Interview: Filmmaker Erik Kristopher Myers Talks His Found Footage Thriller BUTTERFLY KISSES
Found footage filmmaking usually garners a bad rap, especially when it comes to most of the horror found footage. It is a tired sub-genre of film that is a doorway for many filmmakers trying to get their foot into the industry. As you shift through the piles of found footage films, you come across a gem here and there that actually catches you off guard, is high quality overall, and truly frightening. Generally, the found footage sub-genre focuses on some sort of urban legend, entity, or lore. Something that can not be explained by people in a town who whisper about and try to keep quiet from those who dare to come snooping around. Entries like Grave Encounters, Creep, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Paranormal Activity, and of course The Blair Witch Project handle the found footage structure differently.
A film festival darling this year and a quality entry into the sub-genre of found footage movies, Butterfly Kisses tells the legend of ‘Peeping Tom.’ Taking place over eleven years in Maryland, a pair of college film students and a filmmaker who discovers their tapes will go on a damned journey not only questioning if the legend and footage they are chasing is real but what lines are worth crossing for everything surrounding them. Jay Kay had a chance to sit down with Producer, Writer, and Director Erik Kristopher Myers to discuss the film. We talk about researching Peeping Tom, festival runs, the impact of Ed Sanchez, the art behind the lore, and how family can impact our art.
Dread Central: Erik, thank you for taking the time to talk Butterfly Kisses with Dread Central.
Erik Kristopher Myers: The pleasure is mine. Any opportunity to be a part of the Dread Central legacy is an honor, especially for a horror geek such as myself.
DC: Congratulation on the film festival run over the last year or so. What’s your thoughts on the festival run and now being released by Gravitas Ventures this past October?
EKM: Thanks! We toured the film throughout 2018, playing in the U.S. and Canada; it’s been so gratifying to see audience reactions, and to have the opportunity to connect with other fans and filmmakers. The hardest part about signing a distribution deal was the fact that it meant I had to turn down other festival programmers who wanted to show the film, but I’ve been excited to see Butterfly Kisses go even further out into the world thanks to Gravitas Ventures. The correspondence I’ve received from a wider audience has been both gratifying and surreal – on the one hand, the goal is for people to find your movie, but on the other, it sort of makes your head spin a bit when you see it actually happening. I’m grateful it’s being received as well as it is.
DC: We all have different things that influence and inspire us. What inspired you to crossover and become a filmmaker going back more than a decade?
EKM: It goes back further than that, actually; I’ve wanted to make movies since I was a kid, and fell on my knees begging my parents for a video camera on more than one occasion. Growing up, I consumed cinema, and was constantly at work on terrible screenplays, terrible comic books, and all sorts of material that reeked of limited life experience. My original plan was to become an English teacher, but after a painful breakup with my then-girlfriend, I took six months to myself and sort of re-evaluated my life, and decided that if the chess board had been overturned, then I now had the opportunity to reset it the way I wanted. So, I hopped out of the teaching program, became a film major, and never looked back. The experiences during that transition, as well as the subsequent filming and release of my first feature, Roulette, very much informed the narrative of Butterfly Kisses.
DC: What made you want to write Butterfly Kisses on that faithful Thanksgiving holiday back in 2014?
EKM: My previous feature, Roulette, was released in the late fall of 2013, and I spent the better of part of the next year deciding what to do next. Ultimately, I saw a trailer or a commercial for a found footage movie due to be released, and as is both the blessing and curse of overly-analytical types like myself, my mind began picking at the conceits of the genre. I thought back to that brief window of time in 1999 when audiences believed that The Blair Witch Project was real, and how imitation and a sequel lead to the development of tropes and conventions in storytelling. Since we’re supposed to be watching these films like Paranormal Activity, or any of the others. We were supposed to be under the assumption that what we’re seeing is actual film footage that has been recovered and then cobbled together for our benefit. I asked all the questions surrounding the films, the who, where, and when? ‘What made the finder think it was real? Would anyone believe it in real life? What lengths did they have to go to in order for it to be released in theaters?’ From there, the idea of telling that particular part of the story, which is always kept mysterious in these sorts of films, and coupling it with Found Footage that both adheres to and comments upon the tropes of the genre, lit a fire in my brain. I wrote the script in eight days.
DC: Butterfly Kisses is a creepy blend of documentary and found footage. It is set in Maryland where you live. How big of a role did the state’s urban legends, that location, and residents like Filmmaker Ed Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project and Lovely Molly) play in forming this story?
EKM: Maryland is rich in folklore, urban legends, and supposed paranormal phenomena. The historic district of Ellicott City area, in particular, has a long history of inexplicable supernatural activity: according to the lore, just about every tavern or shop along Main Street has a ghost or two. Growing up in that area, I marinated in that culture of high weirdness, and I had always wanted to find a way to build upon the notoriety of the region. Once I fell upon the concept of Butterfly Kisses (a faux-documentary about the discovery of footage showing the death or disappearance of two filmmakers in an alleged supernatural event, and the attempts to research or validate said footage), it hit me to use Ilchester Tunnel as the film’s haunted location. It’s a real place where trains still operate; it’s drilled through the face of a cliff and is accessible only by crossing a trestle that spans the river below. It’s creepy as hell even in broad daylight, and local kids have been going up there after dark for decades. It’s a place with a strong reputation for being haunted, but unlike most of Ellicott City’s popular locales, there’s no particular boogeyman attached to it. This was my opportunity to give the place a specific entity with a specific set of rules, and then have fun with it.
DC: What did the input of Ed Sanchez mean to the project?
EKM: The first draft of the screenplay included the sequence in which Gavin is skewered on-air at DC101, but Ed wasn’t originally a part of that. I was friends with Mike Jones, who is a popular DJ and a really irreverent, charismatic guy. After Roulette was released, he jokingly asked for a cameo in my next film. I came back to him with Butterfly Kisses and was like, ‘Here you go.’ But Ed wasn’t included in that sequence despite knowing him well enough to reach out, I figured he’d turn down the cameo. However, my co-producer Cork Okouchi latched onto the idea of giving Ed a call and at least inquiring; I shrugged and said, ‘What the hell, go for it.’
Three days later we were meeting with Ed and Carlo Glorioso, the latter of whom eventually came on board as a producer. Ed dug the idea and did his two scenes, but went above and beyond as he offered ongoing creative guidance. We brought him cut after cut of the finished film, trying to bring it down to commercial length while still retaining the integrity of the story. He was very generous with his time, and his participation in a project in which I deconstruct a genre he is largely responsible for creating is an honor, and something for which I’m very grateful.
DC: There are several elements that are used incredibly well to invoke intrigue, fear, and emotion in Butterfly Kisses. The first is sound, which is also a story arc in the film as well as a manipulative tool. Talk about the importance of sound design, Foley, the sound edit, and the impact of to prove the urban legend to possibly be true?
EKM: The post-production audio team who appear in the film are the guys from Studio Unknown in Catonsville, Maryland. They also worked on the film’s sound design and were involved before we’d shot a single scene. In particular, Matt Davies, who is a Foley genius, created all the electrical noise and tones heard throughout the found footage segments. I didn’t want to score those sequences with music, as I felt it would undercut the questionable authenticity of the discovered Mini-DV tapes. As such, Matt used signal noise and feedback and other electrical sounds inherent in such recorded content to create the same tension evoked by score, and did this through layered and strategic implementation of uncomfortable sound. He also created the Morse code effect heard when Peeping Tom appears, as well as the subsequent revelation of the sound’s true meaning.
For the rest of the film, Studio Unknown’s resident musical genius, Cazz Cerkez, wrote fantastic music that gives the film a wholly-appropriate but decidedly non-horror aesthetic that balances the stereotypes of the genre. That changed in the third act when the tropes begin to intentionally bleed into the film about the film. These guys, working with Kevin Hill on his dialogue editing and mixing, took a number of recording sources and gave the film a soundscape that heightens the believability in a way that’s absent without their work.
DC: Who was the artist behind the diaries and drawings of ‘Peeping Tom?’
EKM: Our Art Director is a multi-talented guy named Carl Porter, who created a number of elements you see in the film, such as the weathered box of tapes, the fake books about Peeping Tom, and all sorts of other fun Easter eggs that require multiple viewings to really ingest. He had a team that consisted of Nicholas Holcomb McMahon and Sam Lukowski, who, along with Production Designer Laura Myers, really brought Peeping Tom to life. First, in terms of various concept drawings, and then through wardrobe. It was a lot of trial and error as we fought to achieve the silhouette necessary to show you everything you needed to know about our villain and absolutely nothing at all.
The respective diaries of Feldman (Reed Delisle) and Gavin (Seth Adam Kallick) were kept by the actors at my encouragement, and what you see in the film is what they themselves wrote. Carl ultimately took Feldman’s journal and defaced it with manic drawings of Peeping Tom, and then aged it for its rediscovery over a decade later.
DC: How much research went into ‘Peeping Tom’ and the ritual?
EKM: I’m a fan of cryptozoology, urban legends, conspiracy theories, and the paranormal, all from the skeptical perspective. As such, I created the character of Peeping Tom, a flimmern-geist who can only be summoned by staring down the length of Ilchester Tunnel between the stroke of midnight and 1 AM without blinking; when he appears, he comes one step closer every time you blink until he’s nose to nose with you; then he quite literally scares you to death upon the final blink. My goal was to create a plausible bit of mythology that audiences (in particular, Maryland natives) might suddenly recall having heard on playgrounds or during the late-night sleepovers of their adolescence. It was intentionally a mash-up of things like Slenderman and Bloody Mary, so that it felt familiar and new at once, just like any good urban legend should.
DC: How crucial was it to show the personal side of Gavin with his wife and child?
EKM: We all want our views to be reinforced through the existence of a verifiable narrative. The problem is, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that evidence is elusive. We will never prove that the Loch Ness Monster is real unless a carcass washes ashore; Bigfoot is always just out of sight despite the presence of drones, and other ways of thoroughly sweeping vast areas of forest. Those who chase the dragon will always find its tail just out of reach, and can easily spend their lives on a pursuit that leads to financial ruin or the alienation of friends and family. This isn’t limited to ghosts and monsters, though; after all, isn’t every artist a fanatic on some level? Aren’t they seeing that which no one else can see until it’s finally bound and presented for all eyes, and often to disappointment or incredulity?
This was what I tried to impress upon Kallick in his performance as Gavin, and I kept going back to the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where you have Indy hanging onto the edge of a chasm by one hand as the other is gripping frantically for the Grail, just out of reach. He can touch it, but he can’t take it. To try is to fall, and to fall is to perish. Obsession is a dangerous thing, particularly when the focus is on the intangible, the invisible. Showing glimpses of Gavin’s failing marriage, and his brief but telling interaction with his son, reinforces this notion.
DC: Was post-production the most important phase of this production? If so, why? If not, where?
EKM: In the sense that we needed to carve out a commercial ninety-minute movie from a three-hour assembly, then yes post-production was a killer. However, I’d say that filming was probably the most important period, as Butterfly Kisses was approached as two separate shoots, with a variety of hurdles. There was the found footage, which was shot in the dead of the winter during ongoing snowstorms; I worked very closely with the actors, none of whom saw any scenes besides the ones they were in, and they had absolutely no idea what the larger story would be given that we shot in chronological order.
Then, after we wrapped, we had to cut the footage, acquire our “actors” for the second shoot (most of whom were real people playing themselves), and then allow them to watch and familiarize themselves with the film Gavin York was peddling around Baltimore. Working with these folks was an entirely different experience, as they weren’t performers per se; this was why casting Kallick in the role of Gavin was so vital. He’s great at both engaging and pissing people off, and together we pulled realistic performances out of people who weren’t normally comfortable or experienced being on that side of the camera.
DC: Your cinematographer, producer, and editor Kenny Johnson does a great job bringing this film together. Talk about what intangibles he brought to this film? Did having him involved on so many levels make this experience easier?
EKM: I approached Butterfly Kisses with a mission statement that can be summed up in one word: Verisimilitude. It had to play like a real documentary in order to work, even as simple entertainment. Even if the ‘Found Footage’ was dismissed by audiences, the ‘documentary’ had to be completely believable. I didn’t want a cinematographer who was coming in with dollies and cranes and the awesome but, in this case, counterintuitive, desire to paint with light and all that; I needed an actual documentary filmmaker who knew how to shoot on the fly and make it look that way. Slick but real. Someone who also knew how to bring that aesthetic to the table in the edit, and to help avoid the film looking staged. Kenny was the first and only person I approached. I knew him from a film he co-directed and in which I was featured called Indie Film Artists: The DMV Truth. Even more importantly, he’s made a huge name for himself as a documentarian in the world of professional wrestling. Kenny knew exactly what I needed, even when I didn’t. I was approaching this project as a deconstruction of horror films, and he was approaching it as a bunch of normal people we were following with a camera. It created some push and pull between us during filming and again during editing, but always with an eye on striking the proper balance between those two aesthetics. I can say without hesitation that Butterfly Kisses wouldn’t be what it is without Kenny Johnson.
DC: How did you decide on the experts and outside voices to both support and contradict the filmmakers?
EKM: I went to high school with Andy Wardlaw – the TV editor who criticizes Gavin’s footage for signs of being fake – and Steve Yeager was an instructor of mine back in college whom I greatly respect. Matt Lake is a local celebrity out here, as his Weird Maryland book appeared on everyone’s coffee table from the moment of release, and his colorful personality made him a perfect fit. The Inspired Ghost Tracking Team of paranormal investigators took a little convincing, but ultimately they saw that I wasn’t there to mock them. Rather, I wanted to show that they were and are discerning individuals who won’t let themselves to be taken advantage of or exploited by a guy like Gavin York, who considers them an easy mark. Their scenes are among my favorites in the film.
DC: Let me close the interview with this and thank you for the time! I read that your son is on the spectrum. Life experiences like that can influence how we see the world, our fears, and obsessions. How much has your family influenced you when being a filmmaker and especially with Butterfly Kisses?
EKM: My son was diagnosed literally days after I wrote the first draft of Butterfly Kisses; I was actually doing camera tests at the film’s primary location the night before his evaluation. There are certain things in life you can prepare for, and others that pull the rug out from beneath your feet without warning. This was one such occurrence. I had always known the sort of father I wanted to be, and whether or not I was successful at the time is largely subjective, but learning that my child would need me in ways I had never considered literally reprogrammed me as a human being. He became the center of my universe in ways I had never anticipated, and not simply because I now had additional responsibilities. The growth he experienced due to early intervention programs, and the focus his mother and I now had on helping him achieve seemingly mundane goals, inspired me to focus less on my career path than on his development and achievements.
I try hard to give back to a community that has helped him transform from a non-verbal child who couldn’t be potty trained into an eccentric but otherwise typical child with manageable sensory issues; my efforts to pay it forward pale in comparison to my gratitude. He’s now six and mainstreamed in the public school system, and his successes inspire me in ways I can’t put into words. Even now, when I watch Butterfly Kisses, all I remember during each scene is darting home after filming to work with him on his speech, his fine motor skills, and all the ways he was transforming right in front of me. In turn, I changed, as well.