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'Unfriended' producers say creating suspense via computer screen is harder than it looks

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Still from the film "Unfriended."
Still from the film "Unfriended."

"Unfriended" presented the difficulty of showing a whole movie on one computer screen, as well as trying to accurately capture millennials' Internet habits.

Teenagers spend an awful lot of time on social media, and it’s not a spoiler to say that the teens in the new movie “Unfriended” have an awful time on social media.

The thriller focuses on a group of high school classmates who like to hang out on Skype video calls. A stranger mysteriously joins one of their group chats, and just as mysteriously bad things start happening to all of the students.

“Unfriended” is presented entirely from the perspective of one of the high schoolers' computer screens. It’s just one giant desktop of Skype, Facebook, Spotify, YouTube and several other apps and websites.

Opening Friday, “Unfriended” is coming out from Blumhouse Productions, the company behind the “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” movies. Director Timur Bekmambetov is also part of the project.

Unfriended trailer

When Blum and Samuelson came by The Frame, we asked them about the difficulty of showing a whole movie on one computer screen, creating horror without a point of view and accurately capturing millennials' Internet habits. 

Interview Highlights

The frame of the movie is a computer screen, so it seems like an easy enough idea to execute. Cooper, you're shaking your head very hard.

Cooper: We were really impressed by the degree of difficulty. You don't even have the tools you have in a traditional found footage movie, you don't have any variety of frame — it's just five people looking down the barrel at a camera. When we first saw it, we were so amazed that it worked at all.

Jason: We brought a couple different editors to get their opinion on the movie, and they had never seen so many layers in the project files. There's the computer screen, which has its elements which change throughout the movie — the clock in the top right-hand corner ticks the minutes away and all the different Internet windows. Sometimes there would be entire minutes in the movie that had 36 layers in the file, and those editors' heads exploded when they saw those files.

Cooper: It turns out that looking at a computer screen in a movie is incredibly difficult to replicate. Even if you're trying to tell a story on just one computer screen, it takes 10 different shots all the time to make that happen.

When your perspective is locked into a computer screen, you give up one of the most important elements to horror: point of view. How do you create suspense when you're giving away any kind of point of view?

Cooper: We discovered that the thing you have to rely on is the idea. We thought about it like, What would a scary stage play feel like? If you're sitting in an audience watching a stage play, how do you make that scary when you don't have the editorial tools you'd have in a movie?

 The story's constructed like it's a stage play, and what's scary about it is the idea of someone who died under strange circumstances presenting themselves to you — via Facebook in this case. That's what's scary, not necessarily something jumping out from behind you.

"Blair Witch Project" launched the found footage genre. If "Unfriended" is successful, is there a new genre about to be launched here? What should it be called, and what are the rules?

Cooper: [laughs] I think we just want the best for "Unfriended," but it was really cool to use the format. It was fun to decide whether or not story points should be delivered by the performance of two actors talking to each other or the "bloop" of a Skype message. That was always a really fun question that we could ask ourselves.

Jason: I also think one of the really interesting things about the movie is that it's the next step of voyeurism, because what you're really doing is getting inside a young person's brain and seeing the choices that that brain is making. You're inserting yourself between their head and their computer screen, so it really feels like voyeurism at the next level.

But that's something the movie gets frighteningly right. I'm sure there are young people in your office, as there are young people at KPCC, who seem to have eight different applications running at any given time and you don't even know what they're doing with their mouse. It's almost an organized schizophrenia?

Cooper: The joy of the movie is that you don't have to sneak a look; you can sit there and stare. I had younger people come in and watch the movie, and I'd say, "Does this feel real? Does this feel authentic?" And they all said, "Yes." I was like, "Wow! I can't believe that's what kids do on their computers." [laughs]

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