In July 2014, a packed house at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival was the first audience to get a taste of producer Timur Bekmambetov’s “Screenlife” technique—conveying a feature-length narrative entirely via the images and sounds on a computer desktop—via the world premiere of a chiller then titled Cybernatural. The crowd’s shriek-filled reaction convinced Universal and Blumhouse to pick up the Leo Gabriadze-directed movie, which they successfully released the following spring under the title Unfriended. At this summer’s Fantasia, Bekmambetov was back with three Screenlife pictures, demonstrating the versatility of the process—which he prefers to call a “language” rather than a “genre.”
Like its predecessor, Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web (coming to Blu-ray, DVD and VOD October 16) stays fixed on one screen in real time as a group of Skyping friends are plunged into an online nightmare. Profile, which Bekmambetov directed himself and is continuing to play the festival circuit (see review here), selectively charts the cyber-relationship between a British journalist and the Middle Eastern terrorist she attempts to win over under a false identity, in the interest of exposing his crimes. Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, now playing select theaters and opening nationwide on Friday, employs traditional editing, camerawork (panning and zooming) and scoring even as it never leaves a pair of laptop screens. It also features Screenlife’s first recognizable star, John Cho, playing a father desperately wending his way through his daughter’s on-line life after she mysteriously disappears (review here).
“These are very different movies—different genres, different directors; what unites them is the language,” Bekmambetov says. “But thematically, they’re exactly the same. They’re about fear of our current internet reality, because you never know, for example, where your daughter is every day, when she disappears into her virtual world. You never know who’s contacting you online, whether you control what you’re doing on the internet or it controls you.”
Bekmambetov, who broke out onto the international scene with his Russian spectaculars Night Watch and Day Watch, and followed them up with the Hollywood actioners Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, enjoys the experimentation that the Screenlife form allows. “Every new movie is a test; I like to try out different things,” he notes. “At first, my concept was unknown actors and a real-time experience on someone else’s screen. And then Aneesh said, ‘No, I want to make Searching different. I want to make it with cuts, with zooms, with music. I want to make it more cinematic.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s call my style Old Testament and your style New Testament!’
“Aneesh and Sev [Ohanian], his writing and producing partner, came to me with a pitch,” Bekmambetov continues. “They had a two-minute sizzle reel they had made, and it was 100 percent convincing. And after just two minutes, I decided that this should be a movie. In fact, they presented it as the basis for a short, and I said, ‘No, no, no, you should write a feature and come back with that script, and we will make the movie.’ They figured out how to do it and wrote the script, and it’s great; it’s just a different animal. What we created with Unfriended and Profile is more experiential, where we try to make you feel like you’re following someone else’s journey. Searching is more playful and director-driven, with editing and an effective soundtrack.”
Although Searching’s plot has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it, Bekmambetov says, “It’s a fictional story, though because of the Screenlife language, it seems 100 percent real. It’s based on hundreds of real internet videos, you know? It’s a lot of stories combined together. My strategy for every movie is that first, you need to research—and it’s easy to do that, because before, when you were making a movie about, say, the police, you had to go and live with these people and spend days with the cops. But today, you can just Google, or go on YouTube and watch hundreds of videos. The same thing happened with Profile; I think we’re on every FBI list now, because we downloaded hundreds of hours of ISIS propaganda movies, to learn how they do it. And I’m telling you, they have an incredible propaganda machine, to create their content.”
Bekmambetov was also able to meet with Anna Erelle, whose true story, chronicled in her book In the Skin of a Jihadist, inspired Profile—and who has been in hiding ever since her interactions with an Islamic militant led ISIS to issue a fatwa against her. “Anna Erelle is not her real name, and I don’t want to ask her what her real name is, even though we’ve been friends for two years,” he says. “We contacted her agent, who set up a meeting in Paris, in a small hotel room. First her agent arrived, and said, ‘She’s a little late,’ but in reality she was checking me out to be sure I was who I said I was [laughs]. Then she called Anna and said, ‘Hey, we’re here waiting for you.’ She had been waiting around the corner, and when I met her, it was an unbelievable moment, because I had read the book and we had written the script at this point, and I already felt very connected to her. But once we met, I understood that she was even more impressive than she was in the book, her personality.
“She was very helpful to the production,” Bekmambetov continues, “because she sent me screen grabs so we could see what was on her desktop at that time—what kind of folders, what kind of images. We also asked her to share her Spotify list from that time, and we used it in the movie. The whole soundtrack is the songs she had listened to, and it helped create the authenticity of the story and her world.”
As Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane), Erelle’s onscreen alter ego, becomes more cyber-involved with Bilel (Shazad Latif), we see this militant soldier let his guard down—a necessary narrative strategy that also risked creating sympathy for him. “Yes, it was a risk,” Bekmambetov acknowledges. “To make this movie impactful, I had to tell the story so that the audience would connect with this person emotionally, because that creates the drama and the complexity of the world. And it’s exactly what these people do, you know? There was no way to tell the story differently, because the whole idea is that she’s using herself as bait, acting like a young woman in love with him, and she’s not an actress. So she has to literally slip into this role, this character she has created. I’ve read some critics saying, ‘Oh, she looks stupid, why does she do it, she’s not professional, why is she so naive?’ But it’s the only way to seduce him—to be seduced herself, and the audience has to be seduced a little bit as well.”
Bekmambetov will attempt to seduce viewers with a fresh approach to Screenlife in his next fear feature to utilize the language: writer/director Bryce McGuire’s Unfollowed. “It’s a horror movie about teenagers in an abandoned mental hospital, and it’s in the vertical screen format, because they shot it on an iPhone. We hope it will find the same success as the Unfriended movies; it’s also supernatural, with unknown actors.” He sees the use of the vertical phone-camera image as a relatable visual gambit to today’s audiences, and Screenlife as an approach he can continue to adapt as technology develops. “People understand this language because we all live in this world, and audiences react to it so emotionally. There’s this kind of shock: ‘Oh my God, this is exactly how I live, this is exactly what I feel, these are exactly my everyday problems.’
“It’s a scary world,” he concludes, “because it’s one that is unknown to us. We’ve lived in it for less than 20 years, and we don’t know all the rules yet. We don’t know how to treat people who have died, for example—someone dies but their account is still active and sending you happy-birthday messages every year. How to live in agreement on the internet—we don’t know yet. And I think the mission of our Screenlife movement is to tell stories to help us to figure out the rules of how to behave in this virtual world.”