Filmmaker Chelsea Lupkin returns to Close-up Culture to chat about her terrifying new short film, Flagged.
Part of Hulu’s Huluween Film Fest, the film follows a young woman (played by Samantha Bartow) as her first day working for a major social media platform takes a deadly turn.
Q: ‘Flagged’ opened me up to what a troubling job being a content moderator must be. I understand you got the inspiration for ‘Flagged’ from a colleague. Can you tell us about that initial idea and why it resonated with you?
A: I was honored to be invited to pitch for Huluween back in August, Hulu’s second annual film festival in collaboration with the Sundance Institute that showcases emerging horror filmmakers. Looking to make a horror with a social media angle, I approached an expert and colleague, Julia Smith.
She asked me if I knew what was unfolding in the news about Facebook moderators, referring to The Verge’s exposé, and suddenly I had an idea to latch onto. Working in media, I have to pay attention to the way platforms are used and it was no surprise to me that policing one of the largest media networks out there would have a traumatic impact on those doing the policing. The idea seemed just close enough to home to be scary to me and twisting it to play into a horror narrative felt undeniably timely.
Q: How did you expand that idea out with creative producer Sarah Kalagvano?
A: Sarah worked on my last short film, Lucy’s Tale, which was released online by ALTER in June and she continues to be my creative partner on films moving forward. While I write and direct, Sarah is wonderful at conceptualizing the visuals with me.
One of the biggest things she undertook for Flagged was figuring out what the interface would look like, working alongside motion graphics artist David Manzo. The faux social media platform called “FriendFollowers” in the short had to look and feel like a real site, so they took inspiration from a number of apps and websites to get the look just right.
Sarah works for a major makeup brand and is excellent at making her visions come to life. She helped me visualize the axe murderer — it was easy for her to shape what he should look like. Watching him appear on camera for the first time was incredibly chilling.
Q: ‘Flagged’ acts as a disturbing reminder that there are real life people behind the disturbing things posted online. Do you worry about the way social media and the internet has emboldened people with dark and perverse outlooks?
A: Absolutely. I think social networks have allowed like-minded individuals to find and encourage each other to sometimes behave in an inhumane manner. Even inherently ‘good’ people have a tendency to act differently when behind the safety of their screens. While Flagged is meant to entertain, it also serves as a reminder that disturbing content is regularly watched and taken down, more popping up in its place like a hydra.
Q: The bright, open and modern offices of a social media platform are an interesting backdrop to the darkness of the film. It is certainly different to the usual dark, creaky and claustrophobic settings of most horrors. What atmosphere did you want to create in ‘Flagged’?
A: I wanted to make sure the set felt like a cool tech start up much like Google or Facebook’s campuses. I needed the audience to immediately draw upon their assumptions about working at such huge companies and, in so doing, make them feel comfortable and at ease.
The office and the protagonist’s home were both places that should feel familiar and safe, allowing me to draw my audience into a false sense of security for the eventual horror that would transpire. Our extremely talented Director of Photography Ed Herrera seamlessly shifted the mood as we entered the final scene of doom.
While a creepy dark mansion is the obvious backdrop for most horror stories, I find that the ‘safe and familiar’ are the ones that leave a lasting impression. I, for one, wouldn’t want to imagine places I regularly frequent as places that the unthinkable could occur.
Q: Samantha Bartow brilliantly captures the increasing distress every time you cut back to her in the closing scene of the short. How did you work with Samantha to deliver these unsettling moments?
A: Samantha is absolutely brilliant and how I found her is serendipitous. The seven contributing filmmakers for the Huluween Film Fest were tasked with finding actors local to Los Angeles and I was having trouble finding my lead, especially because I’m New York based.
Thankfully we had an incredible Casting Director named Kasia Szarek who found all of our other stars (including scene-stealer Kyle Meck who plays her boss), but I wasn’t convinced we found our lead yet. Just when I thought all was lost, I saw Samantha in a short film that was submitted to Short of the Week, where I am currently a Senior Programmer.
I promptly freaked out, found her through Instagram, and contacted her immediately. When she sent through her audition tape, it was clear that I made the right decision. Samantha is incredibly emotive and has a way with understanding how she should feel in a scene. When we finally started filming the end sequence of the film, we discussed exactly when and what she should be imagining popping up on her computer screen to get those reactions timed just right.
I also asked her not to turn around as the figure slowly approached in the background, to give her a true sense of unease. I love building a subtle scare and you may have missed the axe murderer getting closer and closer to her with every cut to her reaction. But when you finally do notice, it’s unsettling to a disturbing degree.
Q: John Wallbank brings an utterly terrifying physicality in the few moments he is on screen. What were you looking for when casting this murderous role?
A: I was looking for an actor who could be intimidating by just his presence and when Kasia Szarek read the script, she immediately brought John to our attention. In real life, John is a wonderfully warm person with lots of creative ideas! He brought the film’s villain to life and the whole crew could tell he had a blast doing it!
Q: ‘Flagged’ is part of Hulu’s Huluween Film Festival. What does it mean to be involved in this exciting project?
A: It’s an incredible opportunity and I couldn’t believe my script got picked out of so many! The fest is in collaboration with the Sundance Institute and I’m overwhelmed with the response it’s already garnered.
I was very fortunate to work with Boy In The Castle, a fantastic LA-based production company, to bring my vision to life. Producers Niko Philipedes and Jonathan Singer-Vine were amazing to work with, despite a very short timeline. On set, they were extremely collaborative and pushed me to make the best film I could. I’m very proud of the project and I can’t thank Hulu, Sundance, and the entire production team enough. Hopefully, this is a chance for new viewers to become familiar with my work in the genre.
Q: On that note, Halloween is fast approaching. How do you normally celebrate?
A: Halloween is my favorite holiday! I like to lean into the spooky atmosphere and I visit many haunted houses because, to no one’s surprise, I love to be scared!
Q: What are some of your go-to films at Halloween?
A: Some of my go-to films for Halloween are Evil Dead, Trik ‘R Treat, The Craft, Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Exorcist to name a few. I could realistically give you a spreadsheet of my movie list, but I doubt anyone wants to sit and read that whole thing.
Q: What is next for you? Do you have another horror short in the works?
A: I’m hoping to work on my first feature! I think it’s time to tell larger stories and while I’m sure that there will be more short films in my future, I feel like I have a clear direction. Currently I have two feature scripts in the works: one is a traditional horror and the other is a sci-fi thriller!