'Money is a Man-Made Roadblock': How a Filmmaker Took Control of Getting His Work Seen
Consisting entirely of footage found on Youtube, a new documentary discovered a release strategy that suited the director's vision.
An impassioned advocate for microbudget cinema as well as an independent producer in his own right, New York-based Dan Schoenbrun is no stranger to No Film School. After providing countless filmmakers with professional advice and creative feedback over the past several years, the multi-hyphenate former Associate Director of Programming for the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) and Film Lead at Kickstarter has recently taken to concentrating on his own artistic endeavors.
After releasing collective: unconscious, the 2016 SXSW omnibus film he originated and executive produced with five fellow filmmakers, Schoenbrun and his filmmaking team sat down with us to discuss their outside-the-box creation. The following year, after touring the country with Season 1 of his episodic whatzit The Eyeslicer, Schoenbrun contributed a guest post about the project's winding road to self-distribution. For his latest project, a documentary on the internet urban legend known as the Slender Man (consisting solely of footage found on Youtube) embedded below, we caught up again with Schoenbrun to discuss his latest project.
After watching A Self-Induced Hallucination, read on to learn how the unique project gestated, how its "surprise" release strategy only enhanced the concept of the film, and why the filmmaker finds the art-versus-commerce debate to be important but not a dealbreaker for delivering passionate, heartfelt work.
No Film School: You've described this project as one that you've been obsessing over for years. What was it about the Slender Man mythology that appealed to you and made it feel appropriate to dive further into?
Dan Schoenbrun: I learned about the Slenderman back in 2014, shortly after the stabbing incident that brought him to mainstream attention. It was all immediately fascinating to me: the near-endless archive of fictional material created for free on YouTube and message boards, the real world incident (and how it relates to the fictional material), the format of 'creepypasta' itself, a new storytelling medium completely native to the internet. I knew there were big questions about the purpose of storytelling here, about mental health, and about the relationship between fiction and reality, all hidden inside the folds of this rabbit hole.
A couple of years later, there was the election of Donald Trump, a thoroughly post-modern rise to power, from fictional reality TV star to real-world tyrant.
I did some writing about it. The world suddenly didn't feel like reality but rather like reality television, like we were all living in some communally developed creepypasta. It threw me into a tailspin and called into question very basic things I had always assumed about art and storytelling and reality. I returned to the Slenderman, and he began to feel like a Rosetta Stone for this moment I was living through.
"I think something interesting and truthful can happen when the artist gives up some control to a chorus of conflicting voices."
NFS: This is not the first time you've crafted a film comprised of archival material. What is it about this form that interests you?
Schoenbrun: I like the idea of a film built entirely out of primary sources. This is destabilizing: it forces the viewer to not just think about the narrative or the story or the "message" the film is espousing at any given moment, but also who made what they're watching, and why they made it. Most documentaries today present their narratives as truth, attempting to lull viewers into a sense of security by presenting their version of events as authoritative (by collapsing any sense of critical distance). Even Adam Curtis, who I quite like, is problematic in this regard: that big, authoritative British accent narrating history for us.
Obviously every film, by nature, has a narrative that's being pushed forward by the filmmaker (mine certainly does, just in how the archival is assembled and organized). But I think something interesting and truthful can happen when the artist gives up some control to a chorus of conflicting voices.
"For every video telling 'the truth,' there's another video accusing that first video of being a lie."
With this film, I am also trying to develop a style of linear filmmaking that captures the insanely non-linear sensation of browsing the internet, of falling down a YouTube rabbit hole, of the "content cycle." There is an onslaught of media bearing down on us right now, all of it posted and chewed up and spit back out at such insane speeds. This can lead to beauty and innovation: I love the immediacy and the reflexivity and the energy of a great Twitter or YouTube meme.
And yet, it can also be downright destabilizing. Because for every video telling "the truth," there's another video accusing that first video of being a lie. Myths are born and killed and reborn in a matter of hours. Facts are too.
There are several amazing contemporary artists making work right now in a similar format (and with similar questions in mind), all of whom I find really inspiring: Penny Lane and her new YouTube archival documentary The Pain of Others, Theo Anthony's Rat Film, Dean Fleischer-Camp's Fraud, Chris Osborn's DEEP series, and basically everything coming out of Borscht down in Miami. I hope the critics write some good thinkpieces about us soon. I hope they give this movement a sweet name like WebCore or PostTube or something like that.
NFS: Since the Slender Man lore originated (and grew) online, it feels appropriate to craft a film completely out of footage you found on the internet. How did you begin to formulate the flow of the narrative?
Schoenbrun: It took me years to find the best way to tell this story. I wrote multiple drafts of multiple docu-hybrid screenplays. They all felt exploitative. I started and stopped work on countless video essays, regular old written essays, pretentious Chris Marker-kind of ruminations. I then started just assembling the actual footage that had inspired my obsession with this topic. It felt so simple and so obvious: the truest, purest form of what I had been trying to make.
I had been living with it all for years and so I was already really familiar with the archive of material I was working from when I started cutting. This helped me zero in quickly on a coherent narrative. Narrative and story was so important to me. I knew if the film played as just a random soup of footage, it would be a failure. I wanted to find the best way to unravel this archive of material in all of its complexity, in all of its twists and turns, and all of its endlessly diverging perspectives. I started mapping out an arc, different segments of a developing larger narrative, all on loose-leaf. I also worked hard to make sure every cut was deliberate, that the footage was arranged in such a way as to elevate and challenge itself. So that every time you get too caught up in one perspective, the next video calls into question what you've just seen.
"I also just really like the idea of a surprise release, and I've been wanting to do one for awhile. I love that people will hear about this film today and be able to just watch it tonight."
NFS: The film had its world premiere last week at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn. While its title was revealed, the subject and content of the film was not. What was your reasoning behind planning a "surprise," go-in-cold approach?
Schoenbrun: We live in a hyper-commodified film economy. We're all hungry to classify, contextualize, and ultimately dismiss every new work of art we hear about the moment we hear about it. We watch through the lens of year-end top ten lists. We watch like collectors, "Oh, that film got bad Twitter buzz after its world premiere, it won't sell big," or "Oh, that film must not be great because it didn't get into X festival," or "Hereditary is the scariest movie of the year," etc. It's all a content cycle, gatekeeping. Things move so quickly now that the forces of commerce bear down so heavily, and the soul of it all is suffocating.
Every artist has to find a way to deal with this, to balance the desire to make work that people will actually see and engage with on a meaningful level with the ways in which the forces of commerce are set up to strangle your art. For me, I've often found that the best path out into the world involves breaking rules and taking creative risks with distribution. This helps me avoid being pigeonholed or written off too early by the larger content cycle.
I also just really like the idea of a surprise release, and I've been wanting to do one for awhile. I love that people will hear about this film today and be able to just watch it tonight. There's energy there.
NFS: How do you work to build an audience this way, through specialized, "eventized screenings"?
Schoenbrun: One person having an emotional connection with the work, being able to engage and talk about it, all of us coming together to treat the sharing of art as a sacred and communal experience? That's all more important to me than number-of-views or dollars or subscribers or pretty much anything else.
Everything I make and share falls under the umbrella of The Eyeslicer, this weird hybrid production company or distribution outlet or TV show (or maybe even like record label) that I run with my producing partner Vanessa McDonnell. We take pride in how everything we make (together or separately), everything we put out and every event we hold, speaks to a larger body of work, a larger movement, and a larger philosophy about art filmmaking in this country and at this moment.
Our hope is that every time something we've made gains a new fan, every time some stranger taps into our wavelength or experiences something meaningful in one of our projects (be it our dream anthology collective:unconscious, the titular TV show we make called The Eyeslicer, or this weird YouTube archival one-off feature I spent the winter putting together on my desktop at home), they'll seek out other stuff we've made. They'll help us keep growing as artists by following everything else we do, by being a part of it with us.
"I'm just starting to notice more strangers paying attention to what we're doing. I'm just starting to feel the first furtive gasps of a fanbase coming to life."
NFS: You previously toured the country with The Eyeslicer: Season 1. What did that specialized rollout teach you about maximizing a project's visibility and interest?
Schoenbrun: That you can't do it alone! That we need a circuit of arthouses and collectives and fans and festivals and "zinemakers" in this country all working together to build and support a new, truly alternative scene. The programmer and writer Eric Allen Hatch recently wrote about this in an amazing article for Filmmaker Magazine. I found what he said really articulate and really moving, so I'd just point you in his direction.
When I took The Eyeslicer on tour last Fall, the most depressing shows were the ones where I showed up at some theater in some city and tried to rally support on my own. The best, most inspiring shows (and honestly some of the best nights of my life) were those cities where we found a passionate local ally or two who shared our belief in building a new DIY film culture. I'm thinking about Holly and the Austin Film Society, Jaclyn and Matthew and the Cannonball Roarers in Kansas City, Jaqueline and The Mini Microcinema in Cincinnati, Chris and the Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri, and many more as well.
NFS: If a filmmaker wants to build interest around a one-off screening of their work, how would you recommend they get the word out? Any pitfalls they could avoid?
Schoenbrun: I don't want to sound like I'm anti-film-festival, because I'm not. Film festivals are run by passionate arts advocates who've worked for years to build an audience that trusts them, that come out to screenings. The best, easiest path for you might very well be to find a few festivals that fit your film's vibe, and to find an audience by taking your film out on the circuit.
The truth is that it's super hard and time-consuming and emotionally exhausting to build an audience from the ground up. It's an investment, and a huge one at that. It takes time and money and emotional energy and a large appetite for endless self-promotion. I've been at it for two years now with The Eyeslicer and I'm just getting past the "friends and family" point of the process. I'm just starting to notice more strangers paying attention to what we're doing. I'm just starting to feel the first furtive gasps of a fanbase coming to life.
I think the bottom line is that people need to think realistically and creatively about what they want to do with their life's work, and if what they want to do is make art, at some point they're going to need to think about distribution and commerce and how to get where they want to go. Like, what's the insane daydream fantasy version of yourself as an artist, and what are the best steps within your reach today to continue you on that very long, arduous, twisted, probably never-ending path to success? The answer to that question is going to be different for you than it is for me, and different for both of us tomorrow than today.
I also feel the need to add here: don't be evil and don't be greedy and don't be selfish and don't be an asshole. This is all much bigger than you and me and our individual needs and desires and artistic whims.
"Money is a man-made roadblock. Money is a cultural gatekeeper. If you're an artist, it will become your prison, your road to a dead-end."
NFS: You're a strong advocate for distributing your work online free-of-charge. Is this so that you can cut out the "middle man," if you will, or was it a choice more independently-driven in nature?
Schoenbrun: It's because money is not the end goal for me. Money is a reality that dictates the flow of resources in society. As an artist, especially a young artist, you have to quarantine it in the mind. Otherwise, you become a slave to it. Money has nothing to do with artmaking and filmmaking except for the fact that it is a very unfortunate means to a much larger end.
Now I'm going to say some more stuff about money:
Money is a man-made roadblock. Money is a cultural gatekeeper. Money is both very real and very fake, a collective hallucination. If you're an artist, or someone who values culture and education and truth, it will become your prison, your road to a dead-end.
I plan to start commodifying and attaching a commercial value to my work at some point, because you need to do so in order to sustain as an artist. But not yet. When I think about why I spent months obsessively working on this film, money could not be further away in my brain as a motivation. No, I made this film for something or someone else, for a reason that's pretty much impossible to put into words. You could call it God or even call it Slender Man...