In 2011 a never-heard-of-before filmmaker duo from Canada managed to draw the attention of the horror film crowd with a little found footage shocker called “Grave Encounters” which the influential Forbes magazine ranked among that year’s top ten films of its genre. Apart from writing the sequel it took “The Vicious Brothers” (who are not related at all) three years to finish their next original film but the fun result was worth the wait. “Extraterrestrial” is a mean little homage to classic alien movies with a little bit of torture porn thrown in. We spoke with Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz about archetypes, UFO tropes, working as a team and Jennifer Aniston.
screen/read: Alien abduction movies had been out of fashion for quite a while but it seems like they are coming back at the moment. Now there is quite some 80’s vibe in your film and it seems impossible not to think of classics from that time like “Close Encounters of the third kind” or the tv series “V”. Was that period a central influence when conceiving “Extraterrestrial”?
Stuart Ortiz: We’re definitely huge fans of that era and its films. We were born in the 80’s and lived through the 90’s, so all of our favorites are from that time and by people like Spielberg, Lucas and Cameron. Actually “Fire in the sky”, an alien abduction movie from the early 90’s, which is pretty dark, had an especially big influence on us. But apart from that we just felt that no-one had done a film that used pretty much all of the the established myths about aliens and just threw them into one single scary movie. And we tried to do exactly that.
screen/read: Did you do any advance research on the topic?
Colin Minihan: We’ve read a few books about different abduction recounts, but we just wanted to keep the film as basic and accessible as possible and therefore just based our main story arc on some “do not engage”-rule. So it’s pretty much an alien revenge movie. We should know how this works because unfortunately, we have both been abducted and they had their ways with us. [laughs]
screen/read: This is your second feature but the first time it’s mostly shot in a classic manner. How was the experience this time compared to your earlier film that relied on found footage?
Colin Minihan: It’s a totally different approach to filmmaking. With “Grave Encounters” we had to strip away a lot of our sensibilities as filmmakers in order to attain more of a raw and real aesthetic and drive performances out of our actors that felt unscripted. So the approach is different all over, even from the technical standpoint. Our first film was so minimal, so nasty and noisy. It was intentionally lit with flashlights primarily and had a lot of nightvision. It’s a completely different beast when you’re making a film that’s of high production value and has elaborate lighting setup each time you move the camera during the course of a day. With found footage it’s rather like, if you try to control it too much, it loses its realism, but with a movie that takes a more traditional take, it’s all about control.
screen/read: Would you say traditional filmmaking is more fulfilling?
Colin Minihan: The only fulfilling thing for me as a filmmaker is getting great performances from actors and then it really doesn’t matter what the approach is. I think Stuart would partly agree there.
Stuart Ortiz: Yeah, in “Grave Encounters” there was definetely some fun stuff that you couldn’t have in a movie with a traditional approach. There’s a scene for instance where we gave the actors the camera and a scenario so they would run by themselves. You obviously can’t do that in a traditional film. I think it’s great that each technique offers certain aspects that you can enjoy. Perhaps the level of improvisation is higher when you’re doing a mockumentary or a found footage film. But from a technical perspective it’s much more interesting to craft a film, where you design each shot and execute it to the best of your ability of that day. And you capture the performances much more directly to what is scripted.
screen/read: “Extraterrestrial” had its premiere at the Tribeca film festival and was screened at more festivals afterwards. Knowing that festivals have their own rules, how were the audience reactions? Are you satisfied with it so far?
Colin Minihan: Generally a festival like Tribeca has a slighty older demographic while we made the film for a younger audience. So that can skew the perception of the film. But still everytime we screened it, the laughs and the gasps have been where we wanted them. It’s a great feeling screening a film. You just sit in the back of the theatre and hopefully you conduct the audience’s emotions the way you planned to.
screen/read: Are you planning to stick with genre films in the future and do more horror or do you have other plans?
Stuart Ortiz: We still love genre movies, that’s what we loved as kids and continue to love and if there’s an opportunity to do something cool and if we find a project, where we think that we can bring something fresh to it, then hell yeah, we’d love to do it. Right now we are working on a new script that still has genre elements but generally is more of a dramatic character piece. So certainly in the future we will be open to all kinds of things, musicals, romantic comedies etc.
screen/read: So a Jennifer Aniston RomCom might be the next logical step.
Stuart Ortiz: That’s what I was going to say: Jennifer Aniston! You’ve read my mind. She’s a scream queen and she was in “Leprechaun”. [laughs]
screen/read: Calling yourself “The Vicious Brothers” means you’re always working as a team. What is it like to do a movie in a collaborative manner?
Colin Minihan: It’s a drag! No I’m just kidding. I think Stuart and I just share a similar mind-set and language. We talk about movies and each of us has different strong suits and so we both bring certain aspects to the table. We just complete each other in petty much all aspects of production, be it editing, writing or directing. So it’s a collaborative process right through to the finish line. We’re able to read each other’s mind and must always be ready to react immediately when there are quick decisions on set to make. We like to split up, like one of us will have a more clear vision as to one scene and that person will take the reins and talk with the talent. And on another scene it will be the opposite way round.
screen/read: Would you say such an approach makes filmmaking richer?
Colin Minihan: I think that filmmaking is already such a collaborative process. Personally I’ve never understood having a film “by” one person, because there’s so much talent in the film crew that comes together to make a movie. It’s never just a film by someone specific. Sometimes it’s the production designer or the cinematographer that establishes a look the director maybe didn’t see initially, but got on board with. There are just so many different eyes and so many different tastes and although they’re there to facilitate the director’s vision, they too bring their own creative spark to the process and if everyone is on the same page it can lead to great results.
screen/read: For your aliens you turned to the most classic design. We get the most clichéd and archetypal extraterrestrials one can think of. Why did you decide for that instead of creating something individual and new?
Stuart Ortiz: I guess if you ask anyone on the street how they will describe an alien, most people would go for the grey creature with big black eyes. I think it’s in the cultural zeitgeist. So using that standard makes it inherently a little bit more real and therefore more frightening in the horror context. If we had done some crazy out-of-the-box design, like squid people or ones that fly with dragon wings or whatever, the look would be cool, but I don’t think it were remotely relatable at all. Something about that classic, archetypal alien design is such an essential part of pop culture and we really wanted to use all of the pre-existing tropes and myths from the UFO world and just embrace them and not be afraid to use them.
screen/read: So with being UFO experts now, have you already been to Roswell and Area 51 to check out the real stuff?
Stuart Ortiz: We haven’t yet, but we’ve been wanting to make that pilgrimage for a while now. Maybe within the next months before the end of the year. We’re especially eager to visit a place called “Little A’Le’Inn”, which is a hotel there. Also I want to go the gift shops to get some alien keychains and t-shirts and all that stuff. I love it.
screen/read: When you do you should make a video of that.
Stuart Ortiz: We probably should.
[Thanks to Colin and Stuart for taking the time. Find the German translated version of our interview here.]
[Images: IFC Films / Tiberius Film / Screencapture]