Filmmakers and writing partners Jay Lender and Micah Wright call themselves “cartoon industry survivors.” The duo began their career behind the scenes of after-school children’s TV like SpongeBob SquarePants, The Angry Beavers, Phineas & Ferb, and then wrote for video games based on the Transformers and Looney Tunes franchises (they also helped establish the WGA’s Video Game Writing Award in 2007). They also know a thing or two about being silly, so of course, they made a horror movie.
Shot in Romania, They’re Watching is a comically dark twist on HGTV-style property reality programs. It follows an under-paid television crew’s descent into terror in a remote eastern European village harboring a dark secret.
“My wife watches House Hunters International constantly,” Wright recently told Inverse. “Every time I watch it, I think to myself, ‘What a nightmare, to move where you don’t speak the language and everybody hates you because of our foreign wars and these weird small towns.’”
He adds: “The more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘This is kind of a good horror movie.’”
Starring David Alpay (The Tudors), Kris Lemche (Haven), Mia Faith, and Carrie Genzel (All My Children) as the hapless crew without wi-fi or help, They’re Watching will release in theaters and On Demand on March 25. The madmen behind the film, Jay Lender and Micah Wright, recently spoke to Inverse about the film’s unique reality/found-footage shape and the value of improvisation when everyone runs around screaming bloody murder.
You guys are veterans of Nickelodeon and Disney animation. In what ways did your cartoon sensibilities influence your decision to try horror?
Micah Wright: At a certain point in the film, our main character’s mind snaps and we enter a world of pure imagination. I would say that’s the most informed by our animation. That person, I’m not going to say who it is because I don’t want to ruin the ending, [is] the lone survivor [and] is clearly insane by the end of the movie. We felt like, let’s go all in. We just ratchet it up over the top and we just kind of went for it.
You guys break the rules of found-footage horror. For example, you employ non-diegetic music, which blurs the line between edited fiction and non-edited reality. What made you pursue this shape?
Jay Lender: We get where you’re coming from when you say we’ve rewritten the rules for found footage, but we’re not really a found footage film. It’s not like a bunch of videotapes found by the police played for us. All of our characters are professional filmmakers and they film it well, better than the kids in the woods in Blair Witch Project. They know how to point a camera, how to construct entertainment so when it comes time to edit, our theoretical survivor knows how to edit a movie and knows whether there should be music. In a way we’re not really found footage. We like to think of ourselves as a first person thriller.
On a similar note, you guys also have experience writing for video games like Call of Duty. Did your experience in gaming also contribute to the concept as much as cartoons did?
JL: When writing for games, a lot of what you do is writing what they call scripted moments, moments you create an environment where they happen by themselves. Sometimes you script them to the moment. Having a combination between random and completely scripted is what makes a video game great.
It’s the same idea of a natural moment occurring on film. There’s a shot of an old woman standing at the end of an alleyway holding a loaf of bread. Initially she brushes past our character, Alex, while he says some smart comment, but we were sitting there going through the footage and we saw this shot: She’s just standing there, waiting for the director to say action. We realized that standing at the end of a long alleyway holding bread was more creepy than the scene we had written.
MW: Being open to the moment is something that can’t happen in video games and animation because everything is planned with unbelievable detail. There are no second chances in animation. You don’t get to go back and reshoot from a different angle. There aren’t a lot of happy accidents in animation and video games.
I’m glad you bring that up. Improv is a major element in filmmaking, especially in “found footage” horror. How much did the actors improvise?
MW: Kris Lemche, who plays Alex, was really good about staying in the moment. He would read the lines as written until he felt like it was no longer spontaneous and then he would change it up. Three, four, five takes in, he would change the line and everybody would have to react with immediacy.
The key is we gave everyone a tight script so they knew what they were supposed to be working to. Before we shot any scene, we talked to everyone and said, “This is what needs to come out in this scene. Make sure you hit these moments.” It wasn’t like a John Cassavetes thing where we just shoved people in the room and said “Fight” and walk away. We had a specific script they were given freedom to dance around. When you dance well, that’s what you get on screen and if they danced too far away, we would do another take.
Horror parodies spoof familiar archetypes, but They’re Watching is different. There’s nuance to, for example, Becky, who would have been the “Hot Girl” in any other movie. How much attention did you give the characters? Did the actors flesh them out in any way you didn’t expect?
JL: We started with the archetypes you’re familiar with, and in writing we added depth. We had the good girl, the hunk, the bitchy character, the goofball. The goofball, and I don’t think I’m talking out of school when I say this, we wrote as Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Just a convenient go-to personality everybody understands. Micah and I know Shaggy well. All you have to do when you write the scene is say, “What would Shaggy say here?” We wrote it that way and it was great.
Then we had auditions, and we saw a dozen people who did spot-on Shaggy. They’re not smoking dope in the Mystery Machine, [but] they recognized it was Shaggy. And then Kris Lemche came and delivered this performance. Micah and I are watching it and we’re like, “What are you doing? What’s he doing?” He had this completely different take, which was “annoying motor mouth” than terrified stoner. It was weird, unexpected, but everything he did worked and was going to work. In the end, everyone we brought in brought something unbelievable that we couldn’t have imagined in the beginning. We were thrilled with what they did.
Ultimately, They’re Watching is your first stab at horror and is a radical departure from what you’ve done. What was it like just getting loose into the asylum, so to speak? Were you able to go where you couldn’t in, say, SpongeBob?
MW: I don’t think there was much we couldn’t do on SpongeBob. We couldn’t make obvious sex jokes, we couldn’t have a lot of blood, but I felt pretty liberated while I was there. It’s not so much that I was able to do things I couldn’t do before, or we were able to do things we couldn’t, but that we were able to do things that were ours. We weren’t working in service to someone else’s vision. This was our thing. That’s what’s liberating about it. It’s not the increased freedom. It’s the fact that it’s our vision.
They’re Watching will release on March 25 in theaters and On Demand.