PHILLIP ESCOTT INTERVIEW
Found-footage feels a bit of a pariah when it comes to horror cinema.
Although there have been several notable hits, there has also been plenty of substandard fare too. However, the fact remains that it's a format that has been here for decades and it's one we keep going back to time and time again. The new documentary 'The Found Footage Phenomenon' takes a look at its origins , tracks it through to the current day and ponders what the future holds for this often maligned subgenre. Fresh off the back of its release on Shudder, we spoke to Phillip Escott, co-creator of The Found Footage Phenomenon, about the documentary and his thoughts on the format.
Firstly, congratulations on The Found Footage Phenomenon – a documentary that we found both entertaining and enlightening in equal measure. We’re not the only ones who are fans either – you must be delighted with the general response it has received?
Thank you, sir. I'm stoked you had fun with it and both Sarah and I have been bowled over by the reception it's had so far. As we know, Found Footage isn't the most loved of topics in horror, so we were aware that the stigma might carry over onto this, which luckily it hasn't!
It did a bit of a festival run last year - including Sitges and FrightFest. How many did you get to attend and do you have a personal favourite screening?
Yes indeed, FrightFest and Sitges were great and two festivals I deeply respect and admire. So I was thrilled to be able to get to both of those, Sarah was luckier as she also got to go to a showing in Paris which looked amazing and we have another festival coming up in Brussels in September which I'm excited for. FrightFest was probably my favourite though, as it was the first public screening and we had some crew members there with us, like our composer - the legendary Simon Boswell!
Found footage movies have been a staple of the genre for decades - it’s surprising in a world that’s been obsessed with documentaries for some time now that we’ve not had one until now! What made you and Sarah (Appleton) decide this was the right time to do a deep dive on the subject?
Yeah, for sure. I think it all harks back to the over-saturation of the genre; which was still relatively fresh for the horror community, so not too many people were longing for more of it. I work for Second Sight Films and one of the titles in the library is Lake Mungo and we started prepping for a new release of that and Sarah also works in the home entertainment business and was aware it was in the works and reached out because she's
a huge Found Footage fan and wanted to do a small doc on the genre for the release.
As fate would have it, I had finished on the extra content for that release but loved the idea of exploring the genre in a larger project, from there we were off to the races and we actually shot our first interview for the doc (Ruggero Deodato!) on the same day that Host dropped on Shudder, which gave Found Footage a real shot in the arm and helped people fall back in love with the format. So thanks Gemma, Jed and Rob!
This was also put together during lockdown; what challenges (and opportunities) did this present?
Yes indeed, it was something of a blessing to be honest - which is a terrible thing to have to admit, given what everyone was going through - but it meant that talent was suddenly much more available than they might have been otherwise. The biggest challenge was keeping track of various countries Covid rules and regulations. As we had to plan them around lockdowns and that varied throughout the world - and they could change at very short notice!
Found footage is a style of film-making that is sometimes treated with disdain in some critical quarters. Why do you think that is?
I've often said that Found Footage is our generation's Slasher film. They both allowed young filmmakers a chance to create a film with an inbuilt audience for very little money, and outside of a few critical darlings, they were largely hated by critics. So it all flows back to the age old adage, "just because you could, doesn't mean you should." Just because Found Footage offers you the chance to make a film for very little money, you still need to have the talent to back it up and story is so important in Found Footage so without the proper care and attention to it, a film will fall apart if it fails to grab its audience. So I think too many people didn't properly weigh up the pros and cons and as a result the market was inundated with similar looking movies with drastically different levels of story quality. It became a chore trying to navigate through the sheer volume of
titles, even the business gave up on them eventually. There was literally too many of them to sell at one point.
Although the documentary traces the roots back to Peeping Tom, were there any examples of found footage films that predate this that you were tempted to cover?
We decided early on that we should focus purely on horror, as that's the genre that Found Footage works best in we felt. So I was tempted to take things back further, with the likes of Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread, from 1933, being a good forerunner to the mondo movies. Or introducing the breaking of the fourth wall in fiction films, stuff that helped prepare audiences for actors addressing the camera etc. But it all just added
runtime where it didn't need to be. (I'm on of those weirdos who is longing for movie runtimes to fall under two hours again!)
Since the turn of the century especially, there have been a slew of found footage movies. How did Sarah and yourself go about whittling down a list of films to appraise/discuss?
For sure, there is a huge list to choose from, right? For us we wanted to focus on those that helped push the genre to new heights, or in some cases - took the format too far. But we knew from the start that we had to cover Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. If we couldn't get the creators of those 3, we had no doc. So we really lucked out in that sense. We were wanting to get V/H/S in there but
they are all busy making their new instalment. And one of the main reasons we wanted that was because they used Google Glass to make a segment, but JeruZalem also used that, so we were able to continue the story of how tech helps fuel Found Footage - even though it meant not being able to discuss the introduction of the anthology format into Found Footage.
There are some real big hitters amongst the interviewees. Film-makers like Deodato, Peli and Sanchez. Their enthusiasm shines through too. It must have been a real thrill to have them involved?
Yes indeed, they were our Holy Trinity. So we were beyond thrilled to get them all, especially Oren as he was our last interview! Ed and Oren are truly lovely guys and Ruggero is, well, Ruggero! I grew up on his films so it's been a pleasure to have hung out with him a few times over the years and I was so glad he agreed to be a part of the doc and he was very open about where he was in his life when he came up with the film - which explains a lot! I was also thrilled to get André Øvredal in there Trollhunter is an amazing film and he's an incredible filmmaker and one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. Also Michael Goi and James Cullen Bressack, they've made two of the most controversial entries in Found Footage and hearing them talk so openly about why they chose to go where they went was very interesting.
Do you have any underrated personal favourite found footage movies that you feel fly under the radar a little?
I do, I think Dom Rotheroe's Exhibit A is a brilliant example of an under the radar Found Footage movie. We actually interviewed him for the doc, but he didn't make the final cut unfortunately as Dom's area is mostly drama and he wasn't too familiar with horror or Found Footage. But he somehow managed to make one of the most chilling and saddening Found Footage films ever. Imagine a Ken Loach-esque family drama, but
taken to a horrific and shocking conclusion. Outside Lake Mungo it's without doubt the bleakest Found Footage film.
The critical success of films such as Host and the anticipation of features such as Dashcam indicate that there may be a bit of a revival going on. Why do you think that, despite fears of saturation, it seems to be a format that we keep wanting more of?
I think that Rob, Jed and Gemma are creative geniuses - so that definitely helps! They are a triple threat in that they are young, creative and, best of all, horror fanatics. So they are able to tap into interesting new ways of using modern tech to help tell classic stories that resonate with audiences of all ages; which is exactly what Found Footage needed in the wake of the previous onslaught. It has re-invigorated both the genre and fans, reminding us that there are so many amazing films in the genre and clearly there's room for more to come from it!
As a film-maker yourself, is the idea of making a found footage horror in the future something that appeals to you personally?
Haha, funnily enough Sarah and I were speaking with Sam Zimmerman from Shudder recently and he asked the same question. We do have some ideas, but it's finding the all important story that's engaging enough to carry said ideas. So, never say never! I'm definitely in a place where I'd like to get another fiction feature off the ground.
And finally, what is the scariest found footage film you have ever seen?
I'm in two minds on this, as I adore both [REC] and Lake Mungo; finding them both truly terrifying but in very different ways. Lake Mungo is just blood-freezingly chilling and haunting; it stays with you days after every viewing. Then there's [REC], which is so unrelenting in its intensity that you can hardly breathe for the entire film. So depending on my mood, I flit between those two.
THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON
an independent documentary charting the origins of the found footage sub-genre, tracking it through to the technique's current form, and asking what the future is.