Travel Experiences from Hell: An Interview with Superhost Writer/Director Brandon Christensen
Brandon Christensen’s third feature, Superhost, has a thing or two to say about influencers and the performative nature of social media. In the film, travel vloggers Teddy (Osric Chau) and Claire (Sara Canning) stay at a secluded spot apparently owned and operated by the overly cheerful, review-obsessed Rebecca (Gracie Gillam). The vloggers get more than they bargained for when Rebecca’s true nature slowly reveals itself. Christensen, who also co-wrote and directed Still/Born and Z, talked to us about his latest feature, including Gillam’s wild performance, an awkward travel experience that inspired the film, and working with horror superstar Barbara Crampton.
Still/Born and Z both deal with parental anxieties and have a supernatural presence. Superhost is so different because it deals with social media influencers and a human monster. Can you talk about this shift in subject matter?
A big part of it was trying to get away from that dark, oppressive feeling that I presented in those first two films. Those first two films were both very personal for me. I had a baby, and then I had an older child who went into elementary school. So I put a lot of real things onto the page. I wanted to have fun for once and create something that was a little bit more me.
You would think, after seeing my first two films, that I was very dark and morbid. But I’m not really. I like to enjoy myself, so it was fun to play with these characters and not worry about creating this dark tone. I could go back and forth a little bit. It was definitely a conscious decision, for one, to not be the scared mom guy. While I love doing it, it’s not something I want to be stuck with. Two, I wanted to create a monster that people could really enjoy and find themselves really rooting for, which is always an interesting proposal that a lot of people have done and have been super successful with, like Josef in Creep and Freddy. He’s just so loveable. In the Nightmare on Elm Street films, you root for this person to cause chaos.
This is the first of your three features that you wrote yourself, without Colin Minihan. What was the process like writing solo?
I definitely learned a lot from the first two films. The collaborative side of things isn’t gone. It’s just different. I would still reach out to the producer to share ideas, but at the end of the day, I have the blank page in front of me. That’s super daunting because whatever choices you make reflect on you as a writer. That’s always scary. There is a lot of pressure, and the process can slow down when you hit those writer’s block situations. You don’t have that other person to go to and say, “Here, you take it and run with it for a bit. I’ll rejoin you when my brain’s working again.” It was one of those situations where you write 25 pages and you go cool, now what? You’re just trying to figure out where to go from there. You just have to put the time in and keep trying and keep thinking. Inevitably, you’ll break down that wall. You’ll move forward until the next wall and next hurdle. It’s a challenge, for sure, but I don’t know if I’ll always do that [write solo]. I’ve been writing with my brother. We’ve been writing some scripts. It’s nice to be able to have that back and forth. I think it’s helpful to have more than one viewpoint.
Tell me about working with Gracie Gillam. I thought she was fantastic as Rebecca.
She kind of just fell into our laps. We were talking to another actor, and she was unavailable. She told us to reach out to her friend Gracie. That’s what this film was. It was friends and friends of friends making this thing out in the mountains. So, I reached out to Gracie, looked her up, and watched some of her stuff. What really struck me was her Teen Beach movie stuff with Disney because it was this heightened reality that she was doing. When I watched it, I thought, that’s Rebecca. That’s what I want to see from this character, that she takes these normal human emotions and dials them way up. I saw her doing it, so that was part of the conversation that we had initially.
When we got to set, she was just there and had this character. It was also fun to watch her perform it, make a tweak, and throw out an idea. We built this thing together. One of the scenes that really surprised me was the interview scene because scripted, it’s very weird, but she added this layer of emotion to it. There were tears in the script, but it was almost robotic. It was so inhuman. It was just so off to see, but when she did it, everyone on set said, “I feel really bad for this girl.” It was funny to see that happen, and I think it comes through in the film, too. She just brought this energy to it that I don’t think anybody expected. It added an extra layer to this character that I thought was fun to find.
Rebecca really isn’t like most of the horror villains we’re used to seeing, and I do think there’s a profound loneliness to her character too, especially when she gives that on-camera interview for Teddy and Claire. What were some of the inspirations for her character?
Strangely enough, Pennywise was, for sure, like that scene when she pops her head out says, “Hey, Teddy.” When I wrote it, I was picturing the scene in the first chapter of It when he [Pennywise] has an arm in his mouth and waves. It was just this child-like enthusiasm for what is a very terrifying scene. It adds this element to it. Once she takes that path and goes down that road, she’s like a monster playing with her food at that point.
It’s very much about Rebecca knowing that she’s fine. She knows who these people are. She knows they’re just vloggers. They don’t pose any real threat because she’s removed their safety nets. They don’t have a phone. They’re not survivalists. They’re just vloggers. Like Teddy says, “I’m not a hero, I’m a vlogger.” I think she knows that. She’s just playing. She knows where it’s going to go. It’s an unfortunate bummer. She’ll have to clean it up, but she may as well have fun with it while she’s doing it. It was about making her enjoy the darker side of herself that I wanted to tap into.
It often feels like Claire can’t separate the Superhost channel from real life, even during the moment when Teddy pops the big question. According to her, everything should be filmed, but she also doesn’t want to rely on Teddy’s parents for money. Can you talk about her character, too? Should we see her as a monster as sorts or have sympathy for her?
I think at the end of the film, she is kind of the bad guy. Rebecca kills this monster that was trying to exploit her for views. When I wrote her, it was definitely a challenge. It was something we worked on even through production. There were scenes we reshot because we needed to soften up her character more.’
It was interesting to see that character develop because I think Sara was really scared to play someone completely unlikeable. She wanted to have moments where the audience can empathize with her, so even if they don’t like her, they can understand where she’s coming from, like those moments where she’s upset that they’re losing viewers, she’s upset that Teddy’s family is floating them, she’s upset that she just can’t seem to catch a break right now. It seems like the only time they had any success is when they exploited Vera [Crampton], and she sees an opportunity. She just sees a future for them that doesn’t involve their parents paying for things. It was just very interesting to find that human element for her. It was a hard part of the script.
In that proposal scene, it makes her seem like such a bad person, but at the end of the day, he’s [Teddy] also doing the same thing. He puts the camera down. He tells the viewers about this thing. It’s a genuine moment that neither of them can see happening because they don’t know what it’s like to have a genuine moment anymore. Everything is about getting it on camera. Everything is about creating a false version of memory by doing a second take. It’s never just genuine.
This is a long-winded way of saying it’s a challenging character because I don’t think people like vloggers in general, so saying, hey you need to empathize with her is a challenge.
What was it like working with Barbara Crampton? Did you always have her in mind for the role of Vera?
I didn’t really. I was just writing it for someone who was a vague age, someone who’s an established Airbnb host, but I had met her through e-mail. She had reached out to me about some other projects she wanted to do. It had just never worked out. I was just like, I’m going to write her, send her the script, and see what she thinks. She said let’s do it, 100 percent. It was a short shoot for her, only a couple of days. She came and went all-in on it. It was so cool to watch her really sink her teeth into this role. It was just fun to see her take a one-note character and really add some pathos to it.
When you have someone of her caliber come to set, you never know how they’re going to do it. I’ve worked with the Michael Ironsides. I cannot see Michael Ironside lying in the dirt and getting bloody. You can just tell how passionate she is. It wasn’t a paycheck thing. Everyone was getting paid nothing. It’s a low, indie budget movie, but she just loves to do the work.
How fun was it to shoot that scene in the woods with Gillam and Crampton near the climax?
That was the most challenging day. For the first time, we had more than three actors so we had an extra make-up person just to get the actors ready. It was like a seven- or eight-page scene of pure dialogue so that just takes time. If I had my way, we would have done it over two days, but we did it in one day because we only had Barb for that one day. It was really kind of challenging to fit everything into that time. You’re also battling the sun because you’re outside and you can’t fake the sun. When we got to the gore, we were just out of light. We did the whole stab sequence in probably 15-20 minutes. We ran out of light.
The one big thing that sticks out to me about that scene is how Gracie was concerned that we were giving away too much of the plot. I wrote with a pencil on her script, and we rewrote the monologue. That all came on a spur of the moment and spitballing an idea. I think it improved the scene tenfold because had we done the scene as originally scripted, it would have convoluted things. It was cool that Gracie was that in tune with the character because it definitely made the scene better.
You’ve already worked with younger and more seasoned actors and actresses. Who else would you love to work with?
I think it would be fun to work with Tom Cruise because he is that larger-than-life person, and even though he has his own personal things, I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about how committed he is to work. You see all the stuff he does on Mission Impossible, like learning to fly a helicopter and doing his own stunts. There’s a passion from him that I don’t think you get from anyone else in the industry. I’ve talked to some directors who have worked with him, and they said how unbelievable it is how focused he is on doing the film. No distractions. That’s really cool to me.
There are other actors, like Leonardo DiCaprio, who is just so bloody talented. I just don’t think on that scope right now, though. I can’t even imagine working with someone like that because it’s a totally different world from what I’m operating in. But I do think Tom Cruise would be insane to work with, just to feel that energy.
Have you ever had a travel experience nearly as awful as Teddy and Claire’s? What was your worst travel experience?
I don’t think there’s been any that have been murderous or anything like that.
The whole concept of this film came from a stay I had in Toronto, where I stayed at an Airbnb. It was an automated system and a really nice condo. When I showed up, the toilet didn’t work. I had to reach out to the host who had to come out and fix it. He came with a plunger he had just bought. It was so awkward because both of us didn’t want to meet each other.
The system is not set up where we’re supposed to meet each other. It’s supposed to be anonymous. If I wasn’t there, it would have been fine. Because I was there, we had small talk. It was just awkward, and I wondered, what are we doing as a society that we’re so willing to let people into our spaces like this? We just see four or five stars. We judge people off that. That sort of spawned the whole thing. I don’t vacation too much, but that was the germ of the idea of this film.
I love the ending of Superhost and that last shot of Rebecca with the rings. Any chance we’ll ever see a sequel and a backstory to Rebecca?
I did Still/Born and everyone said, oh, it’s a demon, so it’s a franchise. Then, I did Z, and everyone said, it’s a demon, it’s a franchise. This one really felt like it was just a one-off, but with Rebecca’s necklace alone, there are a lot of rings on that thing. Where did they come from?
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been thinking about it a lot. Gracie, I know, is totally on board because I know she loved doing this film. It just came out, so the hype is still there. In a few weeks, if it settles down and people have forgotten about it, then we’ll know our answer. But it’s kind of hard not to get excited about the idea of more adventures with Rebecca because she’s such a fun character to write and work with. It’d be great. I’d love to go back and play with her some more.
What are you working on next?
I’ve been writing with my brother, as I said. We’ve got a couple of scripts that we’re in various stages of, but there’s one that’s pretty close to being financed. That’s what we’re hoping for. It’s another horror film, a college campus, Final Destination-type film. It’s another tonal change, but it has some supernatural roots to it. So it’s not too far out from what I’ve done before. I’m hoping that’s the next one. It’s the one I’m currently focused on the most because it’s one of those things where any day we can have the financing and go. That’s the main one I’m talking about right now because it’s the most real. Hopefully, I’ll be able to announce something soon because I’d love to be back on set.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Go see Superhost. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it. Go into it expecting a fun ride. It doesn’t take itself too, too seriously, even though it’s pretty dark. It’s a nice little escapist movie and a nice little vacation from hell. Buckle in, and enjoy Rebecca. She’s a wild ride.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.