In H+: The Digital Series, a post-apocalyptic techno-thriller that debuts today from producer Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X2, House), a consumer device that allows people to stay connected 24-hours a day directly results in the demise of one-third of the Earth’s population. That’s a scary vision for any epoch, but perhaps especially one currently salivating at the prospect of new iThings.
The culprit in H+, which is shorthand for a real-world movement called transhumanism, is a wonder chip that we implant in our brains, thereby eliminating the need to hunch over physical electronics forever. But the price paid for this technological leap is a steep—when a global virus strikes the implants, the system failure is fatal.
Directed by Stewart Hendler (Sorority Row) and scripted by John Cabrera and Cosimo De Tommaso, H+ is interesting not just for its storyline, but also for its innovative distribution method. The series, shot over a month in Chile, was created specifically for the web and will premiere on YouTube in weekly batches of four-minute episodes. Because the episodes were designed to be non-linear, viewers are encouraged to experience the series, which follows an international band of survivors that includes Hannah Simone (New Girl) and Alexis Denisoff (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a la carte— choose-your-own-adventure style.
In an interview with Co.Create while on a break from editing his next film—the forthcoming live action Halo series, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn—Hendler talked to us about raising the production stakes on web content, painting a realistic portrait of the future and how the tech depicted in H+ may close to being a reality.
Co.Create: One of the first things that stands out about H+ is just how high the production values are. It feels very much like a cable series or maybe a Milla Jovovich or Kate Beckinsale kind of movie. But you guys always approached it as something that was going to live on the web. How did that thinking affect or not affect the production?
Stewart Hendler: The whole goal was to bring a quality to the web that we hadn’t seen yet. To hear you say that is really gratifying because that’s what we were after. We wanted people to say "Oh, well this could be on television," or "Oh, well this could be a movie." We think the web deserves that kind of content and that there’s momentum in that direction.
Why choose the web and not, say, the Syfy Channel?
When I was brought on in the outline phase, the writers, John Cabrera and Cosimo De Tommaso, both of whom are mad geniuses, had brought the concept to Bryan Singer’s company [Bad Hat Harry Productions] and they had embraced the idea that this would be a multi-part, multi-character, multi-country storyline. With that we all loved the idea of making something that could be accessed in different orders and from different angles and that would reveal itself in different ways depending on how you put these small pieces together. And the Web is really the only place where you can do something like that.
Did you have any models or inspirations as far as previous web series that have been done?
Not really, which was part of the reason we were excited about it. We wanted to do something that hadn’t been done. When this series was originally conceived, it was four years ago, so web series hadn’t really become something that was on people’s radar. Since then there have definitely been some great ones out there, but with this we were always trying to do something that was uncharted.
The series has some pretty dark themes. Nearly a third of the world’s population is killed instantly by a technological implant. Where did that idea come from?
I think the notion of technology backfiring on us is something that’s always been around. When I was growing up I liked the Terminator movies where you could see that technology was evolving and robots were being developed and you would say "Aw, crap! That’s what’s gonna happen! The robots are gonna turn on us and there’s gonna be a big war." But today, technology is getting smaller and smaller and ultimately trying to be as invisible as possible. So I thought it was much scarier to say "What happens if this technology becomes so trusted and so organic in our lives that we actually let it inside our bodies and then it turns on us?" It seemed like the right update to a theme that has captivated people for years and years.
The are similarities between H+ and things like Google’s new Project Glass. Obviously you were in production with the series already scripted long before the world found out about that. It must have been uncanny when you saw their demos.
Yeah, it was. We were racing to get our fictional technology out before actual technology, which was pretty funny. Technology moves super fast, so the trick during production was to try and keep up with it and make sure that this script that was super sci-fi when it was conceived would still even be relevant by the time it came out.
And even beyond Glass there are a lot of less publicized things that are in laboratories as we speak. The notion of people being able to have chips in their bodies that monitor their bodily functions and then connect with the network at large; contacts that can display images overlaid on them; these things are in development and happening right now. So I think the ideas in our series are probably far less science fiction than people think they are, which is even scarier.
One of the promises of the implants in the series is that they eliminate the need for all of this electronic baggage that we’re saddled with all the time: laptops, cell phones, tablets. I actually found myself lusting after that kind of technology even though it’s obviously horrifying in a lot of ways. Do you see H+ as making any sort of commentary on the direction we’re headed in as a society?
It’s funny that you say that because I’m telling you, if this technology were real, I would be the first person to sign up for it [laughs]. With no second thought. I think the series is about asking questions. It’s not about hitting people over the head with some sort of warning or message. The way we look at it is that as technology evolves so quickly, it’s a storyteller’s prerogative to look at what the darker side of it could be and to explore what could go wrong in the hopes that we don’t go down that path. It’s not an "Everybody drop your iPhones!" kind of story. It’s just a look at one way things could go if we’re not careful.
Almost every sci-fi movie has the challenge of portraying a convincing vision of the future. The one in H+ feels pretty natural. Everyone still drives cars and dresses normally. What conversations did you have about how this world would look and feel?
We liked the idea of this world being directly relatable to the one that we’re in right now. We don’t specify exactly when the story takes place, we just say it’s the near future. And if you look back a decade, two decades, three decades the world then looks largely the same as it does today. Cars have changed a little bit, we have new buildings, some fashion changes— but at the end of the day, a living room is still a living room. People have a room with some couches, some lamps and a TV. So we intentionally wanted to portray a world that people know and then introduce this fantastic technology that becomes grounded by the reality of everything around it.
In the past you’ve done feature films. How do you pull off a project like this with a smaller budget and more limited resources?
A lot of luck [laughs]. The cool thing about this project was that it wasn’t like a studio movie where a lot of the budget goes to support the machinery of the studio itself and the infrastructure of this big production. Warner Bros. was great and they let us go do our thing with very little interference. So in a sense it was this very pure creative process where we really got to spend our money and put it on the screen in ways that were relevant to the story. That was a really refreshing experience for me. We also just had a gung-ho crew. Everybody that signed on was passionate about the script and worked at super low rates and we just kind of guerilla’ed the whole thing and made it work. Our running joke was that we were making the world’s largest student film.
This is a pretty ambitious web series—48 four-minute episodes with 12 lead characters and international locations. Was there ever any worry that web viewers wouldn’t have the attention span for that?
I think we put a lot of faith in web viewers; otherwise we wouldn’t have done this. Over the past few years I think people’s patience and willingness to view content on the web has expanded. And the technology that’s used to bring that content into your home has advanced, as well. Whether it’s Smart TVs or Apple TV or whatever, you can get HD YouTube videos streaming into your home theater system in beautiful quality with beautiful sound. So I think the notion of people watching jerky videos that take forever to load on their laptop is shifting. Now the web is just another portal for entertainment that people have the ability to choose.
As far as engaging viewers, one of our biggest influences was Lost. We loved the idea that everyone got invested in Lost to different degrees. Some people spent all their time between episodes online hypothesizing and building websites and decoding messages, and then there were other people that just wanted to see if Kate was gonna end up with Jack or Sawyer. So we wanted to have a piece of content that was complex enough and deep enough that if you dug through it, you would find stuff. But, at the same time, if you want to just sit back and relax, you could have fun doing that, too. So yeah, we believe in people’s attention spans. We’ll see what happens. We hope they dig it.
You’re currently working on another very high profile web series with the Halo 4 movie. YouTube would love to see many more original series like yours being developed for the web, but of course Hollywood and the TV networks have other ideas. What’s the evolution of web content going to look like?
You know, I can’t imagine it becoming anything less than a full-size rival to cable television in a few years. The video quality is there, the accessibility is certainly there and now the content is starting to be there, as well. Halo is certainly another ambitious attempt to show that the web is a place where people will go to access high end content and that there is no stigma attached to premiering on the web, which I think certainly has existed in the past. People used to say, "Oh, it’s on the web. It’s by its very nature something that didn’t work for a TV network, or a movie that didn’t have enough money." We want to be on the front end of a response that says, "No, really good content should be made for the web, so let’s just go crazy."
Have you put any thought into your next project? Do you go back to feature films? Make another web series? Do something for television?
The interesting thing about doing two web series back-to-back is that it’s really reframed the way I think about things. I used to think about the platform as the primary factor in deciding what I wanted to do next. But I’ve had so much fun making these last two projects that it’s really opened up my eyes. Now it’s just about the quality of the content. If I get a really good script, I don’t think it matters whether it’s a pilot or a web series or a movie. It’s all just about making really cool stories.