When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will go Live.
Written and directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Ali Chappell, Verified (2021) is a sly and confident short film that explores the darker side of online popularity and the drive to become an influencer. After Nicky (Arrielle Edwards) becomes the victim of a violent encounter while streaming to her followers, she uncovers a horrifying and unexpected shortcut to internet stardom.
Serving up generous portions of both gore and confectionary, the short is savvy and pitch-perfect, flashing sympathetic side-eye toward both the strivers and over-sharers forever seeking that blue check or next follower milestone…and the audiences that enable them.
I sat down with the quintuple-threat Ali to talk about her short film, the lure of going viral, and why she is the secret Elvira of our generation.
Valeska Griffiths: What’s your writing process, when it comes to your films?
Ali Chappell: I’ve been writing stories since I was in high school. A lot of nonsense. But when I took the leap the other year to start writing screenplays, my main goal was to write roles for myself. If you aren’t booking the roles you want, you need to create them. Except when I wrote Verified, I knew that I would be too old to play this character. So, I decided this was my chance to try out directing and see if that was maybe something that I would be interested in. Turns out, it is!
During the pandemic, I realized that I was spending so much of my time on social media, just doom-scrolling. I also saw a lot of my friends trying to become influencers on Instagram during the pandemic. I had a few pre-pandemic that were trying, but it felt like now that everyone had the time to do things, there were a lot more trying to do it—‘cause it looks crazy appealing! Just being fashionable, not working a 9 to 5, being your own boss, getting free swag…I get it. We all want that. I also watched the majority of them struggle hard and fail at it, but keep going. It was interesting to see these different levels of determination within people I knew, even if no one was watching their stuff. Seeing what they tried to do to get that little bit of internet fame. I became obsessed with watching and seeing if I could figure what it took to make it as an influencer. What they did or didn’t do, that maybe others did or didn’t do. What their captions said, how they interacted with people online, how they presented themselves. I still do it. I actually do it way more now since I decided to turn Verified into a feature film script. I wanted to make sure that I capturing them correctly.
When I wrote this script and knew for a fact that I wasn’t going to be in it (which was the right call—I knew before finishing it that this wasn’t gonna be for me), I knew exactly who I wanted to cast. Arrielle Edwards (my lead actor in Verified) and I met in college. I was a couple of terms above her, but we shared a dance class and because the performing arts school we went to only had like 200 students, we all kind of knew each other. We had been following each other on social media for years. I watched her post her first YouTube video with her partner David Webb (the zombie in my short), and was like “yeah, this role is hers. If she says no, I don’t know who I would even want to be in this. So please for the love of god, say yes.” I reached out on Instagram and was like, “Hey, remember me from school, I know we have never talked but this script is yours, it has to be you,” like a damn psychopath… and thankfully she said yes. It worked out so well because Arrielle in real life is a successful Instagram influencer, Twitch streamer, model, and actor (girl can do it all.) She was one of the people I followed and watched as her popularity grew. She was even kind enough to let me Photoshop her Instagram account to use in the film. I kinda owe the success of this film to her.
Now that I have decided to turn Verified into a feature film, I’m watching everyone’s social media a lot more closely. Seeing what works and what doesn’t work and taking notes. Everyone reading this, if you think I’m stalking you…I might be. But just know it’s because you are inspiring.
Can you talk a little bit about your cinematic influences?
My cinematic influences for Verified were very Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (we had a whole post-credits sequence that I cut out of the film because it was almost TOO Snyder-y). I also wanted to take some of Ingrid Goes West—like a heavy mix of Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen, both are influencers but one is failing hard and the other is thriving and I wanted to kind of marry those ideals together…and also bring forth that sad humour of it. If you haven’t watched this film, I highly recommend it. It’s a banger. Also a bit of Contracted for the body horror. That movie has a nice slow burn of body horror in it and I wanted something similar. I want to just watch my character fall apart but still try to live her life day to day. Which is a bit true to me, ‘cause I hate hospitals so—even if I’m dying—I will find excuses not to go and just ask the internet, “does this looks infected” or “this fell out of me, is that normal?” Then honestly it was just kind of matching that to what I saw influencers were doing online and how I could mimic that in an honest, truthful way.
What was your creative process with Arrielle? Did you two develop the character collaboratively at all?
Arrielle is a phenomenal actor. We went to the same performing arts college, so I knew that she had the chops to get this character where it needed to go. We didn’t do a ton of rehearsing because this character was very close to Arrielle’s life. Not in the sad way, in the being-an-influencer way. She was already comfortable finding the angles she needed, she was comfortable improvising lines and dialogue. The whole make-up tutorial, that was all her. I asked her if we could film her doing her make-up as if she were doing a YouTube tutorial and she was spot-on with it. She brought this character to life, for sure. I rarely needed to give her notes unless it was like… “okay, be grosser, really spit that blood everywhere and the yank out that tooth.” Acting-wise, she is perfect.
Was there any improvisation in terms of the dialogue or text commentary, or was it all carefully scripted?
Most of it was scripted. There were a couple of scenes that were improvised. Mostly the make-up tutorial and Nicky being out in the world doing stuff. Like eating that massive ice cream or that Korean hot dog. But for the most part, it was scripted. Arrielle crushed it though, she brought a ton of good stuff to work with.
That ice cream’s cameo was very impressive. May have inspired my own lunch that day. What made you decide to focus on influencers?
I’m just obsessed with them. The same way I am obsessed with reality TV shows. I highly doubt I could ever be THAT exposed online. I like to keep a lot of my life private. My social media is fairly curated and I don’t post all the time. I hate being on my phone if I can avoid it. But those people who can just spend all their time doing this and like doing it…it’s so fascinating to watch. Like yes, give me your whole day, tell me everything you’re doing and what you love and what you hate and what products you’re using. Also, it’s so new. Like, five years ago influencers weren’t a big deal. But it seems like now that is a job that everyone wants and it’s so specific to social media. If social media goes away, what do they have? If one day they woke up and Instagram just took away their account, what will they do? I want to know. I’ve seen the videos of YouTubers who have their accounts removed and they’re like in tears just screaming into the void and we are all here watching them and eating it up. Like ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re still fucking doing it.
Maybe, deep down, I’m thinking that this is my subtle way of being like, “Hey universe, maybe it’s time you made me an influencer. It would be really cool if you did. Just saying’”…I don’t know. It would have to be an influencer who only talks about horror movies and fashion, and maybe on occasion cooks something. Maybe if I knew how to edit YouTube videos and had someone helping me, I could make this happen. Maybe if I wasn’t so lazy. Maybe. Maybe. But seriously, if someone reading this wants to help me out, I would like to do this kind of shit. I could be the It Girl of Horror. That’s the dream. Host a little Conan O’Brien-esque talk show, play movies Elvira-style, have a cooking segment. I have lots of ideas. I just don’t know the technical aspect of it all…I’m sorry, I got really off track.
No, I love it! But yes, back to the interview…was the zombie imagery symbolic? How does it tie into the theme?
I think, in the beginning, I wanted a zombie because you never need to explain a zombie. Like, you can just be like, “shit went down and now there are zombies,” and everyone is like, “yeah, that tracks.” Then as we filmed and edited, I realized that I needed her to be a sort of zombie in her own life. She goes through the same motions every day, expecting that today will be the day that she goes viral, but nothing ever happens to her…until something huge happens to her. She was a zombie before she even became one.
Fantastic. How have people been responding to Verified?
So far, they have been really good. Someone called it “Emily in Paris meets The Walking Dead” or something and I was like YUP THAT’S IT. But it’s been well received. I’ve been very encouraged to write and direct more short films and features. Which is something that I really want to do and will continue to do going forward. It won a couple of awards at Salem Horror Fest and Knoxville Horror Film Festival, which made me openly weep because I didn’t think it would even get into festivals. It’s still playing film festivals now and I’m still waiting to hear back from a few more. Hopefully, you will be able to check it out at a festival soon. If not, I’ll throw it up online by the end of the year.
But hey, if you are reading this and you want a non-union director/actor/writer, I am your lady. I got a stack of scripts ready to go and we can fuck shit up together, film-wise.