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How Social Media Has Influenced the Russian Filmmaker Behind ‘Unfriended’ and ‘Ben-Hur’

How Social Media Has Influenced the Russian Filmmaker Behind 'Unfriended' and 'Ben-Hur'

Timur Bekmambetov has been tapping social media to create a new cinematic language. Skype’s “share screen” function inspired “Unfriended,” the horror riff on “And Then There Were None,” in which six high school friends are stalked online by a supernatural force using a dead friend’s Facebook account, and the legendary chariot race in his “Ben-Hur” reboot was modeled after YouTube videos.

“I remember when we were taught in the Soviet Union that capitalism was bad because everything was about ownership, and the idea about communism was that it was about sharing. And suddenly the internet has the same values,” Bekmambetov recalled. “People are not asking about money when posting their videos on YouTube — they’re not even asking about ownership. What they’re looking for is ‘likes.’ And the internet provides what they’re looking for.”

But the internet also leads to a scary lack of privacy, which Bekmambetov realized after peeking into a colleague’s private online world during a Skype call, rendering everything he did on his computer transparent, including his thought process. This led to Bekmambetov coming up with the idea for “Unfriended,” which he produced and his good friend Levan Gabriadze directed.

“We are one big social network,” Bekmambetov proclaimed. “Once you post something, it’s out there…forever.”

But the filmmaker doesn’t think of “Unfriended” as a genre movie. It’s dressed as horror to capture a wider audience. “I think it’s just good, interesting drama…very edgy, with relatable characters.”

But the only way logistically to shoot it was as one continuous take in real-time.  “We rented a house in Los Angeles with six bedrooms and the actors were in different rooms where they were talking to each other through a media system and we recorded it. Shooting was like one week but editing was almost two years. But the editing was not about cutting pace — it was about adding layers because we understood that Skype communication is not as interesting as messaging. Our virtual experience is not about being connected to each other — it’s more about clicks and chats and waiting for this spinning wheel.”

Thus, the cinematic breakthrough of “Unfriended” was creating suspense around a blinking cursor and the slow downloading of a video or .jpg image. “It was like a lab trying to create a visual language to make it right,” Bekmambetov noted.

READ MORE: Will MGM’s “Ben-Hur” Stand Up to the Original Oscar Winner?

The opening was the most difficult. At first, they toyed with the idea of showing the inciting incident: a teenage suicide as a result of the posting of a humiliating video. But then they switched to a flirty Skype conversation that’s Bekmambetov’s favorite scene. “It’s real, captivating and a very sympathetic interaction — and then the whole world falls apart, little by little.”

Meanwhile, Bekmambetov’s re-imagining of “Ben-Hur,” which he’s currently shooting at the famed Cinecittà Studios in Rome (reaping the rewards of a generous 25% tax break for Paramount and MGM), will be just as edgy and cutting edge as “Unfriended.” 

“I’m using more of YouTube videos to find ideas and style for the camera work and how people behave,” the director admitted. “The chariot race today is like Formula 1. It’s a different technique, with a lot of whip pans and zooming [and VFX by Mr. X].” And there’s an assortment of digital cameras being used on the movie (Red, Alexa, GoPro).

“But it’s a real race with 32 horses running in a cloud of dust and the actors love it,”  Bekmambetov said about the six-week chariot shoot. It’s been scary, as is occupying Fellini’s old office at Cinecittà. But he’s trying to bring “Ben-Hur” into the 21st century. “Unfortunately, everyone knows the name but only the chariot race and naval battle (being tackled by Scanline VFX).”

However, this adaptation of the Lew Wallace novel by Keith Clarke and John Ridley will be more about forgiveness than the more revenge-minded best picture Oscar winner directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston.

“We live in the Roman Empire today — we share the same values they had 2,000 years ago,” Bekmambetov emphasized. “And it’s so relatable, so contemporary and so scary. It’s about who we are and very political too. It’s the same drama happening in the same locations as the Roman Empire.”

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