[Interview] John McPhail for DEAR DAVID

In DEAR DAVID, shortly after comic artist Adam (Augustus Prew) responds to Internet trolls, he begins experiencing sleep paralysis — while an empty rocking chair moves in the corner of his apartment. As he chronicles increasingly malevolent occurrences in a series of tweets, Adam begins to believe he is being haunted by the ghost of a dead child named David.

Encouraged by his boss to continue the “Dear David” thread, Adam starts to lose his grip on what is online…and what is real. The film is based on the viral Twitter thread by BuzzFeed comic artist Adam Ellis.

For the release of DEAR DAVID, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew chatted with director John McPhail. Over the course of their conversation, they chatted how about McPhail was first introduced to the “Dear David” story, how he approached the stylization of the dreams, and how he figured out the practical effects for certain film elements.

Thank you so much for speaking with me today, John. How did you first hear about the “Dear David” story? Was it through the Twitter thread or was it when you were approached to direct the film? 

John McPhail: The [Twitter thread] was still going on but there was one of those articles, those clickbait ones like, “Scariest Thing on the Internet.” I clicked on it and it took me to the “Dear David” thread. I suffer from sleep psychosis, similar to Adam, so it was one of those things where I was hooked and I kind of stalked the guy a wee bit [Laughs]. He’s this funny comic book artist who works at BuzzFeed. You didn’t expect this to come out of him and that kind of freaked me out as well. Then when the script landed on my desk I was like, I remember this! I was there when this happened! [Laughs].

Augustus Prew as Adam Ellis and Cameron Nicoll as Dear David  l Stephanie Montani

I love the visual style of the film, especially the use of a blue tint during the dream sequences as well as incorporating glitches throughout the film. What was your decision behind bringing those types of visuals to the story?

John McPhail: With the sleep paralysis, I wanted to get that right. I wanted to really make it feel claustrophobic but when we get into that [dream] world, there’s a shift. I thought if I did a bluish tone, the audience would get that. But then there’s confusion later on when dreaming isn’t actually blue when there’s a change. I love color in film and I love the progression to color. At the beginning of the film, we just threw color everywhere. He’s got the bright orange hoodie and lots of blue color and then we to start to strip it out to dull things down. Then the audience begins to realize you don’t know what’s a dream, what’s reality, that kind of thing. You can play with the audience and be like, is he actually losing his mind or is this happening?

I’m a big fan of Augustus Prew as well as Justin Long. What was the process like in bringing them both on for this project? 

John McPhail: Augustus was someone we approached with the script and I was so lucky to get him. He’s a big believer in the afterlife and spirits and ghosts and also suffers from sleep paralysis. This just came at him at a time when he was like, I need to do this. With Justin Long, I wanted the character of Bryce to be funny. I wanted BuzzFeed to be funny. I wanted to do the Buzzfeed that I thought would be at Buzzfeed with bean bags and people going around on scooters. I wanted there to be a lion and a shark fighting and trying to have a one-upmanship in the background.

I wanted someone who was going to be really funny but also had name recognition and understood drama as well. Someone that can pull it down and be like, you need to get yourself together, and then throw it all away by going like, you look like shit, and then walking away from Adam. You need someone like him that can just railroad it. Justin breezed it and made everybody fall about in stitches. I grew up watching him so this was like a dream. I love Galaxy Quest and I snuck into the cinema to see Jeepers Creepers so it was amazing to have him in this.

We also had Tricia Black who plays Norris and is hilarious, like so funny. They all killed it. For the first two weeks, we pretty much shot the end first cause we had the upstairs apartment then we needed to burn that down and then rebuild the downstairs apartment. So for the first two weeks, it was Augustus, two cats, a kid, a lot of crying, a lot of screaming [Laughs]. When we put him into this environment with Andrea Bang (“Evelyn”), Justin Long (“Bryce”), and Tricia Black (“Norris”), it was great to watch [how it all went down]. They’re all absolute pros.

Augustus Prew as Adam Ellis l Stephanie Montani

In David’s Twitter thread, he gave us a clear idea of what David looked like. How were you able to achieve that and was it a combination of CGI and practical effects?

John McPhail: Because it’s the head. You need to build up to it. You’re never going to be able to get that dent to be able to build up unless he’s got the biggest head in the world. We sketched out a couple of ideas of what we were going to do and then brought a concept artist on and played with a couple of ideas. And then prosthetics and makeup came together to figure out this head and we’d cast the kid and then started knocking it in.

Daniel Lee, my makeup artist, was like, do you want it to look medically proper? And I was like, no, I want it to look cool [Laughs]. He was like, if you go this far in, your brains wouldn’t function. I was like, does it look cool? [Laughs]. I want to be grossed out. I wanted to be at that point where it’s in the dream and Adam and David are looking at each other and David’s brain’s pulsating and it splats. I wanted all of that. I’m a horror fan and that stuff makes me [gag noise] and then I’ll laugh.

What do you think it is about this movie that will resonate with horror fans during this spooky season?

John McPhail: I hope it’s Adam Ellis. One of the things that attracted me to this script was the character Adam Ellis. As I’ve said before, he’s this fun guy on the internet who’s an online personality, and seeing him interact with trolls just sitting there with his cigar and cup of tea like, ha, ha, ha. I wondered, what would it be like if he was actually at a breaking point with all of that. The idea of seeing his character going through that really interested me. And I hope that’s what people take away from it as well.

DEAR DAVID arrives in Theaters, On Demand, and Digital on October 13, 2023.

Shannon McGrew
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