By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Writer-director Brandon Christensen, best known for his acclaimed 2019 shocker Z, returns with SUPERHOST, an all new Shudder original film that’s set to do for vacation rentals and bed-and-breakfasts what Jaws did to beaches.
For the uninitiated, a “superhost” is the owner of a rental property whose hospitality so exceeds the expectations of their guests they set a standard to which other proprietors aspire. A superhost rating can equal high visibility and big profits for a B&B operator and competition for the title can be fierce.
Sara Canning (The Vampire Diaries, Nancy Drew) and Osric Chau (The Flash) star as Claire and Teddy, a young couple with a popular internet video channel devoted to seeking out and ranking the best superhosts in the country. However, when their income and relationship are jeopardized by waning views, Claire finds herself tempted to resort to unethical means to boost their flagging ratings. The couple gets much more than they bargained for when they stay in a house owned by a prospective superhost Rebecca played by Gracie Gillam (Tales of Halloween, Z Nation). Eager-to-please Rebecca will stop at nothing to make sure her guests are happy, but Claire and Teddy soon learn their smiling, offbeat host is not what she seems.
Christensen recently met with Rue Morgue to discuss SUPERHOST, the terrors of social media dependency, and his unique approach to horror.
What was the inspiration behind SUPERHOST?
When I was doing the festival circuit for Z, I was up in Toronto for the Blood in the Snow Film Festival and I was staying in an Airbnb. When I checked in, I went to the restroom and the toilet did not work. So I looked around for a solution. I opened the tank because I’ve fixed my own toilets before, but this was kind of an unfamiliar space for me. Eventually, I was like, “Alright. I need to reach out to the host.” And I did. I hadn’t met them because the process [of renting an Airbnb] was automated. [The host] was super-friendly, and he sends a security guard up to take a look. The security guard can’t fix it, and then [the host] himself has to come out and fix it. He brings the plunger and he does the whole thing. And it was just this super-awkward interaction between two people that should never have met. The circumstance that led to us meeting was so stupid–a broken toilet. It was just so bizarre. He left, and I was like, “Man, I’m in his space and he’s trying to be a good host to me. We’re already off on the wrong the foot.” It was such a strange thing that I felt that we did.
So that interaction kind of stuck with me until I saw Creep (2014), which I was really late on, and I fell in love with Mark Duplass’ character, Josef, who’s this guy who’s a terrible person, but you can’t help but smile every time he talks. Every time he does something horrible, it doesn’t fill you with fear as much as it makes you laugh and enjoy him more. I wondered if I could do something similar to that where I can create a bad guy that people love. I took that Airbnb idea and kind of mashed it together with this creepy host thing and rolled with it.
Sara Canning’s character, Claire, is obsessed with getting clicks and likes on her video channel to the point where it seems that she’s looking for something even more than just making the money she and Teddy need. Why do you think so many people have turned to social media for emotional validation?
I just think it’s the instant feedback that you can get. When you put up something that people enjoy and it can go viral, which I assume is what happened when [Claire and Teddy] made the “Bitch from Draper” video, I think there’s this feeling of acceptance, and you just want to chase that high. It gives you this feeling like, “I’ve gotta get that again!” They probably made some good money and thought, “We’ve made it. We’re good now.” Then, all of a sudden, you start losing it and you start scrambling. It just becomes a singular focus for Claire where she wasn’t really putting the energy into her relationship at that point because I think she probably takes Teddy for granted a little bit. She probably thinks he’s the same way, like he wants those clicks. So that’s definitely a point of contention between the two.
Is that something you’ve ever found yourself falling into with social media?
This weekend was bad for me just because the movie came out and the Twitter buzz was pretty rapid, which wasn’t the case with my last two movies. It was the fist time where I found myself kind of checking in more than I normally would. So I was like, “Oh, I totally understand how you can do this loop,” you know? Like I said, it’s validating to be appreciated and have people enjoy your work that you’ve spent so much time working on. Generally, I’m pretty good about it; I’m not a big follower type of person. I’ve got kids and everything, so I have my own distractions. But, yeah, I can definitely see how it happens.
SUPERHOST is definitely an intense film. What was the atmosphere on the set like?
It was super loose. We shot this during the pandemic last October. The first day, everyone had to be tested for Covid. The actors did three tests a week. The crew did one a week. That first test was very scary because, since we’re such a small independent movie, if someone’s positive, the movie’s dead. You’ve spent all of this money to get to this point, and, all of sudden, you’re just dead. Once we all got the negative tests, it felt pretty smooth. We were isolated from everyone. The cast was up in a hotel in the middle of nowhere. The crew was staying at the house, but we were working six days a week, so you’re just going to and from the set for the duration of the shoot. We were just kind of on our own little island shooting this thing. I had worked with the crew–all of them–for years now in Las Vegas. They were my commercial crew that I worked with a bunch. So it was great. We had a sort of shorthand from working together so long. I knew that guys like Chanston Bender and Alfredo Montenegro, the key grip and gaffer, could wear multiple hats and they’d be able to achieve more than you could expect from two people. There was a lot of confidence in every direction where we all knew we could all do it because we’d done it for so long. And when you bring in a cast that are all just genuinely good people and good people to work with that are just there to enjoy the experience and have fun and create relationships it just creates a very positive atmosphere.
Do you enjoy working in the intimacy a small cast affords?
I’ve done it three times now. All of my casts have been really small. I think you definitely develop bonds with the actors because you’re working so closely with them, but I would love to try something bigger where you’re able to jump from scene to scene. The hard thing with these with just a single protagonist, or in the case of SUPERHOST, two with Rebecca looming, most of the movie is from their viewpoint, so you’re not able to change things around that much. We were able to do that a little bit at the end of this film when Rebecca takes the camera, but, for most of the film, it’s just a singular viewpoint going through this sequence of events. So it would be kind of nice to go to the cop who’s at his station and doing his own detective work and those kinds of things would be a lot of fun just to break it up. When we went out to the forest for that whole sequence, which was two days, that was a ton of fun. It like a breath of fresh air to get out and have more actors and really experiment.
Gracie Gillam is delightfully unhinged as Superhost Rebecca. She seems to have a little Annie Wilkes from Misery in her. What did Gracie bring to the role and how did you keep the character from going too far in either a sinister or a campy direction?
When I first talked to Gracie, we had a conversation about Rebecca’s backstory because there are a few hints sprinkled throughout where she touches on some things, but Gracie kind of just nailed it. She told me what she interpreted it as, and it was pretty much dead on what I was thinking. So that was great starting point for us to have any kind of a conversation about this character. I loved the idea that Gracie had been in a bunch of Disney stuff with these Teen Beach movies. She’s got experience of doing that hyper, giant smile, giant eyes, kind of huge, heightened performance. That’s what I though Rebecca was. She was a huge personality that was putting on a face sort of how Teddy and Claire put on a face when they’re doing their show.
When we were on set, it was interesting because [Gracie] wasn’t there for the first week. She was only there for weeks two and three. So we had established sort of a tone and relationships with everyone, and, all of a sudden, she comes in and the tone of everything just changed because the nature of her character is just so out there. It made everybody go, “Oh, wow. This is what we’re making. We’re not making that other stuff. We’re making this movie.” When we were filming, it was generally just allowing her to have some creative freedom. We would roll long takes of her. . . We would start kind of low and just build it and build it. So we had a ton of geat options. The hard part about that is when you get to the editing room, it’s hard to choose which one is right. So, even though there were some great performances, sometimes they may have been too much at the time, so you have to dial it back. Just figuring out where she was in her story was the key to piecing together her journey on all those levels we were playing with. And then, in the third act, she’s able to go all out.
Where do you think SUPERHOST fits into the horror genre? Is it fair to call it a slasher movie?
I think so. I think we definitely created this character that is the movie. I would never put it on a pedestal with something like Halloween or anything like that. At the same time, in those movies and movies like Creep, the killers are everything. So much work is put into the kills and so much work is put into the mythology. So, yeah, I think it’s fair to say it’s a slasher. It kind of shifts a little bit because at the beginning it kind of feels like it’s maybe supernatural horror, then it adjusts itself to where it kind of has this little frenzy at the end. I think it’s a slasher-thriller. There’s definitely some genre mash-ups in there.
Were you consciously inverting the slasher formula by having a female killer stalking a cowering man in the third act?
[Laughs] Kind of! I mean, it was definitely on my mind. And you can’t not be in that situation where you’ve got a person chasing another person and not think of the implications of what you’re doing. I don’t know if it was a direct flip on the idea. I think it was just more of the story leading me down that path. I had destinations that I wanted to hit in this story and how I got there had some surprises. . . They tend to write themselves sometimes and just sort of follow their lead when you’ve got the characters all going. It just sort of made sense for Osric to be the “final boy.”
Can we expect to see more of Rebecca and her story in the future?
You know, I’ve been hearing a lot about that this week. When I came up with this, I never thought that that would be a thing. I thought it was just going to be a one-off. But people are just dying for more Rebecca. There’s already fan art and all these things. I would love to go back into her story. She’s got a lot rings on that necklace. I think there’s a lot of story to tell there. Gracie’s up for it. Making a movie is a two year endeavor and when you’ve got a lag time for other films that you’re already working on, you have to find out where that goes. I would totally be down for it. I think it would be a ton of fun.
What attracts you to horror?
I think just growing up around it. I like to say that comedy and horror are the two most similar genres because a perfect scare and a perfect joke have the same visceral response. You’re not going to watch a drama and just suddenly cry. You can build to it, sure, and that’s it’s own thing. There’s something to be said for that white-knuckle jump and that fear you can instill in someone. Growing up, I was always chasing that high, especially in my teenage years of trying to find the scariest [movie] and trying to push the envelope a little bit. It’s fun to be able to give other people that same feeling. . . It really is just such a creative genre to work with.
Who are your influences as a horror filmmaker?
I really like Mike Flannagan. I think what he’s doing in the horror space right now is really cool. It’s almost like intellectual horror in a way. You have very deep characters that have very deep subplots and backstories that slowly untangle themselves as you watch. . . Who you know at the beginning and who you know at the end are completely different. I think what he did with Gerald’s Game, which is the smallest scale film that you can do outside of something like Ryan Reynolds’ Buried, was great. It’s just fun to see him play in the space but coming at it with these deeper emotional responses to things where he wants you to care not just about scares but also the characters. I think that’s really important.
James Wan is the master of the supernatural horror thing. With Insidious, he kind of created the whole house horror thing where you have something that’s perverting the suburban lifestyle that seems so cozy and safe and, all of a sudden, the door locks don’t matter anymore because you’ve got something that doesn’t play by human rules.
I think The Ring is like the perfect genre movie. Gore Verbinski did a great job with that. It has so much to it. It’s long, but the story reveals itself very, very smoothly. It’s just such a fun ride to go on. I also like what David F. Sandberg is doing with his Lights Out short film that went on to be a feature. I love the fact that he has this YouTube channel that he still works with and he still makes videos for the fans who were there at the beginning. That’s super-inspiring to me.
Do you ever see yourself stepping outside of horror?
Yeah. I think it would be a lot fun to do a comedy, but the realistic thing about the current climate is that horror is a universal concept. People in Latin America, people in China, people anywhere around the world get scared by similar things. So, if you tap into that kind of primal fear, you can do really well with it and reach a larger audience. With comedy, so much of it is culture-based that unless you’ve got someone like a Seth Rogan headlining your film, you’re just not going to get that penetration. Even if you make it cheaply, it’s just not going to go anywhere. I just find that horror is a genre that I really like. I would say SUPERHOST is kind of a dark comedy, so I am able to dabble in horror and comedy at the same time. You see a lot of social issues brought up by Jordan Peele. You see just a lot of super-dark family trauma in Ari Aster’s stuff. I think horror has become sort of this all-encompassing genre that you can do anything with. I think that’s really cool. [Horror] has been legitimized by people like Jordan Peele by going at it really hard with subjects that make you think.
What’s next for Brandon Christensen?
That’s always the question, isn’t it? I’ve got something that I’m waiting on financing for right now. It’s something that I’d be shooting in Serbia. If it happens, I’ll be leaving in like a month. But everything is very slow. Hopefully, it happens. It’s a script that I wrote with my brother. My brother and I have been writing a bunch lately so we’ve got a few scripts that we want to do. It really becomes a matter of what pops first. I’ve got the smaller kind of SUPERHOST-level stuff, then I’ve got larger things that take a little longer to percolate and get through the system so you can get financing for it. Right now, I’m hoping it’s this one thing in Serbia because it’s a really fun idea with a much bigger cast and much bigger concept, but still horror and still scary. We’ll see. In a month I’ll either be on a plane to Serbia or I won’t.
SUPERHOST is available now, exclusively on Shudder.