Fantastic Fest 2010 Interview: UNDOCUMENTED director/co-writer Chris Peckover

James Wallace

by: James Wallace
October 16th, 2010

One of the more fantastic films I had the pleasure of seeing at this past year's Fantastic Fest was UNDOCUMENTED, the feature-length debut from director/co-writer Chris Peckover (my review HERE).

The film centers around a group of graduate students (Scott Mechlowicz, Alona Tal, Kevin Weisman) who attempt to document the undocumented...America’s emerging issue of illegal immigration. And what’s the best way to document something? Why, a documentary, of course! And so the group sets out to make their thesis film by quite literally putting themselves in the shoes of native Hispanics as they try to illegally enter the country, poor in their pockets but rich in their dreams of a better life in the United States. Imagine an episode of Dirty Jobs…gone horribly wrong. What begins as an observational documentary soon turns to participatory, as the truck carrying the students and their subjects is hijacked by a ragtag band of self-proclaimed “patriots” who look to protect the purity of the good ole’ U.S. of A. They are led by a sadistically cordial masked figure, simply called Z, played with a great villainous vitality by iconic character actor Peter Stormare (FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI) - there’s a nice bit of irony and narration in there having a Swede play this role.

What develops is a well-done, low-budget horror film, revealed under its mask to be a well-voiced social commentary on one of contemporary America's most debated issues. One that never beats you over the head with its views but certainly includes a fair amount of bludgeons, and in the process keeps you on the edge of your seat and angry in its every moment.

Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to sit down with Chris at the festival but, thanks be to technology, we were able to chat about the film via email. Read on to find out about making a politically-infused horror film, the challenges faced in escaping the faults and footholds of the genre, casting Mr. Stormare as the villain, and much much more!

UNDOCUMENTED has been labeled a horror film, but I found the most horrific elements to be the ones that were truer to life (the Republic of Texas-like militia, the undocumented immigration practices, etc). For that, it feels much more like a political-infused thriller or even a drama in some respects, with some elements of the horror genre sprinkled throughout. Do you, as the writer/director see it as a part of this genre or something else?

CP: It’s weird. Today’s audiences seem to need jump scares in order to comfortably define a movie as “horror.” But some of my favorite horror movies would get this same question today. THE BIRDS is a love story that turns into a taught thriller. AMERICAN PSYCHO is a violent dark comedy. THE EXORCIST is an intense, visceral, disturbing drama. None of these movies make much use of jump scares. Is UNDOCUMENTED a horror movie? Absolutely. Or at least it would’ve been ten years ago. Now it’s a violent first-person survival thriller with heavy drama and political elements. In either case, it’s a genre bender, and those are my favorite movies.

What about the hot button issue of immigration inspired you an co-writer Joe Peterson to do a film about it in this way? There are a good number of documentaries being released about the topic but I'm not sure we've seen a film quite like this tackle immigration in quite this way.

CP: It’s easy to get preachy or saccharine when it comes to heated issues like illegal immigration. The only way to avoid those pitfalls in my opinion is to tackle the subject with either comedy or horror. There’s something cathartic about laughing at things we find uncomfortable, or facing your fears about them. I was inspired by one of my friend’s stories about crossing the border when he was young. It was terrifying! Being from Texas, I just took his story one step further and added all the violent sentiments I’d heard over the years.

What fine lines did you feel you had to walk on and/or what challenges did you face in both the areas of writing and directing a film about a touchy subject such as immigration, which has passionate proponents on both sides of the for/against argument?

CP: The key was to give both sides a voice in the movie. We show the human side of what illegal immigrants go through, led by Yancey Arias (who by the way gives an insanely good performance), and also present the extremists who capture them as intelligent and articulate, led by the momentous Peter Stormare. It was hard to go wrong with this cast. My biggest fear by far was Latin audiences rejecting UNDOCUMENTED as a stupid white guy’s views on a subject he knows nothing about. But the opposite has been true. White audiences tend to get the most uncomfortable; meanwhile Hispanic audiences are all like, “I hear about shit like this happening all the time!”

The film has some scenes that some may be quick to unfairly label "torture porn." How did you try to escape this when making the film? More so, how did you find the balance between exposure and exploit? In other words, what were some of the challenges in developing the story and its villains where people would most definitely see them as the definitive bad guys VS. sympathizing with them?

CP: “Torture porn” gratuitously and unemotionally revels in gore. I went for the opposite of that. Think of the opening scene in JAWS. The first five minutes gives you a gruesome taste of what the shark can do, and you spend the next hour biting your nails at the sight of three barrels racing across the water. I wanted UNDOCUMENTED to operate in a similar fashion – establishing a taste of horror and then playing off the audience’s fear of what they can’t see. That’s what made the conceit of showing the captured crew’s footage so intriguing. All the camera choices are character motivated. You can’t revel in gore if the cameramen aren’t going for the gratuitous angles—they’re shaking in fear. Or later, when they grow numb to the atrocities they’ve witnessed, they rebel against their captors by zooming in too far. It’s the opposite of torture porn: it’s poignant and emotional.

The film jumps back and forth from a sort of found footage, docu-style to a more straightforward feature aesthetic. Where in the filmmaking process did the decision to not make it just one or the other happen?

CP: Originally when I pitched UNDOCUMENTED in 2007 it was going to be found footage! My sale was “imagine THE BLAIR WITCH project but believable, timely, and with a higher production value.” Then in 2008 CLOVERFIELD came out, then QUARANTINE, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, and a slew of others. By the time we went into production in May 2009, “Footage Found by the Government!” had become a cliché. So I got together with my producers Keith Calder, Jess Wu, and Josh Finn and we invented for ourselves the 2.0 of the genre, which was not pretending to be real. Most of our first act is shot in typical 3rd person narrative style using 35mm. Then when the documentary crew enters the tunnel to cross the border, we switch to 1st person. Sort of like when THE WIZARD OF OZ switches to color: we’re in a new world. Or entering the rabbit hole in ALICE AND WONDERLAND. But where the switch from black and white to saturated color felt whimsical, a perspective switch from 3rd person to 1st person makes the viewing experience more immersive and real.

And speaking of found footage, tell us the story of how the Wikipedia page for UNDOCUMENTED came to list PARANORMAL ACTIVITY actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat as a part of the cast? And if that has been something you've had to deal with in the interviews you've done for the film thus far?

CP: It’s a valuable lesson. Don’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia. We did a test screening in December 2009 that said our movie was similar to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (which it’s not, but it’s language that audiences understand to mean “1st person”), and next thing we knew this Wikipedia entry was up. Anybody interested in rewriting our Wikipedia page? I’ll get you a date with Alona Tal. (She’d kill me for saying that. She’s happily married, and her husband Marcos should not be messed with.)

That seems as good as any segue to discussing the film's cast. You've got a few recognizable faces from the indie film world in there including Noah Segan from BRICK and Scott Mechlowicz who many may know from more indie fare like MEAN CREEK and PEACEFUL WARRIOR, not to mention the comedy EUROTRIP. And then there's Kevin Weisman from TV's Alias and what is, in my opinion, his most memorable role to date The Hobbit Lover from CLERKS II. Talk about casting the film and what that process was like.

CP: I usually say that I have no idea how I got such an incredible cast, but that’s a lie. Everybody had to go through rigorous readings. If the world of UNDOCUMENTED was going to feel real, every role had to be filled by someone who could match that reality. We read hundreds of people against each with an eye for those who had the right chemistry with each other and those who were masters at improvising, which we did a lot of in this movie.

A few words on who we cast. I’m still waiting for the rest of the world to catch up and realize how big of a star Scott Mechlowicz is. He has the rarest talent an actor can have: the ability to go in any direction you ask him, no questions asked, and make it work perfectly. Alona Tal is a bombshell, shrewd, and emotionally intelligent—the most deadly combination. She beat out some much bigger names because she is incapable of having a dishonest moment and is a virtuoso at improvising. Yancey Arias had no competition; we had to take a break after he left the casting room because everybody was bawling from his performance. Kevin Weisman’s role called for a tall, lanky 24 year-old sound guy, but he was so funny and honest that I just had to have him and make it work. The same goes with Noah Segan, whose role called for a man in his late thirties. The character he created had this wonderful rage and insolence about it, so I rewrote his role to suggest that he was Peter Stormare’s son. We were so picky about every role, to the point where some major roles weren’t cast until two days before shooting. But it definitely paid off.

And of course there is Peter Stormare, giving a performance right up there with some of the most dastardly villains in horror history. Talk about casting the role of Z. Was Stormare always your first choice because of his voice? Did you always want to cast a recognizable character actor in this role?

CP: I analyzed Hannibal Lector for a long time before writing UNDOCUMENTED because I wanted Z to be a villain of that magnitude. It ends up you need a lot of heroic elements in your villain to make that happen. Z needed to be intelligent, well spoken, persuasive, well mannered, and truthful. On the villainous side of things, he needed to be morally perverse, unpredictable, and ball-shakingly intimidating. And to make matters worse, he needed to do all those things with his face covered. In hindsight it was naïve to write a script that centers on so difficult a role—most of the middle-aged actors who could carry the weight of Z’s role are famous and few.

Peter Stormare was my first choice after seeing his performance as Satan in CONSTANTINE, and as if God himself were smiling on me I discovered that we had a mutual friend: his realtor. So in 2008, before I even knew if I’d get to direct, I sent Peter a copy of the script through his realtor (which he thought was just weird enough to go along with), and attached a letter telling him about how I thought he was capable of playing a villain of aforementioned proportions, and two agonizing months later he called me up! From there it was strangely easy, because it had taken Peter eight long years to become a U.S. citizen himself, so he understood where Z was coming from and connected with the script in a lot of ways.

Speaking of Z, the poster for the film makes a pretty bold choice to play off the iconic poster for David Fincher's THE SOCIAL NETWORK. How much say have you had in the marketing for the film thus far?

CP: Thankfully, I am not involved in the marketing. I’m much better at making movies than selling them. But I hear THE SOCIAL NETWORK [for UNDOCUMENTED] poster was more of a teaser.

If UNDOCUMENTED were to get distributed by someone, would you be afraid of how they may market it to unassuming audiences? For example, as say a found footage thriller or a torture porn horror film?

CP: I’m not worried. At this level in my career, I’ll take what I can get. I’m just thankful for the experience so far, and looking forward to the next one.

Finally, on the subject of getting distributed, UNDOCUMENTED is one of those films that if you are lucky enough you may get to see at a film festival. What do you want Gordon and the Whale readers to know about UNDOCUMENTED should they not be fortunate enough to attend a festival where it is playing? Is there any plans in the near future for the film to be more widely available to general audiences?

CP: Hell yes. I hear something’s in the works as we speak.

One last comment: most audiences don’t know that indie films rely entirely on their first weekend’s performance in order to stay afloat. So if you’re excited about UNDOCUMENTED, or any other low budget film for that matter, invite friends to go see it on opening weekend. That’s how you tell distributors that you like independent cinema, and how to ensure you’ll get more interesting, genre-bending films in the future.

Find more information about UNDOCUMENTED and where you can see it at its official site

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  • David

    I can’t wait to see Undocumented, anyone know when there’s a screening?

  • Jay

    Haven’t heard anything either. Sounds like a horror movie with balls!

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