Under the influence

Christine Vrem-Ydstie and Brian Wiebe on I Am A Channel

by Jennie Kermode

I Am A Channel
I Am A Channel

A low budget, independent venture which does a great deal with limited resources, I Am A Channel is the latest entry in a growing list of films about influencers, but it takes its story in a rather different direction. Initially marketing herself as a bubbly beauty guru and creator of unlikely breakfast items, Heidi – played by writer Christine Vrem-Ydstie – undergoes a transformation after she experiences a vision which she believes has given her a new and deeper understanding of the spiritual world. As former follower shift gears and become acolytes, she takes centre stage in a brand new cult. It’s an interesting study of power dynamics, isolation and the pursuit of meaning, which takes on a number of other topical issues along the way.

Meeting Christine and director Brian Wiebe to talk about the film, I begin by noting that it demands a lot from the former as an actor. Did she write it with the intention of showing her range?

“I would say Brian and I wrote it together,” she says. “It's an unusual situation. The movie is improvised, basically, but based on an outline that Brian and I created.”

There were a lot of pauses during shooting, she explains, to figure out what worked and what didn’t. The style that influencers tend to adopt lent itself to this.

I Am A Channel
I Am A Channel

“We weren't trying to make some sort of a point about scripts or improvising. I don't consider myself an improviser, necessarily, but the whole project came about really as like, ‘Hey, do you want to just spend a day doing something and making it as low lift as possible?’ And were both just really pleased with what came out of that day and decided, ‘Let's not reinvent the wheel. Let's keep doing what we’re doing.’ And that's how the whole film ended up being completed.

“We wanted to lean into how mundane and banal and shallow so much of what the influencers are sharing on their channels is, and you almost can't script that. It kind of has to be off the cuff to make it as shallow as possible. It's like if we wrote it out, it would be a little bit too researched and well thought out and it wouldn't pass the smell test.”

Watching the film makes one appreciate the effort that influencers put into their work, nonetheless. It looks exhausting for Heidi to have to be ‘on’ all the time, bright and smiling no matter how she actually feels. I ask Christine if that was something she related to as an actor.

“I think acting in general is a lot of balance until you get to a certain level,” she says, though hesitant to make any definitive statements about her craft. “I think as an actor, yeah, I feel like I have to do that a lot. And also as a woman, I feel like I have to do that. We've got the odds stacked against us, especially if we're outspoken or assertive or any of those things. So I'm very accustomed to having a big smile on my face. I'm also a generally pretty happy person.”

Brian says that when he sees musicals or shows like Glee, he thinks that performing in them might be a lot harder than playing a natural role. “Personally, it is a challenge, and I think that really comes through in this performance, that it's an expectation that's hard to meet.

“On the improvisational side of it, this was made in Chicago. I'm sure improv is an important aspect of performance everywhere, but I think especially in Chicago, with comedy as well as theatre, improv is huge there. And we also both have a mutual friend and fellow filmmaker in Casey Puccini. We worked on his projects, which were heavily improvised. I think he was also largely drawing from Mike Leigh, where he builds stuff from rehearsals with the performers before writing the script. Maybe it was not conscious, but that influence was all around us.

“I think the form of influencers, where there's no coverage or it's just them, means that they can change their performance in the edit, too. Editing is always an opportunity to rewrite what you're doing, or it's another phase of the writing process of a film. But I think the nature of influencers is that they're doing that as well, so the form really lent itself well to rewriting in the editing phase, basically.”

We discuss other films on the subject, and they both express enthusiasm for Aubrey Plaza’s work in Ingrid Goes West.

“That was one that we talked about when were first devising this,” says Christine. “I loved that movie because I think it really shows the darker side of social media, being a follower and being an influencer.”

Brian says that he liked Heidi as a character, which surprises Christine.

“I think there's something you don't get in a lot of the more caricatured depictions,” he adds, explaining that he can see her as a human being rather than just a façade.

“I think part of what makes our film a little bit different is we shot it in my apartment in Chicago,” says Christine. “I was so busy producing and helping with all of the behind the scenes stuff that much of what I brought to the role is very much me. It's just darker parts of me.

“I think many people would argue that's just what performance is. It's being very comfortable applying yourself to whatever the situation is. And so for that reason, I think that were able to get more depth than you would maybe see in a scripted version of the same story. Plus my apartment, plus my husband playing my boyfriend, plus my good friend Brian behind the camera. It was just a very comfortable situation, so I felt good and comfortable taking risks and being vulnerable and showing a lot of different colors that maybe wouldn't have come through otherwise.”

I Am A Channel
I Am A Channel

Speaking of the darker side of the character, there’s a scene early on where we see her out of influencer mode, making a bit of money on the side through a scam phone call. That scene struck me as daring, because, while it made her more interesting to me, it risks losing audience sympathy at an early stage.

“Other movies happened in the making of our movie that felt very reflective,” Christine recalls. “Like there was a movie with Rosamund Pike called I Care A Lot that was about basically the same thing, about elder abuse. But my grandmother was a subject of constant scam phone calls, people calling her, trying to extract money out of her because there was an inheritance from a distant relative or whatever it was. So that was what I brought to that particular scene.”

“I think it strengthens the character in a way because it shows a certain cruelty and grit,” says Brian. “It's foreshadowing as well. And there's agency there, I guess, too, and maybe a lack of morality as well. It's hard to pinpoint. We had an anti-hero’s journey in mind, but a lot of it just also felt very intuitive. Like, how is she doing this? Well, it's probably something pretty shady.”

Christine nods. “I think in that moment, too, it demonstrates to the audience that this is who we're dealing with. This is a ‘by any means necessary, I will get what I deserve’ type of person. And I think we were interested in who the person is who has no qualms about extracting money from really vulnerable people, and what does that person's life look like? I thought it was an interesting pivot point. It's like, not only is she kind of shallow, but she's kind of a bad person, so where are we going to go from here? And I think the influencer videos from there get even more annoyingly fake. And the real world videos become more and more... evil isn't quite the right word...”

“I think the manipulation increases in different ways in both worlds, basically,” says Brian.

We talk about the products Heidi sells to support her channel, and he says that he sees influencers and multi-level marketing as very similar,

“I think one of the things that was really in my head the whole time was like, do the people that do these things truly believe the lie that they're selling? And I think in the course of our character's journey, she believes it in the end. I don't think she does at the beginning.

“I think there is something with successful people that maybe one of their greatest strengths is their ability to trick themselves into believing their own special, super abilities. There's something really scary and dangerous there as well.”

There’s another scene that I really liked early on where Heidi is dancing with a mask, and then she apologises for cultural appropriation – but basically everything she does from then on is full of cultural appropriation.

“There's a level of unawareness of the deeper issues that are going on in the world among so many of these influencers, and you’re missing the point of what cultural appropriation means when you follow it up with ‘Namaste!’ right after.” She laughs. “I think weren't trying to make a particular point about, like, wokeism or whether cultural appropriation is good or bad. I think that we're both very left of center politically, but there's ways in which these little pieces of the culture just get picked up and misunderstood by influencers, and we wanted to make sure that was part of the story.”

We talk about the technical aspects of the film, and the decision to shoot most of it indoors.

“It was part practical, but then it felt right,” says Brian. “I think there's something about isolation, too. Like the influencers alone in their little rectangle. Early on, Heidi wants Ryan to just hang out with her and he's in another room on the computer, that sort of thing, I think we're all very isolated, so that was a big part of why went that route.”

“One thing I think we did that not a lot of movies about influencers do is we didn't include any of the likes in the video,” Christine adds. “There was no actual interaction with the viewer. So I really hope that raised the question, is anybody watching? How many people are actually tuning in? Are the seven people or whatever that show up at the end of the movie literally the only people who have ever watched these videos? Because she is so cringe in so many ways and so striving and, I think, hard to take seriously, although there are worse ones in real life. But I liked that element of it, too. I think it increased the level of, like, how delusional is this woman? And also that feeling of isolation and claustrophobia.”

I Am A Channel
I Am A Channel

How did they decide how to frame the action? We see some of it from just behind Heidi’s phone camera, but in other scenes we pull back to get a wider view of her world.

“That was one of the things I was really excited about early on, comparing and contrasting the formal approaches to the influencer style versus what I would – just as shorthand – say is the arthouse slow and boring style,” says Brian. “They're shot in very similar ways, like a long tape, static or very slow moving. But for the influencers, their whole goal is to cut out any boring moments, so there's all the jump cuts to keep it propelled along. Whereas the more arthouse style, at least – I'm not sure if it's still the trend these days, but there seems to be a real, almost like, daring to annoy the audience in how little is going on and how slow the action can be.

“I was kind of thinking about how similar they are, and one is considered the lowest brow, beneath contempt kind of things, in terms of artistic criticism. And the other... I suppose that was really what was going on in my head. And then as the movie progresses, it blurs more and more.”

He didn’t want the film to be over-lit, he says.

“Especially in big budget Hollywood stuff, and even the mid tier stuff, where everything is lit like a commercial and the house is beautiful – that has annoyed me for quite some time. We did not want it to look like that. We wanted it to feel more realistic.”

The film is now streaming on Tubi and a few smaller platforms, Christine says, and we talk about how awkward it can feel to promote one’s own work. Despite what a lot of people think, most creative people don’t enjoy that.

“We're doing our best because we're really proud of this film,” she says. “We think it's really different, and we think that it is right in lockstep with a cultural moment right now. There are a couple of cult documentaries that are out there that are eerily similar to what we created, but they actually happened in the real world. One of them is Love Has Won: The Cult Of Mother God, and the other is the Twin Flames universe, both of which are just fantastic watches but also feel really similar to what we created. So we want to make sure that we're getting this out there now and taking advantage of that sort of synergy in the zeitgeist.

“We're operating really far outside the Hollywood marketing machine. A movie like this would never be greenlit in Hollywood right now, which is a shame. I think that we have a fresh perspective and a fresh style, so I hope that we can get people interested on social media, which is hilarious.”

“We've been reaching out to influencers,” admits Brian.

Since shooting on I Am A Channel was completed, Christine has left Chicago for Los Angeles, where she’s building new industry connections. She’s also collaborating with her husband, Ryan Imhoff, who appears in the film, on a new project which he and his friend are developing.

Brian, meanwhile, is keeping busy with video production work, but is also involved in a ‘by any means necessary’ remake of Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, involving 21 different filmmaking teams.

“I like making work that has an established set of rules from the beginning that guide you throughout,” he says. “It's just part of the nature of being indie filmmaker that you have all these restrictions to start with. But I think sometimes that's where good creative moments occur.”

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