Sunday, May 19, 2013

MY AMITYVILLE HORROR: An Interview with Eric Walter & Andrea Adams

“I Just Wanted Someone to Believe Me.”

Daniel Lutz was 10 years old during the events depicted in Jay Anson’s haunted house bestseller (and the subsequent 1979 film starring Margot Kidder and James Brolin). The effects of that experience have trailed after, shaping a guarded, angry individual wounded not only by the trauma of his time spent on 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, NY, but by 35 subsequent years of doubt and skepticism directed toward him by others.

Rather than focusing on what might have happened within that infamous abode, documentarian Eric Walter turns his eye to what unequivocally did happen: a young boy’s life was forever altered, a shadow eternally cast over his identity. This examination of what occurs when an event obscures an individual, when Lutz became “the Amityville boy” instead of “Danny,” is as compelling as any poltergeist or red-eyed pig creature. The result is an extraordinary work of investigative vision and grounded restraint, with Walter casting an unflinching yet empathetic gaze upon the most sensational American haunting of the 20th century, all through a lens of humanity that elevates it above its ghost-chasing brethren.

As the title indicates, this is Lutz’s story and that personalization is key – the film is less concerned whether “authentic” malevolent supernatural forces were at work, but rather that Lutz clearly believes (whether through experience or auto-suggestion) that there were. Aided immeasurably by Herman Witkam’s ominous musical score, Walter allows his subject to reveal himself layer by layer, through word and gesture, still coping with his identity as “the Amityville kid.” An insightful and balanced portrait, one that is less preoccupied with solving a ghost story than with the emotional aftermath of an event that has forever defined an individual against his will.

Following its world premiere last summer at the 2012 Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, HorrorHound sat down with Walter, producer Andrea Adams and special guest Dr. Susan Bartell (a therapist who ends up playing a major supporting role onscreen) to discuss their exploration of the reputed haunting’s effects on Lutz.

AC: Any movie with the word “Amityville” in it is going to instantly strike a chord with horror fans more so than the average viewer, yet this is not a sensationalistic portrayal at all.

Andrea Adams: We wanted to present it to a genre audience, knowing they are going to be the most passionate about it, and hopefully they will create the buzz. We were a little concerned; as you say it’s not a sensationalistic film – it’s much more of a thought provoking psychological character piece – but we’ve been really happy with the response we’ve gotten thus far. What’s been great about it is that the genre fans really understand what we were going for. They understand that it’s a documentary; we’re not going to have slime oozing or focusing so much on the fantastical elements…except as they relate directly to Danny’s experience.

Eric Walter: This is a deeply personal account of a story people have been fed for so many years. Casual fans that have seen the movie or read the book may have no idea of the enormous impact brought on the Lutz family by their own actions. By allowing this to be talked about in the public eye, it continued to snowball into this monster-in-the closet type of complex that it now is for them. Danny is the first one of the Lutz children to come forward with his full account of what he believes happened. We were honored, but we didn’t want to exploit the opportunity or try to do it with recreations. It’s already been done many times over that way, so we really weren’t interested in that. It was going to be much more impactful – because of Danny’s character, how he reacted to my questions, how he is in everyday life – to show a real portrait of a man who has been psychologically warped by these events. We try to keep very respectful towards him in the film, even though we are addressing such a sensitive topic.

AC: Where did the idea of doing a therapy session on camera come from?

EW: When I first started meeting with Danny, he had talked about meeting with different therapists and how it really had never helped him. He is such an intense and direct guy; my opinion was that he really didn’t want to accept help. So I said, “Would you be willing to sit down with someone on camera in a kind of therapist role?” and he said he would. He knew that we were open to approaching it from a psychological portrait kind of way; I had been very up front about that. He wasn’t aware of the stuff with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, who speaks a lot about the concept of memory and suggestion. She was brought in later on; not sure if he liked that.

Susan Bartell: He told me that he had stopped trying to convince anyone, that he doesn’t really care. I didn’t think that what I was doing with him was therapy – it was more like an intake interview, where you’re collecting information from somebody in a completely non-judgmental way. I knew that if I did anything other than listen to him that he wouldn’t want to talk to me or trust me. He was very defensive, literally from the second I walked in with the sunglasses on and the hat. He sat down like that; it was like there was a wall between us. I said, “You know, I’d like to see your eyes, would you take off your glasses?” And he did.

EW: All the times we see Danny meeting people on camera were all raw, first time encounters. I was constantly keeping people away from each other. It was very difficult because we had a full crew, which was challenging for a documentary because we were also trying to have this cinematic approach. I brought Susan upstairs, asked her to wait under the hot lights and then we brought Danny in. It had to be orchestrated in that way, but what they’re saying, what they’re engaging in, what the scenario is, that’s all completely organic. We were fortunate to get someone like Susan who was willing to do this interview type of situation because I wanted to initiate the audience into Danny’s character by having him meet with a psychologist cold, sitting in this room facing each other. I didn’t know that he was going to challenge her … but I knew there was probably a good chance of it!

SB: You said that you had done another interview with somebody else...

EW: We did have another interview, but he really didn’t go for it, which is why we wanted to try another one.

AA: To your credit, I think he opened up a lot more to you than he did to the previous person.

EW: Absolutely. It was the way Susan conducted it; she let him talk.

SB: It didn’t seem like there would be any other option. Plus, you have to have a lot of hubris as a psychologist to think that you can talk at someone and know what their problems are before they’ve even told you.

AC: Daniel is extremely intense on screen; I can only imagine what the environment must have been like in person. Were you ever afraid to ask the next question?

SB: All the time!

EW: No. That was my role there. The very first day that we shot was the first person, direct-to-camera interview...

AC: ...which is the most intense of any of them...

EW: Right. But my job that day – July 2010; this project’s been going on a while – was to get the entire story. When we did that first interview, we were there nearly 10 hours in that hot garage; it was insane. He poured everything out. I didn’t challenge him on anything because we needed to get the entire throughline, the whole story needed to be there. The very last question I asked him was, “Would you take a polygraph test?” The film ends just the way that first interview ended, with him stopping that tape and marching out (and subsequently yelling at me in the parking lot). But he did calm down and ultimately understood that it was a legitimate question, one that needed to be asked.

SB: He reacted that way at every single step with every single person that he spoke to because, regardless of whether or not this actually happened, that’s his defense mechanism; that’s his way of keeping people at a distance so they don’t ask too many questions. If in fact there are some parts of his story that didn’t happen – let’s say there are some parts that are legitimate but there are other parts that he, or more likely his parents, embellished and then put that into his head. On some level, he understands that people won’t necessarily buy it, so to keep everybody at a distance, to keep them from asking too many questions about the real story, he’s got that “FU” wall up all the time so you can’t get too close to him. It’s impossible. You always have to keep your distance; you always feel like he’s going to scream and curse and walk away.

AC: Did he ever actually scream and curse and walk away?

EW: Well, yeah! It was when the cameras weren’t rolling or stuff that we chose not to include, but I can definitely attest that there were certain times when I wasn’t sure… I don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture because he was there as well, but I feel like there was also an intimidation factor going on. It’s a way to maintain control.

AA: I really respected Eric’s ability to get Danny to talk about things he didn’t want to talk about without making him blow his top. I don’t know him as well as a lot of people do – I really removed myself from most of the situations because as a documentary producer, my role was to make sure the director and the subject are able to do what they are supposed to do. So I can’t say that I know Danny even as well as Dr. Bartell, who only met him the one time for two hours. I will say that his intensity is palpable and it’s a testament to Eric’s ability to get him to talk that we have the film at all. As much as there is the intimidation factor, I think Danny also respects Eric as well.

EW: I wouldn’t have been allowed to be there if he didn’t. Even though I’m young – I wasn’t even born when this happened to him. I was extraordinarily honored at first, but then confused about “Why me? Why a young guy?” But I knew – in terms of creativity – that I had what it took to do it. And as soon as I started talking to Danny and his friend about what this could be, how we could possibly put this together, I was given incredible access and free rein to do what I wanted to do creatively. For someone like me who has always wanted to see something like this, it was an incredible opportunity to see it finally happen. I would have loved to have seen something like this done with George Lutz. I kept thinking, “These are the kids, the kids have never spoken before, what an incredible opportunity…”

AA: They say that about entrepreneurs; that a lot of the greatest ideas come from wanting something that doesn’t exist. For Eric, that’s what this project was – something that he always wanted to see but it didn’t exist.

SB: One of the things I wondered while watching was if Danny’s not wanting to talk about things was partially a façade. Even though he storms out, he eventually comes back because he wants you to believe him. He wants you to understand how hard this is, how traumatic it was, but in the end he really does want his story told.

EW: Of course. As a filmmaker, it was admittedly a process of hiding those tough questions; if I started asking them too early, then I wasn’t going to work with him. It wasn’t that I believed everything he was saying, but I wasn’t going to question everything he was saying. As with any documentary, there’s a little bit of risk involved because this is a real person and this particular person is not – in terms of talking about Amityville – entirely stable about it. He was very guarded at times but also very charming in others. A great example is when you see him going into Lorraine Warren’s house while whispering to the camera, “This is effing nuts...”

SB: Not only is he charming, but he’s a very smart guy and his life does not reflect that. He just hasn’t managed to lead a “successful” life because he’s so emotionally damaged. You can just hear in the way he talks, even with very little formal education, that he’s not an idiot.

AA: Even the way he was processing his thoughts as a child. He’s looking at the stepfather, saying, “All right, you’re going to adopt me because you won’t marry my mother unless I’m allowed to be adopted.” To be able to process something like that as a 10-year-old, even just internally – obviously this was happening whether he liked it or not – that’s huge.

SB: But what he doesn’t say is that his biological father abandoned him; his father allowed it to happen.

EW: We did talk about that a little bit. I didn’t go there onscreen in respect to the family that is still alive, not wanting to invite any kind of legal issues. But it was very important; it’s a very pivotal moment in Danny’s life, to have his biological father abandon him and his siblings. George Lutz was a militaristic, ex-Marine type of individual, and Danny was essentially re-named by taking George’s last name. Clearly, Danny is not the type of guy to swallow that, so it was just butting heads from the beginning.

The one concern I have with the film is that there are all these allegations made – abuse, telekinesis, all that stuff – about the stepfather. Someone made a comment, “There’s no one there to speak for George.” But George Lutz has told his story many, many times; there is a wealth of resources for people to go out and find. This is Danny’s story, as the title indicates. I could make a six-hour documentary about Amityville to present all the different facets of the story. It’s a genre unto itself – it’s arguably the most famous haunted house of modern times.

AA: When Eric brought me onto the project, I wasn’t nearly as familiar with Amityville as he was. That would be hard to do. [laughs] But he gave me the “Amityville 101” class from all the books and documentaries and everything; I hadn’t realized just how pervasive it is within our culture, especially now that horror has made a really big resurgence in entertainment and with all the faux-documentary found-footage films coming out.

EW: This is just another installment if you think about it in terms of genre. And it’s an ongoing story. It’s never been resolved because there’s so much to it and the personalities that surround it are so engaging. A haunted house story built upon the foundation of this horrible mass murder; the whole thing is mired in mystery and no one else was there to say whether or not it happened. George and Kathy Lutz did take the polygraph test in 1979 and they both passed with flying colors, being asked questions like, “Did you levitate off the bed?” “Yes.” “Did you turn into an old hag?” “Yes.”

SB: Just as an aside, sociopathic people will almost always pass a polygraph test.

EW: Not to say that Danny is sociopathic, but I do think he could pass a polygraph.

SB: I agree. He absolutely believes it happened to him. I don’t think there’s any doubt he believes it. Again, he was a little kid – kids are extremely suggestible. There’s so much research showing that if you tell a child enough times they were sexually abused, they will come to believe they were sexually abused even if they weren’t. They will internalize it as a real event that happened in their life, which is why it’s so important to know how to interview kids about any major traumatic event in their life, especially if it’s occurring within the realm of a traumatic upbringing which clearly Danny was. With an abusive stepfather, having been abandoned, his mother not really parenting him, he needed to latch onto something as real; this event was the most real thing he could latch onto.

AC: What has been Danny’s reaction to your film?

EW: He’s seen the film many times and there have been many different reactions. I think he feels one way one day and another the next.

AC: You’ve got a really dark, effective, atmospheric musical score working for you.

EW: So glad you mentioned that. Herman Witkam is a young guy but extremely talented. He’s based in Amsterdam and he’s already scored over 85 features. I met him through our director of photography, Charlie Anderson, who had worked with him previously. I listened to a lot of Herman’s work and he was just extraordinary. I mentioned Unsolved Mysteries to him, as that was a show that directly influenced me as a kid not for the re-creational element but because the theme for the show was actually quite terrifying, with a real sense of subtle dread. I kept using the words, “dark, dark, dark,” and he would say, “I need another adjective!” I wanted it to have that creepy feeling, where you constantly feel like there’s something lurking around. One of my favorite parts of the score is when Danny is clearly moved by this relic, the crucifix, and he confronts me about my agnostic point of view. The score blends so well, it’s never distracting to what’s going on.

AA: It was really great working with Herman. After he talked with Eric, he came back with his first score and we gave him a couple notes – we wanted there to be discordant themes as you’re hearing the story from Danny’s lips, growing in intensity. There are some scenes where you completely understand and relate [to Danny] and there are other times, where the stories are more incredible, where you’re thinking to yourself, “Wait, what did he just say?”

EW: Exactly. The part where he says that George was able to practice telekinesis at will. Originally Herman had a very low tone, similar to what we’d heard before, but I kept describing these shrill moments that cut off to suggest that we’re kind of teetering on the edge of sanity.

AC: Can you talk about the visual style you were going for?

EW: I did a lot of extensive storyboarding (you can find a lot of that stuff on our website, which is unusual for a documentary but there were things we had to have. You have to have Danny in front of the house. That is the story right there. And he was open to that – he wasn’t thrilled about it, but he’s been back there before. Because we were going for a very cinematic approach, we had an outline of what we wanted. I was the one who laid down all of the newspaper clippings on the table, taping everything in place while conferring with our director of photography about how to shoot those images. We improvised a lot of those shots.

AA: When Eric did the first interviews, he brought all those materials to function as triggering memories for Danny. I think that became part of the recurring theme, as well as the audiotapes of George and Kathy.

EW: After fleeing the house in January 1976, George and Kathy Lutz created what they called their “self-help tapes,” just literally recording everything they could remember about what happened to them in the house. The connection is never made explicit, but I wanted to mimic that idea. What’s interesting is that George and Kathy Lutz then gave those tapes to Jay Anson for him to author the book. They were never interviewed about it; George said “We don’t want to be interviewed, we don’t want to relive this, we’re moving to California, this is what you get.” So it’s anyone’s guess as to the actual timeline of anything that happened. I doubt when they were sitting there describing them in a chronological series of events; more likely it was just a “Remember this?” stream of consciousness.

You can tell the book was probably heavily fictionalized from what George and Kathy actually said, but now that account has now become the definitive account of what happened…and now you see it happening with the kids, as Dr. Loftus had suggested with the scene of the flies from the 1979 film. George and Kathy Lutz always claimed that Father Ray came into the house and that upon blessing the rooms, he heard a voice say “get out” and then he felt a hand slap him in the upstairs bedroom, after which he quickly left. But he didn’t tell the Lutzs immediately about it – he told them later, after they’d left the house. But what’s coming out of Danny now is the priest leaving…and now there are flies involved just like the movie. So, it’s anyone’s guess: Is that what Danny remembers? Probably. But it could also have been heavily suggested by what he’s seen his entire life; this striking scene with Rod Steiger and a voice saying “get out” with swarms of flies around.

AA: To get back to the question of the film’s style, we both had a solid notion of what documentaries traditionally are; always going back to archival footage, not a lot of interesting visual dynamics, etc. I think Eric really wanted to create visual interest because so much of it relies on audio and hearsay; he wanted to expand upon those themes.

EW: To be surrounded by all this documentation, as the poster shows, there’s already been so much printed and debated and talked about. This is Danny’s chance.

AC: Like the title says, this is MY Amityville Horror. It really personalizes it

EW: To give credit, that’s Danny’s title. The first thing he said was, “I have one request. I want this to be called My Amityville Horror.” I didn’t argue with that. Because the real Amityville Horror is the trauma he’s gone through.

AC: Obviously, you couldn’t interview Jay Anson because of his having died right after the book came out, but his voice does seem to be one that’s conspicuously absent.

EW: Yeah, that’s one of the “spooky” things that have become part of the Amityville mythology. To be honest, a lot of them are dropping like flies. We were able to interview Lorraine Warren who is still with us, she recounted some other experiences that didn’t make it into the film…

AC: So ... the roosters?

EW: [laughs] I knew she had roosters inside, but I didn’t realize to what extent. I just said, Okay, we’ll get some shots of them because she was refusing to take them out of the house. (It was February in Connecticut, so it was cold.) But when we ended up walking in there, that rooster really did crow. Danny gestured for us to come in and we all just followed them over there. Thank god that happened the way it did. Another thing that people think I added in post production sound was when they’re getting ready to look at the crucifix relic and you hear the rooster crow. Everyone laughs, but that was real!

AA: The timing was impeccable.

EW: The commentary there is also interesting. With all respect to Lorraine and everyone who was involved in this project, if you look at the original investigators of this case and the way it’s been played up, no wonder it’s turned out the way it has. Most of the cases the Warrens have worked on are demon possessions and that type of thing, so that has a lot to do with people’s perception. When other investigators have also worked on the same cases, they haven’t said anything like that.

AC: How has it been watching your film with an audience?

AA: We didn’t want to pander to the horror genre elements; the film is about the real Amityville horror, so we were a little uneasy that horror fans wouldn’t be pleased because of preconceptions. But it’s been very well received thus far.

EW: It’s been an experience I’ve been waiting many years to have. The crowds have been very responsive, very into it. People usually stay for the Q&As and have a lot of questions; unfortunately we don’t always get to answer as many as we’d like because I talk too much!

(NOTE: (Portions of this interview originally appeared in HorrorHound Magazine issue #41, May/June 2013, )


  1. Great interview, AC. Having seen the feature last month at Dead By Dawn, it's interesting to be reminded of the unique psychology that it was looking at.

  2. I remember you saying you weren't knocked out by it, but I really liked how Eric took the focus off of whether something supernatural actually happened and made it about what absolutely DID happen: Daniel and his loss of identity.

  3. Yeah, that's correct but I didn't want to seem rude here by just mentioning it out of context. My biggest problem with the documentary was Daniel just being too, understandably, defensive and having too many strong barriers up. It was certainly a better feature than expected, however, due to that move away from the did it/didn't it happen debate.