IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Documentary Filmmaker Eric Walter Talks 'My Amityville Horror'

Thursday, 14 March 2013 11:45 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Documentary Filmmaker Eric Walter Talks 'My Amityville Horror'

Much has been written and said about the so-called Amityville haunting since it first happened in 1975 and shocked the nation. It spawned the popular 1977 book, The Amityville Horror, as well as ten films between 1979 and 2011 including the original movie of the same name starring James Brolin (Traffic), Margot Kidder (Superman), and Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night), and the remake in 2005 featuring Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern) and Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass). But now, for the first in thirty-five years, Daniel Lutz, son of George and Kathleen Lutz, has a chance to tell his side of the story in an incredible new documentary entitled My Amityville Horror, which opens in Los Angeles theaters and on VOD March 15th.

For those not familiar with the story, in 1975 the Lutz family moved into a home in Amityville, located on the south shore of Long Island, New York, just thirteen months after previous owner Ronald DeFeo, Jr. had shot and killed six members of his family in the house. After only 28 days, the Lutzs, which included George, Kathy, and her three children, left the house claiming that they had been terrorized by paranormal phenomena. The story made national news, and the family became infamous after a series of appearances on the talk show circuit and the eventual book and following films. Several families have occupied the house since and have experienced no paranormal occurrences, sparking allegations that the entire ordeal was a publicity hoax. The new documentary follows Daniel Lutz, Kathy’s son who was just a boy when the events occurred, over thirty-five years later as he recounts his version of the shocking experience. While Daniel’s facts may be considered by others to be fiction, the psychological trauma that he has suffered is indisputable. Filmmaker Eric Walter combines years of independent research into the case along with interviews from past investigative reporters and eyewitnesses, to allow the audience to come to their own conclusions about the traumatic occurrences that have shaped Daniel’s life. 

I recently had a chance to speak with documentary filmmaker Eric Walter about his work on My Amityville Horror. The director discussed the new film, how he got involved in the project, his expertise on the subject, how he came to work with Daniel Lutz, his experience working with him, allegations that George Lutz abused Kathy’s children and had previous ties to the occult, whether he believes that Danny’s claims of paranormal experiences are real or not, and if he thinks Danny will ever be able to recover from his traumatic childhood and live a normal life.

Here is what the documentary filmmaker had to say:

IAR: To begin with, I enjoyed the movie but it really creeped me out! I think it creeped me out so much because it is so real.

Eric Walter: That is true! Reality is much more scary than anything you can make up. That's why I'm doing a documentary. Thank you very much.

I did mean that as a compliment, I hope you took it that way.

Walter: I absolutely did. I think that certainly Danny's intensity, and his ability to tell the story so much differently than it's ever been done before, with something that's so well known and with a unique perspective, is something I completely understand and feel the same way. 

I think that any documentary is really only as good as the subject that you're documenting. How did you get involved with Danny Lutz and get access to him and the other people involved in the Amityville story? 

Walter: Well I'll try to keep it brief for you. Basically in 2009 I was contacted by a friend of Danny's for a website that I run called Amityvillefiles.com, and it basically is a web archive that I developed when I was 17. I read the book The Amityville Horror and, you know, since I was very young I was interested in, and enamored by the story and the personalities that surround it. So I’d been painting a picture, and something that really no one had been presenting, which was kind of an unbiased perspective on the story. There's so many theories that this was a hoax, or that it was absolutely true, and I really feel that it lies somewhere between those two. So I really wanted to present all the new documentation, all of those files, and transcripts. You name it; it's all up there. So a friend of Danny’s that claimed that he was ready to come speak publicly about his experience contacted me. At first I treaded very lightly on it, I didn't necessarily believe that it was true. It just seemed almost like a random claim. Then I got a phone call from the guy and I spoke to him at length. Then I started to speak to Danny over the phone, and subsequently flew to New York and conducted the audio interviews that were about twelve hours of audio interviews. A lot of those grainy audio interviews that you see over the tape recorder in the film, those were our initial conversations right out of the gate. If you remember, in one of the scenes in the film he speaks about the dog jumping over the fence, being hung on the chain and Jed having a nightmare about it, a recurring nightmare. That was like as soon as I turned the tape recorder on, that was the very first thing I heard from him. So it was just a very unsettling way to start this conversation. Then Danny's intensity, his anger, and his disdain for his stepfather, who was the main voice of the story for so many years because he passed away in 2006. But to have now a completely different perspective on something that's become a legend of American folklore, I thought it would be a new perspective on something that we all thought we knew. I definitely wanted to study it, but do it and kind of transcend Amityville and not get into all the old myths that have been developed around the tragedy with all the movies, you know? We don't show clips of the original film or anything like that. I really wanted to keep it centered on Danny as a person and how this chain of events has cast a great long, dark shadow over his family, his life, and how he deals with that, and how he copes.

You mentioned that Danny is very intense in the film, but what was he like to work with when the camera wasn’t rolling? Did you have a difficult experience working with him?

Walter: I mean, yea. What you saw on camera is pretty much what you get. However, I will say that he's a very witty and a very nice guy actually. You really don't know what you're going to get with him a lot of the time. A lot of times he'll be in a very good mood and if we're not talking about Amityville but another subject, and Amityville comes up, he won't clam up. Instead he'll get very intense and very angry. So it was a little bit uncomfortable for some of my crew, my DP, and some of my camera people working on the film because of at times Danny would be very intense and angry. If you remember the ending in the film, I ask him about a polygraph test. Basically that came out because I allowed him to completely pour out the entire story on the table and present everything that he had never told anybody or claimed before, certainly not publicly. So during that opportunity, I asked him if he would be willing to take a polygraph test. His parents, George and Kathy, in 1979 took polygraph tests and both passed with flying colors. They were asked questions like, "Did you levitate in the house?" You know, all of these things that are talked about and seen in the book. So when I asked my question I said, would you be willing to do the same thing? He took it as a front as in I was claiming that he was lying or something. So we had words after work and he had words with me. But that was the way the interview ended, literally. So the way the film ends is the way the interview ends. I think it worked for the film because I definitely worded that question of whether this was all a fake or not. So many people are coming out now and wanting the truth. Certainly everybody wants to put all the lies to and get to the truth of the matter, but the truth is so projective in this story. You're never going to get at exactly what happened because they were the only ones there and certainly not me, I wasn't around at the time. So what I was really focused on was the effect, the psychological impact of his memory from the event. So like I said, this transcends the Amityville topic. It really focuses on the attempt to explain the unexplainable and that for me was the ultimate story. I think Danny sees it in a different way. He sees it as his chance to tell his story and I see it in a broader picture and that's where I try to keep the film to have a very objective viewpoint. 

There have been allegations over the years that maybe George Lutz brought this on the family himself, either by physical abuse or through some sort of prior relationship to the occult that triggered the events in the house. Based on your time with Danny and researching this story, what is your conclusion on those allegations? 

Walter: I had a great concern with this claim because not only was George the main voice of the story for thirty years, but he’s also not around anymore to debunk these claims, or to put up his side of the story. Of course George has told his story many times ever since this happened. But again that was the unique part of the story for sure, that George was the culprit and my feeling is that I really can't say that I fully believe all of those aspects. Danny says that he witnessed his stepdad levitating a wrench with his mind. I have a problem swallowing that as truth. However, I don't think Danny is lying about that. I think that Danny truly believes what he's saying and to me that was the more frightening picture, that these events have scarred him in such a way that he's wholeheartedly accepted as the truth. 

You just touched upon exactly the point that I wanted to ask you about. It sounds like you think that Danny really believes that those events happened to him. Was that your final conclusion based on your investigation and the time that you spent with him?

Walter: Based on what I heard from him and based on the testimony of the family members I believed that something happened, and I would say the same answers for the family. I believed that they believed something happened to them. However, I can't go as far to say that I absolutely believe that everything they said was true. I can't do that because I wasn't there and that's as far as I can go. I do believe something strange happened. I do believe they were scared of something. Certainly there is a stigma of living in a house that was the scene of mass murders that were very infamous in the area for years. So for them to move into this house, knowing that and have three kids, and they were newlyweds, both of their investments were tied into this house, so there's a lot on the line. I can understand their fear of that. However I think that it snowballed into something that it never really was. That's the unfortunate part of the story. So I don't think that it's a hoax, no I do not. However, I think so many stories have been told and fabricated over the years that it's now been accepted as truth and that's the unfortunate part of this story that there's so much to it, too many grey areas that unfortunately we’re never going to get what the absolute truth is. Some might believe that it's not a black and white issue. I do believe something strange of a paranormal nature happened in that house. There were paranormal outlets that did affect the Lutz’s and I do believe that they truly believe what they were saying. But it's very hard for me to have not been there and say that I know that something happened. I can't do that. I mean, and again, My Amityville Horror is the story of what has happened subsequently, the shadow that is cast upon the family, and subsequently Danny is the living embodiment of everything that's wrong with the story. For instance, Danny talks about on moving day going into the house and that there were hordes of flies in his bedroom right after the priest had left the house, If you remember, in 1979 there was a film that came out where Rod Steiger plays the priest, I don't know if you saw the original movie but he's attacked by hordes of house flies in the upstairs bedroom. George and Cathy Lutz never talked about this happening. They said that the priest claimed that he saw a presence in the room and heard a voice say, "Get out!" Danny wasn't there at the time and wasn't witness to that. He claimed that when he went upstairs in the bedroom on moving day there were four or five hundred flies in the bedroom that the priest had been in. So it almost sounds like a mixture of what he remembers combined with what the movie stated. In my case I don't think, it’s not my feeling that he's lying about that, but that he actually remembers it that way. We're talking about a kid who had just turned ten years old in 1975, so he was there and there's been so much talk about it that now the memory of the event is mixed and interlaced with things and fabrications of fictions of the media. That was a very interesting perspective.

Finally, what's Danny's life like now? Can he ever really move on from the events of his childhood and become part of society, or is he just damaged for the rest of his life?

Walter: I think he's definitely damaged, but I hope the film gives him the ability to move forward. I hope this is a personal catharsis for him. It was his choice to come forward and talk about this publicly, and I'm glad he had the insight and the foresight to do it, Obviously I'm happy he did it with me, but I'm happy he did choose somebody who had enough objective view point of the story and didn't want to just do what's already been done for thirty-five years, which is sell the story out and exploit all of the different haunting aspects. We really tried to keep the film on that objective level and Danny understood that. Where he had some problems was with some of the things that are said in the film like memory repression and those things. I think he has a little issue with that because he doesn't feel that's the case at all. I hope that he's able to move on from this, but I definitely don't think that any of the family members will be able to totally move on from it. But it's definitely damaged the guy. It's evident in the film, his sheer disdain and anger over the entire situation is I think overwhelming and captivating throughout the entire film and it's all credited to him in that way. 

My Amityville Horror opens in Los Angeles theaters and on VOD March 15th.

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