We’re bringing the fright on Fangirlish this weekend by sharing some WonderCon scoop from several new and upcoming horror films. Social media is such an integral part of our lives that when a movie manages to make it scary, the world pays attention. In Unfriended, a new horror film that takes place entirely on a computer screen, six teens find out just how frightening social media can be. We had the chance to chat with the cast–including Shelley Hennig (Teen Wolf, Ouija), Moses Jacob Storm (The 4 to 9ers: The Day Crew), Renee Olstead (The Secret Life of the American Teenager), Will Peltz (Men, Women & Children), Jacob Wysocki (Pitch Perfect), and Courtney Halverson (True Detective)–as well as Executive Producer Jason Blum and Writer/Producer Nelson Greaves at WonderCon. Here’s what we learned about Unfriended‘s inception, the novel filmmaking techniques used to make this unique movie–and whether the stars will ever use Skype again.
Developing the Concept
Unfriended arguably represents the evolution of the found footage film, following groundbreaking movies such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. But why are audiences connecting with a movie that takes place entirely on one computer screen–chat speak, multitasking (YouTube and Spotify make appearances), and all? “Because it’s so relatable. That’s all we do,” said Executive Producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions (a production company behind most of your favorite recent horror films, including Paranormal Activity and The Purge, to name a few). “I think it’s really hard to make social media scary, but if you do, it’s ultra-scary because it’s all we do all the time. It’s in our pocket, in our house,” he said. “[Unfriended] takes this and makes it scary, which is hard to do, but it works.”
The filmmakers also credit Unfriended‘s dedication to authenticity for audience approval–and scares. “The reason it works and I think the reason it’s scary is because of the authenticity of it,” Writer/Producer Nelson Greaves explained. “You come to see the movie and say, ‘Hey, I know that. That’s my desktop; that’s how I use that program.’ Without that, the movie wouldn’t work.”
Nelson also talked about how Producer Timur Bekmambetov, a filmmaker who splits his time between the US and Russia, had long wanted to make a movie that takes place on a computer screen. Since he spends almost all of his time on the computer conducting business, he knew it could be done–but he had a harder time convincing anyone to take a risk on such a unique film. “One night, we were talking late in the office, and suddenly it snapped–oh, it’s a horror film,” Nelson said. “Use the limitations and restrictions of a computer desktop the same way that The Blair Witch Project uses the limitations and restrictions of the same camera. And suddenly, it just made sense for us.”
Getting Creative While Filming
A film as unique as Unfriended required the use of some creative techniques to film. The movie was shot using almost exclusively long takes–from 3 minutes to the entire 85 minutes. Shelley Hennig, who plays Blaire, originally asked if they could try doing the film in one take because she found it difficult to keep stopping and starting–and with the intense emotion and reactions needed for horror films, we don’t blame her. “At the end of the day, it’s a horror film, right? Some things are fantastical and hard to believe, but when you start from the beginning and go all the way through, you’re in it. It takes a lot to come out of it,” she said.
Moses Storm (who plays Mitch, Blaire’s boyfriend) agreed. “It’s exhausting, but it’s actually very helpful as an actor to start in one place and end in the other–to have a very clear ending without having to stop and start up again from that emotional point,” he said. “I feel like it was a really unique way to work and definitely conducive to the reality of the film.”
The long takes allowed the actors a freedom not only to immerse themselves into the action, but also to experiment with improvisation. “We knew Nelson’s story. We knew the script he wanted. And he would just let us play,” Shelley said. “I do a lot of television, and it’s very staccato–and rightfully so. But in found footage, there’s such a freedom, and you really make it come alive and make it feel really believable. There’s something liberating in that as an actor,” she said. “We’re sitting in these rooms by ourselves with these computers, really doing it like a play,” said Courtney Halverson (Val). “These takes go on for like, 20-30 minutes of just exploring different things each take. No two takes were the same, really.” Moses added, “We knew the general story, but a lot of the twists and turns and larger plot points–we’re finding out the same time the audience is. We’re acting in real time.”
The actors were also able to get in on some of the filming action by controlling their own takes and even creating some effects. Unfriended was shot in one house, with each actor set up in a separate room with a computer. “The DP made a program that was like Skype but could happen in real time without lag, without Wi-Fi interference. We were all hardwired to each other’s computers,” Jacob Wysocki (Ken) explained. Renee Olstead (Jess) talked about how they were in charge of the start and end of each scene by removing (and later replacing) a solo cup from the camera lens. They were also able to add to the horror through practical effects. “We really got to create a lot of the chaos through being our own cinematographers,” Renee said. “We had a camera that was strapped to a computer, so we got to create this shaking and movement, kind of reflecting where the characters are with our choices. That was a lot of fun.”
Incoming Skype Call
When it comes to a movie like Unfriended, you have to wonder if the actors had some residual fear toward, say, Skype or Facebook notification sounds. “The [Skype] call sound is so jarring to me. Call me on the phone. Don’t Skype me, please,” Jacob said. “I assume that nothing I post on the internet is safe anymore. It’s really caused me to think about everything,” Courtney said.
Of course, since social media is the core of Unfriended, we had to ask which hashtags the cast would use to describe the film. They rapid-fired back some hilarious answers:
Jacob: #LauraBarnes, #Brutal.
Courney: #Blessed [laughs].
Renee: #Rihanna [laughs].
Courtney: Yeah, #Rihanna.
Renee: Whatever’s trending. Just go with that.
On a final note, we had to ask Jason if we can expect to see Shelley in any upcoming Blumhouse films now that she has appeared in both Ouija and Unfriended. “She hasn’t done anything else for us, but there are definitely movies that we’re prepping that I hope she’ll do. I think she’s great. I think she’s a really good actress,” he said. Hopefully we’ll get to see Shelley getting her fright on on the big screen again soon.