Fantastic Fest 2021: An Interview with THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON Co-Director Sarah Appleton

Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott’s new documentary, The Found Footage Phenomenon, is an incredible retrospective of all the greatest hits and deep cuts this method of horror has to offer. From Cannibal Holocaust and Mondo films of the 1970s to Blair Witch, REC, Noroi, and other modern classics, to the COVID-tinged Zoom horror of Host and beyond–it’s rare to think of a piece of found footage horror that doesn’t go unscrutinized. With THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON, Appleton and Escott make the case for a serious re-appraisal for a much-maligned genre, and express deep appreciation for how these films manage to capture their own unique zeitgeist in a world of constantly-evolving technology.

Ahead of the film’s U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest, I caught up with Appleton to gush about all things horror, found footage, and the delightful mix of the two covered in her and Escott’s doc.

This interview has been edited and condensed for time and clarity.

Julian Singleton: To kick things off, what’s the draw of found footage for you compared to other horror genres?

Sarah Appleton: I don’t know, really. It’s one of those strange genres that came up in the 21st century that lots of people ignored. You start noticing things sometimes that everyone ignores–that there must be some merit to them. I also loved how accessible [found footage] was for lots of people who didn’t have that much money. Those people who wouldn’t have been able to make a film previously had a format where they could make a film that was really cool, realistic, believable, and scary.

Julian: And with the advent of having that accessibility came a new generation teaching themselves film grammar. With that technology came having to re-learn the rules, almost.

Sarah: It’s weird, because [found footage] came before social media and things. There’s social media found footage now, but it pre-empted people running around filming everything on their phone the whole time. That’s why I think it’s quite cool to look back at them now, because you’re more used to a style now that people didn’t like when it first came in.

Julian: What’s cool about the documentary is how it makes the case that found footage even predates film–with Dracula and War of the Worlds, that we had a craving for reality in horror before we even had the means to do it.

Sarah: If you’re like me and you like horror films, the only horror films that are scary are the ones that are believable and realistic. At least, that’s my opinion–some people like monster movies like Cloverfield. To me, the best way to scare someone is to convince them that something is in their reality. And that’s what found footage does!

Julian: Are there different aspects of found footage that you and your co-director love, and how did those reconcile between y’all in making the documentary?

Sarah: It was weird how we sort of melded. Phil was interested in Cannibal Holocaust, how [found footage] came out of Italy with the Mondo films, and how they came out of faux-documentaries in the 1970s. I was more into the technical aspects–when you’re running through the 1990s, [how] people get handheld cameras, and how the accessibility of technology allowed for more different stories in found footage to actually come about–ones that you wouldn’t get in a big-budget horror movie of the time.

Julian: The way the doc presents itself, the two are almost inseparable from one another. There was a push to create realistic cinema in the 1970s, but once you have that accessibility in the 1990s, the genre finally has the outlet it’s been looking for.

Sarah: That’s why I really love films like The Last Broadcast. They took everything they could possibly have at the time with the money they had, and tried to show you “this is what happens when you try to make something realistic with what you have.” It’s pre-empting the idea that anyone can make something…so you shouldn’t trust everything you see.

Julian: It’s definitely weird watching a doc like this amidst all of the craziness of right now.

Sarah: (Laughs) Like most people, I feel like right now you can’t trust anything you see on the telly, so it feels like the right time to make this documentary. Even though at the end of the day, [The Found Footage Phenomenon] is about films, but all of these films are of the time in which they were made. They all tell different stories about the turn of the millennium.

Julian: And it’s like the more this tech evolves, the window in which they’re capturing their zeitgeist is constantly shrinking. You have The Blair Witch Project, which took a year to make and had this slow build of hype and word-of-mouth after Sundance, and now you have Host, which is conceived and shot within two weeks amidst the Lockdown and it’s released before that period is even over.

Sarah: It’s crazy how quickly things are changing in society. You’ve got to make films really quick nowadays. The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast had years to experiment before anyone else was doing something similar. Now Host director Robin Savage has another movie coming out (DashCam), and we’re still not over COVID. Plus, there’s so many people making films nowadays that you just have to do things really quick–otherwise someone else will get the same idea.

Julian: Do you see that window getting even smaller? What does the future of found footage look like for you?

Sarah: (Laughs) Oh my God!

Julian: I know, it’s a huge question!

Sarah: I don’t think anyone knows! You’ll have to wait and see what happens in the world. We’re at such a weird turning point with technology and everything that it’ll be quite interesting to see what happens when we come out on the other side, and what found footage we’ll want to see.

I think as Shelly [McMundro] says in the documentary, we’ll see more social media-based horror. Watching someone’s Facebook Live is the most realistic stuff you can get these days. And asking, “how would they fake that?” So that’s “real.” At least for now–God knows what’s going to happen after a couple of years.

Julian: And like Rob Savage making his film during lockdown, y’all pretty much did the impossible with this documentary during COVID. What was it like coordinating all of these interviews all over the world? You have Koji Shiraishi in Japan, everyone involved with The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast in America, and you even got Ruggero Deodato!

Sarah: It was so interesting because at the beginning we had no idea who we were going to get. There’s so many films you can call upon, and there’s so many filmmakers we couldn’t get. Ruggero Deodato was actually the first person we got, because [Phil and I] both work in Blu-ray distribution, and we’re used to conducting interviews anyway. So Phil’s got a lot of contacts in Italy, and Ruggero coming on board really spurred us on to try and get other people. We couldn’t have made this documentary at any other time, so it’s kind of ironic in a good way with the contents of the documentary couldn’t have been made at any other time either.

Before the internet, we literally organized everything from the comfort of our own lockdown, you know? So, some people resorted to Zoom interviews for their filmed stuff, and we just really didn’t want to take that route–we took minimal crews overseas and employed social distancing. We hit [our interviews] at some points where it was easing off, and at some points where we had to get reorganized and reshot just because of local lockdowns.

Koji Shiraishi was quite fun! It was actually quite a challenge to get stuff shot in Japan. They were pretty locked down in Tokyo. I think they’re still not letting people in!

Julian: Were there any gaps in the history of found footage that you unearthed in your research or a film you ended up watching for the first time?

Sarah: Totally! There’s a lot of stuff we actually couldn’t cover as a result of the structure of the documentary. We were looking at films like My Little Eye in 2001 that hit on the reality TV era. I really wanted to do something on that, but it was just too much of a tangent after Blair Witch that it didn’t make sense. As for films I didn’t know about, there’s a film called David Holzman’s Diary. All of the American interviewees seemed to watch it in film school, but we didn’t know about it at all. It’s just not taught in the UK. And it was just fascinating to see that people filming themselves started even earlier than the Mondo films.

Julian: It’s funny you mentioned they watched that in film school–there’s actually a short film from that period called No Lies that I watched at NYU. It’s both transgressive and progressive at the same time for talking about a woman’s experience with rape in the 1970s. The filmmaker’s so uncomfortable in coaxing these questions out of her until finally, she slams the door in his face–and it says “Directed by this person.”

Sarah: I love that! People were really experimenting with that back then. And that brings up how we had to really draw a line in charting the history of horror found footage. There was even a film the BFI made me aware of called Skinflicker that came out in the mid-’60s. It’s a film about these people who kidnap and torture a government official, with a [factual disclaimer] and all. But we address David Holzman’s Diary because it was so influential to people like Lance [Weiler] from The Last Broadcast and Patrick Brice, who did Creep.

Julian: One of the hardest things about found footage is how with other horror franchises, you can repeat the same tricks or tropes to bring in people, but with found footage, it’s like you can only convince someone once that it’s reality. And every filmmaker builds off of that from there.

Sarah: And it can still continue to work! The fact of reality is that our lives are changing all the time. So more stories are being created every day. It’s easy to think that everything’s been done, and I used to think that with horror. “What’s new? What’s going to scare me?” But when you’re basing horror in reality, there’s still so much you can do. If there wasn’t, why would we be alive? We’d just be bored. (Laughs)

Julian: One of the things I appreciated most about this documentary is that it goes beyond the expected American scope some might associate with found footage. You cover Cannibal Holocaust, the [REC] movies, Koji Shiraishi movies. What’s the most universal aspect of found footage to you?

Sarah: That’s sort of why we called it the “global sensation.” Because of countries that don’t have that many funding opportunities, or filmmakers like [Troll Hunter’s] André Øvredal, where you have a good film industry but got [comparatively] better budgets once he began making films in America. Jeruzalem’s directors (Yoav Paz and Doron Paz) were also able to film partially in the Holy City–but you wouldn’t see that kind of film with a big budget necessarily coming out of that country. I may be off base, but found footage allowed for a lot of filmmakers from different countries to get their work out there and make something for less money.

And Horror is such a global thing anyway–it’d be a shame to think about it as just a U.S. thing. I think [REC] is one of the most well-known and well-liked found footage films–and it was remade in the U.S. as Quarantine, so you guys liked it. (Laughs.) With how accessible the medium and the resources are, it’s easily a global thing. It’d be a mistake to just talk about Paranormal Activity and not Troll Hunter or Apartment 143 or Noroi: the Curse.

And it seems like anytime you ask someone on Twitter what their favorite found footage film is, they say Noroi!

Julian: I mean… (is wearing a homemade Noroi t-shirt)

Sarah: You obviously love it (Laughs). That’s what’s interesting about Paranormal Activity. They tried to remake Blair Witch, but not in found footage (so what’s the point). With Paranormal Activity, they have a huge Hollywood franchise now that’s subverted what found footage is supposed to be!

Julian: And now you have a new one coming out in October!

Sarah: And a documentary about it, too! People love that format. It’s weird how it’s harder for folks to get into the smaller ones.

Julian: Maybe this doc will help guide people to them because it hits on those greatest hits titles before getting into the deep cuts. To close things out–besides The Last Broadcast (which we love), what’s a found footage film you think deserves more viewers?

Sarah: There’s so many! I have to say Afflicted because they did so well to make such a really cool spin on vampires. I should have a few [titles] I call upon, really, but I just keep calling on the same one. Also, Lake Mungo! Have you seen that one?

Julian: I just got the Second Sight Blu-ray (Note–Region Free)!

Sarah: If you haven’t seen it before, you’ll be freaked out at how good it is. For scary [found footage], that’s my pick. Especially how they hold on to certain sequences and images for so long. There’s no way of explaining the atmosphere in that film, you just have to see it for yourself. It’s bloody scary.

What’s your favorite horror movie?

Julian: It’s totally Noroi. Followed by the OG Dawn of the Dead. And you?

Sarah: You’re gonna laugh–but Final Destination 3! (Laughs)

Julian: Those are so good!

Sarah: I just love the atmosphere, the sound, the music. It makes me so scared watching the roller coaster scene, even though I’ve seen it 20 times. I just love it.

Julian: Those movies will inspire so many generations to just avoid specific things. I don’t know a single friend who will drive behind a logging truck. And I never want to step foot in a tanning bed ever in my life.

Sarah: It’s so hilarious how the shelf slots in with the tanning beds. I’ve seen others who prefer the other ones, but that’s the one I love the most. I know I didn’t say a found footage movie! (Laughs.)

The Found Footage Phenomenon has its U.S. Premiere at Fantastic Fest on Thursday, September 23rd. The film will also be available on the Fantastic Fest @ Home Virtual Platform for 48 hours beginning Thursday, September 30th. A U.S. distributor is in the works!

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