Timur Bekmambetov has seen the future of the movies, and it has nothing to do with the big-budget blockbusters he’s made for years, from “Wanted” to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” His last movie made on that scale was “Ben Hur” two years ago — and it’s going to stay that way. At least, that’s the ethos he’s preaching about Screenlife, a technology developed by his Bazelevs studio that the Russian-born filmmaker created for the exclusive purpose of producing movies that unfold on computer screens.
“When you try Screenlife, it’s like a drug,” the 57-year-old said, during a conversation at IndieWire’s New York office. He was wearing a Montreal hat, fresh from a trip to the Fantasia Festival, where he delivered a lecture on his new approach. He had a USB cable strung around his neck for future use, and he tapped away at a laptop keyboard with English and Russian letters in between lengthy, elaborate bursts of insight. “You enter a world with no rules,” he said. “There are no Sergei Eistensteins, no John Fords, nobody! So you can do whatever you want.”
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Veteran directors often turn to new approaches when they grow weary of the same old tools, sometimes with mixed results. (Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” at 48 frames per second was the source of headaches worldwide.) In Bekmambetov’s case, however, the mission has already yielded promising results: There’s two entries in the profitable horror franchise “Unfriended;” “Profile,” a real-world thriller about an undercover journalist who contacts an ISIS recruiter online; and the missing-person drama “Searching,” which stars John Cho as a father using every digital tool at his disposal to track down his teenage daughter.
“Searching,” which opens in nationwide this week and was directed by former Google staffer Aneesh Chaganty, scored distribution at Sundance with Sony Pictures, while “Profile” landed rave reviews at Berlin and SXSW. “Unfriended” spawned “Unfriended: Dark Web,” which opened in July. All four movies make compelling arguments for their approaches, with a range of narrative experiences that position audiences within the confines of digital devices. So far, Bazelevs produced seven completed features on an initial $8 million investment in projects made with Screenlife; the company has greenlit another 14 more to be completed in the next 18 months.
“We’ve entered a new reality from where we were 15 or 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s like Columbus. We just moved to a new world, with the internet and digital screens. There are different rules.”
Bekmambetov’s hyperbolic declarations reflect a lengthy gestation process. His first screen-based story was “Unfriended,” the found-footage horror sensation about a group of friends haunted by the ghost of a former classmate that unfolds entirely through a series of Skype conversations. Bekmambetov wrote the story and supported the project through Bazelevs, which he started in 1991, long before his Hollywood career took off. Produced for $1 million, “Unfriended” was picked up by Universal and eventually grossed over $64 million.
When “Unfriended” opened in 2015, Bekmambetov was shooting “Ben-Hur,” a $100 million reimagining of the iconic chariot-racing drama that was a critical and commercial disappointment. Bekmambetov captured much of the dusty period piece’s action sequences on GoPro cameras attached to horses, in the hopes of sprucing up the story with contemporary devices, but Paramount rejected the bulk of that footage. “The studio sent me emails, saying, ‘You can’t put your small cameras on the track. It’s forbidden!’” he said, and chuckled. “I did it secretly. I could recut the movie.”
He found himself at a crossroads. “I couldn’t fight with the studio,” he said. “It was too much money, and you couldn’t take the risks. So I needed something different.” That same year, he produced “Hardcore Henry” (later retitled “Hardcore”), the debut of Russian filmmaker Ilya Naishuller, a gonzo action sensation shot entirely in the first person with GoPro cameras and a simulated long take. It sold overnight at the Toronto International Film Festival for $10 million, and led Bekmambetov to consider the challenges facing younger directors looking to break in.
“I understood that it was a problem with the whole system,” he said. “When you invest $100 million, you need to make movies for everyone and then you need to figure out some very mediocre things. There’s no way for young people to step in. Screenlife immediately gives you that freedom.”
To date, all features produced by Screenlife are from first- or second-time filmmakers — except one. In the hopes that he could attract a wider range of filmmakers, Bekmambetov directed “Profile” (which is still finalizing a domestic distribution deal) to show that the approach could extend beyond obvious escapism. “I needed case studies,” he said. “‘Profile’ was important for me to show that Screenlife could deal with more sophisticated themes, more nuanced struggles.”
“Profile” is the bracing story of British reporter Amy (Valene Kane), who forms a bond with Syrian fighter Bilel (Shazad Latif) while maintaining covert connections with her editor, her boyfriend, and a close friend, as the nature of her allegiances grows suspect. The actress appears in FaceTime and Skype conversations, but much of her decision-making process unfolds in the words she types onscreen — as well as the ones she chooses to delete before sending new communications.
“I live in two realities, the physical space and onscreen,” Bekmambetov said. “I’m making moral choices. You can’t capture this on camera anymore. It’s the time now to understand it and start recording it, to create narratives around it.”
He had a hard time considering the prospects of returning to conventional filmmaking. “I tried,” he said. “It’s boring! Every movie I saw in theaters, I had this feeling that I’d seen it before. I’m not talking about the stories. There are great movies. And I’m not judging filmmakers. I’m just saying it looks, like, retro. OK, ‘Three Billboards’ — it’s like a Coen brothers movie mixed with something else. The whole cinema landscape is just repurposing different ideas.”
Bekmambetov may be the most prominent figure to advocate for this filmmaking approach, but there are several precedents that predate “Unfriended.” These included 2012’s riveting “King Kelly,” an iPhone-shot thriller about a young woman with a webcam strip-tease show that goes very wrong, and Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s zany espionage story “Open Windows,” which starred Elijah Wood and premiered on the festival circuit a few months ahead of “Unfriended.” Bekmambetov said he was fond on “Noah,” the acclaimed 2013 short film that became an online sensation, which focuses on the titular college student’s breakup with his girlfriend.
“There were a lot of people trying this,” Bekmambetov said. “We were just lucky that we made the first case for theatrically released movies. It’s very important for audiences to understand that it’s not ‘Searching,’ it’s not ‘Unfriended,’ it’s not ‘Profile’ — it’s Screenlife. It’s all one project.” He was adamant that the movies deserved conventional releases on par with traditional studio projects. “We had to prove this is cinema,” he said. “It’s not bloggers making something in a bedroom.”
He clicked the Screenlife application on his monitor to demonstrate the approach. A small window opened to show the feed from his laptop’s camera; tiny reflections of this writer and Bekmambetov stared back. He hit the record button, flipped through a few tabs, browsed his LinkedIn messages and opened a page with the news. Then he hit stop and played it back. The entire computer screen became the footage — but the user could take control at any moment, scrolling through the recorded pages and even clicking a few links. This interactivity, Bekmambetov said, made it possible to adjust recorded events in the editing process. “You can play with it, then you can save it, send it,” he said, fiddling away.
He shot scenes of “Profile” in virtual real-time, with actors calling each other up on Skype from different countries, and required his cast to engage with computers while he recorded their actions. “It was important for our actors to interact with the real internet, so it wasn’t like a green screen,” he said.
He sought filmmakers he thinks will take well to the approach, such as Marja-Lewis Ryan, whose debut “6 Balloons” was released earlier this year. Her Screenlife-produced “Liked,” which Bekmambetov described as “a Cyrano de Bergerac comedy in today’s world,” came together after Bekmambetov saw her L.A.-produced play “One in the Chamber.” Ryan said the filmmaking technique was “the closest thing to directing live theater,” and that Bekmambetov’s pitch hooked her right away. “I remember him telling me that Screenlife is the same as a play,” she said. “Everyone is stuck in a box. Which I just loved.”
After “Unfriended,” which he produced using more traditional screen-capture techniques, Bekmambetov developed his own homegrown rules for using Screenlife, not unlike the Dogma ’95 manifesto: Projects had to take place in a single wide shot, showing the entire computer screen; they had to feel as though they were taking place in real time, and could only show one character’s screen.
Not everyone was sold. “Searching” came together when Bekmambetov’s company approached Chaganty after his Google Glass-produced short film “Seeds” went viral. Initially, Chaganty and his producing partner, Sev Ohanian, pitched an eight-minute short; Bekmambetov talked them into making a feature, but they wanted more control over the approach, and decided not to use the Screenlife software. “Searching” includes a more sophisticated post-production polish, from zooms to color correction, and scene changes that involve shifts to GPS screens, news reports, and other material.
“With due respect to Timur, we pitched a version that was far more cinematic,” Ohanian said. “We wanted to utilize the past 100 years of cinematic language. Literally, the camera would be changing every day — iPhones, drones, news cameras.” They made the movie over the course of 13 days. Instead of requiring his actors to interact in real time, Chaganty shot a version of the movie in which he played every character so he could match their eyelines and record each performance separately.
Chaganty, who went to USC’s film school with Ohanian, disagreed with Bekmambetov’s conviction that the Screenlife technology could apply to any subject. “I hope it’s not taught in film schools, “ Chaganty said, and compared it to asking Christopher Nolan if every movie should be told in reverse like his labyrinthine thriller “Memento.”
“That would get old,” Chaganty said. “At the end of the day, this is a classic thriller with a lot of classic themes.” However, he relished the opportunity to turn modern communication into a filmmaking challenge. “Hollywood has historically done a very poor job with technology,” he said. “When you look at a phone or a website in a movie, it’s always made up. They never nailed it in terms of making it real. There is a way to frame technology in a cinematic context. You don’t have to cheat.”
There’s reason to buy into Chaganty’s assertion: “Searching” provides the most satisfying illustration of the screen-based approach, particularly its emotional possibilities, starting with an opening montage that tells the story of a family pulled apart by a cancer diagnosis entirely through desktop actions. (As a cursor drags a calendar appointment to “visit mom at the hospital” into the trash, more than one audience member is likely to weep.)
Ohanian taught at USC while the project came together, and shared the introductory segment with his students. Their enthusiastic response, he said, “was the first sign that we might’ve cracked this younger generation.”
Bekmambetov conceded that he was happy with the results. “Every filmmaker can add their own style, their own rules,” he said. “It’s very important to me to work with different filmmakers to develop these ideas.”
Next month, the Bazelevs-produced comedy “Party” will open in Russia; the company is already developing an English language version, which Bekmambetov described as a “‘Hangover’-type of story set around a birthday party.” Then, it’s back to the horror genre with “Unfollowed,” the first vertically framed Screenlife project, which revolves around a teenage girl live-streaming her experiences in a haunted asylum. The company also recently produced the digital series “Future History 1968,” a Buzzfeed series that recounts the events of that watershed year as if they unfolded on smart phones and social media. Additionally, Bekmambetov planned to produce a contemporary adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as an interactive version of “Profile.”
In other words, he’s just getting started. “I hope to do 50 movies a year,” he said. “Only one group of people will watch one movie. But I’m sure that some of those 50 movies will be good enough for the whole country.”
In early 2018, Bazelevs hosted an open call for stories that could work on Screenlife. The company received around 200 ideas and selected three projects. Bekmambetov is certain more and more filmmakers would become attracted to the approach. “There’s nobody behind you,” he said. “The budget’s so small, so you don’t need executives. It’s a game changer for the film industry. You’re free.”