J ohn and Drew are brothers—from the Twin Cities. They make movies. Creepy ones. (Really creepy.) Hollywood loves them—really loves them. We talked to the second-most-famous nerdy-cool filmmaking brothers to emerge from these parts about why they like making people squirm in the dark.
John Dowdle and his younger brother Drew grew up in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, home to well-kept bungalows, boutiques, designer dog breeds, and other signifiers of upper-middle-class contentment. It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to produce two guys whose breakout film has a scene in which a killer sews a severed head into the stomach of one of his victims. Yet here they are, the Dowdle brothers, specialists of macabre, often disturbingly comic cinema that values slow-burning tension above jump-scares. They’re good at it. So good that today they find themselves on a short list of moviemakers Hollywood calls when it wants to give you nightmares.
Big brother John is the writer and director, left; little brother Drew is the producer with creative input.
The pair first turned heads (and stomachs) with the aforementioned mockumentary The Poughkeepsie Tapes, in which investigators discover hundreds of videos made by a serial killer to track his progress as he terrorizes a small town. Taking cues from Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, and other touchstones of the found footage genre, the Dowdles tried to pass off the film as nonfiction. Prior to its release, they set up several fake websites: a Wikipedia page for their “real-life” killer and a Japanese site claiming to sell copies of the tapes.
The homemade hype worked. The Poughkeepsie Tapes was the movie to see at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, selling out screening after screening and reaching all the right viewers, including horror master Wes Craven, who reportedly couldn’t sleep after watching it, and MGM, which ultimately bought the distribution rights. Though the studio shelved the movie due to internal politics, its buzz gave John and Drew the cred to make Quarantine (2008) and Devil (2010)—the former a rehash of a Spanish film about a demon virus, the latter a supernatural thriller penned by M. Night Shyamalan. Their momentum continues this month with As Above, So Below (out August 29), which follows a group of explorers through the Paris catacombs. Spoiler alert: Terrible, unspeakable things happen to them.
Ben Feldman, who co-stars as one of the doomed crypt crawlers, savored working with the Dowdles. “These guys are incredibly smart and talented,” says the actor known for playing neurotic one-nippled copywriter Ginsberg on Mad Men. “Anyone else would’ve gone insane trying to direct an entire movie in dark, narrow caves, stories below the streets of Paris. But the Dowdles kept completely cool, fun, and open the entire time. It was like hanging out with your happiest, nerdiest best friends in a nerd amusement park for two months.”
How to find the right Dowdle brothers film for you—or not. Warning: Watching these will likely ruin your day and several nights of sleep.
Funny with a side of sadism:
The Dry Spell (2005)
The Dowdles’ first collaboration chronicles two days in the life of a desperate sap who hasn’t been with a woman in two years.
Sadistic in that Prince of Darkness kind of way:
Long story short: A group of strangers gets stuck in an elevator, and one of them is Beelzebub. It’s like a game of Clue—but with eternal damnation!
Claustrophobically sadistic (and crazy-scary):
An apartment building plagued by a mysterious virus goes on lockdown when tenants start acting demonic. This is one of those day ruiners we were talking about.
The definition of sadistic:
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
Easily one of the most disturbing movies we’ve ever seen, packed with nightmare-inducing imagery courtesy of a serial killer’s home video collection. This film will be burned into your brain. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
If a couple of good Minnesota boys making films about humanity’s bad side sounds familiar, that’s partly by design. After watching the rise of the Coen brothers in the ’80s and ’90s, the Dowdles followed suit, with Drew, 39, playing the role of Ethan (i.e., the money guy with creative input) and John, 41, mirroring Joel’s choice of film school (New York University) and eyewear (dark-rim glasses). “The Coens proved you could come from the Twin Cities and still make a career in film,” says Drew. “They were a big inspiration to us.”
But where the Coen brothers essentially frack our souls in the name of art, the Dowdles provoke with lowbrow thrills—albeit smart, fiendishly calculating ones. “John and Drew fundamentally want to get a reaction from the audience, and they’re really good at it,” says Stephen Chbosky, who met the pair in 2002 when John was dating his sister Stacy (the two are now married). Known for his best-selling coming-of-age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and for directing the subsequent big-screen adaptation, Chbosky was an early mentor to the brothers and served as an executive producer on The Poughkeepsie Tapes. “They’re the perfect team,” he says. “John’s a super versatile writer and director, and Drew brings this great everyman sensibility.”
This symbiosis is evident during our recent phone conversation with the now-Los Angeles–based brothers, who were in post-production for their upcoming thriller The Coup, starring Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan. Out March 2015, it’s one of their biggest-budget films to date and has the potential to bring them Coen brothers–like levels of fame. Though you get the feeling they’d be happy just getting under your skin.
So about that awful childhood . . .
John: You mean you want to know how our parents locked us in a closet and beat us? [Laughs.] Drew and I have always gotten along really well. He was much more the social one. I was the introvert—always at home reading while Drew was out with friends.
Drew: Our adult relationship is like our childhood one. Growing up in St. Paul, John would come up with plans to run away from home, and I thought they were great ideas and went to work trying to come up with ways to make it happen. Or he wanted to host a circus for the neighborhood, and I put up the fliers. That’s sort of how we work today, actually. We’re both into escapism, but I’m more grounded in reality and logistics. [Editor’s note: Let the record show that the Dowdles love their parents and by all accounts had a wonderful childhood.]
Were you both drawn to film early on?
John: Like most kids, we watched a lot of films. Our dad was the oldest of 11 kids—this big Irish family that loved to tell stories—and film was always part of our landscape. Harold and Maude was a really big one for me. Drew and I both went to Saint Thomas Academy, and as a teen I felt like a freak at military school. I saw Harold and Maude and realized someone out there felt freaky, too. That one touched me very deeply. There’s a real power in film to let people know they’re not alone.
Drew: Dead Poets Society was another. It came out when we were in fifth or sixth grade and spoke to us on a level—the school in that movie was like our school. It showed us that it’s OK to think differently. And we always loved horror. We used to watch all these scary movies with our mom—The Shining, Hitchcock stuff.
Talk about your evolution as writers.
John: When I was 14, our parents split up. There were a lot of emotions, so I started writing to deal with it. I was obsessed with U2’s The Joshua Tree, and I tell people that during my parents splitting up, “With or Without You” was my anthem because I thought they were singing, “I can live, with or without you.” I misheard it! When I learned the actual lyrics, I decided to rewrite all the lyrics on the album to suit me and fit my life. That became the start of writing for me.
Drew: We loved the idea as early as middle school of working on something creative together. Our father was a doctor and our mother was an attorney, so we sort of wanted to go the other way. I would read what John was writing and give him pointers—again, that’s sort of how we still work.
You took very different paths after high school.
Drew: Yes. I went to business school at the University of Michigan and afterward worked on Wall Street as a finance guy for a few years.
John: I originally went to the University of Iowa for writing but transferred to NYU after taking a film class that blew my mind. I couldn’t believe all the forms film could take.
What was your first film collaboration?
Drew: That would have been The Dry Spell. We felt like if we were going to go to Hollywood, we should know how to do everything. No one will write you a blank check. I was still in New York and John had an idea to make a small film. I felt like I could get the money and said, “Let’s do a business plan.”
John: I was living in one room in L.A. at the time. I would write in one side of the room, which we also used as a set for the movie, then edit on the other side of the room. The sink was leaking. It was pretty gross. Drew: John and I eventually took a trip to Ireland together, and I decided it was time to leave New York and try filmmaking full-time. In 2004 I moved to L.A., and in 2005 a bunch of festivals throughout the country programmed the film. At that point we said, “Hey, we could do this.”
The Dry Spell is a comedy, albeit an off-kilter one. The Poughkeepsie Tapes has some funny moments, but it’s definitely not comedy. What made you pivot to horror?
John: Comedy and horror are similar in a lot of ways—they’re both all about timing and surprise. There’s just a tonal difference. Also, Stephen Chbosky met us for lunch one day and said that it’d be cool to do a low-budget horror film. He also said that horror, as a genre, is a lot easier to get made in Hollywood than comedies. So I had this idea later that day to do a faux doc on a serial killer, and Drew loved it.
Drew: We’re at home in the horror genre, and it allows you to be a lot more experimental and more artistic in a way. In a comedy, you can only go so far, but as long as it’s scary, you can do a lot with horror. John: Plus, I was drawn to it being this thing about how violence really trickles through society—how one act can touch people in a horrible way.
What does your family think about your horror films?
Drew: At our first screening at Tribeca for The Poughkeepsie Tapes, maybe 25 total family members came, and 20 minutes into the movie, people started walking out. We took a closer look and it was all our family members! [Laughs.]
John: We were like, “F---! No family at future premieres except immediate family!” My mom once said, “I love reading Dostoyevsky, but if he were my son I’d feel like I screwed up along the way.” I take that as a compliment. We’re not crazy people in real life. Our family gets a kick out of the fact that we do fun, edgy stuff. Plus, our family has always been goodhearted troublemakers. Filmmaking is the closest Drew and I get to actually causing trouble. It’s the adult version of ding-dong ditch, and now we get to make a living off it. And I will say that our grandma saw Devil and loved it.
What did The Poughkeepsie Tapes do for your careers?
Drew: It gave us our careers. We got an agent out of it. We got some work out of it—Quarantine and eventually Devil. And even though MGM shelved it, we got some money and some heat to keep us going—and all that happened in the week following Tribeca.
John: It was an overnight success that took a decade to get.
As Above, So Below
(2014), courtesy Universal Pictures
Talk about your newest films.
John: As Above, So Below is another found footage film—we like that medium—and is the first film production ever to be granted access to the off-limit areas of the catacombs in Paris. The city government didn’t love the idea of us filming there, but we worked with a great local production service. Suddenly we found ourselves climbing through holes the size of medicine balls with headlamps on, five stories underground.
Drew: And after finishing that, we went straight to Thailand to work on The Coup, which is really an action thriller but also pretty horrific, about an American family stuck in a war zone. We wrapped that last December.
Does that crazy work pace affect your personal lives?
John: Not really. I have a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, and I brought them to both sets. Last year they lived for three months in Paris, came back for two months, and then spent four months in Thailand. They dealt well with that. I could see them getting smarter through all the cognitive dissonance. The rules were constantly changing—in Thailand we didn’t use car seats and we fed giraffes with our hands. It was good for them. And Stacy, my wife, is a writer—she was writing the whole time. Cool year. Drew: I’m not married and don’t have kids, so it’s much easier. I’m always like, “Where are we going next?”
So where are you going next?
John: I’m working on a script based on true events. It’s a big thing and we’re trying to get the rights.
How often do you get back to St. Paul?
Drew: We love to get back. It would mean the world to us to shoot something in the Twin Cities, and that’s actually become more realistic in recent months with the tax incentives [for filmmakers] there. We have a couple things written that would be perfect there.
John: Our dad and stepmom live there and we both have friends there. I’ll be back in a week and a half. We have a family cabin up in Wisconsin. I like to get our kids to Minnesota. In California, they’re like, “Can we have more hummus?” In Minnesota, we can get them into the snow to toughen them up a little.