We just got an e-mail from filmmaker Justin Cole who has addressed some of the controversy around his project The Upper Footage. Read on for an open letter to the fans and an explanation of exactly what the deal with this flick is. The story just keeps getting stranger by the minute.
“The Upper Footage” Is Not Real
I want to start this off by thanking everyone for all the support from the start but like all things in life, this is coming to an end. With much hesitation I am officially announcing that “The Upper Footage” is not actually real. All of the media and hoopla around it is in fact real but as for the film actually depicting a young girl’s death and cover-up, it does not. I knew I would have to come out about this eventually but I was hoping a few more people would be able to experience it as-is beforehand.
My goal when I started this project years ago was to make a found footage film that really went for it as The Blair Witch Project did back in 1999. I remember being 13 at the time and watching the film in awe, wondering if it was actually real. Since then nothing has come close to capturing that, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we live in the Google era where things can be proven/disproven instantly (also due to the fact that pretty much every found footage film involves monsters and ghosts). Along with that, I wanted to make a “found footage” film that was topical. I feel like the genre still has so much potential that has yet to be explored.
My intention wasn’t to fool people for the sake of fooling them but to give them an experience where they could leave a movie theater, discuss the film, wonder if the footage was real or not and if something like this could/does happen. Even though I wasn’t able to do that on the scale I had originally hoped, I am happy that I was able to do it.
I knew to really pull this off I not only had to make a realistic film, but also create a world for it to live on the Internet. What Blair Witch did in 1999 was set up a website claiming the film was real with pictures, facts and a full back-story. While that worked brilliantly in 1999, I knew that for something to be believable in 2011 it would have to push far beyond a personal website and I would need to get people to report on it as fact.
I have always been interested in the media, and wondered how much of what is reported on is actually true. Spending my life hearing celebrities complain that tabloids made up stories without any factual backing, I figured that focusing on celebrity media would be a good target.
Over a two-year period we were able to create a narrative using the media to report on events that did not happen, and people that only existed as characters in a film. We fooled countless media outlets several times throughout the process. From garnering 800,000 plus views on a clip from the film of a girl overdosing that people thought was real, to creating a Hollywood drug scandal using clips from the film that wound up as the top story on Entertainment Tonight, to having characters from the film reported on as real people (while getting recognized in character in the real world) etc. etc. Along the way fiction started to blend with reality as we were contacted by some of the biggest names in the industry including Paramount Pictures.
Being a first time filmmaker with no name whatsoever I walked into every meeting solo without any representation (not the best idea). Unsurprisingly I didn’t get a fair shake when meeting with these people. After falling for broken promise after broken promise, and then having the film’s ending spoiled by someone who worked with a Paranormal Activity producer who screened the film, we decided our only option was to release it on our own as we felt like sitting ducks otherwise.
Originally, I thought this was impossible due to the financial restraints of finalizing a film but I was lucky enough to meet a few unbelievably talented people that were willing to lend their expertise for heavily discounted rates simply because they believed in the project.
After years of hard work we were finally able to get a limited theatrical release in NYC last month. We spoke to several theaters. Many were scared off because of the nature of the film, but a handful were willing to work with us. We decided to go with Sunshine Cinemas whom seemed the most eager to be a part of it.
Things with them started off really well. We were welcomed with open arms but as the screenings neared things turned sour. I have stayed tight-lipped about this from the start and have spent the past several weeks trying to figure out a way to keep it that way but it is impossible at this point. Something I have never mentioned and never planned to was that the girl who played the part of Jackie is the daughter of a famous actor/actress, and due to the nature of the project and a controversial scene that involves nudity the mother wanted edits to be made to the film.
Due to the fact this actress was a pleasure to work with and gave her all in the performance, I thought it was only right to accommodate her, even though the key scene in question is the most pivotal scene in the film, and I had zero obligation to do so.
We met and she got extremely emotional saying how she was scared that this would ruin her career and an existing contract with a prominent company. I told her it was impossible to simply pull it, but I was willing to reshoot something that we could patch in.
At first the actress agreed, but later refused to show up for the reshoots because of a previous engagement she had with her parent, even though I informed her that said apartment was only available to shoot in for a few more days before a 2-year lease began. Due to this the removal of the scene was impossible.
She didn’t contact me for months and after seeing her post several risqué pictures on her Facebook fan page I thought it was a dead issue. I was wrong. Again she contacted me asking about the scene’s removal.
I again explained how the scene couldn’t be taken out because there was no sufficient patch in and the apartment that we rented for the shoot had since been leased for 2 years. She informed me that if the edits were made she, along with her parent, would do their best to promote the film but if they weren’t she wouldn’t say a word about it and completely disassociate herself with the project.
Using someone’s parents name to promote a film was not something I was interested in, and as far as I was concerned I didn’t want anyone who didn’t want to be part of the project on board. I brought up an idea I had from the beginning (which I thought no actor would agree to) which was to blur her face throughout the film and all of the marketing. She agreed that it was a good idea, so with that we both agreed to keep our lips zipped and go our separate ways. Unfortunately only one of us has kept our word.
Since we started getting attention a lot of odd circumstances surrounded the film. We started to hear rumors that said actress’s parent was trying to interfere with the project. We ignored it. We thought as things played out it would be obvious that we had no interest in using her identity to bring attention to our film. We then had someone slip/tell us in confidence that some unethical happenings were going on behind the scenes, again we ignored it because outing them to prove a point would simply be counter-productive and not something I was interested in doing. After spending years of exposing tabloids that refer to random people that send in email tips as “reliable sources”, the last thing I wanted this to become was a sleazy tabloid story. Our frustration grew as media outlets that were hot on us suddenly started cutting all ties. This made us wonder if there was something more behind it.
All I have to say is that in the age of Google it is very hard to be sneaky and relationships are easily confirmed with just the slightest bit of know how. Among many other things we had a very prominent publication reach out to us promising to take us to “the next level” when in reality they just mined information from us to forward it to people who didn’t want this project out there. I could go on for quite a bit with everything that happened but that is for another time.
The tipping point was our theatrical screenings. Shortly after booking the screenings we found out that said parent’s most popular film was programmed at the same theater, at the same dates, at the same time. At that point we were so used to stuff like this happening that we just laughed it off and figured maybe it was just some massive coincidence. We then learned that the theater’s publicist was the same as the actress’s parent. Again we didn’t let it effect us as we didn’t want to get involved with anything of the sort, but that ended up not being up to us.
The theater essentially hid the fact that we were playing there. After originally agreeing to feature us on their website and social media they did none of the above. We were led on for weeks, being told we would be posted day after day after day, but we never were. Outside of one extremely hard to find page, they did not list us anywhere on their site whereas all of the other movies playing were listed. In turn we did not show up on any corresponding ticketing sites as a film that was showing at the theater.
Employees at the theater were beyond rude to us, openly bashing the film as ticket buyers waited to get into the theater (even though they never saw the project) even going on Twitter and using our hashtag to bash the project and tell people to avoid it. Our poster was put up at the theater as agreed but it was listed as coming soon and the ticket booth did not list our film as a film that was showing, so even if the poster intrigued someone they would not ask for a ticket being that it was listed as coming soon with no mention of it at the box office.
At our first screening, people who had already bought tickets were told to pay again, comps were turned away and when asked about the film those in the ticket booth said they had no idea. We made sure to document all of this so I welcome anyone involved to dispute my claims (not to mention that our theatrical poster was defaced before it was returned to us).
After this happened I was beyond infuriated. I planned on coming out with exactly what happened as soon as I walked out of the theater but after seeing the reaction the audience had I just couldn’t bring myself to do so. The response was exactly what I dreamed about when this whole thing was just a concept in my head 4 years ago.
I will not say the actress’s name, and even if she comes forward I’m not sure that I will even confirm her involvement. I am honestly disgusted by the way everything went down and have no interest in being associated with her.
Roughly a year ago said actress got quite a bit of media and several people on my team (and otherwise) tried repeatedly to convince me to come out about everything and use the controversy and publicity to bring attention to the film. At that point we already had several false starts, rocky experiences with the industry, and things were not looking good for us. I was dead broke after putting everything that I had into this project. I was told repeatedly that it was time to monetize, make a name for myself and move on with my life/career. I didn’t even consider it and I lost friendships and people on my team because of it.
Not only did I have no interest in cheapening the project, I also wouldn’t want to interfere with something positive going on in someone’s life for my own advancement. I made sure everyone involved also kept their mouths shut so as not to ruin her opportunity (I even removed a video of her speaking with her face pixelated that I had online for months in case someone decided to leak information and link her to the project.) If there was ever a time to take the easy way out it was then, and I am sure she and her parent were fully aware of that. I wish that same courtesy had been extended my way, but unfortunately it was not.
I dedicated 4 years of my life to this project, taking a concept in my head all the way to the big screen. I made countless sacrifices to make something truly unique possible, so to get so far and to have my legs kicked out at the finish line because someone with more money and status simply can is frustrating beyond words, but ironically it is the very thing the film is about. The parallels between the film and reality have been nutty. Art imitating life imitating art.
To continue to keep what is really going on quiet while pushing the film as real just doesn’t make sense anymore. Hopefully by coming out about this the BS will stop and they will leave us be. If not it will at least be clear to everyone as to what is really going on. We have been offered screenings at several theaters, but we are nervous about screening again after seeing how easy it is to squash us.
As for the outlets that had the guts to run stories on our film, I will always be grateful. To some of the outlets we fooled, I apologize if I angered you but there was simply no other way to do this. As for some other outlets I don’t apologize at all, but I thank you for showing me what a slimy backstabbing creepy world online “journalism” and “blogging” can be. Next time I hear someone saying that a website/TV show just made up a story about them, I will know that they are likely telling the truth.
On a positive note I would like to give a shout out to TMZ for not buying any of it, and not touching us at all (even though we tried).
Taking everything I have learned, I have already started planting the seeds on a similar project (albeit a bit riskier) using the same principles, so if you are a gossip “writer/journalist/blogger” make sure to check your facts before posting stories because the wheels are already in motion.
I hope even with all of this said people will still be able to experience the film in a way close to what I originally intended and maybe all of the circumstances around it will make it just as “real” as it would have been otherwise. Many have talked about “Jackie’s” and Blake Pennington’s family trying to stop the release of the film, and ironically a family may have been trying to stop the film’s release all along, just not a fictional one.
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