Horror cinema remains one of the last bastions of visual experimentation in cinema that can also enter into the mainstream zeitgeist. With the dual-punch of Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink and Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters, American movie-goers are getting films that challenge the traditional notions of what defines this time-honored genre. Obfuscating action, leaving a lot of room for interpretation, and utilizing distinct camera and lighting techniques, these low-budget but high-imagination films are sparking all sorts of discussion in the horror community and beyond.
The Outwaters is a found footage movie, a desert horror film, and something like an ancient lost tape that Terrence Malick wanted to keep hidden from everyone. Clear in its inspirations and filming in true independent fashion – with friends and family as close collaborators, Robbie Banfitch’s first theatrical breakthrough is bound to get appreciators and detractors and have people leaving inspired and full of questions. It’s a movie that has barged into cinematic conversations, grabbed the mic, and demanded attention. Banfitch joined us to chat about influences, aesthetic, and more.
Let's jump right into the unique visuals of the movie. While a lot of found footage tends to replicate pre-recordings, security footage, or just generally "uncinematic" style, The Outwaters has a very distinct visual language and a cinematic eye to it. How did you conceive of the look of this film? How did you approach getting this particular style?
I wanted to use a consumer camera [Canon 70D] so that it didn't look like a Hollywood crew shot it, but I also wanted to make it look pretty. I conceived of my character in the film as a Terrence Malick fan, so my cinematographer character had a tendency to frame shots in a style that was artistically inspired. I wanted to make a 'pretty' found-footage movie.
Yeah, there's a very distinct purposeful style to this. Continuing on that, there's another horror film that was released concurrently with yours, Skinamarink. Both that movie and yours seem to obfuscate imagery using lighting sources and drawing the horror and fear out of that. What kind of imagery scares you, and what makes people scared while watching a movie that you wanted to draw out when making this film?
I'm not sure of specific visual themes that scare me in films. It's always very specific, like individual scenes that would scare me. I can say, um, have you ever seen The Changeling?
So, that whole sequence in that movie where Joseph's voice is played over the tracking shots of the mansion and the halls gives me chills every time I think about it. So, I'm sure subconsciously, there's something of that in here… the use of voices and audio overlayed on images in a jarring way. That runs through my blood. Also, it's interesting when I saw Skinamarink – I'm not sure if Kyle's a fan of The Changeling – but there is a lot of similar stuff there with voices in dark empty spaces. It freaked me the fuck out.
A lot of the people who were involved with this film were friends of yours as well as family members. What was the dynamic on set? What were the benefits and challenges of working and collaborating with people who are really close to you?
The only drawback was that because they were such close friends and family, I often could just take for granted that they knew what I was talking about [while giving direction]. If I were working with actors I didn't actually know very well, I probably would have tried to be way more thoughtful preemptively, and because it was my closest friends, I would say that on my part, I could just be thinking about stuff and take advantage that they'd know what I mean. I've tried and gotten better at that with each film I've made. Otherwise, it's honestly just amazing and fun. I get to hang out with my friends. Jim Cummings says, "make movies with your friends," and I agree.
Speaking of things that you've gotten better at over time, what are some challenges in independent filmmaking that you learned from your previous film Exvallis that you could apply to The Outwaters?
Exavallis was my first feature, and I definitely did not explain scenes well to my actors, so that was bad. I consciously worked towards better explaining things and setting things up for the scenes in The Outwaters. So that's the biggest thing I've learned and paid attention to more over time. In terms of the challenges of independent filmmaking with those two films, I was working at Greenpeace while I was making both of them, so just trying to find time for it. I made Exvallis during a sabbatical from my job, and for The Outwaters, I was scheduling shoots around vacation days. But it wasn't too challenging in terms of being able to go do it. I set the story up so that I already had most, if not all, of the resources I needed to make it. So, money wasn't a huge issue because I already had the camera, and I scripted these two stories and my upcoming one, Tinsman Road, in a way that I knew I could make them with my resources.
Many recent horror movies that have sparked interest of late, like yours, Skinamarink, and We're All Going to the World's Fair, are very dedicated to visual imagery over the spoonfeeding of a 'story.' What's your approach to predominantly visual storytelling in filmmaking, and is it being lost in mainstream cinema?
I think in terms of current movies, one thing I always come back to is that too many of them, for my taste, look so slick and polished and clean. Of course, every film is different, but I'm just saying in general, over time I've noticed films have been getting so clean-looking and it annoys me. I think for my films, each one has to have its own look and feel. I'm not trying to craft a particular style or anything. I want to give each particular story what I think would be the most interesting-looking movie out of it. So, Exvallis was classic, with very carefully composed shots and very still, while The Outwaters is much more freewheeling and wild visually, with brief moments of beauty. My next movie Tinsman Road is shot on Mini-DV 4:3, so it's really raw and kind of "ugly"-looking. So for me, I think each story deserves its own look and attention to detail.
You mentioned how your character in this movie was purposefully made a Terrence Malick fan. Who are other filmmakers you've taken inspiration from?
For the three films I've made so far, my biggest influences were Terrence Malick, Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Lars von Trier, especially for Tinsman Road. I'd say though, it's more specific films, like The Blair Witch Project and Event Horizon. But yeah, in terms of filmmakers, Malick, von Trier, and [Ingmar] Bergman have rubbed off on me. Oh, and Jane Campion!
Any upcoming projects?
Yeah, the upcoming film is Tinsman Road, and it will premiere at the Unnamed Footage Festival in San Francisco next month, so that's fun and exciting! I'll be getting to work on that again because I've been stuck on The Outwaters for the past year, so I'm excited to get back to work to look at something different.
The Outwaters is now streaming on Screambox and available to rent.