Earlier in August, I got the chance to watch Spree, an incredibly dark and inventive satire on the infectious desire for social fame, and I expressed how amazing I thought it was here. I reached out to Eugene over Twitter, and he was very graceful to let me interview him in the midst of handling Spree’s marketing and promotion.
Sab Astley: Firstly, how’re you?
Eugene Kotlyarenko: I’m good, I’m okay – did you see that we ran this Instagram account in-character? [@kurtsworld96]
SA: I did, I thought that was pretty cool.
EK: So I’ve been doing that like every single day and I’m kind of winding it down now – it was almost like making a second movie. It’s very narratively involved, and very sort of complicated with a lot of different elements.
SA: So I loved the film, and I had a bunch of questions I wanted to ask you because I think it’s a film that if a lot of others had attempted it, it probably wouldn’t have worked. It’s the way you directed it, everything you put into it just works in such a way that I had so many questions to ask you.
SA: I wanted to ask you about parasocial relationships because that’s a big thing in Spree – you’ve got Kurt to his audience, Kurt to Bobby, Kurt to Jessie; how did you approach writing those relationships?
EK: Well, I think there’s a big thing structurally going on in the world where we’re all basically the second we sign up for this contract that, yknow, forces our identity to become virtualized. We have now entered into the attention economy. So every participant in the attention economy has a sort of transactional relationship to it and obviously there’s terminology for people in the past who are very specific types of people – like a social climber, right? You think of someone who tries to use their normal social relationships to elevate themselves professionally or financially. But now because we all have these virtual identities that are treated as brands, we are all kind of like corporate entities, and so all social relationships become transactional on social media. You know, it’s statistical: likes, reposts – all of that stuff is part of an economy.
So, that is definitely kind of the approach Kurt has to it . Everyone for him is like an opportunity to expand his brand. Even the white supremacist at the beginning is a perfect example – when he finds out the guy is making a speech to 3000 people, “oh that’s a good opportunity to get a tip or a trick”, and then when he finds out it’s a white supremacist cause, it’s not as if Kurt is explicitly anti-racist/racist, he’s ideologically driven by the ideology of social media, which itself is anti-racist. So Kurt says, “it’s toxic” or “Bobby doesn’t get successful like that”, not because he’s so anti-racist but because he knows racism is not, as Kurt understands it, a traditional way to get ahead.
SA: I know you looked into Ice Poseidon and Logan Paul when you were characterizing Kurt – I was wondering how you went about researching those kinds of people, did you profile them?
EK: I just watched the streams, the videos, yknow – what’s out there. That’s the sort of starting off point. I don’t think Kurt shares too much in common with Ice or the Paul brothers in his demeanor obviously, because he’s not as driven as explicitly ‘edge-lordy’ type stuff. See, that’s always the surface – “oh I like that thing, oh I like that thing”, that’s just the sensationalism that comes back to the core, which is this thirst for being the center of a narrative or being validated through attention. I mean the Logan Paul Suicide Forest video for example, that’s very instructive about the collapse of morality in that his immediate response to it to make a joke out of it, when he sees the dead body there in the forest, because he can’t believe it – it’s his instinctual reaction, to him it’s a real ‘what the fuck’ moment, right? It’s not like “oh this is horrible, I have sympathy for this person, let’s call the police”, it’s like “oh my god, we just captured this moment.” The whole rest of the video is them sort of negotiating the psychological, moral, and emotional complexities of this thing they documented and how they feel, etc etc.
And then the ending is really great. It’s the most significant part to me, in which he is trying to have this sentiment, emotional moment in a hallway somewhere and he’s like “I don’t know, I don’t know if I should, but like I’ve been thinking about it a lot guys, and umm, *sighs* I know I should because I know my heart’s in the right place and people should see this so I just really want you to, yknow, like, comment, subscribe and share this video so people can see this thing that happened and yknow, they can, they can learn.” It just shows at the end of the day, the attention economy wins. Whether or not you’re trying to negotiate your morality with it, you have to concede to its demands or you’ll always view your moral high ground as a missed opportunity to monetize an experience.
SA: When it comes to writing a script like this, it’s one thing to write it but another to shoot it – how do you go about transferring it from page to screen, when you have setups like Kurt’s rig and the security cameras, iPhone footage; how do you plan that out?
EK: That to me was always really important. I made my first film [0s and 1s] 10 years ago, which was also like a formal, conceptual computer-language film – it’s about a guy losing his computer and it all looks like it’s told through websites, and apps and on a computer. But one thing that would always bug me was there was no narrative justification for that, the formal thing made sense and the thematic thing made sense, but narratively it didn’t. So here, clearly he [Kurt] is setting up the cameras at the beginning so that’s a justification as he’s livestreaming it.
Executing it was challenging, obviously the first question they would always ask when I was pitching the movie was like “so, what kind of cameras are you planning to use?” and I would always say “well, with iPhones and GoPros,” and they would come back with “well what about for most of the movie?” and I would say “that’s for all of the movie.” Some people were nervous because of that, some people passed on the movie because of that, and then even when I got in a room with the actual producers and the DP, we had to figure out if we wanted to use GoPros or higher-grade Sony equipment, do we want to use an iPhone? RED has a phone camera that shoots 4k and stuff – but we ultimately decided to go with an iPhone.
Then the complexity of using those devices that aren’t meant for feature film-making, so there’s always sync issues after a while, because there’s inconsistent frame rates. There’s also figuring out the lighting like in the car, talking about incorporating the strip lighting in his car so we don’t have to set up a bunch of tubes outside the car, which we also tried doing but just felt wrong to me. It was a little bit like making Jaws where we had to follow Joe driving the car on a pre-arranged route, in a follow van that was hopefully invisible. Signal would fall out a lot – honestly, a lot of it was just me listening and directing through a walkie-talkie because of the signal falling out so much, but generally speaking you can tell if a performance is good just from hearing it.
SA: Constructing a film that has social media at its core, you’ve seen films in the past that fail to successfully adapt social media to film, like Unfriended, but with Spree it doesn’t – everything about the social media feels familiar enough to the audience that they go “okay, I know that’s like Youtube, Instagram etc.” How did you design Spree’s social media world so that it would feel familiar to the viewer?
EK: Like I was saying, with 0sand1s, every website and app was completely designed from scratch, almost as a parody of the world of 2010. Then at the same time, in 2011, I made a webcam movie [SkyDiver] which was just screen-grabs of Skype and GChat Video, and it was just so refreshing to have all the real apps up – it was a very small-scale project, I literally made it for no money and no actors. It was just me and people I’m friends with who don’t even know I’m acting or recording, so I’m fooling them into thinking I’m actually going crazy. So because of that experience, and the two features I made [A Wonderful Cloud & Wobble Palace] between that and Spree, whenever I would use social media I would incorporate the phone’s screen on a split-screen sometimes. I just felt “why not use the apps?”
For this film it is a combination because Spree is a fake Uber-style app, and LiveFly is a Twitch-esque platform. I wanted to make sure we had some functionality outside of Twitch, with the multiple camera angles feeding into the same thing which felt really important, and I don’t think you can do that with Twitch. The chat itself however is very similar to Twitch along with the donation coins that read the messages out loud, which some streamers have, and that was very useful because the most crucial pieces of chat information I knew I could always could just put up as a donation comment so if you weren’t tracking the stream of comments, you didn’t miss anything. Obviously you have to time those out so they’re not too intrusive on the actual movie that’s playing out, and it was a balancing act.
With the other apps, we tried to keep it as – I don’t want to name names but all the other apps, we tried to keep their design and motion as is. We did build them from scratch though, it’s not like a screen-grab. Even the part where he’s driving watching Jessie’s grandma live-stream, we filmed that on the second day of shooting and that was really fun because the whole day was just phone recording, and we only had Kyle [Mooney] for the first two days. I said to the editor and the DP, “look when we film Kurt driving and watching Jessie’s stream, I really want it to be on his phone, so let’s edit that.” So we edited that together in the 5 days in-between those shoot days, and then I actually put in comments on my own, because we didn’t really have anyone at the time to animate. If you look there really closely it doesn’t really look like Instagram comments, but it’s close enough. Then in the post 9/10 months later, I said to our animator “you really have to match the motion on Jessie Adams’ split-screen alongside Kurt’s physical phone”, and that was really challenging because we hadn’t figured out the speed yet and there’s certain speed rules when it comes to Instagram Live. It’s basically a huge logistical nightmare, that for better or worse, largely lived in my head.
I wouldn’t say that we planned – like for instance when you see Kurt’s phone during the tutorial on giving yourself a 5-star rating on the dead real estate agent’s phone – I knew I wanted him to turn the phone to the camera and be in it, because for compositing, one it’s expensive, and two there’s no guarantee it won’t look bad, so why not just have it be an actual thing on his phone? That was also tricky because to actually click on that, we had to create a website that felt like an app and play it on a phone exactly right, vertically, on the model of phone he had. I hit up Teddy Blanks [Midsommar, Hereditary, Little Women], our graphic designer, to do that like the day before the shoot. *laughs* He’s brilliant, he did it, and same thing actually with when Kurt’s on Bobby’s computer and you see the LiveFly – I had to hit him up again the day before, and he’s an angel for doing that. All of this stuff just lived in my head until we actually had to do it.
It’s the same with the comments, I wrote like 95% of those. You couldn’t ask like “hey, you’re the AD, hey you’re the graphic designer, animator – can you write 7,000 comments that are integral to the meaning of the film and comment on every scene?” Like who are you gonna call up to do that? I actually called up Gene [McHugh, co-writer] and was like “hey, do you want to start writing up some of these comments with me?,” and he responds, “what are you talking about?” I go “well the movie’s gotta have tons and tons of comments”, and he just goes “no way.” *laughs* So, there were a few that came in from our social media consultant, Honor Levy, and our animator Trevor Clifford wrote a bunch for the comedy show scene because that was really complicated with all of the different phones, and to imagine who was saying what when was even blowing my mind, so Trevor did write a lot of those and I just gave him notes on those. He did a really good job because he had been the person reading all of mine and typing them in, so he got what the deal.
SA: That is insane that you wrote most of those comments, I can’t lie – I thought you’d assembled a team.
EK: Oh no, it’s crazy.
SA: Well props to you for doing all of that, my god.
EK: Thanks! It’s validating because you do see in a lot of reviews, Letterboxd especially, people responding well to that and it makes it all kind of worth it for me because that was probably around about, what, 500 man hours? Maybe more. It’s because you have to come up with a username, and it has to be different from all the others so people don’t think you’re copy-pasting, and then you have to figure out what that person with that username would say. Then you have to think about “what could be useful for me in this moment to tell the viewer something humorous, something expositional, something that would actually undercut their criticism of the film in this moment?”
Because I know the film is operating on a bunch of different registers of comedy: it has satire, it has low-brow humour, it has stupid shit, smart stuff. That doesn’t appeal to a lot of viewers, the different registers of humour, so I wanted to make sure that even though I think it’s necessary and accurate to show Jessie Adams doing her confessional, woke comedy in that moment and that’s something Kurt connects with and how a large swath of how people think on the internet, I also know there’s a lot of people who hate that kind of comedy and can’t stand it. So you can see in the comedy show there’s a bunch of comments actually addressing that specifically, which is funny because there’s also some who will watch the movie and think “this is some woke bullshit”, and we are commenting on all of that – we are aware of the different ideologies and types of approaches that are broached in the film. I want people to rise above their kneejerk reaction to what they’re seeing and think more about satire as this holistic critique of culture.
SA: With the script, you discussed just then undercutting criticisms of the film – possibly the second murder in you did that for me, as I considered “how is Kurt getting away with this?” Almost instantly I saw comments rejecting what they could see, and labelling Kurt as a fake, and it just presents a very intelligent script as you’re predicting what people are going to say, and it really works.
EK: I could see what the angles would be, because we all live on the internet and observe these things. We can imagine. Sasheer Zamata who plays Jessie, we’ve collaborated on a very specific character – that is someone who has a type of comedy that isn’t exactly her type of comedy, and is able to perform leverage; her idea of leaving social media is a type of attention grab, and Sasheer and I talked about that. What’s key to understanding the movie is that its perspective is to critique all of these participants, like us, who are complicit in these things and just calibrate ourselves in different ways. Are some characters more moral than others? In a way, Kurt is honestly the most relatable character and he’s doing the most fucked up thing, right? That’s a comment on the culture and attention economy we’re all part of. All of these people are extrapolations of the worst type of online behavior that more and more, every day, I see creeping into how people actually interact.
SA: I’ve just got one or two last questions, and they’re both about the ending. So, one of the things I loved was Jessie’s montage – she’s only a victim for a moment, and then has this agency of using this experience to propel her to super stardom. Was that always going to happen, or did you talk with Sasheer and workshopped it?
EK: The idea that she would take a selfie with Kurt at the end was always in the script. That is like this moment where someone has the ability to make a moral choice, like a Logan Paul moment, and she decides to – yknow, how could you pass this moment up? How can you pass up documenting the once-in-a-lifetime experience of stopping a spree murderer? Most of us wouldn’t be able to capture this insane moment, and that’s not necessarily an indictment on human beings, more how we’ve all been kind of brainwashed by the system. The end montage itself wasn’t actually in the script – we had a struggle with the ending, we had some other scenes that we filmed but cut out pretty early on, and I was having a talk with the producers and I said “I have this idea.”
We had already come up with the idea for the opening montage, which was something I tooled around with during production, but wasn’t actually in the script either. We had a totally different intro and I talked about how we have so much social media content with Joe, maybe that could be a good entry point for viewers instead. So we had already started making that, and since our ending was missing I figured we should a montage that discusses the after-math. We have the entry point, but what happens after something like this, and what happens to Jessie? She becomes the hero, the Final Girl if you want to look at it as a horror-slasher. And what happens to someone like Kurt? He’s criticized and obscured, like “we will not say his name” on mainstream media. Then there are fringe forums that valorise and, even if they’re making fun of him, they’re giving him a form of attention.
One of the goals is of course to point how cringy being thirsty on social media is, but another significant goal is to tell anyone who would even consider using violence as a shortcut for online infamy, “hey, your transparently pathetic scheme? It’s a joke.” Anyone who would think this way is foolish, and not just foolish, but seems like a loser. Part of that is, usually when these things happen, they mask this basic desire for attention that we all have, because they realize how pathetic it would be to kill people, to do something violent simply for attention. So they shroud their real motivations in some kind of ideological babble, often times like white supremacy, or men’s rights – you had the Virginia Tech person who was driven by a mentally-lapsed Christian ideology for example. At the end of the day, those things are just a costume for what they really want which is to be at the centre of the narrative. What I was trying to show in the film is to take away that costume and show nakedly that they are driven by nothing more than attention, and how fucking pathetic and sad it is to do this, and more importantly how funny it is to lack at their pathetic nature.
SA: I wrote in my review that the most terrifying part about Spree is how ultimately, especially with the final montage, it felt like we weren’t that far from something like this happening. What do you think?
EK: Well it HAS happened. The film is not speculative sci-fi, when we were shooting the film there was the Christchurch incident which was live-streamed. A few weeks ago, someone tried to get TikTok famous by killing their neighbors. This behavior is out there. I think at the time that we were writing, I imagined that someone would do this, something like this, and of course the motivation is to expose these people for how pathetic they truly are. I don’t think there’s ever a moment in the film where you want to emulate Kurt; it’s not like you’re watching Natural Born Killers, or the dark heart-felt alienation of Taxi Driver, which is simultaneously off-putting and strangely inviting. Kurt is pure cringe, he’s a walking cringe-fest. So that was important to me – the monster we’re putting out there is not sexy, he’s not cool. He is just this cringe factory, and if you were to consider doing this, you’d be just like Kurt.
Spree is available now both on VOD and cinemas in the US, and cinemas in the UK – check drive-in cinemas near you!