Just in time for Valentine’s Day is the next episode of Blumhouse and Hulu’s Into the Dark, Down, directed by Daniel Stamm. I recently caught up with The Last Exorcism and 13 Sins director to talk about the challenges of filming a feature-length episode that takes place almost entirely in an elevator, and he also gave me an update on They, a movie written by The Stranger’s Bryan Bertino, which he hope to be filming soon:
How did you get involved with Blumhouse and Hulu’s Into the Dark series?
Daniel Stamm: I had done a movie with Blumhouse before, called 13 Sins, and Jason Blum was an executive producer on it. Down was actually a script outside of Blumhouse and Hulu that I read from Kent Kubena, the writer, before it was even [thought of] for a Blumhouse movie. And then a couple of weeks later, he called and said it had found a home with Blumhouse Television. And then they explained the whole Into the Dark concept to me, which I loved because I'm a big Black Mirror fan, and I thought, “Oh, that's cool. It's Hulu and Blumhouse's own version of Black Mirror. Then I had a meeting with Blumhouse, they were great and excited about the whole thing, and then we started making it.
What was the creative process between you and Kent? Was the script completely finished before you came on board?
Daniel Stamm: This is completely his script. Kent has been an executive for decades and was a producer on Black Christmas (2006) and on Gods of Egypt. And he hadn't written anything, although if you ask him, he would say that he did write… he was always too shy to show it to anyone. For the Down script, he worked on it for five years.
He finally mustered up the courage to show it to his wife and say, "Is this presentable? Can I show this to anyone?" And she luckily loved it. Then he showed it to a school friend of his who is now a manager at Artists First. He loved it and I think he was the one who then brought it to Blumhouse.
So the script was already very much done, and I gave my normal notes that a director does once he comes in, and Kent was very collaborative on the whole thing. He was also very open to letting the actors improvise in the scene and find their own rhythm and sometimes their own wording.
Speaking of the actors, Down really hinges on Natalie Martinez and Matt Lauria’s performances. Can you talk about how you knew they’d be perfect for this film?
Daniel Stamm: I would love to take credit and say we scouted the country for the best actors, but really what happened is that Jeremy Gold, who is the boss of Blumhouse TV, had a TV show called Kingdom, and Matt and Natalie played a couple on that show, season after season. Jeremy said, "You should really look at these two people because they are amazing."
And then I pulled up a picture of Matt, and it was a picture from that show, and it was a kickboxing show, and he had all these tattoos and didn't have any teeth. It was just this hulk of a man, and I didn't even look beyond that. I didn't even look at his footage. I was like, "Well, this is the completely wrong type for our unassuming businessman on an elevator."
But then I looked up Natalie, and one of the things that came up was an interview with her about Kingdom. Matt was also in that same interview, and was a completely different type [than I expected]. His appearance changed completely with a haircut and facial hair or not and whether he had worked out the day before. It's amazing. I've never seen anyone transform like that guy. He was this sweet, almost meek guy, and exactly what we needed for Down. And they had such a chemistry even in that video where they weren't acting at all, but you could tell how much they loved and respected each other.
Having to film everything in such a tight space, what was the biggest challenge shooting Down?
Daniel Stamm: We shot for 16 days, which isn’t a lot of time, but it was all in one box. Most of the time for movie shoots, you have to go from Set A to Set B, and then suddenly you lose six hours until all the trucks are there and the electricity is hooked up. You have none of that here.
We were shooting on a stage in Glendale. We were walking in in the morning, switching on the lights, and walking out at night and leaving everything as it was, so you save so much time. So that was actually mostly cool, except for those stunt sequences in the shaft and all that.
But overall, I would say that the challenge is creatively, how do you keep your audience's attention for 90 minutes if the background never changes? There are two people in a box and no distractions. I can't suddenly go, "Oh, here's a crane move, or here's a beautiful countryside in the background, or here's a stunt sequence or whatever." Even lighting changes have to be motivated.
I thought, "If we are spending 90 minutes in there, than let's not go for the claustrophobia thing that paints us in such a corner visually. Let's go for something that actually has a certain look to it that people ironically would want to spend some time in." That was kind of our hope, that together with the snappy dialogue and the humor and the chemistry, that could hold your attention for long enough to not make it tedious in that elevator.
When you set out to film this, were you inspired by any films, or did you do any research on films that successfully pulled of single locations?
Daniel Stamm: In my panic of how to make this work, the first person I called was John Erick Dowdle, who had directed Devil. I met him because Devil was the first part in something called The Night Chronicles, and I was supposed to direct the second episode of that, which then never happened. But that's how I met John, and he is amazing.
So I called him and left a message and said, "I'm thinking about making this elevator movie. Can I talk to you about your experiences with it?" And he left me a message 20 minutes later and said, "Dude, call me. I've got to talk to you." I called him right back, and he told me all of his nightmarish experiences, which was amazing because it's all stuff that I would never have thought of in a million years, and I would have walked into exactly the same traps.
For example, you think you're shooting on a stage and you have flyaway walls, right? That's what they call them. They kind of come out and go in or whatever. It seemed like it would be this easy thing. We're shooting in one direction, and then we fly out the wall, and then we shoot in the other direction. And he was like, "Don't be confused by the word "fly-out." It takes 45 minutes to screw that thing out, and then you can shoot, and then it takes another 45 minutes for that thing to go back in. And basically, if you go that direction, you cut your shooting time in half and you will never, ever make your schedule."
He said what you have to do is build two elevators, basically three walls, and just change elevators. Every time you turn around, you'll walk over to the other elevator and do it that way, light both elevators, because that's the only way you can keep up the pace. The other thing is, creatively, if I had to bring up the actors' energy and the actors' focus after every one of these 45-minute breaks, it would just have been a nightmare in terms of the process and result. So that's maybe the biggest thing that he saved me with.
And then, of course, you have to talk your producers into that, because now you have to build two elevators, which just doubles the budget. And it's insane what that elevator build costs, because it has to be stunt-proof, waterproof, and fireproof. So to suddenly have to say, "Those hundreds of thousands of dollars that you paid for that one, we need to spend again on the other on." But in the end, Blumhouse was great and understood, and we did it that way, and it worked out really well.
Aside from Down, what projects do you have coming up that you think Daily Dead readers would get excited about?
Daniel Stamm: I'm hopefully directing next a movie called They, written by Bryan Bertino and produced by Dark Castle. We’re casting right now. Bryan Bertino is the guy who wrote and directed The Strangers, and he has a talent for writing set pieces that are really fresh, interesting, and unpredictable. It's so hard to do something original and fresh in the home invasion space, because there are only so many ways to scare someone.
What can you tell me about the story? Is it supernatural in nature?
Daniel Stamm: I probably can't give that away, but it’s home invasion all set on an oil derrick in the Texan desert. Basically, it's about a group of oil workers hours away from civilization that are being confronted with an attack of a certain kind out in the desert. So it is kind of a home invasion movie, but it turns that concept on its head, and it's not a close-quarters home invasion, but more of you see [on] the horizon what is coming. It's very cool. It's very smart.
It kind of follows a little bit rhythmically the same pattern that The Strangers does. The first half, it's very mysterious and very creepy, and you're trying to figure out what the hell is going on, as are the protagonists. And then, throughout the midpoint, all hell breaks loose, and it's just like a huge second half. I'm really excited about it.