It's not often that a movie adds something new and distinct to a genre. Afflicted does it twice. One is found footage. The other co-directors/stars Clif Prowse and Derek Lee want to keep that a secret. Prowse said, "The movie starts off as this travel blog, and then it takes this very abrupt turn."
The Canadian indie horror has become a surprise success of Fantastic Fest. Coming in after being acquired by CBS films, it swept the board at the awards in the horror category, taking best picture, script, and directors. Like another critical smash at the festival, Ti West's revelatory The Sacrament, it plays with line between mockumentary and found footage. Lifelong friends Lee and Prowse play Derek and Clif, a pair of lifelong friends who decide to take a yearlong, round-the-world trip. One night in Paris, early in their trip, Derek gets attacked, and starts displaying weird symptoms. Luckily, amateur filmmaker and videographer Clif is there to catch his friend's transformation for their travel blog.
The obvious reference point is last year's Chronicle. Both Lee and Prowse are OK with the comparison (the only problem was that, in an early draft, they had written an almost note-for-note mirror of Chronicle's baseball scene).
But the most significant similarity is that neither film runs to spell out what's happening. Chronicle, much like Unbreakable, is the superhero movie that avoids using the S-word. By contrast, Afflicted leaves a bloody trail for the audience to follow. This gave the pair a narrative challenge: When to make the nature of Derek's transformation explicit. Lee said, "The question was, when does it become so annoying for the audience who figure it out ages ago, that they go, 'C'mon, guys, snap out of it.' The one thing you don't want is an audience member annoyed, going, 'figure it out.'"
For Prowse, the challenger was about injecting a horror element into an everyday situation, and keeping the reactions plausible. "We wanted to put the characters into these absurd and fantastical situations, but they're still interpreting it as people who live in the real world. It's like saying, 'Oh, you've turned into a leprechaun,' because they don't exist. Why would you ever come to that conclusion?"
"We also loved the comedy of that," said Lee. "If I actually had to say to Clif, 'Are you a [redacted], we would piss ourselves laughing, and then go, 'oh, shit, that's real. We need to get the heck out of dodge.'"
However, the idea of shooting the entire movie POV-style, to keep the intimacy between the friends, created a whole new series of challenges. Lee said, "The biggest lesson we learned is that found footage is an art. The guys that came before us, the Blair Witches of the world, those are master classes in how to feel like the camera's just there." They quickly found that the mechanics of POV cinema are easier than ever; what's tough is providing a narrative logic for pressing the record button. Lee said: "Why is the camera on for this conversation? Why are we turning to look at that? Every single time the camera's on and every single time the camera moves, you have to ask and answer honestly, why the camera is even looking."
There's also the where of shooting, and Afflicted took the crew to Spain, France, and rural Italy. Having the travel blog gave the characters a good reason to keep the camera on so much of the time. Prowse said, "First of all, it gives us a justification of why they're filming, and secondly, it puts them in a situation where this spectacular, life-changing trip all of a sudden takes turn where it's very isolating because you're very far from home."
There was another big advantage to shooting guerrilla-style with SLRs and GoPros. Prowse said, "Even on a really low budget, that just meant we could fly people and put the money up on screen, just have the production values of being in these places like Paris and Barcelona."
One location, the small villages of Italy's Cinque Terre region, provides some of the film's most memorable locations. Having traveled there as kids, the pair were amazed no one had ever shot a film in the beautiful historic towns. As soon as they started prepping the film, they understood why. "The roads are inaccessible by gear truck," said Lee. "They're tiny and windy and you need a four foot car to get up them. The only way to shoot a movie in that town was the way we did it. Seven to 10 people, gear on their backs, carrying luggage up 400 steps a day."
There was a lot of planning that went into creating that naturalistic, 'two guys and a camera' effect. However, serving as actor/director/cinematographers gave the duo a lot of production freedom. Prowse said, "One of the big advantages of us being in movie is it gave us the opportunity to reshoot stuff, pickup scenes. In some cases in the edit, we'd say, 'Hey it would be great if we had this,' and we're there and we're free, so we could go do it. Literally, just grab the camera from the backpack in my office."
Fantastic Fest presents Afflicted, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 11:30pm. D: Clif Prowse and Derek Lee, 85 min.
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