In Smiley, the world of internet trolls, urban legends, and crazed killers all come together in a crazed stew. We chatted with writer and first time director Michael Gallagher about researching Smiley, internet trolls, and death threats.
Where did the idea for Smiley come from?
It came from the launch of websites that allow you to video chat anonymously with strangers on the internet - like ChatRoulette and Omegle. We saw that and thought it would be the perfect launching pad for a new urban legend. It’s so creepy that people in thereal world want to talk to people they don’t know and put out so much personal information that it just lent itself to a horror film.
Did you spend a lot of time on ChatRoulette-type websites for research?
I’ve been on those sites, and mostly it was for research. What I found is that there is definitely a high level of creepiness. Particularly the fact that it is very male-oriented, and they are looking for young girls who want to show some skin or otherwise engage. It’s a prowling grounds, so when a pretty girl pops up, it’s like a prize for these guys. It gave me the idea of, “What if there was malicious intent behind that?”
What was the creepiest or weirdest thing you saw on ChatRoulette?
Aside from all the masturbating dudes and penis shots, I saw a lot of people trying to harm themselves a little bit on camera. Like as soon as someone would pop on, they would have a wrench on their hand and try to hurt themselves with it... It was really disturbing. Then there were a lot of people trying to gross you out, show you gross images and stuff. I didn’t go on a voyage through ChatRoulette, but from the few times I went on there, I realized it does bring out this weird sort of “internet courage” in people.
Do you think it is just the sense of anonymity people have?
Yeah, I think so. I think there are a lot of tortured souls out there, and the internet provides a platform for them to seek whatever they are interested in, and put out whatever they want. You can literally upload anything.
I’m not an anthropologist, so I didn’t keep a journal or logs or anything, but just from flipping through it, and researching what people have done through sites like 4chan, or places where people can do bad deeds anonymously and share their stories... it’s pretty awful to read what people are capable of, for the sole purpose of having fun. They are harassing people because they think it is fun.
Did you also spend time on 4chan, which is a notorious troll breeding ground, and something that figures heavily into Smiley?
Oh yeah. I’m not an “innocent” as they would say, but I warn any of your readers if they go out to 4chan and have never been. I went on recently and found people uploading nonstop, pictures of pornography and mixing images of 9/11 with the Fonz and weird catchphrases... there is no end to the depravity.
Nobody really needs to see that, and even in the film, it’s sort of the “diet version” of 4chan. There are just some awful stories... for example, there was this kid who was cyber-bullied and committed suicide. A friend of his wrote a story on her MySpace and instead of calling him “a hero” she wrote “an hero” - you know, a typo. So 4chan adopted the term “an hero” to describe someone who commits suicide.
It’s just such an awful thing. It takes a certain kind of individual to think that that is hilarious. We tried to show a little bit of that in Smiley but someone really needs to go in and do a proper documentary. It’s really fascinating. And disturbing.
Do you think these people are anything like their cyber personas?
I think a lot of them are very sarcastic and cynical and nihilistic. I think a lot of these people go through a trauma or a rough upbringing. The internet gives them this outlet to vent. You look at any comments thread on [any website] and people will just say awful things.
Is the 4chan community aware of Smiley? Have they been posting memes about it?
Yeah. Before we released the film theatrically in October, we did a few early screenings for press, and I think someone in there was part of 4chan or friends with them or something. They explained to the community that we [had this movie] and the details of what we show in the movie and they went ballistic. They got the personal info for me and my family and everyone who worked on the movie and started posting it with instructions to harass us. Our addresses, phone numbers, emails, all that stuff. They had this whole plan - I have pictures of it - called “Operation Fuck Smiley.” Their goal was to spoil the end of the movie, post pornography and gore on any website that talks about it, rate the movie really low... it was this horrible vendetta, like they wanted to destroy it because we talked about 4chan in the movie. They felt like their club had been exposed, and they wanted to derail it.
I kind of knew what we were dealing with. We were getting death threats, but they were empty threats. 4chan members are located all over the world and they are really just doing this “for fun.” When someone takes their fun seriously, it puts rain on their parade. We ended up contacting the FBI and the local authorities. We did a few interviews and it just shut them down. The threats stopped, everything just kind of halted. It was radio silence. It was pretty crazy. This is my first film, and we did it all independently. So trying to release it while dealing with all the death threats... it was such a bizarre moment.
Do you feel that this helps follow through with that old saying, “There is no such thing as bad press?”
Yeah. I mean, it was tough at the time. I think out of the crew, I am the most “in” on knowing about those types of communities. But when you have your parents and your cousins and your girlfriend getting harassed, with voicemails and texts that say, “We’re going to fuck you and kill you,” they were losing their minds and really distraught about it. I had to explain to them that this was like a 14-year-old in Delaware who hates himself. It’s so hard to explain that it is not an “imminent threat.” When it happens to you, it is very frightening. But I always feel that it is important to stand up to people who bully you or want to fight you by talking about it. They basically gave us more publicity, and they had to shut it down.
So are you planning a sequel, or have you had enough of this?
I would love to do a sequel. With Smiley, we really wanted to make a film for young teens - especially young female teens, which I feel is a really underserved demographic for horror films. Having done sketch webseries for those audiences online, I thought it would be a great opportunity to make a film for them. If I did a sequel to Smiley, I would have to make it more adult and appeal to genre fans. We tried to get a PG-13 for Smiley but didn’t quite get it because of his features, but essentially the first was for a teen audience. So if we did a second one, we would want to make it for an adult audience. I think there are so many fascinating themes in the evils online and the awful nature of humans when they are left to their own devices and hiding behind anonymity.