This post was written by Jacob Seltzer and Benjy Steinberg.
When we created Mountain Murder Tapes, our scripted TikTok horror film, we wanted to reconnect with our love of scrappy, guerilla filmmaking. At the time, Benjy was writing on a major television show and Jacob had just directed a high-budget short–both huge endeavors with multiple departments, approvals, and stakeholders. Mountain Murder Tapes brought us back to the basics: the story, the actors, and a single camera.
Our story was long, but TikTok prioritizes short content: so we spliced the film into 31 catchy, self-contained TikTok episodes. Making 15-to-90-second TikToks gave us an opportunity to strip our storytelling down. It also helped connect the project with a much larger audience than we could have ever expected–the project has over a million views and counting.
As a bonus, we learned several important lessons about how to tell stories in the world’s newest popular scripted medium–lessons that we can apply to our careers in film and TV. We’re excited to share our takeaways with you here.
1. A TikTok’s hook is more important than its cliffhanger
Our initial instinct when writing Mountain Murder Tapes was to prioritize each TikTok episode’s cliffhanger to keep viewers watching. Benjy’s experience writing TV taught him to leave the viewer wanting more so that they’d tune in next week.
But TikTok operates completely differently. Within a fraction of a second, users decide whether to swipe or watch. So it’s so much more important that a TikTok’s hook is catchy–otherwise, viewers won’t even make it to the cliffhanger!
The best hooks in Mountain Murder Tapes used eye-grabbing images–a kissing couple, a creepy cabin, a character sobbing–in their very first frames to draw viewers in.
Effective hooks also have a spoken dramatic question from a character in the first second, like “What was that?” or “What are we going to do about the blood?” to keep viewers waiting until the end of the TikTok for the question’s answer.
four spring breakers went missing. here’s the footage. follow for tape 10 #scary #foundfootage #horrortok #fyp
these spring breakers went missing. here’s the footage. follow for tape 27 #scary #foundfootage #horrortok #fyp
That said, don’t think you can ignore the cliffhanger! A tense, surprising cliffhanger will help your views too, because it will encourage viewers to follow the account and continue watching your movie.
2. Dramatic tension keeps your viewers watching the full TikTok movie
During distribution, there was no better feeling than opening up TikTok and finding 31 consecutive likes from fans, showing us that they were watching the whole film from beginning to end. The best way to keep fans engaged is with a central dramatic tension for the entire story–a simple "yes" or "no" question to which your viewer craves the answer.
The main dramatic tension for Mountain Murder Tapes was: “Will these four friends survive their stalker?”
Within every TikTok episode, we played to that tension. We intercut between the stalker’s night vision GoPro footage, and the friends’ phone footage, as their terrifying cat-and-mouse game played out. This dramatic tension kept our audience leaning in, and hitting those like, share, and follow buttons.
3. Invest in your characters–your audience will stay engaged if they care
As indie filmmakers, we know that compelling characters are key to telling a good story. The same is true on TikTok. From lifestyle influencers to dancers to comedians,personalities are everything! So we intentionally framed our story around a grounded, fun, and relatable group of friends to engage our audience.
During the writing of Mountain Murder Tapes, we spent countless hours breaking out our characters to make sure they enticed our viewers. In such a short format, characters need to be clear immediately. Also, for all the life-and-death stakes of our horror narrative, we made sure that our four leads had interpersonal conflicts: Jesse’s impatience with Allie’s beginner skiing, Brandon’s disregard for Jesse’s cabin rules, and Skye’s frustration with Brandon’s drinking.
Of course, no matter how well you write the characters, you need people to bring them to life. Our incredibly talented actors Caroline Deery, Nova Chez, Spencer Levin, Kendrick Kirk, and Tahmus Rounds intuitively understood their characters, building on what we wrote with improvisation and chemistry.
When the audience is engaged with your characters, they want to follow along.
4. Go guerilla! Use the flexibility of an iPhone camera to elevate your film
The iPhone is TikTok’s standard camera, so use that to your advantage. One of the best parts of shooting on an iPhone is the ability to be inconspicuous: you won’t draw unwanted attention from the “permit police.”
For Mountain Murder Tapes, we used familiar locations on a ski mountain, like a gondola, an apres-ski bar, and the bunny hill, to elevate the production. Jesse’s cabin is at the top of the ski mountain, accessible only by a gondola. After the gondola closes for the night, the kids are stranded on the peak. We used the ride up on the gondola to allow our cast to develop their characters through improvisation while also capturing the beautiful winter scenery.
Had we shot this with an ARRI Alexa, we would have attracted unwanted attention from the lifties (which would have been particularly bad because we used borrowed ski passes). But we got the shot, guerrilla-style.
5. Know your specific audience, and write, shoot, edit, and distribute accordingly.
TikTok is a natural marketer. Its algorithm sectors videos into “taste clusters” for specific audiences: true-crime-tok is different from horror-tok and is very different from dance-tok.
We learned this firsthand when we created the true crime account @crazyfortruecrime to guerilla-market the film in the vein of The Blair Witch Project. However, there was little conversion from true crime viewers to found footage horror viewers. If we were to do this again, we would have created a single account for the marketing and distribution, exclusively geared toward the horror-tok crowd. It is more effective to distribute niche rather than broad content on TikTok.
However, we were still able to learn from our audience and make adjustments as we distributed. As we wrote, directed, and edited, we conformed to certain expectations of the horror genre. Each TikTok needed to be scary and include the killer. Then, as we released the film, we made sure that we were finding the right viewers by using specific, limited on-screen titles, captions, and hashtags.
During the process, we learned that on-screen text was more important than the caption and that it was most effective to use three or fewer audience-specific hashtags.
Finally, throughout our month-long distribution process, we watched which videos performed best, and dissected why. We put ourselves in our viewers’ shoes. At what moments did we want to scroll? At what moments did we lean in? Thinking about the metrics of each released TikTok episode, and what we felt was effective about it, we recut future episodes so as to increase views, likes, comments, shares, and followers–while staying true to our creative vision.
6. Tailor your storytelling to TikTok’s unique user experience.
The TikTok profile itself presents unique storytelling opportunities. In film or TV, studios and networks distribute, but on TikTok, it’s often an individual content creator. For Mountain Murder Tapes, we framed our profile as the stalker’s account. This added a chilling new dimension to our story–that the killer was still out there somewhere, editing and posting videos of themselves hunting down their victims. We used TikTok’s unique user experience to heighten and elevate our horror movie.
Time to Create Your TikTok Film
Mountain Murder Tapes was invaluable for our development as filmmakers. Collaborating with each other, and with our producers Mary Dwyer and Erin Russoniello, showed us how a small group of scrappy, devoted filmmakers can make a big impact.
Finding our audience on TikTok and connecting with them directly through the app gave us extraordinary, hands-on, real-time insight into how people watch content. We learned lessons we’ll carry forward with us on all our future projects. We’d encourage any aspiring filmmaker out there to experiment with TikTok–the frontier of scripted storytelling in the digital age.
This post was written by Jacob Seltzer and Benjy Steinberg.