An Interview with “Unfriended: Dark Web” Director Stephen Susco

If you’re a fan of the horror genre, you probably know Stephen Susco as the writer of the American adaptation of the the game-changing Japanese horror film, Ju-on: The Grudge. What you might not know is that before Takashi Shimizu signed on to bring his series to domestic screens, Susco was tentatively attached to direct. He’d have to wait over ten years to get his first shot behind the camera, and from watching Unfriended: Dark Web, the second in the horror series that takes full advantage of the fears and mysteries of technology, that those years were spent planning for his eventual directorial debut.

Here, Fandor sits down with Stephen Susco to talk about technophobia, the state of the horror genre, Blumhouse, and what it’s like creating a new film within an established franchise.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Joaquin Lowe: When you first started making Unfriended: Dark Web, it wasn’t necessarily an Unfriended film at first. How did you conceive of the sequel’s premise?

Stephen Susco: Well, they wanted to do a sequel or something like it, and you know I really loved the first movie. I thought it was so singular, and I didn’t want my first movie to be a pale carbon copy of a really cool, singular movie. So I said to them, “Could I go off the reservation a little bit?” and they said, “Well you can pitch us anything, but we don’t have to say yes.” I said I think that maybe the franchise is the form. I think if you say that the franchise isn’t a ghost that kills teenagers, [then] the franchise is a movie on a computer screen that’s told in real-time with no cutting and is scary. So, what if we tried something completely different, or at least diametrically opposite?

Unfriended: Dark Web, pivots the franchise away from supernatural horror, and places it within the thriller genre. Why did you want to make a thriller instead of a horror movie?

Well, the primary reason was that the first movie was pretty decidedly a horror film, and I wanted this movie to be as far from that movie because, again, it really worked for what it was. I wanted to go as far apart from it as I could. So from the beginning, I pitched it as “Jaws on the Internet” and I said it should be like a Hitchcockian thriller that plays out from the vantage point of the person who’s on the computer…I mean, I think, a lot of people call it a horror-thriller, it’s definitely being marketed as a horror-thriller, but to me, it’s 100% thriller, all the way…I grew up with thrillers. I frickin love thrillers. I love the paranoid thrillers of the 60s and 70s [and] the Paramount thrillers of the 80s and 90s. People stopped making thrillers for a while…but [they’ve] come back now, too. We have The Gift and The Invitation, which are two of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a really long time. So horror and thriller, kind of share the same twin-sized bed in a lot of ways. I kind of liked the idea of figuring out how to do a really horrific thriller that wasn’t allowed to be grotesque and has on-screen violence. How can you kind of make it horrific without having the sort of shock value, or at least what’s customary to what shocks people?

I think that often, filmmakers become more creative when they set limitations for themselves. How did you operate within those limitations?

Right from the get-go, it was all about the limitations. The movie has to take place entirely on a computer screen, you can’t really move your actors from those locations, it has to all happen in real-time so you can’t cut away, there are no time gaps, there are no breaths of fresh air, it’s just a ninety-some minute-long experience. So it was nothing but limitations from the get-go, but that’s what was appealing…It was really fun, it was really a puzzle box.

What was it like making a movie entirely on a computer screen?

You’re essentially saying, “Okay, we know that you spent all day in an office staring at a computer screen, so what we want you to do now is get in your car, come to the movie theater, buy a ticket, and sit in front of a computer screen.” How the hell do you make that something that people want to do? I had an amazing editor named Andrew Wesman who worked on the original movie so he knew what this was all about and he had refined the workflow, and he was the wizard that made this film come together in the post…And I finally started realizing this is an animated film. I have the performances now, but everything from this point on is animation, and we had to figure out how to make this a compelling and authentic first-person computer experience and how to make it engaging. We could sit in the editing room and go, “You know what would be cool? What if there was a sequence where the main character does this?” So suddenly we realized we can just recreate stuff that we never filmed. I mean there are things in the movie that we didn’t technically film. It was kind of wonderful to have the ability to rewrite the movie. Editing is always rewriting, but never to this extent. The computer screen is on the screen the entire time, so you can’t cut. So the mouse became this whole new narrative tool. We know to follow the mouse, so if we move the mouse people are gonna look at the mouse, but the mouse can also convey emotional states, it can convey hesitation, it can convey anxiety. So it was just this whole new set of tools to figure out how to get the audience into the headspace of actually being the protagonist of the movie.

Blumhouse’s model seems reminiscent of how Roger Corman would work. Can you tell me more about the process of working with them?

If you make a five-million-dollar movie that grosses 300 million dollars around the world, you can afford a bunch of one-million-dollar chances! It’s incredible and it’s interesting because everybody who works there is having so much fun. I’ve never been in a production facility where everybody’s so happy all the time, and every intern that’s working there that’s in college is so happy to work unpaid and feels treated well and dreams of working there when they graduate. It’s nice, you feel like you’ve got this wonderful sense of camaraderie. Again, it’s Hollywood, it’s this war of business and art. It’s kind of about commerce, and [Blumhouse has] perfected something.

There’s been some debate about the term “prestige horror.” Where do you sit within that conversation?

I get the conversation about prestige horror, and I freely admit that sometimes I fall prey to snobbery with horror, but I don’t try to. I love all kinds of horror. I will go see anything. Period. Final Destination, my friend Jeffrey Reddick’s franchise, they can be so much f*cking fun, right? What’s wrong with that? How is that “less” than Alien, The Thing, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, The Haunting from the late 50s or early 60s?

I have my favorites, and I think when you say “prestige horror,” maybe there’s a Venn diagram overlap with what I would consider my favorite horror. I don’t know that I look at it as prestige necessarily…I think it’s a little misleading. I think prestige is more of a formalistic, stylistic difference, but it’s hilarious because the best thing about the horror community is that they’re so f*cking passionate. I’m one of them and I get it, and they will just scream at each other over the, “No, that kind of horror f*cking sucks! This is the shit right here! There’s not enough blood!” But I don’t know, I kind of react to the word “prestige” the same way I react to the word “art.” It’s a little highfalutin, I guess, but I think that’s what’s fun about horror…I’m fine with people fighting about horror. I’m fine with the churning because I think that it’ll forever remain a vital genre. I’m just glad that it’s gotten more financially successful because it just means the audience is growing, and it just creates more opportunities for people to come in from out of nowhere with [a] unique vision that all the horror fans want to see. We want to see stuff that we’ve never seen before, so it’s a great time.

I want to ask about the potential social commentary inherent within the Unfriended franchise. Was this part of your intent with Dark Web? Or were you trying to avoid commentary like that?

No, it was absolutely a part of the intent, I think what I was really impressed with, with the first film, was that it was a straight-ahead popcorn roller coaster ride of watching teenagers get slaughtered in horrific ways. But it had such a potent subtext to it, about how social media has affected friendships and changed their tenor…And I thought it was brilliant…And I wanted to bring my own take on it. I remember at one point [during my research for the movie] I was talking to somebody about the government’s intrusiveness and I made some sort of cynical comment. Like, “I’m sure you’re gonna tell me that as long as I’m not doing anything wrong the government is not gonna watch me.” And he said, “Yeah, well sort of. But it’s not really the government you have to worry about.” And this was something that really struck me. He said, “The people you really have to worry about are the eighteen-year-old kids who do this better than we can, and who are still living in their parent’s basement. They don’t have a moral compass developed, and they’re bored out of their f*cking minds, and they’re talented.” I just want to take all those fears and put them into this movie. I want to make this movie Jaws on the Internet because I genuinely feel that people are finally starting to wake up and realize that we are floating on the surface of this massive thing. And we’re not paying any attention to what’s below us, and we’re putting our lives and everything that’s important out there, and there are sharks in the water…I hope people leave the movie and they’re like “F*ck this. F*ck Facebook.” I’d be totally fine with that.

Are you as scared as we are? Dive deeper with our article on how technophobia builds on our well-established fears. Learn more about “Ju-on” and how it compares to the American adaptation in our Horror: side-by-side. Then get closer to another director who lit up the screen earlier this year in our interview with Ari Aster, director of Hereditary.” Finally, end your deep dive into fear with our spotlight: Fear from Afar, where you can find Fandor’s very own curated list of some of the best international horror movies.
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