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Interview with “Spree” director Eugene Kotlyarenko

Written by: Hannah Tran | August 14th, 2020

Director Eugene Kotlyarenko on the set of SPREE

We’re decades into the internet age, and yet it sometimes feels as though we’re still in an infantile period of internet-centered filmmaking. Some filmmakers choose to virtually ignore this aspect of our world in their work, while others choose to make it the very fabric upon which their films are based. Director Eugene Kotlyarenko definitely falls into this latter category, his movies choosing to directly tackle the overwhelming feelings of modern dread that our constant intake of the news cycle and our social-media feeds induce. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kotlyarenko about his latest movie, Spree (reviewed for Film Festival Today by Adam Vaughn), which tells the story of a fame-thirsty rideshare driver who creates a murderous plan to go viral. Starring Joe Keery (Stranger Things), Sasheer Zamata (The Weekend) and David Arquette (the Scream franchise), Spree is a playful, dark and merciless take on our social-media hellscape that asks its viewers to reckon with the power that social media assumes in our own lives. Below is a transcript of our interview, edited for clarity.

Hannah Tran: So, this isn’t the first time you’ve dabbled in this digital-screen technique. You were using it very early on in your 2011 film 0’s & 1’s. What do you think interests you in telling a story like this, and how did it feel different nearly ten years later?

Film poster: “Spree”

Eugene Kotlyarenko: Well, with all the movies coming out at that time, you could almost feel the transition into home theatre-hood. With DVDs and movie prices getting more expensive, you just sense people are on their computers more, and they’re using early social media, like Facebook. I’m 34, so everything like AOL or Facebook or Myspace felt pretty natural to me even as those things were growing. And so I was like “How do you present a story in an interesting and unique way?” And I knew that we had to use the language of that screen to tell a narrative.

So, I made 0’s and 1’s, and I made a movie called Skydiver around the same time that was all Skype and G-chat video conversations. And I was naive and pretentious and thought I was reinventing the language of cinema, and nothing exactly happened with those movies even though, you know, I still think they’re pretty good. And then, a few other movies that used a similar language were made, and I was kind of dissatisfied watching them even though I think Unfriended is a good movie. Most of the others that I’ve seen I haven’t really liked. And so,  I was like, “I already did this computer screen thing almost ten years ago, let me just take it to the next level.” So I started watching a lot of live streamers, and I felt we had to start making fun of social media and what it has turned us into which is kind of like these little monsters desperate for attention. And so, I wanted to make a movie that lived in live-streaming and social media and foregrounded that sort of formal storytelling.

And another thing that I learned was that you sort of have to do it through genre because then you pull people in with the genre conventions that they come to expect. You know, while the movie is funny and satirical, it also sort of works as a thriller and a horror film, right?

HT: Yeah! I haven’t really seen it used like it is here before. It feels very frankly modern in a way not many movies now do, but you could also see that it’s playing with gonzo influences, as well as this idea of the American Psycho narrative. You started to touch on this, but I was curious what kinds of materials, movies or videos online you were watching and researching to get to these characters and this storyline.

EK: Yeah, for me, I’ve always loved the “media critique” sort of films, whether it’s Network, Ace in the Hole, A Face in the Crowd or To Die For. So, I was really thinking about how you could update Network or how you could update A Face in the Crowd to really speak in a natural way to what I hope is young people. Especially teenagers, I hope, see this movie, and it can be The King of Comedy but for them. And I did share most of these films with the cast for sure, but, with Joe, we sort of dived really deep into single-digit YouTube posts where very specifically someone who has no following is offering a tutorial on how to go viral or how to grow your brand. Because for every influencer that we’ve heard of, there are a hundred thousand other people trying to be influencers who have no following. And that sort of material was really integral to coming up with this character, and those were really helpful for Joe, who was mainly looking up cringe compilations.

Joe Keery as Kurt Kunkle in the thriller SPREE, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

HT: I could definitely sense that this is something teenagers would enjoy and was really pleasantly surprised by that direction. And I think the cast also shows this, like with Joe and Josh Ovalle. But you also have actors from very different lanes, like David Arquette, Mischa Barton, Lala Kent, and Sasheer Zamata. I was wondering if you were thinking of them when writing these characters and how you landed on them to fill these roles?

EK: The only person we were explicitly thinking of was David Arquette as the dad because he has this sort of built-in goofiness that’s also kind of sad or, at least, unnerved in his performances but also kind of in his persona. For everyone else, we went through a casting process. This is the first time we ever had a casting director, Rebecca Dealy, and she’s awesome. And it’s just kind of meeting with people and talking about the script and the characters and figuring out who you vibe with. But yeah, very intentionally, like with the scene that has Mischa Barton, Frankie Grande, and Lala Kent, I really wanted there to be Hollywood microcelebs or reality stars or people who had a party reputation because the first acts of this film were supposed to feel like scary realism, and the riders were supposed to feel like they could be a real person. So yeah, there definitely was a consciousness to how we strategized the casting.

Sasheer Zamata as Jessie Adams in the thriller SPREE, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

HT: Yeah, I was very interested in all of these people as individuals, and it was very strange to see them all together in one project.

EK: That’s awesome. I mean Josh too, right? He’s best known as a Vine star, and he’s a sweetheart and Joe’s a sweetheart, but casting Josh as, like, the worst type of alpha-prankster, Hype-House type influencer was really great. And Josh knew exactly how to make fun of that type of personality. But I also wanted people who would be into Josh Kennedy from Vine, you know, “Jared, 19, never learned how to read,” to watch this movie, just like I want people who are into Stranger Things and are growing up and probably late into their teenhood now to really take a step back and examine their relationship with social media. And Joe created this really iconic and sad and monstrous sort of character, and I hope seeing his performance allows them to process the little monster inside of all of us that our social media identities create.

HT: And Joe does give such a great performance, and I know this is one of your first movies in a while that you’re not in front of the camera. And I was wondering what that was like to lose that little bit of control and to be directing from almost a separate location with the car setup.

EK: Yeah, I mean I love acting-directing because you’re right, it does allow me to direct in a more impactful, explicit, organic way. But the actors on this are so good, and they’re such good improvers actually, it was just a gift to just sit back and watch Joe and Sasheer and David and Kyle Mooney and Josh and everyone else take it to places that weren’t on the page. It was just super fun. It was super fun to make. It was super fun to edit and just watch through all the takes. And I hope when people watch the film they can feel that fun and energetic quality that we put into it, and that will hopefully spark conversations afterwards.

HT: Yeah, I’m really excited for more people to watch this movie and see what they think about it. Anyways, it was a pleasure to talk with you, and I’m looking forward to seeing anything you do in the future.

EK: Thank you so much, Hannah! Thanks for the conversation.

l-r: David Arquette as Kris Kunkle and Joe Keery as Kurt Kunkle in the thriller SPREE, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

[In select drive-ins, theaters, on digital and on demand August 14th.]

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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. She is currently studying film and English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In addition to her studies, Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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