Deadstream Filmmakers Talk About Shooting Their Rocking Found-Footage Movie In A Haunted House [Exclusive Interview]

"Deadstream" is a found-footage horror movie for people who hate found-footage horror movies. For everything people take issue with and can't suspend disbelief for ("Why won't this idiot put the camera down?"), Joseph and Vanessa Winter's horror-comedy has those bases covered. The filmmakers place a streaming celebrity (played by Joseph) in a haunted house and give him plenty of reasons not to escape. 

The married couple behind "Deadstream" wanted to make a do-it-yourself horror movie in the state of Utah. Although the Shudder release is fairly contained, it is hardly do-it-yourself. As the writers and directors behind the horror-comedy told us, the movie kept getting bigger, thanks to gnarly practical effects and perhaps a new, groundbreaking technique called "spear cam."

'I think the whole time we were just terrified that we were making a movie with a camera on one guy's face'

Congratulations on making a character who's unlikable and yet so enjoyable to watch.

Joseph: Well, first of all, thank you for saying that. We take that as a big compliment because that was the thing we were the most self-conscious about, probably, in making the movie and probably the thing that changed the most from conception to where it ended up.

Vanessa: I think the whole time we were just terrified that we were making a movie with a camera on one guy's face and thinking that was a good idea, and then also just about a naturally unlikable character. And so, I think that anything that was working just came out from the terror of us just being like, "Let's make this movie as watchable as possible."

Joseph, how was that the part that changed the most?

Joseph: Well, when it very first started, there was no unlikable aspect to this guy. He was just a guy that was really scared and that was his thing and there were no teeth to it. I think as we started to lean into controversy, we kept going, "We need to go more and more and more with it," but then it got to the point where we were just afraid. There might not be any likability or any quality about him that makes you want to continue this journey with him, whether he dies or not.

We just kept refining it and we researched a lot of influencers, actual YouTube influencers. And throughout the process, even though we went into it not having a lot of respect for some of these big names that were tied to controversy, we started to realize that there was indeed an art behind what they were doing, there were likable qualities about them — otherwise they wouldn't actually have an audience.

So we went into our script and started trying to inject this character with some traits where you could actually believe that he has an audience, even if it's not you that wanted to watch this guy, there are believably people out there who really love him. So we started adding some self-deprecation aspects to Shawn where people will troll him about something and he'll just roll with it and make a joke and throw it back at them and things like that, hoping that people could find some likability in him.

There's not really the question in the movie, "Can this guy be redeemed in this house?"

Vanessa: I think in 80 minutes, there's no way this guy can dig himself out of whatever he's dug himself into. But I think, at least for me, I try to find my way into the character a little bit, which is just relating to this idea of being relevant on the internet and having an art form that you need other people to watch. That would be filmmaking for me; for him, it's his channel. But I wanted to feel some sympathy with him in the sense that that's his thing, that's his job that he's putting everything into. But yeah, I don't think we ever had a discussion about real redemption for Shawn.

Joseph: Actually, [what] we were talking about when we first started was that idea that you just touched on, which is like, "Can you actually be redeemed in 80 minutes?" The answer is no, but maybe in the future somebody can, but usually what happens is a streamer or a YouTuber will have a controversy and immediately there's an apology. Usually the apology video digs deeper and accidentally they start saying things or they start doing something that becomes more offensive and alienates more people.

And so, we thought if this guy feels bad by the end of the movie, we should try to do a little bit of an arc, but he's getting in his own way of actually being redeemed. So we do have an apology that is baked with kind of digging the hole deeper for him while he's trying to apologize to people that he's hurt. So that was pretty fun, deciding we're not actually going to change this person to be a good person, but he thinks in his mind that he's a better person now.

'Shawn's not just going to make weapons, he's going to attach a camera to it'

The "apology" scene is great. You almost get your hopes up for him, and then, it just goes bad.

Joseph: Talking about nervousness, that apology, we were so scared. I will say I was so scared because I didn't know if audiences would be able to differentiate between me and Shawn because the words that come out of Shawn's mouth at that moment are really deplorable and offensive. So we were pretty nervous whether this come across as commentary, or is it going to come across as just in really poor taste by the filmmakers? So I've been really relieved to hear that it's being taken in the right way.

When choosing where to place the cameras, how did you choose what was cinematic but also exactly where Shawn's character would put the camera?

Vanessa: I think it probably came with us wanting it to be as cinematic as possible and then justifying why Shawn would do it.

Joseph: We baked it right into the concept, though, when we decided, "Okay, this guy, his thing is he promises the most cinematic experience in streaming." Once we decided that, then we could justify the most cinematic angle or whatever made the shot the most interesting. Shawn's not just going to make weapons, he's going to attach a camera to it so that it has the most energy and the most fun, so that his audience is getting the top quality Shawn product that he's promised them. So we basically had license to make it just what it needed to be, to be fun.

When the idea came for putting a GoPro on a weapon? Was that a huge light bulb moment?

Vanessa: [To Joseph] When did spear cam happen?

Joseph: I think that was just really early on. Once we decided we're going to take this idea into a really crazy, "Evil Dead II" kind of way.

Vanessa: It was actually invented for a scene that got cut. Well, it didn't get cut, it just got transformed. This is a small spoiler, but the ghost takes over the spear cam. We wanted a weapon that could be turned on the protagonist with the camera on it, but it actually started out as a different action sequence and then became that.

Joseph: That joke — what else can he put a camera on that feels on-brand to him and makes the movie a lot more fun?

Vanessa: I am going to credit Joseph with beef cam.

[Laughs] Did you have time for a lot of takes?

Vanessa: We rehearsed a lot so that we could film it really fast, but then we ended up rehearsing a lot and then also doing tons of takes.

Joseph: The primary reason for the tons of takes was because the technology using action cameras, the technology is not there where you can rely on them. The playback is really delayed, and you'd have to — things like me whipping my head too fast to the side, would cut a camera and we just found ourselves battling the technology a lot. So what was designed to be a really fast shoot [turned into], we got to do it again and again to get the shot to even work. And then sometimes being forced to after 13 takes, just move on with the one take that actually technically worked where the cameras didn't cut or something like that.

Vanessa: And it's actually a pretty composed movie. Getting the feeling of a live stream of it being natural, that ended up being so much harder than we thought. So just trying to make a joke seem off the cuff or a monster fight happens in real time, it had to be really fine-tuned.

Joseph: It ended up being a really precise movie. We get excited when people ask us if it was improv'd because it couldn't have been, and we were nervous that it would seem so premeditated because of how precise we had to be. Anyway, those were the limitations that we were in with this film.

'We tossed the do-it-yourself aspect out the window as soon as we got excited about an exploding head'

You both began "Deadstream" thinking of it as a do-it-yourself-movie. You have so many practical effects and stunts, though, so did your vision for it just get bigger?

Joseph: We tossed the do-it-yourself aspect out the window as soon as we got excited about an exploding head. Then we realized, "Okay, this isn't a two person crew. We're going to have to bring some people that are specialists in their area and really help bring this to life." I mean, for creatures, obviously, creatures and makeup, but particularly with the LiveIt! app, the fact that we need to have Shawn controlling his iPad, the viewer's experience, and you actually see him tap on cameras and then it live edits, we couldn't know a way we could do that ourselves. And so, we had a partner with Jared Cook as a producer and a DP and he took the reins of that and just decided how the tech would really come together in a believable way. So the DIY thing, that's not this movie. It's a very small crew movie and has that spirit, but it definitely wasn't do-it-yourself.

How was pulling off the exploding head?

Vanessa: It's an effect that wasn't working on set. So we had some ideas and our creature designer kept reiterating to us, "Just so you know, I've never done this before. So, these are just all ideas that I'm having." The fact that the head did explode in such a great way was a completely collaborative effort. We had to do another take where we put it all together, back together, and the costume designer was pulling out safety pins, the makeup artist was inventing more goo to make brains out of, and it really was everybody standing around this thing kind of holding it together and then running away into the corners.

Your creature designer worked at a theme park, right?

Joseph: There's a local theme park here in Utah called Evermore, and when it shut down due to Covid, he lost his job. And so he reached out to us. We had talked to him about some ideas before, he said, "Hey, this is a great time, by the way, because I'm not doing anything." And there were a lot of things like that [which] really fell into place for our movie to actually even exist in the first place — let alone to be watchable.

Did you always want to shoot in a supposedly haunted house, or was that just the most practical location?

Vanessa: It was a dream location, because we could do whatever we wanted inside. So that was a big stress when we were looking for a location, like, "Who's going to let us throw blood around in a historical house?" When we found this house, we wanted to make it work so bad. I also just love the colors and textures and the tagging that's in there. I thought it matched the personality of the script really well, but we ended up having to build a decent amount of it back up because the second floor was so dilapidated. [To Joseph] I don't know, was it being actually haunted appealing to you?

Joseph: Well, we didn't know that until we really got into it. I think that's when the story started. There was a construction guy there that was there to reinforce the wall, and he was so spooked. He was so uncomfortable walking through it. You could see in his eyes. He told us when he was a teenager, they broke in because of the haunted legends, like a lot of the locals do when they're kids. He said he saw a woman standing in the window of what we used as a bathroom for "Deadstream" and he was so scared of that room, but he saw it. He believed it with his heart that he saw it. He's not the only person, because there's this woman that's been seen on the upper floor if you start digging in the lore of the house. Also, crew members were saying that they felt stuff when they were there. I didn't feel anything.

Vanessa: We're not the most paranormally sensitive, but people who were, they said there was definitely something going down in that house.

'Okay, no faith grenade'

Did you end up doing a deep dive into the house's history?

Vanessa: Well, the actual haunted house is attached to it. There was a pump house that was close by where two brothers did actually tragically drown. But somehow in the lore it's been combined where the deaths of the brother happened at this house, but it was actually at a location nearby.

Joseph: But the hauntings have all been attributed to this house. The other place doesn't exist anymore. But the hauntings, they all legitimately take place in that house. Digging into the history, there was a crew member named Annie that was just deep diving into it. And one day she's like, "It's really cool that you ended up with the name Mildred, because that was on purpose, right?" I was like, "What are you talking about?" And she was like, "Are you serious? You don't know what I'm talking about?" I was like, "No." So an owner of the house really early on, her name was Mildred. Here's the other thing, there was another dude who lived in the house named Lar, and we had no idea. So it's whatever power the house possesses, it was reaching out to us while we were writing the film.

[Laughs] It was inspiring you from afar.

Joseph: Yeah, totally. I think we have the Shining, I think that's what's going on.

Did you both have any other rules, visually, you always wanted to stick to?

Vanessa: I think the biggest restriction that I felt really dedicated to was it taking place in real-time. That's the thing that I really wanted it to have that kind of energy and wanted people to feel like it was this guy, this stuff was just happening on a live stream. So that's the kind of thing that was always driving me, I didn't have any other restrictions –

Joseph: And that was such a restriction for me. I hated that. The idea that I had was, it was going to be a movie that took place over the course of the night, and it was a live stream, but it wasn't presented as live. It was edited. It's because I had certain scenes that were dependent on that format. And so, when she was trying to force it to be 80 minutes real-time, I was just like, "No, because then you're going to cut my babies. You can't take that from me." But she was right, though, because once I got on board with that, the movie's just so much better and we were able to take some of those original gags, like a gearing up montage, and we were still able to force that into a real-time movie. The restriction ended up being great for the film.

Were you making any choices in response to other found-footage horror movies, as in what they previously got right or wrong?

Joseph: One thing for me is some found footage movies kind of have a score, but they're not justified. I know that really bugs people. We were thinking the movie we want to make should have a score. Let's make it justified in a way that's really fun for the audience, where it can surprise — he bumps the player and it presses play at just the right time to help set the mood — and that the audience would just think that was funny and go along with it. So that's where that idea came from.

Vanessa: He wrote it in three weeks or something.

How'd that happen?

Vanessa: He panicked. Panic inspiration from panicked deadlines.

Joseph: The cool thing about this is I'm not a professional musician, I really love music and have some background in it, but it's something that I've really wanted to do, but knew realistically, there's no reason for me to ever do this. And when we came up with this, the "Deadstream" idea, it was so perfect because if Shawn composes this music, then if it's bad, it's not my fault, it's Shawn's fault. So you could make silly music, or I could just be my full self, but not get too caught up in if it's bad music or not, because people will just know, "Oh, the character, they made it bad on purpose."

Joseph, you mentioned having to kill some darlings. Any moments you both miss from the final cut?

Joseph: Faith grenade. Faith grenade didn't make the cut, and I was upset. I got my feelings hurt about it [laughs]. It was this gag where Shawn takes a New Testament, which isn't even in the movie, and he tapes Holy Water inside of it with duct tape and other religious artifacts and at some point he throws it and yells, "Faith grenade!" and you hear an explosion and a ghost recoiling. And Vanessa said, "No." I read it in our writers' group anyway, just to prove to her that it was really funny. There were crickets. No one even smiled. "Okay, no faith grenade."

"Deadstream" is now available on Shudder.