Kurtis David Harder is gradually becoming one of the most exciting voices in horror, with his queer shocker Spiral startling fans into submission while also making a case for more gay stories in this still ridiculously regimented, still predominantly white and straight, space. Harder’s latest, Influencer, couldn’t be more different from Spiral, however. It follows a social media star who runs afoul of a wily scammer while on a paid vacation in Thailand. Naturally, nothing is as it seems with each immensely satisfying twist and devious turn further complicating what we think we know about these two women.
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Wicked Horror caught up with Harder over Zoom to discuss why we’re so drawn to influencers, what he hopes solo travelers take away from the movie, and why the credits drop almost thirty minutes in.
WICKED HORROR: Are you so excited the movie is finally coming to Shudder? It feels like it’s been forever since I watched it so I can’t even imagine how it feels for you guys.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: It has, and Shudder is so fun.
WICKED HORROR: The first thing I want to ask you is where did this idea come from? Like, where did it originate in the first place?
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Tesh [Guttikonda, co-screenwriter] and I initially had a conversation a long time ago about trusting familiarity, and it really stemmed from that. We talked about how often you travel halfway across the world, and then still look for your normal comforts as opposed to trying to actually experience places for what they have to offer. And so that was really the initial thread of the idea. And then, obviously, the aspect of who you are online versus offline and all that kind of thematic work started to trickle into the film, and just the idea that we wanted to make this really bendy travel thriller, which is something that I really like to watch in films and so look to make films like that too, it’s stuff that I just want to watch.
WICKED HORROR: Was it always focused on two women?
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: I think it just felt right, setting off these two women who come from very different worlds and looking at the parallels and the differences between the two of them. But yeah, it’s exploring a female villain, which is always fun.
WICKED HORROR: I saw something on Twitter earlier about Final Girls who turn out to be evil. And I feel like this probably fits the mark for that one, because, like, is she technically the Final Girl? She’s technically the Final Girl, I guess.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: [laughs] In some ways, yeah.
WICKED HORROR: What do you think her whole deal is?
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Well, that was kind of a fun aspect when Cassandra [Naud] came onboard. We built this vessel of … Tesh and I talked about the back story a bunch and had our own opinions, but a big thing, for when we brought Cassandra on and we met and we started building the character together, I was like, come up with the backstory for yourself, and I don’t need to know about it. There are obviously the fundamental story aspects that are really important. But for her, she kind of came up with and wrote down a lot of stuff in terms of where CW had come from, and her motives, and just why she does what she does, and I honestly just left that to her own devices. I would ask her questions, and we built off of that.
WICKED HORROR: Oh, so you don’t know what she came up with?
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: I mean, I have an idea about the motives, obviously, but in terms of like where she comes from and certain things like that, it was very much a collaborative process.
WICKED HORROR: Do you feel like she is just a lonely person, like Ryan says at one point?
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Yeah, there’s definitely that aspect to it. I think, in terms of why she does it – why she does the things that she does in the film – she obviously has some preconceived judgments of herself, and she’s just looking for attention in a similar way that influences are, in a way.
WICKED HORROR: What about the birthmark, was that always part of it? Did you always envision that the person was going to have something striking about them that wouldn’t allow them to really blend in? Or was that something that, because you were working with Cassandra, it became part of her character?
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: It developed over time with Cassandra, yeah. It was a big conversation we had with her, the integration of it into the script, because originally it wasn’t a part of it.
WICKED HORROR: It’s very interesting, because, you know, as a woman you would naturally trust another woman. But she is someone who doesn’t easily blend into the crowd. So, it adds this whole other element to it, but it only gets brought up one time. Only one person really mentions it, which is interesting.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Yeah, it’s very briefly mentioned. I think it’s something that we really liked that aspect of the intrigue of it, where Ryan starts talking about how it could be utilized. And that was a really fun exploration that Cassandra really liked, and I really liked, how we wanted to explore it.
WICKED HORROR: Since you mentioned Ryan, I have to ask you, was her f**k-boi boyfriend always going to be a Brit? Or was that just a happy accident? Because I’m Irish, so the fact that he’s a Brit makes complete sense to me ‘cause I’m just like, yeah, obviously, he’d be a prick.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: [laughs] We wrote it with him in mind. We’ve worked with Rory [J. Saper] on a couple of films. So, we were like, no, he could definitely pull this off. He’s a sweetheart in real life, but he can definitely play up the the f**k-boi aspect.
WICKED HORROR: Well, he has a sweet nature to him, he’s not an out-and-out f**k-boi.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Yeah. Well, I think for us, like, when we were writing the character, it was very much like we were building up something that I think men and women are both gonna react differently to. And when we were writing it, when we were testing it out and showing the script to different people, it was really funny and interesting to see how, like, the generalization – obviously not everybody reacted this way – but there was a tendency for men to react to it in a certain way and understand some of his motives and women to really hate him. And so, it was just interesting, especially when we started doing the festival screenings and seeing how different people reacted to his character. It was fascinating to see how different people react to him in very different ways. Are they behind his motives or against them?
WICKED HORROR: Men feel like he’s justified in a way?
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Yeah, especially the French audience. They seem to be on his side, which I found quite funny [laughs].
WICKED HORROR: Well, I mean, you kind of flip it on its head. What we usually see in these movies with the sexual assault, I mean, I guess it’s not really a sexual assault. But you know it’s kind of on that knife edge, where he’s in a position of vulnerability rather than her.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Yeah, I think for us, it was very much about playing into first judgments and undermining the motivations and seeing why these people click and how actions can speak more loudly [than words].
WICKED HORROR: What do you hope people take away from this movie, both men and women alike, but especially solo travelers?
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: I think for us, or for me at least, it was very much just about first impressions, and how we judge other people. I think, even with influencers they’re an easy out to dismiss and throw under the bus for choosing to go into that kind of a career path, but I think everybody has depths to them, I don’t think there’s anything that is true evil or good. There are a lot of nuances to every single person. So, I think just not just immediately going to judge someone because of what they do or how they present themselves online because it often is kind of a facade. We’re all trying — I think humans by their very nature are just looking for acceptance and stuff. So, it’s about exploring how the medium can be really damaging and hurtful but also helpful in a way too.
WICKED HORROR: Why do you think we’re so drawn to influencers? Why do you think people are drawn to make that their career? And why do you think we’re so drawn to watching them? Because you see kind of both sides of it in this movie.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: I think people are drawn to becoming influencers because it’s such an easy, quick way to get gratification and acceptance. We’ve become conditioned, through social media, to look for value in likes and attention in that way, as opposed to what you’re actually doing to get the likes. All you’re doing is posting photos of yourself, like what are you actually contributing? And then I think, on the flip side, there is a lot of the voyeuristic kind of “look how happy people are” when they present themselves online, that kind of thing. But oftentimes we’re looking at that as a voyeuristic out to give ourselves something to feel like we’re satisfied. But then the people behind it, who are often the clowns, are the saddest people. It’s that aspect of it that’s interesting to me.
WICKED HORROR: It’s gotta be hard to be on all the time as well. I can’t imagine every time I left the house having to document it and sell it to people.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Yeah, there’s a reason I stay behind the camera for sure [laughs].
WICKED HORROR: I admire anyone who can do it. But I couldn’t do it myself. It must feel like you can never turn off. You know what I mean? There’s that great moment where she says, “Do you never take photos of your food?” And CW says, “I prefer to eat it.” And that’s exactly what it is, you know what I mean? Do you prefer to document your life or to live it?
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: And I think, yeah, we’ve definitely started to feel like an experience or travel is all kind of worthless unless you have “evidence,” whatever that means anymore, to back it up.
WICKED HORROR: So, after working on this, how easy do you think it would be to pull off all the stuff that CW pulls off? Not like the murder stuff, obviously, but you know, stealing her identity and all of that.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: I was just talking about this. When we made the film, we did everything for real, but the technology, even in 2020/2021, was really primitive. So it’s been interesting to see how quickly and how fast the technology has evolved since we made the movie and how much more realistic [it is]. I feel like, within a couple of years, we’ll probably read about this kind of stuff happening. I just recently read an article about some scam artists who took some girl’s voice and called her family and said that she was kidnapped or something and they needed ransom money. So there are already certain things starting to happen that I think we, as the technology improves, we’re only gonna see more often, which is pretty scary.
WICKED HORROR: All the AI stuff would just make this so much easier for her as well.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Yeah, it’s crazy how that’s only been in the last year, or how much it’s grown, and how quickly. Because, the programs and the stuff we were using were pretty ghetto. You wouldn’t have been able to do it back then, but I think within a couple of years we’ll be pretty close.
WICKED HORROR: Even just something as simple as how she captures her voice. It’s the fact that she’s been recording videos. But that’s all she needs is just to pull the audio from them.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Yeah, for us, it was like, the technology took a lot to get that to work. And I think now you can just copy people’s voices or their likeness using just a couple of videos. It’s insane.
WICKED HORROR: What do you feel like is the scariest element of it? Real life element, I mean.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: Soon, we won’t be able to trust anything online. Misinformation and all this stuff is already such a big problem and when you can actually have videos and images and sound to back up stuff that’s completely false, the truth is going to be harder and harder to actually find. I think it’s a bigger general problem than just social media. But I think we’re in an interesting time here.
WICKED HORROR: You guys shot on location. And you got some really, really amazing footage. What was the biggest advantage of shooting on location, and what was the hardest element of it?
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: We were originally supposed to shoot in early 2020, and obviously we got pushed back quite a bit when travel was closed down. This is a big travel movie, so when travel was closed down there was a point, I think, a year into the pandemic where, like, we started wondering are we ever going to be able to make this movie? It feels like it’s going to be impossible. And then Thailand started to do some pilot programs that we were able to utilize where they would have – the biggest issue for us were the lockdowns, these two-week quarantines, where it just wasn’t possible with the cast and the crew to lose like a month of time going there and back. And so they started to open up some pilot programs where they would allow you to leave your hotel, and you could actually move around specific areas before your quarantine was up. The pandemic is definitely the hardest part of shooting a travel movie during the pandemic, but that also was kind of a double-edged thing, where it gave us so much more access to the country, because tourism was so down that people were much more open to letting us use locations and different things that we probably would have had a harder time accessing if tourism was still in full force. So, I think, yeah, there are definitely some pros and cons to shooting overseas in a lockdown world!
WICKED HORROR: It occurred to me that places like the hotel looked kind of empty, but I guess that kind of adds to the eerie feeling of her being there by herself.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: The story always had that aspect of isolation and loneliness, and that was what we were first looking at. It’s like, “Oh, the full moon party is still canceled, and we had a whole sequence originally planned to shoot during, like, the big full moon party on Ko Pha-ngan.” We lost a few of the things that were very much about hyper tourism and how we exploit these developing nations for photos, and just white people going over there and pretending to be rich. There’s still that element to it. But it added this isolation that was already kind of part of the theme, and that developed a little further than initially within the script.
WICKED HORROR: Before I let you go, I have to ask you if you always planned to drop the title that late because I love how late the title shows up. It’s such a good gag.
KURTIS DAVID HARDER: [laughs] That was in the first draft. Without doing too many spoilers, it was definitely something that we wanted to play with, building something up. And then the big thing, for Tesh and I, we always talk about how modern audiences are very, very smart, and they’re quick to pick up on clues and quick to pick up on where the story is going. They’ve seen a lot of these kinds of tropes before, so a big thing for us, when we were writing it, was like, “Okay, how do we tell this kind of classic thriller story, and still try to surprise them through a few turns where keep the audience guessing and see if we can kind of trick them and, yeah, play with expectations and pull the rug out from under them?”
Catch Influencer streaming on Shudder now.
** This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity