Four Texans Made A Horror Film Called The Houses October Built. This Is Their Story.
It's always a good time to write about a Hollywood success story that originates out of Dallas.
Why? Because, in part, it's a fairly rare thing. This is an innovative town full of creative folks — in addition to some rising industry stars being born here, a number of classic Hollywood productions have been shot here — but Tinseltown, as a rule, is full of sharks that'll eat you alive. And, in turn, it's both difficult and rare for a small movie to both find distribution and release in theaters.
Somehow, though, the folks behind The Houses October Built did it.
Co-writer and director Bobby Roe, co-writer and co-star Zack Andrews and co-stars Mikey Roee and Brandy Schaefer all went to Plano High School together, and, some time after graduation, they packed their bags, headed out west and made a movie — one that you can see today at a theater or video on-demand. Called The Houses October Built, their joint production is a half-documentary, half-fictional-found-footage film centering around five friends who want some real thrills and chills from extreme haunted houses — the underground places that are rumored to have real dead bodies and heart attack-inducing scares. Over the course of the film, these characters eventually find what they’re looking for, and ominous things start to go bump in the night.
Yes, the found-footage genre is a over-saturated these days in the horror realm. But this film offers some new thrills. And even if found footage isn't your bag at all and I should shut up, you should still appreciate this team for experimenting with it.
For that reason, we caught up with the former Dallas residents, who were in town this week to promote the film, to talk about the road they took toward distribution and the challenges they faced when shooting the film.
This film was first screened in 2011. What was the big change that helped the film finally get its distribution?
Bobby Roe: I think a lot of it was sound. There's only so much you can do as an independent filmmaker, and there's expenses that go through that. To recreate a haunted house walk-through on screen, it's not an easy thing to do. At first, we thought we'd be able to capture it with one or two cameras. But it got to the point where we had GoPros running [and] we had everything going to make that happen. Once you have that visually, you need a lot of sound work. We were fortunate enough to work with Mark Binder who did a lot of the Transformers and Star Trek music. That ambiance that he created gives it a really eerie effect to the movie. That's what helped.
The Houses October Built is set up like a documentary-narrative hybrid. Was that the idea front he beginning?
Bobby Roe: Yeah, it's a style choice. We wanted you to be on this ride with us, and we hope that the audience becomes the sixth cast member and experiences it [with us]. As far as the comrade with the group, you are with us on this road trip and then going through the haunts. We want you to jump when Brandy [Brandy Schaefer] jumps. So that was our choice to film it that way.
Zack Andrews: We're very aware of the found footage stigma these days, and that's not what we created. We created something that's very real and organic, and we wanted to make sure we separated ourselves from a lot of those movies that people roll their eyes at. The Houses October Built has real people and real places. We always talked about how Blair Witch Project was fake since frame one. This was not — and I dare you to tell me when it wasn't.
Mikey Roe: That's the thing, too, the stigma with found footage — if people don't like it but love documentaries. There's no difference in a found-footage movie and a documentary except that it's fake in a found-footage film. Ours has more real elements than any found-footage film that's ever been done. Blair Witch was fake all the way through. Like Bobby said, tell us which part is fake or not and we'll tell you it's real.
Bobby Roe: It sounds like a weird comparison, but the same thing Sasha Barren Cohen did with Borat in a very comedic way, we tried to tackle in the horror world. Obviously, the tone is completely [different] but it's still talking to real people, interviewing real places. I think that's probably a better comparison than some of the found footage movies that you guys have seen.
What was the biggest challenge when shooting the film?
Zack Andrews: I think it was more that we wanted to keep things real. The biggest challenge of doing a found-footage or POV style is having the acting feel authentic and real. Since we've known each other since high school, there were so many inside jokes and things that we could play off. I hope that chemistry was captured and that it separates us from the stiff, “I just met you so, I'm going to read this line of dialogue that someone writing from somewhere thinks is funny.” With us, it's actually funny because we're telling jokes from 5 to 10 years ago — or maybe last week from where we were hanging out. I think that is a huge challenge for this genre.
Brandy Schaefer: Well, we think it’s funny and nobody else does. [Laughs.]
Bobby Roe: That's the biggest hurdle these movies have. It's not about, “Oh, that ghost looked fake!” or any of the special effects. You don't even get that far before you sniff those actors out a mile away. And that completely defeats the purpose of found footage. You want it to feel real, so don't ruin the effect for me by casting five stiff actors.
Mikey Roe: I think people get really comfortable when it begins with us just hanging out. And then when things start to turn, that's when the anxiety comes in to the audience [with them thinking], “Whoa, whoa whoa. What are you guys doing? Don’t do that!” And, of course, in a horror movie, we always do what we're not supposed to do. I think it's a fun ride in itself, outside of the horror, with some of the stuff that goes on. And we're having a good time in the film as well. I think people will take that in and will have a lot of fun with us along the way.
How much was scripted versus improv?
Bobby Roe: We had a script for it, but we'd have to call audibles almost nightly. Maybe a new character that we wanted to use in a haunt that we never met before — [we'd] substitute them and change the scene around. There was very much an initial A-to-Z plan, but it's on how you get there. By the end of each night and the end of each shoot, you needed to make sure — even if we went this or that way — we get all the way back to where we need to be for day two. It's a testament to everyone as actors, too. They improvised along the way and rolled with the punches. That's what happens when you’re shooting with thousands of people and real crowds. Anything goes.
Mikey Roe: We had lines that we needed to deliver. Now, how we got there a lot of the times was on our own accord with talking with somebody. But there were definitely lines that we needed to say, and there's also reactions from them that we needed as well. It was up to Brandy and I a lot of the times to figure it out on working that into the conversation with somebody until you got what you needed.
So, for the imrov scenes, how much did you bounce off each other for scenes, like going through the haunted houses and talking to the employees?
Mikey Roe: Brandy had questions for the employees, so it's almost like interstitials throughout the movie where we use a lot of real interviews. A lot of those questions were planned and developed to try to get them to say what we needed them to say. Every single time, their answer was far better than anything we could write.
Zack Andrews: We'd say, “Maybe they'll say this and then we can say that and then maybe they'll say this,” and it was more of Brandy asking a question and they'd say, “Oh yeah, we use real dead bodies in the haunt.”
Brandy Schaefer: And then me going, “…Oh.” [Laughs.] “I was not expecting that. OK!”
Zack Andrews: And we'd say, “Annnnnd that's a wrap! We got what we needed!” [Laughs.]
Editing plays a big part in this movie. What was the process of deciding which B-roll and real haunted house employee scenes to use?
Bobby Roe: I think it's a mix with that. Mixed with the scare actors and the real moments, I think it's very important to let a film like this breathe a little bit. Not every scene has to drive the story — because, if it did, it wouldn't feel authentic. A lot of that, through the editing process, was to let scenes — like when they are in the RV, telling stories — let them expand and see what happens there. If it was too by-the-note every beat, it would feel just like a normal horror movie. On the haunted house side, we have probably a least a hundred hours of footage. You have to shoot a movie like this like a documentary. When you say cut, you don't really mean it. You keep it going. It was really tough to narrow all of the footage we have down. We're talking about, for the Blu-ray, to do an extended version because there are more haunts that we went to and more interviews. The cameras constantly rolled.
Trust plays a big factor in getting raw interviews with these haunted house employees, as well as being able to shoot in these haunted houses. How did you gain their trust that you’d paint them an honest portrait?
Zack Andrews: I contacted the haunts from L.A. and explained. Being from Texas, that opened people up a little bit. And just showing them that you're a big fan and the authenticity of what we wanted to accomplish. Once we got there, I turned over the reigns to Brandy and let her be disarming and butter people up. I think, if Mikey was asking the questions, people would be like, “What's your agenda?” When Brandy does it they were like, “Oh! Let me tell you everything!” [Laughs.]
Mikey Roe: A lot of the owners and scare actors in all the haunts wanted to tell you everything. They love it. They want to tell you how it works and why they do this or how they made this blood look like this. They're very into it and very proud of what they do. They're a big family at all of these haunted houses.
Bobby Roe: That's the key word we kept heard: family. That was really nice to hear. They understood the angle we were taking with a lot of it. They were very welcoming.
The film reminds me of House of 1,000 Corpses and The Funhouse with haunted house employees being real psychopaths. What are some films that inspired the process of making The Houses October Built and what are some horror films you all loved and watched growing up?
Zack Andrews: I think one film that we talked about when we were shooting was Jaws and the fact that the shark was actually hidden for most of that movie. And so I think, when you're going to these haunted houses, you don't need to show everything up front. We need to bait you and have you come along this ride before we really give it to you in the end.
Bobby Roe: For me it was Cannibal Holocaust. That movie use real natives, real places. I always thought Faces of Death was real my entire life. That was probably my first experience ever as a kid. When we were like 12 years old, we'd pay some adult at Blockbuster…
Zack Andrews: Most kids in our high school were standing outside gas stations, trying to get adults to buy them beer. Bobby was trying to get somebody to rent him Faces of Death.
Bobby Roe: I remember the sticker on the VHS said “Banned in 52 countries.” We didn't know any better. We thought what we saw — it sounds sick — was snuff. You knew you weren't supposed to see it, whether it was animals or a bear swiping someone's head off. It was very interesting to see, and we actually watched it again. I got it about a month ago. You put it in and it's the fakest thing you've ever seen in your life. Every edit is right on the chop, and you can see it coming a mile away. It's funny to see how far we've come from 1984 to now.
Paul Salfen contributed to the reporting of this story. The Houses October Built is playing at AMC Stonebriar Mall and is now available on VOD.