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Nobody's ‘Blair Witch Project’: ‘Unfriended’ and The Screenmovie Manifesto

'Unfriended' producer Timur Bekmambetov introduces the world to the "screenmovie."

by Beckett Mufson
Apr 21 2015, 4:45pm

Shelley Hennig stars as Blaire in Universal Pictures' Unfriended.

Most films don't come with a written manifesto. Then again, digital horror flick Unfriended isn't most films. Seen entirely through a computer screen, Russian director Levan Gabriadze's US debut follows a few teenagers' group Skype session as it's haunted by the ghost of a friend who cyberbullied into suicide after a cruel video was posted online. Since its theatrical release this past Friday, parts of the internet have dismissed this new "screenmovie" format—like Paranormal Activity's security camera setup before it—as an experiment that won't stick. Others, however, compare the film to the genre-creating found footage format of The Blair Witch Project

Producer Timur Bekmambetov, who directed Russia's highest-grossing film of its timeNightwatch, as well as cult-classic American films including Wanted and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, disagrees with both comparisons: “Unfriended is more than found footage,” Bekmambetov tells The Creators Project via Skype interview during an on-set break from his in-production feature, a remake of Ben Hur. “We are dealing with another reality. In the internet we are not the same as in real life. We are different.” As Gabriadze, Bekmambetov, and screenwriter Nelson Greaves began exploring this new world, a new set of filmmaking guidlines took form, eventually resulting in The Screenmovie Manifesto.

According to Bekmambetov, who provided the manifesto to The Creators Project, its main pillars are as follows:

1. The Unity of Place - "The setting is virtual reality in general, and one specific computer screen, belonging to one character." 

2. The Unity of Time - "All the action takes place in real time—here and now, while the film is put together by means of in-frame montage without any visible transitions, as if shot in one continuous take." 

3. The Unity of Sound - "All the sounds in the film originate from the computer." 

(Clockwise, top left) Val (Courtney Halverson), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), Mitch (Moses Storm) and Blaire (Shelley Hennig) in Universal Pictures' Unfriended.

Facebook messages, online forums, infuriating internet glitches—there are plenty of tools at your disposal, but everything must happen on a single screen. Everything that happens on-screen must be a believable for a single online session—no deep research montages like in NCIS. Finally, scored by a Spotify or iTunes playlist, dialogue captured over Skype, and sound effects coming from built-in mics or glitches come together to build a fully beleivable sound bed.

Following these rules, Bekmambetov explains, makes a story honest to the digital experiences that define our day-to-day relationships—and doubly so for teens coming of age alognside Web 2.0+. But if this is the secret to Unfriended's success as a film, why does he want to share it with world? 

(L to R) Blaire (Shelley Hennig), Mitch (Moses Storm), Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz) and Ken (Jacob Wysocki) in Universal Pictures' Unfriended.

Simply put, it's to make the world a better place.

“I really believe it's a better world when people share, when people collaborate, not compete," he says, jokingly admitting that he's revealing his Communist USSR upbringing. "In the physical world money means everything. Money and how powerful you are. But in virtual world, it means nothing. People are uploading millions of videos on YouTube, and they're not asking to be paid for that. They're not looking for money. They're looking for likes and friends. It's a totally different mentality... I think it's better.“

With at least three other screenmovies in the works based on his manifesto—including a fantasy called Wizard of OS, and a comedy called How Old People Use the Internet, Bekmambetov wants to not only tell the stories of the virtual world, but outfit a new generation of filmmakers with the tools to follow suit. He acknowledges that his manifesto isn't set in stone, but he's excited to see it change. “I'm sure that there is a lot of filmmakers, they will—we will change these rules. We will do something. We will try to do something different but for now this is what I believe in.”

In reaction to the mild backlash the film has received, Bekmembatov thinks little of it. “I think it's scary because it's new for us," he says. "But we will figure out how to deal with this world. It will be new moral codes and new values.”

One final piece of advice he gives to young filmmakers comes from a viral video he and his team created for Wanted. "It's successful only if it's real, if you're honest. I think YouTube and internet raise the bar for honesty. You cannot lie anymore. Otherwise nobody will re-post it, because it's fake." In the case of Unfriended, we're not reposting, we're buying a ticket—but the principle remains the same: authenticity is king.

Click here to download the full text of The Screenmovie ManifestoUnfriended is in theaters now.

For more inspiring stories of fearless filmmaking, watch the first episode of The Creators Project's Art World series, A New Wave of Iraqi Cinema:

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