The movie Devil's Due, a horror story about a demon fetus and its vicious attack on a sweet, newlywed couple, is 95% percent improvisation. The rest is all screaming.
Devil's Due, created by the directorial collective of Radio Silence isn't a found footage movie, it's a "point-of-view" movie. This makes sense as this group of directors — who all worked on the film despite the DGA limiting the amount of director you can credit per movie — came from YouTube fame (as well as the VHS series). We sat down with the group of creators (made up of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella, Justin Martinez) to talk about how weird it is that a bunch of childless men made a movie about an evil pregnancy, and how they went about crafting a film that was almost all improv. (FYI, because there were four people in this interview, it has been edited.)
io9: Have any of you gone through this? Not a demon pregnancy, but a pregnancy in general. Do you have kids?
Chad Villella: We thought it was actually really funny that they hired four dudes who basically weren't even married or ever pregnant to make a movie about the awkwardness of pregnancy.
Tyler Gillett: And the development executive — also not married, doesn't have kids. The producer, the writer was married, but doesn't have kids.
Did you learn a lot about pregnancy that terrified you?
Chad Villella: I remember when we were shooting the amnio scene where you can see the baby on the monitor, I remember calling my cousin, who is a doctor, and just asking what would it look like? Where would the baby be?
Justin Martinez: This is how disconnected I was, I didn't even know what an amnio was.
Tyler Gillett: Our production supervisor was a month pregnant when we started pre-production. So we watched her become very pregnant, over the course of the movie, and then have her baby in post. She was there and she definitely kept us honest. Because it's something that is so familiar, the process of pregnancy, when we were writing we were trying to think of fun little scares. One of the fun ideas of the movie is you get to play with what's supernatural and what's normal, weird medical shit. And that fine line, [you walk] it as long as you can. So it was a lot of reading about the crazy things pregnant women go through and trying to move it a little bit more into the genre world. It was fun research to do.
It seems like a lot of this is shot by the actors on set. How much did the movie change in edits and with FX?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: That's always the question, how far can you go before it gets silly, and how far can you go before you paint yourself into a corner narratively. Especially with a movie where the camera exists. You're watching it through the cameras in the world of the film. If you go too big in the beginning, then there's less of a reason for the camera to continue to exist. You have to parse it out...
Chad Villella: Plus you don't want to take the audience out, either. You don't want to have a big CG scene in a found footage movie that just takes the audience out of it.
Justin Martinez: We set out to do almost everything practically. If we could do it practically on set then we were going to do it. The kids getting thrown was practical. Zach getting thrown against the wall was practical. We tried to do almost everything practical and then sweetened the shit out of it.
One of the biggest challenges with POV movies…
All Four Guys: We LOVE that you called it a POV movie! Yeah! [Cheering!] Remember that!
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: We keep joking that these movies like ours, Chronicle, there's no footage being found. That's kind of an old thing that's been done perfectly and so that's not a part of it anymore. We joke in our movie there's actual footage that he finds, but that's the closest you get to it.
Tyler Gillett: The story is told from the point of view of cameras in world of the characters.
Chad Villella: We keep thinking of a new term. POV, yeah.
It's very "of the times" if you think about it. We talk to each other on FaceTime and through YouTube, but the biggest challenge is coming up with creative ways to get away with having a camera in the room. What is the one camera angle you came up with that you're most proud of?
Tyler Gillett: I think that playing by that rule was the one thing that we're always really strict about in the movie. because that's what bugs us the most about found footage movies — when that rule is broken. When the "why the camera exists" rule is sort of discarded. That takes us all out faster than anything else. It immediately kills it.
Chad Villella: The one I'm most proud of, for sure, is the wearable camera. The POV from the character camera.
Tyler Gillett: At some point you watch the last 11 minutes of the movie almost happen in [real-time], which is something that we played with before, we played with that idea in VHS, living in the moment to moment of a character and experiencing what they're experiencing, which forces you have to choreograph the scares and choreograph the maze of the haunted house, or whatever you're doing. You have to be really specific about how that plays out. We love creating those long, fun, action shots.
Justin Martinez: Especially when it's so choppy up until then.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: Speaking to that, when Zach is basically alone for the last 10 minutes of the movie, there's no character on screen. Our job was to make sure that by that point in the movie, you identify with him, and care about him. So when you're seeing it through his eyes, you feel as if you're seeing it with him. Not, "Where the fuck is the character?"
Justin Martinez: It allowed us to tell a bigger story as well, because the camera is attached to him. And you don't have to ask "Where is the camera?"
Tyler Gillett: He's forgotten that the camera exists to a certain extent, so the audience is kind of allowed to forget as well. We tried not to mention the camera at all. There's one scene where we talk about it. The footage stuff is easy to do in short pieces, the camera can exist in… In VHS our segment was 17 minutes, and it's just sort of on the edge of "all right, why is the camera still on?" But with a feature that's the biggest challenge. Continuing to reinvent and evolve the reason that you're watching a movie. Why the footage exists at all. I think we came up with some cool ways to do that. There's a part of the movie where some hidden cameras are put up; as you go through the story you start to see things in a different way. As the story evolves so does the way that you're watching the film also evolves.
What a coup to get those Zach Gilford and Allison Miller to star. They are really phenomenal.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: We say that 90% of directing, especially this type of movie, is just getting good actors. We didn't cast people who can play characters, we cast people who are the closest approximation to the character that's on the page. A lot of that was us being comfortable, and the studio being comfortable with these actors coming in and rewriting the script. Not rewriting the story, but approaching objective of the scenes in a way that's really real and natural to them. Which I think was the most fun part of the process was just letting Zach and Allison be themselves together. They're so fun to watch, they're so good together... A lot of those scenes are just them with a camera just shooting it.
Did you have to teach Zach how to shoot a lot of the stuff?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: We got really lucky Zach was pretty fucking good at shooting, he has a great camera sense. He's camera operator on a large part of the movie.
Wow, does he get more money for that?
Chad Villella: Plus, their natural sense of humor came out too. There's a good humor in the first half of the movie.
Tyler Gillett: You laugh with them for a lot of the movie.
How much of what we'll see in the film was improvised?
Everyone: A lot.
Could you put a percentage on it?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: 95%, dialogue-wise. Scene for scene, it's very much what was scripted. The order obviously changes as you're editing, but as far as the written dialogue, there's very, very few actual scripted...
Tyler Gillett: It was a guide more than anything. "Okay, this is what the emotion is." When we were doing the on-book versions of the scene, there's just something approaching something that's already been written and you've memorized. Even on a very small, subconscious level, if you're the best actor you're approaching that differently than if you're just improvising and being real. Even when the scripted performances were great, they still didn't feel as real and as connected as the improvised ones. It just made sense as we were editing.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: A lot of the scenes that ended up in the movie were the scenes that after we had shot them 85 other ways, we said, "Let's just try this one random alternate version." There's at least four or five scenes where we're so glad we did that.
But when you're going full improv, how many of the scenes end up being the actor screaming "Fuck, fuck!" over and over again? Or is he just that good?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: He's great, we also...
Tyler Gillett: ADR is also big. That's a big part of it, I think. Post on these movies are really intense. We shoot like a documentary ratio.
Chad Villella: Rolling six cameras at once.
Tyler Gillett: You just never know when you're going to get that little piece that is most real, and unique.