Written by: Matt Patti | September 20th, 2021
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with writer/director Brandon Christensen about his new film Superhost, a surprising treat of a horror film that I greatly enjoyed (and to which I gave an overwhelmingly positive review). In the film, romantic couple Claire and Teddy stay the weekend at a luxury vacation home in order to capture content for their YouTube show, “Superhost.” Unfortunately, when they arrive, they find that the owner of the home, Rebecca, is a bit strange, obsessive, and mysterious, showing up in the home at random times and displaying erratic behavior. The film explores how far some content creators will go to gain popularity and fame. Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Matt Patti: How did the idea for this movie come about? Did you or someone you know ever have a frightening experience with a vacation-rental owner similar to the one the characters in this film had?
Brandon Christensen: So, it wasn’t like a frightening one or anything. It was just a very awkward interaction that I had with the host of an Airbnb that I stayed at. I was in Toronto for a film festival when I was doing Z, and I checked into a really nice condo in downtown Toronto and used the restroom and when I tried to flush it did not flush. So, I had to reach out to the host because I exhausted all of my own options of fixing it and nothing worked. I was going to be there for like 3 days so I needed some sort of toilet to work. I reached out to the host and there was this sort of like progression of going back and forth trying to figure out what we were going to do and eventually it turned out that he had to show up with a plunger and fix it for me. It was just one of those situations where you are kind of talking to a stranger that didn’t intend on meeting you, you didn’t intend on meeting them because the process is automated, so we were having just the most awkward small chat as he was plunging away at the toilet.
So, that scene from Superhost was basically ripped out of my life and I made the dumb joke “I’m glad it was just number one” and he went off on his way and all was well. It just kind of struck me as this super awkward interaction that I didn’t really think about too much at the time until I started thinking about the next project and what I wanted to do and I was like, yeah, there is something there about the relationship between the host of these bed and breakfasts and the patrons that stay there. It is just so bizarre in a society that is so private about themselves, and so with security systems and all these things, it’s just kind of funny to think that we are so willing to stay at some stranger’s place and we have no idea who they are. So, that was just like the beginning idea.
MP: I think you do a great job of highlighting the struggles of being a YouTuber and staying relevant online. How important was it to you to showcase the dark underbelly of internet fame?
BC: It definitely was a challenge just to figure out the balance of who they actually were versus who they were pretending to be. I went through a ton of revisions trying to figure out these characters because they are coming from a place that people don’t generally like. People see these heightened-reality characters and “hey smash that like button!” and most people don’t like that. It’s just such a bizarre kind of sub-section of society. So, trying to figure out the balance there of who these people are beyond the face on the screen was kind of the biggest challenge.
Ultimately, when you think about the problem they are having, which is “our viewership is down,” people don’t equate that with someone having a disease or something like that. It is a very specific problem to them. You still need to find a way to make it broad enough that people can empathize with them. So, like the whole thing about Teddy’s parents providing for them, and she [Claire] just doesn’t want that. She is probably embarrassed by it. She wants to be able to take care of themselves. It kind of goes into things that are beyond the scope of YouTube that I think people can generally, if not sympathize with it, they can empathize with it. That was definitely the hard part. Showing their perfect side is super easy. It’s when you have to show who these people really are that it gets a little more complicated.
MP: Yeah, the viewer really does come to realize throughout the film that Claire and Teddy’s relationship is completely different off-camera than the couple their subscribers know and love. How often do you think this is the case, and what is your take on YouTube couples? Is it a good idea to date someone and at the same time try to build something together online?
BC: I can’t imagine any situation where it’s a good thing. I’m sure some people make it work. Hats off to YouTubers and vloggers, they put in a ton of work. They make it seem effortless. You look at someone like Casey Neistat. He makes these videos that are shot really well and he does it all by himself and they are just really well-made vlogs and you don’t really see the work that goes into it. But he’s killing himself to make that daily content or he was, I don’t know if he still does it. It’s cool, I guess, if you can have a couple that can generate that content and can be together like that. But ultimately, you are going to be working so hard. It’s like any job. If you have a 9-5 and then all of a sudden you are working overtime every day and you are doing 15 hours or something like that, the relationships are going to suffer because you don’t get to have that down time with each other when you can focus on yourselves. So, I guess it’s probably doable if both people are insane, but it is definitely not something I would want to do.
MP: Gracie Gillam really shines as the “superhost” Rebecca, playing an unsettling, psychotic, terrifying woman to perfection. During the casting process, what were you looking for in your actress for Rebecca and when did you know Gracie was the one?
BC: When I’m doing an indie like this … this was a very low budget film … there is no real casting process. We didn’t hire a casting agent or anything like that. It was basically just casting friends and friends of friends. So, like with Sara Canning [Claire], I had worked with her on Z so I had her in mind for the character from the beginning. Osric Chau [Teddy] was roommates with a friend of mine and she had worked with him on a feature they did together and she spoke very highly of him. Barb [Crampton] I had known just through e-mails. We had been talking about different projects together over time, so when I had this, I just reached out.
But with Gracie, I did talk with several different actresses. It was just a scheduling thing. Some really great actresses really liked the part, but they just couldn’t do it. One actress in particular, Sierra McCormick, was shooting another film that just came out. She was shooting that in Michigan and she said, “I can’t do it, but I do have a friend, Gracie Gillam, you should reach out to her.” So, I looked into her and it was just really kind of a cool fit because she is this very pretty girl who has done a ton of Disney stuff, which is heightened reality in and of itself, so being able to lean on that experience that she has had, where she is playing these giant versions of herself, was what I wanted from Rebecca. It’s almost Stepford Wives, it’s just the very, very best projection of yourself and then slowly the mask cracks and slips away. So, her having that experience was such a great thing we were able to tap into.
MP: This film takes a deep look at how far some people will go for money and/or fame and the insane things they will do to get views on their videos. What is your message to those YouTubers and other influencers out there who take major risks and even put themselves in danger for the sake of gaining popularity?
BC: I think it’s fine to put yourself in danger. I think it is less fine when you have an unwilling participant like Claire and Teddy were trying to have with Rebecca. Creating content is great and there is a lot of positivity that comes out of that and a lot of people who build fan bases and communities and like-minded people find each other because of these personalities. The problem I have is when you start doing the prank culture, the exploitative culture and stuff like that where you are doing stuff negatively towards other people that don’t want to be involved and just hide behind “it’s a prank.” You are just using other people that can kind of become the butts of a joke even unwillingly and that sort of becomes the point of your video. I think YouTube culture is so vast and varied, there is so much of it. There are really positive people out there and really talented people out there doing stuff all the time. It doesn’t really touch on those people as much as it is more about those people that look for that exploitation that they can kind of monetize. Because I think that’s really crappy of them.
MP: Thank you so much for your time. I hope everything goes well with the film’s distribution.
BC: Thank you.