‘Afflicted’ actors Derek Lee and Clif Prowse on what’s wrong with monster movies

With a title like “Afflicted,” and the skin-crawling movie posters that have accompanied, there's no question a creature is coming.

But for “Afflicted” co-stars/co-directors Derek Lee and Clif Prowse, it's all about the timing and emotional expenditure to get to that first true scare in their horror film.

It was back in late 2013 that I talked to longtime friends and collaborators Lee and Prowse, as they took their small budget film to genre-loving Fantastic Fest in Austin. On film, they happen to also play filmmaking friends Derek and Cliff, who travel overseas and are suddenly sidelined by a newly contracted health condition.

It was just this past week the pair finally unleashed their found footage/documentary-style film into theaters, on a small enough scale that the film's greatest thrills and even its central creature have not been spoiled, to some degree.

Below, however, are some spoilers. Check out what Lee and Prowse had to say about their budget, the makeup, making found footage work and why vampires are still a lasting legend in the movie-making world.

HitFix: Is there an element to you guys that really wants to keep quiet that this is a vampire movie?

Prowse: Every one we”ve ever asked who”s seen the movie has enjoyed it. We asked, we stood up like would you want to know this is a vampire film before you saw it. Everyone, test audiences, press, reviewers, CBS have all said you know it”s probably gonna get out at some point. But it”s so much more fun, so much more enjoyable if you don”t know. So ideally we”ve been trying – because I started using the word “creature” or whatever.

Did you kind of think about that in your approach to how you structured it because it does take a while to kind of pay off into like everybody going oh…

Lee: Yeah, I think that”s actually an important part of it because if people know it”s a vampire film going in, this is a reason why not to do it, it could be frustrating. However, I think when people don”t know and they come into the movie actually it buys us a lot. A lot of people don”t actually figure it out until the character”s changing or if they do they don”t figure out – they”re not getting impatient. It takes them a while, you know what I mean?

Prowse: I mean in most of those films they don”t make you wait that long before, the shit hits the fan. We wanted to tell the story of how the transformation happens. So we do have to delay it by a little bit and constantly. If you”re sitting there waiting for it to happen it could be a long time.

Do you feel like there”s also a connotation at all that a vampire film has gotten a bad rap these days?

Lee: It”s actually one of the reasons why we made the movie, was to take the popularized version of it and strip it down and ask the question “What is the curse behind this?” Like, you have to murder people. You have to destroy your world around you.

So we took our creature and we stripped it down to very biological, very predator-like qualities and said how would this affect you.

And as co-creators of it did you guys have much of a fight of who got to ultimately beat up the other?

Prowse: Not at all. First of all, Derek has been the lead actor in all of our short films up until now, so we knew heading in that the film we were gonna make was gonna be something that he was gonna star in. However, it wasn”t until we came up with the one of the core concepts, [that] the movie is a documentary style of it. That”s what makes the whole creature aspect interesting, nd puts a different spin on it and allows us to reexamine it.

So once we knew that we wanted it to be in the documentary style, we wanted to ground it as much in reality as possible. Rather than trying to build up from the ground up, we use our actual lives and try to drop this genre movie into it and allow all the little details. Obviously [the characters”] friendship is based entirely on our friendship. All the photos, the video in the move of us as kids – that”s actually us. Our relationship does go that far back. All of the friends at the party, those are actual friends. All of our family, that”s our actual family. Like if you get dropped a movie into that hopefully it infuses it with the sense of reality that allows you to stop seeing that these aren”t actors, these are actual people going through something real. And then all of a sudden when sh*t goes down you”re like, “Oh my God. This is actually happening.”

Lee: It does raise the question why do you expose your friends and parents to that kind of thing. We”re were a very small indie film to begin with. We weren”t necessarily anticipating that.

Prowse: I guess you to go back to your original question which is why Derek, too. So we knew Derek was gonna be the lead. If we were gonna base it in reality, then I should be the other main character. And I hadn”t acted in a film of ours literally since those ones you see in the movie like since I was 18 or something. I”d always been behind the camera. So that was a fun and scary decision to make.

But at the same time conceptually it was exciting and from a practical standpoint if we cast ourselves, you know, then that meant we could spend a lot of time getting performances and doing things that if you”re hiring an actor you just don”t have, you know, the luxury of time.

So you guys already had a shorthand with each other. In the film you can really get a sense of that. How else did you kind of prepare yourselves as actors? Was there any kind of advice you were given or any ways that you mentally and physically prepared yourselves for this?

Lee: On every level really. I mean physically it was both just being able to survive the physical rigor of playing a role and doing all the stunts that I had to do and punch through that wall and stuff like that was not fun, you know.

Any actual injuries?

Lee: Just my hand didn”t really work for about a year afterwards. The wall wasn”t as soft as I thought it”d be.

Prowse: Yeah, you”re a director. What do you need the hand for? Come on now.

Lee: … Then the physicality of the creature. We had to come up to it together and discuss it and we found very quickly that I”m not as flexible as we would have liked. It would have been really cool to have him sort of very spider-like and all, but it turns out I”m not from the circus and I can”t do that. And so we had to sort of compromise and figure out angles that would help and stuff like that.

Emotionally it”s not necessarily that you need to play yourself in such extreme circumstances. You know what I mean? When we”re hanging out in Europe and, you know, dicking around and shooting movies, that”s fun. But I don”t really know what Derek would be like if, you know, the horrible things that happened in the movie. So that”s about digging deep. That”s about working with each other as actor/director. One of our producers was also very helpful in coaching us and making sure that we were emotionally true whenever possible. Because we cast ourselves and because we have no excuses, we could take a lot of takes and just keep doing it until we got it right.

Prowse: I think exhaustion is also your worst enemy as well. Like everything said is absolutely true and you can fall back into bad patterns, especially when you”re really, really tired and you are the director and the lead actor at the same time. Like both of us had to wear both those hats.

Lee: You can”t wear both of them at the same time.

Prowse: So, yeah I mean – and you just have to push on through it. Even the camera work doing “found footage” — where you have to sort of feel like the camera just happens to be catching this incredible thing that just happens to happen — hat was also something we had to learn too because you compose your shot but you”ve still got to have movements that feel a little bit sloppy, a little bit, “Oh, just caught it in time.” It”s on the edge of frames. It”s not perfectly lined up. And amazingly enough, that became something we could learn really well, too, and our director of photography normally also learned to become us – to move the camera like Derek would move the camera, to move the camera like Cliff. And that was character work.

So as we evolved as characters, as we evolved as filmmakers, as a team we certainly figured out what it would look like when Cliff is shooting and maybe he”s a little bit more steady because he”s a filmmaker… And all of it by the end would – we were a much more well-oiled machine.

And it”s scary as sh*t to not see everything, too. People know it”s fake when you can see everything perfectly and it”s perfectly framed.

Lee: That as one of the things where as soon as you feel that – in a documentary style film that you”re being manipulated by the filmmaker that everything is framed like it would be, then you”re losing. And every other movie you”re gonna make in your entire life that”s your job is to find that perfect angle to display that, right.

There seemed to be a little bit of cynicism about how people seem to document everything or over-document their life experiences, like going on a trip. Did that come to your mind at all?

Lee: Yeah. A lot of found footage movies start at the point when the supernatural or the genre elements have kicked in already. That”s the reason why they turn on the camera. But we wanted to meet the characters, get to know them ahead of time. So we wanted to have it built into the story that these guys already have the cameras rolling. So we can see them as they are, and get to know these characters before things go crazy. I think it was very important to us that the audience identify and sympathize with these characters and we put in the timestamps so that they actually have a connection by the time things go crazy.

Prowse: I think it”s also very useful for us in terms of believability of why is the camera still rolling. And every found footage movie there”s that point in which you”re like “Why is this camera still on? Shouldn”t you just be running for your life?” And certainly that happens in our film a little bit too, it”s very difficult to avoid. But because people are more used to people doing these trips and shooting every last second, you kind of start to believe in Cliff as a filmmaker, as a character. We needed to do a stop shot early and very strong so that by the time things go very, very wrong for Derek and Clif, it”s still shooting. There”s a part of your brain that goes “Okay, I believe it. I”m willing to buy this,” you know?

And so yeah, it was useful that that”s become more popular in YouTube and people”s lives in general.

Lee: I think hopefully, too, there”s an aspect of innocence at the beginning of the movie that like is an inspirational trip. Like, you know, it”s a trip that Derek has always wanted to go on.

Prowse: Exactly. When they”re documenting it, it”s like you want to preserve this amazing moment because you know it”s not gonna last forever. And so as opposed to cynicism, there was almost this – we wanted this innocent dorkiness to these characters so you really liked them before things went crazy.

For this small budget, you looked so, so scary, Derek. Can you talk about what elements went into making you look that way that you did?

Lee: That was the beautiful and very effective work of our talented makeup artist Tamar Ouziel. She kicked our butts. The first time we met her, it was supposed to be this quick coffee thing. It was five hours of her grilling us page by page, line by line, scene by scene saying “Okay, but in this scene you said he”s at kind of at this level physically but that doesn”t really jive.” And she like took us just to the Nth degree to make sure that she believed it and she understood it and it was consistent. So that by the time you saw it on camera it was – it is what it is.

And then we would take her amazing sort of base body work or prosthetics and then enhance it with liquid. The eye effects from the visual effects houses to create that sort of contracting eyelids. The end result was something that was achievable without breaking the bank. And we were really happy with the end result.

Yeah, you can tell she really relished in some of the wounds. Do you guys have a particular scene or look that you loved the most from this film?

Lee: The creature.

Prowse: She did so many amazing things like the sequence with the burning skin. She did a spectacular job of making something that could feel really fantasy and fake to feeling like this is an allergic reaction to light and that”s what”s happening to the skin.

One of the things that we were very conscious of is if we want the movie to feel real, then all of these aspects needed to feel real. And we really wanted to ground it in biology and the makeup had to read it as the actual physical decay and changing of the skin. As soon as it felt I”m in a movie and we”re putting on all these weird prosthetics…

There”s green blood and…

Lee: Exactly. As soon as you had that, then it was like the whole illusion was going to be broken. We used reference photos for drug addicts, people going through withdrawal, rabies, different kinds of diseases, different kinds of extremes – in the case of the skin, extreme allergies to sunlight. Those were all the references we were using so that hopefully that felt very real in the context of the movie.

Is it terrifying to see yourself like that on the screen?

Prowse: It”s weird, yeah, for sure. I mean and I don”t actually get to see myself that often but I”d often be like walking through the streets of Paris in like full makeup and people would be like looking at me funny. The weirdest part, though, is when you wear the makeup and nobody looks at you funny. And you”re like, “What”s wrong with you people?” I look like death and no one”s sparing me a second glance.

Because they”ve seen everything in Paris. [Laughs]

What do you feel like this film says about vampires and why they”re terrifying and why are they kind of residually in our consciousness as one of the greatest monsters ever? And what do you feel like your movie does for the vampire myths and legends?

Lee: I mean I think for us the most important part was to really tap into the curse aspect of what would it do to a person if you had to kill and feed on other human beings. What would that do to you psychologically and emotionally. And we felt like that was something that hadn”t been in a lot of pop culture vampire films right now, you have stuff where you can either add more blood or have synthetic blood… it was a moral question that didn”t have to be dealt with. And we just thought “No, let”s throw that front and center and see what the does to the character.” It really allowed us to examine the ultra dark side of it and just how horrible that would be.

Prowse: And going past even like the vampire tales of the 1900s that swept across Europe and somewhat even earlier, there have been stories and mythologies and boogey men kind of things of like creatures that suck your blood, come back from the dead for millennia, from cultures around the world that have nothing to do with each other. And there”s something elemental about this that it”s not gonna go away, as much as people can”t feel it or it”s tired or whatever. For us, revitalizing it was – we knew we wanted it to be scary again. And not something that was just window dressing.

Lee: I think in some imaginings, it”s like “I”m actually gonna be frozen as a young person and I can live forever with very few consequences.” And for us I think we wanted people to come out of this film being like “Yeah, and that”s the horrible part that this is never gonna change.” Like there”s nothing attractive about this at all.