Dear David Director John McPhail On Translating Twitter Threads To The Big Screen

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Summary

  • Dear David is a horror movie co-produced by Lionsgate and BuzzFeed Studios, based on a spooky Twitter thread by Adam Ellis.
  • The film was adapted from the thread by screenwriters Evan Turner and Mike Van Waestars, and directed by John McPhail.
  • The movie follows comic artist Adam as his sleep paralysis leads to strange visions and haunting experiences, blurring the line between online and real life.


Dear David, a tech-savvy horror movie co-produced by Lionsgate and BuzzFeed studios, has had a unique journey from inception to execution. Based on a spooky Twitter thread by Adam Ellis, the movie was adapted for the screen by Evan Turner and Mike Van Waestars and directed by John McPhail (who is best known for Where Do We Go From Here? and the musical horror comedy Anna and the Apocalypse). Adam’s tale was also turned into the BuzzFeed article “My Apartment Is Being Haunted By The Ghost Of A Dead Child And I’m Not Sure What To Do,” a process that is covered in the movie as well.

Augustus Prew leads Dear David as Adam, and the movie features performances from Justin Long, Andrea Bang, and Cameron Nicoll as the mysterious David. The story follows comic artist Adam as his sleep paralysis leads to strange visions and haunting experiences, which he begins to chronicle in a series of tweets. At the behest of his boss, he continues down the rabbit hole of his own story until he no longer knows what is happening online versus in his actual life.

Related: Every Horror Movie Releasing In 2023

Screen Rant spoke to McPhail about his approach to bringing the social media-heavy story of Dear David to the big screen, his fascination with sleep paralysis and how it manifested in the film, and his plans for more Anna and the Apocalypse films.


John McPhail Talks Dear David

Augustus Prew & Director John McPhail in Dear David
(L-R) Augustus Prew and Director John McPhail behind the scenes. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Screen Rant: I wasn’t really familiar with the Twitter thread, but once I started going into it? It is creepy AF, and you did an excellent job with it. Did you collaborate with Adam Ellis, whose viral Twitter thread this film is based on?

John McPhail: Only slightly. Mike Van Waes wrote the script, and he was actually writing it at the time it was all happening to Adam. But when I had started pre-production on the film, I got Buzzfeed to connect me and Adam, because I wanted to see photographs of these apartments. There’s a whole fanbase to this story, and I wanted to give them certain things; I wanted them to be transported to the apartment.

Obviously, we’ve taken a little bit of license with it. We’ve changed it up in certain places, so we could shoot them through the kitchen, but there were certain things I really wanted to do for them. And he’d sent us loads of these comics so that we could use some of them. He came onto set for a couple of days, and he’s in the film; he’s in the background of a scene. We got to hang out. We got to meet and do a couple of things like that.

How did you originally come across the Twitter thread from Dear David, and what elements stood out to you as soon as you knew about the project?

John McPhail: I didn’t find it on Twitter or anything. It was one of those “The scariest things happening on the internet” [lists], and it was like, “Hold on.” I suffer from sleep psychosis, so I got really hooked into it. Adam is just such an interesting, fun, cool guy, and it didn’t feel like a story he would just tell. Do you know what I mean? So, that really hooked me in as well.

When I got the script, it was the character Adam that I was like, “This is great fun. He’s in your face, he’s funny, he’s cynical and sarcastic,” and that’s the kind of protagonist I like. I think, “Let’s see him in a horror movie. Let’s see him go along like that.”

I picked up on some Poltergeist vibes when I was watching the film. Can you talk about some of your cinematic influences for Dear David?

John McPhail: One of them is more like a nod. You know the computer game sequence where he’s getting controlled by the controller? That’s a total nod to Nightmare On Elm Street 3, where the guy gets his veins taken out. And the peril from that sequence came from his friends bashing on the windows and screaming and shouting, and I was like, “I’ll do that with him, so we can see his almost inner head perspective.” Things like that excited me.

I want to talk about Justin Long for a second. He’s not in the film for a long time, but he does such a tremendous job of either getting you to love him or hate him. He’s a chameleon in that way. Can you talk about working with him as Bryce?

John McPhail: Justin Long’s an absolute pro, and I grew up watching him. I love Galaxy Quest. I remember being a teenager and going to see Jeepers Creepers. Getting the opportunity to work with him, and then him being the loveliest guy and the funniest guy, [was great].

There was a lot of stuff in there that’s Justin, like the little joke between them where they’re in the office, and Adam’s like, “No, this is really happening to me.” And he’s like, “Oh, it is happening. I like how you brought that back. It’s rad, too.” I was just trying to hold that kind of stuff together while we were shooting it, it was ridiculous.

Andrea Bang in Dear David
Andrea Bang as Evelyn. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Montani.

Can you talk about the challenge of translating the Twitter thread to effectively bring the suspense and horror elements from the thread to the big screen?

John McPhail: Obviously, we took a bit of dramatic license with the way we went with the story. Mike Van Waes himself did that when he was writing it. Right at the end of the second act, Justin Long asks Adam, “So, how’s this end?” And that’s what Mike was thinking. “How does this end?” Obviously, we take a bit of dramatic license from it, but what I really wanted to do was really creep people out with the sleep paralysis [and make it] really claustrophobic.

I love David Lynch, so I tried to put a couple of Lynch-y things in there. There were a bunch of influences, but the nightmare sleep paralysis sequences were the things I was really excited to shoot.

I love your films so much – not just Dear David, but also Anna and the Apocalypse. Your cinematic influences are exactly the stuff that I’m into, so I completely get it now. Can you talk about the changes you had to make in order for that adaptation to work on the big screen?

John McPhail: A lot of it was because we were like, “Well, it’s this online story,” and I could see these parallels between a haunting and a trolling. Like, your home’s supposed to be your safe space, so it’s scary having these outside forces invade it – regardless if it’s a haunting when you’re trying to sleep at night, or if you’re just sitting there and your phone’s buzzing or pinging.

The other thing is that you’ve got an online presence as well. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, which is a comment that someone makes, and then about an hour later, you’re still thinking about it. It’s borrowing away in your head, and you’re like, “I’m going to go straight on that internet, and I’m going to be like…” And that’s terrorizing you. You know what I mean? It’s staying with you. It’s haunting you. I was going along with it in that kind of perspective, and then also obviously trying to have that sort of monster.

Again, I love the whole dream thing. I love the idea of playing with dreams and reality. And because of all these pressures, I wanted it to feel like that for the audience. The question everybody asks about the online Twitter thread is, “Did it actually happen, or did he make it all up?” Is this actually happening, or is he losing his mind? That was the way I wanted people to look at it, and have that correlation to the thread in that way.

Augustus Prew & Cameron Nicoll in Dear David
(L-R) AugustusPrew as Adam Ellis and Cameron Nicollas David. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Montani.

Augustus Prew is fantastic in this film as Adam. I really think this is a breakout performance for him. What did he bring to the role that wasn’t on the page?

John McPhail: Oh, he threw everything and the kitchen sink at this role. Auggie got the script, and he was telling me that he just got over a whole host of trauma and was in this really great place. He was reading the script, and he was seeing so much [of himself] in Adam. Auggie is a big believer as well in ghosts and spirits, and he has suffered from sleep paralysis… When he got this script, he was like, “I have to do this.”

When you’ve got an actor coming in like that, it’s not just a job, it’s not just a paycheck, it’s like, “I have to do this, I have to play this role.” For me as a director, it’s an absolute joy.

I’ve also suffered from sleep paralysis, and I feel like you captured that perfectly. Can you talk about how you wanted to capture that element in the film?

John McPhail: It was trying to find that idea of slipping between dreaming and sleeping. With the room, we had flyaway windows on the set, so we could pull in these obscured angles and warp it a little bit so that it still felt normal. It still felt like the room, but there was just a little odd difference to it. Trying to be as tight in with Adam, and be as claustrophobic as possible, was the main thing. Trying to find that sound design as well; to evoke it. That was my approach to it.

Another thing that I love about this film too is the way that you use social media in the film because it really helps advance the storytelling. Can you talk about using social media in your storytelling?

John McPhail: Obviously, social media played such a big part in the story. It had to feature, and [we had] the opportunity to do that. Because a lot of it’s just him. When we shot this film, we shot the end first. For the first two weeks, it was just Auggie in the apartment being haunted, crying, screaming, and getting absolutely ruined. That was him for two weeks.

From way into pre-production, we were always thinking about what it was that was going to be appearing on these screens; what it is that’s going to push it along and keep the audience engaged and entertained, as well as progress the story.

What’s something that you took away from your experience on Dear David that you’d like to apply in future films that you work on?

John McPhail: I learned a lot from this. This was my first studio film. I come from the independent film world, and it takes a lot of confidence. I was really nervous about working with a foreign crew, because we shot this in Toronto. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve got a really thick Scottish Glaswegian accent. So, I was really worried about working with a foreign crew and American actors, and hoping that people weren’t just going to be staring at me, glazing over.

But it was the most wonderful experience working with that crew. I loved that crew; I loved that cast. Everybody worked so hard and really believed in me, and that gave me a lot of confidence about making more films over on that side of the pond. It’s really given me confidence in that sense.

dear david monster
Image from the horror film, DEAR DAVID, a Lionsgate Release. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Montani.

This film does a fantastic job of blending digital effects and practical effects. Can you share your approach to the effects of Dear David?

John McPhail: I love practical effects. We’ll get a blood rig on the knife, so when the knife goes across, it’s cutting across, and the blood’s appearing. Things like that. Even the bottles smashing and pouring on them, and all those things, or setting the actual kitchen on fire. I believe having in-camera practical effects makes everything feel just that little bit more real. It’s more visceral, and I feel like as a horror audience, we engage with it.

I’m not the biggest CGI fan. In fact, when me and my mate watch movies together, we’ll be sitting there, and when you see bad CGI? We’ll do the CGI song because it just rips you right out of the movie.

This film also does a fantastic job of building tension, and the scares are more psychological than jump scares. Can you talk about crafting scares for Dear David?

John McPhail: Obviously, a lot of that comes out of the cutting and the pacing, and I wanted to insert little bits of comedy here and there to break up tension and things like that. I always believed that comedy’s going to help with character, and if you can connect with them going on that journey, you’re projecting onto Adam. If you get him – you understand him, and he feels real – then you’re going through these things. So, it should all be about that connectivity. And as I say, it’s just finding that right pace.

I’ve got to ask you, because Anna and the Apocalypse is incredible, and it’s literally one of the best genre-bending films ever made. Are there any plans for a sequel? Are you interested in exploring that world more?

John McPhail: You know, it’s funny. When we made that film, we were like, “No sequels, we’re done.” And actually, over the last few months, we’ve all got back together and we’ve started talking. We believe that we do have something to say in that world.

There’s nothing happening this second, nothing doing right now, but it is something that we [want]. Because we’re all best friends, we love each other, and we just want to continue to make films together with each other. We definitely want to revisit it.

What is next for you? What’s the next project you’re going to tackle?

John McPhail: I’m shooting a family film over here in the UK. Prepping in January and shooting in March. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s a family film, so you know me, I just want to jump around genres. It’s all about character for me, and story, so this will be a lot of fun.

Naysun Alae-Carew, who I made Dear David and Anna and the Apocalypse with, and I have a bunch of films that we’re desperate to get made. It’s just that COVID and the strikes and everything else has just put a little bit of dampeners on some of those wheels going.

About Dear David

Dear David movie poster

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. Based on the viral Twitter thread by BuzzFeed comic artist Adam Ellis.

Dear David is currently in select theaters, on digital, and On Demand.

Source: Screen Rant Plus