the time they did it, everything they said was right because they knew who these characters were. There were exciting moments where they’d do something that went beyond what we had planned.
FANG: Was it easy to find actors who could handle the demands of making this kind of movie?
LOWEREE: Yeah, we were super-lucky. We didn’t think it would be easy, and auditioned around 300 people. We ended up casting these lovely actors who became some of our closest friends, and they did the best job in terms of hitting these characters. They were the right fit, and had the right chemistry.
FANG: There have been so many found-footage horror films by now; what steps did you take to make yours stand out?
LOWEREE: That’s a good question. There are a lot of them, and because it’s become a fad, there is a risk of people not wanting to engage with a movie just because it’s part of that trend. But I definitely felt that it was important to make ABSENCE about the people. The best horror movies of all time are well-done character pieces with a horror element. I mean, THE EXORCIST is essentially a drama, but then you add this demonic element, and it’s one of the best movies of all time. Then there’s JAWS, 28 DAYS LATER and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. In ABSENCE’s case, it’s about this woman in a traumatic situation, and I felt that was a good enough story to hinge the twist or supernatural side on, and that we could be honest with it and stay true to her story, and then have this really good genre piece as well.
Also, we didn’t try to force the found footage. We wanted to try to have it make sense. Sure, there is a suspension of disbelief, but we were attempting to be sure there was a reason for the camera to be on as much as we possibly could. It’s hopefully not an egregious kind of thing, where every camera in the world just happens to be accessible.
SPOILERS follow regarding the explanation for the movie’s frightening events…
FANG: How did you determine how much of the alien subplot you were going to reveal as the story plays out?
LOWEREE: I always knew that they were the source of why she lost her baby. When I was a kid, I saw the first 10 minutes of the movie COMMUNION, and it just ruined my life; it scared the crap out of me. I spent the next seven or eight years obsessed; I’d read every book in the library, I’d watch every show on the History Channel—there was like a decade of alien shows on it. So I had this wealth of useless UFO knowledge, and that led to the idea of a pregnancy that was ended, but not terminated. And aesthetically, I prefer subtlety and not being too heavy-handed with scares or reveals. I tried to figure out a way to balance the on-camera scares with the tension you can get from setting them up and getting the characters into bad places. I think it’s way scarier to not see than it is to see, personally.
FANG: When we do see the aliens, were they actors in costumes or were they added with CGI later?
LOWEREE: People in costumes. We tried twice to do them with digital effects, and there’s one that’s still in the movie that you can kind of see, but we made it very subtle because it wasn’t exactly what we wanted. The other one we scrapped entirely, because it was the worst; it looked like someone put a Muppet on a stick and just foisted it on screen. But for the rest, we just costumed up some friends and put them on camera.
FANG: ABSENCE’s ad campaign pretty much gives away the alien angle. What are your feelings about that?
LOWEREE: I’m a little hesitant about it; I feel that does spoil it a bit. I believe the movie’s more interesting if you don’t know what’s going on. That said, you have to get people to go see your film one way or another, so it was necessary to figure out ways to engage people with it.