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Dear David Director on Adapting the Viral Sensation

October is in full swing, and so are the horror films at the box office. Next on the lineup is Dear David, a supernatural horror movie that, like many, is based on a supposedly true story. It follows Adam Ellis as he begins to be plagued by an online presence named David. Unsure of what David wants, Adam begins to fall down the rabbit hole trying to discover David’s past and who he is.

However, there’s plenty more to David than meets the eye, and as Adam learns more about the entity, things only get worse. Adam faces more and more pressure from all sides of his life as he shares his story with the online world, from his boss asking how the story will end to his friends wondering what’s going on with him. How will the story end? Even Adam doesn’t know.

We had the chance to catch up with John McPhail (Anna and the Apocalypse), the director of Dear David, to hear more about the process of adapting the popular story, balancing fan expectations, and the incredible cast and crew he worked with.

Bringing a Viral Story to Life

Stephanie Montani

Dear David is based on a series of Twitter threads from Adam Ellis, an illustrator who worked for Buzzfeed at the time. He experienced a haunting in his home that steadily grew, and he shared the strange occurrences he observed with his followers.

The initial thread took off, resulting in Adam’s account growing to more than one million followers as he shared updates every few weeks. With the fan base and popularity surrounding the source material, John McPhail was initially scared to take on the task of directing an adaptation, especially with the recognition that he would likely disappoint some fans in the process.

It was obviously such a scary task because you’ve got an existing fan base of an IP that, you know, have built their story in their head and have their version of it… I was a little bit nervous about that because I make films for people, and I know that there’s a whole audience here I’m going to disappoint because they’re like, ‘That’s not how I imagined it.’

Related: Every Movie Coming to Theaters in October 2023

That said, the director recognized there would have to be creative liberties taken because Dear David wasn’t just telling the story of David, it was also showing what Adam experienced while posting this story online. However, McPhail and his team were adamant about getting certain details right for the fans, like elements of the apartment. He shared that they even went back through Ellis’ Instagram to see the kind of clothes he wore at the time to incorporate his style into the character.

I really wanted to service the original thread fans, even those Adam Ellis fans. We poured over his Instagram, stalking him like crazy from back to 2017, see the t-shirts he was wearing and hoodies and all that sort of stuff.

Balancing the Obvious Questions

dear david Augustus Prew
Stephanie Montani

When the thread shook the internet, many questioned whether what Adam was experiencing was real or part of an ARG or social experiment. There are several camps fans are in, and McPhail wanted to honor those questions in the film.

The question everybody is always asking is ‘Did it happen or did he just make it all up?’ I kind of wanted that in this film. Is it actually happening or is he having a mental breakdown?

Part of how he did that was by focusing on the story of “trauma in a digital age,” particularly in how Adam is attacked online by trolls and how he responds to that in the film. In an effort to highlight what the real Adam experienced at the time, between the followers he gained and the critics, McPhail focused on how Adam’s mental health declines despite his rising fame in the movie.

Having that as a sort of way of being like someone that’s kind of just getting beat down, and it’s an addiction, it’s a dopamine hit, all that kind of thing where he’s just, everything else is falling apart, but his online persona is sort of rising, and there’s kind of something really sad about that.

Related: Which YouTube ARGs Should Be Given the Film Treatment Next?

The director credits Augustus Prew, the actor playing Adam, for how well this worked on screen. He noted that Prew resonated with the character because “he [also] suffers from sleep psychosis.”

One of the great things I had on this movie was Augustus Prew. He threw himself into this role. He just got through a lot of trauma and is feeling really, really good about himself, and he read this, and was like, ‘I need to do this.’

Working with a Great Cast and Crew

dear david
Stephanie Montani

McPhail had nothing but praise for his crew, crediting their work ethic and that they could understand his “crazy, fat Scottish accent,” and complete the shoot with less than a month and several challenging sequences:

I had a really incredible, incredible crew… I loved them, and they worked so, so hard every single day. 25 days we shot this, so it was a big ask, and they just nailed it every single day.

In addition to praise for Prew and the crew, John McPhail complimented Justin Long, who portrays Adam’s Buzzfeed manager. Long is the most comedic of the characters, and this came across during filming. Though some of the comedy “ended up on the cutting room floor,” Long gave his takes his all.

He was brilliant though. We’d finish rolling and be about to call cut, and he would just go back to number one again and just go again, it’d be just something really funny.

Dear David hits theaters on one of the spookiest days of the year, October 13.


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