INTERVIEW: Director John McPhail Talks Bringing the Terrors of the Internet to ‘Dear David’

Photo Credit: Stephanie Montani

If you were on the internet in 2017, you likely heard about “Dear David.” The little boy with a dented head, a fondness for green rocking chairs, and a habit of haunting of BuzzFeed staffer Adam Ellis’ apartment. “Dear David” was something of a real-life creepypasta: You can ask David questions, but not three or you’ll be doomed to die. David watched Ellis in his sleep. David was even caught on camera.

When Ellis began tweeting about his haunted apartment, the internet-active fell into a frenzy. It was a fun, supernatural source of online fascination — and debate. Many wondered if the story was real. Was he making it up for clicks and clout? Were the figures in his photos just Polaroid flukes? There’s no way anyone can stage their cats scratching at the door, right? My question is: does it matter?

Back in 2017, director John McPhail (‘Anna and the Apocalypse’) also read about it, taking it in as another one of us who couldn’t help falling for the BuzzFeed clickbait. He’s since directed a film adaptation of the modern scary story, which is now in theaters. He joined Downright Creepy for an interview on bringing ‘Dear David’ to the screen.

Augustus Prew as Adam Ellis and Cameron Nicoll as Dear David in Dear David.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Montani

The adaptation, penned by Evan Turner and Mike Van Waes, takes the classic haunting bits from Ellis’ experiences and immerses them into the digital world. In fact, ‘Dear David’ makes a second boogeyman out of the internet itself. Even before the online-obsessed movie version of Adam (played by Augustus Prew) is haunted by a young boy named David, he’s consumed by his compulsion to do two things: scroll and “feed the trolls.”

“I could see the correlations between a haunting and trolling because your home’s supposed to be a sanctuary. But even when you’re home and that thing’s buzzing in your pocket, or that thing’s pinging on your screen, you can’t get away from it. That within itself is terrorizing! …So when you get the negativity that’s the part that stays with you. It terrorizes you. It wakes you up in the middle of the night. It’s, ’Damn you, margaret6572!’”

To be clear, McPhail has no real beef with any user named margaret6572. But he says that as a filmmaker, he’s received his own fair share of haunting feedback from username X. Where ‘Dear David’’s Adam goes is wrong is in letting the trolls take over his waking hours (while David haunts his dreams). Where in standard haunted house films we as an audience might wince and scream “Oh, don’t open that door! Don’t go down that staircase! Don’t hide in that room!”, we find ourselves screaming “Adam, don’t send that tweet!”

McPhail worked with his creative collaborators (Stephen Chandler Whitehead served as cinematographer, Joshua Turpin as production designer) to show us exactly how the online world infiltrates Adam’s physical world. What starts as benign typing bubbles and chirps of the Twitter bird morphs into something more terrifying. When Adam awakes with sleep paralysis in the middle of the night, his room suddenly feels unfamiliar, his reality distorted somehow. Windows and doors are at angle, the lights enters the room at unnatural angles.

“We wanted the dream sequences to feel a little bit warped,” McPhail shared. “We’re trying to get that space between dreaming and being awake.”

Augustus Prew and Director John McPhail behind the scenes of the horror film, DEAR DAVID,
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Of course it’s not just Adam’s dreams that turn on him. McPhail got to make that visual language even more nightmarish — and fun. What’s the next stage after haunting? Possession, of course. If you’re wondering how the absurd, gamified online world might physically take control of a guy, I’ll provide a hint for the committed horror fans here: think ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors’ meets ‘Evil Dead 2,’ both of which McPhail referred to in our conversation. He says he delighted in seeing Augustus Prew getting to go full Bruce Campbell, making for one the most fun sequences he got to work on for the film.

So this is all to say: the humble Twitter thread from BuzzFeeder Adam Ellis has evolved into something more fantastical, a mix of one director’s horror dreams and a perpetually online person’s worst nightmares. Then again, so has the internet. Horrific visions of a boy with a dented head aside, ‘Dear David’ is aiming to take an always-online guy back to simpler, more human connections

“I grew up with dial-up,” McPhail says when asked about creating a not-so-distant period piece that often delves directly into the terrors of the worldwide web. “I’ve loved watching the internet evolve. It’s mental, it’s a terrifying place, it’s a lot of fun. It’s just madness.”

‘Dear David’ is now in select theaters and available on demand and digital.

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