The thriller taking on social media’s darkest corners

“For every influencer we’ve heard of, there’s 100,000 people out there trying to do exactly the same thing and getting less than 10 views.”

That feeling of getting a like or a comment on your first-class selfie gives you validation. It gets the brain excited and the buzz only gets better the more attention you get.

But when does that desire for a dopamine hit turn into desperation… or worse?

“Everyone has that moment where they’re oblivious to how thirsty they’re being,” says Eugene Kotlyarenko, director of new movie Spree.

His thriller takes on a darker side of social media culture – which he says captures “something horrifying about people constantly looking for love and attention”.

Kurt Kunkle (played by Stranger Things’ Joe Keery) is a Los Angeles taxi driver so desperate for online fame he’s willing to do the very worst to get it. He livestreams a murder spree.

It’s a satire on social media which plays out entirely through screens – phone footage, body cams, CCTV and dash cams.

But it’s also something we’ve witnessed in real life – when 51 worshippers were killed during attacks on two mosques in New Zealand in March 2019.

Eugene says he wanted the film to be a “takedown” of people who use violence to gain attention.

“When we see violence in films it becomes sensational in a way that could be emulated. And I think in this film, no-one would want to be Kurt Kunkle. He is definitely a loser and definitely cringy to watch. So I did have a kind of brutal approach to satirising him,” he says.

The inspiration

Kurt’s character spends years trying to get internet-famous with his ‘Kurtsworld96’ channel – where he aimlessly posts boring reviews and gaming vlogs.

Eugene and Joe Keery watched loads of online videos and vlogs, specifically of people with little or no followings but who offer tutorials on how to get a following.

“The irony of that and the fact it’s lost on these people is really funny,” the director tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

The movie also stars former SNL cast member Sasheer Vamata as stand-up comedian Jessie, who crosses paths with Kurt when she gets in the back of his rideshare as a passenger.

Her character is also obsessed with followers and as part of her research, Sasheer watched loads of Insta-famous comics who were always streaming or talking into their phone to learn how they engaged with their online audiences.

In the film, there’s a running joke about how Kurt is desperate for others to tag him, something Sasheer still gets in real life on a regular basis,

“People get free advertising or a free connection if you tag them. They’re craving popularity or fame and I can’t really fault them for that. That’s what these apps are made for. You want to promote yourself consistently.”

Recently, Sasheer has taken a step back from social media and only tries to use it for “promotional purposes”.

“I’ve tried to unfollow lots of people,” she says. “It clears my timeline and I keep most of my personal life off social media too. There’s a safety aspect too which is highlighted in Spree.”

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Drake is the film’s executive producer and someone who “understands social media really well”, according to Eugene.

“He got that I’ve tried to critique and make fun of something that’s really scary. I’m proud to say that he’s not only a fan of the film but also the producer.”

The film is one of the first in months to get a physical release in UK cinemas, following their extended closure during lockdown.

Many studios are pushing the release dates of their films back or moving them to streaming services, like Disney’s Mulan – but director Eugene hopes his movie might entice people back (with social distancing).

“The communal nature of viewing is really important because that shared experience lets you know you’re part of the human race,” he says.

The film was recently shown at a drive-in event, where Eugene says hearing a whole group of people “laughing at the same time” was a “great experience”.

“You’re in the midst of this claustrophobic, funny nightmare.”

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