Minnesota has another pair of hot moviemaking brothers in Drew and John Erick Dowdle

by Colin Covert

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

30 October 2008

Director/Writer John Erick Dowdle (left), writer Drew Dowdle (center) and DP Ken Seng on the set of Screen Gems' horror-thriller "Quarantine." 

It was one of those only-in-Hollywood moments that cause jaws to drop and careers to veer off in unexpected trajectories. Earlier this month, “Quarantine,” a nervy little nail-biter of a horror movie, opened opposite “Body of Lies,” a $100 million production from Ridley Scott starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. “Quarantine” trounced the bigger film at the box office and delighted critics; the New York Times praised the thriller’s “solid acting and perfectly calibrated shocks.” The film was No. 1 in ticket sales that first day.

THE DOWDLES SHARE THEIR TOP TERRORS While Drew and John Erick Dowdle have made a splash with documentary-style spine-tinglers, their favorite horror movies cover a wide swath of styles, themes and moods: “THE SHINING” “I love it for its sense of the surreal and its slow-building rising tension that you don’t even quite know why it’s in the fabric of the film,” said John. “It’s just beautiful and an incredible piece of filmmaking. It’s terrifying. Something about the halls. Kubrick had a way of making everything scary. A doorknob is terrifying. The sound effect of the Big Wheel on the carpet on the floor is terrifying.” “SEVEN” “We love the procedural-type horror film that creates a moody world,” said Drew. “We love serial-killer stuff obviously, but especially something that is investigative and procedural like that or even ‘The Ring,’ where there’s a mystery to be solved that gets you deeper and deeper into something supernatural.” “THE EXORCIST” “It’s a wonderfully dramatic story that the scariness just enhances,” said John. “It’s a beautiful drama outside of the fact that it’s just absolutely terrifying. In a lot of ways, it’s a family drama with incredible cinematography and amazing performances. Some of that level of quality has been lost in a lot of the current crop of horror films. And that’s a quality to strive for.” “HALLOWEEN” “It was really the groundbreaking subjective film,” said John. “It’s the first time I’m ever aware of that the camera was put in the eyes of the killer. So you’re actually tracking with the killer, hoping the characters stay away from the lens. That was a huge inspiration to us for ‘The Poughkeepsie Tapes.’” “THE OMEN” “We come from a Catholic-school background and anything involving religion, involving demonic possession, we find kind of cool,” said John. “On the one hand, it’s supernatural, but on the other, you can ground it in reality and make it feel real. That’s always a great, great device.” “JACOB’S LADDER” AND “ANGEL HEART” “Both tap into the surreal, and a big part of our fascination with horror is really experimenting with the surreal,” said John. “Both films have that real sense of the absurd and the bizarre in a wonderful artistic way.”

It was a life-changing turn of events for the filmmakers, St. Paul natives Drew and John Erick Dowdle. All of a sudden, Minnesota has another pair of hot moviemaking brothers.

“Drew and I always had the understanding: We’re going to do this like the Coen brothers,” said John, who directs and co-writes with his producer brother. “Joel went to NYU and Ethan went into business and both of them came together at the end of the day.”

The Dowdles followed that template exactly. They simply didn’t expect to get their lucky break so quickly.

John, 35, and Drew, 34, grew up in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, attended St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights together and knew they eventually would work together in films.

As teenagers John would create film scenarios and audition them with Drew, who generally said, “that won’t work” or “that won’t get made” or “no one will buy it.”

Their collaboration didn’t look assured to their father.

“John was always causing Drew trouble in school,” recalled Dr. John Dowdle, a St. Paul orthopedic surgeon. “When Drew came in for freshman initiation day, they made him kneel on the floor and sing the school anthem with his head in the locker. When he finished and looked around, they were all gone.”

John would rent and watch five films a day from Blockbuster, his father recalled: “He knew every shot, who this person was. He knew more about that film world than anyone.”

The senior Dowdle, a big believer in vocational guidance, sent undisciplined, creative John and focused, mathematical Drew to an industrial psychologist who directed them to film school and business school, respectively.

Just as Joel Coen did, John attended New York University’s film school while Drew took a business degree at the University of Michigan and then worked in investment banking in New York to learn how to finance film projects. In 2000 they passed the hat among family friends to raise money for their first effort, a sex comedy called “The Dry Spell.” More than four years in the making, the film didn’t repay its investors, but it was nominated for a top prize at Slamdance, the iconoclastic indie festival, in 2005.

Their followup, “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” was a faux-documentary about a multiple murderer’s homemade videos, which chronicle the stalking, abduction, killing and disposal of his victims. It’s rather grisly fare for a couple of lads from an upstanding Minnesota family, but John has an explanation for their fascination with macabre themes:

“We blame the long winters, sitting home wishing we could get out. We’re the latest in a long list of Midwestern filmmakers and artists with a very dark side.”

The film created a stir at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. “We screened a number of times over the course of four days,” John recalled. “By the end, there were people camped out six hours before the screening just to make sure they’d get a seat.

“We were the smash hit; we came out of it with the biggest sale ever to come out of Tribeca, and MGM was going to go very wide with it. They were going to put it in 2,500 theaters, do a huge release all across the country.”

He paused, then sighed at the memory of what came next, and his brother picked up the story:

A month before the film’s February release, financially strapped MGM dropped the film, along with several others, from its release schedule.

“They said if it was gorier, they could sell it. They said if it was less gory, they could sell it,” John said, exasperated. The film remains in limbo.

There was an upside, however. The film’s positive word of mouth won the Dowdles the opportunity to make “Quarantine” for Screen Gems. Following in the cinema-verite vein of “Poughkeepsie,” the film presents a first-hand account of a TV news team and several firemen who must fight for their lives when they are trapped with hordes of rabid killers inside an apartment building sealed off by the government. The film delivers 89 minutes of jolts and jumps as things go from bad to very, very worse.

Filming was a horror story all its own, explained the brothers—well-spoken guys whose insights should make for entertaining DVD commentary tracks. Every scene in “Quarantine” is shot from the perspective of the TV news cam, racing through four stories of stairways, hallways, living rooms and storage spaces.

“We had to choreograph everything to that camera,” John said. “We’d rehearse the first six hours of the day, and the last two hours, we’d shoot the shot over and over and over. Some of these shots were six minutes long with stunts and effects and children and animals and blood and lighting tricks and all kinds of stuff. Any one piece of that that didn’t work would have to bring us all the way back to the top.”

With a body of work consisting of two creepy films that leave most of the cast maimed, dying or dead, the Dowdles are eager to explain their motives. They are not interested in feeding sadistic fantasies, they insist, but aim to make disturbing movies that deglamorize screen violence.

“When we made ‘Poughkeepsie Tapes,’ our biggest fear was that it would be considered torture porn,” Drew said. “In our opinion, it’s antitorture porn.”

“We worked hard to make the violence feel icky, like you don’t want to see it,” John added. Neither brother believes it’s plausible that their films could inspire copycat atrocities.

“Insane people are inspired by insane things,” Drew said. “People are inspired by Jodie Foster to shoot the president. Son of Sam was inspired by the neighbor’s dog.”

“Jeffrey Dahmer wanted to make an Ewok village in his living room,” said John, chortling at the absurdity of the idea. “Of all the things a serial killer could be inspired by, Ewoks are pretty far down on the list, you know?” His idea of an irresponsible film is “something like ‘The Bucket List,’ with old people jumping out of planes.”

Their father isn’t a horror fan, but he appreciates his boys’ craftsmanship and commitment to their career path. “It’s a joy to see kids happy with what they’ve chosen to do. John knew he was going to be poor and he’d have to work his ass off. He put in 10 years of grunt work and didn’t have much to show for it on his income tax return. But it’s not about money. They just like getting up every day and going to work.”

The doctor also enjoys his cameo appearances in his sons’ films (he plays a mourner in “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” and a background fireman in “Quarantine”). He chuckled at the memory of asking John what his motivation should be for his brief scene of polishing a fire truck. “I said, ‘Should it be wax on, wax off, or what?’ He told me to just polish the damned truck.

“They haven’t given me a speaking part yet. I consider that parental abuse.”

The success of “Quarantine” has brought more good news. The Dowdles traveled to Cambodia and Thailand in August to scout locations for the next film they planned, a story of an American family stranded in Asia during a bloodthirsty political uprising. But “The Coup” was put on hold when M. Night Shyamalan tapped the Dowdles to direct and executive-produce the first in his series of “Night Chronicles,” a slate of films in Shyamalan’s distinctive style. Shyamalan wrote the treatment and assigned it to a screenwriter before contacting the Dowdles, “otherwise we would have written it, in all likelihood,” Drew said.

He termed the project “something that came out of left field that was kind of a dream job and really too good to pass up. Night is one of the great storytellers in all of cinema, and one of our filmmaking heroes. There is so much we can learn from him.”

It also looks as if “Poughkeepsie” may finally be released next year, though it’s unclear whether it will come to theaters or go straight to DVD. In the meantime, John will be shifting his attention to his firstborn child, John Henry Dowdle, who arrived Oct. 21.

“I’m going to be focused on the latest horror show for a while,” he said with a laugh.

“I hope fatherhood doesn’t make John a softy,” Drew added. “Kids in peril is kind of our bread and butter.”

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