One of the more intriguing Midnight movies featured during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival was Rich Fox’s documentary, The Blackout Experiments, which follows participants of the popular experiential haunt known as Blackout as they navigate their way through the psychological torture bestowed upon them during their immersive experiences.
Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Fox, as well as with The Blackout Experiment’s producer Kris Curry, about what inspired the documentary, how the focus evolved throughout the process, the challenges of going deep into such a secretive haunt experience, and the surprises that popped up along the way as well.
Your subjects are very integral to this; how early did you guys get involved with them in terms of telling their story and how early did you guys start working on The Blackout Experiments?
Rich Fox: I discovered Blackout personally at the end of 2012. I came across an article on Extreme Haunts. I thought it seemed fascinating and found my way to Blackout's website, which was completely terrifying. They tell you that you have to go through alone, they tell you that you have to sign a waiver, they tell you there's going to be a safe word. That's all the information that you get. I bought a ticket. There were maybe two tickets left. I just decided to go for it.
I did have an inkling very early on that maybe there was something interesting for a film here. I could already tell it was so unique. I went through the experience and had a different perspective on it after going through it. It was a very scary experience and extremely intense, but it was also very psychological, really getting under your skin and into your head in a way that I wasn't anticipating. That made me even more fascinated about what they were doing and the artisticness of what they were doing with it.
I started pursuing the Blackout guys at that point, talking about what the movie could be. From their standpoint, they're very mysterious guys. They don't want to reveal too much about who they are. The more I thought about it, the more that dovetailed with my idea of what I wanted the movie to be also. I wanted it to be more of the Blackout experience. Part of that is experiencing the mystery and not knowing everything about it. That's part of where the fear comes from, it's from not knowing what you're getting yourself into.
They ended up coming to Los Angeles in 2013 to do a show that turned out to be a very amazing, very intense show. That's when we found our subjects. Those were people that were very new to Blackout, because Blackout had been in New York for a long time. They hadn't been in Los Angeles for more than six months. That was perfect for us, because it was great to find people that were at the very beginning of that experience, just in that initial discovery. When you first discover Blackout, there's all that mystery about it. A lot of people that we found at that time, those are the people that we followed for over the course of the next couple of years.
Was that the biggest challenge going into this, just being able to frame what Blackout is without ruining the entire experience for people who may go to it in the future?
Kris Curry: A hundred percent. This was a super conscious decision right out of the gate. One of the first things Rich talked about was that he wanted to approach this just like a traditional documentary. Not only would you ruin—or break—the spell for everybody else, but it's also not as challenging or interesting an exercise to make that movie.
It's an interesting and challenging exercise to try and get into the heads of people and recreate an experience that they're having without trying to do all the usual stuff and have traditional interviews where you pull back the curtain. It ruins it for the people who may go to Blackout in the future. It's fun, and it pushes the narrative boundaries in a more interesting way to approach it as you would when making a horror movie.
For me, the most surprising element was just seeing the stories of the folks that go through it and what they get out of it. When a lot of my friends go to stuff, they just go for the thrill of it. I thought it was really interesting to see how for some people, it was therapy. I would never have expected that.
Rich Fox: That surprised me as well. The first time I got an inkling about it was when I started calling some of the people in New York that were their original followers, that went to some of their first performances and had been following them ever since. They'd been going for years already, and they started talking about those kind of ideas about how it transformed them, it opened them up, they were more open-minded now. They also talked a lot about the paranoia, about how they were never sure where the experience started and where it ended. It was Blackout entering their lives in some way.
I got this whole perspective from those guys. We actually watched our Los Angeles group have those same experiences. They had that moment where suddenly, for them, it became very personal. They started to connect the experience to their own feelings, their own ideas, and their own personal demons. That was the most interesting thing that evolved for the movie. It gave the movie a very interesting place to go. Ultimately, it was a process of self-discovery for them.
Did it become a process of self-discovery as filmmakers for you as well? Did it change your perspective at all in terms of the story and what you were initially intending to do versus what we see now?
Rich Fox: Absolutely. I was not expecting it to be such a personal experience and such an emotional experience for people. I was not expecting it to be the kind of experience that could change people's lives. I was expecting thrill-seekers to go in and want it to be so scary. My concern was that it might not be something that could sustain a movie from beginning to end and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was a much deeper experience for people.
Ultimately, that became my main focus, to seek out those people that it was a deeper experience for. That was what I wanted the movie to be about. To me, it's somewhat about Blackout, but it's more about these people. It's more about hopefully other people that also feel like they have these demons. It's a way to relate to that idea.
All the people that we filmed are people that are very curious about themselves, and they're very interested in exploring their dark side. To me, this is a movie about those kinds of people for whom Blackout is an outlet. I'm sure other people have other outlets that are going through a very similar thing.
Did the guys behind Blackout have any rules that they established for you guys?
Kris Curry: Yeah, there were a lot, but it was understandable. They were very thoughtful, very deliberate in the construction of the experience and there are a lot of ways that you can wreck that if you're careless. They didn't want to be featured in the movie, they didn't want to be subjects in the movie. They agreed from the outset that they want the people going through the experience to be the focus.
We had to negotiate a lot. They didn't want the cameras to be obvious, so we couldn't be up in their faces shooting. They wanted the filming of it to be secondary to people having the experience, so we had to cut holes in the plastic and hide in piles of garbage and come up with ten different kinds of GoPros with special lenses and find ways to shoot the experience that was invisible to participants, so they could be in it without ever seeing us. It was a lot.
Throughout the course of this whole process, did you run into those moments where people mentally checked out, or it got difficult to deal with them as subjects as things maybe went awry. Was that anything you guys stumbled upon during the process of making this?
Rich Fox: Actually, in Blackout, everybody has a different experience. Experiences run the gamut and anything that you imagine could happen in there probably does. For some people, it's not as intense, but for some people, it changes their entire life. Ultimately, our focus was to find those people that it was a very deep experience for. It wasn't necessarily trying to portray the entire range of things that can happen within Blackout. It just felt like a different kind of movie to me. Whereas this movie, we really wanted to focus on the people that had the most personal connection to it.
Kris Curry: Yeah, there's a weird hidden upside to the whole PTSD experience, that it's interesting that you could go face your demons or explore your own personal dark side and come out of it, as opposed to a scarier person, a more healed person. For the people who had tapped into that stuff at Blackout, that's what made them good subjects. Ultimately, it was that journey of the people who were willing to say, "I took a look in my dark side and I came out this side different."
What was your initial response when you found out that after a few years of getting The Blackout Experiments made, now here it is at Sundance, of all places?
Rich Fox: Delirious. I was blown away. It's an incredible thing to have happened. I remember when the phone call came in, and then later that day, I obviously had to say to myself, "Did that really happen?" Luckily, they left me a voicemail so I had proof that they had called. Otherwise, I might have thought I just dreamed up the whole thing. Once we came to terms with it, the more that it sunk in that not only were we at Sundance, but we were in the Midnight section, it was extremely appealing to us. It seemed like the right audience for our film. We were obviously trying to do something very untraditional in terms of a documentary. We thought people would embrace it more in terms of the Midnight crowd than the traditional documentary crowd.
The other idea we're sort of playing with is the idea of what is real in the film and what is not real? Is it a documentary? Is it not a documentary? It was also great to be within that Midnight section, because we weren't as defined as a documentary.
Kris Curry: To put it in context, we're married. This is our second documentary. We've been making this out of our garage—the two of us and our friend Pat—for two years with our own money, in the spirit of ultimate indie filmmaking. We have day jobs. We work in television. He's an editor, I'm a producer. We felt constrained by the kind of stories that we're allowed to tell as part of the rest of our life.
It was really exciting to go do something that was taboo and boundary pushing, out there and experimental. The fact that this thing we did for love got into Sundance is amazing. We're just grateful every step of the way. To be able to share something that's a much more experimental film with a lot of really difficult choices with a much larger audience, it's super exciting.