“It was really an all hands on deck, figure it out as you go film school,” Tyler Gillett says. The early days of YouTube—before the Nazis and the influencers came in and ruined everything—had a certain Wild West atmosphere. The invention of the camcorder had proven to be a boon for DIY filmmakers in the ’80s and ’90s, but getting your work seen outside of a small regional market was still a challenge. Then came YouTube, a place where the whole world could see you goofing off with your buddies on the weekend if you just tweaked the algorithm right.
For Gillett and his friends Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Chad Villella, trial and error on YouTube, along with some savvy observations about what did and didn’t work online, would eventually lead to them taking over the Scream franchise. As Gillett puts it, “That whole process, and that group we worked with… we learned everything we know from that.” Bettinelli-Olpin adds with a grin, “It was certainly more valuable than film school.”
In the late ’00s, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett were working in the offices of New Line Cinema as assistants and office managers. Bettinelli-Olpin had spent his teenage years as a member of the Bay Area punk band Link 80. Gillett had moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film production after graduating from the University of Arizona in 2004. Villella wasn’t a “New Liner,” as Bettinelli-Olpin refers to himself and Gillett, but he was there, co-starring in the videos and doing—well, anything else that needed to be done.
“I had the run of the place,” Bettinelli-Olpin says, “and the people there knew and didn’t care” that the cohort came in on the weekends to shoot videos for their YouTube channel, “ChadMattandRob.” Many of the extras in early comedy videos like “Prison Break,” where what appears to be a brutal jailhouse fight is eventually revealed to be office workers roughhousing in a parking lot, worked for New Line as well. Just having an office to shoot in added production value to the shorts, so all that was necessary was to buy some button-ups at Old Navy—“we couldn’t afford The Gap,” Villella cracks—and get to it.
Over time, the shorts evolved, first into a choose-your-own-adventure series that wasn’t as complicated as you might expect—at least, at first. The idea, according to Bettinelli-Olpin, was “there would be a win and a death, basically.” From there, the videos branched family-tree-like, which is where things got “maybe too complex at times,” as Gillett says.
But learning to keep things simple wasn’t the only thing the group took away from those videos. Designing and shooting the character deaths was a first step into genre filmmaking, and as with all things Chad, Matt, and Rob, creating the kills was a hands-on experience—especially after the woman who was helping them with makeup got an “adult job.”
That being said, another lesson learned was that the effects didn’t have to be elaborate to get the point across: Everyone gets excited and starts chiming in when Bettinelli-Olpin brings up the last Chad, Matt, & Rob Interactive Adventure, “The Treasure Hunt,” which ends with “a five-, six-, seven-minute video of us just walking through the desert. Then we tell each other we love each other and die.”
The tone of the Interactive Adventures solidified the voice of what would soon be known as Radio Silence, a combination of comedy, horror, and heartfelt emotion. But there was one more step between them and the movies: a series of ingeniously titled “prank” videos that start like Jackass segments before taking a startling turn into found-footage horror. The biggest of these, “Roommate Alien Prank Goes Bad,” has more than 34 million hits on YouTube, and—at least if the comments are to be believed—fooled more than a few kids clicking around the site that what they were watching was real.
Here, simply observing the internet culture that was developing around them in real time gave the trio another boost. As Bettinelli-Olpin explains it, “Roommate Alien Prank Goes Bad” was originally uploaded onto MySpace under the title “Chad Hates Aliens.” But the site’s algorithm changed it to the catchier and more search-friendly “Roommate Alien Prank Goes Bad.” “It took off, and we were like, ‘Ooh, that’s smart. Great idea!’ And so we stole it,” he laughs.
Another of those prank videos, “Mountain Devil Prank Fails Horribly,” directly led to a segment in the 2012 horror anthology V/H/S, both the group’s first big-screen project and the first under the name Radio Silence—a reference to what usually happened after the trio had a pitch meeting. Bettinelli-Olpin sent a link to the video to Bloody-Disgusting’s Brad Miska—“the most publicity we’d done for ourselves to date,” Gillett jokes—with a subject line simply reading, “Check this out.” In the digital-age equivalent of an old Hollywood star being discovered at a malt shop or county fair, Miska emailed them back coyly asking, “Do you know who made this?” Fast-forward a couple of years, and The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias described the Radio Silence segment, “10/31/98,” as “a great case study in how to make a lot out of a small effects budget.”
Talking about their next project, the found-footage possession horror movie Devil’s Due, is a bit more sensitive. By the time the film landed in theaters in 2014, the found-footage trend, started 15 years earlier by The Blair Witch Project, had run its course. And the critical and fan reception of the film reflected that. Asked if the choice to shoot the movie in a found-footage style was a creative one, or if it was dictated by what was popular at the time (not to mention cheap to shoot), the answer is “both.”
Gillett takes the long view, explaining, “The challenge with any found footage movie is just sustaining that format. In V/H/S and all of the prank videos, what’s so fun is that they end at a very crucial moment, when either the camera gets destroyed or the characters are killed. There’s something about rising to a moment and then ending it right there, structurally… And with a feature-length like Devil’s Due, having to design something that has the more conventional structure within that format—it always felt like those things were competing with each other.”
“A lot of the filmmaking tools that are in everybody’s kit go out the window” with found footage, Villella adds. After conferring for a moment, the trio agrees that all you really have to work with is sound design—close-ups, coverage, and music all break the illusion. It’s easy to get caught up in maintaining that pretense, Gillett adds, saying, “You end up having more conversations about the technical stuff, like ‘Why would the camera exist?’ than actually talking about character and story.”
By the time Radio Silence’s next project, Southbound, hit festivals in the fall of 2015, the trio was focused on “reclaiming [their] process.” (Or, as Gillett more bluntly puts it, they were “breaking out of directors’ jail.”) The anthology film, which places morality tales in the Tales From The Crypt mode into a supernaturally charged alternate American Southwest, brought Radio Silence together with directors Roxanne Benjamin (Body At Brighton Rock), David Bruckner (The Night House), and Patrick Horvath. The “shared sensibility” of the group was “really just fun and invigorating,” according to Bettinelli-Olpin.
When looking back at their work, whether it be no-budget, low-budget, or slightly-larger-but-still-modest-budget, the thing that stands out about Radio Silence is that they’ve taken something away from everything they’ve experienced, and applied those lessons going forward. (Talking about Southbound, Gillett says, “What matters is that you show up, and you keep doing the thing.”)
And although there’s something to be learned with every new stage of their careers—Scream was the first COVID-era shoot for Paramount Pictures in August of 2020, a whole new level of “figuring it out as you go”—as their budgets have gotten bigger, it’s been more about keeping the work grounded in the ingenuity they learned early on. Take 2019’s Ready Or Not, starring Samara Weaving as a bride-to-be who gets pulled into a violent “game” with her future husband’s depraved family in a stately manor home. Gillett says of the film, “[The] sense of collaboration and community that was a part of what we did prior to having a budget and cast and crew—that was always alive in that process.” Villella adds that the hour-long commute to set didn’t hurt, if only because it forced the trio to check in with each other every single day.
In practical storytelling terms, “staying grounded” for Radio Silence means a character-based approach to storytelling. It’s an essential element of their style, which doesn’t lean on flashy camera work—especially in Scream, which Gillett says “would be really easy to over-style”—or on outrageous gore. That being said, they’re not above soaking a character in blood for a good punch line, especially in Ready Or Not.
But even in that film, Bettinelli-Olpin argues, “If you’re with a character, and you can relate to them, the world around them can get as crazy as you fucking want. And with Samara [Weaving] in Ready Or Not, that was our thing the whole way through. When the world started to feel too wacky, she’d bring it right back down to the audience’s point of view. We try to do that in everything we do now.” It also saves money. As Gillett points out, “You don’t have to show as much of the crazy, expensive, grand setting if there’s a character that you love at the center of the story. It’s not about bells and whistles.”
In my conversation with Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett, and Villella, grounding comes up a lot, but so does having fun. Even when talking about the solemn responsibility of continuing a beloved, long-running film franchise launched by one of the genre’s all-time greats, the guys laugh and smile. They talk over each other as they shout out the producers and ADs who worked with them every day on set, and the COVID compliance team who kept the cast and crew healthy. At one point, Gillett sits back and exclaims, “Everyone was safe—and we shot a fucking movie!” as if he doesn’t quite believe it himself.
Because although, as Gillett puts it, “people really took [the movie] seriously and wanted to do it justice,” the tongue-in-cheek nature of the Scream franchise gives it an innate sense of fun—one of the pillars of the Radio Silence style. It brings to mind something else Gillett said early on in the conversation: “At the end of the day, we hope to entertain people. We think there’s some real value in the conversation that a movie is having with audiences. But it should be fun. We don’t have to take ourselves too seriously, and entertainment doesn’t have to take itself so seriously.” And if you’re trying not to take yourself too seriously, might we suggest killing off your best friends in a couple dozen YouTube videos?