How 'Unfriended: Dark Web' Recreates the Scariest Corners of the Internet
When The Grudge screenwriter Stephen Susco was approached to make a follow-up to the computer-screen horror hit Unfriended, he didn't want to make a conventional sequel. He had been gobsmacked by the 2014 original, which followed a group of social-media-savvy teenagers getting picked off one-by-one on Skype by the ghost of a bullied student, but he wasn't going to simply remake the first film and rely on the same set of maddeningly precise found footage techniques. He was looking to create something even more immersive, challenging, and terrifying. So, he turned to the dark web.
Incorporating research into invasive hacking techniques, sophisticated cyber-security methods, and, yes, cryptocurrencies, Unfriended: Dark Web unfolds like a wildly paranoid edition of Wired guest-edited by Wes Craven or Michael Haneke. "I came up with something that was as diametrically opposed to the original as possible," Susco told Thrillist during an interview earlier this week. "I wanted to do something that was told in the real world instead of supernatural and I wanted the characters to be older than teenagers."
The film's main character Matias (Colin Woodell) is an affable twenty-something guy who steals a laptop from the lost and found of a cafe to work on a sign-language app he's building to communicate with his hearing-impaired girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). But during a late-night Skype session with his friends, he quickly finds himself under the watchful eye of the laptop's former owner, a dangerous sociopath who will do anything to retrieve the device. To find out how exactly how this Blumhouse-produced thriller wrings scares out of video chats, Spotify playlists, and Facebook messages, we dove even deeper into the dark web with Susco as our fearless guide.
Thrillist: How is the screenplay and the writing process on this different from a more traditional film?
Susco: It wasn't too far afield on the page from a conventional screenplay except there were no sluglines. It's a real-time movie so it was just one long continuous experience. The only differential was trying to find a way to explain what was happening on the computer screen. It was relatively easy, but trying to literalize what was going on on screen was a challenge.
It was hard to find out the timing of something that read on the page "Matias switches from Skype to text or email." It could take up one line on the page but it will take up 40 seconds in the animation. The challenge is trying to figure out how the final form of the movie was going to look. The script was 93 pages, but the first cut of the film, which was right in line with the script, was almost three hours long.
That was going to be my next question.
Susco: Yeah, the assemblage of the movie was almost three hours long.
The story touches on so many timely tech topics, from Bitcoin to swatting. What type of research did you do?
Susco: One of the principles that I set from the beginning was that I really wanted everything that happens in the movie to be something that could happen in the real world. There was a lot of research done and we talked about a lot of different things. There were versions we came up with that were a little too far afield. We tried to keep it as organic as possible.
The inspiration for part of the film came from another script I spent a couple years writing with some people in the intelligence service, which was where I started learning a lot about these weak spots in the technology we have. I learned about government surveillance and hacker penetration. I started to become really alarmed about how we've jumped into the waters of social media and we don't think about why it's all free. We put up all these details of our lives up there and then there are really smart people out there just scooping that information up and using it against us.
I know this film uses some of the same techniques producer Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) has used on other films, including a thriller that debuted at Sundance.
Susco: Yeah, Aneesh Chaganty's film Searching. It's a great movie. We were all in post at the same time so all our editing rooms were next to each other. It was really interesting to watch how other people were using the format in different ways. Aneesh's film has time cuts and a score. They actually pre-edited that movie before they filmed it, which is sorta the opposite of what we did. It was a wild experience to play around with this and realize everyone was flying by the seat of their pants a little bit. It was new to all of us. It was all really experimental.
The look of the film is so dense in the way it replicates the multi-tasking experience of using a computer. What was the biggest challenge in making the movie?
Susco:The biggest challenge was casting, and we were really fortunate to have a great casting director John McAlary, who in a very short period of time found people who were prepared and eager to take on a challenge like this. We went through 47 and a half pages of dialogue in the first day of filming. We did all the dialogue in four days on the first round of production. That takes some serious actors and I was really blessed to work with them. We were cognizant from the beginning that if the movie didn't feel authentic it wouldn't work. So that was one of the biggest challenges.
And in post we really embraced the idea that post-production is going to be even more of a rewriting experience than it is on a conventional film, and really leaning into the fact that the process meant we could literally try every single idea we have. And we did. We tried hundreds and hundreds of ideas. Fortunately, we were aided by working with Andrew Wesman, who was the editor on the original film, and he had evolved the workflow technologically speaking so we could do more things quicker and try more things at a speedier rate than in our first go around. Just adjusting to that was a challenge.
But it was also really fun! Once you realize it's sorta limitless in its mutability. You could invent whole sequences and scenes that you've never written or filmed out of full cloth and put them in the movie. You could do it in an hour. It was wildly adventurous. It was a challenge but also a real blast and an education.
Can you think of an example of something you invented full cloth in post production?
Susco: Yeah, one of the sequences was when Matias has the face to face direct phone call with [the film's villain] the Charon whose computer he took. We had a different version of that in the original script form of the movie, where that tension escalates and you realize there's something scarier than the scary bad guy and that there's something even he's afraid of. [Originally] it happened over text and as we were assembling a version of it, it didn't feel as scary as it should be.
I think it was Andrew who said, "This could happen visually. What if he's so scared he calls them?" Then we wrote that scene, we filmed Colin our actor doing it live and that scene was followed up originally with them being confronted by [hacker collective in the film] The Circle to prove their identity, and in edit we realized that should all happen at exactly the same time. The Circle should appear while they're having that face to face phone call. So the fun of the editorial process was being able to play around and stack things that are happening and finding out where the tension could come from.
How long was shooting vs post-production? It sounds like they blend together.
Susco: Sorta. We had 8 days of filming in the first week of October and we started editing in October 2016 and we just wrapped editing four weeks ago. Primarily it was post-production, but we added 7 additional days where we did some filming. But some of that filming was 20 minutes long.
We filmed with Colin our lead while he was on holiday in Europe. We shipped over his shirt and had him sit at a laptop and film some dialogue that's actually in the movie. So there were little bits and pieces of the story that we needed because we were reengineering the story in post and we needed to get performative aspects. But it was primarily an animated film.
I saw the first Unfriended on a laptop so it was strange to see this one in a screening room. As the filmmaker, do you have a preference for how people experience the film?
Susco: I hope they see it in a theater. As much as I love the convenience of watching things at home, there are some movies that lend themselves to that communal feeling and every time I've watched this movie with a crowd it's been a real thrill because people react so collectively. It's a real treat.
I would have thought the experience of watching it on a laptop would be flat but a lot people watch it on their laptops or home computers and have been really affected by it. It added to the reality and put them even more squarely in the experience. So if people appreciate it either way, that's exciting to me no matter what.
This interview has been edited and condensed.