The new horror flick "Unfriended," which opens April 17, unfolds completely on a computer screen. In the film a teenager and her friends are terrorized by a digital stalker seeking revenge for a shaming video that led to a suicide.
Directed by Levan Gabriadze and written by Nelson Greaves, "Unfriended" began as a concept with Russian producer-director Timur Bekmambetov, best known in the U.S. for his films "Wanted" and "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter." Here he explains the inspiration for the film and his rules for engagement for a fully realized film on a computer screen.
I had the idea for "Unfriended" when Skype invented the "share screen" function. I was on a call with a colleague, I asked him to share his screen so we could keep talking and I could see some artwork on his computer screen without having to download it.
Along with the artwork, I saw his whole desktop: his Facebook page, the video of a sneezing panda he was watching on mute and resending to his buddies right during the call, the message about his grandma's turkey recipe that he received and opened and printed. He was doing all that and still talking to me about work and sounding very serious about it. It was our first time sharing a screen, so he didn't understand that I saw him multitasking.
As I was unintentionally peeking into his private online world, I realized that this could be a new kind of movie, where everything happens on a computer screen. My gut told me it would be captivating to peek into people's private digital lives — a teenager and bullies from school, a housewife and her cheating husband, a criminal and his victim, whoever — we are all connected now and living our lives virtually.
Everything that happens offline can happen online — love, drama, comedy, thrills, horror. I felt it could be a different kind of participation effect that had never before been attained through traditional cinematography.
So I pitched the idea to Nelson Greaves, my assistant at that time, and he suggested that we frame it as a horror film. Not many people believed it would be watchable, but he started writing and in a few weeks brought me the first draft of the script. Two years later, we now have "Unfriended."
From the beginning we gave ourselves strict storytelling rules. Everything should happen on the protagonist's computer screen, meaning the action never moves outside that screen, and all the action should take place in real time.
I knew the only way to achieve this movie would be to not overanalyze it too much but just to try. After the first draft was ready, we turned to my longtime friend and colleague Levan Gabriadze to direct the movie. It was shot very quickly, with a very small crew, and then we sat down in the edit bay (I was "virtually" in the edit bay, attending via Skype) and it was then we realized, "OK, what have we done?!"
The first challenge was simply geography. I was in Russia for most of this film, and ironically, most of my involvement had to take place over Skype. I met the actors over Skype, I visited the set over Skype. I spent hours and hours editing with our team via Skype. In retrospect, that seems very fitting.
The other challenge was discovering this new cinematic language through trial and error. We decided to tell a story about experiences that everyone has, that are universal to modern life, but so far no one has put this on the big screen in this way, so we had to invent. We had to try and fail and try again.
This screen movie language turned out to be unique as it enables the author to explore the psyche of a character in a new way via their interaction with virtual reality. For example, when the user writes a message to a conversation partner, the cursor freezes, as if hesitant. The viewer is able to observe the emotional transitions of the character and his actions through the way the character's cursor moves, to understand his background, emotions and motivation.
I would say this revolution in cinematographic narrative is comparable, for instance, to the invention of the stream of consciousness in literature, which enabled the reader to look inside the mind of a character rather than simply observing their actions.
We then partnered with Universal and Blumhouse Productions, which is known for micro-budget horror films such as "Paranormal Activity," to bring it to the big screen. I feel that our experiment with "Unfriended" opened up a new chapter in the development of our company, Bazelevs. Our hope is to make more movies like this in all genres.
Bekmambetov wrote and directed the Russian fantasy film "Night Watch" (2004) and "Day Watch" (2006). In the U.S. he directed the action film "Wanted" in 2008 and the horror film "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" in 2012.