From GRAVE ENCOUNTERS to close encounters – STARBURST talks to the Vicious Brothers, aka Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, about their new film EXTRATERRESTRIAL.
STARBURST: Extraterrestrial was your first film idea before Grave Encounters. What made you guys come back and revisit it years later?
Colin Minihan: We just really wanted to make an alien abduction movie to be honest. It’s the pureness of the idea. A group of kids go to a cabin - It obviously sounds cliché. We tried to create a reason for that, have a bit more of a character story, but still play on that familiar setup. We always wanted to make just an alien abduction movie. We ended up on the spaceship and did some things that no other alien abduction movie had ever done.
Stuart Ortiz: Yeah, being huge fans of The X-Files and just UFO mythology in general. Obviously, there’s been some great classic films about aliens. Close Encounters of a Third Kind for example, even more recently like Signs, we never really thought anyone had taken all the tropes and put them together into a successful horror movie. We’d just never seen it done. It’d been tried a few times – I’m sure there’s plenty of B-Movies that have tried it - but to actually do it right…
You have a lot of nods to other science fiction films and horror films…
Colin: Definitely. It’s really hard. I think particularly with an alien abduction film, if we wanted to play into that classic mythos, that kind of classic X-Files alien graves theme, inevitably you’re writing a scene and you realise what you’re really writing is a homage to a scene from Fire in the Sky or Close Encounters or whatever. The imagery in those films is so complete that if you see anything remotely similar to that it immediately is that.
Apart from Signs, which you mentioned, and things like The Fourth Kind, there’s been a lot of ghosts and poltergeists in horror movies recently - of course you guys had the very successful Grave Encounters. You’ve brought aliens back into the fold now – can you see yourselves turning this into a franchise or making a sequel?
Colin: We wouldn’t really know where to go with a sequel right now. We debate that.
Stuart: If there was a big demand for extraterrestrials, we would love to try it. It’s such a cool world that’s barely hinted at.
Colin: You mentioned The Fourth Kind. I like that film but I felt ripped off when I went to the theatre and I didn’t get to see an alien in the film. I think if you’re making a film for a younger audience, it’s really easy for a director. Obviously it’s effective to not show the monster and to just hint at the monster and do that as much as you can. But I think that for the type of film that we’re making, which is an action-horror popcorn film, with science fiction elements thrown in; comedy, romance – it tries to have something for everyone, we want to show it.
What research did you do for the film? Did you work with any UFO experts or read any books on it?
Stuart: There’s a book called Secret Life and its sequel called The Threat by David Jacobs, a professor from the United States. They’re about alien abduction. They’re very academic accounts. He uses hypnosis – hypnotherapy – on people who claim they’ve been abducted by aliens. He has this whole process. The whole thing that’s controversial about hypnotherapy is people say, ‘you suggest things’ or ‘you put ideas in their minds’, which can happen, but he’s very aware of that. He doesn’t lead people on; he just allows them to talk. The book is this bunch of transcripts describing people’s experiences. I think they were written in the late 1970s. When you start reading it’s quite funny, like ‘hahaha it’s a typical alien scenario, they come in my room, the aliens take me’. But you keep reading them, more and more accounts, and it gets weird because there’s so many similarities in what people describe; very weird, specific things.
The book was written before alien mythology existed. It wasn’t a popular thing. It certainly wasn’t something everyone knew about. There was no internet to share these stories. All these random people from all over the country were having these similar shared experiences. It’s very creepy. They’re all just normal people most of the time, like older people who have no reason to make up these stories.
Colin: Did they share the anal probes?
Stuart: There was definitely some weird experiments, some weird shit – lurid sexual shit is like a common thing in real alien abductions.
Colin: Yeah, fucking horny aliens!
Stuart: They have a horny agenda! I think reading those books definitely makes you go ‘wow, you never know’.
Colin: When you’re writing a horror movie, you want to be scared by the material. You can end up poking fun at the material when you really get into the script process, dissecting it and again playing on the tropes. But when you’re writing it you really want to feel like it is a possibility that it could happen. If that could happen, it makes it more inherently scary.
Do you guys believe in aliens and alien abductions?
Stuart: From reading all that stuff, there’s no way to know definitively.
Colin: It doesn’t really matter if you do or don’t.
Stuart: The people in those books, and some people who claim they’ve had those experiences, they really believe they have, and they’re not making it up. Whether or not that’s an alien abduction…
Colin: I think that this planet has probably been visited by aliens.
Stuart: It doesn’t seem that crazy to me.
Colin: It doesn’t seem that wild.
It’s a vast universe…
Stuart: Exactly. I don’t think me and Colin have personally had any alien probing experiences unfortunately… but despite that we’re definitely open to it being possible. Shit, it scared us enough to write this movie.
Was it the same with Grave Encounters, did you do a lot of research into hauntings?
Stuart: Yeah, I definitely believe there’s something weird going on into what people constitute as ghosts. I stayed the night in a house that was totally haunted for sure. You can always go back to that feeling when you were at your most vulnerable. That can be pretty inspiring. Fear can be an inspiring thing to tap into.
It’s a great thing to explore in your characters, what fear beings out in them…
Colin: Yeah, and it’s a great challenge too for the actors to go to that place.
You worked with Michael Ironside, who’s a bit of a science fiction legend. He’s been in some great films – Starship Troopers, Total Recall – how was it working with him, and with Gil Bellows?
Colin: Those guys were super cool.
Stuart: Obviously with Ironside, he’s an old dog; he’s been in like 200 films, he’s been acting for 30 years. You really don’t know when you hire an actor like that what their attitude’s going to be like. I’ve heard horror stories about directors being all excited to work with their favourite older actor, then the actor shows up bitter and jaded and he’s just there for the paycheck...
Colin: He’s the total opposite. He really loves the work, still to this day. He cares, instantly he’s like ‘Hi, nice to meet you, I have some ideas for my character…’ you’re like ‘Whoa!’ He was very committed to it.
Stuart: And he had a lot of really good ideas for his character too. It was great to bounce back-and-forth on the creative side with him.
Colin: He definitely kept us on his toes, he doesn’t suffer fools lightly, that man. We were like okay; we have to really know what we’re doing here.
Stuart: And Gil Bellows, he was great. It’s one of those things – you’re shooting most of the film with the younger cast, and then some of the supporting characters like Michael Ironside will come on the set for maybe five or seven days. They change the atmosphere of the set. That can be difficult at first because there’s this new element on set mixing up the rhythm. But looking through the monitor and seeing Gil Bellows in a close-up, he’s such a great actor. He took direction phenomenally well. He’s one of my favourites in the film. I really, really loved working with Gil! He’s just such a movie star. He so knows how to act for the camera perfectly. All the little nuances - we discovered things watching him.
Colin: We thought, like ‘look at the way he turned’. He’s aware of where the camera is. It’s so good.
Stuart: All the other actors were like at school. They were very inspired by it.
Halfway through the shoot you had some problems with the financial backing. But in the end, it seems like a much more expensive film than the budget you shot it on ($3 million). How did you go about that?
Colin: That’s a tough question because there’s so many layers that come into play when you talk about production value. We worked with a fantastic cinematographer. We shot the film anamorphic. We wanted a big science fiction film that needs to be shot in that format. It’s just a wider frame to tell your narrative within. As a result it kind of makes everything onscreen feel a little bit bigger. There’s that component as far as just making the film feel larger than life.
It’s such an independent film, so money’s always a struggle. Any independent movie just doesn’t have time for reshoots. It doesn’t have the money to bring the cast back in. You really can’t afford to get much wrong on the day or fall behind. When we were in mid-production, we had crazy stress because we found out that one of the key financial pieces had fallen through. Our producers, Shawn Angelski and Martin Fisher, are awesome guys. They did Grave Encounters with us. And they’re really been two producers who’ve supported our vision at all costs, through our careers so far. They tried to keep that information away from us because we had other shit to focus on, but at a certain point we found out. That was a rough weekend…
Stuart: It was on a Friday, we were like ‘we might have to shut down permanently’…
Colin: …on Monday. Then they’d be like, ‘Okay, now we need you back on set!’ How do you carry on with that horrible feeling?
After all that planning and development…
Colin: For a second I thought we were going to have half of a film shot. That made me break for a minute. I got very wasted over the weekend! I puked my guts up and ended up coming back to set on Monday morning, so it all worked out!
You’re obviously collaborative workers, how do you decide who’s going to do what?
Stuart: We get asked a lot about how we work together. Part of it is we write the scripts together. When we co-write, we really co-write. It’s like we’re both there in the room, usually we’ll bring the script up on the same computer, just looking at the words. We’re very much involved, down to the point of ‘no there needs to be a period there. No, that’s a comma, not a period…’
Colin: We really act the scenes together too.
Stuart: It just kind of evolved naturally. We’ve known each other for so long. There’s not really a lot of ego with our ideas. Once someone has an idea, it’s just like ‘it’s our idea’. Knowing that we’re both on the same page from the beginning to the end, and allowing one another’s strong points, whether it’s on-set direction or if someone wants to edit this scene, we’ll always have that other voice involved as well.
In the horror genre, there’s a debate over whether found footage is dated or whether it's still relevant. You’re an example of people who brought it back and showed you can still have a great horror film using the style. Do you still think there’s a future for it in horror and science fiction movies? Or is it more of a tool to use for low-budget movies and directors starting out?
Colin: Cool question. I think it’s like anything else – it’s the story, the script – I think it’s a super-cool format that you can do really interesting things with that you can’t do with another format.
Stuart: Someone out there is writing a found footage film right now where everyone else will go ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ It can work really well depending on the type of story you’re trying to tell. And particularly with horror, with Grave Encounters, it was the perfect way to tell that story, being that it’s about a group of ghost-hunting reality TV show guys.
You’d already set a premise...
Stuart: Yeah – in our movie, it would be interesting to see it through their lenses rather than outside of it. In this movie, we’ve always dreamt of having a much bigger canvas to tell the story on. We probably could’ve just made it with no found footage. I think we do three times – we see Jesse’s footage on the cell phone. We just wanted to do it to tie-in with the times – how everybody films everything on their phones. It was cool to actually use it without any horror. Because we basically stopped using it from when the film becomes this big thing and the ship crashes; we ditched the format.
What’s next for you?
Colin: We have a script that we’re writing that we’re pretty close to finishing. It’s kind of top secret, can’t talk too much about it. It’s basically a survival story. It’s a horror movie, but really a drama that has horror elements in it. It’s a survival story about a guy who wanders through the desert in sort of an apocalypse that’s taken place. That’s all I want to say about that.
Stuart: That’s kind of our little independent baby! We’re attached to this project from a couple of other writers called ICU. That’s the title of it right now. It’s a real, straight, pure horror film. It takes place in a psychiatric facility oddly enough as well.
Colin: A group of kids get in this accident on the way back home from college and they go to a hospital to get help. Then they realise at some point that it’s actually a mental hospital that’s been taken over by the patients who are pretending to be doctors. So it’s a lot of fun!
Stuart: It’s an ‘80s style slasher, totally. And Grave Encounters 3 is still a project.
Colin: It seems like it’s going to happen, and then something stops it from happening. We’d like to finish it; we have a really cool treatment for it. And we’d love for that to be kind of our trilogy.
Are you coming back to direct it?
Colin: We want to yeah, we really want to.
EXTRATERRESTRIAL is out in UK cinemas on 29 October. Read our review here.