Filmmaker Stephen Susco's original pitch for Unfriended: Dark Web was that the film would be "Jaws on the Internet." If you think of the Internet as an ocean, what we usually surf is just the surface web. Underneath that is the deep web, the dark web, and that's where a lot of the danger lies.
"It's an apt metaphor, and it speaks to what freaks me out about social media and our society," he told SYFY WIRE. "We're finally starting to realize that we all just freely jumped in the water, without seeing the bottom of it."
Susco leans into that with Unfriended: Dark Web, in which (spoiler alert) a group of malicious hackers on the Silk Road toy with the innocents they lure down to their level. And by toy with, we mean manipulate, terrify, and kill. Prior to the film's release in theaters, Susco chatted with SYFY WIRE about the film's alternate endings (since you can see two different versions in theaters, a marketing choice he wasn't involved with), the post-production process, and what happened to all the Bitcoin.
Can we clear up this business about the alternate ending? Indiewire reported, based on a projectionist's tweet, that this movie has two different endings, based on which theater you see it in. But didn't you just keep tweaking the ending after the response at screenings?
Yeah, I think that's probably what they were referring to. The movie kept changing so much that every time we would screen it, I would introduce it like, "You're the first audience to see this version of the movie, and you're also the last." [Laughs] It was a very strange, mutable post-production process, so there have been enormous changes throughout. Even the last couple of months, just reaching the end of the movie. But everything else is above my pay grade – I don't really know about all those other things. I've only been alerted to that recently. I don't really know. It's probably fake news.
How did the ending change, then? I think originally you were going to have the couple survive? How did it evolve?
It was a real adventure to work on a project like this. I didn't fully really grasp until we were in the first week of editorial that this is essentially an animated film, and we could try any idea that anyone came up with in the post-production process. I guess it was both a blessing and a curse, because the ability to try any idea is pretty exciting, but trying everyone's every idea could take a very, very long time. [Laughs] But it was great, because it really allowed us to work with various levels of the movie.
At first it was very linear, and it wasn't until we were putting the movie together that I really saw how you can stack things with a movie like this, with this unique narrative format.
Everybody's comfortable using a computer, and when we're using a computer, we're actually comfortable with doing many things all at once — listening to music, texting with someone, writing an email, all at the same time. And watching people be able to track those things, realize that that sequence B which follows sequence A, those can happen concurrently. People can keep up with that, and you can have all this stuff happening on the screen, and it opened up a lot of avenues for rethinking how we could balance different areas of tension.
It was a great process of discovery. Unfortunately, the fates of the characters were kind of set in stone from the beginning. My original pitch had a slightly less unhappy version for the finale. [Laughs] But I was summarily told that in an Unfriended movie, everybody dies. So that calcified everybody's future fate.
Can you give me some examples of new things you were able to add in the reshoots and post-production process?
One example would be when Matias and Charon IV have a video call confrontation. That was originally a confrontation that played out over text, but when we saw it, it didn't feel like it was carrying the real weight of the idea. I really love the idea of taking the antagonist and making people really afraid of him, and then realizing that he was really afraid of something else. Making the audience go, "Oh my God! What is this guy afraid of?!" And my editor pointed out that it was because we weren't really seeing it. It's a text. If people need to see that this guy is petrified, then they need to see it, to hear it.
So two days later, on the roof of the building where we were editing, we filmed the editor as Charon! [Laughs] We cut that into the scene, and then we realized this might be more terrifying if it happened at the same time as when the Circle shows up, a sequence that happened entirely on its own before. So we started to stack the sequences. I mean, it was really 20 months of that. It was a very, very long road of rewriting and rethinking and occasionally creating new sequences out of whole cloth. And some of them we didn't need to film anything -- we could just assemble some of them with B-roll of the actors.
Colin Woodell mentioned there were a lot of reshoots…
We had about eight initial production days, and then it became thirteen, but some of those days were on-camera looping, when we realized we'd need a few lines of dialogue from Colin. He was on holiday in Europe, and we said, "Can we have an hour of your time? We'll ship you your shirt [from the movie], and you can angle your laptop toward the ceiling of the hotel room." We just needed to get his performance. So it was kind of wild, building the movie backwards, but amazing to have the narrative and editorial flexibility to be able to go back into it with new ideas without costing exorbitant amounts of money.
Were you originally planning to have the characters play Settlers of Catan instead of Cards Against Humanity, for their game night? Both Colin and Betty Gabriel mentioned being left alone in a room with that game on the first day of rehearsals…
Yeah! They became pretty good Settlers of Catan players! They all learned on the fly. The original version of the movie they were playing Settlers of Catan first, and then they were going to play Cards Against Humanity in the second sequence, towards the end, when they have to pretend like nothing's wrong. I'm a big board-gamer, and there are a lot of apps now that help you play the games when you can't be in the same room, so we just made our own visual representation of that. We had them playing during this sequence that was cut from the movie where Matias was on a live chat with one of the girls who was looking for Charon IV, and it's really unnerving because he quickly realized that she was 15 years old.
So as we got more involved in building the various layers of tension, the part with Settlers of Catan seemed to be leading down the wrong road, and we wanted something more vibrant. So Settlers went the way of the dodo, and the movie became all Cards Against Humanity.
Was the original title of the movie going to be Unfriended: Game Night?
Part of the gamble of going in a completely different direction from the original put a question mark on the title in general. They said, "It shouldn't be Unfriended 2," because the movie was more of a dramatic thriller, with a different kind of intensity, but the second part of the title was in an indeterminate state for quite some time. Unfriended: Game Night was the first title we all got comfortable with, and unfortunately, a really fun movie – but a very different movie – called Game Night came out earlier in the year, so we couldn't pick that title.
What do you think the prospects are for an Unfriended 3, more from the point of view of this criminal cabal than the unsuspecting victims? Do they have other games in their repertoire?
Yeah! All options are on the table. I'm curious to see how far you can push this narrative form. I'm certainly excited about the idea of them doing a third movie that is completely different than the first and the one that I did, although you can go more in this direction. What would you call it? Unfriended: Dark Web 2? Darker and Webber? [Laughs]
What happens with all the Bitcoin, by the way? If they transfer the $10 million into Matias' account to frame him, they waste that amount each time they do this.
That's what's so startling about it, if they're willing to walk away from $10 million. And by the way, they may not necessarily lose it. The account ostensibly belongs to Matias, but that doesn't mean others can't access it. Silk Road was estimated to be a $20 billion annual marketplace. $20 billion. So $10 million is a drop. I think people are really starting to take a closer look at what goes on down there, and one of the more interesting things about the dark web is how mundane it is. It's really just an extrapolation of what humans have always done really well, which is find the most shadowed corner of the park to do the things that you don't want to be seen. It's just the same thing, but evolved for cyberspace.
I read Nick Bilton's American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, and I talked to some hackers, but it's so hard to verify their identities. They're very coy, so you can't ever be really sure about the people you're talking to and if what they're telling you is true. I did a fair amount of research to ensure that everything that happens on screen is something that has happened to somebody in the real world.
Ugh. I don't even want to imagine people doing the trephination in the real world.
[Laughs] There are people who swear by it! They say it gives them a kind of third eye, some startling insights. It's a pretty intriguing … philosophy. [Laughs]