Over the weekend, Unfriended: Dark Web, the somewhat secret sequel to Unfriended, enjoyed its world premiere during the 2018 SXSW Film Festival in Austin. With the original film screening took place here just a few years back, it only seemed right that Dark Web would do the same, and Daily Dead had the opportunity to sit down with two of the creative forces behind the sequel, producer Timur Bekmambetov and writer/director Stephen Susco, as well as Dark Web co-star Colin Woodell, whose character Matias ends up triggering some very disturbing events after he steals a laptop and gets mixed up in a deadly game that could cost the lives of himself and everyone he loves.
Timur, I want to start with you. What's really interesting about your career is you can see how technologically driven a lot of the stories you're involved with have been. In terms of this idea and concept for the sequel, what was the most appealing to you and how did you see it fit in with what was established with the framework of the first film?
Timur Bekmambetov: For me, it's a process. When we started five years ago with [writer] Nelson [Greaves] to develop and fund it, I had a vision that this should be the new type of cinema, because we spend so much time in front of these screens, and we make choices, moral choices and decisions, as everything happens on our screens. The movie and the story should be told about us in this language. We started this process and we made Unfriended, and nobody believed it could work. And then, thanks to Jason Blum, he really helped us to make it big. Now we have seven movies in the same language, and every movie, it's unique because they're very different. Search was very different from Unfriended, and Dark Web is different from both of those. Every movie has its own voice, and I think we're lucky, all of us, because we invented this cinematic language, when there was nobody before us.
But all cinema, all the movies I'm watching now, it's post-modernistic, it's somebody from today, but making movies like they made movies in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s. What we do is absolutely unique. We are the first who learned how to edit in this style, how to score, how to do the mix. Because traditionally what you see on the screen, it's a window, and the world is behind the screen. But in our case, that’s not how it works. It's just the screen, and the characters are here with us, so the sound should be around you because it's not there. It's a very different sound, different music scores, different editing, different acting. Everything is different, and we've been lucky because we needed to invent it.
Stephen, I know this is your first feature as a director, even though you’ve been writing for a while now. How were you able to wrap your head around these concepts, because these films are so ambitious, in terms of having to have five different cameras basically going at the same time, and having people interact via a screen, and then bring everything together to create a filmic experience?
Stephen Susco: Well, it was a lot of constant rebuilding. I had a very clear idea of the approach on the page, but was not totally prepared for how different it was going to be from anything I'd ever done before. And fortunately, I got to work very closely with Nelson Greaves, who wrote and produced the first one, and Adam Sidman, who produced the movie, but he's also a technological whiz and figured out a lot of the tech stuff. I got to work with the team who did the first movie, so it's was this really intense collaboration where I was able to communicate ideas and they would say, "Okay, here's what you need to be aware of, this is how this is actually going to work." So, it was kind of a constant education for me.
We finished the filming, and that was just the beginning, because then we had to build the first cut and I realized, "We're animating film. This is actually more of an animated film than anything else." And then we had a two hour and forty-five minute cut, and then had a year of exploring and realizing that we could have ideas that late in the process and didn't have to go back and film anything. We could take existing footage, we could create scenes just using the tools that these guys had created and come up with new sequences and new beats. It was really extraordinary. And it was rare for me, not just because I directed it, but because the environment was one of people saying, "No, we want to do something really different.” Nobody ever wanted to do the easy thing. And that's great, that's a really rare experience, and it just made the whole thing super entertaining.
For you, Colin, I'm sure this was a much different acting process than anything you've ever done before, considering the technology. Was the challenge to this having to perform through a conduit—a computer screen—or was that the appeal? Because it was such a different way of performing.
Colin Woodell: Yeah, I can't really describe the type of acting it was, because what Timur said about the whole filmmaking process of being unique to itself, that was the same thing with my audition, which was on Skype. I filmed myself on Photo Booth and that was the format that they wanted for actors to apply with, so I had an idea of what I was doing there. But it was still an untitled, unknown project, so I didn't know what I was getting myself into until meeting Stephen, and I was like, “Oh, this is going to be Unfriended.” So then I watched Unfriended, and I just saw what Shelley [Hennig] did with her character in the first one and watched this emotional journey that she goes through. I was like, “Okay, this is going to be something that's going to be very difficult, but also incredibly fun.”
And jumping into it, I've never been given the artistic reins as an actor like I was by Stephen in terms of collaborating with him, and he was not married to any specific idea. He had an overall idea of what he wanted the concept to be, and we had a script. But he was like, "If you want to change anything, if this sounds more normal to you, do it." It was completely conversational. I wasn't being told what to do, and that lack of dictation made me feel so much more comfortable and freed my performance.
When you're talking about chemistry with actors, usually it comes from people being in the same room. Can you guys talk about coming together and finding that camaraderie between all these different characters even though they’re connecting in separate ways?
Stephen Susco: Well, we only had five days of rehearsal, and then five days to film all the dialogue. The casting was very stressful, though. I'm so blessed to have found the cast that we have, because we found people who were ready to do this kind of experimentation. And at the first day of rehearsals, I had to say "hi" for five minutes, and then I had to go to a production meeting, which was incredibly awkward. So I said, "Just start getting to know each other," and I came back three hours later, and they were deep in a game of Settlers of Catan. They had rigged the rules so that every time someone did something, they had to tell a story about their character’s past.
So, they immediately were thinking about who these characters were, and we realized that because they were going to be filming for five days not in the same room, that they needed to spend as much time generating the rooms that they had been in for five days. They started building backstories, they started telling stories about their parents, and they did what brilliant actors do: they filled in all the gaps, and they breathed all this humanity in. I didn't even rewrite much of the script because they rewrote it as we were filming it. They would just say, "Let's do that again," and then they went completely off-book, and they just started talking as their characters. And a lot of what's in the movie, the dialogue is a variance of what was in the script.
I know we're about out of time, but I wanted to ask how cool did it feel to come out and be able to finally reveal that, yes, this is the Unfriended sequel, and here you are, back in Austin, to unleash this sequel on audiences?
Timur Bekmambetov: I think it was a great idea. Jason had a great idea to keep the name of the movie secret until the premiere. It's unbelievable that we were able to do it, and it was a brave decision and it was cool. Every time when you see a movie with a real audience, it's like magic. Suddenly a movie has a real sense to it because until you see the audience, you feel like you only have half of the movie in front of you.
Missed out on our previous SXSW 2018 coverage? Check here to catch up on all of our interviews and reviews from Austin!