Sundance tends to dominate the first month of the festival circuit, delivering the indie films that we’ll be seeing and discussing for most of the rest of the year. Last year two films stuck with me for months, and ended up in my top ten of the year, I Origins and Whiplash. The best film I saw in Park City in 2015 was at Slamdance, a terrifying teen thriller called RATTER, with technology so disturbing you want it to be SciFi (it’s not),
Writer/Director Branden Kramer’s tight suspense follows the daily routine of Emma, a graduate student living alone in NYC, who becomes the obsession of a enterprising cyberstalker who hacks into her iPhone, her laptop, her iPad, her Microsoft Kinect and records her most intimate moments. The first ‘found footage’ film in which the main character does not know they are being filmed, the entire voyeuristic thrill ride plays out in ‘Stalker POV,’ jumping to and from stolen feeds as if the villain is working the board during some sort of disturbing live sports event. The film’s title refers to malware known as a RAT (Remote Access Trojan) that takes control of a target computer and webcam. RATs are downloaded invisibly and without the consent of the user. If you’ve never heard of the term before, after seeing this film, you will never be able to unlearn it, or ignore it.
Anyone who has ever been to Slamdance knows that the seating situation is not optimal, with low risers and rows of fans that block sometimes as much as a third of the screen. Still, the atmosphere is almost always electric and with Ratter, I barely noticed hanging off the edge of my seat, craning my neck to witness every corner of the creepy canvas, as we were witness to shot after shot of the very beautiful Ashley Benson first unaware and then gradually petrified by what she cannot see.
Benson, who you should know from one of the best guilty pleasures on television, Pretty Little Liars, is a natural scream queen, but even better, she is just natural. As we are forced to watch her paint her toes, shave her legs, becoming an ‘unwilling’ accomplice in the crime, Benson embodies the idea of ‘being,’ living in the moment with an genuineness seldom seen in most teen stars. RATTER twists the glam of the “stalkery ” Pretty Little Liars into much more base, rough, and frankly perverse drive that ‘A’ never seems to achieve with her constant texts and clues. If that show is all about showing the victims how she (or he, still unrevealed but I’ve said from day one it’s someone from Lost’s Purgatory) knows all and is always watching, RATTER proves its much scarier when the victims know absolutely nothing at all.
This is a rare film that works completely as a piece of narrative fiction, but also points to a very disconcerting reality, one most people don’t consider in their daily data dump. We have cameras and digital connections all around us, and we rarely acknowledge how dependent we are on them, and how little we do to protect ourselves from them.
“For some reason, still, not many people know about it,” Kramer says, “which is weird because its really creepy and scary and it happens all the time.”
The idea for the film came from an incident with a friend, who noticed her webcam indicator light kept blinking on and off, for no reason. After some research, Kramer made a short, ‘Webcam,’ which quickly went viral and received tons of comments on Vimeo and on Tumblrs where it was embedded. “For example, a girl says ‘I take my laptop everywhere, especially when I shower,’” remembers Producer and Director of Photography Stefan Haverkamp, “and we were immediately like ‘oh, this is a great scene’ because its based in reality.”
Ideas flowed in, and the team started expanding the concept into a feature length film. They knew what they had was visceral and vital, something confirmed when their short piqued the interest of a very particular viewer, an agent at the FBI. “They reached out to us in an email, and we originally thought it was a hacker trying to hack our laptops,” says Kramer; “I think he realized how weird it would be, so he said if you don’t believe me you can just call the Los Angeles FBI and ask for me by name.” He turned out to be legit, and most likely a hacker himself, recruited by the FBI for the cyber crimes division. “He loved it and basically asked if he could use it for presentations,” Kramer says, “because he goes around to corporate clients and advises them on security risks.”
RATTER is a very original film. There is so much in the news about prominent celebrities getting hacked, like Jennifer Lawrence, or large corporate hacks like at Sony, but according to Kramer, you don’t hear too much about the everyday ordinary person getting hacked, something that happens all the time. Add to that the film’s very distinctive point of view, from the stalker himself. “It’s like the perfect tool if you are a stalker,” says Kramer, “you have a hidden camera inside of your obsession’s apartment, and for some reason people don’t think about it.”Producer Jan Jaworski adds: “At the end of the day its about voyeurism, a concept that’s been with us forever and ever. It’s why you watch the neighbor across the street. It’s just a different way of doing it now. We all race to keep up with technology and we all embrace it but we don’t stop to think about what happens when you do that.”
Of course, convincing financiers took a little time. “It’s very, very challenging,” admits Kramer, “to A) keep pacing and B) tell a story with these limited camera angles but at the same time you get a bump in authenticity so that’s why we pushed.” In the end they connected with Start Motion Pictures, and producer Ben Browning, who put the film together, including hooking the team up with Ashley Benson.
“They knew that she wanted to do something different from her existing role on Pretty Little Liars,” Kramer says, “she’s very glossy on that, she wanted to do something gritty.” Benson not only loved the concept, but she was really excited about working the camera herself. “She totally embraced that,” Jaworski says, “all those shots, that’s really her doing that, there’s no camera man behind her.” Kramer and Haverkamp even showed her playback after takes, something usually not done with actors in case they become hung up on their performance or the way they look.
Benson, however, who has famously criticized ABC Family more than once about photoshopping and retouching publicity shots, had no concern about looking ‘messy,’ or what I would call ‘morning sloppy,’ she was checking if her handling of the phone or the laptop created an effective shot for the film. “She’s very, very smart,” says Kramer, “she took direction really well, we didn’t have to do too many takes.” “It was really funny,” Haverkamp shares, “we had this app that we shot with and Ashley very quickly knew how to work the app, so [after each shot]she went immediately and did it on her own.”
In addition to her stalked character experience on Pretty Little Liars, Benson also captures the current culture of technology in her own life. “We got really lucky because she is in this generation of people who are on their phones all the time,” Jaworski says, “she lives and breaths this, so it was like very easy for her to extend that and actually just like shoot that.” Benson has 6 million instagram followers, 3.5 million twitter followers, so she gets it. “Every time Branden called cut,” says Haverkamp, “she was immediately on her phone navigating her social media empire.”
Filming was done with actual cameras whenever possible, using the iPhone 5s, as well as the Blackmagic and GoPro mounted in places to double as the practical source. All these ‘cameras’ gave the filmmakers a tremendous amount of options to cut back and forth to as the stalker ‘assembles the cut,’ and makes the film an entirely different experience than a found footage film.
In those, the footage is ostensibly ‘found’ by someone other than the filmmaker, and assembled to make some sense of the events. In RATTER, it is clear throughout that the ‘filmmaker,’ the stalker, is entirely in control of what we are seeing, and it is all for his enjoyment. Producer Thomas Kropp believes the voyeuristic element adds something new to the genre; “it’s interesting,” he says, “to hear both sexes — men and women — say how they experience the film differently. Men feel creeped out because they are almost complicit in the action, they feel guilty, and women often times are more terrified because they can see themselves on the other side of the lens..”
In fact, the comparison to found footage films is only useful in somewhat preparing the visual experience, but this has none of the preposterous pitfalls of plot those have (i.e. why would they still be filming??? Why wouldn’t they just run??? Questions which arise in every one of those films). The only similar film I can think of is Nacho Vigalondo’s OPEN WINDOWS from last year, although again that’s a very different experience as well. “It feels live,” says Kramer, it feels like he’s switching the angles, he’s tapping into the feeds, and they are all running simultaneously.”
Brilliantly, the production team left the world premiere screening audience a gift on their chair, a collection of stickers and blockers to ‘cap’ the webcam on all our devices. Many people walked away from the screening vowing to change their online habits. This is a spectacular film that will scare the shit out of you, and hopefully open your eyes to the danger next to you all day long. In fact, I can’t believe, (can’t!) that this film is not playing SXSW, being on the forefront of technology as it is.
With a fresh concept and star power (Ashley Benson is really one of the best ‘undiscovered’ actresses working right now) the film is sure to get a wide release soon enough. Here’s hoping you haven’t been hacked before then. Now go change your passwords.