Blending traditional supernatural spooks with the modern hell of the attention economy, Deadstream puts the “demon” in “demonetize.”
And when it comes to putting on a good show, there’s nothing Shawn Ruddy wouldn’t do. In fact, that’s the exact attitude that’s landed the provocative internet personality in internet jail. Canceled and genuinely concerned for his dwindling sponsorships, Ruddy resolves to publicly face his biggest fear in a desperate bid to win back his audience. Armed with an arsenal of security cameras and ghost hunting paraphernalia, Shawn’s goal is simple: lock himself in a haunted house for a night, and see what kind of poltergeists he can provoke for the viewing pleasure of his audience. What could possibly go wrong?
I had an absolute blast chatting with husband-and-wife duo Joseph and Vanessa Winter, the co-writers, co-directors, and co-editors behind Deadstream. Joseph also stars as the film’s live-streaming anti-hero, endowing Shawn with much-need pathos that makes this dancing clown worth watching despite his multitude of sins. The pair joined me virtually to talk shop about their creative process, influences, and the ups and downs of shooting in a run-down (and possibly haunted) house in the middle of nowhere.
Reader, beware: the following contains major narrative and visual story spoilers for Deadstream. Proceed at your own risk!
The following transcript was edited for clarity.
What initially attracted you to live streaming as a narrative format? Was it more of a creative decision or a practical one?
Vanessa Winter: It started out as a practical one. And then I think it ended up becoming very technically demanding. And once we brought on our partner Jared Cook — who is a producer and DP (and also the post-production supervisor) — he really helped us to take it to the level that we wanted it to go. So I think once we were actually shooting … it was very much a creative decision where we were excited about trying to build the universe of a livestream. But originally, yeah, it started out as like, “what’s easy?”
Joseph Winter: Vanessa and I had given ourselves the prompt before [when] there was just a very small amount of money, and it was a do-it-yourself project: what setting or what story would we get excited about? We would toss around ideas, and none of them would actually make us excited. And when we talked about this livestream version of this guy in a haunted house being funny, I think that was the first thing that just naturally creatively sparked with us.
You guys really nailed the formal elements of live streaming, and it always feels like you are punching in the right direction. I’d love to hear what your research process looked like, specifically in terms of live streaming. Were you familiar with live streaming before production, or was it like venturing into the weeds for the first time?
VW: We first went to the world of YouTube to get to know influencer characters. And then I started watching livestreams that had been re-posted, and I interacted with some livestreams on Instagram. I started just trying to interact or be a part of [something] actually happening in real-time.
JW: I want to give a shout-out to my friend Jordon, who is a real gamer and has actually participated in Twitch a bunch as a viewer. Even though I was familiar with [livestreaming], when I would go [online] to see what it was like … I could not understand the words people were saying or the emojis or reactions they were using. I just felt like I was on the outside of it. And I needed someone to help me make sense of it. So [Jordon] would send me screenshots of streams that he was watching, and he would explain the culture and explain what certain reactions meant.
And we talked to our creative partner Jared … who was also the motion graphics guy who built out our platform, LivVid, our fictional version of Twitch. So he had done some research too, and he was the one who was spearheading these “EmoShawns” we were calling them … we were all trying so hard to make it feel real but not so real that you weren’t paying attention to what people were saying.
There’s a chat log that pops up every now and then. Are there details in there that you hope people will pick up on during their second watch?
VW: Oh, for sure. I mean, I’m still discovering subplots in the comments. Joseph and I wrote the upvoted comments that Shawn reacts to throughout the plot. But our producer Jared spent months writing filler comments every time he was on the toilet. There are so many fun easter eggs.
JW: There is a Romeo & Juliet love story where two people meet, and I think by the end, they’re going to get married or something like that. But the very last instance of comments on the screen — there are a lot of horror easter eggs in there. And I haven’t seen too many people discovering them yet.
I would love to hear about the process of discovering Shawn’s character. He’s a jerk, but he’s not insufferable, which is such a delicate and important line to walk if you’re going to spend an entire film in the POV of this kind of character. It was delightful to watch Shawn walk that tonal tightrope. How did you go about striking that balance?
VW: Yeah, I think that there were three stages to it. I think in the scripting process, once I started watching YouTubers and diving into the art form of it — of being able to talk to an audience for however long, and to be able to stay entertaining and make little quips and stuff — I started realizing: “oh, this is a way more of a finessed art form than I’ve been giving it credit for.” So I got very intimidated during the scripting process. But once we had a script that we felt was pretty good and was reading well and was making people laugh, I started feeling really confident.
And then, as soon as we started filming rehearsals, all that confidence was gone. Because I was like: “This guy is so hard to watch. Nobody is going to want to watch him.” And Joseph was so dedicated with his performance of trying to fine-tune the jokes and the way he’d interact with the audience. So we kind of went through a process on-set. And then, in the edit, we kind of did the whole thing over again, where, based on people’s feedback, we pulled back Shawn’s character in certain aspects and did some ADR. So that’s kind of how I think about it.
JW: Yeah, what I’ll add is as we researched influencers, I started to get attached to some of them that I initially really hated. And I realized that they were actual, real artists that had some aspect to them that their audience really enjoyed. And if we created Shawn and he didn’t feel like anybody in real life would want to spend time with this person, then we would have failed. So it was important for us to try and insert wherever we could some self-deprecating joke or some aspect to him where you think: “Okay, he actually is funny, and I can see why twelve-year-olds, or whoever, have latched onto this person and like watching him hurt himself.”
Yeah, all of the humanizing nuggets sprinkled throughout the film really make Shawn feel genuine and endearing in a way that does him a lot of favors. Were any of those nuggets taken from real life?
JW: When we started to come up with self-deprecating jokes, we obviously went to my actual self. Being called crater-face and things like that, like: ooo, that hurts, but what if we just went there in the movie and defanged what otherwise would have been a critic watching it being like, “why would somebody watch this guy?” So I don’t think Shawn could exist without me playing it because there was so much that we were trying to pull from me to make it feel more real.
I’m curious about whether Shawn ever stops being “on” at any point. I was trying to figure out if there was ever a scene or a moment where his performative mask comes off or if it’s just fully fused to his face.
JW: The part in the film that I think is the most “real Shawn” is when he’s in the closet and admitting that he made the apology video because he had to and not because he was actually sorry. I think that’s the most real that he is … but also his persona is very much the real him, too, in the sense that he can’t help himself but perform. So you’ll see him in the film making a presentation out of something where he should have just given up and been fighting for his life. But instead, he’ll name a new camera angle, some joke, or something like that because part of who he is that he wants to entertain so badly. So I feel like it’s kind of both: his mask is kind of real for him.
VW: I think that there’s kind of an angry edge to him that comes out when he feels like his art or presentation is being threatened by Chrissy (Melanie Stone). But I agree with Joseph: we wanted to create a character that is so wrapped up in his online world that you believe he would just keep performing until the very end.
You co-wrote Deadstream together. Did you have any “we’ll figure it out on set” moments, or is what we see on-screen pretty by the book, script-wise?
VW: It was pretty brutal. There wasn’t a lot of space to play around, time restriction-wise. And also, just in the nature of it being a livestream, the movie actually had to be pretty precise where each plot point and each dialogue piece was kind of timed out, so we didn’t end up with a really long movie.
JW: By the time we were filming it, it was pretty precisely tuned in. There was a stopwatch aspect where Vanessa knew how many seconds we had for each moment. So there was no improv … the only time we had to make something up on the spot was because it just wasn’t working.
How much of the film was shot on a set, and how much of it was just straight-up filmed in a decrepit house?
VW: It was just a decrepit house. Yeah. We just went wild. Like blood splatters … everything. It was a dream come true.
JW: We knew that we’d have to wreck the house, whatever house it was that we got, which also meant that I didn’t think we’d find one. Because it had to be wreckable and it also had to be abandoned, and it had to be in the middle of nowhere in the woods, and the inside of it had to have a certain geography. But we eventually found this house after reaching out on Facebook to people.
It’s actually not in a forest. But on one side, it has these really, really big old trees in a little cluster. So we were able to shoot through the trees in that one shot where Shawn is approaching the house and make it seem like it was in the woods and then match that to the actual woods a few miles away.
On the inside, it was unfilmable. It was a complete shell missing the roof and all these other things that made it so that we shouldn’t have been able to film there. But we hired a crew to come in and build another load-bearing wall and some things to make it actually safe. And it ended up working great. We did some rewrites. We wrote in a secret room that was actually in the house, and a bunch of other geographical changes that ended up making the story a lot more enjoyable.
How much of what we see on-screen was actually shot with the cameras we see Shawn using versus, I don’t know, a RED or something?
JW: All of it. The only thing shot on a RED, ironically, is the VHS segment. That old VHS tape that Shawn plays was shot on a RED and downgraded. But everything else is like: the camera that you see is the camera that we shot with.
VW: Yeah, Jared, our DP found a guy who converts GoPros to IR [infra-red].
JW: It was really hard to find an infrared camera. There’s like security cameras and baby monitor things. And you just can’t do cinema with them [because] they’re not at the right frame rate and stuff. But yeah, Jared was dedicated to trying to get the most cinematic experience, as Shawn would like.
VW: There’s creative liberties taken. Jared, our DP, had to mount big infrared lights next to the cameras to get things to show up, especially things that were far away. So those [lights] were all taken down or roto[scoped] out.
I was going to ask about the rotoscoping credit because I was like, “where?”
JW: Jared would love that you said, “where?” He had to roto out so much stuff in this movie. Like, showing as much practical effects as we did, you’re going to have to remove some seams or some puppeteering and things like that.
VW: We also had light leaking in the house —
JW: — Because we shot part of it during the day.
How did you go about making sure that you didn’t accidentally capture any crew members or cables in-frame? I can’t imagine that it was easy to maintain the sense that Shawn is all on his own in such a tight space.
JW: Well, there’s the rotoscope.
VW: There is a shot where the art director [Meg Cabell] is in the back because she was helping … she was in that shot, and I can’t remember when we noticed. But as the editor, I had watched it hundreds of times. And then I remember being like, oh, Meg Cabell’s in that shot.
JW: It was tough because the signal from the cameras also couldn’t go very far to the monitors, to the wifi. It was very unreliable. So we had to film it in little chunks at a time. Like we couldn’t cover that much ground without having to cut. Or if I opened the door, there’s the crew … so it was very difficult.
POV shots can be pretty nauseating, and I didn’t find that at all with Deadstream. What steps did you guys take to limit the nausea factor and keep Joseph’s head stabilized?
VW: The DGI – Osmo has a little gimbal system in it, so it has some stabilization
JW: And we chose that for the POV whenever possible because it looked the most cinematic and was not nauseating.
VW: But it was a longer lens. So sometimes we would cut to the GoPro when it was just too cramped of a field of view, and we needed to see a little bit more. But I actually think it ended up being, like, 40/60. 40 on the wide Go-Pro and the rest on the Osmo. We really didn’t want it to be nauseating. So when you’re asking about head stabilizing, a lot of that was Joseph carefully operating and moving his head around so that it wouldn’t be too shaky.
JW: The PTSD I have from the shoot is surrounding the camera operating. Because when you’re scared — when Shawn’s scared, and he’s running — you do a certain thing as an actor. But then, you’re also filming with the POV, and the camera’s like flapping around, and then I’m trying to balance that performance with also not moving my neck and making sure that everything is in frame. And then oftentimes, we’d just have to do a separate take for the POV so that I could be completely fluid walking through a scenario. But that was really, really difficult. And then also in the editing, sometimes it was problematic because what you’re seeing Shawn do doesn’t match the POV. But mostly, it was pretty forgiving.
VW: But Joseph did put a lot of work into it. And it was kind of important that you can kind of take in what’s in each room and where everything is.
I have questions about the bathtub. How did you set dress it? It’s such a classic rancid bathtub. What was it like being in it?
JW: It sucked, actually! We had to bring the bathtub in, and Meg Cabble and Amy Leah Nelson Smith, our production designer, did a really great job making that bathroom look so gross. And I was sitting in [the tub] for at least twelve hours when we shot that scene because the day got away from us. There were so many aspects about the practical effects that you just couldn’t plan for. So things just weren’t working, and because the water was so, so, so cold, I started getting uncontrollable shakes and stuff.
Having said that, it was probably the most enjoyable day because it was so satisfying to see it work: to see the corpse in the bathtub and all these effects that weren’t working … to see all the crew step in to help pull it off. The wardrobe person was coming in with safety pins, and everyone was just like putting their hands in to piece this head back together so that we could get one more take, and it was just amazing. We just felt so close to our crew in that moment it was just very satisfying.
VW: It was just very difficult because two people had to be in that bathtub at once. But yeah, I think it was very rewarding for everyone.
So how did the head-explosion work? I would love to know what the goop is.
JW: It was like tapioca pudding, cottage cheese …
VW: I’d say, like, some Jell-O … I think Mikaela Kester, the make-up department head, should trademark it.
JW: We were calling it “brain matter.” Troy Larson, the creature guy, had set up this thing where the head was supposed to blow up with an air compressor. But he’d never done it before. And he’d warned us that he’d never done it before. And it was blowing out the back even though he’d made these score marks where the head was supposed to come apart … it just wasn’t working.
VW: This is where the safety pins came in: putting the head back together and then blowing it up.
JW: It was so unusable. Like the flaps wouldn’t come together anymore, so it was just brain matter and loose flaps, and we thought we didn’t have another take. But Vanessa said, “let’s just fold the flaps around the brain matter — it doesn’t look like a head anymore — but just film it. And see if we can do an After Effects composite.” So we shot it that way, and it actually worked. The explosion worked. But then, in the edit, we didn’t even have to do a composite. We just hard cut from the head being full to exploding, and it works in the film without any further massaging.
VW: Yeah, the explosion is literally just me holding the head together and then letting go and running back. But I felt so privileged to be touching that sweet corpse head. Troy did such a good job.
Chrissy shoves her finger up Shawn’s nose a lot. Joseph, how did you negotiate that? Was it a dummy finger? Or was someone’s finger really just noodling about up there?
JW: The first finger up my nose is just her. She had some sort of rubber tips to make [her fingers] look gnarly. And I think [they were] lubed up with some Vaseline … something to help it go up my nose.
VW: And the fingernail was soft.
JW: Troy made those fingernails to go up my nose specifically. And he had also made this hand for the part where the finger stretches, which we put inside Mildred’s (Stone) sleeve. It’s a couple of people holding it under the camera just for that moment.
VW: It was actually tricky to operate because he made it so cool, and there’s little levers on it for stretching. But then they can also rotate side to side. So that took some art to get that little finger going.
JW: Many many takes on two different days. But it was worth it because I really liked that finger stretch gag.
Joseph, you did Deadstream‘s in-film soundtrack. Having Shawn score his own livestream is such a creative way to have music but keep things diegetic. Was that something that was a part of the writing process from the beginning? How did you decide or discover how you wanted to include the music in the film?
JW: When the idea first came up, the first aspect of it that got me really, really excited to where I was like: “maybe this is our next movie!” was the idea of having a gearing up montage where this guy is touching nasty things in a house trying to creatively make some ghost fighting weapons, and there’d be a song playing. That was the main reason I fought back against Vanessa when she said it needs to take place in real time and not be edited. Because where’s my montage, then?
But it turns out, if you’re creative, you can still make a gearing up montage in real-time, but that’s where we were like: “how do we preserve music — a musical aspect to this — and have it take place in real-time unedited?” And then we just found it to be really funny as we were writing it, to have different places where music starts playing by accident … or someone plays it on purpose in a really inappropriate time. We just had so much fun with that.
Deadstream definitely feels like a movie made by people who know their horror. A lot of folks have already called attention to the Evil Dead 2 vibes with the bloated corpses and the physical comedy. Are there any other pieces of media you pulled from that you want to draw attention to?
JW: One thing that I do like to mention is that with the monsters, we referenced the movie House with the creature designer when we were first talking to him about the kind of personality we wanted. And Creepshow — such a great monster profile, a personality that comes through in that movie that feels unified even though everything is different. And that’s what we wanted for this film.
VW: There’s maybe a little bit of Re-Animator in there in terms of tone. Or like The Brood or something. And then more modern, I went to [REC] quite a bit because [REC] almost takes place in real-time and has that really great found-footage momentum that we wanted.
JW: People don’t normally think of [REC] when they think of our movie. But when we revisited our favorite found-footage movies, it was actually the only movie that really applied a lot to what we were doing. [REC] had that almost real-time action-cam kind of feel to it. So we pulled a lot of inspo from that.
How’d you guys pull off the shot where Chrissy falls onto Shawn from the ceiling?
VW: She was suspended from the ceiling. We had a great stunt coordinator.
You installed wires in that old house?
VW: Not us, luckily. A very seasoned professional did it in a very safe way. But yeah, his name is Corbett McAllister.
JW: There’s a lot of stunt work in this film, and we had the coolest stunt team, and they were working for peanuts, basically. And they were just really excited about the idea, so they came on board and we got so much out of them … like more than our movie had any business [having].
What happened to the house when production wrapped?
JW: We stripped almost everything we could on our way out. And then we boarded it back up. But we had the problem where someone would break into it every single night because it locally has a lore about being actually haunted. So I’m sure it went right back into that as soon as we left. It’s probably not even recognizable on the inside now.
Did you personally experience any ghostly behavior? Did any equipment go missing?
JW: Maybe that was ghosts!
VW: That was the problem the whole time.
JW: There was a lot of talk about energies and weird tingles on the backs of necks. Jared, our co-producer/DP, was in the house alone a lot in the middle of the night. He experienced things like feeling cold fingers on the back of his neck. Or he was trying to close the front door to lock it up, and he could feel like someone was pulling it open at the same time, like right behind it. He was totally sincere and was having these experiences throughout the production … But we did not.
VW: But he wasn’t the only one that was scared. After one break-in, the cop who was supposed to be investigating the break-in actually waited in his car until Jared, our producer, got there. Because he grew up in the town and was so scared of the house that he wouldn’t go in by himself.