There's no question that John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle's new film "Devil" is an anomaly in today's Hollywood. A $21-million supernatural thriller about five strangers trapped in an elevator and the evil lurking among them, it's not based on a graphic novel, nor is it a remake or a reboot of a television series from the 1970s or '80s. The ensemble cast includes no instantly recognizable faces.
Instead, "Devil" marks the first installment in M. Night Shyamalan's "Night Chronicles," a planned trilogy of original stories conceived by the Philadelphia-based filmmaker but turned over to others to execute.
FOR THE RECORD:
'Devil': A photo caption accompanying an article in the Sept. 16 Calendar section on the director and producer of the new film "Devil" misidentified John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle. Producer Drew Dowdle was on the left, and director John Erick Dowdle on the right. —
The Dowdles — John Erick directs, Drew produces — are grateful to have worked with Shyamalan, whom they consider a friend, and for the creative freedom he afforded them on their biggest project to date. Yet they recognize that his name comes with some baggage these days.
Since the Oscar-nominated success of 1999's "The Sixth Sense," Shyamalan has become a controversial figure, someone critics and audiences seem to love to hate, even though his films tend to perform well at the box office.
"Any negative press surrounding a movie worries you," Drew Dowdle conceded, acknowledging the reports about moviegoers jeering and booing the very mention of Shyamalan during the "Devil" trailer. "His name does us so much more good — the good far outweighs the bad in terms of the exposure this film has."
John Erick, a New York University film school graduate, and Drew, a former mergers and acquisitions specialist on Wall Street, had completed two films — the low-budget indie "The Dry Spell" and "The Poughkeepsie Tapes," a hard R-rated quasi- documentary about a serial killer's cache of home movies — with a third wrapped but not released before meeting Shyamalan.
It was "Poughkeepsie" that brought the Minnesota natives to his attention, and after asking to see an early copy of their upcoming " Quarantine," their 2008 remake of the popular Spanish horror film "[REC]," the director invited them to his home to gauge their interest in making "Devil." They were hired on the spot.
"It's always a race to call Mom first on those days," John Erick said.
Lifelong horror fans, the Dowdles, working with screenwriter Brian Nelson ("Hard Candy," "30 Days of Night") set out to craft something that would aspire to the same creepy aesthetic as such films as "Jacob's Ladder," "The Omen" and "The Shining," the latter of which John Erick counts as one of his favorite movies. After "Quarantine's" high body count, the Dowdles said they were excited to try a "less is more" approach, largely relying on the claustrophobic setting of the elevator to ratchet up the tension.
"We wanted to try to do something to see if we could scare the hell out of people without showing every last little thing," John Erick said.
The 39-day Toronto shoot went off largely without a hitch, though there were one or two spooky coincidences that caused a raised eyebrow or two. When the crew was first scouting the skyscraper that was home to much of the production — a new building, about 50 stories tall with only one tenant — a woman became trapped in an elevator that stopped between floors, and she had to wait hours before being rescued.
"We were like, this is a good omen! This is our building," Drew recalled. "Then when we were coming back for another scout, they had another problem with the elevator where multiple people got stuck. It wasn't for as long, but they had the same thing happen again. They were having some real issues.
"The other thing that was cool — people will totally think it's a production design element — its address was 333," he added. "That was actually the real address. We weren't about to change it."
After three back-to-back horror projects, the Dowdles are hoping to step away from the genre for the next film they're hoping to make, a thriller they penned called "The Coup," about an American family desperate to find a way out of Cambodia after the country's government falls. It's not such a radical departure from their other films — at least in one respect.
"It will be our fourth film in a row where nobody changes their clothes," John Erick joked, "just one long, extended, terrible day."