Thursday, September 22, 2011
Syfy's Paranormal Witness is a bona fide hit for the network, and brings chills from the world of the unexplained into the living room through spooky reenactments and intense eyewitness interviews. Instead of relying on recurring characters or a host, Witness begins fresh each week with a new story ranging from hauntings to demonic infestation, alien encounters, cryptozoological run-ins and angelic interventions. If the audience doesn't buy into either of the two stories presented in each episode, Witness encourages them to try again the following week with the question, "Do you believe?" The show is entirely story-driven and breaks from a current trend of evidence-based paranormal investigative reality-TV programs.
So without evidence or a familiar cast, why does Paranormal Witness connect with viewers? The answer to that question is likely due to the involvement of series producer Mark Lewis. Lewis - whose documentaries have appeared on the BBC, Discovery, the History Channel, National Geographic, Spike and more - brings high quality to a show that could easily be all cheese.
To get the facts behind the frights, we spoke with Lewis about his approach to filmmaking, the pursuit of stories and his own beliefs in the paranormal. Listen to the embedded audio or read the transcripts after the jump.
Paranormal Witness Producer Mark Lewis, Part One by ParanormalPopCulture
Paranormal Witness Producer Mark Lewis, Part Two by ParanormalPopCulture
PPC: The trend with a lot of these paranormal themed shows is the investigative style; the documentary style and the investigations. Why did you go more in the direction of reenactments instead of going to these locations and trying to investigate and collect your own evidence?
ML: Okay. Well, I think, you know, there are several of those shows out there as you say. You know, that show exists very much and, you know, the Ghost Hunters show that exists out there already. And, you know, partly we don’t want to tread on their toes, and partly they do it very well already. So we wanted to do something new and something original.
As you can tell, I’m British and we come from a - I come from a British television production company where we make many of these, what we call drama documentaries - the sort of fusion of drama, dramatization, and a documentary component, which is the interviews. And this is like a style of film that we’ve made. Before we made lots of abroads for National Geographic. We made Gold Rush for Discovery. And these kinds of shows are what we call testimony-driven shows. And we find that they’re very, very effective.
One, this is - has sort of pieces, you know, as a documentary form because what you’ve got is the pure testimony of the witness. It’s a sort of unadulterated testimony of the witness. And to dramatize that very, very particularly, very, very literally, as you’ll see with the shows, often to the very word, when somebody says, you know, “I stood up and I saw the statue had been broken on the floor.” That is what you see.
So it’s very, very effective, I think, because the drama reflects very, very specifically the real testimony of the real people and, you know, we think it works very effectively as a documentary form.
PPC: Do you find that that is more compelling for the viewers instead of an investigation by hearing the story, but not trying to say, “Here’s the evidence?” Do you think that ends up being more compelling for your viewers?
ML: I don’t know that it’s more compelling. I think it’s compelling in a different way. I think people are very used to seeing cinema. They’re very used to seeing movies. It’s a medium that they understand. They’re very used to seeing drama. And it’s sort of something that people are comfortable with. They understand stories from that sort of dramatic medium.
So when it’s fused with real interviews that are the testimony of real eyewitnesses, it’s actually both an entertaining watch. The drama is entertaining in a movie - in the same way that a movie is. But it’s also compelling in a documentary way, because what you’re listening to is the testimony. So I think it’s compelling in a different way. I don’t think - you know, we’re not trying to compete with those kind of shows. I think those shows do something different from what we do.
And so I would say they’re compelling, but in a different way.
PPC: And finally, as you mentioned, you’re British. You come from a - there’s a rich history of many paranormal ghost shows out there. And sometimes they’re pretty theatrical. So is there anything on paranormal witnesses that you’ve said, “No we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to go down this road because it’s just too ridiculous, or people won’t buy it, or it’s just too silly”?
ML: I think because yes. I think that’s a very good question. You know, I think we definitely have our kind of hoax meters on. You know, we have our - we worry that, you know, when we come across stories, you know, we look at them and wonder whether they’re too fantastical or too difficult for an audience to process or to believe. And it’s why we’ve gravitated towards the credible witnesses. And, you know, you tell compelling tales.
Now many of the tales that we’ve got - many of the stories we’ve got in the series, I would say still are. You know, on the face-on-face value, they appear quite fantastical. You know, there are stories of demonic possession, there are stories of poltergeists, you know, shifting great big pieces of furniture around rooms.
So on face value they can appear fantastical. And that’s why I say there’s an absolute necessity to search out the most credible witnesses that we possibly can. If you believe those witnesses then you’ll believe the stories. And, you know, and if that happens, then these stories become even scarier, still. They become even scarier because they are credible, because they feel true. And that has a tremendous power, I think.
PPC: There’s a lot of shows that you could be involved with, and you’ve listed that you have been involved with a lot of shows. In order to do this kind of show, which, just a lot of people out there might find ridiculous and may not believe, I think in order to do this kind show, you have to have some level of belief yourself.
And so that’s my question - what story do you have? What’s your belief? What’s that thing that kind of moves this into a position of wanting to make this show happen? So what’s your story?
ML: Is your question do I believe these stories?
PPC: Well do you personally have your own paranormal story?
ML: Do I have my own paranormal story? No, I’ve never had a paranormal experience of my own. I - but interestingly, as soon as you start working on a show like this, people that you meet, whether they’re camera crews or researchers or journalists that work on the show or directors who make the shows or, you know, art directors or whatever they may be - all the different people that form the crew, everybody talks to me and everybody starts telling me their tales. And it’s like I must be about the only ones who hasn’t had a paranormal experience.
I mean, you realize that actually a lot of people, you know, have had some form of experience in their lives. And that’s affected them, and it’s not always something that they sort of freely talk about, whether it’s because they’re embarrassed about it or whether they - because they think the people will laugh at them, or whatever the reason may be.
But you realize that actually - I suppose for me, it’s quite shocking how many people have had some form of paranormal experience or believe that they have had. So I think that certainly changed my perspective. I think the stories themselves - which my perspective, as I say initially, was a very skeptical one.
My perspective on this show though, is having those who’ve seen, let’s say 11 stories for six films is, you know, do you want the believe them at the end? I have to say it’s very difficult to knock these stories down. It’s very difficult not to believe - so I mean all 11 stories.
You know, if they were not true then, you know, across the 11 stories, all of these contributors would had to have come up with these extraordinarily complicated, convoluted tales, corroborated one another, that have had to sat down around their kitchen tables and, you know, devise these incredibly detailed, convoluted, extraordinary tales.
And well I just don’t think that’s possible.
I think - and I think therefore, something in these - something has gone on in these people’s lives. Something terrible has happened to these people’s lives.
And, you know, I think that certainly changed my personal belief system. These people absolutely - you know, they’re compelling in their testimony. And they are incredibly convincing in their testimony. And, you know, you can’t - if you’re doing the interviews or you’re watching these films, I don’t think you can help but be - you know, even if you’re the most skeptical person, could help but being part convinced by them.
PPC: Well great believing that something happened to them and then believing that something paranormal happened here then there are two different things.
ML: That’s true.
PPC: So when you're somewhat convinced by them, are you convinced that something - that a UFO, an undiscovered creature or a ghost or demon has affected them - or do you think that there is another explanation that they just haven’t locked onto yet?
ML: That is an incredibly pertinent question. And I would say this for these stories, that I struggle to come up with an alternative reason other than the paranormal for many of these stories.
And that’s quite a confronting position to be in. You know, it makes you think, you know, “My goodness. Not only is something going but I can’t find any other reason bar the paranormal to explain these away.”
And I think many people who watch these films, you know, feel the same way. And that’s quite an extraordinary position to end up in.
PPC: And so far the show has tackled some cases that might be familiar to people that are really hardcore interested in this stuff. But have you thought about taking on, like giving your spin on some more famous cases, or do you actively want to avoid those?
ML: No, this is the first season only. So, you know, we decided to go with wherever possible, original stories that have not been told. Some of them, you know, have, you know, appeared in certain media reports and newspaper reports. But generally speaking we were after, you know, the sort of new stories if we could possibly find them.
I think now, sort of knowing what we do and knowing, I hope, how to make these stories well, absolutely we would open up the field to some more celebrated cases. You know, I think it would be really interesting to tackle those.
But once again, we would have to apply our same kind of rules, as it were, that, you know, we were hand-picking only the most credible witnesses. And if we felt, as filmmakers, that they didn’t pass that test, if we weren’t convinced by them, and if there isn’t - is nothing to corroborate these stories, I mean, you know, where - if we can find stories where the people are credible, where there is other forms of evidence to help corroborate their tales then we will tell those stories.
If we don’t feel that, then I don’t think we would put them up in this series. I think we just want the most credible tales that we can possibly lay our hands on.
PPC: When you’re thinking about what makes a good story for your viewers -you know, when you’re thinking about the viewers themselves - kind of give me a thumbnail description of the demographics, the psychographic of your viewer when you’re thinking, “OK, Will this connect with them?” Who are you connecting to?
Mark Lewis: I think there is a broad, broad church for our audience. There are the people who are paranormal believers. They will tune in to this kind of show, for sure, because they love it.
There are people also that we would like to appeal to who are the non-believers, because I think, you know, what we’ve got are very credible stories told by very credible witnesses. And I think if we can make those people sit up and listen, to have them watch, then we will be doing a very good job.
I certainly think we are appealing to those kind of people now. On top of that, because the films are so cinematic and play out like real horror films or real science fiction tales, I think that we will also appeal to kind of movie buffs - people who love horror, people who love science fiction.
So we are hoping that we have an appeal to those kind of people. So when we’re constructing these films, I think we have that very much in mind. And when we’re searching out stories we think, “Ah, that’s a great one, that will really appeal to science fiction buffs - people who love Star Trek or whatever, that’ll definitely appeal to people like that."
You know, when we find something like the poltergeist story - the story of Susan Lewis, you know, there is a story that actually kind of plays out pretty much like Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist.
And, you know, I’m sure that we will appeal to people who like that kind of film. So, you know, I think there is a real broad church of people that we, you know, we shouldn’t be sort of pigeonholing also - pigeonholing our audience. We shouldn’t just be sort of narrowing the field to just the believers. I don’t think that’s - that, you know, the - we should be appealing to as, you know, as broad an audience as we possibly can.
And if we can get all of those people watching, get all of those people enjoying it, then I think we’ll have done a good job.
PPC: And finally, you personally - alien, ghost, demon, creature, bigfoot kind of thing ...
ML: Which am I?
PPC: Not which are you, but what terrifies you the most?
ML: Me personally - yes me personally is the idea of demonic possession. And I think, you know, when you watch "The Rainman," which is our final film, the sixth film, I would really encourage you to tune in to that one, because that absolutely is one that disturbs me the most.
I spent quite a long time in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, where it all took place. And there are six contributors to that film. Don Decker, the gentleman himself who was possessed and five other people who witnessed what happened to him over the course of a couple of weeks.
And, you know, when you sit it these people’s living rooms and you hear them tell this story, and they sit across from you and they say, “Mark, you just had to be there. You have to understand that what we felt in that room was evil.”
And people were saying to me, you know, certain people were saying to me, “You know, I’m not a church-goer. I’m not a particularly religious person, but, you know, having lived through what happened back in 1983 in this story, I feel that there is real evil in this world and it’s very difficult to convince people unless you were there,”
And when you hear someone say that to you, it really does send shivers down your spine and it really does, you know, sort of unsettle you, I think.
But very definitely for me, the final film, "The Rainman," a story of demonic possession and extraordinary kind of activity that happened in and around this gentleman, Don Decker, that is certainly the story that really unsettled me the most.
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