Interactive film: We find out what it is, what opportunities exist for actors in this exciting new genre and what skills you need if you want to audition
In this episode of The Spotlight Podcast, we’re joined by Harry Chadwick and Grace Chadwick, sibling founders of INTERFLIX Media to talk about the gamification of cinema and their work in the world of interactive film. Grace is the managing director of the company, as well as an actor and producer, and Harry works alongside her as a writer and director. Together they create films and commercials with an interactive narrative.
We catch up with them to find out:
- Interactive content and what it is
- Opportunities for actors in the genre
- How to get an audition
- What the casting process looks like
- All about their new film, The Isle Tide Hotel.
Grace and Harry Chadwick, INTERFLIX Media
Welcome Grace and Harry! Can we start off by finding out about your background in film?
Harry Chadwick: I started working as a runner when I was 16. I helped a friend’s father at the BBC moving boxes and then just worked my way up. I remember I held a door open for a wardrobe lady and she said, “Oh, that’s very nice of you. Would you like to come on the next short film I’m doing?” And then it spread from there. I think I did every position going.
I was on an internal shoot for John Lewis, and I remember speaking to the cameraman and [saying], “I think I want to write stories.” And he said, “You can’t watch someone do that, Harry, you’re going to have to go to university.” So I took myself off to university and got a BA (Hons) degree in screenwriting.
Grace Chadwick: I actually trained as an actor, which I did for eight years professionally. I went to New York and studied at a school called Circle in the Square. It was amazing living in New York, but hard to get an agent when I came back [to the UK] as a graduate who didn’t have a showcase.
Harry’s a scriptwriter, I was an actor, and so it made sense that we made our own films. I said to him, “I really want to do something.” And he said, “Well, here’s a load of scripts I’ve written. Let’s make something.” And we joined forces in 2014 with our first short called Pardon the Intrusion.
What inspired you to create INTERFLIX Media?
Grace Chadwick: We always looked at how we can push the boundaries in film and where the areas are where we could make a name for ourselves. Harry came to me in 2015 with our first production company, Adrift Pictures. VR had been around for decades, but it was having its renaissance and was more location-based, so Harry said, “Let’s make narrative content. Let’s make short films in the VR space.” We did that for about four years and got commissions from the US and China.
In 2019 we were commissioned by an American distributor called Amaze to create interactive content, and that’s really how we got our hands on the tech. Harry was experimenting with scriptwriting in terms of multi-narrative pathways. When COVID hit in 2020, the commission stopped as the world did. And we said, “Okay, how can we make this into a new entity?” We were picked up by the British Film Institute and Creative England to mould the business into taking it out of the headsets and into the mass market.
Before Bandersnatch was released, it was hard to explain to people what we were creating, but as soon as that came out, it was like a piece of gold. You could easily say to anybody, “Oh, have you seen Bandersnatch?” We created INTERFLIX off the back of that.
How would you describe ‘interactive narrative’ media?
Harry Chadwick: I don’t mean to sound cynical, but from a financial point of view, interactive is a buzzword, isn’t it? It gets people excited. But interactive storytelling takes many different formats. It’s just the audience getting actively involved. They have to be a participant in the creation of the telling of the story, whether that be a play or a book where you have to turn to page 17 in order to read the next scene. In our case, it’s making the audience choose where the story goes when they watch a film.
The simplest way of describing it is we make films with buttons that allow the audience to pick where the story goes. They are actively responsible for the character and the choices that he or she makes by choosing a specific path.
How do you tackle writing a script with branching narratives?
Harry Chadwick: It’s not easy. Many screenwriters will know this, and especially game developers, as they’ve been doing it for decades, but when you’re creating a script for a normal linear film, there are always possibilities of where the story could go. You’ve always got options. The character could do this or the antagonist could react like this. The branching narrative allows you to explore multiple different avenues. You’re reaching a point where a screenwriter would say, “Okay, what happens next?” But instead of them making the decision, you’re allowing the audience to do so. If you tackle the story in steps and stages, it’s actually reasonably simple in terms of where the story can go.
How involved across the whole filmmaking process are you?
Harry Chadwick: We’re very involved, and that just comes down to budget requirements. People who know about interactive media are well aware that it’s been around for a long time, [think] back to Night Trap and all those 1980s game FMVs (full-motion videos) that you could play. It’s now having a rebirth – a renaissance if you like – but the audience for this type of content is still limited. It’s growing rapidly and very quickly, but at the moment budgets have to stay low in order to recoup your investment for your investors.
Is it expensive to make this kind of content?
Harry Chadwick: If you have a producer like Grace, then the answer is no! Because if it’s formulated in a way where you don’t move the camera that much and you’re very organised with the scenes that you tackle at a specific point, then it doesn’t have to be. Where an actor or a performer might do three or four takes of a specific scene, if you are clever with how it’s written, you could then just change the dialogue, which would subsequently change the story. You can limit it (the filming), but make it feel very expansive.
On the process side, it’s far easier for me to direct. I write and direct everything that we do because I’ve really fallen in love with it over the last four years. I love exploring how we can vary emotions or how we tackle specific scenes. Grace produces everything. And then we construct the backend mapping ourselves.
We edit the content at the moment because there are 700…
Grace Chadwick: 732 scenes.
Harry Chadwick: Which all have to be manually interlinked with the help of our distribution partners and Grace. Grace is doing the subtitling for all of it at the moment, so it’s a real hands-on sort of experience, but we love it.
Hopefully, as we grow and bring on other people to fill those roles, at least we have an understanding of what they’re going through, and can help them in that process, and be a bit forgiving in the time that they need.
You’ve spoken in the past about the ‘attention economy’, can you explain what that is and what it means for an audience?
Grace Chadwick: It’s one of the reasons why Harry and I are so excited about this type of genre as it’s solving a massive issue in the creative sector. All of us are guilty of multiple screens at the same time, scrolling Instagram whilst watching the latest TV show, whilst probably having our laptop open. People’s attention is all over the place. There’s too much content for us to consume at once. So for us, it’s about grounding our audience’s attention by getting them actively involved in our story. They’re immersing themselves in one piece. Their attention isn’t all over the place. Actors can make sure that their fan base is engaging with them.
I think it’s a really important issue that creatives need to look at – how they solve that issue, from how they market their content, all the way through to the end product itself. That’s one reason why I think people are gravitating towards this type of genre because it just solves that issue automatically.
Harry Chadwick: With the advent of streaming services and the amount of options that people have, normal television and film have, in my opinion, progressively gotten so good. You have to stand out. Think of Succession and shows like The Last of Us. Television productions are phenomenal and everyone’s watching them. And is that a reflection of the fact that there is just so much choice that you have to up your game? People are expecting more from their content and this [interactive film] is a great way of getting them actively involved and allowing them to choose.
Grace Chadwick: Harry and I do a lot of research. It’s vital that you look at your audience base. If you look at the generations that are coming up, you’ve got Gen Z, and Alpha and they expect to be interacting with their content in a different way to what millennials or the generation before that expect. [They don’t expect] to sit down and watch a piece of content, they want to be playing it. They’ve grown up in a generation where that’s just the norm, whether that’s interacting with social media through to more traditional film and television.
You’ve produced award-winning films and have been recognised by the Oscars, can you tell us about showcasing your work at film festivals?
Grace Chadwick: We were really lucky to be long-listed for an Academy Award for our first short, Pardon the Intrusion. It’s always exciting to put your films in front of peers and people in the creative sector and those that aren’t.
Harry Chadwick: We recently went to the Berlin Film Festival, which was a great experience, chatting with sales agents and other producers and film festivals that are there. There’s a growing consensus that interactive media, whether that be VR, AR, or branching narrative, needs to have its place in film festivals before it reaches the mass market in a really big way.
A great example of this is Immortality, which is a film by Sam Barlow that’s available on Netflix. It was one of the nominees for the Game of the Year awards. It was filmed as a film and has buttons. I think there needs to be some kind of recognition within the industry that these two worlds are colliding and people are enjoying this content. At some point, it would be great to help this new medium by introducing it into festivals and allowing audiences to experience content in a different way.
Do you think the work you’re doing is a natural fit for streamers now they’re paying more attention to games?
Grace Chadwick: Absolutely. Netflix have their game side, where the likes of Immortality sit, and they also have Netflix Interactive, which has less gamification. I would say it’s more of a story-based branching narrative that doesn’t include any of the gamification that we tend to do. But it’s definitely coming. The big streamers are paying attention to this type of content, which is exciting.
Harry Chadwick: And having it sat on a streaming service allows audiences who aren’t necessarily gamers to enjoy this type of content. From a technology perspective, it naturally sits on gaming consoles like PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo, Steam, etc. We know that they’re getting behind this type of content because Xbox demoed The Isle Tide Hotel at the GDC (Game Developers Conference) in San Francisco. It’s going to be in the upcoming festival as well. It’s an FMV but they’re showcasing it as a game. So we know that it helps them fulfil a need for their audience base, that small but hardcore demographic that likes this type of content.
Can you tell us about your latest film, ‘The Isle Tide Hotel’?
Harry Chadwick: The Isle Tide Hotel is on all major gaming platforms. If you own an Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo or a PC with Steam or Epic Store, you can purchase it. You play as an absent father who must rescue his teenage daughter from an eccentric cult at the Isle Tide Hotel.
It’s very brazen for me to say this, but it’s a Wes Anderson-inspired adventure. So it’s quite quirky. We have 40 amazing cast members in it, each with their own avenues to explore or discover, but it features three main storylines with 14 different possible endings that greatly differ. It’s about seven hours worth of content, but each time you play it’ll be 90 minutes, which is a shorter experience for an FMV.
Do you foresee people repeating the film so they can see all the different options and pathways?
Harry Chadwick: Definitely. In order to make [repeat play] enjoyable, we’ve put in the writing milestones or gateways that you reach and you think ‘I could have followed him’ or ‘I could have gone with that person’ or ‘What would’ve happened if I didn’t get kicked out of the hotel?’ A great example of this is when you enter the hotel at the very start, you pass an actor called Amit Shah and he’s nervously outside the hotel. He’s just about to speak to you and loses his nerve as you enter the hotel. There’s a possibility that you won’t ever see him again until later. I can’t give it away, but you know he’s there. In some scenarios, I could have spoken to him and learned his story. So it’s about teasing certain aspects to the audience. You’re almost tempting people to come back.
You mentioned you had a 40-strong cast, how did you go about casting?
Grace Chadwick: We partnered with the team at Daniel Edwards Casting. Harry and I have actually known Daniel since I was 14 and Harry was 17/18, just through working.
Harry Chadwick: At the very start of this conversation, when I said I held the door open for the wardrobe department, I met Daniel working on that short film.
Grace Chadwick: He’s been a wonderful family friend for a long time and we broached the subject with him. We said, “We know you’re a prolific, fantastic casting agent, but would you guys ever consider doing something a bit crazy? And it’s this thing called interactive filmmaking.” And luckily Lucy [Allen], [who’s] a bit of a gamer herself, was straight on board. We worked really closely with her and Tom [Payne] to educate actors and agents on what this opportunity was. A bit of a barrier to entry we found was making sure people understood what it was we were trying to create. When any new genre comes about, it’s about education and really diving deep into what they can expect.
We did a lot of decks for the actors so that they could see the mapping and understand what we were trying to achieve. Michael Xavier, our wonderful lead, was in every single scene and he was like, “Guys, how on earth in five weeks are you expecting to shoot 300 pages, seven hours of footage? This is bonkers, you’re never going to do it.” And we were like, “Trust us, we’re going to do it.” We know how to structure this now, we’ve done it so many times. He couldn’t quite believe that we got through so much.
What would a typical day on set look like for an actor?
Grace Chadwick: Chaotic! It’s like any other day on set because we’re not scrapping the norm. Harry will always make sure that we have our interactive mapping printed out in a huge version so that we can talk the actors through where they are in the story and what storyline they’re in at the moment. That might mean that yesterday they were on a completely different story path, and so their emotions are going to be completely different to the ones that they’re playing today. And of course, with interactivity, you have multiple options for the same scene. So Michael, our lead, would have to play the same scene but in different emotional states.
Do you work closely with the cast?
Harry Chadwick: Absolutely. It’s exciting for the cast to do something new and a bit different and I think the challenge of that really excited a lot of actors. When we had an initial discussion with Lucy, we were looking for more theatre-trained actors. It’s quite full-on and I think a big difference for the cast was the turnaround time because you’re shooting a lot of content in such a short window. They weren’t sitting around with their books quite as much. It was a lot more fun and almost like shooting theatre in that way. It’s a lot more active. Not that you would notice! Our DOP (Director of Photography), Ravenna Tran, comes from the gaming industry and has a phenomenal eye. She shot it in a way that you wouldn’t know that it was so quick. We always wrapped on time every day – that was down to Grace.
Grace Chadwick: When you are faced with so much to film, even if it’s a traditional feature or short, you have to be so organised. When you are essentially shooting three feature films, it has to be another level. Everybody has to know what they’re doing.
Harry Chadwick: The danger with interactive storytelling is if you miss a scene, it might derail that branch, it might not connect. So it’s almost imperative that you get the content because otherwise the gamification side of it won’t work and won’t make sense.
What does the audition process look like?
Grace Chadwick: We try to keep very much to how it’s always been done. We want to make sure that it’s accessible and feels comfortable for actors, primarily in those audition stages. We do send sides but it’s harder when you are sending out the script to the lead cast because it’s 350 pages that, unless you’re playing it through the software that we have, you’re reading it like you’re on page 14 and it’ll say turn to page 74 because that’s when the next option is. It feels like you’ve been reading for hours, but in screen time it’s only going to be about five minutes. It can feel a little disjointed for actors when they’re reading scripts like that, especially if they haven’t come across it before. So we tend to send a linear version as well so they can read it like a traditional story. Then we give them the other options that could have played out.
Harry Chadwick: I think it’s just about being clear. When you [traditionally] send sides, you might pick certain scenes throughout the film where you can get a picture of where that actor is taking that character arc and that difference in emotion. Whereas, for us, it might be the same scene, and we might just give them three pages and on one of them the text would allude to them pleading in one, threatening in another, or being arrogant in the third. That’s a unique difference, but actors can read it’s the same location at the same time, but it’s being delivered in a different emotional state.
How can actors get into working within interactive storytelling?
Harry Chadwick: As far as directors and production companies that are producing this type of content go, keep an eye out. We went through Spotlight to cast The Isle Tide Hotel and there are always projects coming forward. Keep an eye out for that ‘interactive’ tag in the [job] description.
Grace Chadwick: Immerse yourself in the genre to really understand what you’re auditioning for. Go on Netflix, [as] the likes of Bandersnatch are out there. Look under the FMV tag where there are a lot of these titles. It’s about really understanding that this is a type of genre that you’re interested in and want to get involved in because it’s not for everybody.
Is it helpful for actors to also be gamers in order to understand interactive narrative?
Harry Chadwick: Not naming names, but the majority of the cast of The Isle Tide Hotel weren’t gamers and they still had a firm grasp and understanding quite quickly of how it unfolds.
Grace Chadwick: I think what excited them was the fact that they were opening themselves up to a gaming audience, which we can see – I think this year alone there are about 18 game adaptations coming to TV – because those cross genres are so prevalent in the industry now just financially, it makes sense for the industry. That genre didn’t sink when COVID hit, it boomed. There are such exciting opportunities there, and I think that that’s why we’re seeing a lot of actors wanting to open up to that audience base because they are so loyal to the characters that they play.
We have the wonderful Richard Brake [in The Isle Tide Hotel], he plays ‘The Night King’ in Game of Thrones and he was saying at Comic-Con, where all the gamers are going, that his fanbase is so passionate. And I think that’s wonderful for actors. I think you don’t often get that in film so much unless you’re Brad Pitt, but if you’re playing some of those smaller roles then people really gravitate towards you because they love your character in the game. Speaking as a past actor, it’s something that’s really thrilling.
What tips do you have for performers who are working, or want to work in interactive film?
Harry Chadwick: This is really specific but [because of] the way interactivity is shot and the way we cut it in the edit room, once the performance of the scene finishes, there needs to be an eight-second pause. So we hold a frame for eight seconds on that character to allow the audience to read the options or click and pick where they’re going to go next. That eight seconds is looped. So my tip for any actor in this FMV would be never, and it sounds obvious, but never let your guard down. It’s like theatre in that regard.
Hold the character in those eight seconds or bring something new into that silence. From a performance perspective, it would be great for any cast member to keep that in mind and think, how can I use that silence and that time to bring something a little bit different to keep the emotion of the character alive in that scene?
Grace Chadwick: Don’t underestimate how fast it needs to be shot. Very much like theatre, it’s about knowing that script back to front. And understanding the timeline, not just understanding your scene, but understanding how that scene interlinks with the three different pathways and where you are in that emotional state, depending on which timeline you’re in.
What are you or have you recently watched, read or listened to that you’d recommend?
Grace Chadwick: Harry and I have both had babies in the last six months. I’m so behind but I’m on episode four of the last series of Succession. And also a sitcom called Catastrophe on Netflix, which is quite old now. I’m not sure if it’s still shooting, but I’m really enjoying that because it’s bitesize. I [don’t have] to sit down for an hour and be interrupted by a baby!
Harry Chadwick: I listen to many audiobooks to and from work about writing. Whenever we tackle a new script or concept, we always go back to the beginning and learn the basics. And that’s mainly because I’ve got a terrible memory. There’s a great audiobook that I listen to before we go onto any production called Directing Actors by Judith Weston. I also listen to actors’ audiobooks about how to work with directors.
Thanks to Harry and Grace for chatting with us today and talking about some of the innovations happening in film. If you’d like to learn more and see some of their work, you can visit interflixmedia.com and be sure to check out The Isle Tide Hotel, which is streaming now.
Photo credit: Prostock-Studio / iStock