Producer Neal Edelstein on Unpredictable Storytelling for Mobile Devices

Neal Edelstein, a film producer whose credits include The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive, and The Ring, turns director with Haunting Melissa, a horror narrative conceived as an iOS app. Neither movie nor TV show, Haunting Melissa is a series of episodes that are delivered to your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch one at a time, on a schedule dictated by the app itself, not necessarily by your viewing preferences. And it's designed to be creepy — the ideal viewer is sitting alone in a dark room, wearing headphones and gazing into a handheld screen. That's an intimate way to tell a scary story. We sat down with Edelstein in a dark coffee shop in the West Village — all the better for staring into an iPad screen — to get a preview of the app, and to ask him about making his directorial debut in a new narrative medium.
StudioDaily: Where did the idea for Haunting Melissa come from?
Neal Edelstein: I wanted to tell a story in a different way — a film story. It wasn't about taking a 90-minute movie or script I had laying around and repurposing it, stuffing it inside an application and trying to compete with Netflix. It was about telling a story in a new way. Linear storytelling, but a story that would come to people in bits and pieces. You could get 20 minutes Friday at 9 p.m., and then you could get five minutes Monday at noon, and the next piece of content a few days later. It's linear storytelling, but it comes to you and you don't know when.
So it's not an interactive story.
It's not Where's Waldo. It's not Choose Your Own Adventure. It's not a video game. I love video games, but I don't know that world. My mind's about linear stories. To really grab people, you've got to tell a story, and it has to be a passive experience, in my opinion. So this is a new way to tell stories, built in the foundation of cinema and filmmaking but leveraging application technology.
The app itself is like your marketing campaign in an iPhone. When you come in, you'll always see the key art on start-up. And then you'll get into the landing page with the chapters. It's a dynamic environment with a storyline. A black-and-white thumbnail means you've watched that chapter. A color thumbnail means it's available to view. And tinted ones you can't access yet. So it's about anticipation. All these pieces change as you move through the storyline.
When you download the app, the first chapter is baked into the app. The app is free and the first chapter is free. After chapter one, you get this dialog box that allows you to post a status update on Facebook, and then you get chapter two when it becomes available. So the first two pieces you get for free. And you can always go back and watch them again. It's not something I really want to advertise, but the timeline changes. It's an unexpected, unpredictable story, right? Not only do you not know when the new pieces are coming, but suddenly the timeline goes from numbers to things that are not numbered. Little pieces animate and slide in at unexpected times. So this is really important because it's unpredictable. It's a story that now is seemingly finite, but in the future I've got this channel on your device. I can upload new material to the server.
Is the timing of the new chapters based on when I originally downloaded and started watching?
When you finish watching chapter one, the clock starts ticking. Then there's a number of days until chapter two unlocks. But if you only get halfway through and stop, the clock is not ticking. We get granular control on the server side to manipulate the schedule if we choose. But there's a rhythm to the schedule and a reason for its layout. I don't want people to gorge on it all at once. They can certainly watch it in its entirety again whenever they choose. But I really want to leverage the thematic notion of what this girl is going through and her experience with this unpredictable story that is being pushed to your device at unpredictable times. 
And that's the way it was scripted?
Absolutely. That's how it was scripted and conceived. One of the challenges out of the gate when I worked with the writer [novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan], was how do we leverage the technology? How do we stay on story and make sure people care? If you don't care, you've got nothing. The technology is irrelevant. But because we have push technology and the ability to manipulate a server and manipulate the content, how do we make sure that it helps with the storytelling? They go hand in hand. It's tricky, because it's a different discipline. You're not writing for the screen and you're not writing for television. It falls somewhere in between all things. Is it a book? No. But, approaching it from a writer's perspective, it's something like a book in that it has chapters that are not very long. There are two stories here — the moviemaking, the storytelling, and then the technology. I love both, but the motivator is engaging people and getting them to sit in a dark corner with their device, with headphones, and watch this.
The screen is so close. Compared to a movie theater screen, the idea of the screen being so close to you is interesting.
We're all guinea pigs to this experience now. The movie-theater experience and your position to the screen is so different from how you watch television, and now how you watch on these devices. That's the inspiration. You're holding these things in your hands, about a foot from your eyes. It's a different, captivating experience. I think it's powerful. Nothing will ever replace the cinema, which is the ultimate experience because it's a group experience and it's where all this fantastic stuff started. But for me it's about keeping people engaged and grabbing them.
Have you tested it?
No. No testing whatsoever. I've tested a lot of movies, and I think certain movies test better than others. If you don't have a large sample size, the testing is pretty worthless. And I didn't have the resources. You've gotta go with your instincts. You have to believe in what's on the page. If you open yourself up to a lot of opinions, you're doomed. You talk to people you work with through the course of the process, but at the end of the day, you go with your instincts. Would I have loved to have gotten 5,000 17-year-old girls into a movie theater? Certainly. But that's really hard to do. You can get watered down and confused, and you can lose that emotional instinct you had at the start of the process. I have no idea what the general reaction is going to be. There has been a strong response from some people who have seen the trailer, but that doesn't necessarily translate to the longer form. It's unknown, and that's really exciting.
Ironically, the guy that invented these devices, Steve Jobs, would never market or test anything, ever. By no means am I him, but I understood his philosophy. Emotionally, in terms of where you are creatively and what you want to achieve, you want to stay on that path as much as possible. It's not an apples to apples comparison — no pun intended. But the more ideas and comments you hear, the more you're going to get derailed.
How did you end up working with Klavan on this?
I happen to know him. I had sold a couple of his scripts in the past and he did a good job with horror, but I was drawn to him by his ability to do longform. Everything I have read of his was amazing — True Crime and Don't Say a Word are both his books. I've had a good working relationship with him in development, and he's just an old-school professional writer. We had a blast. It was essentially independent filmmaking, without a lot of people messing around with it.
I assume the shoot was relatively small.
It was 14 days. I shot up south of Calgary, Alberta, in Canada. My wife is from up there, and I was really inspired by the landscape and the environment. There are really good crews, and I cast all locals. I wanted to put myself in the position of making the best of where I was, and that wasn't a sacrifice at all. Those people are fantastic. We shot with the Red Epic with a cinematographer from Vancouver by the name of Norm Li, CSC, a super-talented guy. Post-production and iOS development was done in L.A. I had a lot of good people helping me make the right choices to weave it together to look and sound the way it does. There was a lot of emphasis on sound design and that kind of work. I love post-production. 
Are you going to reach out to people and try to get them to wear headphones? "This app is designed to be played loud?"
I am. I'm trying to get that message out, even in the iTunes store. But people are connected to their earbuds now more than ever. That's one of the challenges of putting content on devices where people control the operating system. Notifications can pop up right in the middle of the viewing experience. It's just the nature of these devices, and that's part of the fun of it, too. It's kind of the wild west, and it's fine. You have to embrace it.
How in the world do you promote this? What's the marketing plan?
First and foremost, I'm a firm believer that if you do something and it's quality, and you put the effort into it, it's going to find an audience. I don't have a demarcation line — "I need this many downloads." I just want to get out there and see if it spreads. The fun part is, will it go viral? You can't predict that. Do we have social media touchpoints? Of course. We have trailers. Apple has been very responsive. But we just don't know. We've all seen movies and television shows that are over-marketed. So I don't want to over-sell it. I want it to feel organic. I want people to find it. That's, to me, more interesting. A kid living in Iowa or Canada or the U.K. or Japan finding this thing without it being jammed in their face? That's a much more exciting experience. That's what I want.
Haunting Melissa is available now in the Apple app store. For more information, check it out on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.