Filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman seem to have a keen understanding about what gets people talking about a film, preferably their film. They made a name for themselves by co-directing the documentary CATFISH in 2010, which shined a light on the practice of people pretending to be other people online for the purposes of starting up a romantic relationship. I’d never heard of the term “catfish” before, and in a few short years, it’s simply part of the vernacular. The pair followed that up with the third and fourth installments of the highly successful PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films, while remaining executive producers on the MTV series “Catfish,” based on the film.
This week Joost and Schulman actually have two films being released. The first (being released in a limited theatrical run as well as VOD) is VIRAL, an infectious disease horror offering that has a great trailer, but beyond that, I know very little. The higher-profile work is NERVE, which opens this Wednesday, July 27, starring Dave Franco and Emma Roberts, about an online game that is watched by hundreds of thousands, in which hackers tap into your online information and propose of series of personalized and increasingly terrifying dares that players can complete for cash. It’s a high-energy film that benefits greatly from the chemistry between its leads. I had a chance to talk to the co-directors recently via phone, and we dug into the mindset that might ever make such a game possible, even likely. Please enjoy my talk with Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman…
Capone: While watching this film, I was trying to come up with common themes in your movies, and it seems like the “villain” is always largely unseen, and by exposing who or what they are, they are robbed of their power.
Henry Joost: Wow! Good one.
Capone: That seems especially true of the internet. The minute you expose who somebody is, they retreat in shame. Is that something you’ve noticed?
HJ: No, not until you just pointed all that out, but it even works for PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.
Ariel Schulman: That’s a great analysis. I’ve never thought of that.
Capone: I don’t know if you’ve seen this film TICKLED that’s out right now, but it also does something similar to that where it exposes a cyber-bully and in the process, the filmmaker almost completely robs them of their ability to bully from that point forward.
HJ: Someone told us we need to see it. I’ve been meaning to.
Capone: With the game Nerve, the people running this game don't really have to run it. They just have to set it up and let it run itself. It relies on anonymity.
AS: It’s funny that you mention that, because it was the first thing that we responded to after reading the screenplay and after reading the book [by Jeanne Ryan]. Originally, it was supposed to be a faithless, corporate villain or a bunch of guys in suits who are paying to see teenagers do crazy things, and I think we’ve seen that in films before, and it never really feels like that’s an actual thing that exists. And we’re also kind of fascinated with the idea that like a very complex system can be driven by a crowd. So our idea was instead of the villain being this one person or a group of people, it should be all of us, and by watching something these days, you’re in effect casting a positive vote towards that thing, whatever it is. You’re supporting its existence. The idea that that’s what that main character has to take apart in order to destroy the game was fascinating.
Capone: And also your films are about observing others. Have we become, either through the internet or through these camcorders, a society of observing something else, that we aren’tnecessarily a part of? Have we become a planet of watchers instead of doers?
HJ: I think you’re onto something, but it’s not a planet of more watchers; it’s a planet where the watchers have become more powerful, and so you take your player or your social media account, and the more watchers you have, a.k.a. followers, the more powerful you are,. But it’s a two-way street, and you only have that power because of you followers. What you do and what you say are greatly effected by who’s watching, and so there’s like this two-way influence. I think those watchers feel their power, and our film is about being careful with that power and responsibility.
Capone: Dave Franco was here in Chicago not too long ago talking about another film, and when we got to the topic of things that he had coming up, this is the film that he wanted to talk about the most. This is the first time you guys are working with known-quantity actors. How was that experience different for you?
AS: It’s awesome. It’s so great. I think we really found out why actors get the big bucks. When they step on set, when they’re dedicated and engaged like Dave and Emma were in this movie and the cameras start rolling, something magical happens. They’re just really good and they bring the movie to life. The two of them were so involved.
Capone: You’ve worked with actors that you had to direct before, but with people who have been at this for awhile, where, in theory, ego could be an issue, have you found that to be the case at all or are they pretty open to your direction?
HJ: That’s true.
AS: We didn’t have that experience at all. None of them are jerks [laughs], and we were really lucky to have actors who were not only great but great collaborators, and we got to work with a hero of ours, Juliette Louis, who was kind enough to treat us as equals.
Capone: Well, it’s something to look forward to, then, the jerky actor.
AS: [Laughs] Yeah, I’ll let you know when we find one.
Capone: If the internet has proven one thing, it’s that there are a lot of people out there that don't need to be dared to do dumb shit in front of a camera. I love the idea that these watchers scan your online life to select the dares. In terms of a storytelling device, was that a breakthrough when you guys started to like really pick and choose what the dares were going to be?
HJ: Yeah. I think it makes it easier to figure out what the dares are for each independent character, but it also seemed like the way the game should be structured. We really had to decide on the mythology of the game itself and how it works and how those dares are crowd sourced, and we decided on this Reddit method of judgement. We figured there’s an issue, an epidemic, of people divulging their personal information willy nilly, and we figured “Let’s go with that. What would happen if these watchers took more information than you realized? Then what they should do from a dramatic point of view is figure out what your greatest fears are and dare you to face them.”
Capone: Are the dares in the film, are they pretty much the same as the book? Or did you work with Jessica [Sharzer, screenwriter] to come up with different things to put in the screenplay?
AS: Some of them are the same as in the book, and some of them, we came up with Jessica. We tried to customize them to the characters and particularly to New York City as a location. We wanted the dares to be very location specific as well.
Capone: I don’t know how much of it is real, but some of the things you’re doing in the heart of New York City, how you managed to control traffic for such a long strip of road?
HJ: It’s funny, when you have to logically break it down into a shoot, the city only gives you three blocks at a time, and only for one set of lights, and then they let traffic though.
AS: Yeah, I forget what it’s called, but they stop traffic, you shoot a take, and then they let traffic roll though, and then the next time, they’re ready to stop it again. It’s a totally new thing for us. We thought it was really cool. We had a great second-unit director who helped with the action stuff, Mike Smith, whodid the car chase in NIGHTCRAWLER, which we saw when it came out and we were like wow that’s the best car chase scene we’ve seen in a long time.
Capone: Were there any of these dares that you came up with that you abandoned because they were too dangerous or sketchy or made you uncomfortable?
HJ: Yeah, there was a whole direction of a very sexualized dare.
Capone: Of course.
HJ: You say “of course” because if the internet goes in this direction, it always go towards perversion.
Capone: It leads the charge most of the time.
HJ: It got pretty uncomfortable because that would escalate so quickly, and we were trying to make a PG-13 movie, so that we could tell a wider message. And we really tried a lot of those. We didn’t end up shooting any of them. They got written out really quickly.
Capone: I thought that’s where Sidney’s storyline might go at some point. It seems like there’s a moment there where it might have, and then you thankfully diverted from that.
AS: To insinuate it is enough.
Capone: Speaking of which, I knew I recognized Machine Gun Kelly in this, but I couldn’t place him. Then just yesterday, MTV played a re-run of “Ridiculousness” that he was on this season, and it clicked. He’s a gift to this movie because he’s got a big personality that really suits this material. How did you find him?
AS: He’s in another movie we did, a smaller movie with Dimension called VIRAL, and we found him though the casting process. He had been in one or two movies. He had done BEYOND THE LIGHTS. And he just struck us as a really natural actor and amazing presence. This is our second film with him, and he nailed it. He brought so much to the character.
HJ: He’s in “Roadies,” by the way.
Capone: With the soundtrack, anytime there’s a song playing or we hear the score, in my head, these characters can hear the music too. The way that they react, and the way that they move, and the way they carry out some of these dares, I feel like that music is in their head. Is that something that you thought about, not just to have it as background noise, but to have it as a part of their personality?
HJ: Yeah. Hell, yeah. With every song chosen on the soundtrack, it had to feel like it came from the world of the movie, which would be popular but not mainstream. It had to feel a little underground.
AS: Slightly futuristic.
Capone: There’s a shot early on, I think it’s when the game is first starting, where you have a shot from THE MATRIX’s red pill/blue pill scene. And then I noticed that the one kid’s car has a red glow to it, while Dave’s motorcycle has a blue glow to it.
AS: So perceptive!
HJ: Yeah, that’s to illustrate a watcher and a player.
Capone: Yeah. I know too many young kids, as well as adults, whose entire identity and self worth is wrapped up into the internet. Is this a cautionary tale against having too much of a life online?
AS: Yes and no. I think for people who are like your friends, it’s a cautionary tale. For people who are too much in their shell, it should be somewhat inspiring. We’re not against the internet and all it represents. I think it’s a really exciting time to be living in. But we just need to be going forward with our eyes open and thinking about how much privacy we’re divulging and how we’re behaving towards other people and things like that.
Capone: The scariest moments in this movie were the times that were the closest to reality. Did you want this experience to feel real and believable?
HJ: Yeah, the goal was to make an action thriller for the HUNGER GRAMES crowd that was grounded in reality, that wasn’t a dystopian future, that was a very potential tomorrow.
Capone: In this last season of Amy Schumer’s show, she took a crack at CATFISH at least. What did you think of that?
HJ: Oh yeah, that was so funny.
AS: That’s awesome. I think it’s very flattering to be spoofed. “SNL” spoofed us a couple of years ago. But Amy Schumer's was the best CATFISH spoof.
HJ: That was the best one. That was really funny.
AS: The way their shirts keep getting shorter. [laughs] I was like, I know that’s not like a thing that happens [on the show], but somehow it feels right, but I couldn’t tell you why.
Capone: Because as audience members, we’re imagining the shirts getting shorter. So VIRAL is coming out pretty soon, right?
AS: Yeah, VOD in the next couple of weeks.
Capone: Is that getting a theatrical release too?
AS: I don’t think so. I think it’s just Dimension VOD.
Capone: Guys, thank you so much for talking. Best of luck with this.