From left to right: Tyler Gillet, Justin Martinez, Chad Villella and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin
There is the traditional route to a directorial film debut: an obsession with camcorders, film school, an internship, working as a personal assistant, directorial assistant, getting the keys to the store.
And then there is the route taken by Radio Silence, a group of four talented filmmakers who used YouTube to learn and hone their craft, post their video clips and advertise their wares.
They did it with such professional aplomb that one day, Twentieth Century Fox made all their dreams come true.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella grew from the ashes of a former group known as Chad, Matt & Rob, three friends who had an idea, a camera, some technical expertise – much of it gleaned from YouTube tutorials – and got to work.
Their breakout was ‘Alien Roommate Prank Goes Bad’, a found-footage-style short film they posted in February 2008. It has since been viewed more than 32 million times.
When Rob Polonsky left the group, they were joined by Martinez and Gillett. Calling themselves Radio Silence, they continued their YouTube domination, moving into producing a series of “interactive adventures”, narrative shorts in which the viewer guided the plot.
Still, the group had set their sights beyond online media.
“TV and film were always the end game for us,” Villella said, “When we were in the digital space, we were always working with concepts that felt bigger than even what we knew how to wrangle at the time. We were always wanting to make cool, big, cinematic things.”
Writer Brad Miska came into the picture as he was putting together a movie of found-footage-style segments, and asked the soon-to-be-famous four to get involved.
They were given a 17-minute slot, a US$10,000 budget (about S$12,700), and got to work.
The movie, part of a series called ‘V/H/S’, was a Sundance Film Festival hit, and executives at Fox Studios took notice.
Gillett recalled: “We were standing in the parking lot of Poquito Mas on Sunset, literally spending our last dollars on lunch. (John Davis at Fox) called, said he loved it on ‘V/H/S’, how he was really excited about it, and said, ‘I think we should make this movie’. Literally the next day we were working on it.”
The resulting collaboration is ‘Devil’s Due’, starring TV’s ‘Friday Night Lights’ Zach Gifford and Allison Miller, best known for her work on NBC series ‘Kings and Go On’ and the Spielberg-produced ‘Terra Nova’ for Fox.
The movie, which opens in Singapore cinemas on 16 January, is a fresh, contemporary take on the ‘Rosemary’s Baby’-style horror story: As newlyweds, a couple’s lives are turned upside down when an unexpected pregnancy may be the devil’s work, with each twist and turn captured on “home” video.
“We didn't lean on ‘Rosemary's Baby’, but didn't shy away from it either,” Gillett said.
“There are many things that are just different about the approach. The style of shooting, the point of view of the movie, which allows you to be connected to their daily lives in a way you don't get with ‘Rosemary's Baby’,” he added.
On the cusp of their debut release, they talk more from their offices in Los Angeles about their incredible journey.
Looking at your YouTube clips, it’s clear that they have a rather high production value. How did you manage to achieve that? Is the technology just there, or are you geniuses?
Chad Villella: Definitely the latter! Technology is a huge part of it, it's also about not having to answer to anyone or get permission from anyone to make something.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: You can do really whacky ideas just because you want to. The four of us could just go into the forest and shoot something in a couple of hours… It's a really fun way to share things.
Villella: We all have enough technical background to understand how to use the technology the right way. We've done writing at some point in our past, or cinematography, visual effects, editing... it's all self-taught. We always were striving to challenge ourselves with a higher standard of making something; we just never thought it would actually land us here at the studio.
'Devil's Due' trailer
What were you hoping to achieve by putting these clips online?
Tyler Gillett: YouTube is like the best film festival out there. And a film school too. Once we started making stuff and we got a bit of a following, it was just a really exciting way to put your stuff out into the world. And you can get great honest feedback, which is sometimes really scary. The anonymity of the web means that you get a mixed bag of really harsh criticism, but also really high praise.
How did you manage to rise to the top on YouTube and get your stuff noticed?
Bettinelli-Olpin: When we did ‘Alien Prank Goes Bad’, again we got lucky. It was probably our third video and it was in the early days of YouTube, and it was the most distilled version of the style. That video was made in February 2008, it’s a found-footage video, and it was before ‘Cloverfield’ came out.
How did you end up shooting the indie horror hit ‘V/H/S’?
Villella: It came from one of our YouTube prank-gone-bad shorts that the producers for ‘V/H/S’saw. They contacted us and asked us to be part of the project. That gave us the opportunity to jump from a two-and-a-half minute video to a 17-minute one, a little longer storytelling, which we had really wanted to do. We had no idea what was going to happen with it.
How did you move from a 17-minute segment on an indie to being asked to make a movie for Fox?
Gillett: We got lucky… we got lucky that ‘V/H/S’became what it became with Sundance, and we got lucky that John Davies and Steve Asbell, who work at Fox, saw it and trusted us with ‘Devil's Due’.
How do you all work together? It’s not exactly the norm for four people to direct a movie?
Bettinelli-Olpin: Lots of shouting and screaming. And wrestling. And a whole lot of rock, paper, scissors.... Movie-making is a collaborative process. Anyone on set who had an idea would give it a go. We just like the open conversation at all stages.
And your experiences working with a large studio... how involved were the people there?
Gillett: There was a learning curve, absolutely, but they were involved only so far in that they were being supportive, which was fantastic. They would let us have an opinion, have a voice.
And what happens now with your relationship with Fox?
Bettinelli-Olpin: Hopefully we're doing this again at the end of the next few months, that's the goal. We've had such a charmed experience with them it would be foolish not to.
And have you now abandoned YouTube?
Gillett: No, we love YouTube. As soon as we have time, we want to go and do more. We're where we are because of it – the encouragement kept us making stuff. If it weren’t for users’ feedback, we wouldn't be sitting here now.