EXCLUSIVE: Veteran Producer Stephen Susco Makes Directorial Debut with ‘Unfriended: Dark Web’

(l-r) Betty Gabriel, Savira Windyani, Stephanie Nogueras, Conor Del Rio, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Stephen Susco and Bryan Adrian at the Los Angeles Premiere of UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB. ©January Images. CR: Todd Williamson.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—For years, Stephen Susco has been producing Hollywood horror hits such as “The Grudge,” “The Possession” and “Texas Chainsaw 3D.” But now it’s his time to shine as director with his new film “Unfriended: Dark Web.” As the writer/director of the film, Susco wanted to take the second installment of the “Unfriended” franchise on a different route. Instead of following up on the story of the original film, Susco thought the original was a film that stood up on its own and decided to pitch a new story but in the same basic premise of the first “Unfriended” movie.

“Dark Web” already is garnering excitement, having premiered in the film festival circuit at SXSW and was selected as one of the New York Times’ “standout films” list.

Based on his research of the internet, Susco’s film is about a young man named Matias (Colin Woodell) that finds a laptop that will help him work more efficiently on an app that will help deaf people communicate better with others. While talking to his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras) along with a separate online chat session with his friends Nari (Betty Gabriel), Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), Damon (Andrew Lees), DJ Lexx (Savira Windyani) and AJ (Conor Del Rio), the laptop starts acting up as the original owner tries to connect with Matias. After finding hidden files on the laptop, Matias’ online game night with his friends becomes a deadly game night of choices.

During an interview at a posh West Hollywood hotel, Susco offered insight into how he created the story of “Unfriended: Dark Web” and how the film reflects what’s happening in today’s society because of the internet.

Q: Why did you make your directorial debut with “Unfriended: Dark Web?”

Susco: I wanted to make the first thing I directed to be something unique and I was really blown away by the first movie. I’ve never seen anything like it. They really pioneered it in the way of telling a story. My first reaction when they brought up dong a sequel was that I shouldn’t do it because it was such a singular movie and I didn’t know how to “sequel-ize” it and follow it up. So, I pitched them “What if it’s not a sequel, what if the franchise is just a form and we do something completely different using the same narrative techniques?” I thought that was the last conversation I was going to have on the project and they said, “Yeah. That sounds great!”

They are wonderful experimental producers who were willing to roll the dice and try something different and that let me know that this was going to be an interesting ride and kind of worth the time. Also, you don’t have many opportunities where someone says, “You have to try and tell a story that’s completely different than the way you were telling stories for two decades.”

Q: There could be some fans that love the original “Unfriended” and may be upset because it doesn’t follow through on the previous story. Does that concern you?

Susco: I have no problem with that gamble. I’m a horror fan so I have all sorts of friends on the divide who say James Cameron’s “Aliens” is better than (Ridley Scott’s) “Alien.” Even though it is a continuation of the same story, it’s more of a war/horror film than an attention horror film. He kind of spun it up. I like when people shake stuff up. I’m a huge fan of the first (“Unfriended”). It would have felt bad to try to do the exact same thing. To me, it would have been more of a gamble. I think that when you have a movie that’s as singular as “Unfriended,” you’re not going to be able to one-up it.

Q; Do you feel that this installment of “Unfriended” is something that anyone can watch that hasn’t watched the first film and not having to go back to the first one as reference?

Susco: Yeah. But I hope that when they see this one and they like it, they go back to watch the first movie. It’s been interesting. We’ve had a lot of people who have seen the first one and had thoughts about this one and we’ve had people who missed the first one and it made them want to go see the original one too. Either way is fine by me. But I love the first film and I hope everyone sees it.

Q: Being the writer and director of this film, what’s going through your mind on how to create the story especially now that people know that there’s a “dark web?”

Susco: I was interested in kind of exploring this idea that we all jumped headlong into social media. We’ve put all of our lives on the internet, into this place that we don’t know a lot about. Even though maybe we shouldn’t. I remember when we were talking first about this stuff, I feel like it’s “Jaws” on the internet. It sounds kind of trite to say that, but I think it’s true.

People sort-of forget that we do swim on the surface of this thing. We spend more time now swimming on the surface that is deeper than we know and has a lot of undercurrents and monstrosities that we kind of blindly ignore. We’re starting to learn these lessons the hard way. We’re learning it like what came out about Cambridge Analytica. We’re learning about what Facebook is doing with our information. Just today, I read about a company that installed a remote access software on U.S. voting machines and then denied it for years. That is kind-of terrifying, and people are slowly waking up to the fact that we jumped right into this pool without checking the water first.

So, awareness is important, which kind of made sense in trying to do a movie that brought a little bit more light to these things.

Q: You shot this in 2016 and now President Trump says there was no collusion with Russia on the election. So, with this film coming out, and the Robert Mueller investigation under way, what do you make of the fact that his film is extremely timely?

Susco: There were questions about it even back then. If you look at the FBI records, they were aware that there was intrusion going on. It’s just they hadn’t gone public. They certainly known for a while that there was election manipulation and there was influence kind of being pressed. Even in 2016, we were aware of the internet being used in some pretty nefarious ways to affect all sorts of things in our lives. As we were developing the film, we were able to keep pulling in things that were happening as we were finishing it. We put some of that meddling onscreen just before we locked the movie.

Q: Now there were certain things that the characters in the film saw that freaked them out. Did those things and incidents actually come out of your researching the dark web?

Susco: There are marketplaces in the dark web that involved extortion and assassination for hire. I mean there is some creepy stuff that’s done. Where the stuff in the movie comes from is alarmingly not from the dark net, it’s just the net itself. One of the things that is frightening is that what we’re seeing in our society—particularly online is attacks against women. The fact that somehow the ambiguity that you have and anonymity when you’re commenting online, the way that people have been attacking women brutally is incredible. You say it’s 2018 and you think we’ve got to a certain place in our society and anonymity reveals that that might not be the case. That was pretty much in my head when what they’ll be finding on the screen in this computer. I really wanted it to involve the way that women are being treated because the internet has revealed it.

Q: It’s still happening. Even with some of the female reporters covering FIFA complained of being grabbed by men.

Susco: Absolutely. I mean look at Hollywood and the #MeToo movement. It’s challenging, because people make assumptions about how far our society has gone and a lot of truths are coming to light in many levels that are showing where we are and anything that draws attention to that is beneficial.

Q: When you made this film, did you want to make a social statement or to illustrate the craziness that can be found on the internet or someone can connect with another through their Facebook or social media?

Susco: Yeah. What I loved about the first movie, it did both. It gave you this entertaining 90-minute rollercoaster ride of grotesquery and fear. You could go primarily for enjoyment only, but it really had teeth. It really was exploring the rise of cyber-bullying, the rise of sociopathy among teenagers. It was exploring how social media and us curating our lives to other people was creating artificiality in who we are and the way that it revealed that those friendships were really not true. It was very deliberate. The movie cleverly—without being didactic and without being preachy standing on a soapbox—was saying some hard truths. I think (the TV series) “Black Mirror” does that well too. I just wanting to stay in line with the first movie and show that while this can be a fun, scary ride—I don’t know if it’s really fun; it’s pretty dark—it was really exploring something at the same time.

Q: With your actors, how has it changed their lives with the internet?

Susco: What did they say?

Q: Colin says he doesn’t have anything connected to Wi-Fi and Betty is very protective of her privacy in regards to social media. So, do you think this film can make people think what’s going on in their lives and social media?

Susco: I tell you, that’s all I could ever ask. I want people to see the movie and have a good time. But the greatest thrill is if people walk away from the movie and do a little thinking about what this all means and how they handle their lives. It is really important because it is happening all around us now and we’re the frog in the pot and the water’s starting to heat up. If this movie can be one of those things, that’s great. Anything that gets people to pay attention to asking more questions would be incredible. I remember, when we were first filming, some people were saying, “I don’t know. This is b.s., right? You’re making this stuff up.”

Q: With you doing the research and helping you create the storyline, did that change your outlook about the web?

Susco: I’ve kind of have already been there. I went this way with the movie because I’ve started to pay attention to it more and I kind of left social media years ago. I just didn’t like certain aspects of it. So, this was a bit of exorcism for me, to take all these things I’ve been researching and sort of shocked by and put them all in one movie. One of things we said at the beginning was that we wanted everything that happened in the movie actually has happened to people. For the most part, it’s true. It just becomes terrifying.

Q: Talking about taping your camera, have you done other things since then?

Susco: When my first son was couple of years old and a news story came out about this video of an infant on camera—the kind that we used in our house—had this creepy voice talking to the child. The parents could hear this voice coming from the other room and heard someone say the same horrible things to their infant. (Someone had hacked) their router. In fact, in our movie, we had that in the final version that involved lights. They found out that when these home lights first came out, there were vulnerabilities that hackers were getting into their routers at home through their lights that were Wi-Fi enabled. So, finding out about these things made me cautious on how were setting up the privacy of our home and protecting my children from things like that.

Q: Does that keep you away from the net in using Google Assist or Alexa?

Susco: I will never use anything that is voice-activated. I will never use Alexa in my house.

Q: What about Ring?

Susco: I do have Ring. I pay less attention to it. The Ring people are pretty on top it. It’s part of the security system. The trick is that sometimes these security systems you build are infiltrate-able and can be turned against you and open up your whole house and make it vulnerable.

Q: What’s scarier—paranormal activity or the dark web

Susco: The dark web. My favorite movies are “The Thing” and “Alien” and “The Sixth Sense.” I love a good ghost or monster movie. But, I guess if you really break it down, what’s the likelihood of ghosts, aliens and monsters vs. the likelihood of people doing this. This is all based on reality. That’s why “Jaws” was so effective because it’s a real-world monster. There’s something so primal about it. It’s an opposing force that you can rationalize it but you can’t speak its language. It’s just hungry and you’re just meat. So, there is something about real-world terror that can add extra juice to a scary movie.

Q: What’s next for you? More movies like this? Paranormal, suspense or real world terror?

Susco: I A little bit of everything. I have a movie that’s casting right now that’s a ghost story I wrote in 2002. This format was really fun to work in and I might work with (filmmaker) Timur Bekmambetov, Blumhouse and others to develop films as a producer and work with the directors and writers, because it’s such an intriguing way to tell a story. I’m curious as to where other people take it. One of things we did with this movie is our editing room was next to three other editing rooms in Timur’s office where all three movies were all computer-screen movies (but) they were all different from each other.

There was Aneesh Chaganty who was making this film called, “Searching” and won the audience awards at film festivals. That takes place all on a computer screen.

Q: That’s the one starring John Cho, right?

Susco: Yeah. But this movie has time codes. It has score. It takes a different approach using the same limitations. There’s a director by the name of Bryce Maguire who did a film called “Following” which takes place on Periscope as a livestream movie. And then there is Timur— the godfather of all this—who has a new movie called “Profile.” It’s a screen movie also. He’s kind of giving directors opportunities in saying, “Here’s your limitations. Do what you can do with it that’s brand new.”

That’s kind of the fun of it because they are screen movies. The cost is smaller. The risk level is such that you can take these narrative gambles and try things that people haven’t seen before. So, it’s really been fun for me in making this movie. I’m looking forward to making a couple of others and see where it goes.

Q: Talking about all that stuff, would that be cool if you had a social media app for this film so you can see different scenes if the person using the app makes decisions instead of Colin’s character or other characters in the film?

Susco: I hope the studio is listening to you. I love that idea. There’s a lot of footage that didn’t make it into the final movie. The assembly of this movie was almost three hours long, so there’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into this movie and it would be wonderful to come out in various forms.