Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost are having a good week. The “Nerve” directors opened their latest film on Tuesday evening to a stellar $1.1 million, and by the time they sat down with IndieWire on Wednesday afternoon, it was trucking its way to an estimated first-day take of $3.8 million. Not too bad for a mid-week, mid-summer release about an online game gone bad.
And that’s not the only thing the duo have on their plate right now: The long-time filmmaking pair are opening another film this week, the horror feature “Viral,” which will hit limited release and VOD on Friday. It’s clear, however, that “Nerve” is their primary concern and one they’re very pleased to see hitting the zeitgeist so perfectly.
“You work on this thing for two years plus and you screened it a couple months ago and all of a sudden you know that people respond, which is a huge relief,” Schulman said. “Then you’ve got to put it out there and hope that the internet doesn’t cut your head off.”
That Schulman is concerned about “the internet” is amusing, given the subject matter of his latest film. The thriller follows Emma Roberts as shy high school student Vee who, in a bid to prove that she can be just as wild and fun as the rest of her friends, starts playing a secret online game known as Nerve. A combination of scavenger hunt, Truth or Dare and social media platform, Nerve forces its so-called “players” to take on wild challenges as dreamed up and tracked by its “watchers.” The reward? Cash prizes and “Insta-fame.”
When Vee hooks up with star player Ian (Dave Franco), the two embark on a wild night of money-making and some dizzying dares, and everything seems to be going as well as can be expected when you’re taking demands from faceless masses in pursuit as something as ephemeral as online “likes.” Then things take a turn. It may seem like an outrageous premise, but Joost and Schulman are saying something very real about modern times, and it’s not the first time.
Playing (And Planning) The Future
The plot of “Nerve” is especially prescient, given the recent rise of games like Pokémon GO and the continued dominance of social media networks in the lives of hyper-connected millennials like Vee and Ian. Based on Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 book of the same name and adapted by screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, “Nerve” is hitting theaters at exactly the right time.
Which makes it all the crazier – and weirder – that Schulman and Joost started working on it two years ago.
In rounding out the insane game at the film’s center, the directors had a number of factors they needed to make work in a believable fashion, from the actual mechanics of the game to the technology that makes it available to both players and watchers.
The pair had already heard about similar games being played around the world, including text-based scavenger hunts in small towns and a more complicated version involving mini-DV recordings that Schulman’s girlfriend played a decade ago with her high school friends, which helped the pair feel confident that audiences would at least buy the game’s existence. But what of the technology? It wasn’t that far-fetched.
“The first thing to validate what we were going for was Periscope, which came out while we were cutting,” Schulman said. “For the game to work, you would need live streaming HD that doesn’t hiccup, which didn’t really exist at the time. Then Periscope came out and we’re like, ‘Alright, so I guess this is possible.'”
Getting at least that portion of the film right was important to the filmmakers, if only because they knew their audience would reject it if they didn’t buy it straightaway.
“We’re trying to make an authentic movie for a younger movie audience and they are really discerning and they can smell bullshit,” Schulman said.
Joost agreed. “I think people are incredibly savvy these days,” he said. “We talked to a lot of game designers and developers and hackers and did a lot of research and tried to arrive at something that was completely, technically possible. At the time we were shooting, it seemed slightly far-fetched. Now it seems like beyond plausible, like it could just appear—”
Schulman finished his co-director’s sentence: “Tomorrow.”
“The Most Tense, Hair-Raising Sequences”
For the film’s craziest challenges – which run the gamut from a blindfolded Franco pushing his motorcycle to the limits to co-star Machine Gun Kelly laying down in the path of an oncoming train – Joost and Schulman also turned to the internet for their inspiration.
“I feel like the best action movies are on YouTube right now, and they are mostly created by Russian kids,” Joost said. “Just like the most tense, hair-raising sequences I’ve ever seen are on YouTube.”
As the film’s dares ratchet up in intensity, so does the film, driving a mostly fun and frisky first two acts into some very dark material for its final 20 minutes or so, when Vee and Ian are literally forced to compete for their lives. Schulman and Joost knew they needed to be careful with what could read as a major tonal shift after an hour of such wild good times.
“There was this sequence of dares that we picked apart and re-ordered for almost a year, hoping that it would feel like a seamless rise to life or death,” Schulman said.
Once those stakes are raised, “Nerve” takes on a very different cast. While Schulman and Joost’s film pushes Vee and Ian’s situation to some serious extremes, the underlying nature of the scenario reflects a much more credible threat.
At one point, a desperate Vee tries to quit the game, only to soon learn that leaving it before the conclusion will result in the absolute destruction of her life, as aided by anything – and everything – she’s put online.
“We wanted to talk about how willingly we turn things over now,” Joost said. “We just do that without thinking, without reading the terms and conditions. We wanted to see what would happen if you kind of pushed that to its logical extreme.”
It may not be a very original idea, but it’s one that both Schulman and Joost thought was ripe for an upgrade.
“George Orwell would be sitting up in his grave right now screaming and wagging his finger at the amount of information we willingly hand over,” Schulman said. “Everyone was throwing up their hands over the Patriot Act 15 years ago. Cut to now and we don’t even think about it.”
Despite its contemporary concept, the film retains a tone that smacks of earlier high school films, from “Pretty in Pink” to “10 Things I Hate About You.” Schulman points to “Risky Business” as a direct influence – “Emma Roberts is Tom Cruise, even though you think Dave Franco would be Tom Cruise” – and Joost thinks his life-long love of “Adventures in Babysitting” seeped its way inside the material.
Are You Being Catfished?
Toying with genres and styles is nothing new to the pair, who first garnered attention when their documentary “Catfish” debuted at Sundance in 2010. The film, which follows Schulman’s younger brother Nev (who now hosts a very successful MTV series that’s based on the feature) as he attempts to unravel the mystery behind the pretty girl he’s been talking to online, was immediately divisive.
Audiences and members of the media alike quickly questioned its veracity, and it was even the subject of two lawsuits that hinged on the question of whether or not it was really a documentary.
Throughout the entire process, the filmmakers maintained that the film was complete non-fiction. Even Paramount executives, which soon came calling for Schulman and Joost to direct a “Paranormal Activity” film, allegedly thought the film was a scam — and lead them to consider the directors as the ideal helmers for the next installment of the found footage horror franchise (they went on to direct two “Paranormal Activity” films).
“Paramount was convinced that ‘Catfish’ was fake and that itself was a found footage narrative,” Schulman said. “It’s not. You heard it here, 100% real.”
Part of that disbelief had something to do with the kind of technology that Schulman and Joost used to film so much footage. In 2010, that wasn’t the kind of thing that regular people did. But to hear Joost and Schulman tell it, they weren’t regular people.
“We’re basically in an age where cameras are so available and people are filming themselves more than ever,” Schulman said. “We started doing that on ‘Catfish’ before we had HD phones, we just had small cameras and we had them out all the time. The story fell out of the sky and we captured it, but cameras weren’t popular enough that people believed that that was possible. So we got this rap for having faked ‘Catfish.'”
Joost gestured to his iPhone: “Cut to five years later, everybody has an HD camera in their pocket.”
At the time, neither filmmaker seemed too bothered by the accusations, secure in their experiences making the film and the hours and hours of footage they kept as back up. Schulman and Joost don’t seem to take much pleasure in proving people wrong, at least as it applies to advancing technology or the popularity of “Catfish” the series, which chronicles stories like Nev’s on a weekly basis.
“I would say I don’t take that much satisfaction proving people wrong,” Joost said. “Now it’s like completely implausible that you don’t have a webcam or you don’t have access to one. That just speaks to how people just willfully ignore all signs that something is not what they want it to be. Technology has progressed in the past five years.”
There is, however, one person who is still a bit put out by people who don’t believe in the film. “It bothers my mom a lot,” Joost said. “She just sent me an email the other day [where] someone referred to it: ‘Catfish is a pseudo-documentary.'”
“Yeah,” Schulman added, “she gets the Google Alerts.”
“Nerve” is in theaters now.