Let’s face it — the majority of horror films released by studios nowadays are neither all that scary or particularly creative. Universal’s current micro-budget hit “Unfriended,” written by Nelson Greaves and directed by Leo Gabriadze, is both.
Dreamed up by “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov, “Unfriended” plays out entirely on a MacBook screen, where six high school students — plus one sinister seventh party — group chat on Skype on the one-year anniversary of their classmate Laura Barns’ suicide. When the mystery user claims to be Barns, the teens start dying, one by one.
The ingenious execution of “Unfriended” (who knew static webcam images could induce suspense?) hasn’t gone unnoticed by film critics, many of whom embraced the film prior to its theatrical launch last week — a rarity for the horror genre. For a roundup of the positive notices, go here.
So how did Greaves and Gabriadze pull “Unfriended” off? Indiewire called up the pair to learn about the making of the film. “Unfriended” is currently playing nationwide.
What inspired you to bring this to the screen? I’m guessing it wasn’t the familiar horror story that the film hinges upon — it was more the opportunity to explore how social media can be used as a filmmaking tool?
Nelson Greaves (NG): So, Timur Bekmambetov, who was my boss at the time and the other producer on the film, he had had this idea of setting a movie on a computer desktop for probably 15 years. He has two companies, one based in the United States, one based in Russia, and when the day ends in one place it starts in another; he’s on his computer all night directing and producing via Skype. I mean, tons of the movie he sat in the editing bay literally from Skype editing with us. And so he had recognized that the things that we do on our computers, they are the drama of our lives. Most of us spend five, six, seven, eight hours a day sitting in front of a computer, so our lives largely take place on computers now. And he had the insight to say there’s story here and people will be interested because it’s about people’s lives. So that came first.
The horror of it all came one night when we were all talking about this and he pitched it to me a bunch of times. I never understood it and suddenly when we landed on the horror it all clicked for me. I said, “Oh, I get it. You use the restrictions and limitations of a computer desktop the same way that ‘The Blair Witch Project’ used the restrictions of a single camera.” And suddenly that made sense for me.
Leo Gabriadze (LG): Horror: it’s always about restriction. Here the restriction’s more severe.
How did you two map out the visual approach to the film? Did you really have a specific plan going into production?
LG: We had a plan, but we would keep digesting it, because as we went along, we learned a lot. I guess we made a lot of mistakes to begin with, but by the end, we knew how to do it, so we had the learning curve.
NG: Basically, there were two big parts of technically achieving this film. The first one was how do you actually film it? We knew from the very beginning that the only way to get true honest responses out of these actors was going to be if they were actually all talking to each other. It was filmed just like it was an actual Skype conversation between them. So basically Adam Sidman, who was one of the producers and is the director of photography, he designed this hardwire camera system that was like based on security camera footage technology. And so that allowed each of the actors to see the other actors and communicate as if they were in a real conversation. Each of the actors was in their own rooms, where they would be locked away for the entirety of a take. Sometimes takes went up to 85 minutes. So that was the first part of it in terms of getting the actual footage, which we shot on GoPros, which were attached to actual computers.
The second part was how do you put it all together in post. A lot of credit goes to Parker Laramie, who was one of the initial editors on this film, who designed this very complicated system that every editor we’ve shown it to since has said, “This is the most horrendous, frightening Avid timeline I have ever seen.” At times there were literally 30 and 40 layers to the actual timeline, and we very much approached that part of it like an animation, as a bunch of elements working at play together.
And the screenplay itself, what did that look like?
NG: Well, there was an original draft that was written, and basically we shot that originally, and it looks like a screenplay. Think of it like a stage play, where you have characters sitting around and they all talk to each other, and at times the action says, “Blaire opens her Facebook account. She goes and finds a pictures of Jess, etc., etc.” The one thing we realized very quickly when we got to set was that if we just shot the screenplay, which we did, it was going to feel very stale and very false. So we pushed the actors and we were very fortunate to be able to be in their actual ears. They could hear Leo and I as we were working and as we were recording. We kind of pushed them to improvise more and go where their heart took them. If they felt like changing things, go ahead. Change it, keep it fresh. That’s really what got us the genuine feeling that we managed to get.
The other thing is, so much of the film was written in post, in terms of all of the conversations, the chats, the iChats. So much of that was written by us sitting in front of the Avid saying, “Okay, how else can we do this? How can we improve this? How can we make this more tense? Where else can we take Blaire? How can we deepen this?”
I saw the movie with a friend and as soon as it was over, he said, “Well, that was fun but this movie’s going to be dated in like six months.” Do you feel the same way?
LG: Everything dates in this world; computers do too. This will be a testament of this year; it will be attached to this period.
NG: And I think the reality is, any story from now until the human race meets its destruction, any story’s going to have two options. One is you tell a specific story about a specific time and you realize that it’s going to change and evolve rapidly, or you tell stories about technology. The fact is technology now is so engrained into our lives. It’s not like there’s the “tech part” of our lives. Facebook friends these days are not “Facebook” friends, that’s just what friendship is today in 2015. Friendship is a thing that involves technology at the heart of it, and I think you have to get doing that or you can’t tell honest stories about human relationships.
Nelson, you just brought up the demise of humanity… So many critics have been quick to point out the cynical nature of the movie. Are they just reading into it or was that your intention, to offer up a harsh mirror to where we’re heading as a society?
NG: We set out to tell a true story about a thing that’s happening, about a phenomenon that’s happening these days that I think is very scary, very terrifying.
NG: Which is cyber-bullying. What makes cyber-bullying so scary is that it used to be to be a bully, you had to be a big, tough guy, you had to look someone in the eyes and tell them what you thought of them. These days, cyber-bullying, most of it happens anonymously. There are no consequences to you personally, and the other thing is kids aren’t doing it to be mean. They’re doing it to get likes; they’re doing it to be popular because it’s sort of this strange democratization of bullying. “How could it be a problem? All I’m doing is typing a few letters on a keyboard. How could that possibly result in anything terrible?” And yet, it’s resulting in hundreds and hundreds of thousands of kids losing their lives, and I think that is terrifying.
You briefly brought up the fact that your cast acted alone in these rooms for upwards of 80 minutes. That sounds exhausting for your actors.
LG: Yes, that’s the best part about it. When you cut actors frequently, when you have a couple seconds or even a couple one-minute takes, they don’t have enough time to get into the character. It’s just a glimpse of the character they have to play. Here it’s more like a theatrical approach, where they have to go through the whole story in real time and by the time they get to the end they are tired, but they’re supposed to be tired. They are not playing being tired — they’re exhausted. They’re scared, they’re exhausted — they’ve been under the skin of their character for a long time.
NG: I think what we actually use at the end of the movie, is actually the longest take that we ever had. And as it was happening, basically there was this energy in the air and it was electric, and at the end of 85 minutes all the actors walked out of their rooms and their eyes were red and their voices were hoarse. Everyone kind of looked at each other and said, “What did we just do?”