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Writer-directors Jay Lender and Micah Wright talk to Live for Films about their “first person thriller” They’re Watching

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When an American home improvement TV show visits a remote Eastern European village, the young crew thinks the lack of mocha lattes and free wifi will be the worst of their problems. But after their filming interrupts the superstitious villagers’ private religious ritual, the situation takes a turn for the homicidal… and when the blood starts flowing, that’s when things get really weird.

Directed by Micah Wright and Jay Lender, the film stars David Alpay, Brigid Brannagh, Dimitri Diatchenko, Mia Faith, Carrie Genzel, and Kris Lemche.

Released in US cinemas and on VOD worldwide on the 25th of March, They’re Watching is the feature film debut of Jay Lender and Micah Wright. Wright and Lender have cut their teeth on cartoons and video games, having previously worked on everything from Spongebob Squarepants to Call of Duty. This eclecticism, and knack for sharp snappy smart immediate storytelling shines in They’re Watching, which is a weird, fun, scary and rad ride along the line between comedy and horror. You can read my full review here.

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Hey guys. I’m Alan from Live for Films. I saw They’re Watching last week and loved it. Well done on such a great movie!

JAY: Sweet! We think we came up with something really different – especially for a hardcore horror audience that expects a steady stream of blood and boo-scares – but so far everybody seems pretty happy!

MICAH: Thank you very much!

 

Can you please tell me how the pair of you met?

MICAH: We met in the early 90s when we were working at Nickelodeon. I was a writer on Angry Beavers and Jay was a background designer and storyboarder on Hey Arnold. We met in the break room, eating Kit-kat bars, talking about the OJ trial, and griping about work. We became fast friends, but it took years before we got a chance to actually work together, first when Jay – on a break from SpongeBob – did a freelance Angry Beavers board, and then again when I had my own action/adventure pilot, Constant Payne. After we left Nickelodeon we worked together for years on screenwriting and video game writing projects.

How did your previous work in animation and video games help you in making They’re Watching?

JAY: Animation is unique in that we basically get only one crack at filming anything. We can’t film a scene then say “That was great, now let’s get that from another angle. And this time, angrier!” Doing that would mean literally redrawing every frame of the shot, which would take exactly as long and cost just as much as the first time. So we obsessively plan everything before the cameras are ever turned on. That kind of thinking helped us enormously when we were on set. We always knew exactly what we wanted out of each shot, in terms of performance and camera movement, before we got to the set, so we got our shots quickly, and that left time for a bit of experimentation and the occasional happy accident. We never missed a shot and never got off schedule, either of which would have been disastrous for us.

MICAH: Animation thinking was particularly helpful in our final act, which is essentially one 10 minute unbroken shot. Jay storyboarded every second of it, 500+ drawings that detailed everything from action to blocking to character attitudes – even what technique we would be using to disguise the cuts. When we dragged our crew of 80 into the woods at 3am for four days of 40-degree night shoots, everybody knew exactly what was expected of him. It was smooth as glass. It was Birdman-on-a-budget… but rather than just sitting around talking about their feelings, our characters are exploding, catching fire, and being launched through the forest canopy at 30 miles an hour.

 

And tell me about your graphic novels. Did having worked in the medium first help in moving to filmmaking – not just in terms of things like storyboarding, but in cinematography and telling a story with a camera, not just a script?

JAY: They’re both visual media, but because comics don’t provide continuous imagery, you have to learn to choose your images very carefully. What’s the most important thing for people to see in order to communicate this idea or that? That training becomes ingrained in you and we used it all the time.

MICAH: It’s easy to fall into the trap of capturing cool images on screen, and cool visuals are okay, but giving the audience the information they need to understand your story has to take precedence.

 

Moving on to They’re Watching – where did the idea for the film come from, and how long did it take to write?

MICAH: I was watching the show House Hunters International with my wife for the ten thousandth time and saw an episode about a LA-based TV producer who went to Tuscany and bought a ramshackle hovel for $26,000. Now, this is a show where you can often see people drop a million dollars on their dream foreign home, so $26,000 seemed really low, and the house was a complete mess. But the thing that intrigued us was the first house he shopped was in a village which is a tourist town in the summer… but which empties out in winter, going from 50,000 residents down to 200 in the Winter. I kept thinking “What if he’d bought that house in the Summer Town? What a nightmare to go back and find yourself the only outsider amongst a tiny group of people who probably hate you…” One gender swap and a few details changed later, and we had our movie idea. Once we started writing, it took us about six weeks to really nail it down, mostly because we’d been thinking about it for so long. There were dialog punch-ups and new scenes added later, but the bulk of the work was done in six weeks.

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What are some of your favourite horror movies, and which ones directly inspired They’re Watching?

MICAH: You can’t be unimpressed by The Exorcist and Alien – The Shining. One of my all time favourites has to be Lon Chaney’s The Unknown. It may not quite fit the modern definition of horror, but it’s an absolute must see for anyone who thinks they know what tension is all about.

JAY: Cronenberg has an insane ability to reach past all your human conditioning and touch that little rodent brain at the back of your head. The Fly, Dead Ringers, Videodrome. All horrifying as much for their imagery as for the twisted thinking of their protagonists. Halloween is perfect, and, of course, John Carpenter’s The Thing. We love just about anything by John Carpenter.

MICAH: One person described our film as “Borat meets The Wicker Man,” and we loved that. We watched the original Edward Woodward/Christopher Lee version of The Wicker Man before we began outlining. We also watched the original version of Straw Dogs because it’s similar territory; American coward out of his element, threatened by menacing foreigners. The John Carpenter film Prince of Darkness always stood out as creepy for how they handled the homeless people… the way they just stand and stare at the main characters found its way into our film.

JAY: In terms of tone and theme They’re Watching definitely owes a debt to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. But our influences on this film come from everywhere, because filmmaking is filmmaking, regardless of genre, and once you’ve seen City Lights or Touch of Evil or Double Indemnity or Singin’ in the Rain, they can’t help but impact the way you think about entertainment. It was fun paying homage to the greats.

 

How did you go about casting? Did you have anyone in mind straight away? Did you group actors together to test for chemistry?

MICAH: We hired a great casting agent, Andy Henry, who knows everyone. He brought in a range of people who he felt would be right for the roles. Because of the type of movie this was, we knew we wanted people who were great actors, but who our audience wouldn’t have preconceived notions of. We wound up with a great group of people. Mia Faith, who is our good girl, Sarah, was literally the only one among dozens who intuited the naive quality we were looking for, so we cast the picture around her. Dave Alpay just knocked our socks off with his big monologue – a room full of jaded Hollywood types was literally crying in 3 minutes. Carrie Genzel brought an insane amount of humour and pathos to a character that could easily have been a one dimensional cardboard cutout. Dimitri had us rolling with his reads, and added a sweet puppy-dog quality to his character. And Kris Lemche surprised everybody by taking a character who was essentially written as Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, and giving us a completely unexpected “annoying motormouth” version. It wasn’t at all what we wrote, but it totally worked, and we knew he’d keep us on our toes every second. We would watch everyone’s audition and eventually we discovered that although we felt we knew exactly who these characters were, the actors who got the job were the ones who came in and did something slightly different than what we were expecting. Talking to them later, they had all individually gone through the same thought process; “this seems like what they’re looking for… but I bet they’ve already gotten 20 versions of that, so maybe I’ll take it in this weird direction…” I guess Jay and I like weird?

JAY: We didn’t have much time together at all before we shot. Micah and I met with everybody beforehand, and most of us got together for a dinner before we left for Romania, but we only had time for one or two table reads before we shot, and Dave Alpay, who was wrapping another project at the time, didn’t arrive until the day before we started shooting! But we had an incredibly professional bunch of people and they expertly faked the on-screen chemistry until the behind-the-scenes chemistry arrived, about 30 seconds later.

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I particularly loved Dimitri Diatchenko’s estate agent Vladimir. Were you ever tempted to give him a fight scene to showcase his Tae Kwon Do skills?

MICAH: Dimitri is hilarious in this movie, as in real life. He’s not actually Russian, by the way – he was raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, but his dad is from Ukraine, so he knows the lingo and does a dead-on Russian accent. He’s done a lot of tough-guy roles, but at heart he’s a comedian, so we’re thrilled that we get to debut him as a comedic actor. Anyway, the story comes first, and Vladimir isn’t a fighter. Any Tae Kwon Do he did in Romania was behind the camera.

JAY: But he has another skill; Dimitri’s an incredibly talented classical guitarist with three albums to his name. Once we found that out, we knew we had to use that in the film. So we wrote a new scene where Dimitri has a dynamite duet with Dave Alpay, who’s a concert level violinist. We recorded it live on set, with no overdubs. It’s really one of the high points of the film. That was our homage to Duelling Banjos.

 

How important was it to you to properly establish your characters as fully as possible before throwing them into the horror?

JAY: For us there was really no other way to approach it. If you don’t care about the characters then you’re sorta just making a snuff film, right?

MICAH: We think a good story is about characters you care about having an unusual experience; what they do, how it changes them and so forth. People are what we’re interested in here. With a lot of horror movies the audience wonders “How will he die? How will she die?” With They’re Watching we want people thinking “I hope he doesn’t die. God, I hope she doesn’t die!” It’s a slow burn movie. You get to love the characters while the storm gathers around them. In a way we don’t like to think of ourselves as a horror movie at all, but more like a workplace comedy that goes terribly, terribly wrong. Our characters basically have no idea what kind of movie they’re in until it’s far too late.

 

What is your working relationship like? How does co-directing work on set?

MICAH: Jay and I have different skills and ideas. I tend to have the big broad ideas, Jay likes to figure out how to make things work. And we challenge each other. We have to defend our ideas to each other. If we can’t then we know it was a bad idea. In the end, we get to places neither of us could go alone, and make things better than they would be without the other.

JAY: We write together. We outline together, then split the script into sections, go our own way, write our own sections, then swap and rewrite one another’s sections, then come back together and hammer out every line of dialogue together, reading it aloud as we go to make sure actors can actually say the gibberish we’re writing down. By that point, every line of the script has essentially been rewritten 3 times, and the process is very much like a trial; one writer puts up their material, the other writer attempts to destroy it under cross-examination. If there’s a problem, our system generally discovers it. Because no one’s perfect, we show our finished material to 3 or 4 friends who are writers or directors who give feedback, then debate that feedback amongst ourselves, and then rewrite again.

MICAH: We carried that same attention to detail and friendly-adversarial culture to directing together. Each morning we would discuss that day’s material and shot list, propose camera angles and shooting situations, theorize where we thought we could cut corners, or combine two sequences into one shot, which scenes would need extra attention, how we thought the actors should interpret the material, everything. Then we made final decisions amongst ourselves, and presented them as a unit to the crew. We never wanted it to seem like a “Mommy said no, I’ll go ask Daddy” type situation, which was advice we got from John Requa & Glen Ficarra, two successful co-directors who I worked with on The Angry Beavers.

JAY: We had very specific ideas about what we wanted from each beat in the story, and from each scene. When one of us was more jazzed to handle a particular scene (or if one of us was passing out from exhaustion) we’d let the other one take the reins for a while. Having another you around is super-useful on a fast moving shoot like this.

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And what is your approach to directing actors? What are your approaches? Do you rehearse a lot? Do you do a lot of takes?

MICAH: Having only two table reads might have been a problem for a different kind of movie but – despite being terrifying from a production standpoint – it was perfect for this kind of film, where we wanted things to feel fresh and in the moment. For each scene we’d do one or two run-throughs, just to get everybody on the same page, and to work out the blocking of the camera, then we’d roll film and do a take or two of the material as written. After that, we encouraged our actors to improvise and do what they felt was right for their characters, as long as they hit the story beats we wanted. That kept everybody in the moment and fully invested in what they were doing. We got gold like that.

JAY: There were moments when we had more takes than we wanted. The conceit of the film is that we can only see things from cameras that our fictional crew have with them. Because we filmed so many shots where there was only one camera in the room we ended up with a lot of extremely long shots. The longer the shot, the more blocking was required, and the more things could go wrong. By the 4th run-through of the musical number we were all pretty tired.

MICAH: The highest take count we ever got to was 14 takes of a single scene and that was because we were near an airport and planes kept taking off or landing above us, disrupting the scene. We had another scene which took 9 takes to get, a special effects sequence with a live animal, the last shot of a long day with the sun going down. That was nerve wracking because you could feel the energy draining out of the set… but on Take 9, everything worked, the animal performed as desired, and we all left the set cheering.

JAY: In general, we had a rule that no one should ever be sitting down on the set, including us. We kept everyone moving from place to place and shot the film very economically. Our first shooting schedule called for 52 days of filming. Micah and I took a pair of scissors to that schedule and trimmed it down to 22 days. Our crew thought we were insane at first… our cinematographer had recently shot a movie where he spent 11 days filming a dinner sequence which took up 5 minutes of screen time. I think we probably would have gotten that same sequence in about 30 hours the way we shot this film. It kept everyone on their toes, cast and crew alike, and it shows onscreen… there’s a real sense of immediacy that you can’t fake.

 

You make very strong arguments about why no-one can call for help, and why the characters keep filming as early as possible. Was it very important for you to do this? Does it bug you when film’s don’t at least attempt to account for this? As a big horror fan, I really appreciated it!

JAY: We think it’s the job of the filmmaker to make all the nuts-and-bolts of a story clear. If the audience is wondering why the heroes don’t call for help, they’re not paying attention to what’s on screen. That’s not cool, so we had to deal with it, but we hate it. Cell phones have really ruined tension on film, because nobody is ever really alone. We’ve dealt with the problem in several projects now, and sometimes it’s just easier to set the story in the past, before all this new technology appeared, and sidestep the issue entirely. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do that with this particular tale.

MICAH: We tried to deal with some of the typical shortcomings of movies in the genre. By design, our characters are all professional filmmakers. That allowed us to sidestep the vomit-inducing shaky-cam that you see in “found footage” movies. And as a photo-journalists, their impulse—their mandate–is to film, even when the shit hits the fan. We also have a survivor, so our footage is never “found”… They’re Watching is the film that our survivor made… and as a professional, that survivor knows the value of music, so we have a musical score by Jonathan Wandag.

JAY: We don’t say “found footage”. We like to say “first person thriller”!

MICAH: We don’t even like to call it a horror movie. It’s a workplace comedy that goes terribly, terribly wrong.

 

Did you have many budgetary restrictions, and how did you overcome them?

MICAH: We had nothing but budgetary restrictions. We overcame them, quite simply, by planning everything meticulously. We did this both because, coming from animation, it’s the only way we know how to work, and because being part-owners of the production company, Best Served Cold, we had a strong incentive to do things efficiently.

JAY: Nothing drives us crazy like wasted money… we come from animation and graphic novels where there’s never enough money, so the idea of throwing it away because we didn’t think to planning our shooting days until we landed on set would have made us lose our minds.

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What has been the reaction of Moldovan people to the movie?

MICAH: The Moldovan people who have seen it find it very funny. The ones who haven’t seen it are worried that we are depicting their country in a negative light. We aren’t. Our Moldova isn’t the real Moldova, and we are making fun of how Americans think of and treat foreigners, not making fun of the foreigners themselves. Sometimes people understand that, other times they don’t.

JAY: They’re Watching deals with issues relating to American cultural imperialism, voyeurism, and our narcissistic selfie culture. The Americans in our movie are guilty of all those sins, and because of that, are essentially the architects of their own troubles. We think (and hope) that everybody will understand once they’ve seen the film.

 

Is the chocolate bar heavily featured in the film, Doina, real? And do you have any?

MICAH: Doina is as real as you want it to be, and if we had any we wouldn’t tell you. If you want your Doina, you’ll have to speak up…

 

The film’s final act is incredible. How much fun was that to plan and shoot?

JAY: I storyboarded everything from the moment our characters start to realize what’s going on until the last frame of the film. Our fictional film crew truly has no idea what’s going on until the last 10 or 12 minutes of the movie, and watching the actors take their characters through that series of realizations had us in hysterics on set. And then stuff gets crazy…

When we were boarding we decided that, once the mayhem began, there should be no ceiling to the weirdness as long as it could be achieved technically on our budget. We designed the sequence to be modular in case anything didn’t work or proved to be out of our reach, but with the help of our insanely great crew, our stunt men, and our on-set visual effects coordinator, we managed to do everything we imagined and more!

MICAH: It was a lot of fun to write, a lot of fun to storyboard, and terrifying to actually shoot, because once you set a human being on fire, there’s no stopping that situation, and if you don’t get it right the first time, it’s 2 hours before he can do it again, IF he can do it again. And that’s just ONE of the several things which happens in that sequence. We had lights 40 feet up in the tree canopy, fog machines on the ground, and fire in the trees—there was running, dragging, strangling, and screaming galore. We were yanking guys through the woods at 30 MPH with hydraulic rigs, swinging them around with cranes, throwing body parts all over the place. We even set a guy on fire!  On day three of this, our Producer, Mark Lágrimas, called Jay “The Mayor of Crazy Town!”

JAY: After the shoot, the gang at DSG Effects used their computer wizardry to enhance our practical effects and provide us with the ludicrous amounts of blood, gore, fire and amphibious life that we needed… y’know… for believability. And when Jonathan Wandag delivered that thundering action music for the sequence (complete with chorale), we knew we had something… unusual. How much fun did we have? All of the fun there is.

 

Will there ever be a follow-up to They’re Watching? What are you doing next?

MICAH: We have solid notes for two sequels… one of our characters survives this film, and we pitched that actor on the story for the second film on the last night we were filming… 3am, shivering cold in 10 degree weather, wrapped in a blanket, drinking boiling hot coffee. They looked at us, smiled, and said “I’d make 26 of these, this was fun.” So if this film makes some money, yes, there’s both a creative and a financial incentive to make a follow-up film or two. We also have a ton of other movies we’ve written that we’d like to direct, and we’re always looking to break into live-action TV both as writers and directors. There’s a real impulse in Hollywood to pigeonhole people, so we need to be careful that we don’t get the reputation as “Those guys who do funny comedy-horror movies,” but we can think of far worse reputations to have.

JAY: Our graphic novel, Duster is available at Amazon right now. It’s an action story about a female crop duster pilot fighting Nazis in West Texas just after VE Day–if you can believe it–and we couldn’t be more proud of it. It began life as a screenplay and we’d LOVE to make that into a movie. We’ve also got a few other screenplays in various genres lying around, ready to go, and ideas for everything from adult animation to family action movies that could go to script at any moment.

MICAH: In the end, we’ll do whatever we’re invited to do, by investors or employers… as long as we can love what we’re doing.

 

If you could remake any movie, which one one would it be, and why?

MICAH: Escape From New York. Because it’s amazing and the original only hints at the madness you could get away with. We worked on a pitch for an Escape From New York video game once, detailing out everything we’d do in that universe, and that itch has never left my system. That and The Dirty Dozen… oh, we have such a brilliant pitch for a remake of The Dirty Dozen.

JAY: Logan’s Run, Death Race 2000, Land of the Lost, Steel Magnolias.

 

If you could be killed by any movie monster, which one would it be, and what would your last words be?

MICAH: If I’ve got to be killed by a movie monster, I want it to be one of Dracula’s wives and my last words will be “see you in 3 days.” I could get by directing only at night. Horror films and romantic arty films, that’ll be the only stuff I can direct as a vampire, but I could handle it.

JAY: The Brain from Planet Arous. “Damn you, Alan Simmonnnnnnnnnssss!”

 

Thank you both very much for taking the time to answer my questions. I will continue to spread the word about They’re Watching, and hope it does brilliantly.

MICAH: Thank you! This really is a bespoke entertainment experience… we are up against Batman v Superman, so we hold no illusions that we’re going to rule the day at the box office, so we know that this will truly be a retail sales experience, filmmaker to film viewer, and people like yourself are the only way we have to reach that audience, so we appreciate you taking the time to watch the film and write about it.

They’re Watching is available on iTunes.

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