Interview: Writer-Director Branden Kramer Talks About Making “Ratter”, Working With Ashley Benson & Found Footage Horror
A fitting evolution for the found footage film sees Ashley Benson’s “connected” technology hacked by an insidious individual with harmful intent in Branden Kramer’s thriller Ratter. Dan Stephens sits down with the writer-director…
While being an unsurprising entry into the world of feature film – given the freedom of the found footage genre’s low budget roots – writer-director Branden Kramer is a brave man. The flipside of such democratic film production – its purveyors requiring only a GoPro and Windows Movie Maker to get started – is a sea of imitators and bigger budget sequels saturating the market. Audiences are therefore left a little dazed. What’s worth watching and what isn’t?
Kramer’s film falls into the former category. For anyone who likes the found footage-style thriller, it’s definitely one of the more tightly composed. It also benefits from a very unnerving ending. Yet, what really gives it an edge is the fearless performance of its star Ashley Benson. Casting her was a definite coup for Kramer who admits he got a little lucky.
“One of our executive producers, Sarah Shephard, knew Ashley’s agent,” he tells me. “I loved the idea of having her in the film because she’s a really good actress. It also doesn’t hurt, of course, that she has all these followers and she’s very active in the social media sphere. She loved the script and everything about it; she loved that it was gritty and in-your-face.”
Benson’s naturalistic performance called for her not only to be the director of photography a lot of the time but throw away any inhibitions as she’s filmed doing the “behind closed doors” activities most of us prefer to keep private. You know: dancing around the kitchen to your favourite song while miming into the handle of the brush you’re simultaneously sweeping the floor with!
Being so organic, says Kramer, was her biggest contribution to Ratter’s success. “I think she’s probably undervalued right now. She has the ability and the potential to really blow up, I think, and she has a tonne of fans.”
There was no luck involved in getting the film greenlit, however. Kramer, whose career started off in advertising as a writer of commercials, got the opportunity to make Ratter after the short on which it’s based picked up a strong following online. Having spent his own money on the film, it was particularly satisfying to be approached by producers David Bausch and Jamie Zelermyer who got the feature film off the ground. Their contacts also enabled Kramer to assemble a talented group of production staff.
Indeed, while confessing he’s a flexible director when it comes to working with actors he admits he relies on good technical staff to enhance his vision off the page. Once on set he’s eager to allow the film to evolve recognising that storytelling tone and the development of a scene can be aided by collaboration.
Ratter began as a short film idea which Kramer produced in 2012 under the title Webcam. It was conceived based on real life experience, he says. “A friend of mine, her webcam light would turn on and off. She thought it was probably just a glitch but I thought: ‘What if someone is hacking this? What are they seeing? Who are they? What are they watching? And how long have they been watching?’
“The whole thing sort of flooded into my head and the story sort of wrote itself. I looked online and did a little research. It’d never been done before as a film, which surprised me, and finding out that webcam hacking is a real thing was crazy. Back then, four or so years ago, it only happened on the fringes but now it’s happening constantly around the world.”
In its feature-film guise, Ratter, like its short version counterpart, is effective because it plays on a very contemporary fear. It is a fear many of us probably haven’t considered, but when revealed, one that definitely tickles the raised hairs on the back of your neck. After all, with the “connected” nature of our lives through the technology that we’ve grown dependent on, who really knows who’s watching us? From our online activity to the far scarier proposition of someone hacking our phones, tablets or laptops and viewing us through the in-built cameras as we go about our day-to-day lives.
In the film, Benson plays Emma, a young college student who moves to an inner city apartment to be closer to university. We are introduced to her – and by extension her life – through the technology she uses (mobile phone, laptop and even her camera-enabled video game console). Our point of view is that of the stalker who has hacked her cameras and watchers her every move. Kramer frames this dark tale with very ordinary situations – the domesticity of home life, morning ablutions and the stresses of academia – to provide us with a recognisable stage in which to hang the vulgar intentions of her tormentor.
In some respects, the conceit of the film to record-by-stealth this girl’s every move is a natural progression for the found footage genre; it’s very much in the moment as opposed to being something that is put together long after the events have occurred. It has elements of Peeping Tom, our point of view controlled by the antagonist in a voyeuristically macabre way.
Indeed, Kramer, while definitely taking his cues from some of Hollywood’s recently successful found footage horrors, prefers not to tag the film as such. “With Ratter we didn’t set out to make a found footage film, it just felt like the best and most pertinent way to tell this story. It felt organic and authentic, but then it’s not really a found footage film – it’s more like a POV film.
“It feels like it’s real time, which is the difference. When you watch Blair Witch or something it’s more like ‘Someone came across this footage and this story has already happened’ but with Ratter it feels like it’s happening right now and that when the angles are changing it’s the hacker who is doing it.
“Another big difference is that the main character isn’t aware she’s being filmed but with every other film in the genre they’re filming it themselves. Not to knock those films but there are some moments, like where they’re being chased for example, where you don’t quite believe they’d still be filming. It’s like they’re more interested in filming than being scared of dying.”
Still, the director has a few favourites and the king of the genre The Blair Witch Project is one of them. “It scared the s*** out of people including me,” he says. “It’s a little dated now but that was great when it was released.”
The writer-director acknowledges that “conventional wisdom” goes out the window when dealing with non-traditional ways of photographing a scene. But it was also quite liberating, as well. “We had the flexibility of not having these complicated camera set-ups and big equipment. It was very flexible in terms of being able to move around, use the space, be organic and get these tight, realistic shots, but the difficult part was being able to tell the story and be believable. There’s a fine line of what the stalker can see and it being too convenient. It takes a lot of prep. There was a lot of physical rehearsal, but after a few days we got into the rhythm and that film language, so to speak, was developed.”
The success or failure of Ratter is really down to you the viewer but I agree with Kramer when he describes it evoking a sense “helplessness” that “we all feel with technology”. He adds, “We use it constantly and we rely on it so much but at the same time we don’t know how to protect ourselves. We constantly hear about hacking so there’s that seed of paranoia or caution that all of us can relate to.”
I did ask about a potential sequel but one isn’t planned. Kramer’s next project is going to be “very different”, he says, remaining discreet. All he can say is it’ll be a sci-fi psychological drama. He’s currently tweaking the final draft before looking for financing.
You can read our full review of Ratter, which is released on Digital HD March 21 and DVD from April 4, here.
Words by Dan Stephens
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