Interview: Timur Bekmambetov Talks PROFILE and ScreenLife Filmmaking
Timur Bekmambetov, the prolific Kazakh director, screenwriter, and producer, knows what he wants and knows how to go about getting it.
He blew into Western genre awareness with a howl and a bang in the early aughts with his epic blockbuster Nightwatch (And later, its bigger sequel Daywatch got a pretty wide cinema release.) Prior to that, he had already done documentaries, television and various other media in Russia. Bekmambetov even made a Soviet prison break feature a decade prior to crossing the ocean, a mere blink of the eye, after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
Since then he has directed big-budget American action pictures, such as the James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie starring Wanted, and a remake of Ben-Hur for MGM/Paramount.
But all the while, drifting back and forth between Hollywood and Russia, his passion has been a new form of storytelling, what he calls "ScreenLife." This is a technique where the story is told entirely (or nearly entirely) in front of a computer screen, using a whole suite of production and editing tools that he has had a hand in developing over the years.
Several of these films had been made and released, Unfriended (aka Cybernatural), Searching, and a documentary/history series Buzzfeed called 1968, when Profie, his directorial debut in the format, debuted at Fantasia in 2018. It's taken some time to arrive in commercial release, but what time could be more fitting then when a large part of the world has been forced to learn, live, and work through their screens through tools like Zoom, What's App, and Skype.
Profile is an adaptation of investigative journalism novel, In The Skin of A Jihadist, by French journalist Anna Érelle, whom the central character of Amy is based upon. Érrelle pulled a high risk stunt back in 2014 of seducing an ISIS member to get a deep understanding of how the organization was luring westerner girls to join the movement in Raqqa, Syria and other places in the recently formed ISIS Califate. What Amy does here, and Anna did for real then, is profoundly ill-advised, crazy-dangerous, and ethically dubious; but unquestionably encaptivating cinema.
I managed to talk with Bekmambetov a couple times, and sit in on a live demonstration of ScreenLife, where a 1 page script was taken from page to 'final-cut' in about under an hour, using a game festival audience and a few journalists, via his ScreenLife Masterclass. The director is a direct, passionate, and accessible instructor. He seemed willing to give the entire suite of tools to anyone who wanted it for free.
While getting nerdy and spoilery about some specific structural elements of the film, he leaned over to me and said, "Let me tell you a secret. A funny secret; because I am joking. Here is the difference between arthouse movies and commercial movies. If you take any successful commercial movie, and cut and throw away the third act. And it will be the greatest arthouse festival movie. Everything is bad. We’re all fucked! End credits. You can play this game with many successful commercial movies. And it can work in the opposite. Take any great arthouse movie, add a third act. It will might work as a commercial film. Take [Lars von Trier’s] Dancer in the Dark. Let's add a third act where she escapes, and it is about her survival. A new life. The low-point moment is at the end of the second act. And we please the crowd with the third act."
It was going to be an easy interview when the director tried to pitch me that Dancer In The Dark could be a hit multiplex film. The following was a rapid-fire 20 minute conversation that has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
K.H. Thanks for giving me some of your time today. Let me get right into it: The thing I took away, something that I thought a lot about after seeing PROFILE was: Trust. Between you as a filmmaker and the actors, between this format being able to tell stories, and trust with this particular storytelling-style being the right fit with Anna Érelle’s life-story.
T.B. You are right. With the audience for sure, it is 90 minutes with only a computer screen. With Anna, she wrote the book, and it was published in 17 countries and it became a hit. I found her book to be very impressive as a document of self. How brave she was to tell the truth about her own internal processes. It is not so much a sophisticated detective story, or even a quest. It is more about a person’s openness. How much they show. It is great as a drama. Then I met her, and I learned that everything in the book is not 100% true.
The story and the drama goes even deeper. In the book. It is more like, text. I mean, when you use words to polish things. To hide things. To make it smoother. To make it more ‘sub-text-y.’ But making a movie is a more immersive art. When we made a movie from the book, of course, a lot of things became more visible. Even if I tried to make it more subdued, multi-layered, or internal. What is her relationship, why she did it, how much she was really emotionally connected to the guy. I wanted to make it more realistic, less exposition, not obvious. Life is not obvious. Right? You understand. But at the same time, it is about the bravery to open her internal life for millions of people. And the movie might make it more impactful, I would think, to more people.
Do you mean like how we curate and self-censor our own experiences online? Do you feel she is more choosing her words carefully? When you are making a movie version, an entertainment as much as informing.
I just followed her. When I met her, Anna, I saw the real footage of how she spoke with that guy. She was really open to sending material, her own music from that period. I felt from this, and the book, that I knew a lot about her. But at the same time, the character. When you are writing a story. The character drives the story. You cannot manipulate internal logic. I felt I understood very simple things about her.
For example, to be able to get information, she should present herself as a girl in love with him. But because she was not an actress, she does not really know how to act. Which means to be able to cheat him, she needs to really fall in love with him. But by doing it, she was trying to control the boundaries of this, but it is very difficult if you are not an actress.
He is also a tricky guy. He is trying to check her. Trying to test the water to see if she is lying. There are a few moments int he move we show him doing this, about her age, and everything. She must imitate real feelings. And she is lonely, too. Things gets confused and she is losing control. At the same time, it is a question of him too. I do not believe he is an actor, and to seduce her, he has to fall in love with her too.
The key line of dialogue I keeping coming back to is, “You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?” And yet she is lying to him, she is lying to herself. That is interesting to me, because we ALL do it to a degree in social situations, especially online.
What is unique about the story is both of them are lonely people. As characters, they are very close to each other. Because she is a part of the system, as a liberal journalist, she is trying to fight for openness and freedom. And at the same time, he is a radical terrorist, the opposite in a way. However, they both grew up on the same street, they both like the same ice-cream, the same music when they were children. A lot of things push them towards each other. I think these are the things that make it difficult for her to ‘cheat.’
Do you think the ‘in’ to the audience, because we are not likely to be catfishing Jihadi Terrorists, is that we all use the same online apps?
Yes. We use the same apps, and the same techniques with those apps. We pretend in everyday life. With family. We make moral choices every day. It is easy to lie on the internet. I think the audience is captivated less about the story of Jihadi Extremists, I think they connect to the theme of the film. The fear of the unknown when transacting through the internet.
Really, most people have only used social media for 10 years. We’ve lived in the woods and the oceans for thousands of years. We know the fairytales about the woods. The wolves and demons, and ancient greek gods. We have stories and myths about real spaces. But almost nothing about the internet yet. The mission of our projects, not just Profile, but the entire ScreenLife project, all those movies: the message is that we should learn how to be human in this different reality. How to create this trust. A new trust.
She uses Snow-White with a hijab as her avatar picture in the film. A visual connection to fairy tales.
Of course! The film is SNOW WHITE. Or BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Maybe both.
This reminds me of Canadian director David Cronenberg’s SCANNERS. Which drew its inspiration from more graphic sex and violent films on a local Toronto Television station. But he took the basic fear of this, and drove it to “11” and said, what if the local TV station started airing snuff films. And it becomes a horror film. You were saying you started with more conventional horror narratives with earlier ScreenLife projects like Unfriended and its sequel. Profile however, at its core, has a similar relationship between the audience and the lead character. We have that, “Don’t do that!” dialogue with her choices that is common in every haunted house movie.
Exactly. I used the ISIS terrorists, fear of them, as the demons. But it could have been vampires. I does not matter in terms of the political issues in the storytelling, because it is really about the new internet reality.
Do you think that using real world imagery, as a way to disguise that it is a kind of horror movie?
No, that’s not the goal, but I was trying to test the water. My goal is to seduce more filmmakers, and more actors to make more ScreenLife movies. When they see it is only genre, they think, it is only a genre thing. I made this perhaps more sophisticated than it needed to be for a commercial project, and I guess it is not a perfect commercial entertainment, it is a little bit too loaded with real people.
With 5 films into this ScreenLife project, what are the surprises? What are the lessons you have leaned.
The first - GOOD - lesson is that the audience completely understands and enjoys the format. Every festival we send ScreenLife projects, we get audience awards. Cybernatural, Searching, Profile. This is very symbolic, because it tells me that traditional filmmakers still do not understand what we are doing. They think it is something weird, and they do not have time to dig into it. But the audience is 100% with us. I think this is the biggest surprise for me.
This is exactly where we should be. Surprisingly, there is no bad things. Everything we’ve touched, has transformed into something exciting. Just learning how to sound mix these movies, how to figure out the language of making these films, your own way.
At this point in ScreenLife, it doesn’t matter what you do, because it will already be different, because almost nobody has done this kind of thing before. I mean, how do you deal with lighting? And then, you can improvise, and rethink the entire view. How to make a character look good? For example, the scene where she speaks about her mother. Her character turns to be a silhouette in the window, this was improvisation, and yet it is her character trying to be invisible, because she is talking about very intimate things.
You mean as form of on-screen, the computer screen, body language?
If I turn away so you cannot see my eyes. On screen, this visually indicates that I am trying to hide something. That is often done with camera work. But here it is done by the character as much as the filmmaker. We do not have this as much in traditional filmmaking.
What we discovered early on, when trying to show her reaction, if her character is not in Skype, or in a video window onscreen showing her face. A pause where the dots blink. Pending. Pending. Pending. It is a different kind of suspense waiting for something. Different possibilities present themselves to rethink a lot of stereotypes of traditional filmmaking.
To find a new form, for more effective and relatable filmmaking.