Beyond Unfriended: Timur Bekmambetov's wild plan to make desktop movies mainstream

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“Chariots. Endless chariots.”

I’m Skyping with director Timur Bekmambetov, who’s just come off a day shooting Ben-Hur in Rome. It’s the kind of production that will give the Russian-born filmmaker behind Wanted and Night Watch an enormous canvas for his kinetic brand of action filmmaking. It also means, he tells me, a whole lot of horses.

But today we’re not talking about races or epics. We’re talking about computer screens.

Bekmambetov was a producer and the initial creative force behind Unfriended, the horror film that debuted earlier this month about a bunch of friends who find themselves stalked by a dead classmate. The stylistic conceit of Unfriended is that the entire movie takes place on a computer screen as the lead character Skypes, Facebooks, and iMessages her way around. It sounds like a gimmick, but it works — in fact, it works really, really well.

It’s also just the first in what Bekmambetov hopes will be an entire subgenre of what he’s dubbed “screen movies.” According to a stylistic manifesto he’s put together — one that calls to mind the document directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote to set off the Dogme 95 minimalist movement — the tenets are simple. Screen movies are made up entirely of a computer screen without camera movement, they take place completely in real time, and the soundtrack can only include audio that comes from the computer itself.

I spoke with the filmmaker about Unfriended, how computers can convey our most intimate emotions, and his bigger plans for computer screen movies.

Timur Bekmambetov Skype conversation

Bryan Bishop: The writer of Unfriended, Nelson Greaves, has been candid that the idea for doing a movie on a computer screen started with you. What got you started down that road in the first place?

Timur Bekmambetov: There was no moment where there was an "idea." It happened itself because I live between Moscow and LA — and I have friends, and colleagues, and a company in Moscow, and I have a company and friends in Los Angeles. And when you live in this kind of reality you spend most of your time Skyping and chatting and such. Checking emails. Falling in love, fighting, losing friends, and finding new ones. It’s happening online, and it’s my life.

And it was very logical and organic to try to tell stories about the world I live in, which is the online world. And I think it’s very relatable, because billions of people now live in this world. Somebody should start to tell stories.

There’s a moment in the movie when the lead character is typing something on Facebook — and then she stops before sending it, and decides to type something else instead. That’s a way to get inside a character’s head that you normally don’t get.

Exactly right. The first time that idea appeared, I was on Skype a few years ago with my colleague, and we were discussing some visual materials. And the internet wasn’t good enough to download and upload big files. And Skype had just released a new function: share your screen. So my colleague shared his screen with me, and he didn’t know that I’d see everything he was doing. And I saw him chatting with this grandmother and sending emails, and surfing the internet, and I saw everything that was happening on the screen. And suddenly I understand everything about this person. I’m just kind of inside him.

And it’s not only about content, it’s about choreography. How the mouse moves, the windows. It’s about mood, intentions. It tells me more about you than even seeing your face. It’s a different language, and we spent two years trying to figure out how to tell stories [in this format]. When we finished shooting [Unfriended] I saw the short Noah, this really cool short, and I understood that other people are trying to do the same thing. It’s logical. But they used a lot of zooms; a lot of directorial tools to help me understand what I should follow. But we understood that we don’t need it. It’s enough if you see the whole screen; we know how it works. I don’t want to direct the audience. I just want to show them the reality, and you as a viewer will understand.

And the same with the music and the sound. I don’t need scores. The character will pick the song. The character will choose the level of the music. This movie for me, it’s not just a movie. It’s a new experience. I’m talking about me as a filmmaker. It’s a new experience of how to tell these kinds of stories. And I’m sure it’s not just a horror movie language. It could be used for any genre.

You have this manifesto that you put together, talking about the "screen movie" with some very specific stylistic conventions. Are you hoping to spark a kind of movement with this document?

It happened because we were trying to figure out the rules, and we just put it on paper for ourselves. It’s just a result of the production process. It’s not something theoretical. When you see the movie you understand what we mean.

But you are looking to produce more films like this?

Yeah, we already made two more. [laughs] One is a comedy called Liked, and another is called Whither Doth OS, about a 10-year-old girl’s computer screen, and how she lost her home page and finds herself in a fantasy world. The rules we’re declaring, I’m sure that filmmakers will change and find new ones, but it’s just beginning. It’s just the beginning of a very exciting page in filmmaking.

If you saw [Unfriended] with an audience, I was surprised at how emotional the reactions are. People laughing and cheering when they see the mouse trying to find the red button to close the window but they can’t, or there’s no "reply" button. And it’s just, "Wow, this is fantasy. It’s an adventure."

"The audience feels the fake. You can’t cheat the audience."

Movies in general struggle with portraying the way we interact with technology. With Unfriended, how focused were you on recreating the authentic reality of communicating via computer — because in the final film, that’s where the tension comes from.

The audience feels the fake. You can’t cheat the audience. You can in traditional filmmaking — you can force things, you can over-act, you can manipulate — but in this genre you must be very honest. I was very happy that Nelson was the writer and my partner / producer, because he is a guy from this world. And he told the stories about his friends. It’s people he knows. And that’s why it’s so emotional, because it’s real people. He knows these people, he likes these people; he hates these people.

It’s like viral videos. You cannot really imitate. It should be honest, and then it becomes viral. People really feel when it’s made up and somebody’s trying to sell something.

As a filmmaker you’re known for movies that are very stylized and visually epic. Unfriended feels so restrained and intimate in comparison. You’re producing here, but was there something alluring about playing in that smaller sandbox?

It’s new, you know? For me it was very interesting to make Night Watch many years ago because it was something new for me at that time. And it was interesting to make Wanted because it was a totally new experience for me in 2008. In today’s world, I feel Unfriended is this kind of new page. I’m making the movie because of curiosity, because it’s a language nobody knows and nobody knows the rules, and I’m really happy that we’re the first. Not the first first, but the first generation of filmmakers creating these rules.

Unfriended promotional still (UNIVERSAL)

Other than the two you’ve already mentioned, does your company plan on branching out and doing more of these computer screen movies?

We are producing right now an anthology. It’ll be 20 different directors making 20 different shorts, 10- to 15-minute shorts, using this language. And I really believe it will be a breakthrough moment for us, because people will be involved with different tastes and different genres. Different languages, different countries. I really think it will be the future for us. It’s what I said about screen movies: it should be very personal. You cannot produce it as a studio.

We can share the technology and what we discover. The rules, and software we’re creating specially to create these movies — a special editing system. But it’s not as important as just voice. People who want to learn, that want to express themselves with this language. It’ll be comedies, and fantasies, and disaster movies. In my mind the strategy is to use as many possible genres, and languages, and countries. … Some probably will be good, some probably will be not really good, but it doesn’t matter.

Because it’s new, it’s very easy to look at something like Unfriended and say, "That’s just a gimmick." Are you worried that once audiences start to see more of these, that aura of being fresh and new will start to fade a bit?

No, I’m not afraid. Because people will still live in this world. It’s what I said before; we’re living in this world. It’s not imitation. It’s not a "manner." It’s reality. Nobody has a problem with watching movies shot on Panavision [cameras] every day and cut the same way with the same faces. Nobody cares about it. Stories are emotional. If people are still driving cars in real life, and kissing each other, and fighting on the street, then movies about cars, fighting, and kissing will be popular and will be interesting for the audience. And the same is true here. As long as we’re clicking, sending messages, Skyping, the movies with those elements… it’s reality.