SXSW: 'Beware the Slenderman' Doc Director Says 'the Internet is Not the Enemy Here' (Q&A)
"I think with a story that is this tragic, you want to blame someone or something," says director Irene Taylor Brodsky, who followed the true story of two 12-year-old girls who stabbed their friend and left her for dead based on an internet meme.
Beware the Slenderman, which will premiere at the South by Southwest Festival on Friday, March 11, dives into the fascinating and tragic true story of two 12-year-old girls who attempt to kill their friend — all in the name of an online Boogeyman called Slenderman.
Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier stabbed their friend 19 times, and then freely admitted they’d done so because of their desire to please Slenderman, a fictional character that originated as an online meme. Director Irene Taylor Brodsky spent 18 months following the court case of the two young girls, and, through courtroom footage, interviews with the girls' parents and interviews with experts, explores what drove them to the act, while also looking at how the Internet is shaping the young minds of today.
Brodsky spoke to THR ahead of the film's premiere at SXSW (it will also play on HBO later this year) about her experience making the documentary.
How do you feel about Beware the Slenderman premiering at SXSW?
I think this is the best audience we could have asked for. I think the SXSW audiences are really interested in what I call the space between interactive storytelling and more traditional narrative storytelling. That's exactly the space where Slenderman lives. Slenderman is a multimedia phenomenon. He's in a game, he's in a story, he's an app — It's all contributing to this myth.
How did you first get involved in this project?
I had been developing a film with Sheila Nevins and Sara Bernstein at HBO for several months basically on our brains in this brave new world of 24/7 connectivity. We were most interested in children's brains. Then the New York Times ran a small story on this Slenderman incident and Sara and Sheila sent me a link to it. Within two days I got on a plane and went to Wisconsin and started following all the legal proceedings.
How difficult was it to get the girls' parents to participate?
Very. The parents of Anissa had eight-and-a-half by eleven pieces of paper on every external door of their house saying "Stop. Do not knock. We are not interested in communicating with any press." Many journalists just went and knocked on their doors. They had really been hounded. You would have to ask them why they agreed to talk to me. I've made other films about kids, and one of them won the Emmy for best children's programming and it was all about how children handle grief, so I think the fact that that was one of my last films helped. But the girls' parents did not talk with each other and agreed to talk to me — because those families are not communicating, which is one more aspect of the tragedy of all this. The two families live in the same condominium complex — they can see their front doors — but they're not talking.
When you started interviewing them, was anything off limits?
No, not at all. I remember when I walked away from my first interview with Morgan's mother, I was astonished both as a filmmaker and as a parent of children myself by the things she told me. She didn't necessarily paint a pretty picture, she painted a very complex picture of her daughter. And her trust that I would not violate that was staggering.
Was there ever a possibility that you would get to interview the girls, who were being held at a detention facility during the legal process?
It was always a possibility, and it was always lingering as a possibility. As you can imagine, the parents and the lawyers are concerned with that would be best for their daughter and their client. The parents were open to it, but it's not something we decided we could move forward with. But I certainly asked many times.
Did this film give you any insight into what the future looks like when it comes to the Internet and children?
I think with a story that is this tragic, you want to blame someone or something. The Internet is not the enemy here. What is happening is it's this perfect storm of the developing brain and this visceral, dynamic impression that everything we find on the internet has on us. It's the combination of their age and the fact that Slenderman is a really good idea. But it's not just children — how many times have you fucked around on Facebook or wherever and then you feel gross afterwards? "I can't believe I just wasted an hour on that." Really, it's teaching us all that we need to develop these skills to deflect what we find on the Internet. We need to teach our kids that, and we as adults need to get better moving forward. I can't tell you what the parents could have done to prevent this, I can't tell you what laws should have been in place about Internet use and minors to prevent this. I don't think that we can enact laws but there are sensibilities that we can develop that will help us deflect these negative things in the future.
You have kids. Did this documentary change how you allow them to use the Internet?
Ironically, this was the year I bought my kids their own computer. We talked about Slenderman a lot. It was a big dinner table conversation. For us, we used this film and this meme to talk about all the things that can go awry and how it's important to develop a certain amount of savvy about them. You just give them tools and you hope that they know how to use those tools early.
Beware the Slenderman premieres at SXSW on March 11 at 9 p.m. in Austin.