Screenwriter and Director Stephen Susco dives into the world of psychopaths and snuff films in his new film, Unfriended: Dark Web.
In Unfriended: Dark Web, when 20-something hipster Matias (Colin Woodell) steals a laptop from the local cybercafe, he never imagined the previous owner would be a deranged psychopath. But then during a ritual game-night Skype call with his pals, the boosted laptop begins running sluggish. Matias soon learns why, upon discovering a hidden cache of snuff videos on the hard drive. It’s not long before the unseen madman behind the disturbing images hacks into the Skype session and threatens to kill anyone who dares to log off or alert the police. Of course, locating his prey is a straightforward exercise, given how freely people broadcast their moves online.
Unfriended: Dark Web is a sequel to 2014’s simply-titled Unfriended, where the characters were menaced by a supernatural Boogeyman. This go-around, Dark Web writer/director Stephen Susco recognized that the perils of real-world Internet technology are plenty scary, all on their own. Call it a cautionary tale.
Shown in real-time, almost entirely through Matias’ point of view of his laptop screen, Dark Web masterfully integrates live footage of the actors, with animated images of fluctuating computer windows, to create a voyeuristic effect that’s chilling.
“It was a treat to discover how the familiar computer interface—the mouse, windows and browsers, could be utilized to create a dramatic narrative experience,” explained Susco, who sat with Script, to tell us more.
Script: The film opens with the image of a laptop booting up, and its unseen user attempting to log on with a litany of passwords like “Covfefe” and “BigDick69.” Tell us about coming up with these hilarious password attempts.
Stephen Susco: I was impressed how the first movie found new ways to tell a story—how a mouse could convey the emotional state of a character you don’t even see on screen—just by watching the cursor from their vantage point. In Dark Web, you know right away that whoever’s using this computer isn’t its rightful owner, without meeting or seeing anyone. His string of password attempts was the first thing I wrote, and it changed a bunch of times, in fact, we changed it four weeks ago, just before we locked picture, because when we filmed back in October of 2016, we didn’t have “Covfefe.” We did have “BigDick69” and “FeelTheBern,” but I changed that to “FeelTheBern2020,” to make it more timely.
Script: You definitely glean that the person behind that laptop has a robust intelligence and a wry wit.
Susco: That’s good to hear.
Script: And just before Matias succumbs to the temptation to click onto someone else’s Facebook page, the blinking cursor conveyed a sense of conflict–without seeing his facial expression.
Susco: It’s wild, right? And that’s what made this film such an interesting exercise—not only in writing what was essentially a play that took place in real-time, but switching from a supernatural thriller to a film with rules that had to work on a logical level. It was a fun challenge, because I couldn’t rely on a supernatural omnipresence, where a malevolent force says, “If you disconnect, I will kill you.” I was more interested in creating a Hitchcockian slow-burn thriller, with real rules and real consequences for breaking them.
Script: Discuss your collaborative process with your editor Andrew Wesman, in perfecting the computer screen animation.
Susco: Andrew and I sat in a room together for 20 months, and I’m blessed to work with him, because he co-edited the first movie, so he already went through this experience and refined the work flow, where the rendering could be much more immediate, letting us try things on the fly. When you think about it, this is really an animated film with performative aspects to it, and the mutability of storytelling was breathtaking. Andrew would say, “What if we had a moment where this happens?”, and we could just engineer that by taking footage of Matias using the computer, and generating sequences we hadn’t previously written or thought about.
Script: Did you direct Colin Woodell to give various prolonged unspoken facial expressions to cultivate enough footage to provide copious editing choices?
Susco: I did some of that, but not enough. There were things I missed, and we had to bring the actors back for several days. We replicated Matias’ bedroom in our producer’s garage, and had Colin come in to get some additional dialogue, where I’d say, “We need you to look to the right side of the screen and move the mouse left, and here’s what you see,” and he would act alarmed, and we would capture that performance—maybe with some variance thrown in. It was essential to have what would turn into B-roll to give us added flexibility in editing.
Script: What was your reaction to seeing Colin completely lose it, when his eyes got all red and teary?
Susco: Oh man, I knew from the beginning that the hardest thing would be casting this movie, because there were just five days of rehearsal and five days to do all the dialogue on a 93-minute play, so I was blessed by all the actors—but particularly Colin, because he had to be on screen for the entire movie, and he had to be the eyes of the audience, which is an incredible task to ask an actor to do. But Colin was so helpful. One day last year, he was on vacation in Europe, and we realized we needed to get more dialogue from him, because of some new things we engineered, so we shipped him the shirt his character wore and had him angle his computer up so we could only see the hotel ceiling behind him. And to bring him back to that emotional space—he’s just unbelievable.
Script: And he’s fabulously handsome.
Susco: He’s a beautiful man. It’s hard to take a picture next to him.
Script: Finally, you shadowed real-life intelligence operatives to learn about cyber surveillance abuses. What keeps you up at night about social media and Internet technology?
Susco: Two primary things. One is how little people know about what they just jumped into, so willingly. And secondly, what it’s doing to us, that we’re not willing to talk about. This has been dropped on us, so drastically and so quickly, and everyone just signed the heck on. But people are finally waking up to some uneasy things like Cambridge Analytica coming to light. I find a lot of irony to it. In the Sixties, we were making movies like The Conversation, which ends with that great scene of Gene Hackman playing the saxophone in the apartment he tore apart because he couldn’t find the bug. Everybody was paranoid about government surveillance, in the wake of Nixon. Yet here we are in 2018, and we’re aware of this stuff and we say, “What’s happening is horrible,” while consciously putting Alexa in our house. We’re more aware, but less aware, at the same time.