Erik Kristopher Myers is a writer and film director from Baltimore, Maryland. He reached out to Film Forums on Twitter and I’m so glad he did. The following interview about his latest film Butterfly Kisses (2018) provides a fascinating insight into the creative process behind the movie, his love of horror, and how Eduardo Sanchez, of the seminal found footage horror The Blair Witch Project (1999), came to be involved.
If you haven’t seen Butterfly Kisses yet make sure you check it out! In my opinion it is better than The Blair Witch Project (1999), especially on second viewing, and is certainly better than many others who have tried and produced substandard attempts at this subgenre of horror.
FF: How did you come to be a director… Did you have any roles within the film industry that led to that position, which is so often the case?
EKM: Well, in a way, it kind of was a situation where I fell immediately into it in the sense that I grew up in front of the TV; horror movies, in particular, were my thing (I’m wearing an ‘Exorcist’ t-shirt right now!) and I loved the power that horror specifically had over me in the sense that if I could be terrified, there is a magic in that. If you can then learn to wield that magic, and use it on other people, that’s a profound and powerful thing. Whether it’s to scare someone or make them laugh, or whatever that might be. So I grew up reading and drawing comic books (I’ve got a whole stack right here behind me!), watching films over and over again, dabbling with screenplays and I was a part of all the school theatrical productions. It was never with the intent of being an actor though. My goal was always to understand, again, the craft of productions and narrative storytelling, with the thought that maybe someday I would be able to direct. After I finished high school I ended up falling in with a number of theatre groups where I was either running the lights or painting the sets, and then following the actors and the crew around to bars after shows – just trying to network and get to know people. Ultimately what ended up happening was I decided to drop out of the teaching programme in college and to go to film school where I graduated and made my first film, Roulette in 2012.
FF: What particular challenges did you face shooting this movie and did the final version come close to what you set out to achieve?
EKM: I think that in the case of any film, a director is always going to see maybe 10% of what was in their mind on the screen. In the case of Butterfly Kisses (2018), I was very happy with what we ended up with. It was challenging more in the editing than anything else, because it started off as a three hour film that I knew was going to have to come down to a tight 90 minutes. You had mentioned before the interview that you had given the film a rewatch and that it played well a second time. Well, it was designed to be that way. It’s a movie that, again, like my previous film, Roulette (2013), is designed to be watched multiple times to find new aspects in each layer of the onion.
FF: …I was just about to say the word ‘layers’. There’s at least three layers from the start: the idea of a documentary making a documentary of a documentary….
EKM: Yeah. And that’s a challenging thing. When you’re trying to edit a linear narrative there is a lot of ‘killing your darlings’. For time requirements, you know, you have to ask yourself: is this necessary and is this repetitive? And when you’re doing so many layers it becomes challenging, because you feel like you’re having to skim off of each one. So that was the most challenging aspect of the film, getting it down to 90 minutes, but I’m very happy with the end result.
FF: How did ‘Blair Witch’ director Eduardo Sanchez come to be involved? And what was his level of involvement (other than, obviously, appearing in the movie)?
EKM: I knew Ed from having done a panel with him in 2014 and we had stayed in touch afterward. We are both Maryland filmmakers and he is obviously in the upper echelon, whereas I was, you know, at the time, rising. This was, again, following my film Roulette (2013). And so when the idea of Butterfly Kisses (2018) came along, which was to essentially deconstruct, in a way, what I like to refer to as ‘academic entertainment’. I decided that I was going to deconstruct the found footage genre and it seemed like it made sense to feature Ed in the movie since there are so many people playing themselves.
When discussing it with my producers, at first, Ed was never featured in the script. And, you know, I was just thinking that he’d go: ‘Hey man, that movie was 15 years ago! Ever since The Blair Witch Project (1999) I’ve made Lovely Molly (2011), Altered (2006), directed episodes of Supernatural and From Dusk Till Dawn (2014) etc. I don’t want to just live in the shadow of that film.’ And all of my producers were like: ‘Dude, come on! What’s it gonna hurt to ask him?’ So we picked up the phone, we called him and asked for a meeting. Two days later we were sitting in the film office for about two hours discussing the film. Not only was Ed willing to appear and play himself, but he was very generous in his time, in that he watched multiple cuts of the film – again, coming from three hours down to 90 minutes. It went through so many different revisions and he offered so much feedback and positive criticism. What better source than the man who created the cultural Zeitgeist that is ‘found footage’ when trying to respond and deconstruct that sub genre? So, Ed was incredible.
FF: Are the characters Sophia Crane, Feldman (I didn’t catch his first name) or Gavin York modelled on you at all?
EKM: Feldman was never given a name and that is by design. In fact, another little Easter Egg in the film that only one person has ever commented on to date, is the fact that Feldman could be a first name or could be a last name. But throughout the entire course of the film, as he’s been referred to as a ‘slacker’, you assume that he has some sort of menial labour job and that he’s just sort of staying in school indefinitely. He’s constantly wearing auto mechanic shirts and, an Easter Egg for the viewers: his name is over his breast, over his heart, however, the name is different on every mechanic shirt that he’s wearing. So, he could be Doug Feldman, he could be Larry Feldman, he could be Chuck Feldman; it’s sort of for you to, you know, spot and argue over.
Each of the characters is modeled on me in the sense that Feldman and Sophia represent the film school experience and how seemingly important and quasi-traumatic it is, in the moment. For example, working with people you don’t get along with and having your work screened in front of your peers and the faculty on the big screen for, you know, half dozen people or whatever. It’s the drama that you go through as a film student. Gavin York is not a one-to-one cipher for me necessarily, rather, he is sort of a pastiche of elements I’ve seen in the lives of so many independent filmmakers where they graduate, they have big dreams (‘I’m going to direct the next Star Wars’) and they end up either doing something that is unfulfilling, like wedding videography, or they end up not doing film at all. Because when you graduate, you have to be an entrepreneur, in a certain sense. That degree or that diploma doesn’t mean anything in the case of arts; you have to be willing to go out there and create projects and build buzz for yourself. And with Gavin that didn’t work in the way that he wanted. So yeah, aspects of my life, but aspects of the lives of so many other people I’ve seen.
And, of course, then at the far spectrum of the film, you have me playing myself and it’s sort of about the nightmare of independent production with money coming out of your own pocket or the pockets of investors, and your film is falling apart. It’s going off the rails. My subject in the documentary, Gavin York, vanishes. My crew is angry with me. We don’t know how we’re going to complete this project. It’s about all the nightmares that can happen, being a filmmaker and sort of not being where you want to be.
FF: Which leads quite nicely into the next question… Was this movie as much about questioning how far ostensibly good people are willing to go to get a story or achieve something?
EKM: I think so. And, you know, I’ve often referred to ‘Blink Man’ or ‘Peeping Tom’, the boogeyman of the story, as being the ‘MacGuffin’, as Hitchcock said, that simply drives the narrative. Whilst the film is more easily classified as being a horror film, for me, it’s more of a mixture of academic criticism of the found footage genre, and also a look at the real world horror of being an artist. How far are you willing to go? In the case of ‘Peeping Tom’ – again, he is the ‘MacGuffin’, he is Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster, he’s UFOs; he is something that can never be proven. You’re always going to get just within an inch of grabbing that monster by the tail. It’s like trying to prove the existence of God, we cannot do it. Sometimes the obsessive pursuit can cause an individual to fall apart. It’s like Indiana Jones at the end of The Last Crusade (1989) where he’s dangling by his fingers and he’s got the tip of his finger on the Holy Grail but if he goes one inch further to grab it, he’s going to fall into the pit. I wanted to show that obsession and how being an independent artist specifically can be one’s undoing and can destroy relationships.
FF: With Studio Unknown, were they on board with the fictional story from the beginning or was it a genuine conversation to begin with? How did that unfold?
EKM: That’s a very cool question. I knew them. They did the sound work on Roulette (2013) and after the release of that movie we continued to be friends and stay in touch. They’ve grown so much since then; they did sound work for Wonder Woman. They’ve done all sorts of films and Netflix films and major TV shows etc. They were actually the ones who introduced me to Ed Sanchez. They had me on a sound design panel in 2014 and, again, Ed was sort of the established Maryland legend and I was sort of the up and comer who’s building buzz. So they always said to me, when you do your next film, Erik, come to us in advance, let’s discuss it, so we can make sure that you have all the right sound sources and so when you bring the final product to us the mix, we have a lot to work with.
When the idea of Butterfly Kisses (2018) came along I thought, well, how cool would it be to incorporate these guys into the narrative? So we had a meeting, the producers and myself with Jamie and Kevin, and Matt from Studio Unknown, and we all sat down very much like you see Gavin York do in the film. I said, ‘Ok, here’s the concept I have… (and obviously, I want you guys to do the sound work). I want to take this to another level; I want you guys to be in this as yourselves and incorporate you into the narrative.’ They loved it! They thought it was a fantastic idea. (SPOILER ALERT) In fact, Matt Davies, who you see in the film with a very thick beard (he’s the one who discovers all sorts of sound anomalies in Gavin York’s found footage), was so taken with the idea that he began designing those sound effects. Those things that he inside of the documentary discovers in the found footage, prior to us shooting anything, so that when we came back to film for real, he would be able to have those genuine sounds, and everything that he discovers whether that is the word ‘blink’, appearing in a sound that is deciphered as being Morse code or, at the end of the film, he discovers that that sound that is Morse code, when run through a very specific program creates the ‘Blink Man’ silhouette… That was all real. He designed that and reversed engineered it so that the sound you’re hearing really is what he finds, and does create the image that ultimately he discovers it.
The movie was so weird in the way that we were making it because it had this very, you know, circular but backwards, kind of spidery creation, both before and after the cameras rolled.
FF: That’s really interesting that you didn’t include that element in the original treatment of it, that it just organically happened…
EKM: It did. It came about as as conversation and Matt actually took it to the next level because I said, you know, I think that we should have score in the documentary but I don’t think there should be any sort of non-diegetic music that’s ever played in the found footage. Because then it just feels like a movie and we wanted to feel like something that somebody found. In deciding that certain elements of the found footage would need dramatic undertones (because music so much guides our emotions as we watch a film), what we came upon was the idea of doing what you would do emotionally with music with sound. So, he was using specific microphones to record certain electronics and equipment of the era of 2004 when the found footage was recorded. Things like capturing the sounds of gears turning or the electrical hum that would be coming from analogue sources. He’d then distort those recordings and layer them into the found footage. So that ramps up tension at times and then creates release. Amazing. Wizardry!
FF: The approach of getting the characters in the film to voice what would normally be the skepticism of the viewer, ironically lends credibility to the movie. Did you always plan to have this as a theme running throughout the whole movie?
EKM: That was there from the jump and there are two reasons for that. The first is that as a filmmaker, I find it increasingly fascinating that we cannot trust anything that we see. We can’t. There’s the old adage that ‘the camera doesn’t lie’. As we move forward with the development of technology that’s not true in any sense. And we can’t even necessarily believe what we see in a documentary. There is always a bias in the editing. So-called reality TV is so very manufactured in the sense that it’s scripted or guided or scenes are reshot or the editing is done in such a way to tell a story rather than to reveal truth. So I wanted to comment upon film and specifically documentaries as a whole. On the other hand, there is also the fact that I am a huge fan and sort of armchair researcher of the paranormal, cryptozoology, urban legends, ghost stories, conspiracy theories etc. I participate regularly on the ‘Squaring The Strange’ podcast from Skeptical Inquirer and I have spent a week in Loch Ness doing research. I’m a huge fan of these things from the skeptical perspective. I find that belief systems, in general, are fascinating in the way that there are ideas or inciting incidents that become a social construct. Why do people believe the things that they do? And, for me, the Loch Ness Monster is more interesting in the way that, sociologically, King Kong is released in 1933 and somebody sees something in the water and it turns into, again, this sort of piece of national folklore that is just continuously reinforced by hoaxes and people who have, you know, sort of expectant attention.
The short version of the long-winded answer is that I wanted Butterfly Kisses (2018) to be an opportunity to just be able to wade through the pool and take all of these cool things that I love discussing, whether on podcasts or over a beer, and turn it all into an entertainment film, that hopefully gives you something to chew on with repeat viewings.
FF: Inspired Ghost Tracking who feature in the film appear to be a genuine group of people with a genuine Facebook page of 10k followers. Are they real people or actors? You had me fooled on this…
EKM: That’s a great question because many people have asked me who’s real and who’s not and the very simple answer to that is: within the found footage film the eye doctor and Matt Lake, the folklore author, they’re real guys. Everyone else in the found footage is an actor. Within the documentary wrapped around the found footage, everyone is real, except for Gavin, his wife and his mother in law. And that includes the paranormal investigators. They do have a Facebook page, they do have 10,000 followers and they’re great people. They were very difficult for me to nail down by virtue of the fact that I don’t think they fully understood it when I pitched it to them. Ok, it’s like a horror movie but it’s a documentary and you’re playing yourself, but it’s not real… I don’t think they quite grasped what I was trying to pitch to them. But I think they were afraid that we were going to be showing them bogus paranormal evidence and trying to make them look foolish. And, you know, particularly as someone coming in wearing his skeptical badge, I was like no-no-no… I’m not here to make fun of you guys and girls. The whole premise is that Gavin York thinks you’re an easy mark and he thinks he’s going to be able to receive your endorsement and take advantage of your followers and your audience by virtue of the fact that you’re going to believe in this simply because he shows it to you. In reality, I’m flipping the audience’s expectations. You all are utilising Skeptical Inquirer and examining all evidence that is brought before you or that you discover yourself through a critical lens, and you kick them out, you throw them out. That’s that’s the whole point of this. And so I think it’s going to paint you in a very positive light. And even with that being said, the night we filmed, I think I stood in front of that group for about 90 minutes and still about half the group left because they weren’t comfortable being on camera. Those who stayed just pummeled me with questions for about an hour and a half; I finally was able to just say, ‘Hey, just let me roll camera, and you’ll see where we’re going with this’.
As I left that night I think they still were scratching their chins over what I’d done but when they saw the film they loved it and thought it was hilarious. They have been endorsing it ever since which is wonderful. They’re great people.
FF: How did Matt Lake’s involvement come about? I see he is genuinely the author of Weird Maryland… Was it through researching ‘weird’ phenomena?
EKM: Well, yes, because when his ‘Weird’ series came out in the mid 00s all these things that I’ve been talking about since I was six years old, you know, Lake monsters and big hairy monsters and UFOs and all this geeky stuff that I was really, really into, that people just kind of side-eyed me about. Suddenly, they were at every Barnes and Noble and on my friends’ coffee tables. And I’m just going, ‘Hey, Goat Man, remember I talked about that when I was seven?’ So through the release of those books, particularly in the region where I live, on the Eastern seaboard, he made these topics sort of fashionable and cool. And, in writing Butterfly Kisses (2018) and knowing that I wanted a folklorist, somebody that really understood not only what makes the story cool, but also what makes the story, again, a social construct… He was the first person on my list. I had never met him but I owned his books and was a fan. So this was the perfect opportunity to meet somebody that I’ve been wanting to sit down in the pub and talk to over a beer for, you know, 10 years! So, I reached out to him through social media and told him I had a pitch for him. Sure enough, we sat down over a couple of beers at the pub and talked for about three hours. By the time we left we were mates and he was totally on board. So on board, in fact, that he didn’t want to limit his involvement to the scenes he was in; he came to the casting sessions, he came to all sorts of days that we were filming the found footage, just so he could hang out in the background and watch. He was just so fascinated by the process of filmmaking, that by the time we’d wrapped and finished he’s now an established local ham, in theatre productions. I’m hoping that he wins his first award that he will remember me!
FF: Is Flickergeist (or Flimmerngeist) a fabrication for the purposes of the movie or an actual thing?
EKM: Flickergeist was something that I just sort of put out there. The ‘Peeping Tom’ story was completely fabricated for the film but what I did for fun was I wrote a number of sort of, you know, bullshit stories about the history of that train tunnel, and put them out under pseudonyms on the internet, which then inspired Reddit threads and Creepypasta and all it kind of took off on its own. That train tunnel is a place that is reputedly haunted, it just doesn’t have a specific ghost ascribed to it. So I created one. I put Flickergeist out there in a number of the articles to say that that’s just kind of the way colonists have bastardised so many words from the romantic languages. Flickergeist is just kind of what came out of Flimmerngeist.
FF: Were you aware of Butterfly Kisses (2017), a movie that is completely unrelated to yours? Did it maybe make you question the title of yours?
EKM: That was actually really obnoxious because the films were in production at the same time. I wasn’t aware of that film until we were deep in the 3 hour edit of Butterfly Kisses (2018) and I was uploading information to the Internet Movie Database and went, ‘Oh shit, there’s another Butterfly Kisses movie out of the UK. Well, we talked about it for a bit and were like, you know, ‘can we change the name?’, but it’s baked into the film, not only referring to the found footage by that title repeatedly. Well, you know, it’s a UK production and we Americans are really, really crummy in the fact that we tend to not like imports. Unfortunately, we’re like the one country in the world that can’t deal with accents, we can’t deal with money that looks different, we can’t deal with subtitles. We’re terrible like that! And so we just remake films. So I thought, well, I don’t know if this Butterfly Kisses (2017), which looks like an indie film as well, is ever going to go anywhere, so let’s move ahead as planned. And then, of course, theirs came out and won a bunch of awards and got a lot of press. Sometimes I’ll see it on a movie website and it’s my synopsis and their poster and their house, or vice versa. It’s irritating! Yeah.
FF: What’s next for you?
EKM: I have several screenplays that are sitting in my back pocket. And it’s sort of like, you know: ‘here’s scale one, if I have this much money, or scale five if have that much etc.’’ I’m sort of waiting to see what happens with Butterfly Kisses (2018). It’s going to go out there internationally very soon. I’ll have some have some meetings and see what options I have of those various tiers of projects. So I’m sort of waiting to see for about six months. And try to get some sleep in that time!