Graham Hughes is a Scottish filmmaker based in Glasgow. His third feature is Death of a Vlogger and it caught the attention of our podcast host Andy Connor.
Death of a Vlogger is a horror mockumentary/found footage film. It tells the story of Graham, a vlogger, who begins to encounter a supernatural force in his flat. He documents the strange occurrences and shares his investigation online.
The film played at FrightFest in London and has garnered praise from many in the genre. Andy reached out and asked if Graham would like to come have an informal chat about his work. A date was set and Andy and I sat down with Graham in Sloans in the centre of Glasgow for a ‘pint’.
It’s a pleasant evening, which is good as we’re sitting outside due to Covid restrictions. We order drinks. Graham gets a Guinness and a portion of loaded nachos as we chat a little about our respective day jobs, the trials of Covid-19 and how each of us has missed the greatest of all things – The Pub.
We order a second round of drinks and Andy asks Graham about Death of a Vlogger. Where it all started.
“Back in 2016 I was making a film called Evil Spirits. It was going to be my first feature, I’d managed to scrape together ten grand – which is still nothing, but at least it was a bit of money which meant people would get paid, there would some production value etc. We were due to shoot in February 2017 and, literally two weeks before the shoot, we had to pull the plug. Everything was going tits up. It was a complete disaster.
“Essentially I was trying to make a 10k film look like it had a budget of half a million. We were planning a two week shoot. It was a huge circus. You need to make sure you have your people for two weeks. Absolutely everything needs to be sorted. On the 1st of January our location pulled out and it was a single location film so that was a huge issue. Then our production designer pulled out, we lost a runner, finally we lost a camera assistant.
“This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was too late to get a new one and our DOP suggested he could still shoot the film run-and-gun.”
Run-and-gun production is frenetic, improvised. Graham was apprehensive about using this approach.
“Evil Spirits is a horror comedy,” Graham explains, “both genres rely on precise timing, camera positions. I pulled the plug and decided to give up filmmaking. At that point I thought, fuck it, this isn’t worth it. It was a horrendous experience.
“I took a year for myself, I didn’t make anything, and then I saw a film called The Dirties.”
The Dirties is a found footage film directed by Matt Johnson. It sees two students make a film about a school shooting, but their work is heavily criticized by their teachers and peers. The boys decide their film would have been better if it was more realistic and so set about staging a real school shooting.
“I could see the energy and love behind it from these filmmakers. They didn’t have any money, but they used that to their advantage. They made it their aesthetic. I thought, fuck, maybe this is something I could do as well, and that’s where Death of a Vlogger came from.”
Andy asks if it was filmed in and around Maryhill and if Graham used his own flat.
“It is. The key word for the whole thing was pragmatism. After The Dirties I thought, what do I have?
“I wanted to do horror, because I’ve never made a horror film. I love the genre. I know horror, at least no budget horror, sells better than many other genres. Other genres need stars, production values etc. The horror audience just needs a good idea executed well. If it’s interesting and well executed, it’ll sell.
“I was making vlogs for the BBC at the time. I was used to being in front of the camera, but I’m not an actor, so I thought I would write Graham the character closer to who I am so I’m not stretching myself too much. I’m at my own disposal, so I don’t need to organise an actor or pay an actor, I’ll shoot it in my own flat.
“Everything spiraled out from the question of ‘what do I have?'”
Graham talks about drawing inspiration from the ‘Rodriguez List’ from his book Rebel Without A Crew.
“One of Rodriguez’s approaches was to write a list of all the cool shit you have access to, then ask yourself, what’s the plot?
“So I did that. What do I have? What can we do? The story evolved from there. The online element came from the reaction to those vlogs I was making at the time.”
Graham references the BBC’s The Social which is a talent development project where new videos are posted daily.
“The comment sections on the Facebook and Twitter posts from [The Social] are the most noxious cesspit on the internet. 4chan doesn’t hold a candle to the comments on there. It’s fucking horrendous. Seeing all this horrible negativity, I realised, there’s my theme.”
Andy and I talk of how well Death of a Vlogger addressed this, without ever preaching to the audience.
“I always want the films I make to have something to say, but also remain entertaining. Art house film when it’s just trying to say something… Michael Haneke is a fucking anathema to me – I can’t stand his films. Funny Games, does work a little, because it works on an entertaining level, but something like Cache? I just find it a slog.
“You can make your point and entertain at the same time – you don’t have to pick one or the other.”
Andy discusses the varying ways Death of a Vlogger tells a compelling story without the huge budget of recent releases. “It doesn’t matter about the actors,” Andy says, “or the budget, as long as you get the story right.”
“In theory, the script is the only free part,” Graham continues. “Writers should be paid. But if no one’s paying you and you’re a writer, you’re going to write.”
“I’m actually a lazy film maker. There’s probably things I should have done better, scenes I should have reshot, because all I had was time.”
I ask how Graham moved on from making Death of a Vlogger to having it appear on Amazon Prime. Was it a difficult process?
“In my naivety, I thought, if the film is good then it’ll get sold. I was pretty wrong about that.
“Quality of the film aside, I had a list of distributors and sales agents on a spreadsheet, those with similar films or horror films, and I just worked my way down.
“I discovered that the exception to my idea that a well executed horror film will get picked up is found footage. I was getting blanket ‘No’s’ or no response.”
The three of us dive into an energetic conversation of our love for found footage films. Hell House LLC, Blair Witch, Rec, Paranormal Activity.
“I think, in mainstream cinema there’s a snobbery towards horror,” Andy says, “and in horror cinema there’s a snobbery towards found footage.”
“Paranormal Activity is an experimental film,” Graham argues. “It’s an art house film but, because it’s horror, people don’t give it the credit. However, if Haneke directed it…”
Graham laughs, continues,
“Found footage is a love of mine. In fact, the project I’m working on is an anthology found footage film, so I’m doing a wee 12 minute segment for it. [Found footage] is something I’ll never write off. Lots of filmmakers use it as an accessible stepping stone and then move on.”
Lake Mungo is mentioned and Graham says it’s his favourite found footage film.
“A common thing I see is people comparing Death of a Vlogger to a rip-off of Lake Mungo. The truth of that is, I shot Death of a Vlogger over six months and I was three months in before I watched Lake Mungo. Watching it, certainly the first half, I thought, fuck, this is a fucking disaster. However, by the end they are pretty different.”
Graham was also quick to say, “Lake Mungo is far, far better than Death of a Vlogger.”
I ask about Graham’s influences and he reiterated The Dirties being a huge influence.
“It’s really cinematic. That was something I wanted to try and do. A lot of found footage can be a little static or lean on shaky-cam a little too much. I wanted to crib more from documentaries than found footage.”
Graham also mentions Noroi: The Curse, Hell House LLC and The Borderlands as sources of inspiration.
Andy asks how Graham found the festival circuit.
“I never actually answered how we got on Amazon! As I was saying, we got a wave of rejections from distributors and sales agents. But we got into FrightFest in London and I can trace back the film’s success to that. They show three or four films a year from unknown or first time directors and Ian Rattray programs that strand of the festival. He got in touch and said he’d seen the film, just through blind submissions, he liked it and wanted to program it.
“That was huge. One of the best things to happen off the back of it – Ian mentioned reviews – and later that day I got an email from Kim Newman.”
You can read what Kim Newman said about Death of a Vlogger here.
Graham tells the story of how, at FrightFest, he ended up at a party hosted by a bunch of Canadian filmmakers in the basement of a pub. He spent the day getting “Blotto”. Later, when he stepped outside for some fresh air, he got talking to a filmmaker who happened to be at the party with their sales agent. Emboldened by alcohol, Graham told the agent he was looking for someone to rep his film, got his card and sent a screener.
“They represented the film. We got UK distribution, North American sales and it was released in France as well. It’s all been through that one meeting.”
Graham moves back to talk a little more about writing Death of a Vlogger.
“When I first started writing it was going to be more about social media addiction. When I was releasing my vlogs, or uploaded any content online, I would tell myself, ‘there’s no point fucking staring at it’. Every single time, five minutes, and I was back on. Who’s liked it? How many views? What are the comments like? I couldn’t get away from that. Why can’t I control myself with this thing? So that was the basis. There’s still some of that in the film.
“But as I made it over six months it was allowed to evolve and change. The script wasn’t finished when I started filming. It changed as I went along and I realised it was about, for lack of a better term, fake news. How fucking terrifying that is. There’s no objective reality anymore. It’s fucking frightening. Someone can retweet an article – I’m guilty of it myself – we won’t read the article, just read the headline. It’s so easy to spread misinformation.
“I needed a lie for the film to pivot on.”
Graham talks about how he hopes that, whatever conclusion a viewer reaches, there will be evidence to back up their point,
We discussed the film in great detail, but to avoid spoilers I’ve omitted those parts for those who haven’t yet seen Death of a Vlogger. After our third pint (maybe fourth) we decided to move on to another bar and spent the remainder of the evening drinking far too much and excitedly discussing many more films.
It was brilliant to sit down with Graham and talk about his film, to listen to his insights on cinema and filmmaking. His enthusiasm is infectious. His love of what he does is plain to see and his work is an excellent example of what can be achieved with a driving passion to make good art.
Death of a Vlogger is a film for the social media obsessed, post-truth world we’re currently living in. The horror is real and often closer than you think.