‘Unfriended’ Interview: Shelley Hennig, Will Peltz, and Nelson Greaves

Unfriended Interview with Shelley Hennig, Nelson Greaves, and Will Peltz
Blaire (SHELLEY HENNIG), Mitch (MOSES STORM), Jess (RENEE OLSTEAD), Adam (WILL PELTZ) and Ken (JACOB WYSOCKI) in Universal Pictures’ ‘Unfriended’ (Photo © 2015 Universal Studios)

The basic concept behind Universal Pictures’ Unfriended was to create a horror film in which the story plays out via computer screens. Producer Timur Bekmambetov is a regular Skype user, even going as far as to Skype with Unfriended writer Nelson Greaves while Bekmambetov was actively directing a scene in another movie. “Timur understood from the very beginning that a movie could take place on a computer desktop,” explained Greaves at the 2015 WonderCon in Anaheim, CA. “It was his idea from the beginning. One night we’re talking late at the office and suddenly it snapped, ‘It’s a horror film! Use the limitations and restrictions of a computer desktop the same way that the Blair Witch Project used the limitations of the same camera.’ And suddenly it just made sense for us.”

The audience can connect to what’s going on on screen because the basic situations and setups are so relatable. The target audience knows about Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, and that helps to put the viewer into the shoes of one of the characters on screen. “The reason it works and I think the reason it’s scary is because of the authenticity of it,” offered Greaves. “You come to see the movie and you say, ‘Hey, I know that. That’s my desktop. That’s how I use this program.’ Without that the movie wouldn’t work.”

Shelley Hennig says that she’s always been careful about what she put out on social media, so working on Unfriended hasn’t dramatically altered her approach to tweeting. “I’ve always been super private on social media. I put out what’s important to me and to promote the TV show that I’m on or the movie that I did. I use it as a business. I don’t really use it for personal things, so nothing’s really changed for myself. But I am a little more cautious for other people.”

“I think one of the scariest things about our movie and one of the best experiences about it is waking up the next day, signing on to your computer and suddenly being like, ‘Wait a second… Suddenly I don’t feel safe here.’ And after seeing the movie when you hear the sound of a Facebook notification, your skin suddenly bristles and you’re suddenly getting chills,” said Greaves. “When you get an incoming Skype call, suddenly jumping at the sound of an incoming Skype call. And I think people will come to see this movie and they will never look at their computers the same way again.”

The shooting process was complicated as three days into production they changed things up and decided to shoot the movie in long takes with the actors having to react to what was going on. After first shooting the script exactly as it was, they watched it and felt it was a little stale. “We started to realize we had to switch things up. ‘Let’s keep people on their feet. Let’s get real reactions to real horrific things happening.’ And from that point on we did long takes exclusively,” revealed Greaves. “Most of the takes were about 30 minutes long. The one that’s in the movie, the hero take that is the movie, is a full 85 minutes long.”

The decision to do the lengthy takes meant that the actors were put in different rooms in a house, each with their own computer screen, and each shooting their own scenes without being able to see or work with their co-stars. Will Peltz agreed that it was a bit crazy to work on, adding, “It’s exhausting but it’s very helpful as an actor to start in one place and end in another – and to have that very clear ending. And not to start down it, stop, and start up again and find that emotional point that you’re going through. It’s challenging, it’s very exhausting, but going through so many of those takes in a day I felt like was really a unique way to work. It was definitely conducive to the reality of the film.”

“If you think about it, at the end of the day it is a horror film so some things are fantastical and hard to believe. But when you start at the beginning and go all the way through, you’re in it. It takes a lot to come out of it. So I originally asked if we could do it in one take because it was getting difficult for me to start and stop. Doing it all in one, I think we all benefited from it. Everybody was so good at improv’ing and we’d done six days rehearsals,” explained Hennig. “We knew Nelson’s story and he would let us play. We had ear pieces and if he let us play for too long, he would just name the topic of the part of the script that we had to get back to, and he got us back on track.”

“At the end of 85 minutes, the characters have been in a horrific state for 25 minutes. The first time you jump at a scare is very different from how you act after you’ve been in the torture chamber for 35 minutes,” added Greaves. “In that big take at the end, Shelley and the rest of the characters are…it’s almost like an insanity. It’s almost like they’re no longer able to process things. It’s not just jumping at scares. It’s more truly authentic I think to a real experience.”

Unfriended is directed by Levan Gabriadze and opens in theaters on April 17, 2015.