Will UNFRIENDED Usher In A New Type of Movie?

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Movies are slowly reflecting the digital age such as text messages that now pop up on movie screens to tell a story. The new horror flick UNFRIENDED takes it to the next level and unleashes the horror over a computer screen and through the point of view of a webcam. The UNFRIENDED stars and filmmakers reveal the unconventional way they shot the film, and whether it will do for horror films what Blair Witch did for the found footage genre.

In UNFRIENDED, the viewer is watching all the action unfold on a computer screen and web camera. An online prank turns deadly for Blaire (Shelley Hennig) and her online friends when a stalker takes revenge on each of them through Facebook, YouTube, Skype and other popular digital platforms many of us have grown accustomed to.   

The idea of shooting a film entirely from the point of view of a web camera came from the mind of Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, the director/producer behind the Night Watch trilogy and Wanted (Angelina Jolie). UNFRIENDED producer Nelson Greaves reveals Timur was behind the concept, and insisted it be shot in the manner that reflects how we see a computer screen. Bekmambetov lives on his laptop, according to Greaves, since he runs a production company out of Russia and the United States. He wanted the digital age reflected on the big screen. Director Leo Gabriadze and Greaves initially had reservations and got “cold feet” about the experiment, but the Russian director through Skpye insisted on it. “He slammed his fist on the table and said ’trust, trust,’” says Greaves.

UNFRIENDED was also shot unconventionally. Greaves tells CineMovie they shot UNFRIENDED with GoPros and treated the footage extensively in editorial. Each actor had their own GoPro and served as the directors of photography on the set, says Moses Storm who plays Mitch. Having the whole room lit made it possible for the actors to take the camera anywhere in that space as they improvised lines and movements. “And while it was messy, it’s definitely helps the reality,” adds Storm.

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On set, the director of photography Adam Sidman designed an elaborate system in a single house where each actor was in a room fully connected to each other and to the director. They could see each other and interact through texting, Skype and Facebook. The filmmakers served as the online bully and they were able to cue the actors through that online system. “It helped us react organically,” says UNFRIENDED star Shelley Hennig (“Teen Wolf”). The boss Timur Bekmambetov would often Skype in and give his notes as well, notes Greaves, while they were shooting.

To further enhance the realistic nature of the movie, they shot in a continuous take for 10-12 hours a day. Initially, the actors would cut in between takes but for Shelley Hennig, it was much harder to cut and pick up during an emotional scene. Hennig suggested shooting in a single take, an idea that didn’t sit well with her co-stars. Will Peltz says he “hated” her for suggesting that, but in the end it worked for all the actors. Most agreed the experience was much more the format of a play rather than a film set.    

The stars of the movie didn’t mind constantly being on extreme close-up. UNFRIENDED actress Courtney Halverson joked, “We’re vain enough that we knew what angles to hit.” For her co-star Jacob Wysocki, it became "second nature" once they figured out which angle worked for them.

The actors found the unconventional shoot “liberating” although there were some trial and errors because of the new format. The actors, however, liked the experience because they were able to improvise and experiment with a new idea of filmmaking especially Hennig.

“As creative people, you’re always looking for that new innovative thing to be part of. I think Timur hit the nail on the head with the idea that takes place on a character’s desktop.”

Producer/writer Greaves also didn’t conduct the auditions as normal. At first they had traditional casting, but they soon realized they had to put the actors in that environment. They placed actors in front of a computer and Skyped their performance and group chats. “They all had to be great and they are,” says Greaves of the actors.  

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In terms of whether UNFRIENDED’s format will catch on like the found footage genre, producer Jason Blum (Insidious, The Purge, Sinister) says it’s too early for that. Greaves adds that they didn’t set out to change the way of filmmaking.

"We didn’t set out to do a digital horror story. We weren’t setting out to do a story about digital relationships. We set out to tell a story how people live now."

Millenials will most likely enjoy this first-person style of viewing the big screen, but will older generations adapt to it as well?  The success of UNFRIENDED may determine that. Catch UNFRIENDED in movie theaters now.

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