Ratter director Branden Kramer: “What if somebody was hacking into a webcam?”

We talk to Ratter’s Branden Kramer about his POV stalker horror

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You know when your webcam’s on. The little light comes on to let you know that it’s working, and that you can be seen. That’s how it works…right?

Well, not in director Branden Kramer’s POV horror Ratter, in which Ashley Benson’s college student Emma is being watched through the cameras on her computer and phone. We, and whoever is responsible, watch her as we try to figure out what this person wants, and how long until Emma figures out what’s going on, or if she even will before it’s too late…

We spoke to writer-director Branden Kramer after the film’s screening at the London Film Festival about his inspirations, the challenges of shooting from a webcam POV, and how audiences have responded to his cautionary tale.

It’s a very creepy concept! What inspired the film?

The film is actually based on a short film that we did, and the idea is based in a personal experience from about four years ago, funnily enough. A girlfriend of mine, her webcam indicator light would go on and off and she didn’t know what it was. She thought it was a glitch for a long time. Immediately a light bulb went off in my head, obviously hacking was a big thing four years ago but no one really talked about the fact that you could hack into a webcam.

So immediately I thought what if someone was hacking into a webcam, what if somebody was watching you, why…all these questions of how long, what have they seen? How disturbing it is to have this hidden camera inside your own house, your own home, your most private place. So the story kind of wrote itself. When we did the short, the short film took off, got millions of views. People relate to it.

Had you always planned to shoot it in this fashion, from the point of view of the cameras on these devices?

Actually, no. The short film was the same idea in terms of the perspective, but it’s a bold choice obviously, to have something shot entirely from these perspectives. Especially as the protagonist, your lead, doesn’t even know. She’s unaware the entire time. It’s hard to tell a story like that and to maintain tension and to maintain interest. So that was something that my partners and I had discussed, and thankfully they were big supporters, we all agreed that it was the best way to tell the story because it would be the most authentic. So they were a big force in that decision.

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It must have been a pretty complex way to shoot!

Oh yeah, we had to invent an entire filming language. All of the conventional angles and strategies were completely out of the window. So staging a scene was incredibly difficult. It was sort of a double-edged sword. In one way it was very flexible and freeing not having big giant camera set-ups and lights, it was flexible and freeing in that the actors can move around and we can do quick shots, it was great, but at the same time, rehearsal and staging scenes were very complex because of that.

It took a lot of thoughtful preparation which was painful at first. After a week we got the hang of it but the first few days were rough because this was all new for everyone. The camera operators and the DP and I, it was all new to all of us. Ashley Benson was actually great; she was technically a camera operator for a third of the shots. So that was great, it was a great experience.

Ashley Benson is great in the film, it must have been very important to find an actor who can be that kind of anchor.

It was. Pivotal. Because a person that’s a lead that’s in 95% of the shots can make or break the film in a big way. So we took our time casting and went through an extensive list, and then when Ashley’s name came up we thought “Oh, she’s great.” I actually didn’t know too much about her, so I watched some of her performances in Pretty Little Liars, which she’s mainly known for and she’s very good. She loved the script, she loved the idea and she wanted to do something very different from her show. This is a 180 compared to that. No make-up, down and dirty, gritty New York indie. So it was a huge break from what she was used to, and that’s what she wanted. So it was a perfect combination for the both of us.

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There are some moments throughout the film which remind you that it’s not just the audience watching this footage. Was that difficult, to know when to jolt the audience?

We shot the film in three weeks, but because of knowing when the audience would get absorbed in the story and not be distracted by the camera switches and the camera angles and the point of view shots, the editing took five months. And so that was the hardest part of the entire process, the editing. We had an amazing editor, Shelby Siegel, who was fantastic the entire time, she brought a ton of ideas to the story, we changed a lot from the script. A lot, actually, and the order of the film was changed because of that, and it goes to show you how important an editor is. So I was lucky to have her on board.

We wanted to throw the audience a little bit and add some mystery and red herrings but at the end of the day, this is not a story that’s saying, “Be careful who your friends are.” What we’re trying to say is “Be careful of the internet and be careful of technology,” which is a very different message. It’s bigger than just who your friends are.

How have you found the reaction to Ratter?

Yeah, there’s been a lot of paranoia! I’m happy that we’ve made a film that can make people think about protecting themselves. As we move forward and make our lives public to the world we need to think about the consequences of that. Especially the younger generation. You and I know what it’s like to have life without computers and technology but the kids these days don’t really know anything else so they’re not really conscious of having consequences to their tweets, or videos that are just going to be out there forever now. So if we can make a film that can make them think about it then that’s great.

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Ratter is available on DVD and digital download now. Keep up with the latest horror news with the new issue of SciFiNow.