If you’re as enamored with all things spooky as we are, you may have heard of Michael Gallagher. Two years ago, the then-26-year-old director entered his six-minute horror project “Unfinished Business” in YouTube Space’s Guillermo del Toro-inspired short film competition, beating out a legion of 200 fellow artists for a shot at a development deal with Legendary Digital Studios. The product of that union: The Thinning, his third (and ostensibly most ambitious) feature-length film, following the 2012 horror movie Smiley and the 2016 comedy Internet Famous.
A post-apocalyptic venture set in a future society founded on a didactically imposes population control system, The Thinning may deviate from Gallagher’s horror roots, but is indeed no great leap from his darker sensibilities. “The Thinning is definitely more of an action thriller than horror,” Gallagher told Nerdist, “but when you have a situation as dire as the setting of this movie, it is definitely horrific.” Indeed the notion of high school-aged kids competing for survival—a more academically-inclined Hunger Games, if you will—is no pleasant notion. “And while we are not explicitly showing graphic violence, the implications of the plot are huge and I definitely wanted to cast a cloud of dread over the characters that is done so masterfully in a lot of my favorite horror films.”
Gallagher delves into some of those favorites, drawing on what he thinks the genre does best. “I grew up on John Carpenter movies, and I always loved how he used sci-fi, horror and post-apocalyptic settings to talk about things in society that bothered him,” he says. “In The Thinning, there are definitely nods to some of my favorite speculative fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale to paranoid political thrillers of the ’70s, like Three Days on the Condor or The Parallax View. And maybe a hint of The Twilight Zone.“
That air of social commentary seems to have been of paramount influence on Gallagher, who approached his latest project armed with the ambition to say a few things about our society today. “We definitely wanted to use the real world issue of overpopulation as a jumping off point for the plot— which takes place in a sort of “bizarro” United States— an adjacent parallel universe,” he says. “Steve [Greene, co-writer] and I are big fans of conspiracy theories that the internet seems to manufacture in mass. There are a lot of really sinister ones about how globalization is a huge scheme by the owners of the world who are trying to RFID chip every citizen, poison the water supply and control all the currency.”
He continues, “Kids are really indoctrinated today about success in school leading to a successful life. Every student has so much immense pressure put on them to go to a great college that many feel their adult lives depend on it. We thought it would be fun to amp up that built in tension teens have towards testing by taking that fear literally and building a world around it.”
Population control is hardy the only issue that Gallagher aims to tear into in his latest feature. “The education system in America has always bothered me; the immense focus put on training students to pass tests, not to retain information, is sickening,” he says. “And the system in place to select students for colleges is rigged. Half the time it isn’t even about grades—it’s about who you know, what sport you can play for the university, and how much money your parents can fork over to the school.”
Gallagher hopes that The Thinning may be able to fill what he feels is a void of crucial commentary on the subject.”I hadn’t seen that specific problem explored in a meaningful way in a science fiction movie and it felt like someone needs to stir the pot and start that conversation,” he says. “We’re creating a debtor nation of young adults who are going to be paying off student loans working entry level jobs—if they can find them—and be a slave to the system.”
Although the themes of The Thinning may be underserved, there’s no denying that it has ample company when it comes to genre. Gallagher is well aware that his filming is joining the especially dense community of contemporary post-apocalypse movies, and is excited to contribute something altogether new to the horde. “I think everyone has seen their fair share of post-apocalyptic dramas, so we only wanted to do one if we could bring something new to the table,” he says. “Most of the movies that are made for the teen audience seem to talk down to them, which is incredibly annoying. Teens are wildly sophisticated but the content for that demo seems purposefully dumbed down. We wanted to make a sophisticated thriller that just so happens to be set in a high school.”
And while Gallagher insists he doesn’t want to “speak too much to the ‘twist’ in The Thinning,” he teases this inevitability just enough to whet our appetites. “I love juxtaposing characters in a sequence to create tension and build to a shattering climax. That was something Steve Greene and I focused on when writing the script for the short Unfinished Business and feature script of The Thinning.” If you’ve seen Unfinished Business, you know that it packs quite a surprising conclusion onto the end of its eerie six-minute run. “With the longer run time, we get the opportunity to create fully realized characters that you can truly care about, which just makes any dramatic sequence 10 [times] more rewarding for the audience.”
The director is ready and willing to admit that his script and camera work alone cannot pull all the weight of his film. “Technically speaking, once you care about the characters, it’s all about the editing and music,” he says. “Luckily I got to work with an amazing Composer, Brandon Campbell, who did the music for [The Thinning and Unfinished Business]. He’s written music on huge shows like Game of Thrones and Person of Interest, so he knows exactly how to milk every drop of suspense out of a scene and keep the audience attention focused on the drama. Music is essential in storytelling because it helps with pacing, mood and emotional connectivity. The Thinning has so many moments of high drama. I was incredibly thankful to be working with such a dedicated and talented composer.”
The Thinning may be a sizable leap from straight-up horror endeavors like Unfinished Business and Smiley, but Gallagher’s true filmographic outlier is Internet Famous, a satirical comedy. “I love being able to bounce around between tones. It keeps me sane!” he says. “Internet Famous was a blast to make because we got to comment on the outrageous egos bustling around the world of YouTube stars.”
Still, Gallagher sees an inherent connection between the genres he’s tackled. “There is a very fine line between comedy and horror because if you take anything scary and bend it enough, you can get a laugh,” he says. “And comedy is all about truth, so if you can hit a deep enough truth with a joke, it can actually unnerve people.”
As for future ideas to meld the genres, Gallagher has quite a few. “We have a few screenplays that fall smack dab in the horror-comedy genre that we are dying to make,” he says. “One is about high-tech consumer animatronic robots that go berserk and kill their oblivious beta testers in Silicon Valley.”
Unfortunately, though horror comedies may be some of our favorite types of films to watch, they are apparently not the easiest movies to get made. “It’s always tough to get people to fund the genre bending movies because they can be hard to sell internationally,” Gallagher says. “Fear knows no language. Comedy can be so region specific. I wish more studios were looking to making movies that take chances and combine the two. John Landis built a career on being able to make so many classic horror comedies in the ’80s, so I’m optimistic it’s just a matter of time before they are back in fashion. Until then, we’ll have to keep it interesting one genre at a time.”
The Thinning is available now on YouTube Red.
Images: Legendary Digital Media/YouTube Red
Editor’s Note: Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks.