Clif Prowse & Derek Lee Talk 'Afflicted' & Found Footage

Alan Jones

Not long after Afflicted premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, it became one of the most buzzed about horror flicks on the festival circuit. A few weeks later it won Best Picture at Fantastic Fest in Montreal, allowing for it to get picked up by CBS films for a North American release on VOD this week. Not bad for a low-budget horror flick from a couple of resourceful Vancouver filmmakers.

Those two auteurs, Clif Prowse and Derek Lee, pull triple-duty and write, direct, and act in their own film. Lee and Prowse grew up together, watching and making their own films as teenagers and then they just kept doing it as adults. Afflicted is their debut feature after almost two decades of making shorts. They play versions of themselves in the film and enlisted their own friends and family to create an illusion of reality, all in the service of making what they call a “supernatural documentary,” though most of us would just consider it an example of the found footage horror genre.

Afflicted begins with the news that Derek has been diagnosed with a fatal brain condition. In order to make his last few months on earth count, his friends, including Clif, take him to Europe and make a documentary web series about their adventures. After a hookup in Paris, however, Derek contracts something, and Clif keeps the cameras rolling to progress his biological and psychological transformation into something not-quite-human. I caught up with Clif and Derek to talk about their flick and what they have coming up next.

GFW: So how long have you guys known each other?
Clif: Since we were thirteen, so that's 22 years. Oh my God.

So is your relationship pretty similar to what it was like in the movie? Working together and making movies together since you were teenagers?
Derek: Yeah, that's exactly it. The insanity of using ourselves as ourselves in the movie was to create that fabric of reality, which, we hope, if the audience buys into that and enjoys that, makes so that they like the characters more [so] when things go horrible and violence starts to happen, they care. Using all of our backstory and our brothers and our sisters and our parents as our actual family members is all a part of that madness about being obsessed about reality.

And you worked on short films together in the past; were they made in a similar vein? 
Clif: When we first started this crazy knack for filmmaking when we were 16, and we just sort of picked up our parents Handicams and just started making Desperado tribute movies... so yeah, when you're 16, you get a group of friends together, everyone's holding the camera, everyone's directing, writing, acting, probably playing 16 roles or whatever. When Derek and I graduated from University, the two of us basically looked at each other and said “Hey, what if we try to do this professionally?” and at that point, when we started to do our quote-unquote “real” short films, I basically stepped behind the camera exclusively, and then Derek was acting in them as well as directing and writing them with me.

So I guess that's why you decided Derek would be mostly in front of the camera for this film?
Clif: Correct. Since he had acted in all the other ones, we knew that heading in. It wasn't until, as Derek explained before, we made this commitment to making the most real film possible that it made sense that I would then be in the movie as the sidekick.

Were your short films all horror or genre films as well?
Derek: Uh, we did one horror movie, actually. They're all genre films because we're huge fans of action movies and sci-fi, but we've only actually ever made one horror film and we've never actually touched found footage, so this was a very huge learning curve for us.

What kind of support did you have when it came to making this film? Were producers interested because of your shorts?
Clif: Nothing!

Derek: No! So we had two producers on this film: Zach Lipovsky and Chris Ferguson. Chris had produced two of our previous short films. Zach we had worked with as a visual effects supervisor on other films and the four of us had actually known each other and worked on each other's short films for about ten years. So that was the core that went forward to make this movie happen, initially. The group of us went to Telefilm Canada, got a $200 000 first time filmmaker assistance grant and then needed to raise an additional $118 000 on top of that in order to make our initial budget. So in terms of support, we had sort of our core group of filmmaking friends and then it was friends and family who came in and pitched in to help us make this movie a reality, and the rest is history!

You said there was a learning curve in making a feature film. What sort of challenges did that bring with it?
Derek: I think the biggest thing is, when we're making short films, they're usually in the 5-10 minute range. As a director and a writer, you can keep the whole film in your head. You can understand the ebbs and flows of every scene, even every line of dialogue in a film that short. In a feature film, the biggest adaptations for Clif and I to figure out was keeping straight, especially when you're shooting out of order, where in the movie any particular beat was, and understanding how it plays through the overall narrative. Specifically in regards to found footage, one of the more iconic realizations was that things can't be too pretty. You can't frame up your action, you can't keep everything in perfect focus, you can't have the perfect shot without it feeling like a movie. 

While we're on the subject, why did you decide to go with the found footage aesthetic?
Derek: Basically, it was part of the concept from the beginning. When we thought of this idea of doing a supernatural documentary, particularly with the creature—which we're trying to keep under wraps for the purpose of promotion—what was exciting to us was to take that familiar creature, which is a very fantasy based creature and then shine the lens of reality on it. So, first of all, what would that look like in real life, if you were undergoing this horrific, supernatural transformation, psychologically what would that do to you, and emotionally and physically, like, if this was actually happening. So we wanted to make it feel very biological, and the thing that really drew us to the found footage route was that everything about the aesthetic, if you're doing it properly, is basically making the audience's mind feel “OK, I'm watching reality. This feels like I'm watching real people in real situations.”

Clif: We probably wouldn't have told this story with a creature as ubiquitous and saturated as it is, through any other medium. Doing it traditionally... we wouldn't have even wanted to make that film. Because we made it with found footage, that made it interesting. It's also probably worth saying that found footage is cheaper, and that was hugely beneficial to us.

So there's two of you. You both write and direct. Is your vision for the final project usually in simpatico, or do you get in fights with each other? Be honest.
Derek: We fight all the time because fights are probably what make us better. One of the interesting by-products of being a co-director is that neither of us ever gets to unilaterally make a decision without at least convincing one other person, aka each other. So no matter how smart or brilliant I think my ideas are, if Clif disagrees with me, we have to talk it out. We have to hash it out. So you can never buy in to your own BS. Usually the ideas that come out of that synergy and that testing process, of two minds instead of one, has made our filmmaking that much better.

Clif: Also, we've been making movies together since we were 16, so we learned how to make movies together. It wasn't like we came from two separate places and then came together on this project. Therefore, when we do have disagreements and we come up with a solution, its a solution that the both of us agree is the best possible version of that scene.

Derek: Except Beyonce. Clif and I have a difference of opinion when it comes to Beyonce.

And what do you think about Beyonce, Derek?
Derek: I think she's a very attractive lady, but I don't go out of my way to download her on iTunes.

So what movies did you watch while you were preparing to make this?
Derek: We went so some of the found footage greats with stuff like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, because those really create a fabric of reality that feels very, very believable. We also watched [REC], which is another one. Let the Right One In. Catfish is one we talked about. For the body transformation stuff and the personal horror bit, The Fly was a hugely inspirational movie in which Clif would take on the role of Geena Davis and I am a much less sexy version of Jeff Goldblum. But that movie in particular, with the psychological toll of the transformation was hugely important to us.

Do you have anything else coming up in the future?
Clif: We are in the process of writing right now, and it's another genre movie, and it's basically an action movie that takes place in a horror movie universe. But the thing that's most exciting to us is that stylistically it's going to be a big departure from Afflicted, which, obviously, inherent to the concept was the documentary style and we really enjoyed it, but we're looking forward to being able to do something much more visually diverse and using soundtrack and score and much more abstract sound design. All those fun tools of the filmmaker palette that you can't really access when you're making a found footage movie. So we're looking forward to the day when somebody can say “Wow, I can't believe the same two guys made those two movies.”

'Afflicted' is released in the US/Canada on 4 April. 

Follow Alan on Twitter: @alanjonesxxxv

Unconventional by Tradition

Discover how urban creatives helped us design our new packaging.

Read more