Earlier this month, many of us were shocked to see our uncles or our old high school friends on Facebook sharing unsubstantiated claims that this whole pandemic is a hoax. Especially at a time like this, misinformation is running wild and some people would rather believe in conspiracy theories than in reality. What else do they believe in? Bigfoot? Reptilian overlords?
Brad Abrahams is fascinated with the people who believe and spread conspiracy theories. A few years ago, he made a documentary called Love And Saucers about a man who believes he had sexual relations with extraterrestrial beings. Abrahams recently made a short called Conspiracy Cruise, starring Henry Zebrowski (After Midnight) in the perfect role, having heavily researched conspiracies for the Last Podcast On the Left. It was great to reconnect with Abrahams and dive deep into conspiracies and mourn the tragedy of canceled film festivals.
“….if the most ridiculous or outlandish of the theories started to come true, or actually became true- how terrifying or horrifying that would be?”
Chris Aitkens for Nightmare On Film Street: How did Henry Zebrowski become part of the project? I remember he mentioned Love And Saucers on the Last Podcast On The Left a few times.
Brad Abrahams: Shortly after Love And Saucers was released, Henry had started tweeting about it, and seemed to be a big fan. So I reached out to him, and told him I was also a fan of Last Podcast [on The Left], and he invited me onto their Patreon show, which is usually interviews with people. So it was just me, Ben [Kissel], and Henry having a chat about Love And Saucers, and then David Huggins also patched in, which was pretty great. So I kept in touch with those guys, and when I had the idea of Conspiracy Cruise— it’s basically Henry’s alter ego, without much work to be done— I reached out to him and his manager, and they were all in. No negotiations.
NOFS: So was this the first non-documentary you’ve done, or have you done other things before that I’m not aware of?
BA: So only many, many years ago in film school, and then other scripted stuff has been exclusively in the commercial realm, branded stuff. But since film school, I haven’t really done an actual narrative film, so I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone as much as I could.
NOFS: What inspired you to write the script?
BA: There was a real Conspiracy Cruise in 2016. It was very similar; it was basically a hundred conspiracy theorists on a cruise of six thousand regular people. They had a conference room rented out and they had these lectures, and then they would have mixers and party nights. A few journalists went on that cruise, one of them in particular, Anna Merlan, she was working for Jezebel and now she’s at Vice, she wrote this amazing article about her experience. That was the factual inspiration backbone to it, but I had always thought about how conspiracy theorists would react if the most ridiculous or outlandish of the theories started to come true, or actually became true- how terrifying or horrifying that would be? On top of that, I had a horrible experience doing a shoot on a cruise ship years ago that caused me to quit my job at a production company just because it was awful in every way. I have some cruise ship PTSD that fed into this as well.
NOFS: Did you actually film on a cruise, or did you just rent a conference room?
BA: Yes, for most of it, it was just in a hotel. Like the rooms, conference room and hallway, but then I subjected myself to a cruise to get some B-roll for a couple of the sequences, just a two-day discount cruise from Palm Beach to the Bahamas. That was really sad, it was half-empty, half-broken down, scamming older people into timeshares. It was sad, but it was just what I needed for the footage.
NOFS: Was there any aspect of the production that you weren’t used to having mostly worked in commercials or documentaries?
BA: The planning part is similar to bigger commercials, but it was more working with the cinematographer Ava Benjamin Shor— who’s amazing, just the level of thought that she put into planning each shot and the motivation behind it. For commercials, you plan things, but you don’t really think about motivation and mood, so it was really photography that was different and a lot of fun.
“I had a horrible experience doing a shoot on a cruise ship years ago […] I have some cruise ship PTSD that fed into this as well.”
NOFS: I remember when we first talked, you were telling me that you’re more interested in the people and the culture of conspiracy theories, not necessarily the theories themselves. I really saw that in the short, especially in some of the characters that come to the meeting, specifically I liked how you included a libertarian into this crowd. Why do you think it was necessary to put him there?
BA: Partly, these are archetypes that I’ve seen through watching conspiracy theory videos and videos about them doing research, and then there’s some people that I know that are like that, conspiracy theorist or not. But I did notice that there’s this crossover between—I don’t know if you know the word “anarcho-capitalist,” but they’re mostly libertarian and they want a non-governmental but a capitalist-driven Bitcoin Blockchain future—and it always seems to veer into conspiracy theorizing about the people who are trying to keep them down and keep people from truly profiting. So I thought, one of them definitely has to be there.
On top of that, a big thread through conspiracy theories is this sovereign citizen movement, and these are people that think they don’t legally have to pay taxes, through some loophole that doesn’t actually exist. They are usually of the libertarian bent, so in the real Conspiracy Cruise, a lot of the lectures actually had to do with evading taxes, which you wouldn’t really think of, but it makes sense if you follow the thread. Interestingly, the headlining guest on the real Conspiracy Cruise, when it was over and they docked back in Miami, he was greeted by IRS agents and was arrested for all sorts of tax evasion.
NOFS: Did Henry help at all with injecting humor into the script, or was the humor already there?
BA: He did not do any rewriting of lines. He did deliver some things differently, and there were some improv parts, like in his hotel room was all improv, and him talking to his mom on the phone. That’s where he brought his humor into it besides his delivery, but the fact that I wrote all the lines with him in mind, I felt it was already in his voice.
NOFS: Do you believe it’s a golden age for conspiracy theorists right now, especially since there’s enough media for those who look for it, like Coast To Coast or InfoWars?
BA: Yeah, and it’s a little scary and sad to see people fall into them. With the coronavirus pandemic, it has sort of drawn this line in the sand; you either think it’s real or you think it’s a hoax. The amount of people on my Facebook feed that I would never have thought would veer into sharing Plandemic is kind of staggering and worrying. I understand the thought process, but the fact that conspiracy theorizing is so mainstream now, especially with a presidential administration that seems to support it, it’s like how you said it, it’s a golden age for people who want to believe.
“With the coronavirus pandemic, it has sort of drawn this line in the sand; you either think it’s real or you think it’s a hoax.”
NOFS: Is there a particular site or media that you gravitate towards? I remember you were talking about a UFO podcast that you were listening to.
BA: One of my inspirations was this conspiracy theories artist named David Dees. He’s a believer and he creates these really surreal and horrifying conspiracy-scapes, with every single conspiracy you can imagine all in one image. And then there’s David Icke, he was the originator of the “Reptilian Agenda,” but his YouTube channel got deleted for some coronavirus-related stuff, I think. There’s another channel called RussianVids, which is a guy who claims to have no connection to Russia, but he does these false flag breakdown videos of shootings and other things. Those are my three main references.
It’s our modern folklore. I’m a skeptic, but I’m not a “coincidence theorist.” You have to acknowledge that there have been a lot of cover-ups and a lot of false flags that are documented over the years, and we only find out about them decades later. Sometimes the conspiracy theorists are right, like with Edward Snowden revealing that the government really is listening to all your conversations. I think at the very beginning of everything, there’s kernels of truth, and then, for some reason, they seem to get perverted and down the rabbit hole so much that they sound crazy.
NOFS: Do you have a particular favorite conspiracy theory?
BA: […] Do you know what Adrenochrome is? The term was first in popular culture from a Hunter S. Thompson piece. Then conspiracy theorists ran with it as being a real thing. It’s basically the blood of terrified children, that’s harvested and elites would inject it to stay young and virile. The more terrified you can make a child, the better the Adrenochrome would be. So that was part of the whole Pizzagate thing, where Hillary Clinton and her cabal with John Podesta were keeping kids as prisoners in the basement of a pizza parlor and abusing them so that they can harvest the Adrenochrome to keep them and Bill Gates young. I like that one, just because it takes so many leaps in logic. I don’t understand how you can fall inside that trap, but people do.
NOFS: I do remember Alex Jones yelling something about there being interdimensional demons involved and that there was some Satanic ritual to harvesting the blood.
BA: I think that’s when it falls into religious thinking. There’s definitely a large group that take it in that direction. That’s also at the root of the Flat Earth theory, it’s the idea that we are special, that we are not a speck in randomness in the middle of the universe, that this world was made by a creator for us and it’s the only world and we’re the only life. It’s important to put some kind of human thinking behind this, because it’s not productive to just point and laugh, and marginalize. What you can get out of it is understanding a different viewpoint, not with the idea of changing anyone’s minds, that needs to happen on its own. You have to try to understand these people as human beings and not just crazy people.
“You have to try to understand these people as human beings and not just crazy people.”
NOFS: What else have you been working on? I know you’re still working on Cryptozoologist. Where are you on that project?
BA: It’s been on the back burner but we have shot probably 30 percent of it. It’s a documentary about the field of cryptozoology, focusing on cyptozoologists themselves. We were almost going to get funding through a Canadian coproduction, but that did not happen, so now we’re opening it up to the US and beyond. We were going to pitch it at the Frontières market at Fantasia this year. That’s happening all online as well. We’re going to be pitching over Zoom to distributors and funders. But I would have loved to actually be Montreal in July.
In the meantime, we’ve been working on a docuseries about folklore, mostly around the US. The first episode, we shot and now we’re editing. It’s about Mount Shasta in California, which is a confluence of every New Age belief. It’s got inner-earth cities, the last continent of Lemuria, Ascended Masters, extra-terrestrials, channeling crystals, you name it. We’re profiling that place and the people who live there. And I’m also working on a mini-documentary on the artist I mentioned, David Dees. I went and filmed with him right before this pandemic happened. It’s been hard to edit, emotionally and ethically, someone who propagates these beliefs. It’s going to take me a long time for me to actually put it together.
NOFS: And after working on Conspiracy Cruise, would you be interested in doing a narrative feature?
BA: Yeah, definitely. There’s things I have in mind. Maybe another short, just for more experience. I want to do a fictionalized version of Canada’s first Bigfoot abduction, which happened in the 1920s. This guy, he was a miner and a contractor, was on a camping trip and he got abducted by a family of Bigfoot and was held captive in their valley, and the father Bigfoot wanted him to mate with his daughter Bigfoot, to procreate, because there were no Bigfoot left, but the guy escaped before it could happen. That’s a short I would love to make. For features, there’s ideas but I’m not ready yet for that. it’s also just so expensive compared to docs.
NOFS: What has the reaction for the short been like?
BA: So far, it’s been great, especially among the Last Podcast Network fans, of which there are a lot. That’s been great for support and sharing. Overall, I’d say 90-something percent of the comments have been very positive. Which is nice to hear, because it was depressing when all of the festivals got canceled. After you make a film, this is one of the rewards, and for that to be deleted was upsetting for a lot of filmmakers, especially those with feature premieres. It’s kind of devastating. All the online stuff is good but it’s a different experience. I decided to release it online and it’s doing really well. I’m trying to get some press for it. I had originally set out for this to be a proof of concept for a feature or for a series, like each episode could be a day on the boat, with a different conspiracy theory coming true. I’m not sure, going forward, if anything will come of that, but maybe, if someone else seems to think so.