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Cyberbullying and Digital Ghosts: The Horror of Unfriended

on April 16, 2015, 4:30pm

The Internet is a cruel, dark place. Lives are often shattered, hearts are almost always broken, and lies are as common as the clicks and commands that fuel them. That’s what makes it such an open sandbox for Blumhouse Productions, whose micro-budget horror has capitalized on the medium for over half a decade, ensuring that millennials across the world sleep not-so-soundly as the terrifying may be at their fingertips. Their latest export, Unfriended, couldn’t be any more blunt in that conceit: a cautionary tale of cyberbullying, told through the desktop of one unfortunate teenage girl.

Directed by Levan Gabriadze and written by Nelson Greaves, the story involves six high school teenagers haunted by the spirit of their dead friend on the one-year anniversary of her tragic suicide. For 82 tense minutes, the action unfolds as the lead speaks with her friends on Skype, texts with her boyfriend on Messages, and screams at the secrets and lies that spill out on Facebook. She’s just like any one of us, which is what makes the film so unnerving, especially as the bodies start to rise on-screen. After all, haven’t you spoken ill of someone online?

That’s the real finger-wagging crux of Unfriended and why audiences will likely subscribe to its cautionary horror. This idea isn’t lost on producer Jason Blum, who knows a thing or two about marketing scares and thrills. Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, and The Purge have all warranted blockbuster franchises, and that’s a trend he’d like to see continue with Unfriended. Given the film’s strikingly fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and its all-too-fitting marketing that’s flashed across just about every social network out there, it’s likely he’ll get his wish.

Shortly after the film’s debut at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman caught up with Gabriadze, Greaves, and Blum to discuss their “smart, thrilling, and addicting byte of horror.” The friendly conversation oscillated between a variety of obvious topics, from the perils of cyberbullying, to the film’s cutting-edge style, and, naturally, to ghosts. Read on below.

Cyberbullying is a rampant problem in our culture, plaguing schools, universities, and offices. The research must have been a little depressing. Could you describe the background going into this?

Nelson Greaves (NG): What’s scary about it is that we wrote this thing two years ago now, more, two years and some months, and the problem of cyberbullying had just really kind of started to rear its head. A lot of people reacting to the trailer have been like, “Oh, it’s based on this true story,” and it’s like a lot these stories they’re mentioning are stories that have happened since we wrote and made the film. The problem isn’t getting better; it’s getting worse. The problem of cyberbullying is so scary because it used to be there was one guy that was the bully, and you look out for him. And now everyone is the bully.

Levan Gabriadze (LG): He had to have enough guts to bully. He had to come up and actually face you and tell you and the weaknesses to that would be very limited that he only knew, and maybe a couple of other people. You as a victim could forget it in a week or so, it could die out, you could move schools in severe cases. But now, where are you going to move to? The moon?

Film Title: Unfriended

You can do whatever you want under an Anonymous tag.

LG: This will follow you for the rest of your life. Your grandchildren can read about it, too.

NG: It’s a democratization.

LG: It’s never going to go away. The whole world is the weakness of it, and anybody can do it.

NG: It’s also everyone doing it. A lot of the people that have been cyberbullied are bullies. All the common people have teamed up against the bullies because they can do it because it seems like it doesn’t matter. You’re just typing words on a screen. And who would think that would result in someone doing something so terrible and people’s lives being ruined because all you’re doing is hitting a keyboard.

You think it’s so painless.

LG: It’s very tempting to become a bully, and that’s the scariest moment; anybody, you can become a bully too. If somebody touches you or something you don’t like, it’s really hard to hold them up to yourself and say, “I’m not going to follow this,” but people, especially young people, don’t have those stoppers inside.

NG: Right and you’re not doing it to be mean. In the film’s case, they’re doing it for fun, to be funny.

The social network medium also demands participation. 

NG: Exactly.

LG: What’s up with that phrase, “go kill yourself”? What is that? This person’s life needs to end because something happened. The reaction to the action is way over the top.

This can happen to anyone, too. What’s interesting in Unfriended is that the victim is not who you’d expect. She’s very good looking and seems to be linked to a lot of the popular kids at school. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

NG: Very much. And I think what has happened in a lot of these cases, a lot of the people who end up being bullied are bullies. It used to be if you’re the pretty girl, people can’t really mess with you because you have all the power. But on the Internet, behind the mask, anyone has the power, and so it’s a chance for kids who aren’t popular in person who can still be popular online even if people don’t know. There’s this site called Ask.fm, where you can post all these things anonymously, which is a site that’s been linked to a lot of cyberbullying, and basically, you can post a thing on there and if 500 people like it, it doesn’t matter that they don’t know it’s you, you got 500 likes. You’ll feel pretty good about yourself. And you feel like, hey I took that person down. That person’s mean and that person’s a bitch and that person’s all these things…

LG: They become the judge, and they are not elected to that position.

NG: You see yourself as a hero, a homegrown hero, for taking this person down, but, at some point, it crosses a line into being something else.

LG: You become who you criticize. You suddenly become worse than that person.

It really helps then that the film makes it feel like you’re on your own laptop. It’s so natural.

LG: You can watch this film on your desktop, too. You keep wanting to press something and get involved in it.

The film will prove quite ideal then for Video On-Demand.

LG: But it’s also interesting to see your desktop on the big screen. Both ways of consuming this film, watching this film on the big screen has its own advantages, but on the small screen, it’s creepy.

It’s really authentic. That’s why.

LG: Humans moved their relationships to the Internet. That means that human drama moved there too. We as filmmakers cannot just stay away from it. Life is happening now, the relationships break up, the unfriending … it’s all there. We want to tell those stories without waking up people with fake desktops saying it’s real, but not really. It has to be real.

Film Title: Unfriended

Did you work with any of the companies in terms of customization? Facebook, for example?

LG: No, it’s a real Facebook.

What was the biggest struggle piecing together this whole film?

LG: We didn’t have any films to learn from, so we had to come up with this little language thing. It’s based on real life, we do it everyday, so it wasn’t like it was coming out of the thinness. It’s our life, and it’s how we use the computers. Just making sure the script can translate into this language and can work there, that was the hardest thing.

NG: There are things that wouldn’t seem apparent, you know. Some of the most intense moments of this movie are mouses hovering over a button. Will the mouse click button? When you read that in a script, it’s not scary at all. The process that we went through was discovering that actually the scariest thing in our movie is the mouse. What is this thing going to click? I think that’s what we had to discover and embrace, and taking that leap is scary. I think [our producer] Timor [Bekmambetov] deserves the credit for pushing us. We were scared. We can’t just be looking at a mouse for 10 minutes.

LG: What are you going to do, just zoom on it? It never will work. Zooming in and pans – no no no. It has to stay.

NG: He was the guy with the balls to say, “Just do it, just keep it like that. Trust me, it’ll work.” So there are five-minute sequences in our movie where there’s like no sound, no dialogue. We’re just watching a mouse. And I think, for me, those are some of my favorite sequences because I’m like, this is me, I’m doing this. Those are the stories no one’s told. No one’s told.

What is the most daunting aspect of making a horror movie today?

LG: Make it real.

NG: Yeah, what is scary about a real modern life. I think there are some people doing really good jobs — like It Follows, very cool — just hitting something very real and relatable. I think it’s about finding one of those ins. There’s always going to be The Conjuring that just comes out and manages to hit on so many great levels and manages to be amazing traditional horror. But I think it’s also about finding ways to keep horror relevant because we don’t really live in a lot of those old spaces anymore. We live in cities…

LG: Protected…

NG: We live online. We don’t live out in old country houses anymore, so I don’t think a lot of those fears are necessarily dying. They’re just not the things that are at the top of our mind.

LG: The unique thing about our movie is that we actually show you the double personality in real time. How she’s saying something one way and doing something else at the same time. You get to understand that the computer desktop is a portal to the soul, which is hidden and very personal. Your computer knows you much better than any of your friends and parents probably do, right? So, exposing that portal to the soul is what is unique about this project.

Jason, what catches your eye when producing horror? There are so many horror films sitting around undistributed. How do you go through them all?

Jason Blum (JB): I think what catches my eye is really: “Am I scared or disturbed or creeped out?” And I think that you have to be careful with a tail like the dog. I think that happens most often when something is different, right? I’ve seen versions, but never a successful version, of a movie like Unfriended, where it feels authentic and real. So, it’s really the first of its kind in that sense, and so that’s really unnerving, and so a lot of our stuff, it’s not original for the sake of being original. I think when things are original, they’re scarier. Is my mind not wandering? Am I with this movie? Am I looking around? Do I want to go get a sandwich?

If I’m not doing those things, something is going on between my relationship between me and what’s on screen that I’m tapping into. More often than not, that happens when something’s different. I think that’s a universal thing. Business school tells you the opposite, which is largely how mainstream Hollywood is run: if you have something successful, do it again. And I actually think we try and think the opposite way, so if you have something successful, try something else. Or make a sequel.

Given today’s culture with TV, sequels are just a way to expand on a story that would otherwise be restricted by a running time.

JB: We’re all readjusting to storytelling because of how great television is, and I totally agree with you. People don’t talk about that, but I think sequels to movies are really tied into that. Marvel is like the greatest TV series of all time. It just happens to be in the theater, but that’s what it is.

blumhouse productions logo Cyberbullying and Digital Ghosts: The Horror of Unfriended

You wait almost the same amount of time for the next season that you do the next film, too.

JB: It’s similar, a very similar thing.

Ghosts are often the preferred scare of Blumhouse Productions. In fact, before Paranormal Activity, it was rare that you’d see a ghost story on screen. Is there a reason for that? Did you have a close encounter growing up?

JB: I saw a ghost once.

Oh, really?

JB: Yes. Now, this is not going to make any sense. I don’t really believe in the supernatural, and I don’t really believe … I believe that there are things out there that we can’t explain, but that being said, I still did see a ghost. I lived in this apartment in New York City. My bedroom was in the basement of a storefront, and you couldn’t quite stand up in it. It was pretty claustrophobic. And there was a figure at the end of my bed, and it was not a dream. It wasn’t an evil figure, and it wasn’t a particularly good figure. It was just some ghost staring at me, and I will never forget it. It happened 20 years ago, but I was very disturbed by it.

That’s not the reason that I’m fascinated with ghosts, but that was my ghost experience. I think the reason that I’m interested in ghost movies most the time is because it’s the scariest thing. I think that if you can see someone, like if there’s just a killer, you can imagine it, so you think you can overcome it. But a ghost, they have powers you don’t know. There’s just so much unknown there that I think they’re kind of the scariest thing.

Blumhouse works off such an aggressive schedule. How do you…

JB: Keep it straight? We have a big company. We have 30 people at the company, so it’s not just me, and we do very different things on different projects. You never know. Some movies  and  television shows take up a ton of time, some don’t take that much. So it’s both of those things, but it’s really because there’s a big group of people. It’s not one guy, you know, working the phones.

purge Cyberbullying and Digital Ghosts: The Horror of Unfriended

Do you ever worry there’s too much?

JB: I look forward to the day when the consumer says, “I just saw a Blumhouse movie last week. I don’t want to see a Blumhouse movie next week.” [Laughs] I don’t think that day’s anytime soon, but I’m looking forward to that day when we actually need to think about that. I think that happens with scary movies, except during the fall, where you have a little more demand, and you can have scary movies every other weekend for about six to eight weeks, from September to about November 1st.

But I think the rest of the calendar year, you need to space out the scary movies. You need six or eight weeks between them. We think about that. But if we have a movie that’s a different genre … [For example], we have a movie called Jem and the Holograms, and we’re releasing that the same week or right around the same time as Paranormal Activity. …I don’t think there’s a lot of crossover between those. [Laughs.]

Last year, you started really breaking some waves with HBO’s The Normal Heart and naturally with Whiplash. Is that an area you’d like to explore more and expand?

JB: I don’t want to make it the focus. The focus of the company is scary, and that’s what I’m passionate about, and that’s what I want to continue. But if a great script or movie comes into the company that isn’t that and enough people think this is awesome, and that we should throw our weight behind it, we will always do that. But I’m not going to change the focus of what we’re doing. I really like the niche that we’re in, and I’ll continue to play that.

Do you follow trends in horror? For instance, many might agree the zombie bubble is about to burst, if it hasn’t already. 

JB: I try not to think about it like that. I think that you can trip over yourself. I think this may be too revealing, but I try and not think about what a trend is or not. Again, I think that is a very Hollywood way of thinking. I try and just erase all of that and when I see stuff, I ask if it feels new. Maybe there’s a great new zombie movie that shows zombies in a totally different way, and I wouldn’t not do it because there are too many zombies. My urge is to do what you’re saying, but I try and fight it. And sometimes I’m successful in finding it, sometimes I’m not, but I try not to do things like that, though.

True. There always is that exception to the rule that comes out.

JB: And you miss the exception to the rule if you make rules.

Unfriended hits theaters Friday, April 17th.

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