We go behind the scenes of the first Snapchat movie, a real-time horror flick.
As Snapchat continues on its path to world media domination—10 seconds at a time—Hannah Macpherson is not standing idly by. The director has created the first-ever Snapchat film, Sickhouse, a horror story that appeared to unfold in real-time over five days. But followers of social media star Andrea Russett were none the wiser when she began posting the terrifying Snaps from her own account.
A long-lost cousin, Taylor, comes to visit Russett in Venice Beach, inspiring an impromptu road trip to a haunted house called "the Sickhouse." Then, things get dark. "Is this real?" someone wrote on Twitter. "Her cousin is so creepy."
"We had an opportunity to essentially drop a rollercoaster ride right into the lap of a waiting audience."
While filmmakers have experimented with shooting with contemporary technological media—2015's Unfriended, for example, was shot exclusively on Skype—few have endeavored to marry a medium with a distribution method. Like a modern-day reincarnation of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Sickhouse tricks the audience into participating in and ultimately disseminating the story itself—via the very platform on which it was conceived. (After the initial Snapchat release, the filmmakers released an expanded 80-minute version of Sickhouse on Vimeo On Demand, which you can buy below.)
Giving direct-to-consumer a whole new meaning
Over the course of its broadcast, Sickhouse accrued an audience of 100 million Snapchat viewers who became increasingly concerned for Russett's safety. "I was interested in the idea that we could sneak up on people using Snapchat," Macpherson told No Film School, "because people trust that what they are seeing on their snap stories is real. I loved the idea that we could blur the lines between truth and fiction, and it seemed obvious to me that we should do something scary."
Filmmakers in production can begin to feel detached from their audience; it's usually a theoretical, nebulous entity that will only interact with the content in the future. By releasing her film on Snapchat, Macpherson effectively dissolved that barrier between herself and her audience. Sickhouse allowed her to receive immediate gratification as an artist.
"Everyone was hooked. People trust that what they are seeing on their snap stories is real."
"The response on Twitter as we posted the snaps live was so rewarding as a filmmaker," Macpherson said. "The audience clearly felt that the characters were fun and intriguing, the mystery and urban legend lore was working, the scares were freaking people out, and everyone was hooked. Even when they began to wonder if it was a movie, their interest didn't wane. The fans were ravenous for more snaps."
The film even inspired some narrative intervention from the audience. At one point during the release, the filmmaking team posted the cousin's account name. Shortly thereafter, fans began creating accounts in her name on Instagram and Twitter. Like real-time fan fiction, these individuals attempted to hijack the narrative. "One of the accounts even began posting in a creepy way as if they were actually Taylor," Macpherson said. "It was awesome!"
Casting for authenticity
Macpherson, who was a casting assistant on True Grit and In the Valley of Elah, knew that if her ultimate goal was sustained authenticity, she needed to find the right actors. But the "right actor" in this case wasn't just characterized by believability. The protagonist had to have a pre-established social media presence—in other words, be a social media pop star. What's more, he or she needed to be willing to use their account as the film's primary distribution platform.
Thankfully, Macpherson found Russett. "Andrea was a perfect fit because she is very talented and was as excited about the concept as we were," said Macpherson. Coupled with her intimate understanding of youth culture and ability to "speak their language," Russett brought nearly half a million Snapchat followers to the table.
"The 10-second clip restriction makes the audience feel like they are eavesdropping, so we played into that voyeuristic vibe."
Next, Macpherson cast Sean O'Donnell, an actor with a big Instagram presence who knew Russett personally. "He felt organic and believable as her friend— and maybe more!— that she would go camping with," Macpherson said. Casting Taylor was another story. "It was challenging because we needed someone totally unknown to play the cousin so that people would believe she was Andrea's family from out of town," Macpherson said. The director ultimately went with Laine Neil, a beguiling actress whom she had met at an audition years prior.
Though Macpherson did prepare for the shoot, there were only so many elements she would ultimately be able to control. Snapchat has a 10-second video limit, so Macpherson and crew were limited to very short takes. Further, because Snapchat doesn't allow users to save video recordings, Macpherson had to make definitive decisions with her takes. If a scene went well, she had to upload it immediately, or else risk losing it to future sub-par takes. And, of course, there's that issue of aspect ratio: Snapchat employs a "vertical video" aspect ratio, which threw most of Macpherson's preconceived notions about framing for a loop.
"We embraced these as exciting challenges and used them to our advantage, especially when it came to the scares," said Macpherson. "I love that the 10-second clip restriction makes the audience feel like they are eavesdropping, so we played into that voyeuristic vibe a lot. The vertical framing is really cool; it brings an inherent creepiness to the shots because it's very claustrophobic and isolating."
"Even though I knew exactly where we were going plot-wise, I wanted the actors to live moment-to-moment."
Though Macpherson did write what she described as a "very detailed" script, the dialogue was largely improvised. The director deferred to the young actors to create a veritable Snap experience. "I asked that they called 'bullshit' if something we were doing felt false," she said. "They know best." (The script did include Snapchat specifics, such as the text onscreen.)
"Authenticity was my first priority, so even though I knew exactly where we were going plot-wise, I wanted the actors to live moment-to-moment in reality and for their reactions to be real," said Macpherson. Because the footage was being broadcast live directly after it was shot, the production assumed an off-the-cuff schedule. "We had to shoot at the exact time in real life that it was happening in the movie," Macpherson said.
This forced spontaneity gave Macpherson the unique ability to augment the film's plot in real-time based on her cast's performances and the audience reaction. "Since we were posting the story live, we had to tell the story linearly," explained Macpherson. "When we arrived at the haunted house, we were able to tell which story elements were resonating with the cast and the audience. Those were the ones we played up."
"We would snap entire scenes and post them on the fly."
Each scene was approached with a meticulous calibration of character motivations and technical constraints. "The actors shot more than half of the footage themselves, so there was a careful choreography," said Macpherson. "Sometimes we would go snap-by-snap, but as much as possible we would snap entire scenes and post them on the fly."
"We were also intentionally only posting 70% of the story," Macpherson added, "so that we would have additional footage exclusive to the feature release. It took a lot of organization and quick decision-making."
Is Snapchat the future of filmmaking?
Macpherson didn't expound the virtues of Snapchat filmmaking as the future of the form, but she did emphasize its possibilities. "There are obviously limitations to telling a story on Snapchat," she said, "but as long as the medium is embraced as a tool rather than a hindrance, then I think all stories from any genre could be told on the platform."
In the end, Macpherson attributes the success of her film to shifting consumer desires. "We had an opportunity to essentially drop a rollercoaster ride right into the lap of a waiting audience," she said, "and it proves that people are enjoying storytelling right at their fingertips."