Michael Gallagher, Director of the Controversial New Film Smiley, Talks Film, Free Speech, and Foul Play on the Internet

Movies Features

This should be an exciting time for Michael Gallagher. The young director has achieved major success with his YouTube series Totally Sketch, and his debut feature film Smiley (a horror/slasher flick) will hit theatres today. And indeed, it is an exciting time for Gallagher. It’s also a very frightening time.

While his film’s trailer has received over 17 million views on YouTube, Smiley is receiving a specific sort of online attention, the likes of which few of us have seen before. The villains of Smiley (SPOILER ALERT!) are members of 4chan and Anonymous, two online groups notorious for the anything-goes nature of some of their forums. Some have gone so far as to call the sites true representations of ‘the dark side of the Internet’, and now some members of the sites are proving such talk to be true. Actual death threats have been made to Michael Gallagher and his family on behalf of 4chan and Anonymous members, and they’ve also threatened the production of his film. Michael Gallagher appeared on the Today show this morning to address some of these very real, very scary issues, but he was also kind enough to give Paste a call so we could talk movie-making, free speech, and the strange, beautiful, sometimes disturbing World Wide Web.

Paste: So this has to be a really amazing time in your life, and a really scary time, as well.
Gallagher: Yes, well this is definitely an exciting time and a great time. But, you know, when it rains it pours. I’ve literally had my hands in everything with Smiley, from the first draft of the script, to making sure that the movie was approved by the MPAA, to getting billboards up. And now to have this new, uh, adventure with the guys at 4chan and Anonymous—it’s sort of the icing on the cake (laughs).

Paste: Sure. And obviously, you wanted to do more than just make a really scary movie. What was it that especially drove you and your co-writer Glasgow [Phillips] to focus on the Internet, specifically those two groups?
Gallagher: Glasgow is hyper-intelligent and an Internet savant, in a way. He’s been involved with some startups and he’s had his hands in the Internet pie for quite some time. He wrote the initial draft of the script, and then I was able to collaborate with him on it. I’ve been in the web series world for five years now, and I’ve been sort of immersed in the lighter side, but Glasgow was really able to bring up the darker side, the things I’d heard whisperings and rumors about but hadn’t really explored myself. Once I read his draft of the script, I went on 4chan and started to read about Anonymous and really looked into these groups as much as I could stomach—because a lot of it is seen as pretty crazy stuff. But from what I saw, I thought it was an incredible backdrop for telling a contemporary horror film.

Paste: How do these things, these negative, dark things, conflict with your own relationship with the Internet, which is really a work space for you and a place where you presumably love to hang out?
Gallagher: Well you’re right. The Internet is probably the most fun place, and the most frightening place. At any moment, you’re a click away from something beautiful and something horrific (laughs). But that’s what comes with the wild life of the Internet. Having done web series and worked with a lot of guys online, the interaction between fans and haters, it all comes piling in. It has always been fascinating to me that you’d have these huge supporters who are like, ‘Oh I love what you’re doing, it’s incredible, I can’t wait for more!’ And then right next to them you have the people who are like ‘I wish you would die, you’re terrible, stop this immediately!’ I’ve had to develop a thick skin just to deal with that. But when it becomes a personal attack on you—and it’s every day—that’s a different kind of scaryThe film explores both—the artificial scary of a haunting image like Smiley and also your peers bullying you and people hiding behind screen names and doing horrible deeds in that way.

Paste: Right, which is basically what’s happening with you now. I mean, we’re not talking about people making mean comments, we’re talking about death threats. In an article I read, some online readers and Cole Strycker—who wrote a book on the group Anonymous—suggested that this whole thing might be a publicity stunt and a means of getting the word out about your movie. Has anyone suggested this to you, and what’s your response—if any— to that idea?
Gallagher: No one has directly addressed that, and that was a concern of ours in coming out with this. We were aware that people might perceive it that way. But it’s not every day that people get hold of your information and call you up and tell you that they want you to die. So the fact that I kind of put my toe across this invisible line and pissed off these people, you know, at first it was very frightening. But rather than retreating and trying to deal with this quietly, I felt that they [4chan and Anonymous] would win, in a way. I just wasn’t gonna go out quietly.

It’s a little ridiculous to be all about free speech, but then when I talk about you I can’t have free speech. It just felt very hypocritical on their part. I actually have nothing bad to say about them doing whatever they want.

So it’s definitely not a publicity stunt. It’s just an earnest attempt to start a conversation about this because our film dealt so much with this. And I don’t want people to think that I’m coming out and saying, ‘Oh my life is in danger.’ Ultimately I know that… a lot of [these guys] are kids, they’re all over the world, and they’re hiding behind a screen name.

Paste: I saw that you wrote on Twitter that you never thought your life would imitate your art. And it’s interesting that the members of these groups are allegedly angry because they feel that you portrayed them as villains in the movie, but then they go ahead and play that part in reality.
Gallagher: (laughs) Yes, it turned out to be pretty true to life.

Paste: Looking back, is there anything that you would change about the film?
Gallagher: No, absolutely not.

Paste: Good answer, good answer! Now I am deathly afraid of slasher films, but I like that Smiley sounds like a horror film that has a point, other than just scaring the hell out of me.
Gallagher: (laughs) Well there’s definitely going to be stuff that you won’t like, but hopefully you’ll still see it because the real movie is a psychological thriller and gets into bigger ideas about people online and a collective consciousness. The movies that I really like are like Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. So it’s much more about the character’s journey and what they’re going through during a horrible experience.

Paste: Okay, now that sounds like something I can deal with. Michael, I really appreciate the call, especially during this time, with all that’s going on.
Best of luck with everything.
Gallagher:It was great talking to you.

Smiley hits theaters October 12th.

Shannon Houston (Twitter: @shannonmhouston) is patiently awaiting the debut of a Scorsese-directed film, written by Charlie Kaufman, and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio… with a brief cameo by Lil Wayne. She looks forward to writing the review of said film (“Gangs of Synechdoche, New York”) from her home in Nyack, in between an obscene amount of diaper changing and brownie baking. (She will be sure to wash her hands before returning to her work as a freelance writer).

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