Elan Dassani & Rajeev Dassani are the brotherly directorial duo behind Evil Eye, a horror thriller feature from the Welcome to the Blumhouse series of films now streaming on Amazon Prime. As a collaboration between Blumhouse Productions and Amazon Studios, Welcome to the Blumhouse has released a slate of films showcasing diverse casts, female, and emerging filmmakers with a focus on family dramas.
Evil Eye tells the story of a young woman from a traditional Indian family who’s mother believes that her new boyfriend is the reincarnation of a man who tried to kill her 30 years ago. The movie delivers the scares while pulling on heartstrings and crafting a family drama that is both authentic and relatable while being chilling all the while.
We hear about the brother’s directorial origin stories, working with Blumhouse and details about the making of Evil Eye in the below interview.
Dread Central: Huge congratulations on Evil Eye. This felt like it was a very personal story. Could you talk about the inception of the idea and how the movie came together?
Elan Dassani: Sure. So interestingly, it is a very personal story, and we have a lot of personal relation to it. This is based on an audio play that Madhuri Shekar wrote largely based on her relationship with her mother. And essentially that audio play was found by Priyanka Chopra Jonas. And then I believe she and her company Purple Pebble brought it to Amazon and Blumhouse, and that’s when we got involved as directors. And I think what we loved about it was that we had never read something that combined Indian mythology and supernatural thrills and family drama in a way that really made them all sing so well together.
Rajeev Dassani: The original play was all telephone calls. And so our pitch was, “How do you make this cinematic? How do you make it visual, use digital storytelling?” So, like, the underwater sequences, the flashback sequences, much of that stuff were our additions and our thoughts on it.
DC: That’s interesting. So what was it like working with Blumhouse?
RD: They are an interesting company because they’re known for horror, known for low budget…But when they say low budget, what we found out is, what that really means is that they care about quality. I remember a few years ago, I heard an interview with Jason Blum where they asked, “What’s your number one rule of filmmaking?” And he’s like, “The number one rule is, don’t let the waiters talk.” The basic point is, you use that money for other stuff. Use it for the crane or use it for whatever you need to get the quality or the actors or whatever it is. And what was nice is that whenever they would push us, it was all about elevating the film. They’re like, “What do you need to make this work? We think that it could be better if you do this.” And it was never mandated. It was always like, “You should think about it” or, “Maybe if you do this, it could be better.”
ED: We were basically told if we didn’t go over budget we could do whatever we wanted, which was kind of freeing. We have a background as producers as well. So we wanted an underwater sequence, we wanted an Indian shoot. It was like, “Okay, these things aren’t necessarily budgeted for. So let’s figure out how we can essentially horse trade.” And an example is that we just shot one camera, which is very rare. And we’re like, “It will not cause us to go over time, just trust us.” And as long as we got our material, then it was fine. It went great.
RD: And truly, I’ll say one more thing about Blumhouse, too. I think something people don’t always understand about them is that there’s a reason why so many horror directors end up doing well in other genres, because it’s so primary, it’s so specific to knowing an audience. And I think it’s great how they often use that experience. Their experience as a horror company has helped drama as well.
DC: Yeah. The best horror movies have real, solid drama in them. I feel like some of the best ones are drama first and horror second. Hereditary is a primary example. Relic was another great example, if you’ve seen it. But you established such a dramatic core and then supernatural stuff started happening.
RD: I think that’s how we see a lot of our work. We love drama stories, but to us, drama stories are a vehicle to talk about real things. And it’s a way to be able to comment on something with depth. But through a genre lens, horror film is not scary unless you care about the characters. If you don’t care whether they live or die, it’s not going to be scary. So really, empathy leads to fear.
DC: That’s a really good quote. I’m definitely going to use that and attribute it to you. On top of this being a really interesting story, there seemed to be some social messaging behind it. I haven’t quite been able to decipher it yet, since I just saw the movie yesterday. Were there any specific messages that you were attempting to get across in the movie?
ED: There’s a lot there, but the big one for us is about domestic abuse and about the cycle of violence against women. And especially the manipulation of women by abusers. People often attribute abuse to the wife beater, like, hitting his wife, that kind of thing. But that’s a stereotype. We actually did a lot of research into this, speaking with advocates who work with abuse victims. The reality is more about things like isolation and financial manipulation. Somebody pays for her rent and says, “You don’t need your friends.” These are microaggressions that are actually manipulations. And also the way in which, oftentimes, victims of this stuff don’t realize that they are victims.
RJ: The fact that she has this pass with her mom and her mom is pushing her one way, makes her go another direction. This movie is all about assumptions, and about how these two women both assume that they’re right. And they assume one thing about the other. And until they both figure out that they’re both right, and they’re both wrong at the same time, no progress can generally be made. But the final thing, ultimately, the cycle of domestic abuse is mirrored in the cycle of reincarnation. That’s what the best genre films do. They take a genre concept as a metaphor for a real concept. So like, in District Nine, the aliens represent apartheid. So in Get Out, cultural appropriation becomes physical appropriation. In this case, domestic violence becomes a supernatural cycle.
So in this case, I think using reincarnation as a metaphor for the cycle of abuse was probably the most clever thing about the script. That connection was just like, “What an amazing, simple metaphor to stick to.” You basically take what is conceptual and make it literal.
DC: It’s pretty fascinating. And I think one really interesting thing about Welcome to the Blumhouse is that these are all movies about families, and sometimes some of the worst horror can come from one’s own family. And this definitely seemed to echo certain themes of generational trauma and cycles of abuse and things like that. I’m sure in certain cases there had to be a lot of family research done. What was the overall research process like for getting into the family element of this movie?
ED: Well, I will say that, we looked a lot to our own family in terms of really understanding somebody’s dynamic. Our mom is very superstitious. She believes in the Evil Eye and is very big into horoscopes. Whenever we dated anybody, she would ask us, “What’s their sign? When were they born?” And so in that sense, there’s a lot of personal stuff, but I think we’re also getting a lot of the writer. Because she based a lot of the themes on her own family. So we would call her a lot just to ask her things, but also the actors actually brought a lot to the table.
Like Sarita has a daughter and she talked a lot about that relationship. And obviously, Sunita has a mother and they often would have suggestions about, “I think it could be more real if I said this, or if we did that.” And Sarita, she would say, “If my daughter were in trouble and she just wasn’t listening to me, how would I actually react? Would I shout, would I try to talk to her, would I negotiate, would I just go and see her?” And like, “Do I think it would actually help?” Sometimes she’d think she was helping, but in fact, she was just making things worse, which is what this movie is full of. People trying to help and just making things worse.
DC: Yeah. So you guys have a pretty interesting background. There’s a lot that you’ve done on TV. You have your own VFX company. Can you talk a little bit about your background and how you came into the film world?
RD: Yeah. We both moved to L.A. in the 2000s. Rajeev went to film school, I worked in the industry in various jobs on set. And we got into visual effects basically because we wanted to learn about it and also have this power over our own films, really. We got into visual effects because we needed to pay our rent. It’s a way, when you’re early in the industry, to get anywhere and meet directors and to exercise your directorial instincts without having to directly apply to be a director, because that takes longer. But it gave us the instincts that served us well in other mediums. So first as VFX supervisors, people saw what came to us because we could see it from a director’s eye. Then that led to us doing international producing and directing.
So we ended up directing and producing units all over the world, in Hong Kong and Paris and Venezuela. And what we found is that that led to learning how to do crazy things, operate in crazy locations. It just allowed us to avoid assumptions about how you’re supposed to make movies.
DC: Yeah. Because they give the second unit the most complicated stuff.
RD: Sometimes you’re told, “You can’t go to Paris and just shoot plates,” or whatever. Or “You can’t go and shoot for double.” And sometimes you have to ask, “Well, why not?” That experience really helped in this film, because honestly, when we went in to Blumhouse, and we said, “We’d like to shoot in India and shoot an underwater unit.” They were like, “No, and no.” They were great, but initially it was like, “We’re not budgeted for that. It’s a lot, those are very expensive things to do.” And we were like, “Okay, how much is it? What is the actual budget?” We ran the numbers and then contacted the producers we worked with in India. And we basically ran the numbers, and it turned out to be $50,000 cheaper in India versus America. And it was like, “Oh, well, I guess you can just do that.”
DC: You’re going to be setting up the Blumhouse New Delhi office next, I assume.
RD: Hahaha! But it was something where if we hadn’t had the experience of having produced those kind of units in the past, we might’ve just gone along with them. And I think our attitude is always, “Let’s think outside the box to achieve the best storytelling.” And honestly, to Blumhouse’s credit, I was being a bit facetious. They didn’t say, “No.” They were just like, “I don’t know if we could do that.” We were like, “We really need something.” They were like, “Okay, let’s figure it out. Let’s try and figure out how we can maybe cut a day here or there.”
DC: Working with low budgets. You’re forced to be very resourceful. And your movie does not look like a low budget movie. So what are some of the keys to making a low budget movie look like a higher budget movie?
ED: I think one thing is that you don’t always need giant things to make something look good. And so many of the scenes in this movie were shot with one light, with one soft box or with a single China ball or whatever. A lot of times, a lot of filmmakers just think that they need all the toys to make things look expensive. The second thing is location. Just find the right location and a lot of your work is done for you. So you don’t have to shoot everything and dress the shit out of it. You can just find a good spot with the camera, just skimming things down. The Indian unit, as an example, that was shot with basically no lights, just following someone around with a very tiny crew in India. And yet, because it’s so full of light and culture, it looks really expensive.
And I’ll add one more thing. If you look at a shot and you’re like, “I want to do that. But I’m sure that they had some expensive rig,” sometimes it’s worth just looking on YouTube or Google or whatever, to see how things are done. For example, 90 percent of the aerials in this movie were shot with my $800 drone that I just was carrying with me. Anyone can buy this from Best Buy. And those aerials, they look great.
DC: They do look great. And it really boosts the production value.
ED: Yeah. And a lot of it’s knowing that you shoot a sunset or sunrise. There are basic tricks to making shots look amazing. It’s about timing, in that sense. That said, though, we had an amazing crew and the production designers had a lot of work. Dressing those locations was not simple.
DC: Great. Well guys, huge congratulations, the movie was really fantastic. And thank you for doing this interview. Pleasure talking to you both.
ED: Thank you.
RJ: Great talking to you too!