Unfriended is a cautionary tale for a new generation. Laura Barnes (Heather Sossaman) gets blackout drunk at a party. One of her “friends” takes a video of her and posts it online. Cue the horrifying nature of the internet, the bullying commences, and three days later she kills herself. The film picks up on the anniversary of her death when her old friends sit down for an ordinary group Skype chat, only to find they’re being haunted by Barnes’ understandably pissed off ghost. If your not familiar with the gimmick yet, the entire film takes place from a computer desktop, turning the mundane into the horrifying. It sounds like something that could easily be a mess, but the buzz surrounding the film is decidedly positive.
While at WonderCon for the Blumhouse panel, Producer Jason Blum, writer Nelson Greaves and castmembers Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead,Courtney Halverson, Jacob Wysocki, Will Peltz and Moses Jacob Storm sat down with the press to talk about how Unfriended is the next step in the evolution of found footage, the unusual way they shot the film, why it connects with audiences and more. Check out highlights from the interviews below.
The filmmakers wanted to turn something as mundane and ordinary as your laptop into something terrifying. They wanted to make it so the familiar chimes and beeps of your favorite apps trigger a fear response. Greaves explained, “I think one of the scariest things about our movie, and one of the best experiences about it, is waking up the next day, signing on to your computer and suddenly being like, ‘Wait a second, suddenly I don’t feel safe here.’ After seeing the movie, when you hear the sound of a Facebook notification, your skin is suddenly bristling and your getting the chills. When you get an incoming Skype call, suddenly jumping at the sound of an incoming Skype call. I think people will see this movie and they’ll never look at their computers the same way again.”
- Apparently it worked. Perri noted having that very experience in her SXSW review of the film, and cast members Courtney Halverson and Jacob Wysocki agreed that they don’t like to use Skype any more. Wysocki said, “If we ever have to use Skype, the call sound is so jarring to me that I don’t ever want to [use it]. Call me on the phone, don’t Skype me please.”
- Unfriended was filmed in a very unorthodox manner. The cast would run through large chunks of the script in single takes, running through the film like a play on camera. The filmmakers decided to adopt that format after getting slightly “stale” results using the traditional technique of filming scene-to-scene. The run-through approach was adopted about two or three days into filming. Greaves said that most of the takes were 30 minutes long, but the hero take that ends the final cut of the film was the take they ran through the entire 84-minute script.
Greaves thinks the unique approach to the material evoked more realistic performances from the actors, “I think at the end of 85 minutes the characters have been a horrific state for 25 minutes and the first time you jump at a scare is very different from how you act when you’ve been in the torture chamber for 30 minutes. In that big take at the end Shelley and the restive the characters, it’s almost an insanity. It’s almost no longer able to process things,not just jumping at scares, which is more authentic, I think, to a real experience.”
- The cast had six days of rehearsal before they began filming.
- The actors also had to work in part as their own camera operators. Renee Olstead recalled, “We really got to create a lot of the chaos through being our own cinematographers. We had a camera that was strapped to a computer, so we got to kind of create the shaking and movement, and reflecting where the characters are with our choices.” Halverson continued, “we were in charge of the start and the end of the scene because they gave us these cups to put over the sense, so we’re using these red solo cups, and basically they said ‘action’ and we pulled the cups off the lens.” They also slated their own scenes with cardboard slates, and created the slate sound by clapping at the same time.
- The cast was encouraged to improv. Shelley Hennig recalled, “He would let us play. We had in ear pieces and if he let us play for too long, he would just name the topic of the part of the script that we needed to get back to and get us back on track.” Moses Jacob Storme explained that the actors were continually surprised with script details throughout production, “We knew the general story, but a lot of the twists and turns and large plot points we were finding out the same time the audience does. We were acting in real time. So we knew the story, but the movie’s heavily improvised inside of that story.”
- The filmmakers would also startle and surprise the actors to evoke frightened responses, slapping on windows or slamming doors to scare them, as well as feeding them new information through their ear pieces.
Blum encourages you to try to add Laura Barnes on Facebook and see what happens.
- Were they ever tempted to use fake apps or systems to save money? “The thing about our movie is the reason it works and the reason it’s scary is because of the authenticity of it. You come to see the movie and you say, ‘Hey, I know that. That’s my desktop. That’s how I use this program.’ Without the movie wouldn’t work.
- Despite the fact that the format of the film can be a tough sell for audiences, Unfriended continually reaps positive reviews from screenings. Jason Blum thinks its connecting with audiences because “It’s so relatable. That’s all we do, we stare at our computers…it’s in our pocket, in our house.” Olstead agreed, “It’s easy for people to buy into it because when you turn on the news these days, what do we see? The majority of the stuff that’s on television is stuff that people have shot on their phones and have sent into the newsroom. When something terrible happens, our knee-jerk reaction now is to pull our phones out. I think the idea of us being in this video chat within that vernacular is kind of an easy sell.”
- Is it found footage? Kind of, but not really. It’s more like the next step in the found footage subgenre. Blum said, “Unfriended is a different way. I don’t see unfriended as found footage, I see it as new…Everyone’s tired of found footage. Me, myself, at the top of the list.” Halverson explained, “If you look at the traditional found footage films it’s those handheld cameras, kids don’t really do that any more, they’re online or they’re on their phones, and I think this was the easiest way to bring their real world to their screens.”