A Thriller About the 'Weird Loneliness of the Internet'

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The short film Internet Story is a tale of mystery and suspense, set in the bizarre world of online message boards and YouTube videos. The story begins when an anonymous Internet user creates an elaborate, puzzle-ridden treasure hunt based on an old Chaucer story. I won't ruin the ending, but I'll say that as the video went viral recently, viewers around the world were left Googling clues for answers. 

Filmmaker Adam Butcher talks about the making of the film and the challenges of telling stories about the Internet in an interview below. 

The Atlantic: What was the genesis of this unconventional short film?

Adam Butcher: I think one of the main things that started it was that I'd always been aware of the weird "loneliness" of the Internet. In the early 2000s, I remember making websites on places like Angelfire and talking on them as if people were actually reading it. No one was of course! I'd come across personal blogs and videos and find the same thing. A lot of people talking into an abyss.

And like finding those sites, I was interested in the way we "discover" stories on the Internet now. You'll be doing one search and be curious about one weird link, then search that, then search that, and before you know it you're down this weird rabbit hole. And the dead ends you reach give you that uncanny feeling, because they're often people speaking out-of-time, and they're often faceless.

How have viewers, at festivals and online, reacted to it?

Festival reaction was generally positive. Played at some mid-range festivals and screened at the BFI. But I don't think it translated brilliantly to a festival audience. It worked, but I think the flaws and the lack of conventional drama were more noticeable in that environment. It was always kind of meant to sit online. 

When I did put it up online, I was not expecting such a great reaction! I think it resonated a lot with people's experience of the Internet, that loneliness and that sense of discovery. I also wasn't expecting it to be treated like a horror/ghost story, but I totally get it. I guess abandoned web pages are a bit like ghosts ... the personal info repeating soullessly back at you. It's good I launched near Halloween. As to the whole question of whether it's real or not -- let's just say I'm flattered that people have looked so hard into it!

You manage to build a lot of suspense using voiceover, screen shots, and YouTube videos. How did you tackle creating a narrative from what is basically a series of web pages? 

To be honest the narrative came naturally to me. The fact that I had a voiceover made everything easy. I tried to keep things short and clear, but still use as many media as I thought would be useful (animations, maps, videos, etc). The only really hard bit was the puzzles!

Hollywood and even independent cinema seem hesitant to tell stories about the web and what people do online, probably because so little of it is visually exciting. The Social Network is one film that stands out as an exception. Do you think movies will evolve to tell these stories about our digital lives?

I generally agree; it is harder to tell stories about this big part of our lives, because it is so visually unexciting. It’s so text-based at the moment, with no genuine, human face-to-face drama. And that's why The Social Network isn't even really about Facebook; it's about young entrepreneurs. I think the only film that really does it right is Catfish. And maybe You've Got Mail!  Joke.

I think maybe movies won't ever portray the Internet very easily. There are loads of novels entirely composed of people writing letters to each other -- those work because it matches the medium. I'm not sure that movies match the Internet in the same way. But then again, the Internet may change before the movies do.

What’s next for you?

I'm working on two shorts at the moment. One's a 1970s period film about two 13-year-old boys getting obsessed with nuclear apocalypse, Sons of Atom. We filmed it at the beginning of the year.

The other short is an animation -- a bit of a spiritual sequel to Internet Story. It's a pixel-art animation working from Bradley Manning's chat logs. It's my first truly factual work and it's gonna be weird. That's due out at the end of November, with Animate Projects. And once I've done that ... I should really get back to finishing the feature film I'm writing!

For more films by Adam Butcher, visit http://www.adam-butcher.co.uk/.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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