“Once you can no longer tell the difference between truth and reality, atrocities can be committed”
A breakout hit at FrightFest 2019, indie-shocker Death of a Vlogger has rapidly gained a cult following among genre fans for mixing genuine scares with incisive social commentary. Here we sit down with multi-hyphenate writer-director-editor-star Graham Hughes to unpack everything from fake news, cancel culture and things that go bump in the night. Spoilers throughout.
In Vlogger your character has posters on his wall for Ghostbusters and Gremlins: what’s your relationship with genre cinema?
Ghostbusters was a childhood favourite, and Gremlins was a childhood nightmare. I was the most scared kid ever growing up, terrified of everything: I couldn’t watch a horror film until I was about 15 or 16. Gremlins is pitched as a kid’s horror film, and being shown that as a kid I was just as terrified of Gizmo as I was of the Gremlins. But when I finally did get into horror and plucked up the courage to actually watch scary films, then Gremlins became a favourite.
When you came to horror later what was your entry point at that stage?
I think the first proper horror I was able to sit entirely through was Scream 2, of all things.
I love it now but at the time it was so scary, which is kind of quaint to think back on.
I remember one of my first proper introductions was when I was growing up we had the main living room, where my parents watched TV, but there was a weird set up were they ran a cable through the wall to the TV in the kid’s room, and if you went to Channel 6 you could see what they were watching. There was one afternoon when they were watching Alien and I was watching Arthur the Aardvark after school. I was flicking between Channel 2 and Channel 6 for as long as I could stand it: just watching a few minutes and then being like “no I’m too scared!”: go to Channel 2, back to Arthur, and then Alien, and then Arthur. Things like that, I just couldn’t stomach: I was too terrified.
Then Scream 2 and I think Evil Dead 2 was maybe one of the first ones I saw as well. And at that age I was about 17 and just going to Uni to do Film and Media, and it was the filmmaking of Evil Dead 2 that really grabbed me: it was like an awakening of “wow this is so insanely creative” and it just blew my mind and opened a door to horror.
That feels like quite a quick escalation from Scream 2 to Evil Dead 2 and then the world is your oyster after that.
For years that was one of the scariest things I’d ever seen: now I just find it hilarious, but I think – especially horror fans – we forget it is a really, really scary film
In Death of a Vlogger the film blurs with reality: those posters on the wall set it up as happening in the real world; you play the main character, who is also called Graham; the film was shot in your own flat. Can you talk a little about the space the film occupies.
That was both highly intentional and a really happy accident. Mostly there was just a purely pragmatic reason, in that it made filming a lot easier because I’m available to myself all the time and my flat is a free location. One of the big things was actually because I’d been vlogging, or at least making videos for the Internet, for quite some years I had this huge back catalogue of archive material. Just having all the videos of myself and sketches and things that I could use throughout, it was a great wealth for a documentary style project. And the best part about it was it just fit the theme so much of blurring the line is between truth and fiction and how that line is getting disturbingly eroded: with social media, lying politicians and all that business.
There’s something quite special about the film being released on streaming in 2020, where we have an outgoing incumbent in the States who made a battle cry of “fake news”: it feels like the idea of what is real is very much the thematic core of Vlogger.
Initially when I first started writing I thought it was going to be about social media addiction, which is something that I strongly cared about – still do – and there’s still a lot of that in there. But the more I wrote, the more I realized it was actually about fake news and just how terrified I am of that. Once you can no longer tell the difference between truth and reality, atrocities can be committed.
It’s interesting that the film never seeks to resolve that: it addresses it head on by the midpoint and then goes back and destabilizes it further, so even by the end it’s still completely open in terms of how you want to read it.
That was definitely intentional. I think resolving it in one direction would really undermine the theme.
Were there any particular inspirations for you? It felt like Vlogger had a J-horror feel.
I love J-Horror: Southeast Asian horror really works for me. However I would say that it just so happens that my fiancée – who plays the ghost – is mixed race with part Indian heritage so she’s got really dark black hair, and a sheet is the easiest ghost costume, so it was kind of happenstance. You get filmmakers that are “visionary” or whatever: my key word is “pragmatic”, just what’s the simplest and best line to getting something done and that was how it worked out.
Nothing wrong with pragmatism: that’s why we don’t have the shark in Jaws.
Yeah, I’m a big believer that getting it done is better than not getting it done.
When Graham’s trying to escape the block of flats in the last act it put me in mind of the Blair Witch films, where time seems to loop back on itself.
I didn’t intentionally think of that, but I probably did knick it!
And when he’s coming down the stairs and the same bike keeps coming up; you wouldn’t think that the image of a recurring bike could instil dread.
That again was a happy accident. I had planned the repeating staircase set-piece a while back, just because I knew something like that was quite an easy effect, it’s really straightforward. And when I went into the stairwell there was that bike. I knew I would need a landmark because it’s just beige walls, and it just so happened someone had left this bike. It’s funny how these things work because if you were doing a wanky essay about it you could be like “ah yes and the wheelless bike represents how Graham is going nowhere”.
It’s a fantastic moment. The film is full of these incredible set-pieces which are simple but deeply effective: another is the moment when Graham keeps walking out of the flat and then arriving back in his kitchen. How many of those were scripted in advance?
They were all scripted ahead of time. It’s a combination of trying to think of something that was really scary and something that was achievable to execute. Some of them on paper were extremely simple and with maybe just a few hundred pounds would have been a piece of cake, but I was trying to spend as little money as possible.
For example, the rising sheet took several attempts to do because I don’t have a background in effects. In my head I was “OK, I know how to do this: attach a hook to the ceiling and then get a fishing wire and we’ll put a sheet on the end and it’ll look like a person rising”. The first time the hook fell out of the ceiling because it’s just cheap plaster, so I had to figure out a way to attach that better; then I pulled it up and the sheet just came to this point and looked like the ghost of a Ku Klux Klan member. So I got a plastic bowl and put that under the sheet and then it looked like the ghost of R2D2 rising, just like this pedal bin. And then I realized I needed some sort of head and shoulders. It was iteration after iteration. Some things that seem simple took me a lot more time than if you had asked an actual experienced effects person: they’d have done it in no time flat.
That moment is super effective. Speaking about a DIY approach I understand you shot the whole film on your phone?
Yeah, everything except the parts of the story that are shot by the documentarians: the talking heads, the hidden camera part and the section where they go to Alice’s house with the doll. All those parts were shot by my friend Kevin (Walls): he’s a videographer so he shot that on a C100. I wanted to make sure that those parts were distinct, so the vlog stuff is just phone footage and ripped YouTube videos and that sort of thing and all the “documentary parts” are a bit slicker.
Having that textural difference in the quality of the film registers on an almost subliminal level.
Yeah, I don’t know if anyone would pick up on that, but they would pick up on it if it was also on the phone: like the interviews, it would just be like “Oh my God, this is cheap”.
You’ve mentioned social media addiction, public shaming and cancel culture as key themes.
I’ve made videos for The Social, which was set up by BBC Scotland, and they essentially handed the reins over to “the youth” – for lack of a better word – and content creators who could approach with ideas and they would get paid a small fee. It was – still is – a BBC platform, so it had a bigger reach and they were giving young up and coming creators an audience. It’s a great idea, but oh my God did it turn toxic: it is probably the most toxic place on the Internet that I’ve come across. The Social Facebook page is just horrible. They do a lot of social justice videos, particularly things like trans-rights and feminism, and the comments are just disgusting. It is horrendous.
I’ve done a few videos as well, but being a straight white male and doing very inoffensive content I didn’t get that kind of hate, but I had my fair share of negativity and just seeing these things I wanted to shine a light on that. I think not addressing it or not mentioning it would have been disingenuous.
There’s a really arresting image which is on the poster where your character’s against a wall and it’s covered in graffiti saying “kill yourself” and other hate comments. And then in the film the spectre’s hands come through the wall to grab him: it’s almost like a metaphorical assault that becomes a literal assault.
I’ve never been cancelled, but like I said I’ve had plenty of negativity, especially through films that I’ve released, including Death of a Vlogger. People say things on the Internet they would never say to you in real life. Professional reviews would never be as mean or as pointed as some of the things that come out online, and it hurts. I’ve been in some really dark places because of things strangers have said online. I can hardly imagine what it would be like to actually be cancelled.
The fact that Vlogger got a wide release in 2020 during the coronavirus lockdown feels like an extra element. This was of course the year Host came out and it feels like you could locate Vlogger, which was made before, as being connected somewhat: it’s also about an Internet based haunting with a main character who is basically confined.
I absolutely love Host. Anytime someone mentions that as a double bill I feel very humbled and honoured. That’s a great film.
With found footage haunting movies there’s like this continuum from the Paranormal Activity films, Unfriended, then Vlogger and Host. It’s really interesting to view that body of work together.
Thanks, that means a lot. I love Unfriended: I feel that film gets unfairly maligned. It’s brilliant and it’s a shame Searching came along and completely blew it out of the water. I mean, I love Unfriended but oh my God Searching’s a masterpiece.
I saw Unfriended late one evening on my phone, which felt like the perfect intersection of film and medium. The fact that Vlogger has found its home now on Amazon Prime as a streaming service, rather than a physical release, also feels oddly appropriate: like the spirit which is haunting your character is out there.
Totally. I think most other filmmakers would be horrified at someone watching their film on a phone: it’s something that I’m quite happy if people do. Every filmmaker wants a cinema release: I obviously did, and we were planning on a boutique home media release too but Covid put paid to that. But yeah, VOD just suits the film. Someone messaged me a wee while back saying they were just loading it up on their laptop to watch in bed, and I was like “That’s perfect”: lights off, laptop in bed, perfect place to watch it.
The film got rave reviews when it premiered at FrightFest 2019 and was then shown again at Glasgow FrightFest 2020.
That was a dream come true. I can say in all honesty if it hadn’t been programmed at FrightFest 2019 we probably wouldn’t be talking now. They put the film on the map in a way that I was really struggling to do: I had knockbacks from pretty much all the other major horror and fantasy festivals, we got rejected from everywhere and FrightFest said yes. And it was through FrightFest we got our distributors and sales agent and then word of mouth. That was a really, really nice experience.
The Evolution of Horror podcast named it as the scariest film of the festival.
I think second to FrightFest, in terms of helping the film, would probably be Mike (Muncer, host of The Evolution of Horror): he’s been such a champion. When it’s someone of that calibre who’s seen everything and enjoyed it, you can’t ask for better than that.
So what’s next for you?
I’m writing two films just now: one is another no-budget thing that I could maybe do in an Air BNB next spring, Covid allowing, with a bunch of friends over a week. The second film I’m trying to get financing for is a bit bigger scale. But yeah, they’re both horrors, both quite contained, both supernatural and relying on the scares.