Interview: Branden Kramer talks Ratter, hackers and the FBI
Josh Slater-Williams | On 25, Mar 2016
After last year’s Unfriended offered a vision of tech terror told entirely through Skype on a laptop screen, Ratter, the feature debut of writer-director Branden Kramer, ups the unsettling factor by placing viewers in the shoes of a stalker capturing someone’s life via elaborate hacking; a tale entirely visualised through the recording equipment within laptops, smartphones, and other web-connected devices.
Ashley Benson (Spring Breakers, Pretty Little Liars) is excellent as the unseen stalker’s target, whom we witness, to an uncomfortably intimate degree, going about her everyday life, none the wiser that she is perpetually being watched, until events escalate to a point where the threat is very much pronounced.
With the film now available on VOD in the UK, we sit down with Branden Kramer to discuss the creation of this unique thriller, as well as his own run-ins with hackers and, amusingly, the FBI.
The texture of the film almost suits streaming media, because there’s buffering in the movie, looping back footage… Was there a conscious decision to make, for lack of a better term and with no negative connotation intended, a “laptop viewing movie”?
No, it was just that the story lends itself to being told through these devices, and that was a big decision to make. Obviously having the point of view perspective of the hacker, that was all very deliberate, but we didn’t imagine this as being “made” for that. It really does play well on a cinema screen; the sound is built for that. We mixed it with the Dolby system in mind and all that. But yeah, it does play well on a laptop, or on a phone. I hate to admit that, I would rather people not watch it on their phone! But it does play well on these devices because you’re being watched while you’re watching it. Well, not necessarily being watched, but you’re peering at this camera, wondering the entire time, right?
Were they any incidents you’d heard of that were like a final straw regarding conceiving the story of Ratter, or was it just cumulative observation over the years?
Well, it was actually a personal incident of mine. Not directly, it was indirectly. It happened to a friend of mine, and we still to this day don’t really know what happened. But what we know is that her webcam indicator light would go on and off by itself. So essentially, without her [input], her webcam was being turned on and off automatically. And this was four years ago, so no one really knew about webcam-hacking. These days some people don’t even think about it. I would say most people, I’d argue, are aware of it, but still people aren’t really thinking about it. So four years ago it wasn’t a thing at all. And so when I saw it happen, she thought nothing of it. It was just a glitch or whatever, a software malfunction. And so I immediately thought, “Holy shit, what if someone’s hacking in? Who is it? What are they seeing? How long have they been watching?” All these questions start coming to mind and the story sort of wrote itself.
I did my first research into whether anyone had told this story before, and no one had. So it was perfect, and I also found out this is a real thing. People actually hack into webcams, and they’re called ratters. They use this malicious software, this whole underground community that really people don’t even know about. So it was like a breakthrough idea for us; we knew that this is a story that could relate to all of us. We all have laptops and computers with webcams. These days it feels like you can’t get one without a webcam, right? They’re all standard with them now, [or] I think they are. So, yeah, it’s very relatable to us, it was a great way to get the word out.
How is it to direct a performance where it’s just getting someone to “be”, to just exist?
Completely natural, hyper-natural. That was interesting, that was very challenging. And she nailed it, I think. She did a very, very good job. Made my job easy. [Laughs] Made my job very, very easy. She was good, and don’t forget, too, she had to actually operate some of the angles.
In terms of the phone footage, was it entirely her at all times?
It was entirely her. And we gave her a camera operator credit on the film, as a little nod because she was great. The first few days of filming like this were a challenge, but after a while we all just sort of picked up on it and it became second nature.
I found it interesting that this is, in a way, a “found footage” movie in which the villain is filming. It’s kind of an unusual play on the formula.
With this film we didn’t go in wanting to make a found footage movie. We just knew about this story and then decided, okay, let’s tell it in the most authentic way from the point of view of the hacker. So it turned into a kind of found footage movie, but the big difference is that, like you said, she isn’t filming. There isn’t a movie that I know, a found footage film, that has that element. She’s completely unaware that she’s being filmed, and therefore you as an audience member [are] ahead of her. You know more than she does. And typically that’s against the rules of filmmaking. You don’t ever want an audience to be too far ahead of the lead, so it’s unique in that way. But it feels right for the story, and you almost feel guilty because you’re in the position of the stalker. With everything you’re watching, you almost feel like him. You’re complicit, almost.
Do you have any qualms with people labelling Ratter a horror, or any other specific genre? It’s quite a hard one to classify.
Exactly, and we’re proud of that – that it’s a hard one to classify. I wouldn’t consider it a horror movie. If some people call it a horror film, it’s fine, but I would rather not. It’s more of a psychological thriller or drama, but it is unique and it’s hard to classify. And we’ve been having that problem because how do you describe it to industry people? How do you market the film? That’s been a challenge, but for me anyway, and my team that’s helped me make the film, we’re proud of that.
We never really get the motive of the stalker, but there is a definite sexual element to some of what he chooses to focus on in his footage, and there are bits and pieces of the film where you can sort of read his mindset. Do you have any thoughts on what motivates someone to do this sort of hacking act?
I like to almost say that it’s a kind of fucked up love story, in that what may have started out as a simple voyeuristic, quick, sexual act turned into more of an obsession; more of a love obsession. If you’re the hacker and you have access to a person’s life, this beautiful, young, charming woman, you sort of become obsessed because it’s like having access to a reality show that’s happening live in front of your eyes, that only you have access to. Conceptually, that’s how we moved forward with the motivation of the hacker, or the stalker. That it was not just a sexual thing, it was more than that. It was emotional attachment.
Your short Webcam is now being used by the FBI Cybercrimes Division. How did that happen?
Yeah, isn’t that so random? [Laughs] So when we did the short and it kind of exploded a bit, it got like 3 or 4 million views at the time, an FBI agent just reached out to us and I got an email in my inbox from the FBI, which was so strange because I thought it was a hacker. For sure that it was a hacker just fucking with me because of the short. He realised how strange it would come across, so he said, “Feel free to call the office, the Los Angeles Cybercrimes Division directly, and then they’ll connect you to me as proof that I’m a real person.” So I called the FBI, which was so strange, because it’s like, “Hello, FBI?” [Laughs] Usually you don’t wanna deal with the FBI. But I called up and sure enough he was a real agent who loved the short, and he was quite a young guy who worked and consulted as an agent with big companies. He would go around to companies like Sony and these massive tech companies and consult on how to protect their data and whatever else. And he would use the short in the presentations, so it was great to have that sort of proof that the idea was interesting if the FBI wanted to use it in consulting.
Did you have to sign off on anything for the short?
Yeah, we signed some rights away and we let them use it.
Since it’s part of an educational exercise, do you get any royalties?
No. I should have done that, right? Got some FBI money. [Laughs]