The director reveals the tricks behind how he made his new thriller, Unsane, on an iPhone
Prolific American auteur Steven Soderbergh has never been one to shy away from innovation, his diverse oeuvre spanning everything from experimental Indie gems to finely polished blockbusters and esoteric documentaries. Recently, his attention has turned to the smartphone: January marked the US release of his HBO murder mystery series Mosaic, accompanied by an app that offers supplementary narratives told from multiple characters’ perspectives. And last month at the Berlinale, he premiered his new lo-fi thriller Unsane, shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus (or three of them, to be precise).
Unsane, which was shot in just under two weeks, is deliciously pulpy, disorientingly immersive, and a lot of fun. It centres around successful data analyst Sawyer Valentini – played with mesmeric intensity by The Crown’s Claire Foy – who has newly relocated from Boston to Philadelphia in a determined bid to escape the stalker who has pursued her for the past two years. She does her best to adjust to her new life, but she can’t shake a lingering sense of paranoia, masterfully accentuated by the voyeuristic quality of Soderbergh’s camerawork. A series of unfortunate events leads to Valentini’s admission to a psychiatric hospital, where she’s held against her will. As her worst fears appear to catch up with her – trapped as she is within the facility’s clinical walls – her grip on reality slackens, and she finds herself ensnared in a terrifying web of escalating uncertainty.
Foy and her fellow cast, including SNL’s Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple and Joshua Leonard, carry us along on a well-measured rollercoaster ride of B-movie melodrama, while the camera itself proves a key protagonist. Soderbergh puts his device rigorously through its paces, exploiting its small size and distinctive angles – propping it on a bar, for instance, or inside a car boot; shooting in nighttime mode to eerie, blue-tinted effect; racing it through corridors with Blair Witch Project urgency; or sending it skyhigh with a drone, to capture exterior shots.
“Think of your cellphone as your enemy,” a security expert (played by a surprised A-lister in a cameo role) tells Valentini, in the film’s most playfully self-aware line. But for Soderbergh, the iPhone proves an extraordinary ally in an experiment that pays off. In the wake of the Berlinale premiere, we sat down with the director to learn all the secrets behind making a movie on your phone.
STICK TO WHAT YOU KNOW, THEN PUSH IT TO ITS LIMITS
Steven Soderbergh: “It was always going to be an iPhone that I shot with, because that’s what I had and that’s what I was familiar with. I suppose a more rigorous person would have tested everything that’s out there, but I knew what I could get out of my iPhone, and that was enough for me. That said, I intended to push it: I was going to put this thing through its paces and really challenge what the sensor was able to do.”
EXPERIMENT, EXPERIMENT, EXPERIMENT
Steven Soderbergh: “This desire to push the limits of what the phone could do was based entirely on the fact that I’d spent the previous couple of years experimenting, shooting material that was all over the spectrum in terms of tonality and composition. It’s the same when I work with an actor, I try to get to know them a little bit as a person before we start filming, so that if there’s some aspect of their personality that I want to amplify, I have a sense of it before we get on set.”
TURN FLAWS INTO FINE POINTS
Steven Soderbergh: “It wasn’t just about working out what the sensor did well either. It was also about asking, what are the things that it doesn’t do well, and is there a way to use that in addition to the things that it does well? Because sometimes you think something is a problem, but when you embrace it and double down on it, it turns out to be a really interesting anomaly that you can take advantage of.”
“Right away I could see the benefits that this technology and this approach were bringing to the film, both technically and in terms of how it forces you to really analyse how you work” – Steven Soderbergh
GET YOURSELF THE RIGHT GEAR – IN MINIATURE
Steven Soderbergh: “Although we shot on an iPhone, we still all had the typical things that you would usually have on a movie – tripods, panheads, a handheld stabilisation device – but smaller versions of them. We used really small slates too! We had three phones in total. And that turned out to be more than enough: we never had technical problems; we never lost any footage or had any dropouts – they all worked perfectly. The fanciest piece of gear we employed was the drone for the shots of the hospital.”
MAKE THE MOST OF ADD-ONS
Steven Soderbergh: “To get the look I wanted, I used some really nice lenses that you can attach to the phone by this company called Moment. And then there’s an app called FiLMiC Pro that enables you to control what the phone is doing with greater ease than if you used it as it comes out of the box; you can set exposure, focus, colour temperature, frame rate, resolution, and so on. When we got into the digital finishing suite, I started playing around with these various plugins to recreate film texture and colours. I spent a couple of weeks experimenting with different looks, recreating certain film stocks, and what we ended up using was a combination of different plugins for different sections of the film – depending on what part of the hospital we were in, or whether it was nighttime.”
DON’T BE AFRAID TO TAKE RISKS
Steven Soderbergh: “I was most worried about shooting the sequence in the woods at night because I’d made a very conscious decision to go for this very stylised day-from-night look. If it didn’t work I was kind of screwed. A traditional movie would have lined up a bank of 18Ks (lamps for night time exterior filming) to light that forest up like crazy in order to shoot that sequence, but low-budget movies can’t do that; they have to figure out another way. It was about halfway through shooting it that I thought, ‘No, I think this will be cool.’ I really like the surreal, dream-like quality it has. That whole sequence was scary to make but in a good way: there should always be something that scares you when you’re making a movie.”
ENJOY THE LESSONS IN LIBERATION
Steven Soderbergh: “The whole experience was more liberating than I thought it would be; it was more fun than I imagined. Right away I could see the benefits that this technology and this approach were bringing to the film, both technically and in terms of how it forces you to really analyse how you work: what can stay and what should go. I like the process of challenging assumptions to see whether they can hold up to stress testing. For instance, we didn’t have a script supervisor. Since I was the editor it didn’t really matter – I knew what I was shooting and I was editing at night so it was all very fresh in my mind. So that’s another body and another conversation that isn’t required, which distills the crew down to its absolute essence.”
...AND THE PERKS FROM THE PHONE BRAND
Steven Soderbergh: “After the film was done, I got a call from Apple saying, ‘Is this true? Did you shoot this movie on a phone?’ I flew out to California to screen the film for them, and watching their reaction was really interesting. I think they were really excited that somebody had used their technology and pushed it this far. They’re obviously very proud of their phone, so I think for them to see a movie like this and to know that for a normal audience it just looks like a movie, was exciting. And when I told them I’d be interested in shooting the next project I had planned with the iPhone, they immediately sent me the newest version, which was great (laughs).”
Unsane is in cinemas nationwide from March 23, 2018.