“So, my apartment is currently being haunted by the ghost of a dead child and he’s trying to kill me,” said Former BuzzFeed cartoonist Adam Ellis in the viral ghost thread dubbed “Dear David.” From there, he unfolded the tale through hundreds of tweets — with photographs and hand-drawn images — over a series of weeks, his followers rapt with each update. So naturally, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. Now the Dear David film is a reality, from a screenplay by Mike Van Waes, who loves to blend heart and humour with a slash of horror.
“The character of Adam Ellis himself was what drew me in,” says director John McPhail. “When it was happening… You know what it’s like, everybody’s a little bit cynical. Like, ‘Alright, you’re being haunted are you, mate?; So you start stalking him a wee bit, and it just didn’t seem like the type of guy that would tell that story… Like, it was just this funny, satirical, in-your-face comic book artist.”
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.
“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. 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 McPhail 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 film.
Dear David is directed by John McPhail, from a screenplay by Mike Van Waes, based on the viral Twitter thread by BuzzFeed comic artist Adam Ellis, and a story by Van Waes and Executive Producer Evan Turner.
Shortly after comic artist Adam (Augustus Prew) responds to Internet trolls, he begins experiencing sleep paralysis — while an empty rocking chair moves in the corner of his apartment. As he chronicles increasingly malevolent occurrences in a series of tweets, Adam begins to believe he is being haunted by the ghost of a dead child named David. Encouraged by his boss to continue the “Dear David” thread, Adam starts to lose his grip on what is online…and what is real.
Like everyone else in 2017, I was gripped by the “Dear David” story that appeared on Twitter. It felt like the perfect ghost story for our times, and we were all along for the ride.
When the opportunity to tell a version of Adam Ellis’s story came to me I jumped at it. I always go for projects with dynamic characters and for me that was Adam; here we have a funny, cynical, sarcastic, cartoonist being terrorised in his own bed, pouring his heart out on the internet.
I wanted to tell a story about trauma in the digital age. Through Adam’s story, I could see parallels between hauntings and online abuse. Your home is supposed to be your sanctuary, a place to get away from the world, but what if that space is being invaded by outside forces, buzzing in your pocket, pinging on your screen. What if those same forces are also an addiction, a dopamine hit that you crave day in and day out. For Adam, his life is falling apart but his internet notoriety is growing; bringing support but also hate, disbelief, and trolling.
I always felt Adam would be a hard role to cast but when I met Augustus Prew all my worries disappeared. Augustus threw himself head first into this role and drew from his own personal traumas and years of battling sleep psychosis. Personally, I feel like I couldn’t have asked for a better Adam. Augustus was my rock on this film and I’ll always love how much he put into this movie. For Evelyn I wanted someone who could make me laugh and fill the frames with charisma.
I had a wonderful team of people working with me on Dear David. In fact, I met one of the new loves of my life in Director of Photography Stephen Chandler Whitehead, who beautifully captured the film and shares my love of colour. Costume Designer Olga Barsky literally stalked Adam Ellis on Twitter so we could get his look right and make him pop against the incredible sets designed by our Production Designer, Josh Turpin. Turpin and his team again poured over Twitter images of Ellis’ apartment so we could get it as close to the original as possible but with Josh’s twist on it.
I really hope audiences enjoy the film. We worked hard to bring something fun and scary for existing and new fans of the haunting that is Dear David.
John McPhail – Director
John McPhail studied Cinematography at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. During his time there he met and formed a close working relationship with Tyler Collins and Andrew Lanni. In 2013 he formed his own production company, Worrying Drake Productions, and reunited with Collins and Lanni to produce a trilogy of short comedy films. Notes, V for Visa, and Doug & Steve’s Big Holy Adventure. Whilst filming the comedy trilogy, McPhail wrote a short three-minute film called Just Say Hi to enter into the 2013 Virgin Media Shorts Competition.
With the success of his short films on the domestic and international festival circuit, McPhail launched a crowdfunding campaign to help fund his first feature film, Where Do We Go from Here? The campaign was a success, raising £10,630 in just two months. Production began in the summer of 2014 with McPhail directing the film in just 16 days in various locations across Scotland. After editing the film himself, McPhail began entering the film into festivals across the globe. In late October 2015, the film was screened at the Sydney Indie Film Festival where it won three of the seven awards.
Mike Van Waes – Screenwriter
Screenwriter Mike Van Waes loves to blend heart and humor with a slash of horror. He began his career as an assistant at the Jim Henson Company before becoming a story analyst for studios like DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures. He first attracted industry attention with his feature script Grave Hearts, a 2014 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting finalist. His The Wizard of Oz-inspired original horror feature Not in Kansas is set up at New Line Cinema, where he has also written Crooked Man, a whimsically twisted spinoff within The Conjuring universe. Mike is currently writing a liveaction remake of Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, based on the beloved animated movie about an alien who crash-lands to Earth. He’s also a published author and artist. His young adult novel Peeves, a cheeky, magical story about a boy with anxiety, was published in 2018 by HarperCollins.
Evan Turner – Executive Producer / Story by
Evan Turner is an English writer and producer, who has been instrumental in bringing thrilling adaptations to the big screen. As an executive at Walden Media, Turner produced a wide slate of movies meant for global audiences. He co-produced the blockbuster, Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), and served as an Executive Producer on its sequel, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012). His first writing credit came while staffed on ABC’s “The Goldbergs,” with a “story by” credit on the popular episode, “Dance Party.” In his first feature story by credit, Turner is excited to bring the viral Dear David story to the screen.