There's the traditional route to a directorial debut; camcorder obsession, film school, an internship, personal assistant, directorial assistant, the keys to the store. And then there's Radio Silence, a collective of four talented filmmakers who used YouTube to learn their craft, post their clips and advertise their wares with so much professional aplomb that Fox made all their dreams come true.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella grew from the ashes of the former group known as Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett and Chad Villella, three friends who had an idea, a camera, some technical expertise – much of it gleaned from YouTube tutorials – and got to work. Their breakout was Alien Roommate Prank Goes Bad, a found-footage style short they posted in February 2008; as of today, it's been viewed more than 32 million times.
When Rob Polonsky left the group, they were joined by Justin and Tyler, reformed as Radio Silence and continued their YouTube domination, moving into a series of -interactive adventures', narrative shorts in which the viewer guided the plot. Ultimately, however, they had ambitions beyond on-line media.
'TV and film were always the end game for us," says Chad Villella. 'When we were in the digital space we were always working with concepts that felt bigger than even we maybe knew how to wrangle at the time. We were always wanting to make cool, big, cinematic things."
Thankfully, writer Brad Miska was putting together a movie of found footage-style segments, and asked the soon-to-be-famous four to contribute. They were given a 17-minute slot, a $10,000 budget, and got to work: the movie, called part of a series called V/H/S, was a Sundance hit, and executives at Fox took notice.
'Lindsay Devlin had written a script and we got a phone call from John Davies at Fox when he was on vacation," remembers Tyler Gillett. 'We were standing in the parking lot of Poquito Mas on Sunset, literally spending our last dollars on lunch. He called, said he loved it on V/H/S, how he was really excited about it, and said -I think we should make this movie'. Literally the next day we were working on it."
The resulting collaboration is Devil's Due, starring TV's Friday Night Lights' Zach Gifford and Allison Miller, best known for her work on NBC series Kings and Go On, and the Spielberg-produced Terra Nova for Fox. The movie is a fresh, contemporary take on the Rosemary's Baby-style horror story: as newlyweds, their lives are turned upside down when an unexpected pregnancy may be the devil's work, with each twist and turn captured on -home' video.
'We didn't lean on Rosemary's Baby, but didn't shy away from it either," says Tyler. 'There are many things that are just different about the approach. The style of shooting, the point of view of the movie, allows you to be connected to their daily lives in a way you don't get with Rosemary's Baby."
On the cusp of their debut national release, they talk from their offices on the Fox lot in Los Angeles about their incredible journey.
Question: What exactly are the origins of your union?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: It goes back about six years. We started off doing internet videos under the Chad, Matt and Rob banner, and then basically Rob left and the four of us stuck together as Radio Silence.
Question: Looking at your YouTube clips, it's clear that they had pretty high production value - how did you manage to achieve that? Is the technology just there, or are you geniuses?
Chad Villella: Definitely the latter! Technology is a huge part of it, it's also just not having to answer to anyone or give permission from anyone to make something.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: You can do really whacky ideas just because you want to: the four of us could just go into the forest and shoot something in a couple of hours and do literally whatever we wanted. It's a really fun way to share things.
Chad Villella: We were all enough from a technical background to understand how to use the technology the right way. We've done writing at some point in our past, or cinematography, visual effects, editing... it's all self-taught. We always were striving to challenge ourselves with a higher standard of making something; we just never thought it would actually land us here at the studio. It's awesome that we're here, but it just came from us wanting to hang out together and make cool shit.
Question: I think it's accepted now that people can shoot things and make them look good, but the digital effects you were executing in your shorts raised the game to another level. Who does that?
Justin Martinez: It's me, but I feel like all the programs I use anyone can basically download now. It's amazing how far programs have come for VFX for an average consumer. I use After Effects and Cinema 4D mostly, and I learned it all online. The internet taught me! I used mainly YouTube tutorials - especially with Cinema 4D. We had this Mountain Devil project and I sat down and I said 'I'm going to make the mountain devil in this new program."
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: I think the cool thing about YouTube was any visual effect that's even half successful feels like such an over-delivery in that space. But we got to this point where what was happening visually - the effects, the camera work, the sound - kind of held up to something larger than YouTube. I guess it's a testament to that always having been the goal for us, to make stuff that could play great in that space, but that you could also watch in the theatre and still enjoy. Also, we started making stuff before narrative storytelling was really a huge part of YouTube. It was still mostly small viral videos. Funny or Die was just starting to really do a lot of scripted narrative work, but it was right at the beginning of all that stuff and we just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Question: What was the original aspiration, what were you hoping to achieve by putting these clips on line?
Justin Martinez: To learn how to do it better so that we could some day make movies. We all wanted to make movies, that was always our goal. That's why we went from these two-minute clips to our interactive adventures, which were 20 - 30 minutes, then the next evolution was the 17-minute short we produced for V/H/S, and now this movie. When we look back on it, it actually feels very progressive over a period of 6 or 7 years.
Tyler Gillett: It's interesting though - YouTube is like the best film festival out there. And a film school. You don't ever make something so that people cannot watch it, and once we started making stuff and we got a bit of a following, it was just a really exciting way to put your stuff out into the world. And you can get great honest feedback, which is sometimes really scary. The anonymity of the web means that you get a mixed bag of really harsh criticism, but also really high praise.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: We only listen to the high praise.
Tyler Gillett: We used it to guide our way into making better choices the next time we did something.
Question: You've mentioned how there's a lot of content on YouTube - how did you manage to rise to the top and get your stuff noticed?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: When we did Alien Prank Goes Bad, again we got lucky. It was probably our third video and it was in the early days of YouTube, and it was the most distilled version of the style. That video was made in February 2008, it's a found footage video, and it was before Cloverfield came out.
Question: The point of view element: obviously it's a much-used technique now. When was the first time you saw it?
Tyler Gillett: Blair Witch Project was the first movie where the whole conceit of it was that it was real. It was really the first of its kind and felt so incredibly authentic.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: It's really evolved now. You have a movie like Chronicle, and our movie to a certain extent as well, where it's just another way to tell story. There's something about the style that draws people in in a way that's really visceral, interesting and engaging, so why not use that as a storytelling device? Using the point of view of the camera is just a way to tell a story.
Justin Martinez: We just want to make a movie that's fun and that people are entertained by, and that really allows you to do that - you get to watch scenes like you're a part of it. As opposed to something like Blair Witch and Paranormal, which did it really well, but they did it like it was something found, real and observed. Our thing is, just join this couple and live with them.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: And we stick with very specific rules with character and camera; they have to be 100% believable, they're real, and whenever a camera is being used we worked really really hard to make sure that the character would be filming that. Hopefully, you won't be taken out of our movie by wondering why the hell that dude's filming.
Question: Before you got to make this movie, you got to shoot a segment for the indie horror hit V/H/S - how did that come about?
Chad Villella: It came from one of our YouTube prank-gone-bad shorts that the producers for V/H/S saw. They contacted us and asked us to be part of the project, and we said, 'Of course, we'll do anything'. That gave us the opportunity to jump from a two and a half minute video to 17 minutes, a little longer storytelling, which we'd really wanted to do. We had no idea what was going to happen with it and no idea what the other directors were doing in the movie, and they said, guys, just go do what you do and we'll trust you.
Question: Being given an actual budget, what's the first change you made in the way you operate?
Justin Martinez: We've been working on the favor model for so long, it was about being able to actually pay the people who were helping us. That and rent a cool location - the majority of our budget on V/H/S went to that, around five grand, which was half our budget. The rest was craft services - actually some good food. It was the same with Devil's Due - we were able to have a good team around us, people who are better at their jobs than we will ever be. They just helped make the movie that much cooler.
Question: How did you move from a 17-minute segment on an indie to being asked to make a movie for Fox?
Tyler Gillett: We got lucky. We made the Mountain Devil thing for us, put it online, and then Brad Miska (the writer of V/H/S) saw it - actually we sent it to him under a fake email account saying, 'Hey, I think you'll really like this!'. He called us out on that immediately! Then we got lucky that V/H/S became what it became with Sundance, and we got lucky that John Davies and Steve Asbell, who work at Fox, saw it and trusted us with Devil's Due.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: From this 17-minute thing they took this huge leap of faith to bring us on.
Tyler Gillett: We just saw a poster for it in a movie theater and it was literally the most surreal thing any of us have ever seen. The best prank ever!
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: I still think we don't trust that it has happened. It took so long and there were so many false starts in the process of getting here: I still think the movie doesn't exist.
Question: So being presented with an actual, full on studio budget, presumably this time it went to way more than just better sandwiches.
Tyler Gillett: Yes, though it did go to pretty good sandwiches too.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: One of the things that I think we're all super proud of is that, although it's low budget for Fox - it's an astronomical amount of money for us - everybody got paid properly and everybody was able to enjoy the process.
Tyler Gillett: It was the perfect blending of what the studio had to offer and this indie approach that we came up on, and meeting in the middle in a way that's been super collaborative, incredibly positive and just good for the film all around.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: The set for this was exactly the same as our sets have been forever, only with more people around. It could not have been smoother.
Question: Did you have a hand in the casting?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: We worked with the casting director extensively, made ourselves available for all the callbacks and read-throughs, and they brought us some great people. Zach Gilford and Allison Miller really won everybody over.
Tyler Gillett: We all remember Allison came in early in the process, and the minute she left we were like, 'The standard has been set'. The next two weeks of still seeing people, it was like, 'Nope, not Allison, nope, not Allison....'
Question: What did she have that you liked so much?
Tyler Gillett: Just her. We hadn't seen her in stuff; we weren't familiar with her body of work...
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: ... but she's so charming. Just to be around her, you want this person to win, you love her. She's so natural and funny and alive, and the story is about a couple that is so alive.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: She was already starting in a place that was so endearing and so fun to watch, and stripping that from her was kind of the concept of the movie. We thought, if we can get her there, this is totally going to work. And thankfully, Zach Gilford, who is also incredible, they had such incredible chemistry together from the very start. Without the chemistry working the way it does, this movie wouldn't exist.
Tyler Gillett: The minute we got involved we focused on it as a love story. It had to be about these two people, about how much they love each other, and the audience has to believe it and be on board and it can never feel fake. Then it's up to us to create all the obstacles and the supernatural and the fun stuff, but the story still has to be about them. Everything we said about Allison, the same applies to Zach. He has such a natural charm and ease and, because of his work on Friday Night Lights, he's really good about knowing the work.
Question: It's such a natural performance from the pair of them; were they improvising much?
Tyler Gillett: Tons. The scenes stood, but the actual dialogue is very improv'd.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: All of the scenes and how they were serving the larger story were pretty specifically dialed in, but how we approached them, how the camera existed in the scene... there were many scenes where Zach was shooting with Allison and we were just there to make sure everything was framed right. It was an incredibly grass roots approach to each scene, and the improv was a part of that.
Question: Did Zach need any camera training – it looks like he shot a parts of the movie himself?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: Thankfully he'd been around cameras enough and is a photographer himself. I talked him through the camera for 15 minutes and there was a learning curve, and by the time we had shot a day and a half we knew exactly what we were doing, separating the scenes he was actually shooting from the ones we were shooting as him. It was a fun way to get him involved.
Tyler Gillett: One of the things we went to the studio with was how we wanted to shoot this on small cameras and wanted the actors to be able to hold the camera. We wanted to be very hands off as possible with the scenes... To their credit they were on board for all of it.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: They knew going in that a big portion of the movie was casting it the right way. We found two people that nailed it.
Question: You managed to maintain a narrative by devising multiple ways of capturing these images, like using security footage cameras and police interrogation videos. How challenging was it to keep the story moving this way and getting all the coverage?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: It's the absolute hardest thing of the point of view' style.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: You have to justify a camera all the time. You don't get the luxury of a close-up, or coverage, lighting's an issue and you have to have 360-degree sets. It's a totally different style, and to your point, keeping it going for as long as a feature... the longest thing we'd made up until V/H/S was three minutes. It's over before people go, 'why is that camera still rolling?' That was the big idea, to make the style evolve with the actual story, so you're not in one singular point of view the whole time. It actually shifts as the story starts to change.
Tyler Gillett: In our movie you know from the start this isn't pulled from one camera.
Question: Beyond the directorial style, the content itself is obviously influenced by Rosemary's Baby. Did you go back to watch it?
Tyler Gillett: Many times.
How much of a shadow does it cast?
Tyler Gillett: Just in the basic nugget, a lot, though that comes more from the script. It's going to get called out as a Rosemary's Baby retelling anyways, and we were conscious of that the whole time, to the point where in one of our scenes we even have a prop from Rosemary's Baby.
Question: Which one?
Tyler Gillett: There's a priest scene, and the cross on the wall behind him is the cross from Rosemary's Baby - we wanted to have fun with it. Obviously you have a couple that's very contemporary, which is already a fun evolution of Rosemary's Baby. You have this great young couple living in a different city and living a life that's familiar to twenty-somethings now. Our movie feels so real, you're a part of this couple's relationship and you get to watch it fall apart.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: And Rosemary's Baby is such a perfect movie - we weren't trying to remake it. Not in any way.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: Plus we really wanted to instill a natural sense of humor to our movie. Until it's too late, until humor doesn't make sense. Like everything we've ever done, you'll get scared, but you'll also relate to people and enjoy their sense of humor. It draws you in and makes everything that's scary about it more effective.
Question: How do you all work together – it's not exactly the norm for four people to direct a movie?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: Lots of shouting a screaming. And wrestling. And a whole lot of rock, paper, scissors....
Tyler Gillett: We always said we were like a band. We all have a role and none of the roles work unless we're all working together on it.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: That's the way we've always approached it. The short that got us V/H/S was literally just the four of us and Rob in the woods and no-one else there. It was all hands on deck all of the time, what needs to be done.
Tyler Gillett: On YouTube the credit doesn't matter - they'll watch your stuff or not. That's just how it works. It was never about credit-hogging, it was always about making cool shit. For the most part everyone's been incredibly open to the idea of this group of four guys who want to make cool shit.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: Movie making is a collaborative process. Anyone on set who had an idea we'd give it a go. We just like the open conversation at all stages.
Question: And your experiences working with a large studio... how involved were they?
Tyler Gillett: There was a learning curve, absolutely, but they were involved only so far in that they were being supportive, which was fantastic. They would let us have an opinion, have a voice.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: Thankfully, the people involved on the studio side of things are great ideas people. They all had a really clear sense of what was best for the movie that we agreed with.
Tyler Gillett: The cool thing with the studio was not that we were suddenly making a Hollywood movie, it's that Fox were suddenly making an indie movie. Not by definition, but the feel of this was entirely independent.
Question: And what happens now with your relationship with Fox?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: Hopefully we're doing this again at the end of the next few months, that's the goal. We've had such a charmed experience with them it would be foolish to not. We're looking right now...
Question: And have you now abandoned YouTube?
Tyler Gillett: No, we love YouTube. As soon as we have time we want to go and do more for them. We're where we are because of them - their encouragement kept us making stuff. If it wasn't for their feedback we wouldn't be sitting here now.
Cast: Allison Miller, Zach Gilford, Sam Anderson
Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Running Time: 89 minutes
After a mysterious, lost night on their honeymoon, a newlywed couple finds themselves dealing with an earlier-than-planned pregnancy. While recording everything for posterity, the husband begins to notice odd behavior in his wife that they initially write off to nerves, but, as the months pass, it becomes evident that the dark changes to her body and mind have a much more sinister origin.
Blu-ray Special Features:
Behind the scenes featurettes
YouTube short clips
Pranks and more to scare the devil out of you!
Blu-ray RRP: $25.95