It was originally scripted in Timur Bekmambetov’s latest film “Profile” to have a scene that would break the format he has so assiduously cultivated in recent years as a producer on such films as “Unfriended” and “Search,” thrillers that take place exclusively within the confines of a computer screen, by bringing it back into a more traditional presentation with actors standing around in a room. There would’ve been some poetry to the idea since currently it’s the computer presentation that might seem more like a cinematic contrivance, though it’s likely to feel more accurate to our reality, than the way films have been shot for over a century, and this was Bekmambetov was telling a true story in adapting Anna Erelle’s memoir “In the Skin of a Jihadist.” But the director couldn’t bring himself to do what he had done so many times before on films like “Night Watch,” “Wanted” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
“We spent four hours to set up this scene with cameras, light, rehearsed and then before lunch, I’m like, ‘Stop. Wrap.’ I cannot shoot it. It’s so boring,” said Bekmambetov, just after the North American premiere of “Profile” at the SXSW Film Festival following its debut at Berlinale.
For Bekmambetov, “Profile” isn’t only a movie, but a Trojan Horse for an entire creative and commercial endeavor known as Screenlife. It’s telling that rather than putting more tech-savvy teens in peril, Bekmambetov’s first film as a director on one of his production company Bazelevs’ online-centric thrillers expands the kinds of stories told in the format with a more serious-minded story of Amy (Valene Kane), a British journalist working to get a story about a Jihadist foot soldier named Abu Bilel Al Britani (Shazad Latif) by posing as an ISIS sympathizer with hopes he’ll take her as a wife in order to demonstrate the process of recruiting European women. Based on real exchanges that happened between the Parisian journalist Erelle and a French terrorist based in Syria in 2014, the film is an unusually effective spin on the story of a writer who gets in too deep with her subject, with Amy’s uncertainty of how much to reveal about herself left to words she’ll write in a text, only to rescind before pressing send, and the pressure of making split decisions amplified by how they’re presented in what feels like real time.
Having had two previous films in the format under his belt as a producer, Bekmambetov didn’t only want to change things up in terms of genre, but under the hood as well, perfecting the proprietary production methodology for making the films, which extends his actors’ performance into what they do with their devices at any given moment by reworking screen capture technology. They aren’t the only ones he wants to give more control to, as Bekmambetov says that eventually there will be a “clickable,” interactive version of “Profile,” where one will be able to slip into the role of either Amy or Bilel themselves and have the other respond to them, creating an entirely different experience with the film. (The possibilities are endless when one considers how malleable the format is in terms of how one can change what websites are being used based on the country it’s being watched in or how material that didn’t make it into the film because it slowed down the story – in the case of “Profile,” a subplot involving Amy’s sister – can be repurposed to create a greater sense of intimacy as personal asides in a more interactive version.)
With plans to release up to six of Screenlife films in the coming year, Bekmambetov’s plans for the format are ambitious, even currently inviting pitches from filmmakers on ScreenlifeContest.com, and while in Austin with his “Profile” star Latif, he spoke about why he’s invested so much in what he calls a new cinematic language, the responsibility that comes with using the form to tell a story involving terrorism and why it’s so important to him to nurture filmmakers at the start of their careers.
It’s been so interesting to see how your career has played out…
Timur Bekmambetov: For me too. [laughs] I’m very surprised with what I’m doing.
The way you made movies felt as if they were three-dimensional without the glasses. You could create shots that would change how actors operated within an environment. And now you’re flattening the image. Is that as interesting a challenge to find how dynamic that can be when you were getting as far from it before?
Timur Bekmambetov: [This is] how we live today. There is no way to tell this story with the cameras. It’s a person sitting in front of the screen, typing and there is nothing interesting there, but in Screenlife, it’s unbelievable tension, but you can only see it when you see the screen. It’s more and more in our life, and everything that’s happening with our body means nothing, but with everything happening here [on the screen], it’s a way to understand ourselves, and for me, this movie is to understand who I am, how I live and what my moral choices are today. My fears, my dreams – this is about our screens.
You’ve been a producer on a few of these movies before, but what made you want to direct this one?
Timur Bekmambetov: It started in 2013 when I had a dream to make this kind of movie, but I was busy with traditional movies. I asked Nelson Greaves, my assistant at that time, to write the script of “Unfriended,” and then I called my friend Leo Gabriadze to direct. I was involved, but like a playing coach and it’s why I like to produce because you still can learn. You still can enjoy the creative process. But his movie [“Profile”] was a little tricky because it’s not a pure genre movie. To make a horror movie or a comedy, it’s easy to produce because I can pick the right director and I can maybe give some notes. But to make a drama, it was very difficult to hire somebody else. I decided to do it myself and at this point in my life, it’s very interesting to try new things. It’s very risky how you can make a movie when the audience should be seduced by this guy [a jihadist] and I took a risk.
Shazad, did you feel like you were taking a risk with this as well?
Shazad Latif: At first, yeah. As an Asian actor, you do worry about those kind of things, but when I saw the first audition and the script, knowing that it was from verbatim Skype conversations [from what actually transpired], there was an element of control. It wasn’t just Timur just going, “Yeah, terrorists might say this.” We could see how they spoke to each other and we could play around that cage, so it was controlled freedom in a way.
How do you structure a shoot like this? I understand it unfolds in real time across separate locations. Do the actors only interact on the screen?
Timur Bekmambetov: No, no, they met each other before and rehearsed, just to create the relationship, but then during the shooting process, they were in different parts of the world. [Shazad] was in Cyprus 4000 miles away, [Valene] was in London and at the same time, there was another group in London that was in different locations, so a scene was shot simultaneously, like [when] she Skypes with [Bilel], but somebody else is calling her, [like] her boss Vic in the taxi driving somewhere in London in the center of the city and she was in Hockney in her apartment. Then [Shazad] was in Cyprus, so we made a Skype call simultaneously with the three of them and I was in London with her and we called [Shazad] and we called Vic and recorded everything. Every scene was like five, eight minutes long. It was just not edited, like how it is in the movie.
Was this a different experience for you?
Shazad Latif: Yeah, we were the [cinematographers] basically, which is great to look good with lighting and Leicas, but this way, there was a flow between me and Val. If we did a take and then Timur said, “Let’s go again and try this,” we could go straightaway, so we could stay in the world more. As an actor, there’s a nice flow and an element of control that’s very relaxing. You can just focus on the scene.
Timur Bekmambetov: Because you’re doing exactly what you’re doing in real life. In real life, you’re trying to look good when you’re in front of the camera. [laughs] Also, you’re trying to focus on the character you’re talking to, but sometimes if something happens to you, you will drop your phone and it’s what we have in the movie. Everything is real.
Shazad Latif: The first time you see Bilel, because we were in Cyprus and we’d just arrived, we were filming that first scene and it’s all pixelated and you can’t really see him, but that just adds so much to the scene because you’re like trying to see who this guy is. You really want to see him now because you’ve been building up to it, but it was just this brilliant happy accident that’s part of the filmmaking. And somehow people are more open when they look [at their phone or computer]. It’s so intimate, looking through the eyes of the character, that opens everything up, and that’s what makes it so powerful.
Is it true you actually set up Valene to talk with Anna Erelle, the real journalist before filming?
Timur Bekmambetov: Yes, I have this video. It’s great. It was a moment when the author was in Paris and Valene was in London in a hotel and I set up the Skype call. They looked at each other and it’s like, “Hey,” “Hey” – it was magic. And later they met. We know [Anna]. She’s unbelievable. We called her Anna Erelle and she called herself Anna Erelle, but we don’t know her real name still, even now.
Shazad, was there any preparation you were able to do for this role?
Shazad Latif: Yeah, Olga Kharina, our producer, had thousands and thousands of things we had to watch and then also we had the verbatim script, so we could see conversations [between Anna and the jihadist]. There were little two-minute videos of the actual guy which were like golddust for an actor to see how he moved and how he behaved, and we used a very similar scene in the film where he’s showing the gun [to Anna], so that was perfect for me to see how he behaves.
Because there are so many elements that give it personality that have nothing to do with the actors, like what’s chosen to delete in a message before it’s sent or picking out the music, what’s the process like of creating a character in that way?
Timur Bekmambetov: No, no, the most important thing technologically, because we are developing this [Screenlife] language, is that “Unfriended” was first and we shot with GoPros and we edited later [after filming wrapped]. There was nothing really on screen and then I understood to make it right, you should build a screen as a set. You should prepare everything so an actor can interact with a desktop and this is unbelievable when you see the actor/character reacting on what’s happening on screen. So we invented this technology to record the screen and the character at the same time, but it’s not a traditional screencast recorder because on screencast, you cannot manipulate the elements on screen. You can record the screen, but you needed to [do everything else] in post-production, so we invented the recorder that could record everything on the screen as a code, so you can change elements. So [as if you were] building the sets, we are building the screens with all the elements, like traditionally we have props, but [instead] we have folders and pictures…
Shazad Latif: And Val would have to do all of that [picking out everything that appeared onscreen], and as Bilel, I didn’t know that because it was all her point of view.
Timur Bekmambetov: So you should prepare everything [before a scene starts], like for example the music should be there so she can make it louder or quieter. The character is mixing the movie, not the director. She makes it louder or quieter and she’s scoring the movie because she picks the song she likes and plays it. It becomes very interesting because it becomes this language, Screenlife, when the character is picking the score.
What’s the big picture with Screenlife?
Timur Bekmambetov: We will have movies in different genres. We will release soon a web series called “1968,” it’s a story [where] every week, you will have a new 10-minute piece about the same week 50 years ago in 1968, but it’s like it’s happening now. Like Instagram, Jim Morrison [will] send you a message or tweeting from the politicians. We’re doing “Romeo and Juliet” on screens…
That’s a natural.
Timur Bekmambetov: It’s a natural because how would they talk today? It will be an online love story. We will do 30 projects of different genres, fantasy, sci-fi, disaster movie, all happening on the screens.
One of the things I’ve always admired about you is how many new filmmakers you’ve introduced over the years and mentored. Do you see Screenlife as an opportunity to continue to do that?
Timur Bekmambetov: It’s just fun. People ask me why I’m making movies, and for me it’s because it’s the best way to meet and spend time with people. Like with Shazad. [laughs] Without filmmaking, I would be sitting somewhere in an office and I don’t know what I will do. When you make movies, you will have a chance to spend time with interesting people and not and it could be new people six months. And now, it’s very interesting for me to deal with the young filmmakers because they have new ideas. [There’s always] something to learn and it’s like we were here two years ago [at SXSW with] “Hardcore Henry,” and before that, it was “Unfriended.” [We have] Aneesh [Chaganty] with “Search,” and in Russia too, we have young filmmakers. Bazelevs is a company helping and partnering with young filmmakers.
“Profile” will play at SXSW on March 15 at 3:30 pm at the Paramount Theatre.