The Cutting Room: Directors Jay Lender & Micah Wright on “THEY’RE WATCHING”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Welcome to THE CUTTING ROOM, a new column on FANGORIA.com that highlights the stories that most share DNA of our print counterpart. Rather than just feature the articles and interviews that didn’t make the cut, this column is dedicated to providing a greater lifeline between FANGORIA Magazine and FANGORIA.com.
In many ways, reality television is as much of a horror show behind the camera as it is in front of the camera. With a desperation to craft unscripted television that feels organic and yet entertaining, throwing unnatural elements into the proceedings can be as ethically contentious as it is potentially volatile. However, reality television goes from unnatural to supernatural in THEY’RE WATCHING, a horror comedy spin as a reality TV crew’s venture to foreign lands pit them against something much more fierce than they could have imaged. With the film now spilling blood in limited release, FANGORIA caught up with co-directors Jay Lender and Micah Wright to talk THEY’RE WATCHING, cultural crossover and more…
FANGORIA: How did you guys come up with the concept for THEY’RE WATCHING?
JAY LENDER: My wife watches HOUSE HUNTERS on a regular basis as well as HOUSE HUNTERS INTERNATIONAL, and we were watching an episode where a man who was a television producer in Los Angeles that bought a house for $20,000 in a town that was no bigger than a postage stamp. So I thought to myself, “What a great horror movie that would be!”
MICAH WRIGHT: How could that possibly end well?!
LENDER: So I put it in the pile of ideas and came back to thinking about it a year later, so I told myself, “This would be a far scarier idea if the lead was a woman.” That was the genesis of this movie.
FANGORIA: Was the project always envisioned as a horror comedy?
LENDER: The comedy was never a realization; comedy is naturally a part of everything that we do. Life is just one thing, or I hope that someone’s life doesn’t take on just one tone. I’d feel horrible for anyone whose life is just all dreary, all the time. But coming out of the world of video games, film and animation, we’re always surrounded by funny people. When you work in entertainment, most people will tell you the people that they work with are funny. So when we’re doing a movie that’s essentially a workplace comedy that goes terribly, terribly wrong by the end, comedy is going to be a part of it. If you put funny characters in terrifying situations, chances are they’re not going to stop being funny or weird.
WRIGHT: Exactly. A horror movie where people are just killed by an axe murderer for 90 minutes is like, “Okay, we get it.” So we chose to liven it up, and when you’re laughing one minute and screaming the next, that’s really something.
LENDER: We were actually really careful to set up gags right before we went to the dark places because it makes you fear the dark more.
FANGORIA: How did the cast come together for THEY’RE WATCHING?
LENDER: We went through the regular casting process, although I think the first person we knew was going to be in it was Kris Lemche. Then the second person was Dimitri Diatchenko who played Vladimir. From there, we saw a lot of people for every role. And then, some people came in and just nailed it immediately. But we had to see a lot of people before we got them. And for some characters, it was just sort of like up in the air. Casting Sarah was a really difficult because that we wanted somebody who was really innocent and naive, and a lot of people were playing it a little too old and a little too worldly or wise. And then Mia Faith came in and she read for it and we were like, “Wow, she’s amazing! Where did she come from?” They were like, “Oh, she’s our casting intern!”
She had really just been watching everybody else and said, “Those people are doing this all wrong; here, I can do it. So they slipped her into the audition process and we were none the wiser. We were like, “She’s fantastic!” I don’t think the casting agents thought she had any shot with the doing it but we. We loved her and we cast her and everybody else fell into place.
WRIGHT: The bottom line is that we didn’t go to anyone off the bat for these parts. We had casting for all of these roles and we saw people. There were definitely some recognizable faces there but everyone we got into the room and showed us their stuff. And we ended up with the people who brought something to the role that we weren’t expecting or who nailed it. It was a very traditional process.
FANGORIA: Where did you shoot THEY’RE WATCHING?
FANGORIA: Did that help in establishing the atmosphere of the story?
LENDER: It did more than affect the overall vibe; it helped determine the story. We knew that wherever we were going to go shoot, it was going to be a budget-conscious process making this movie and we knew we would only be able to raise so much money. So we thought, “Where can we shoot this movie?” Once we knew the answer to that question, it informed story because we didn’t want to be one of these movies where we say, “Oh this takes place in the swamps of Louisiana,” and then we go film in Bulgaria because it’s cheap. We wanted [THEY’RE WATCHING] to be what it was.
So we ended up with a story that takes place in in Moldova, which has very strong connection to Romania. They’ve got an interesting history and that was the story that we had to tell because we wanted it to feel really right. When we were in Romania and as we were preparing to film the movie, we learned more about Romanian culture and Moldovan culture, and we incorporated those things into our movie.
There’s a great scene that we love where our characters are outside of a church and there’s an old lady in town who’s calling the locals to prayer by smacking on a two-by-four with an a hammer. It’s the strangest thing to American eyes but it’s real; we saw it and it’s something they do in that part of the world. It’s the kind of detail that we can’t make up and that would feel weird if we had a bunch of Canadians pretending to do it.
WRIGHT: And let’s be honest: there’s just no building that old anywhere in the United States.
FANGORIA: Tell us a little bit more about the special effects and the horror elements of the project.
LENDER: We sat down, we wrote out the scripts and we conceived of what we wanted to do. We storyboarded the ideas in a very open, illustrated style and we showed those to a couple of special effects experts to get their opinion on how it should be shot, how could be shot and how they would shoot it. And then that’s what we did.
Jay and I have a guiding philosophy as directors which is: we should always be able to know a little bit about what everybody else does for a living, and if any of us are better than they are at what they do, than that person is the wrong person for the job. So you know we had some ideas of how to shoot those scenes, but when it came down to do it, we let the expert’s advice guide the process so we wouldn’t be making pointless mistakes while we were sitting there, spending money.
FANGORIA: What informed the decision to go with the POV perspective? Was there any consideration to go full-blown “found footage” with the project?
WRIGHT: I think that consideration was always in our head. When we wrote the screenplay, we would literally write every scene as whose camera was filming the action. We don’t like to say “found footage,” we like to call it a first person thriller because the film has a survivor and our survivor is a professional filmmaker. So we feel like what you guys watch when you see THEY’RE WATCHING is a document prepared by a professional filmmaker who actually lived through these events.
But we write the film with which camera was filming the action so that it all made sense. If a person didn’t have a camera on him or her at that point in the movie, the scene couldn’t be filmed that way. On a few occasions, we found a reason to change who was filming and it really kept us on our toes. And I think we came up with some really cool ways to change those causes.
FANGORIA: Was there ever a version of this product outside of that stylistic element or was this always going to be a POV flick?
LENDER: I think it was always a first person thriller. We knew it could be edited by that sole survivor of the event, and that could explain why his coworkers are dead. So it’s not like a bunch of videotapes that the cops find on the side of the road or they’re watching it in order to figure out what happened. In THEY’RE WATCHING, there’s a document that been created by a specific person with a specific point of view and that allowed us to use other film techniques away from most first person stuff. For instance, you get the score even though it’s unusual for this kind of movie to have a physical score, but we can do it because it’s made by a professional filmmaker.
THEY’RE WATCHING is now on VOD and in select theaters from Amplify.