Christopher Landon’s big break in Hollywood came 2007 with his screenplay for Disturbia, a successful re-imagining of Hitchcock’s Rear Window set in suburbia and starring Shia LaBeouf. However, Landon is now most known for his extensive work on the Paranormal-Activity-franchise. He has joined the franchise’s creative team on the second film and has written every sequel of the franchise so far (Paranormal Activity 5 will be the first sequel written without his direct involvement). However, it was not until the fifth film, the Latino community-centered Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (currently playing in theatres) that he took over the directorial duties as well, making it his second feature film as a director (after Burning Palms). We had the opportunity to interview Christopher Landon about The Marked Ones and talk about the franchise’s extensive mythology, the spin-off’s genesis, the place the film holds within the mythology and the importance to separate The Marked Ones from the previous entries in the series. If you pay close attention, he even gives a small clue about the franchise’s endgame.
Spoiler warning: the following interview contains some spoilers regarding The Marked Ones.
Filmfutter: First off, let me congratulate you on your film’s successful opening weekend in North America. Personally, I thought it was an significant improvement over the last Paranormal-Activity-film. It worked better as far as the coherence of the plot and the film’s place in the established mythology go. How did the whole idea of the Latino-centric spin-off come about?
Christopher Landon: When we just finished Paranormal (Activity) 3, we did a test screening and after that we did focus groups. And there was a Latina girl in one of our focus groups. She was 15 years old and she was so passionate about the franchise, so well-versed in the mythology and the characters. She had all these ideas and opinions and she also related a lot of it to her own life and the stories that her grandmother told her. That night we sort of had our epiphany and realized that there is this whole demographic that has a deep belief in the supernatural. We have seen that in our numbers as well. The Latino audience really comes out in force for this type of movies. So we started talking about exploring a more urban setting for the franchise and focusing on a different family. I started doing a lot of research and visiting different locations. In the film there is a scene, where Irma, Jesse’s grandmother, takes Jesse and Marisol to a botánica, the spiritual pharmacy, and that location was actually the very first botánica that I went to during preparations. It’s real. It’s not dressed; it’s not a set, that’s exactly what it looks like in real life. The gentleman in that scene is a curandero, which is sort of like a spiritual guide; he was not an actor. He is the actual guy who owns the shop. He was very informative and told me a lot about brujeria, which basically a sort of Mexican witchcraft that we are exploring in the movie. For me all that stuff started to accumulate at some point and helped me to find my way into the film. In the end, what I wanted to do was not another haunted house movie, as we have done in the past, but I wanted to do a more personal story about possession. That was the whole genesis of the project.
FF: Setting the film in several locations is just one of many things that separate The Marked Ones from its predecessors. This time the film focuses on a male protagonist, there are more humorous moments and at the beginning for the first time the Paramount logo is shown. Were those conscious decisions to make the franchise feel fresh again and to separate The Marked Ones from the other Paranormal-Activity-films or did it all come about naturally?
CL: No, no, it was very specific and premeditated. When we were talking about the idea of doing this movie, I said to our producers that one thing we have established very well over the course of the franchise is that if you’re marked by this thing and you become the target of this demon, it doesn’t matter where you go. It will follow you. We have emphasized that in every movie, so this time I said: “Instead of just saying it, let’s do it! Let’s show it.”I think the claustrophobic nature of the previous films was a great strength, but I also felt that our fans were slowly getting tired of seeing the stuff that felt a little bit the same. I thought that if we got out and showed people different locations and how this thing was still following Jesse and was part of him, that it would feel fresh and different. As far as the Paramount logo goes – that was actually a part of a lot of discussions. We have always worked under the pretense that these movies were real. In a strange way, showing the logo was kind of an announcement that we are a movie. But for me, I think we have earned that. We have earned that place. I wanted to tell the audiences from the very first second that we were going to be different. That was really important. The funny thing about the logo is – and people don’t realize that until the end – because we have a glitch during the logo, it’s foreshadowing of what is to come at the end of the movie. It was a fun thing to do and, like I said, I really wanted to make a statement that we’re different from the other Paranormal–movies.
FF: Do you think that trend will continue with Paranormal Activity 5 and the following movies? In terms of getting out of the house more and no longer trying to keep up the pretense of showing real events?
CL: You know, it’s funny. It’s different because I don’t know exactly where they are planning to take the franchise. Paranormal Activity 5 is being developed right now and I think they’re getting ready to shoot it. I kind of stayed outside of it because I was busy working on The Marked Ones. I think that even though we had the Paramount logo on the movie, I still think that people sit and experience the movie as if it were real. I think that’s part of the fun of the movie. In terms of getting out of the house and having more locations…I don’t know. They might. I certainly think that from the narrative standpoint the mythology of The Marked Ones allowed us to go wherever we want. We said that this is happening all over, so we could be anywhere in one of these movies. It was great that we have been able to open up the franchise that way. But I think that the Katie-storyline is so strong and the fans really love it – which is a reason why the ending of The Marked Ones works so well, as we go back to the source, even though it is a separate movie. I think the fans still want more of Katie and want to know what happened to her. So I suspect that they are going to go back to that.
FF: Speaking of the mythology – obviously the question of the minds of many fans is whether there is a clear endgame for this franchise and, even more importantly, is the path to the endgame planned out already?
CL: Again, I cannot give too many details, but I can say that yes, there is a definite endgame. It is something we have been talking about since the second film. I don’t know how many movies it will take to get to there, because it is a very big idea. I will say that if people go and see The Marked Ones, there is an unbelievably important line that hints at where the franchise is going to end up. But they just have to pay really close attention. (laughs)
FF: An interesting thing about The Marked Ones is that it clearly falls into place with the established mythology of the franchise, while, at the same time, showing us a different community, different characters and a more or less separate storyline. Was it a tough act to pull off – separating itself from the previous films and at the same time staying true to what has come before and, in the end, coming back to the source?
CL: To be honest, it wasn’t that hard. I say that because we have laid down some pretty solid mythology, but also a thing that people like about our franchise is that we manage to move around time and space in an interesting way. Obviously we did it in the second film and then went back to the past in the third… I think we have created this environment of flexibility in the franchise, allowing us to move around. When I was writing the script, it was really natural for me to incorporate characters from the previous films and elements that were recognizable. We have done it before, in other movies. The challenge here was telling a different story and still coming up with good scares and set pieces and also trying to create an environment and characters that were really relatable and likeable. We wanted people to be really invested in the movie. Those were the real challenges. And my job is to win the audiences over, especially after the fourth film, where, I think, we kind of faltered and lost our way, I felt an even bigger responsibility this time to win people back and earn their trust again. To tell them that this is still a viable franchise and to stress that we have a clear mythology and that we are back on track.
FF: I have noticed that you have been quite open about the fact that a lot of things didn’t work in the fourth movie. What aspects, in your opinion, didn’t work so well? Where did it go off the rails?
CL: The fourth film was an interesting experience. What happened there was that I actually wasn’t supposed to write it. I was working on The Marked Ones and I got a call from the studio. They were having trouble with it and I was brought in at the last minute, when they were starting to shoot the movie. For me it was a struggle trying to get all the elements come together and I think all the filmmakers on the fourth one were facing the inevitable sense of franchise fatigue. It was intimidating for us to work on the heels of the third film, which was such a massive success and was so embraced by the critics and the fans. Even to this day, many reference it as their favorite.
FF: I think it is the scariest one.
CL: Yeah, it is a really scary movie. On the fourth we were struggling to come up with ideas as to how to top the scares and the gimmicks we have used in the predecessor. There was a lot of pressure building up. On top of it, we also had to figure out a way how the mythology worked into it. In the end, it was muddled. It wasn’t clear enough. The biggest misstep of Paranormal (Activity) 4 was that it didn’t advance the mythology. We kind of moved backwards. I think that was really frustrating for the fans. The marketing campaign promised “It all led to this” and in fact it didn’t lead to anything. (laughs)
FF: It posed a lot of new questions, but offered few answers.
CL: Yeah, exactly. That’s why on The Marked Ones, I really wanted to stabilize things and get us back on track from the mythology standpoint. That was really important to me. I felt that even in the way of tone, I wanted it to be scary, of course, but I also wanted it to be fun. In our other movies, we usually have a slow-burn atmosphere. The first act is usually very slow and this time I wanted to come out of the gates running and establish a quicker pace.
FF: It certainly has more humor than all the others.
CL: I am a big fan of that. When I wrote Disturbia (2007), I incorporated a lot of humor in that movie and that really paid off. I think humor disarms people and it really allows them to invest in characters. The characters become likeable and relatable because of that. The first act of The Marked Ones plays out more like a comedy, but then it turns and starts getting a little darker and keeps getting darker and darker until the end. The hairpin turn in the movie happens – and I don’t want to spoil too much – when Jesse is hooking up with the girl in Ana’s apartment. That’s when the movie really turns into a horror movie. It was fun to shake up the formula.
FF: Your next film that you are directing has a very catchy title – Boy Scouts vs. Zombies. Can you tell me more about it?
CL: (laughs) Boy Scouts vs. Zombies is a lot of fun. It is a horror comedy about three boy scouts who are on their last scouting trip and their town is being attacked and under siege by a zombie apocalypse. They have to save the town. It has a very Goonies-quality to it. It’s a really funny, sweet and also scary movie and it kind of turns the whole zombie genre upside down a little. That’s what really drew me to the project. I always start from the place of character. If I really get into the characters, I get into the story much better.
FF: Is it going to be R-rated?
CL: Yes, definitely, very R-rated. (laughs)
FF: I am really looking forward to seeing that. Thank you very much for the interview!
by Arthur Awanesjan
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