What the Duo Behind Horror Comedy Deadstream Can Teach Us About Writing and Wedlock

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What the Duo Behind Horror Comedy <i>Deadstream</i> Can Teach Us About Writing and Wedlock

Fall is always a great time for scary releases and often a horror comedy will slip its way into the festivities. This year, one particular indie entry took the horror community by storm: Vanessa and Joseph Winter’s Deadstream.

The film follows the disgraced livestreamer Shawn as he attempts to win back his online following by spending the night in a haunted house—and, of course, livestreaming the entire event. As well as directing and writing Deadstream with his wife, Joseph stars as Shawn. The other stars of the film are the great monster designs and the amazingly versatile Melanie Stone.

On the tails of the Deadstream release, horror fans were also treated to a segment by the Winters in the latest entry to the V/H/S franchise, V/H/S/99. At the time I was able to sit down with the duo to discuss the refreshingly clever and fiendishly fun Deadstream, I had yet to watch V/H/S/99 and humbly requested no spoilers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Paste Magazine: What’s your creative process? As in, what’s the dynamic between you two, and how did you come together with this script?

Vanessa Winter: Um, well, we met on a film shoot. And we took a screenwriting class together. So at the beginning of our relationship, we gave each other notes and rewrites. Throughout the years, we’ve just gotten more and more collaborative. With Deadstream, we decided to just go all in, like as co-writers and co-directors, and I think it was a really good process, or experiment. We rewrite each other’s work a lot—we kind of just toss it back and forth until it starts feeling right.

Joseph Winter: Before Deadstream, we had written a full-length pilot script we went and pitched around in LA. And that was a really good thing that really got our process going—how do we truly write together versus simply asking for feedback on something written? When we’re talking about the Deadstream, we started to develop the process and my process on my own is not to outline, but just to write the scenes that excite me and see where that’s going.

But together, there’s a lot more decisions that have to be made upfront or the collaboration just doesn’t work. So, we try to outline and try to get on the same page as much as possible, like what our goals are with the film, where we’re trying to go with the characters, and then we divide up scenes and then trade back and forth to rewrite each other’s work. That’s how the pre-production writing process specifically looks.

Paste: It’s almost like a comedy writers room—the back and forth. You mentioned shipping around a pilot—was it comedy horror, or what genre would you say it was?

Joseph: Actually, it was a sci-fi horror, kind of an apocalyptic demon universe. And there was some levity to it, but nothing you’d classify as a comedy—so it was completely different in tone than we ended up doing for Deadstream and V/H/S/99.

[Joseph immediately covers his mouth in horror.]

Paste: No, no, no, I did know that—you are okay! I did know the tone was similar to Deadstream. I also caught wind that the monster design was amazing—which, the monster design was amazing, too, in Deadstream! Once you had an idea of what the script was going to look like, how did you decide to put together these monsters?

Vanessa: Yeah, sometimes the monsters come first. We really love practical effects and monsters. That’s one thing that got us excited about Deadstream was just kind of can we start as a grounded found footage thing that goes into a full-blown monster movie. As far as fine-tuning with designs, before the script was finished, we did bring on our creature designer, Troy Larson, who’s amazing, and our makeup effects artist, Mikaela Kester, who also did some of the monster designs. And so they ended up being a little bit part of the writing process.

Like, we’d tell them the frame of the scene, or the emotional beat, or the action that we’re looking for, and we might throw out some monster ideas, but it was very collaborative where they might throw out another idea or help us workshop it a little bit.

So as an example, in Deadstream there’s a part where a monster slides down the barrel of a potato gun. So, Troy actually pitched us an idea of, “I’ve always wanted to do a monster that gets a hole blown into it.” He didn’t have a full gag, he kind of had an idea, and then we took that and tossed it around. We eventually all landed on a potato gun gag where it would slide on the barrel.

Joseph: If you’re interested in the bootstrapping aspect of it, the budget we had for Deadstream was very minimal. A lot of it was paid for on credit cards that Vanessa and I opened just for the film. We knew that we weren’t able to give Troy Larson very much money going in, so we presented him with the script—and it had all of our wishlist gags—but we asked him to tell us what wasn’t reasonable to do. And he came back saying that he didn’t want to cut any of them.

He wanted to do all of them and the strategy there is, if we can execute a tone together, it might be forgiving of the creatures that maybe were stretched too thin and you can tell that they’re fake. So that’s what we tried to do, and for Troy, it was worth it to go above and beyond on the project because he knew it’d be a good showcase for himself, as well. So, people trying to get films off the ground: it’s really helpful to find partners that are also trying to come up in the industry at the same time with the same resources so you can work together and help each other make the best reel pieces that you can.

Vanessa: So great when you find people that are on the same comedic page. When we were designing Mildred (played by Melanie Stone), Mikaela Kester’s a big horror nerd and into some of the same stuff, so when we started presenting this character—there’s just small details, like there’s a very stretchy black goo that she brought to the set that she was passionate about. And Mildred has different gags where that black goo was like stretching out of her. And it’s a good example of a comedic element she brought after catching the vision. So that’s another example of how the collaborative process goes down.

Paste: There’s a repeated Mildred action, where she keeps sticking her finger up the nose, and you laugh at it, but also, I was like, “Oh no, don’t do that.” Which, this is the best compliment I can give you: I have a very strong stomach, not a lot of stuff grosses me out, but the bathroom, the bathtub scene—I was like, “No, no, no.” The only other movie I can think of that gave me such a visceral reaction was Peter Jackson’s Braindead, where they accidentally eat the zombie body parts.

So, I have to ask the question: how was directing your husband?

Vanessa: It was actually great. The thing is, Joseph’s got such a special talent with being able to be a storyteller and an actor at the same time. He can access his “director brain” at the same time as his “actor brain.” It was also by design because I’ve directed him before and we knew that we could put him through hell toward the end with all the gags, make him sit in the bathtub for over 12 hours. And because we’re so close, we can do extra rehearsals together, find some jokes—more than we normally would be able to do with another talent. So it was kind of just this endless writing process during the acting process, but I think it allowed us to get a really specific voice with a character that would have been hard on somebody else. Besides a couple of grouchy moments, it was pretty great.

Joseph: Yeah, that’s good to hear from her perspective, because I did not enjoy working with me.


Paste: You mentioned extensive rehearsing, similar to what Stuart Gordon did with the cast of Reanimator and it pays off—your film does this beautiful thing where it seems so off-the-cuff, like the influencer who’s trying not to call a woman the B-word because he’s not trying to hurt his already-damaged image since this is supposed to be his redemption stream. And it’s so subtle, and goes by so fast, but it’s a great character detail. How much rehearsing went into moments like these? Did you block everything or just talk through it first? What did that process look like?

Vanessa: I wish I could say that we were just really good at it. But the truth is, we had to work really hard to get it to seem like that. It was very blocked out, very rehearsed. The gear’s also unusual—it’s a different kind of setup than a traditional film. Obviously, there’s a camera strapped to the actors’ bodies and stuff like that. It ended up being really technical, but we shot almost every shot before the real shoot.

Joseph: We went through the whole movie during the day, at least once, and then we did a lot of other scenes at our house—just endless blocking and rehearsing and rewriting until we had to actually shoot it. And even then, we had to go and reshoot some stuff that didn’t seem spontaneous as it’s coming out of my mouth. It breaks the illusion of a livestream because it starts to feel performative. So this movie was ultra rehearsed and very precise in the execution.

Vanessa: Joseph is very funny, and he’s very good at improvising. But it just ended up, with our camera setup and the way the movie needed to move to be a horror movie, we had to really nail down the timing of everything to get it to have the right flow.

Paste: So what’s next for you two? Are you working on any projects, any more horror comedy?

Vanessa: Yeah, we’ve just started writing a couple scripts. So, super early stages.

Joseph: Nothing that is ready to be announced. But I will say, one of them is very horror comedy, same vein as Deadstream. And the other one is more traditional horror—but for sure full of levity. I don’t know that we can write something that won’t have humor to it.

Be sure to check out Deadstream, now streaming on Shudder.

Brooke Knisley is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has balance issues. Let her harass you on Twitter @BrookeKnisley.