Q&A: “MY AMITYVILLE HORROR” director Eric Walter
The true story of what happened in the infamous Amityville house is scarier and more compelling than any of the movies based on it—at least as told by survivor Daniel Lutz in MY AMITYVILLE HORROR. As the acclaimed documentary hits select theaters and digital outlets today from IFC Films under the IFC Midnight banner, we have exclusive words with its director below.
In MY AMITYVILLE HORROR (available on Cable VOD, SundanceNOW, iTunes, Amazon Streaming, PlayStation Unlimited, Xbox Zune, Google Play and YouTube), Eric Walter builds on his years as a founder and key contributor to Amityvillefiles.com. The movie features Daniel Lutz—the oldest of the three children who spent a month in the house with parents George and Kathleen before they all fled from alleged supernatural events—telling his side of the story for the first time at age 45, revealing that his stepfather may have had as much to do with that bygone trauma as any demonic forces. Walter also includes onscreen comments by such key figures in the Amityville matter as journalist Laura DiDio and paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren, building a fascinating case but allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. (See our review here, and more comments from Walter and producer Andrea Adams in FANGORIA #321, on sale now.)
FANGORIA: How did this film grow out of all the work you’d done on-line about this phenomenon?
ERIC WALTER: I’ve had a very passionate interest in this story from an early age, and while doing Amityvillefiles.com, I had met many of the original participants, like Laura DiDio, who’s featured in the film, and Hans Holzer. I hadn’t met them in person, necessarily, but coordinated with them and done interviews with some of the people who had lived in the house after the Lutzes, like the Cromarty family. The intent was to present an unbiased presentation of all sides of the story, so people who knew nothing about it, or only had a passing interest, could develop some sort of opinion. There are so many different levels to this subject that it’s hard to formulate an exact opinion based on an initial reading. It’s easy to say the story was a hoax or believe it outright; you need to see so much. So that site was basically a calling card [laughs], looking back on it now.
I was actually contacted by a friend of Danny’s in Queens, just out of the blue. I was immediately interested and intrigued to know more, because Danny had not spoken publicly at all about this. We talked on the phone a couple of times, and he was not necessarily forthcoming in those conversations. It’s important to mention that there wasn’t a documentary project put on the table, initially; it was more Danny wanting to get this off his chest.
Once I made that decision, even though I had never made a feature film before, I had a very passionate, specific idea about what this movie needed to be. I feel like my whole life has been driving toward this in many ways. There’s so much controversy built around this story, and I never wanted to treat it disrespectfully. I don’t think any of the previous films have been great.
FANG: A lot of people would probably agree that none of them have been quite up to par.
WALTER: Yeah. Maybe the first two are guilty pleasures, if anything, but the remake was so atrocious; it was unfortunate.
FANG: There’s no footage from any of those films in MY AMITYVILLE HORROR, or serious discussion about them. Was that intentional, or were you just not able to get the rights to use them?
WALTER: Well, we were a low-budget production, I will say that. One thing I’ll admit I would’ve liked to include was a clip from the first movie of Rod Steiger with the flies, but maybe we can work that out in the future. But no, I don’t think it was necessary.
FANG: If you don’t mind my bringing this up, you mentioned you had talked to Hans Holzer, who seems to be one of the people who’s been most responsible for exploiting the whole phenomenon. After writing MURDER IN AMITYVILLE, about the original DeFeo family killings in the house, he sort of became a cottage industry of completely speculative and ultimately unbelievable books about the whole thing.
WALTER: Yeah. With respect to him and his work, I do think a lot of his claims about it are definitely among the most far-fetched, in terms of the investigative point of view.
FANG: What were your initial impressions of Daniel Lutz when you met him?
WALTER: Well, it was amazing and exciting, because Danny was more open than I expected, though he was definitely very intense and often angry about the situation with his stepfather. That seemed to be his modus operandi, where George was the focus and responsible for everything that went on. He definitely felt that George was a catalyst or a trigger for whatever happened, though I believe there’s a big difference between saying he was involved with the occult and might have brought that upon the family, and saying he was literally able to practice telekinesis at will.
I think Danny responded to my respect for the family and their story, because I do believe that something happened that really scared them. What that something was, I cannot say, and I won’t go any further than that. But I do think that something bad took place in that house, and they were legitimately frightened.
FANG: How did the movie and its structure develop out of those initial discussions with Daniel?
WALTER: When I showed up to do the first audio interviews, we were on his boat, and he took us to a secure location. I was this kid—24 at the time—just showing up with a tape recorder, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. We were sitting in this little studio in his boat, and Danny was chain-smoking, and I wasn’t even asking that many questions. It was almost like therapy, as if he was thinking, “Here’s somebody who knows what I’m talking about.” Yet while I knew what he was saying, it was awkward because I didn’t go through any of this; I wasn’t even alive when it happened. Of course, what he was telling me was great material, but there were many claims that were so, so out there.
I took all this stuff and put together various treatments, and we tried to raise the financing. I cut the audio interviews together into what I guess you could call a sizzle reel, tied with certain images. A year later, we got to do the video shoot where he’s mainly sitting and looking right at the camera in that room by himself. At first I thought, “OK, we’re going to have a conversation about the same subject,” but it didn’t feel like that at all. He was very open, and said things I hadn’t heard before, because he didn’t necessarily want to put everything on the table when I talked to him the first time. It was more orderly, because I had a lot of questions and tried to steer it into more of a timeline, and he was pretty good about doing that.
FANG: There are moments in the movie where he confronts you about the questions you’re asking him. Were there any lines you didn’t want to cross while interviewing him, or any topics you didn’t want to bring up because they might be too painful or confrontational?
WALTER: I didn’t want to go into too much about his children, his family life after Amityville. While I personally know a little about it, it wasn’t necessary to go into that, and I respected his request not to, in order to protect them. A documentary filmmaker might say, “I want to hear everything,” but I have heard everything, and I can honestly say that nothing was left out that needed to be there. Trust me, we tried to get everything we could into those 88 minutes, and that was not easy to do.
FANG: I also wanted to ask about the movie’s presentation of Lorraine Warren. You emphasize her eccentricities quite a bit.
WALTER: I wonder what she’s going to think about this [laughs]. She’s a beautiful person, very kind and respectful to work with.
FANG: And yet you show the roosters in the cages in her kitchen…
WALTER: Well, part of what I wanted to do, with respect to everyone who was kind enough to appear in the documentary, was make a commentary on all the people who have been involved in this story, and how these personalities—the clash of them—may have created a snowball effect regarding how this story has been portrayed and how it has been viewed by the public, rather than how it might have actually gone down.
FANG: Was Daniel aware that you were going to be shooting other people for their viewpoints?
WALTER: He was. But he wasn’t very concerned or interested in who we were talking to, which was interesting in itself. I mean, while he did want to know, he didn’t demand to be there or anything. Honestly, and this is serious: As much as he invested himself in this, he does not check out what’s on-line, he does not involve himself or talk to people or debate with them about it. At least so far, he has not been trying to do much of that.