TV & Movies

How Director Quinn Shephard Turned Dylan O’Brien Into A “Viral Weed Blogger”

Her second feature film, Not Okay, creates pitch-perfect parodies of current e-kids.

Dylan O'Brien, Quinn Shephard, and Zoey Deutch, pose on set of the 'Not Okay' movie.
Courtesy of Quinn Shephard

Just when we thought we hit peak scammer, Not Okay is here with a whole new brand of con artist. The film (out now) follows Danni Sanders: a Zillennial Karen, wolf in Reformation clothing, human embodiment of Instagram social justice infographic. Played by Zoey Deutch, Danni is a would-be influencer whose entire caper plays out on Instagram. When we first meet her, she’s faking a trip to Paris. A photo editor at a fictional, millennial-leaning blog, Danni uses her photoshopping skills to stage Emily in Paris-style photos of herself by places like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. But when a terrorist attack hits the city, she doesn’t admit she’s actually been holed up in her Bushwick apartment. Instead, she doubles down on the lie: writing a personal essay about the trauma she experienced in the wake of the attacks and befriending Rowan (Mia Isaac), a teenage school shooting survivor-turned-influencer-activist.

“To me, the movie starts like a comedy but becomes a slow-burn horror,” the film’s writer-director, Quinn Shephard, tells Bustle. “Which is sort of what it feels like to be alive in America as a young woman right now. We’re living in a horror show.”

While Danni’s actions are grotesque, Shephard, a former child actor, believes they’re only heightened versions of what happens IRL — not uncommon. “There’s a really disgusting glamorization of trauma [happening online],” says the director, who’s 27. “[Danni has] a willingness to not learn about the world around her, and not become self-aware, which allows her to glorify trauma. It’s something that, unfortunately, a lot of people witness and see around them.”

As adept as Danni is at scheming on social, Shephard has an even better grasp on internet culture, masterfully satirizing the condition of being extremely online, and in turn, skewering our current sociopolitical moment.

These are heavy themes to work through, especially in a film brimming with such pitch-perfect parodies of our current e-kids. (Both Deutch and her co-star Dylan O’Brien so thoroughly transformed into their Hype House-esque characters that stills from the movie started going viral before they even finished filming.) But to Shephard, that’s the point. “What I’m excited about with satire is that I think it forces you to do a lot of self-reflection. That’s what I want to do in my work. I want to dig into what are the ugliest parts of myself, my friends, and people around me and excavate those so that we can work on them,” she says. #NoFilter.

Below, she talks Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad, the summer of scam, and bad sex.

Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) in a made-for-Emily in Paris moment.Searchlight Pictures

This film encompasses so many topical issues that it’s almost overwhelming. Gun control, Karenism, terrorism, trauma porn, the perils of social media, etc. Which of these themes was your entry point into the story?

It’s so important to me that people recognize that this film is about more than social media. I see the internet as merely a framing device in the film. In my mind, Danni was written as a satire of sheer privilege. Also, I made Danni relatable as much as I could, because I want people to see themselves in her and be like, “Hey, how can I sort this sh*t out in myself so I don’t become a Danni Sanders?”

I imagine that when you were shopping this project around there were people who wouldn’t touch it. Execs who thought that Danni was too unlikable, or that these topics were too scary to satirize.

One hundred percent. When we were looking for a home for the film and starting to talk to agents about casting, it became really clear that people either loved and got the movie or were overwhelmed by it. The movie’s polarizing. It’s a really uncomfortable watch. I get it.

When I got in meetings with people who were like, “Oh, this movie is saying, ‘Put down your phones,’” I was like, “These are not the partners.” But when I met the team at Searchlight [the film’s eventual distributor], on one of our first calls, we were talking about the Pepsi ad that Kendall Jenner did and [other examples of] taking real trauma and trying to make it a digestible ad with a hot white girl at the front. They 100% got it.

That Pepsi ad is such a great comp for this film. What else was on your Danni Sanders mood board?

I started writing it in 2018, so there’s a sprinkle of summer of scam, Caroline Calloway, all of that. A lot of the film came into focus around [the character of] Rowan. I was so angry about the epidemic of shootings that we were having, and are continuing to have. When I started writing, I was like, “There’s no way we’re ever going to shoot this film, because by the time it would get made there are going to be laws.” I naively thought, “I know that Trump is president, I know that this is happening, but we cannot keep letting children die.”

Now you’re releasing the film in the wake of Uvalde.

Exactly. I wish the things that made me angry when I wrote this weren’t still happening.

Shephard, third from left, at the New York premiere of Not Okay.Cindy Ord/WireImage/Getty Images

There are even small, seemingly throwaway moments in the movie that are more relevant now than ever. Like when Danni is walking around Brooklyn, drinking Diet Coke, and casually popping Plan B. I’m sure you didn’t think that would be such a political statement when you wrote it.

No, I really didn’t. I also didn’t think the RBG retrospective joke in the movie would age the way that it did. There are even multiple Senate and Supreme Court comments in the film.

The film is also a fun house mirror, especially seeing Zoey and Dylan completely transformed into these hypebeasts.

With Dylan, he’s playing like a viral weed blogger, so right away I had the MGK, Justin Bieber, Pete Davidson vision in my head. Dylan was immediately like, “Let’s go hard.” He was watching documentaries about YouTubers, TikTokers, and Hype House people.

Mia Isaac was 17 at the time, and would show me TikTok thirst trap boys, and then I was sending Dylan teenage boy thirst traps from TikTok being like, “Can you do this pose at the influencer party scene?” It was so ridiculous. I was bookmarking hundreds of internet boys and sending him photos, being like, “What about this shirt? What about this fanny pack?”

But the best part — and sorry for the spoiler — is that Dylan’s character is terrible at sex, whereas Pete Davidson and MGK’s whole personas derive from the idea that they’re apparently great in bed. It seems to troll girls who like these kind of f*ckboys.

I was really trolling the fandom by giving them the least sexy sex of all time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.