The Real Story Behind Spree: Fact or Fiction?

Has the desperation for fame become an epidemic? Is social media a net negative to society, fueling bizarre behavior all for two minutes of fame? You might ask these questions after watching Eugene Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh’s film Spree.

The satirical thriller is part sad and unsettling and part sympathetic as the main antagonist goes on a live-streamed killing spree. The found-footage style gives the film a docu-reality feel, as though the events we’re witnessing really happened.

But is Spree based on a true story? Are the events real? Is Kurt Kunkle a real person? Here’s what we know:

What is Spree About?

Co-written by Eugene Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh, Spree is a thriller movie seeking to capture the interplay between technology, the gig economy, and social media.

The story centers around Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery, yep, the one from Stranger Things), who, in a bid to go viral and gain more followers on social media, starts murdering his unsuspecting ride-share passengers. The most bizarre part? All this happens on live-stream with Kurt’s followers excitedly witnessing and egging him on.

Kurt, a wannabe social media influencer and content creator, names his killing mission #TheLessonn, a play on the poisoned water bottles he offers his unsuspecting customers while teaching his watching audience how to be famous on social media.

Kurt names himself KurtsWorld96, a mouthful of a username he uses as his social media handle. He works part-time as a driver for the ride-sharing app Spree and spends the rest of his waking hours producing low-quality videos and electronic music that doesn’t elicit much attention online and lies collecting dust on the virtual shelves.

So obsessed with fame is Kurt that he manically asks his Spree customers to tag him on Instagram, assuring them that he always follows back. #TheLesson is his last-ditch attempt at becoming a social media sensation. So he outfits his car with dash cameras to record every aspect of his elaborate murder scheme.

Kurt goes to great extents to impress his followers and to gain more. At first, most don’t believe or even care whether the murders are real. Still, the wannabe social media strategist will stop at nothing to gain the fame he rightly believes he deserves, just like his idol Jesse Adams (Sasheer Zamata), a super-successful social media star.

The horror thriller debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2020, and in US theaters by RLJE films on August 14, 2020. The movie’s cast includes Joe Keery (Kurt Kunkle), Mischa Barton (London Sachs), Sasheer Zamata (Jessie Adams), and John DeLuca (Mario).

What Case Is Spree Based On?

In an interview with the Sundance Institute, co-writer and director Eugene Kotlyarenko explained that the fictional story was inspired by the real-life case of a Michigan Uber driver who went on a murder spree.

Jason Dalton was an ordinary guy with an ordinary life: married for 21 years to his dear wife and a father of two children under ten years. He made $50,000 a year working as an insurance loss adjuster. He had friends, a dog, and a cat, and was friendly to his neighbors.

Although the Daltons were doing just fine, Jason took up a side gig as an Uber driver to make some extra cash, which he’d planned to use to take his family to Disney World. But, the ordinariness of his life and his family would change on February 20, 2016.

That Saturday, the Daltons started their day as usual. Jason’s wife, Carole, took their two kids shopping and eating while Jason took their family dog, Mia, for a walk and errands.

In the evening, ready for his Uber gig, Jason got into his silver Chevy Equinox and headed out to collect the first of the evening’s fares. That night, Dalton would engage in a shooting spree that ended up with six innocent people dead and two seriously wounded.

Word of an active shooter spread like wildfire across Kalamazoo, and had law enforcement not caught up with the killer when they did, there’s no telling the extent of damage Dalton would have caused.

While in custody, the calm, mild-mannered, almost meek father of two would struggle to explain to police officers the motive behind his horrendous act that had cut short the lives of six innocent people.

“Gene McHugh (co-writer) came to me with the idea, and he was like, we should use this terrible story to develop our own,”

Kotlyarenko explained that as they gathered ideas and thought about putting the script together, they knew the best way to convey the story would be through a found-footage style shot using the dashboard cameras on Kurt’s car. This particular style would give the fast-paced American comedy horror film a sense of urgency and claustrophobia that heightens the terror.

“A few weeks later, I thought, what if we could throw in the desperation for social media fame as the fuel behind Kurt’s bizarre behavior? And what if we could make it like a live stream instead of a documentary-style film?” Kotlyarenko added.

Originally, the co-writers had wanted the film to be about a simple but pertinent premise: the gig economy and its place in the lives of ordinary people. But, the script took a turn, looping in the concept of social media and how it has taken over our lives so much that everyone seems desperate for the validation of complete strangers online.

“The storyline became even bigger because of how murder and online fame have become huge in our country. It felt timely to connect all these things together,” Eugene explained.

Spree Is Not Based on A True Story, But It Offers Real-Life Lessons

Although the true story of the Kalamazoo serial killer, Jason Dalton, inspired the writers of Spree, this movie is not based on a true story. Jason’s real-life story as a husband, father of two, and committed employee who suddenly went on a manic shooting spree differs from that of Kurt Kunkle, a social-media-obsessed, fame-hungry millennial who kills for fun and his fans.

Despite not being based on true events, Spree is laden with real-life lessons on internet stardom. Kurt is a digital social climber who will do anything to leave the bottom of the ladder for good and scale the heights of social media.

Through the eyes of Kurtz and social media star Jesse, the satirical, found-footage film zooms in on the excessive focus on status and the hunger for instant feedback and validation peddled by social media. In the film, this phenomenon is espoused by the never-ending comments loop on the screen (Kurt’s dashcam). While some are hilarious, many viciously mock Kurt’s victims and others egg on the killer driver. For Kurt, morality, consciousness, and humanity are vague concepts; rather, he measures his self-worth based on fleeting metrics such as the number of followers and the views.

Spree also highlights the economy behind social media influence. Kurt is not pursuing fame for the sake of fame; all his antics are part of a carefully organized money-making strategy. He’ll monetize his antics by leveraging emotionally evocative topics such as racism, homelessness, immigration, feminism, patriarchy, and gender to teach his victims #TheLesson while garnering support from his alt-right followers who are equally aggrieved by these topics but don’t always have the means to teach others a lesson.

Jessie, on the other hand, seems to have an honest agenda. Through comedy, she tackles rife issues in society, including misogyny and racism. Still, in a weirdly funny way, she’s playing the same social media antics as Kurt by repackaging and posting content online with fans’ validation being her driving motivation.

So, there you have it: Spree is not based on a true story, but, according to writers Eugene Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh, a true story inspired the film’s script. That said, the movie does a good job of highlighting real-life issues we’re all grappling with, including mass murders, fame, the monetization of social media, and the growing apathy among internet spectators.