It all started innocently on Snapchat.
A long-lost cousin coming to visit real-life social media star Andrea Russett. Goofing with friends on Venice Beach. An impulsive road trip in search of a haunted shack called the Sickhouse.
Then things got weird . . .
An increasingly unnerving narrative unfurled in real time over five days in late April, as an audience of 100 million tuned in to Russett's Snapchat handle, @Andwizzle, while exploding with comments on other social media platforms: "When’s Andrea going to post again?" "Is this real?" "Her cousin is so creepy."
By the end, the viewers realized they’d been privy to a grand experiment: the first Snapchat feature film. This month, the filmmakers released an expanded, enhanced 80-minute version on Vimeo On Demand.
"Snapchat is a very raw platform where young people share moments of themselves all day long. It’s very unfiltered," says producer Jake Avnet, COO of Indigenous Media, a Los Angeles production company that develops content for new platforms. "People like the authenticity of Snapchat, compared to platforms like Instagram or Facebook, where people post the best version of themselves. In creating this film for Snapchat, it was important to hit that nail on the head."
That tone facilitated the element of surprise. "It was a safe place to renew the found footage concept, because Snapchat is a place where people expect honesty inherently. No one had lied to anyone on Snapchat until we did," says writer/director/producer Hannah Macpherson. "It’s very rare to find a place where people aren’t immediately calling bullshit. They loved it, and felt they were in on a secret. People who didn’t follow along were jealous."
Inspired by the ways in which The Blair Witch Project and Lonely Girl blurred reality and fiction through emerging digital platforms, the Indigenous team began eyeing Snapchat—which enables 10-second video uploads that disappear after 24 hours—for a similar undertaking. They found a kindred spirit in Macpherson.
"Hannah’s a gifted storyteller who really understands teen culture," says Avnet. "That was crucial, since we were trying to make a film that would appeal to younger audiences, and have someone speaking their language, so it didn’t feel like a bunch of adults making a film where they don’t understand what’s going on culturally."
The team was strategic about their cast. Russett brought acting chops, ideas, and nearly half a million Snapchat followers serving as the film’s initial "distribution." Actors Sean O’Donnell and Lukas Gage played themselves, with O'Donnell's real-life Instagram celebrity making him a plausible love interest for Russett. For Russett’s cousin, Taylor, they went with a newcomer, Laine Neil. "It was important for us to have a person that Andrea’s audience hadn’t seen to play her cousin," says Macpherson.
The film began without fanfare on April 29 as another day in Russett’s Snapchat life. "When the story began subtly incorporating curious characters and tone, a small part of the audience started to think something was up, which we expected," says Avnet.
The mostly unscripted dialogue belied months of detailed preparation of an outline and traditional three-act plot structure that could work within Snapchat’s imitations—a vertical frame, first-person point of view, characters talking to camera, and shooting chronologically, in real time, and in 10-second vignettes.
"Because it was going live, we had to shoot at the exact time in real life that it was happening in the movie," says Russett. "It’s not like we could film two days of stuff in one day and upload it later. If we wanted a Snapchat of us having lunch, we’d have to wait until lunch to film it and upload it then."
As the thriller progressed, "it was hard to put yourself in [a distraught] mindset when you have little pauses in between," she adds. "Do it, take a pause, watch yourself, then put yourself back in that state of being scared of being in the woods."
Macpherson would select the environment and present the scene conflict and objectives, which the actors then improvised. Because Snapchat doesn’t enable users to save takes, they had to decide whether a specific segment turned out well enough to upload, or take a chance and redo it.
"It has this Robert Altman conversational vibe, because the actors are really living in the moment, listening to each other and reacting, especially as the stakes are raised," says Macpherson. "There started to be story elements rising to the top that informed new ways I felt about this haunted house. And since we were telling the story linearly, when we arrived at the house, we were able to tell which story elements were resonating with the cast, and probably resonate with the audience. Those were the ones we played up in the house."
Meanwhile, social media speculation swirled around the burgeoning plot. "During my 12-hour days on set, none of us were keeping up with what was going on in the social media world," says Macpherson. "But at night, all the actors and I would go down the rabbit hole of watching all the responses by people waiting for new snaps. What was amazing as a filmmaker was realizing that the subtle storytelling pieces were working."
In some cases, a little too well.
"On the last day of filmmaking, Taylor flashed her Snapchat account name on the screen [@sweetbabaytay], and we expected people watching the film to start following her," says Avnet. "What we didn’t expect was that people started following that name on Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms as well. Within minutes, we’d start to notice accounts with the same names getting thousands of followers.
"We were laughing, thinking how strange it must be for the people with those accounts to suddenly be getting all these fans, and not be aware of what was happening," he adds. "Then we realized, one of those accounts was created in the moment, stealing screen grabs from our film, and tweeting as if they were Taylor. She was implying things that could affect the narrative in ways that we weren’t planning."
That account amassed nearly 5,000 followers during shooting. "So we’re watching this person starting to go rogue and highjack our story," he laughs. "There wasn’t anything we could really do about it; it was just one of those fan accounts that took it to a crazy degree."
By the end, Russett estimates her Snapchat account drew an additional 50,000 to 100,000 followers, with one Instagram post (she played along on her other social media accounts) drawing some 8,000 comments. Meanwhile, the filmmakers have begun talking about other ways to extend the project.
"The viewership showed the appetite audiences have for content that lives where they’re now spending their time," says Avnet. "The mythology of Sickhouse is really strong, and there are a lot of directions to go with it."
Most importantly, no one minded the great Snapchat ruse. "The big concern I had before we started filming was that people would feel tricked or lied to once we revealed it was the movie," says Russett. "Thankfully, everyone loved it."