Now he has directed his first feature film, “Smiley”, and in anticipation of it’s Feb. 12th DVD/Bluray release he took some time to discuss his directorial debut with Horrornews.
Horrornews: I saw the movie a few days ago & I enjoyed it! I remember seeing a poster for it a little while back & how it really caught my eye. Where did the concept for “Smiley” come from?
Michael Gallagher: The idea for “Smiley” really started with anonymous video chat. Chatroulette had just hit the scene and has since died off a bit and has since been eclipsed by other sites like Omegle. There’s just this weird fascination with chatting with strangers on the internet and I think I hadn’t really seen that concept done in a horror film that talked about all of the implications & the psychological nature of oversharing and I wanted to tackle that.
HN: How long did it take for you to get the script to where you felt it needed to be? To where it was ready to be shot?
MG: Well, Glasgow Phillips wrote the first draft of the film and he showed it to me. Then I started giving him some notes, some thoughts on it. After a while it became clear that I wanted to direct it so we sat down and went through the script and created some new scenes & characters and really collaborated on it together. Eventually something that was his became ours. He’s such a fantastic writer though, he really planted the seeds for a lot of the elements that really make it special like the Prof. Clayton character and his theories on collective consciousness & the internet taking form. Some of the nihilistic ideas of why a group of people would get together & do some fucked up shit for fun. He wrote the first draft & then I would say we collaborated on it for about six months.
HN: I ask because I found the script to be really meta. It’s really directed at a particular age group and I don’t think someone who isn’t tech or internet savvy is gonna get it. I don’t think older viewers are gonna understand it much at all.
MG: I agree with you! I made the movie for that audience, for the people who are glued to their laptops. I suppose there’s a lot of inside jokes, inside references to internet culture, the way that people act & operate online. I think it would be very foreign to someone who’s not familiar with that landscape or someone who’s very jaded towards the internet who doesn’t take it as seriously as others do.
HN: Some of Prof. Clayton’s (Roger Bart) insights were really heavy too! And he always has a “I know something you don’t know” face on as he speaks and I was wondering if that was on purpose? Were their plans to make his character more integral to the plot?
MG: When I had initially read the script there were only a few classroom scenes and that was the real thing that I had connected with so I worked with Glasgow on trying to stay with that character as much as we could. When you look at the film in terms of structure he’s sort of a peripheral character, he’s not someone who’s really in the action with Ashley (Caitlin Gerard). So it’s a tricky balance of having a character who can give you a lot of depth & insight, sort of a mentor character without having him take anything away from the story. I feel like if there was too much more of Clayton it would’ve felt like that Richard Linklater movie, where everybody walks around and talks about theories (Slacker). And I like that but for this specific film I think we got away with about as much of Clayton and his theories as we could.
HN: I really liked the character and wanted to see more of him. I really expected him to show up at the end in some function as well! That being said, I was happy to be wrong. The ending of “Smiley” really surprised me and for any new film to surprise these “Seen everything” eyes is really saying something. I read some reviews for your movie online and found a lot that disagreed with me, perhaps it was a little too meta for them! I know you’ve read the same reviews I did, what’s your take on all of that?
MG: There’s a couple of things at play here. I know if I don’t like the end of a movie then I don’t care what happened beforehand, I just hate that movie! There’s something about the ending of a movie that can really sour someone’s opinion of it. I don’t know if it was too meta or that we just didn’t give them too much of an explanation. It’s as if we needed to put in some more moments that explain exactly why this group did exactly what they did but to me that wasn’t as interesting as seeing how they reacted. I made the film that I wanted to make & I knew beforehand that some people would love it and some would hate it. It’s one of those things that’s out of my control, I just wanted to make the best movie that I could and hope that they get something out of it. [SPOILER ALERT!!] At the end of the movie when it’s revealed that it’s this group that’s done all of this to Ashley for fun, that’s something that goes on everyday! Not in the literal sense, they’re not doing the Smiley prank but they are screwing around with naive, innocent people just because they can! That’s what 4Chan, among others, does on the internet and it’s something I hadn’t really seen done in a film for those specific reasons and I truly wanted to make the movie because of the ending. I think we could’ve gotten a much bigger budget if we had changed the ending to a more typical, generic one. I even went as far as funding the film myself & doing it independently.
HN: What was the final cost of “Smiley”?
MG: The final cost was $270,000. We shot it for $150,000 and the rest was for post & releasing it. Not only was “Smiley” self financed but it was self distributed, we were lucky enough to build a partnership with AMC independent to release the film theatrically. But this was a project that producer Michael Wormser and myself put our blood, sweat & tears into. Not only to make it but release it as well. The two of us did all of the advertising & promotion for the film. We didn’t have a big studio or company behind it, it was truly a labor of love.
HN: Did you design the poster as well?
MG: I worked really closely with the artist but I didn’t create it. I more or less did the art direction on it.
HN: I had read an article about how some of 4chan’s users had gotten pretty upset about the mentions the website received in the movie. And how that led to you & your family getting death threats. Is any of this true?
MG: Oh, it’s all true! They were very pissed that we talked about their little website in our movie. It’s not really their website but it’s the idea that we got into the specifics…we talked about the people on 4chan. The fact that we mentioned this & showed people using 4chan in the movie & were of that culture pissed some of them off. And we didn’t change the name of the site in the movie, we actually name checked them in the movie so they went and got my personal info, my family’s & my girlfriend’s info as well. Now I’ve been a victim of this kind of thing before, where people find your personal info on the internet and harass you but they were harassing my family now and it became much more serious this time. We had to take it very seriously this time around.
HN: It sounds to me like a case of people hating on your success! Don’t they know there’s no such thing as bad publicity? The fact that this got publicized only puts you & your film in front of a bigger audience. I read that you reported it to the F.B.I. afterwards…
MG: We did, we reported it to the F.B.I. & the local police here in Los Angeles as well. It was a weird time because I’m releasing my first film and I’m working with my producer to literally set up everything for the premiere. We even called Clear Channel & made a deal to set up billboards/posters across the country to promote the film. This was a real grass roots/indie thing that we tried to make look as legit as possible. So while all this is going on, two weeks before the film is supposed to open, a critic who uses the site alerted them to a free screening of the film and they just lit us up! So having to deal with all of that while trying to get everything set up for the premiere of the film was daunting to say the least. It was something I’ll never forget!
HN: I can imagine! Is it all over now?
MG: I don’t put up with harassment and I know the culture of 4chan. I know how ridiculous they are and I knew they weren’t going to kill us…I knew that. But when you say that to me and you then involve my family in it I have to take that seriously. The only way to stand up to a bully is to stand your ground & not be afraid. Essentially they were telling us to cut all mentions of the site out of the movie or they were kill us & do all kinds of awful things to my family. But as soon as we went public with that, we did some interviews explaining what they were saying to us, they shut up. I think we were their worst nightmare because what they gave to us, we gave right back to them! But they did give us extra publicity which we used to talk about the movie so their scheme backfired. They tried to intimidate us to change the movie but we had a bigger megaphone than they did and we used it to shout back at them even louder and they shut up. Apparently they didn’t have a plan b either…
HN: One last question, the ending of the movie is left wide open for a sequel and I was wondering if that’s the plan. Is your next project going to be “Smiley 2″?
MG: I would love to! I want to see what the response to the film (Which is coming to DVD/Bluray & iTunes on Feb. 12) is first. The movie is starting to trickle back on onto home video now & I’m both curious and excited to see the response it gets. But I would personally love to do another film that not only talks about internet culture but delves deep into other dark avenues because there’s so much horror and awful things that people put out into the universe! I feel like it’s the law of attraction but in reverse, people put out these horrible things and then it comes back to them, I want to explore these other concepts. There’s this guy named Hunter Moore who’s doing revenge P*rn websites where people can send them pics of their ex-boy/girlfriends and he’ll post them to the internet! People are doing stuff like this on their own too so I don’t even have to think of some crazy ideas for a film…they’re right there! I’d love to do a horror film that discusses the horrors of the internet and if enough people respond to “Smiley” then of course I’d love to do another one as well.
“Smiley” will be available on DVD/Bluray on Feb. 12th. It’s available now on iTunes & VOD.
Interview: Michael Gallagher (Smiley)