Earlier this year, Jimmy Loweree embarked on starting a little viral marketing for his found-footage sci-fi-tinged thriller “Absence” by traveling to the woods in Wrightwood, California. He and a crew had rigged some lights to simulate a UFO sighting for a group of about 30 people, and while they were successful in surprising the crowd, it was the crowd that wound up surprising him.
“The best part of it wasn’t freaking some people out, which was a lot of fun too, but it was when they started telling us their own stories,” says Loweree. “It was just like, ‘This happens, I’ve seen this before’ or ‘Just over the hill is a hidden Air Force base and they’re testing their drones.'”
It was only fitting that Loweree got the chills from an event inspired by his own film since he was inspired to make “Absence,” which ably blurs the line between fact and fiction, after being spooked as a kid. The film is almost classical in its premise, following a young woman who recently and inexplicably suffers a miscarriage and must endure a retreat to the forest with those closest to her, including her camcorder-carrying brother who wants to get at the bottom of what happened, but it’s decidedly contemporary in its frights. As it turns out, the brother may be onto something since strange things begin to happen, the creepiness inserting itself into the very fabric of the film as the image fluctuates and warps to make the characters’ discomfort our own.
While it’s best not to reveal much more, Loweree did take the time to talk about how the film came together out of childhood fear and a desire to employ the creative community around him and the thrills of going off the grid for a no holds barred shoot.
How did this film come about?
My childhood was ruined by a really cheesy movie called “Communion” starring Christopher Walken and he’s being harassed by these aliens. My sister was having a sleepover and invited all of her friends and I watched the first ten minutes with them and it completely ruined me. I did not have a good night’s sleep for the next five or six years. From there, it was like an obsession for me. I read every single book at the library near my school about the supernatural and aliens and every show, I would watch it, but I had to change the channel if they showed something too creepy. I was really obsessed, but also completely terrified, so I wound up much later with a wealth of seemingly useless information about UFOs and UFO-logy because I had my childhood taken away by this horrible movie.
It’s interesting how you play with the image as a way of scaring the audience that’s actually integral to the story that’s being told. How did you figure out what you wanted to do aesthetically?
I really like when a movie doesn’t spell it out for me. It makes me more scared. “Blair Witch” made me never want to go camping again and I was really compelled by the fact that the less you see, the more it creeps into your head and the more you’ll think about it. We had a blast just coming up with ways to be creative considering that we couldn’t ever really do a nice clean shot of anything, otherwise it would break the reality.
“Cloverfield” is an example of a really high-end found footage film that always irritated me when it had the perfectly executed nice tracking shot of the monster, so we were trying to figure out a way to make you feel unsettled without being too obvious. There was this idea that there was this interconnection between whatever was happening to [the characters] and the technology they were using, so the house would have electronic problems or the camera would interfere with them – you could do weird sound distortion like a signal was being filtered through the camera. We played with that until we had a nice little blend of a weird horror-y vibe, but it’s also pretty sci-fi.
One of the interesting things to me was the story captures this woman in her most vulnerable moment after this experience of losing her child and it seems to suggest there’s consequences to watching as there are for the brother who’s documenting this. Was there an interest in that as a filmmaker?
I don’t know that it was necessarily thought out that much. It was to the degree that we decided her brother was going to be a bit of a proxy for the audience and it is harsh. What he’s doing is harsh and it was intentional because we kind of wanted him to be the one saying what the fuck? She can’t deal with this and isn’t talking about it. Her husband/protector won’t talk about it really and he needs to be the one who is doing what the audience is [asking], like what is happening? How is this possible? It came from really wanting [the brother] to try to get to the bottom of it, but ultimately he gets sidetracked pretty easily because he’s also there on his major purpose that he wants his sister to be doing better. It’s a balance of him wanting to get to the bottom of it and her kind of having to deal with him intruding or be willing to because maybe it is cathartic for her.
How did you figure out the best location to shoot this?
The original concept was to have a woman having to deal with this experience [in a contained environment] and then from there, it turned into economics. We felt like a found footage style film actually did lend itself to this. We weren’t trying to follow a fad, but it seemed to be a really organic way to tell the story that wasn’t just a tease and economically it made a lot more sense because we did this completely on our own. Through a friend, we had access to that cabin that we shot in and between that cabin and one more house on their property, we lived and shot all in these two spaces. We wrote the town into the story a bit once we knew where we were going to shoot and try to figure out how to make it feel at least like a real place and have its own character. It was really interesting because it was all guerrilla and all out there by ourselves on this small little property, hopefully not terrifying the neighbors. Climbing up into the woods, strapping lights to the tops of cars and driving down side roads to get different shots. It was just flying by the seat of our pants.
I’ve seen it used as a point of pride on the film’s Web site that there was no permits or permission. Did that make things more complicated?
It added to my anxiety, but it also was exciting. There’s some magic to not having all the resources you’d like. How am I going to show something here that’s creepy and effective, but I can’t spent half a million or a million dollars on effects for this shot? I have to do it in camera right now but make it work and also have it fit the story, so we were happy to live in that world.
There’s an example towards the end of the film where there’s a shot of when they’re looking for Liz initially and they come into town and the brother sees the girl he’s been interested in and he gets out of the car and he runs after her. Initially, we had that storyboarded where he’d film her, then we realized, he’s not thinking about the camera right now. He’s freaked out and it’s on, but it’s almost an afterthought. That was probably one of the riskier shots we did because we just shot it in the middle of the street. We put up a couple signs saying we were filming, but we didn’t have any sort of approval, so we shot it all in one take. We made it out unscathed although we did get a little bit of attention from a local officer. [laughs]
What got you into filmmaking in the first place?
I was playing a lot of music and that’s kind of where my heart was for a long time. It still is, but being surrounded by so many talented people — actors and cinematographers and musicians — I was just watching them get disheartened by how the industry is very exclusive. There’s a lot of stops on creativity. And I got fed up with it because I saw all this talent and I thought if I worked with my friends and got them got them involved in creating content, maybe we can just do it by ourselves. We don’t have to ask anymore. That really was the impetus for me to get into film, aside from loving movies and writing here and there. I shot a short with my writing partner at the time and we had a blast. Then shortly thereafter, I had this idea for “Absence” and it truly is an opportunity for me to support my friends.
“Absence” opens on July 5th at the Quad Cinema in New York and the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio. It is also available on VOD.