Neal Edelstein Talks HAUNTING MELISSA, How the App Works, Merging Cinema with New Tech, Creating a New Platform for Horror, and More
If there’s one thing the last few months have demonstrated, it’s how rapidly the film industry is changing. From funding to production, to distribution and marketing, all aspects of the filmmaking process have been drastically impacted by new media. We’ve recently seen the way that Kickstarter is controversially altering traditional methods of film funding and, with the success of films like Bachelorette and Arbitrage, VOD has stepped up as a viable distribution method. With less and less people heading out the theater, and a steady incline in viewership on streaming devices, filmmakers have been searching for new ways to keep up with evolving consumer habits. The latest innovation aimed at capturing modern viewers is Haunting Melissa, a hybrid-app created by film producer Neal Edelstein (Mulholland Drive, The Ring) that combines Hollywood horror film-making, long-form structure, and the unique distribution opportunities provided by the popularity of personal tablets and smart phones. It’s a clever idea, one I think a lot of people have been waiting for, and I will definitely be checking out the app to see if it delivers.
I recently met with Edelstein to talk about the project and get a sneak peak at Haunting Melissa. He filled me in on the genesis of the project, what kind of interactivity people can expect from the app, figuring out the writing process on such a new format, how post-production was different than his work on films, and a lot more. Hit the jump to see what he had to say.
After showing me a couple trailers for Haunting Melissa, which had a sort of backwoods Paranormal Activity vibe, Edelstein took me through the basics of the app. The quasi-film follows the titular Melissa as she begins experiencing unexplainable phenomena, and takes us piece by piece through her haunting. Edelstein describes Haunting Melissa as, “a personal story about a girl and the intimate experience of what’s happening to her. What better way to push that kind of intimacy then to deliver it directly to people’s devices? No commercials, no advertising, no banner; it is just story, straight to you.” The design is dark and creepy, but user-friendly. Social media sharing is built in, as is a bookmarking feature that saves your progress. The chapters listed on the right-hand side are color coded to demarcate your progress through the story; black and white for content already seen, color for newly available content, and red tinted for locked content. Each chapter is represented by a photo-splice, and every once and a while you’ll catch something moving out of the corner of your eye. It’s also worth noting that the app is pretty damn good looking. This is not a janky, comic sans-fonted app. It’s clear that they put a lot of hard work into the design, and it paid off.
As for usage, I didn’t get to go through it myself, but the basic plan is something like this – When you download the app you get the first chapter built in for free. Once you finish the first chapter a countdown begins and when an undisclosed amount of time has passed the second chapter will be available to you. At that time you can choose to share your activity to Facebook and unlock the next chapter for free. The undisclosed release schedule is meant to keep you on your toes, never knowing when the next scare is coming your way.
After the demonstration I sat down with Edelstein for an extended interview:
Question: Just sort of take me through the basics of how this all came together.
NEAL EDELSTEIN: I’m always looking at different ways to tell a story and deliver content, and as the internet kind of took off I was always excited by what was going on there, but the webisode thing I couldn’t really gravitate to. It’s a little bit uncontrolled and the experience with banner ads – it just felt a little too much for me. I think people are doing great stuff in the space, but I couldn’t really get my head around it. So when these devices came out, it changed everything. The first time I went on an iPad I was like, “Okay this is it. Now I can tell a story direct to my audience.” From storefront all the way to the audience, and the devices are so powerful, as is the software, obviously.
I wanted to tell a ghost story, but what I didn’t want to do is take a movie and just stuff it inside an application. I wanted to really think about telling a story in a completely different way to leverage the architecture, to leverage the device, to leverage the technology. And what does that mean? Basically a ghost story that comes to you in pieces, so it could be Friday night, 20 minutes; Wednesday afternoon, 5 minutes; it could then be Thursday, 20 minutes, again. So it’s this story that’s evolving and you down know when it’s coming at you. And because of the push technology we have the ability to just push content and reach you instantly. Not in all cases, but if you have push notifications on. These devices are so personal now, we carry them everywhere and we’re always looking at them. So the grand idea was really simple – get people to out their headphones on and sit in the corner with a device and watch this ghost story and not know when it’s coming at them. That’s kind of the big idea. I had to go about, obviously, mounting a production and all the challenges of independent filmmaking, then the massive challenges of trying to invent software technology with film post-production, which was an awesome challenge.
What is the interactivity like?
EDELSTEIN: Thematically you’ve got this girl who’s being haunted. She doesn’t know what’s happening, so we also can play with that in terms of how we push content to the device. Maybe is your device haunted? I created this thing called “dynamic story elements”, so if you go back and watch something it may change. The app technology is so powerful they can make changes in real time and grab other content. It’s not a videogame, and it’s not meant to be like Where’s Waldo where you find things. It’s more of a passive experience, but if you go back and start looking there are clues and things that change and are different. That’s something that’s really interesting and again something you can only do in this environment.
Talk about the balance between exploring that new technology and telling a story.
EDELSTEIN: There’s a lot of cool technology things going on here, but the most important thing is telling a great story and making sure that people are engaged in the story and coming back for more. The story, from day one, was always designed to be different. It was meant to have film quality. It was meant to be designed out as professionally and slick as possible, but if people aren’t engaged in the story it doesn’t really matter you don’t really have a chance. These environments are completely dynamic and always changing and lending clues. If you look here you’ll see a piece that may disappear and then reappear. There’s dynamic things happening here, but everything is for tone and pushing story forward.
So, this is definitely not meant to be watched all at once like a film?
EDELSTEIN: Ultimately when you download all the pieces, and it takes some time to get through it all, you can watch it all. You can’t watch it in succession; we don’t have that option yet. We might put that in future builds, you just have to go through and engage the pieces. But the really exciting thing for me is once I have this app on your device it’s like a never ending channel. Haunting Melissa was written and conceived as a sliver of a much larger story, so we’re already writing a sequel and in the future I can go back in here and re-cut scenes. You’re moving forward, or maybe you’re moving backwards, but all this is still organic and alive. So all I have to do is re-cut, say, chapter 5. I go re-cut it, add a scene, add a sequence, subtract something. So this is kind of evergreen and always potentially open to change things. It’s a linear story that you’re moving forward with, but it’s also a world that we’ll start exploring in different ways. That’s really going to evolve as we go to the second part of the story.
You obviously have a social media aspect built into it, do you have any plans to create your own sort of hub where people can interact and talk about it?
EDELSTEIN: Sure, we’ve laid out kind of the basic touch points of all the obvious places and I think trying to corral the conversation is a little bit dangerous. You want to give the people the opportunity to go to the usual places. What I don’t want to do is try to manage conversation. I think if it works or if it doesn’t work people are going to talk and let that conversation take on its own life. We’ll be watching and were going to engage with everyone on a personal level. I will because it’s a personal experience. You can go to the usual places; we have a blog where you can post comments, as well as Facebook and Instagram. We talked a lot about this early on – do you put something in the app that’s a community conversation? And I think it becomes that you’re kind of trying to jam it and I think when you try to jam it you don’t get the best results. So for me I’d love to have people talking about it everywhere, and I’d love to see fans create their own environment and talk there and make it person. And there’s a lot to talk about. I think there are layers of hidden things in conversations and pieces. It’s certainly a story with a beginning middle and end, but it’s also a story that has interesting offshoots and maybe not everything is perfectly explained and not every character or incident is always necessarily resolved. We’ve made it that way.
So these next installments that you’ve mentioned are they meant to be continuations of this same story, or will they be more tangentially related?
EDELSTEIN: Haunting Melissa is our first property and it was conceived to have this much larger arc and universe, and being met with, obviously, budget restraints, and being able to mount only one production initially, we kind of knew what we wanted and we knew what came before. So we held a lot of stuff back because we wanted to tell this one singular story, but kind of moving forward we decided to start mapping out next. That will ultimately run adjacent to what we have here and be told through this app. But Hooked Digital Media, which is the company, we’re working with other writers and directors and doing deals now. Those stories will be their own individual app. Haunting Melissa will always be its own app, but it will evolve and change with uploads, how it looks how it behaves, and certainly how the next series of stories start coming in.
I’m really curious about what the writing process is like on a project with this structure, because it’s similar to film writing but you don’t have the three-acts and all that. What was your approach to that?
EDELSTEIN: Great question. I came up with the story and Andrew Klavan wrote the screenplay. After I had the idea to do this my first question was, “Who writes this?” We have traditional film structure, which is a very specific discipline. This is so different than that. It is a script, but it’s different than a script. I chose Andrew Klavan because first and foremost he’s a very successful novelist. I wanted to work with him because I knew he could kind of marry the disciplines, long-form structure, and screenwriting form and common sense. I talked to him and I said “This is a totally different animal. This is what I want to do. It’s a blend of everything and it’s its own thing. It’s a film. It’s a TV show. It’s a book, but its new media and we’re creating our own language.” And he kind of got it, but we had a series of conversations and ultimately he warmed to it as I started to be able to articulate more what I wanted to do. Then we just went about mapping further the story. Then he came back with a script that’s a script, but much longer, and form is slightly different, but not really by a lot.
But it’s always about pushing story forward, so I think in many regards it’s kind of like television in that you better keep people wanting more, but it’s not like television because it’s not like, “here’s 42 minutes.” We didn’t set about going, “We need X-amount of time, every time.” We wanted to just have the story be organic and interesting. There’s times where you just get a minute of audio and that’s it. One minute of audio and then there’s nothing else. So we really wanted to play it. But really at the heart of your question, it’s like driving storytelling forward and having something that people can read, the actors, but it’s also technology over here, how do we always keep an eye on technology, and making sure that were utilizing it to our advantage, but also not making it the most important thing.
You mentioned that there will be unanswered questions at the end and you also mentioned that things can change on second viewing, is it a situation where you can go back and look for new clues?
EDELSTEIN: Somewhat; I think that if you go back and watch again there’s some things that change. I don’t want to give too much away, but the unanswered questions are really story points that, obviously, we touch upon because you’re seeing it and experiencing it, but there’s things that are not fully resolved and we don’t want to explain necessarily what they are. They’ll be done so at a later date potentially. But like any good mystery, a ghost story has to have a great mystery, like any great mystery there’s hopefully a lot of tantalizing things that gets people talking and wondering; whether it’s symbols, or conversations or incidences. It’s a window into this girl’s life and what happened to her when this haunting started.
I’m curious about the casting process on a project like this. Was it important for you to get unkowns?
EDELSTEIN: Always; and that goes back to The Ring, right?
EDELSTEIN: Which is a somewhat well documented story about the studio wanting to hire all these different actresses and myself, having produced Mulholland Drive, saying, “we need to hire Naomi Watts,” and getting Gore Verbinski to see the movie and agree. Because when you know the actors there’s so much baggage today. Not negative baggage, it’s just you know them more for their personal lives and incidences than you do about their movies so that’s what you think about. It doesn’t work in the genre for me. I kind of put myself in a box with the casting because I was very determined to shoot this in Calgary. in Ablerta, Canada in a very specific place because of the environment and the texture. There were so many things about it that inspired me.
I’m from a city, from Chicago, so that environment is totally unique to me. My wife is from there, born and raised on a farm, and it’s just this beautiful place but it also can be haunting. There’s a cemetery right there that I shot at, that house I always saw off in the distance and no one lives in it, BUT I shot in it. It just kind of fell together in this magical way. I wanted to shoot in Calgary and I wanted to hire an all local cast. I wanted to go up there and do this down and dirty, nitty-gritty production with all locals. And I got very lucky because there’s a really solid group of people up there, not only on the cast side but on the crew side. I got very fortunate with Kassia [Warshawski] because she’s a fantastic actress right in the age range and just understood the part. It just kind of magically al fell together. Barb [Nelson], who plays the mom, she just walked in the room and she looked exactly like he mother in my mind’s eye, eerily like in my mind’s eye and she was so talented. So I cast it in basically one day.
What was it about a ghost story that made sense to you for this format?
EDELSTEIN: It just sparked, because I feel like it’s so personal, you know? We watch these things like this – you’ve never in your life held something to your face this close. Even your computer you’re a little bit further away. And you’re wearing headphones usually. I just thought god, if I can get people to sit in a corner somewhere in a dark room or in a house alone, I can scare people. And that’s a very cool emotion, to be able to grab people and scare them is awesome. Sitting in a movie theater as a collective experience you can still scare people, clearly. But you’ve watched stuff at home along on your TV and you get freaked out, but now make it even more personal. To be able to get right to the device and then to be able to somewhat haunt the device because of some of the things we’ve built in and done, and the push technology, I just thought it was a fantastic blend. We’re working, as a company, in other genres and developing things in other genres, but my target audience is young adults and teens, and this is entertainment for them now. They’re not going movies anymore. Really, they go to movies on average like two movies a year, the numbers are staggering. But I think it’s fantastic because -I love movies, but at the end of the day is texting entertainment? Yeah. Is Facebook entertainment? Of course it is. No one was bringing premium content. Games, sure. Yeah, you can watch established films through the usual places, but to bring premium content directly to an application on people’s devices and then make it a horror film. To me it’s just a driver, I just felt like it all would work because I really knew the audience was there.
How do you go about crafting scares without having a lot of time to build tension and establish a rhythm?
EDELSTEIN: I think there certainly is rhythm, that’s what we had to fight for, you’re absolutely right. There’s a rhythm there and we had to makes sure it was in the script. There are rules of thumb obviously, and to me it’s really about setting a tone. Frame one, what’s your tone? What are you setting? If you set the tone, you’ve got people. This is psychological horror, it’s not a slasher film, it’s not blood and guts. It’s really about the tone of a ghost story and this girl’s descent into it. It starts with the script and what the script gives you. And what’s super crucial is sound design; so important. Whether there’s nothing and its silent and there’s maybe just subtlety, or the power of using everything in the sound design to perfect that tone.
I mean really, that’s the great thing about horror films, they’re really not that forgiving when it comes to movie making. You need to use every aspect of what makes a film work to sell the horror. It started with the script, pacing in the script and how we need to lay it out, and it became about just making all these elements. I wanted my cinematographer, who did an unbelievable job, this guy named Norm Li, we really wanted to push the darks and we talked about it. Here’s the great thing, we did a lot of testing on these devices and these devices are such a friend because they’re backlit, so the darks are really favored and helped out. So you can shoot really dark and there’s so much forgiveness when it ends up on the device. You can see things in a different way. We had the first ever LUT for an iPad or iPhone. Back to your question, every aspect of the filmmaking has to really utilize the horror aspects. Not only the script, then it becomes the lighting, the sound, the performance. There’s a lot of slow, creepy things going on and it’s accentuated a lot for that effect. How certain things are shot, where people stand in reference to doorways, what’s going on in the background, what lenses do you use to make sure someone’s standing or sitting somewhere and you can see down the hall and there are doors, the anticipation of what could happen out there is as terrifying as what you’re not seeing; playing with that stuff a lot.
Tell me a little bit about what post-production has been like.
EDELSTEIN: It’s similar, but it’s different. You’ve got a lot more footage, right? And you’re kind of cutting differently, but the post-production flow is the same to a point, you’re still cutting picture, but you’re dealing with encoding. There’s a standard def version of this and there’s HD version. So, say chapter 1, I have to encode multiple ways so I’m compressing the master file. And I have tested all these devices endlessly to make sure that it’s working, and then it’s one server. In post-production the editing flows normal, and then you start interjecting IOS developments and server technology – not that that hasn’t ever been done before, but it certainly hasn’t been done in this situation. So that was a huge challenge for everyone on the backside. It just becomes problem solving. There were certain things that we just didn’t know if we could accomplish, but we figured it out. My editor really busted his hump. You know, you’re not handing something off to a studio. And I had a post-production supervisor I’ve worked with in the past, he’s one of my great friends. He just streamlined things and in the future we’ll streamline post even more. On the sequel I really want to start rolling more like a television show, because then I can start serving the content immediately. This I had to do it all at once and plan, get it done, know that the app will work. Now that the app architecture works and it’s solid, all I have to do is get into production and start rolling and we can go on forever. Post-production is interesting because it’s the same, but different.
If someone is really into this and watches every chapter as soon as they get it, How long can people expect to spend with the story?
Longer than a feature, for sure. I’ll say it’s longer than a feature and it’s not a mini-series. It’s a different form. They should also know that the window at the end of watching this experience, which is definitely over a month’s time depending on how fast you accelerate, that window for us bringing you new content is closing because we’re going to start shooting in July. So people should really look at it as a story that’s never going to end.