Truly understanding the supernatural and the unexplained can be a difficult process for anyone, and the sense of unease of unsolved mysteries can be even more terrifying for a child. This is certainly the case with Daniel Lutz, the oldest of the three children who lived through the highly publicized Amityville horror case in the mid-1970s. With national public interest at what truly happened in the case still peaked, Lutz has broken his silence for the first time to reveal his memories to first-time feature documentary filmmaker Eric Walter.
‘My Amityville Horror’ follows Lutz as he publicly recounts his version of the infamous Amityville haunting that terrified his family in 1975. The story of his mother and stepfather, Kathy and George Lutz, has inspired a best-selling novel by Jay Anson and 11 subsequent feature films between 1979 and 2011, which have continued to fascinate audiences today. The new documentary reveals the horror behind growing up as part of a world famous haunting, and while Lutz’s facts may be other’s fiction, the psychological scars he carries are indisputable.
Walter generously took the time to talk about shooting ‘My Amityville Horror’ over the phone recently. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how being captivated by the Lutzes’ story since he was a child influenced his decision to become involved in the project; how he was surprised at Lutz’s intense reaction while describing his experience in the Amityville house; and how the mysteries behind unexplained incidents, like missing person cases, UFOs and hauntings, drew him to documentary filmmaking.
Question (Q): You directed ‘My Amityville Horror,’ in which for the first time, Daniel Lutz recounts his version of the infamous Amityville haunting that affected his family in 1975. Why did you ultimately decide to become involved in the project?
Eric Walter (EW): When I was 10-years-old, I read ‘The Amityville Horror’ by Jay Anson, and I was totally enamored by this story, and taken back by the personalities that surround it. Each of them, in their own varying ways, are very interesting, in of themselves. When I was 17, I created this website, a web archive, called amityvillefiles.com, which was a completely unbiased and objective viewpoint on the story. I wanted to present all the information, so that people can make up their own minds of what they thought happened there.
For years, allegations of this haunting have been called a hoax, and people say that nothing ended up happening there. But I believe the truth lies between actual literal truth and fabrication. So I wanted people to make up their own mind about what happened.
In 2009, I was contacted by a friend of Daniel, who was one of the three kids who lived in the house during the 28 days the Lutzes lived there in 1975 and ’76. He was the oldest-he was 10-years-old. He contacted me because of my sheer interest in the story and the creative presentation I had put together. I had done a lot of short films on the east coast, and I had been pursuing a film career in Los Angeles.
So I was contacted by him, and he wanted to go public with his story because of what he felt was the wrongdoing his stepfather perpetrated on the family. He also wanted to reveal his disdain for his stepfather, for what he believed was occult activity in the house that triggered the events on the family. So it was an entire new perception.
My skepticism started to kick in at that moment, asking what his true motivation for coming public now. Did he want to make a fast buck, or was this something he really wanted to do? When I flew to meet him in August 2009, he started to talk to me about this with such anger. For me, I felt that this was a personal catharsis for him. He just needed someone who understood to listen to him. He had a voice that was struggling to come out for so many years. So that’s where the film was initiated.
Q: Speaking of Daniel remaining virtually non-existent in the public eye until now, you were able to conduct over ten hours of interviews with him. What was it like speaking with him about his experiences in the house, and were you surprised at all that he agreed to speak with you?
EW: Yes, it was very, very intense. He’s a very intense individual. Yes, I was absolutely surprised. I was very lucky, too, being an unknown filmmaker, and also a very young guy. When I started this project, I was 24, and it’s been ongoing for years now. I’m now 27, so it’s been going on for quite a while.
He was very angry, and I was struck by his intensity. But I knew that intensity was going to make the film. During those initial sessions with him, I recorded nearly 12 hours of audio sessions, where he and I were just talking. I had incredible access to him, and he was just talking.
When I was on the plane back to Los Angeles, listening to our discussions, I was totally taken aback by the things I was hearing. I knew it wasn’t what I initially thought, which was that he was going to be calm and collected about it.
I knew he was somewhat angry, but it surprised me to this degree. He was like the living embodiment of everything that was wrong with this story. What I mean is his confusion about the story, and the struggle to remember and comprehend and make sense of the unexplained. He was struggling to differentiate his point-of-view from the public, who already had these misconceptions from the story and the film and the book that have been released for over 35 years. Many of his memories seem to be skewed from the fictional versions from those movies.
So he was a 10-year-old child living in this house, potentially being indoctrinated within this event. For me, the idea of memory and memory repression and all these subjects came into play from his account. It started to transcend the Amityville topic, and became something a little broader. That’s what I hope people really get from the film, that this is something that has psychologically damaged and impacted this person. Whether it’s true or not, he believes it’s true. For him, that was his truth, and again, that’s what struck me and was so powerful in the sense that we were putting to bed the whole demon, so to speak.
Q: How much knowledge did you have of the Lutzes’ story before you began writing and directing ‘My Amityville Horror?’ Did you do any particular research before you began filming?
EW: Yeah, like I mentioned, I had the website, so I was very well-versed in George and Kathy Lutzes’ account, prior to meeting Danny. Of course, after listening to the tapes, and transcribing them and putting together the structure of the movie from them, it was difficult, actually. You know the story you’ve been told for over 30 years.
Then you’ve also got this new account that sways and changes the perceptions of the story. Now it’s seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old. In many ways, Danny has this innocence about him that resonates in the film, as well. I wanted the film to speak to that level.
So I was very well versed, in not only the Lutzs’ story, but also the DeFeo homicides that happened in the house in 1974, and subsequent families who have lived in the house that say nothing has ever happened there. I think that’s what made Dan comfortable.
Danny actually said to me that I knew more about the story than he did, in a factual standpoint. He’s actually ran away from this for most of his life, and only now decided to talk about his part in it. I think it was comfortable for him in that way, in not only was I enthusiastic and passionate about it, but also that I had a wealth of information, so that’s where it all came from.
Q: Besides helming ‘My Amityville Horror,’ you also wrote, produced and edited the film. Did penning and producing the movie help you in your directorial duties?
EW: Oh, absolutely. I would say the most difficult process was the post-production. I edited the entire film myself, which is so difficult when you’re so close to the story and the creation of something. So it was a long process, nearly nine months that I went through making the documentary and edits. We went through various versions of it. But I almost felt called to this project, in that not only was I attracted to it, it also found me. It was a match made in heaven, in that way. (laughs)
Q: ‘My Amityville Horror’ is an independent film that was shot on a limited budget of $205,000. What was it like working on such a small budget, and where there any obstacles you had to overcome while filming?
EW: Not at all, actually. We produced the film for that $205,000, which certainly isn’t a lot of money for a documentary. But it was enough money to accomplish what I felt was needed for the film. That was primarily to achieve a cinematic nature. A lot of documentaries you see are filmed on pro-consumer cameras, but I wanted this film to have a cinematic texture.
We took the time for the lighting and environments, so that we could have these scenarios that were almost like sequences. Many people have watched the film and said wow, it almost seemed like Danny’s an actor, which he’s not. But that’s just a testament to how great of a storyteller he is. That was important to me, since this is such a famous story. The public will expect this to be like a movie, so I wanted to present it in a cinematic way.
Q: ‘My Amityville Horror’ will be released theatrically throughout the spring in select cities, and is also available On Demand now. Why did you decide to release the film in theaters and On Demand at the same time?
EW: Well, it was the distributor, IFC Films, choice to do the theatrical run. But I would say that’s a testament to the intense interest in this story. There are many people clamoring to hear what Danny has to say. So we’ve been very lucky that the film’s came out on VOD on the same day it was initially released theatrically. I’m very pleased, and the Blu-ray and DVD will come out subsequently. So I think they made that choice from the immense interest in the story, and I think it’s a worthy picture for a theatrical release.
Q: ‘My Amityville Horror’ is your first feature documentary, after you directed, wrote, starred and worked on the cinematography for the 2006 comedy-horror film ‘The Lumberjack of All Trades.’ What was the transition process like, going from making a feature film to a documentary, and do you have a preference of working on features over documentaries, or vice versa?
EW: Well, the first film I did when I was very young, and was picked up by Troma Pictures in New York. But documentaries are what I prefer, and what I think I’m fit for, because of my interest in the unexplained and unsolved cases. That’s what drew me to documentaries and to do my own investigations through creative outlets.
So that’s what I want to stay in, and I’m currently working on another feature documentary. I can’t go into the details on it, because we’re in the development stage. It involves various people that I’m still working on getting. But there will be details about it coming out soon.
Q: Like you mentioned, you’re a documentarian who specializes in the exploration of the unexplained, and your continued research into infamous unsolved mysteries fed your desire to pursue documentary filmmaking. What is it about unsolved mysteries that you find so intriguing, and why did you decide to pursue filmmaking as a result of your interest?
EW: I would say the mysteries behind these incidents, like missing person cases and UFOs and hauntings, and trying to rationalize the unexplained, is what really draws me to the craft and this form of filmmaking. The testament of Amityville itself is the answer, just to see the sheer anger in Danny Lutz; he’s a haunted individual, and you can see it all over his face. So reality’s so much more frightening than anything you can make up. Its relevance is so much more important to me.
So to combine the ideas of narrative within documentary framework, to present something in a cinematic structure, is what I’m looking to accomplish in my career. I would like to take some of history’s paranormal and unexplained cases, and treat them with respect.
I’m so happy to have taken Amityville and finally have done something I think is good with it. I think the films that have previously come out about it more or less have a shocking nature. They try to exploit the story, rather than look at the actual impact that it’s had on the people (involved) and the facts. Again, that’s the power of documentary for you, and that’s why I choose to stay in it, because of its relevance. Again, reality is more frightening than anything you can make up.