Ghosts in the Machine: Graham Hughes Talks Death of a Vlogger

One of the brightest gems playing the 2019 Arrow Video FrightFest is Graham Hughes’ Death of a Vlogger.

Cannily spinning fresh ideas into the mockumentary and found footage genres, it tells the story of Graham (Hughes himself), a prolific vlogger who accidentally captures on camera an apparently supernatural event. When this and subsequent spooky occurrences go viral, Graham and his pal Erin (Annabel Logan) hire in brash YouTube ghost chaser Steve (Paddy Kondracki) to help them solve the mystery.

As events unfold, reality begins to wobble and characters question if they can really trust anything on the internet.

A smart skewering of online toxicity and a genuinely unnerving ghost story, Death of a Vlogger should be on the watchlist of anyone who likes their horror served with verve and imagination.

We were lucky enough to catch up with writer, producer, director and star, Graham Hughes to discuss his ghoulishly good movie.

Rob Daniel: Thanks for your time today.

Graham Hughes: No worries, thanks for inviting me to chat. It’s a small film so anything we can do to get the word out ahead of the screening of the movie is brilliant.

RD: First up, how would you pitch Death of a Vlogger to those thinking of checking it out at FrightFest?

GH: It’s got a bit of everything for everyone. Equal parts commentary on the state of the internet and also just a terrifying ghost story. There’s a bit of comedy in there too which always helps.

RD: It is mockumentary meets found footage. When planning the film were you worried those sub-genres might have been exhausted?

GH: Yep, 100%! Even now, despite getting into FrightFest I’m worried that the genre is going to hold us back from finding an audience. I think people feel that mockumentary and, in particular, found footage are played out.

Of course, I don’t think that’s the case. They are successful genres, therefore there’s been an absolute flood of them released in the last, like, ten years. But they’ve not been tackled by many serious later-stage filmmakers, so the quality isn’t always great.

There’s still life left here. A few years ago Adam Green did Digging Up the Marrow, which was totally original, so you can still get a fresh take.

RD: Death of a Vlogger brings something fresh in terms of its social media commentary. Was that an element you thought brought something a little new to the genre?

GH: I think, first off, I was looking at it as a filmmaking exercise. I tend to focus more on plot and style than theme. So, I was interested in what kind of cool shit I could do! The types of thing you couldn’t do in other films like the 360° camera scene; I thought that’d be fun.

Working in the social media themes came later. As a filmmaker I don’t tend to know what my film is about until quite a late stage. Initially, I thought I was making a film about social media addiction, and there is still a bit of that in there. But by the end, it was more about fake news and not trusting what you’re reading online… and the terror that is wreaking on my psyche at the moment!

RD: Was it relatively easy to get the funding because you were tackling those themes in a horror film?

GH: The funding came easily because it came out of my pocket! (laughs) There was no external funding!

RD: Wow. So how much of the character of Graham’s flat is your flat?

GH: It’s the flat I live in and we still have that graffiti up on the wall. Just a few weeks ago I was sitting on the couch with my girlfriend watching a film, and at literally the same moment we turned to each other and said, “It says ‘cunt’ on our wall” and, “Yeah, I was just thinking that.” 

The only difference is it was my birthday yesterday and my girlfriend got me a new poster. So, Gremlins is going to get switched out for Akira.

RD: Like the character of Graham in the film, you have made numerous online shorts. Have you experienced any kind of backlash similar to that of the character?

GH: Fortunately, not to that extent. I’ve had some backlash, but just a few lone people commenting on videos that I’ve made. I’ve not been on the wrong end of a pitchfork mob yet. But I think it’s something we all see on a daily basis; it’s reached the point now where when I open up an article, I read the headline and then go to the comments first to see what the reaction is! It’s toxic and horrible, but it’s the way I feel I’ve been programmed over the last few years.

RD: The reason I ask is because as the film progresses the online toxicity almost becomes as haunting as the supernatural stuff, particularly in your performance. I was thinking, is he going full method and recalling a past roasting?

GH: (laughs) Well, I was probably thinking about the reviews for my last film! No, like I said, I’ve experienced some of that, so may have been drawing on it. Regarding the point about the online reaction being as haunting as the ghosts themselves, I think that’s a classic story point of ‘Man is the real monster’. That plays well in sci-fi and horror as an analogy of the world we live in and a way to explore society.

RD: Were there any difficulties balancing the social media critique and the supernatural, so one didn’t push out the other?

GH: Yeah, I wrote the film in a weird sort of way. I did a rough draft and then started filming, piecing it together. We shot weekends and evenings over the course of about six months and the script evolved alongside it. So, it was made with a kind of iterative approach, that as I was shooting and editing I could see how it was coming together and then rewrite as I went.

It started out with not enough horror for my taste. The climactic scenes with my character in the flat didn’t come in until much later when I realised it would be better to have a more traditional horror climax. Finding that balance was important.

RD: Speaking of the script, the scenes with you and co-stars Annabel Logan and Paddy Kondracki had a loose, naturalistic style. Were you improvising around general scene outlines or was the dialogue scripted?

GH: It varied from scene-to-scene and actor-to-actor. Annabel is a classically trained actor, so most of her scenes were word-for-word from the script, with a little bit of improvisation.

Paddy was different. He’s a writer and director himself. I’d seen him in a few things before and asked if he’d be in this. He sort of reluctantly agreed, because he’s not great with memorising lines but his improvisation is impeccable. So, I was happy for each of the actors to do it in the way that felt most comfortable.

Some scenes needed to be tied to the script. The 360° scene I mentioned earlier was a five-minute single take shot with lots of practical effects and complicated blocking. It needed to be pretty much word-for-word from the script so the timings all worked.

RD: The 360° scene is impressive as is the climax of the film. How much of the effects work was practical and how many effects were achieved digitally?

GH: Thanks, that’s nice to hear. I’d say probably 90% practical, maybe more. Then smoothed out afterwards in After Effects, wire removal and things like that. Yeah, mostly practical, because I don’t’ have the budget or the skills to do grand CGI. After Effects is more my turf!

Everything was designed in a logical way, thinking okay, I need to levitate a person, or have a glass move on its own across a table: how can I do that and hide how I’m doing it? That was the approach, then tidying up the edges in post.

RD: So you were approaching the effects the way Tom Savini did, likening them to magic tricks?

GH: Yeah, I guess so. Magic tricks… with the help of computers!

RD: Yeah, Tom didn’t have that. Were you always going to cast yourself as the lead?

GH: Yes, I always wrote the role with myself in mind. There’s a pragmatism about it; I’m not a trained actor but the character isn’t too far from myself, so I knew if I wrote it in a certain way it’d be fine. I made sure I didn’t have too many heavy-lifting acting scenes in the film. It was always designed to be manageable.

RD: Were there any films that inspired you and did you screen anything for the cast and crew?

GH: I didn’t screen anything for the cast and crew. But, the film that really inspired Death of a Vlogger was The Dirties. It’s not a horror film, it’s a 2013 Canadian found footage mockumentary about a couple of kids making a film about school shootings for their high school class.

The teacher says there are problems with the idea, so one of the kids says to his mate, why don’t we just do a high school shooting, film it and that will be our project. The other guy thinks he is joking so they go about planning how they would do it. It’s low-budget, but an absolutely brilliant movie that really inspired me at a time I was feeling quite low about filmmaking.

Once I started planning the film I was watching things like Noroi, Lake Mungo, The Conspiracy, Hellhouse LCC, just really great found footage horror.

RD: You said you were shooting for six months. The film is ambitious in featuring talking heads, found footage, special effects, and educational video style animation. How long was post-production?

GH: We wrapped shooting October of last year. The film was completely finished by the start of March, so around five months. But the edit was underway while the shoot was going on, so post was around two or three months more editing, about two months of sound, we did the grade while doing the sound, so everything was locked by start of March.

RD: Was it almost death of a vlogger for real by the end of all that?

GH: (laughs) Well, I love editing, that’s my day job so I didn’t find it that exhausting. I’ve been more exhausted in the last few months in the lead-up to FrightFest than I was when filming!

RD: I thought the sound design was impressive in the way it kept the suspense high. Were you also the sound designer?

GH: No, sound is my weak spot as a filmmaker. I brought in this guy called David McKeitch, an old high school friend. He’s worked on pretty much every indie film that’s come into Scotland over the last fifteen years and has over 70 credits on his IMdb.

I sent David a locked edit and a couple of loose notes, but was happy for him to have his way with it. He sent me the first edit of the entire sound design and mix and by the third version it was completely locked.

RD: The spooky stories your character tells at the beginning of the film are an effective low budget device for generating suspense. How did those stories come about?

GH: Off the top of my head I think all but one were written for this film. I just love when there is a story in a film. I don’t know why, but when someone in a movie says, “It was three months ago…”, I’m like, yes, here we go! It’s the reason I am the only person who loves Seven Psychopaths more than In Bruges. I adore the way that film jumps about with its mini-stories.

The only story not written specifically for this film was the WW2 tale about the paratroopers. Which according to my dad is based on fact, although I haven’t been able to verify it! (We shan’t spoil the story here, but it’s a good one…)

RD: Death of a Vlogger has its World Premiere at this year’s Arrow Video FrightFest as part of the First Blood strand. How did you go about submitting the film and how did you find out it had been accepted?

GH: FrightFest is a total institution. This is the first horror feature I’ve worked on, but I’ve known about FrightFest for years. So, it was a total no-brainer to try and get it in there. I submitted it through Film Freeway and received an email from Ian Rattray, who curates the First Blood strand, saying it was being programmed. Simple as that, but I’m sure there was a lot of deliberation behind the scenes! A stressful couple of months waiting for that decision to come in…

RD: Are there any other films in the First Blood strand you’re keen to check out?

GH: Yeah, they all look really good. I met Magnus Wake briefly at the Edinburgh Film Festival a couple of months ago. He’s the director of Dark Sense, and I’ve known about that film for years now so I’m keen to check it out. Not sure if I’ll have time to go to any of the screenings, but they all look good.

RD: I’ve seen A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life, which plays directly after Death of a Vlogger at the Prince Charles Cinema. That’s a good double bill for anyone interested. And what’s next for you?

GH: This film is taking up pretty much all my time right now. Hopefully there will be a way to get it off my plate in the next couple of months and I can get back to writing again. There are a few feature ideas I have, but I’ve not decided on which one to knuckle down on yet.

RD: Are you looking to stay in horror or try another genre?

GH: Not sure yet. Most of my ideas are horror, but if this one isn’t horror it’ll likely be horror adjacent. Grindhouse action or something like that…

The Electric Shadows review of Death of a Vlogger will be available on Saturday 24th August after the FrightFest screening.

For more information on the 2019 Arrow Video FrightFest, click here.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
iTunes Podcast: The Electric Shadows Podcast

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