Interview with Unfriended: Dark Web director Stephen Susco

Unfriended: Dark Web

This Friday July 20th, Unfriended: Dark Web will hit theaters nationwide. It is a suspenseful tale of six friends discovering a laptop with dark secrets, plunging them into one of the most twisted and sadistic corners of the Dark Web. We sat down with director and writer Stephen Susco to talk about his directorial debut film and how he tackled making an unsuspecting sequel with a new twist.

The first Unfriended movie is a little different than your film. When you were brought onto the project, was it already set that the film would focus on the Deep Web, or was that a direction you wanted to go into?

Stephen Susco: It was wide open actually. When they first brought it up, it was kind of casual, like, “Have you seen our movie Unfriended?” I was like, “Oh my god, yeah!” I thought it was mind-blowing and they said they were trying to figure out a sequel to it. I was really surprised because I said, “I think the narrative form is unique, but I didn’t want my first feature to be a pale shadow of something that worked really well.” But these guys were wide open to experiment. So, I said, “What if I did the opposite? What if it was a thriller, not a horror movie? What if all the kills are off camera so there’s no violence on screen? What if it was PG-13? Just change everything.” And they were like, “Okay, good luck. You have two weeks to write it.” [laughs]

Using that same narrative from the first film, what was it like being the director and the writer, because Unfriended has such a unique visual style that is almost a different variation on Found Footage?

Susco: Yeah, I remember having this striking moment seeing the original. I saw it twice because I had to really process it. I remember vividly at one point of the movie realizing I was trying to move the fucking mouse, but that’s wild because that’s not Found Footage. Found Footage is a passive experience. It’s about something horrible that happened, and you are now looking at it in hindsight. This is immediate. It’s happening in real-time and you are the protagonist. You are looking through the eyes of the protagonist. It was kind of mind-blowing, which is why it’s cool and scary at the same time.

What would you call this genre? Do you even consider it Found Footage?

I definitely don’t consider it Found Footage, but I don’t know what to call it. Someone smarter than me has to come up with that. It’s like “Protagonist Immersion?’ It was exciting because I’m primarily a writer and I’ve never written a movie that took place in real-time, but I’ve also never written a movie that was on a computer screen in real-time and didn’t have the ability to jump to locations, and the ability to jump time to give you a break. It just seemed like a cool challenge all around, and anytime you talk to someone about trying something that no one’s ever seen before, you usually get the look of death. You usually get ‘Can we do just what worked last Friday?’ It’s just awesome to team with people who have that same view about creativity. There’s like this “Sure, let’s go for it. Doesn’t sound like it can work, but maybe we can make it work.’ It’s a fun environment to play around in.

Since the film is very tech-heavy, did you already have insight into the innerworkings of hacking,  or did you have to do research for the movie?

My parents worked for IBM in the ’60s and ’70s. They had me on a TI-99/4A when I was 5 years old and I saw War Games, and I was like [does head explosion sound]. So I was very into computers at a young age and I was very familiar with hacking, but it’s hard to keep up with because technology changes every single day. You’re just further and further behind if you’re not clued in every day. So yes and no, I was tuned in to certain things but obviously, need some professional assistance. I also wrote a movie a couple years ago with a former CIA agent and it was about one of his cases. It had nothing to do with this, but we spent a lot of time talking about technology and surveillance. I remember vividly that in one conversation we had, I made some snarky comment about “I guess you’re going to tell me that if I’m not doing anything wrong, then I don’t have to worry about the government snooping in on me.”

He said, “Well maybe.” What he said was really striking since he said it’s not really the government that you have to worry about though. ‘How do you mean?’ He said, “Well we’re the government; we’re not necessarily the best at this. The people that are the best at this are the people you need to worry about. You have to worry about the people that still live in their mom’s basement and they may not be old enough to develop their moral compass yet. Maybe they’re bored out of their fucking minds and that took me down a totally different rabbit hole. I started learning about Wardriving and all that stuff. So yeah, I took a deep dive into this stuff and it was pretty terrifying.

Prior to the movie, did you actually dive into the deep web and all its uncharted waters?

I did because you hear about it and in a way, it’s actually really simple. Throughout history, humans have always figured out how to find the place in the park where the lightbulb hasn’t been replaced, and that’s the best spot to do stuff when you don’t want people to see. We kind of float around in the ocean of the internet. Most of the internet is the deep web, which is the crap. It’s past where the search engines can find and it’s old excel spreadsheets from the late ’80s, but it’s just a bunch of data generally. So somewhere at the bottom of all that, the people who want that space that doesn’t want people prying said, “Okay, let’s just build a little layer of encryption here and that’s the dark web.” But this has been what humans have been doing forever. This is just sort of a different mode. People talk about it like this crazy mysterious thing, but it’s not really. What’s creepy about it is we’re all just swimming on top and we either know that it’s down there and just don’t care, or we’re just not paying attention. And there are a lot of giant things swimming around down there looking up at us like, “What does he have that I can mess around with?’ That’s what I found to be creepy.

I was really interested in how this film was shot because my guess is that everyone is isolated in separate rooms, yet their interaction on screen seems so genuine and real.

Yeah, that’s exactly how we did it. We basically rented this house that’s built for filmmaking. It has all kinds of sets on it, but what we did is we took the second floor and took all these rooms and dressed them as separate apartments. Then we built a closed circuit camera system and I was in another room. And I had this big monitor and it was like the Brady Bunch. They were all on my screen and they could all hear everyone else but themselves. I was really trying to put in the authentic experience of Skype. I could speak to all of them. I had a microphone and I mix it down to just one of them because they were doing a lot of improv. That’s what was really fun about it. We essentially filmed it like theatre. We had five days to rehearse it and then we had four days to film all the dialogue. The actors are incredible. The scariest part of this was knowing that the authenticity was going to make it work or make it fail. Like Colin Woodell had to be on screen for ninety minutes through the whole movie  and he was very limited in what he could do. They got the script two days before and we filmed 47 and a half pages of dialogue on the first day of filming. That’s how fortunate I am to work with them. When I first met them, I was like, “I wrote this in two weeks. I need you guys to make it real. I want you guys to change stuff. I want you guys to figure out these characters,” and we workshopped it. We workshopped for five days and then we workshopped it for four more. I was just filming those last four days and they just really eased into it. Just having that kind of workflow saying here’s a three-hour card, let’s go and not having to cut, they started to self-direct. They would just say, “Wait, let me try something and go back and do it again.” It was just unbelievable to be able to just sit back at a certain point and just watch them do it. It was incredible.

When you’re dealing with the actors improving, do you have to worry about cutting certain scenes because you want it to feel like it’s in real-time… especially in this kind of format?

We tried to keep it as continuous as possible. I knew that the tensions of the film are such that it made more sense to say let’s just film it as sequential as possible. Most movies you’re shooting the end on day one; you’re just jumping all over the map. So, if this is the way we get to shoot it, let’s just do it in order. Let’s let the tensions exist and thrive instead of saying, “Okay, now we are jumping into the middle of the movie.” So most of the filming was linear. The hardest part was watching five different performances because they were going to be cut together. Sometimes we were going to take different cuts from different days and marry them as if they were simultaneous. So, making sure I had enough coverage on all the actors was tricky, but once I knew I had it, it was super fun. The last day I said, “Let’s do the movie from beginning to end and don’t use any lines in the script. You guys know the story now, just do it. It’s crazy but they did, and a lot of what is in the movie is from that day. They just figured out their characters and made them tick with the touchstones I gave them and really just breathed air into them. Man, they made me look good. (laughs) Watching them is what really pulled this together.

It was great talking with Stephen Susco. I felt like we could have talked for another hour about his film and how it all came together, but unfortunately, that’s all the time we had.

If you haven’t already, please check out our review for Unfriended: Dark Web. The film hits theaters nationwide this Friday.

This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity

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Mike Villarreal
Mike Villarreal 1357 posts

Mike once killed a man with a plastic butter knife. True story. #ViolentGentlemen