Directing duo Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman broke through in 2010 with the shocking yet humane documentary Catfish, which famously followed an online romance to a bizarre and bittersweet conclusion. From there, they launched a spin-off reality TV series, and went on to helm horror hits like Paranormal Activity 3 and Paranormal Activity 4. But with the daring pair's latest, Nerve, Joost and Schulman combine their suspense-spinning skills and their hard-earned distrust of the internet into a rollicking and surprisingly romantic thriller.
Based on the Jeanne Ryan YA novel, Nerve is named for an app that offers two alluring options: Player or Watcher. Players consent to crowd-sourced dares with increasing cash prizes. But as the rewards go up, so do the risks, sometimes with deadly consequences. Meanwhile, Watchers pay a subscription fee to play voyeur, fill the Player jackpots, and weigh in on dare votes.
Emma Roberts stars as an introverted high school senior thirsty for a little adventure. And with one click of the Player button, she gets all she could want and more, including a wild night that tosses her all around New York City, a nasty web of deception, and a tempting teammate in a dangerously dashing Dave Franco.
Screen Rant sat down with Joost and Schulman in New York, to discuss how technology has evolved between Catfish and Nerve, where this futuristic story could go next, and the importance of picking the right underwear for their stars' streaking scene. We also get into the state of horror, their upcoming bit of epidemic terror Viral, and marvel that Dave Franco isn't a big damn star already.
In both Catfish and Nerve, you two explore the ways people utilize anonymity on the internet. How do you feel that conversation has evolved from your first film to this?
Ariel Schulman: That's a good question.
Henry Joost: It's evolved a lot. I think just how much the technology has changed, and how many more access points we have to the internet, and how many more personas we are able to create has exponentially grown since Catfish. The internet is a more complex place. And we're way more on our phones than we were at that time. It was mostly computer-based in Catfish. Now, it's almost 100% phone.
Schulman: There were no apps in Catfish.
Joost: Right? Could you even do Facebook on your phone then?
Schulman: I think we had iPhones.
Joost: Were we texting?
Schulman: Yeah, like a little bit.
Joost: It's funny looking back at movies like that, and how fast the old interface looks old. And we had that issue with this movie, where you're developing the script for a year. And then you're shooting, then you're editing, and before you know it, two years have passed since it was written. And things change, like new apps popped up in the process of making the film, and we quickly tried to reorganize to reflect that new reality.
What's an example of that?
Joost: Well, Periscope did not exist when we started. By the time we finished, it did. And we were like, "Oh this app is like half-way to being Nerve."
And that's the trick, right? Because when you're making a film about technology, and you use actual tech, you run the risk of it not feeling of-the-moment but feeling instantly dated.
How do you manage the balance of that?
Schulman: I think we tried to be like Black Mirror, and predict slightly advanced technologies. And if we were really good at that, we should be in that field. We should probably move to Silicon Valley. (Joost chuckles.) So, we're not that good at it, but we're not that good at it. But enough to be like: there will definitely be live-streaming HD quality video. And low and behold, a year into development, Periscope shows up. And we're like, "Okay, good. We're on the right track." Let's take that a step further and say there would be greater interaction. And that your followers, your "watchers" would be giving you dares--
Joost: And giving you money.
Schulman: And giving you money, yeah. I think a really big difference in Catfish was people were really concerned about privacy issues then. And they still talk about them, but they're even more lax about giving out their information.
Joost: They're very casual about it now.
Schulman: Yeah. I had one social media profile back then, in the Catfish days. And it was my Facebook profile, and I knew all my privacy settings inside and out.
Joost: And you knew everybody you were friends with.
Schulman: Yeah, but now--I don't even know how many social media platforms on my phone. And I don't read the regulations very closely anymore. And so Nerve is sort of about that voluntary loss of privacy.
There's a running theme of consent in the film. No matter how much pressure is put on them, all the "players" must consent to the dare before the game will continue. I thought it was interesting that it reflects how cavalierly we all consent to terms and conditions that we don't read. It's a pain in the ass. I'm not going to read 15 pages of legal lingo to update iTunes.
Joost: No one is. And what're you going to do, send it to a lawyer?
Right? So everybody just hits okay, and doesn't consider the consequences.
Joost: Because you want to get the candy.
Right! So, the tech stuff is a big element of the film, but there's also this story of young love. I'm curious if there are any movies that influenced Nerve's rom-com side.
Schulman: (Joking) Debbie Does Dallas.
Schulman: (Joking) The Girlfriend Experience--no. Risky Business was the number one influence. I think in that scenario, throwing the party was his version of playing Nerve. Tom Cruise's character had his life sort of figured out for him, and it didn't really involve much risk or fun. And he had one friend who said, "You need to take a risk." You need to get out of your comfort zone.
And like Risky Business, Nerve has an underwear set piece.
Schulman: You're right! I hadn't thought about that.
I was really impressed by the costume of the "streaking" sequence, because the underwear actually spoke to the character of Vee and Ian. So I'm curious how the underwear choice conversation went.
Joost: We talked about it. We had this conversation, where we were like, "What kind of underwear would he wear? What kind of underwear would she wear?" She didn't think she was going to be in her underwear today (in public), so that's the kind of underwear she wore. But it's still got to look good. She's got a panda (on the back).
It felt really authentic! They were mismatched, but cute. I believe that is something a girl her age would wear on a day where you don't realize someone's going to see you in your underwear.
Schulman: But you know what's the number one issue when making a movie with an underwear scene? It's that it (the underwear) is not light enough color that you can see the outline of one's member or pubic hair. Which is hard when it comes to underwear.
Was there an awkward screen test phase?
Schulman: No. For Dave (Franco), we just went straight to black.
(Laughs) Problem solved!
Schulman: Yeah, but for her, yeah black would solve that problem too, but like what the fuck? This girl is wearing black panties? Yet she doesn't know how to talk to guys?
Right, because then they take on a different context. But Nerve also reminded me a lot about 10 Things I Hate About You, both in that it's good girl meets bad boy, but also both have the serenading in public scene.
Joost: Yay! Okay. I can see that. I'm not sure that was conscious, but I love that movie. You're right though, the serenading scene is kind of a callback to that.
And props for recognizing that Dave Franco needs to be a romantic leading man. I'm shocked it hasn't happened sooner.
Joost and Schulman: I know!
Joost: Every time you see him in a movie, you're like, "Can the whole movie be about that guy?"
Right! It's finally this year in Now You See Me 2 that Lizzy Caplan hits on him instead of the leading man (Jesse Eisenberg), and it's like, "Yes!"
Schulman: That's the guy to hit on. But he's still like one of five or six co-stars (in that movie), male stars. Like why isn't Dave Franco a leading man?
Watching Franco in Nerve reminded me of Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, where the world was all of sudden like "Oh this guy is hot." And it was like, "Um, we have been saying that!" It feels Dave Franco has fans that are waiting for his moment, and here you guys put him in a romantic lead and in his underwear. So thank you for that.
Schulman: You're welcome!
Joost: I feel like he has this sleeper tsunami of female supporters out there--and male, myself included--this guy, he's a movie star!
And in Nerve he does play the bad boy, but he has this undercurrent of nice guy, where you don't judge Vee for running off into the night with this stranger.
Joost: He seems trustworthy.
Also he's just so damn cute.
Joost: He is cute.
There's a lot of cool graphics in Nerve, both illustrating texts and pinpointing their GPS locations. How did you guys develop the graphics?
Joost: We took that really seriously. We kind of opened the door with that in Catfish with onscreen filmmaking. It's a little bit taboo. And people are afraid of it a little bit, including us. So trial and error, we tried a lot of things. We experimented a lot when we were in prep. Like here's ten different ways we could do it, which do we like the best? What works the best for different scenarios. Interestingly, we did like a total 180 on the graphic design of the game half-way through editing . Our original design was very clean, very Apple IOS looking, very minimal. And then half-way through, we realized this is just not the way things are looking now. Things are kind of crazy looking and colorful and bright. That's the way the game should look.
It makes the game look almost like a night club.
Joost: Yeah. It should look like a video game night club or night club video game. (Schulman laughs.)
You guys shot in location in New York. But as film has shown there's countless ways to shoot the city, what was the New York you were looking to capture?
Joost: We wanted to capture the New York that we experienced as teenagers here. We grew up here, and just how exciting it is to be out on your own and having a night, and how it can be so beautiful and still feel kind of dangerous.
Your narrative films (Paranormal Activity 3 & 4, Nerve) often have a focus on female characters and protagonists. Is that intentional?
Schulman: We've talked about this. It's been a little bit of a coincidence. But I don't know. We're both feminists and are in favor of more voices for stronger female characters.
Is that something you think about when making your films? Because female representation is such a hot topic, is that something that factors in? Or do you just focus on story?
Schulman: No it's a big topic of conversation, and was very much as well for our producer Allison Shearmur, who did the first Hunger Games and Pride and Prejudice And Zombies. She really made sure we watched the arc of Emma's character from a strong female point of view.
Joost: And didn't fall into those traditional female/male ruts that so many films fall into.
Schulman: If we were thinking of if there's one audience member in mind, it's Allie's daughter, who is like 13-years-old. She should be inspired and impressed by this character.
You also have Sydney, who could very easily just be the "bad girl." But she is given a backstory of her own and her own causes for empathy. There's an apparent thought process put into it, as opposed to here's the bad girl, here's the good girl.
Joost: We try to make characters and not devices. Like if she was only bad, then she's not a real person. Real people aren't just good or bad, they're a mix of a lot of things. We tried to bring that kind of humanity to every character.
And there's a lot of action scenes. Of course you guys have done action before with the Paranormal movies. But this is a different kind of action. What was it like making the transition from horror action to thriller action.
Schulman: It was great. We were trying to do big macho set pieces, like inspired by the car scene in Nightcrawler, or scenes from Jason Bourne or Michael Mann movies. And we had the crew and the tools to do it this time. We had a Russian arm. For the motorcycle scene, we had as our second unit director the guy who did the Nightcrawler scene, Mike Smith. We were able to put lights on buildings twenty stories up on Park Avenue and have three nights to shoot a scene, as opposed to half a day. The motorcycle scene. And we had great stunt coordinators and infrastructure like we've never had before.
What was the greatest challenge in making the film?
The greatest challenge is always time, when you're making a film. No matter how much you have it never feels like enough. We had a really great DP who we've worked with before, Mike Simmonds, who has shot like 30 or 40 indie films, like really great indie films. But for us and for him, this was by far the biggest film that we've done. So I think together we brought a kind of indie scrappiness, where you always have to keep things moving fast. You never have the luxury of slowing down. And that's--I think--how we got through that.
Is doing a big studio movie something you'd be interested in?
Joost: Yeah, totally. I really loved this experience, and loved the scale and the cast and the support we got. The fear is of course losing that feeling if you go bigger. But we're definitely interested in telling stories on a bigger scale.
What would that dream project look like?
Schulman: Good question. Um, I don't know, like Inglorious Basterds or Gravity would be cool.
Joost: (Teasing) Well, people have already made those though.
It sounds like you're saying an original movie that has a high concept. Is that what you're saying?
Catfish got a spin-off series. So is that something you could see happening with Nerve?
Joost: I guess anything is possible. We sort of thought that at the end of the movie, you could imagine the game popping up again somewhere else. It's very hard to control.
Schulman: What do you think would be better: a series or a sequel?
Hm. I've been thinking a lot about TV versus film lately. The trick with sequels is that filmmakers are often trying to bring too many things back in to get people back in the seats. Whereas with TV, you can take the liberty of jumping around and telling different stories because people are more sold on the concept than on the characters.
Schulman: So, TV.
Maybe. Like you mentioned Black Mirror, which gives a solid hour of sci-fi creepy entertainment with each episode.
Schulman: My two favorite shows are Black Mirror and Mr. Robot, so maybe Nerve should be a series.
But if you were thinking sequel, would you bring back the characters? Would you go to a new location?
Schulman: Definitely a new location, because that's part of the game's plan: pop up in different cities. And we haven't come up with a plot yet.
But it's something you're looking at?
Schulman: I mean, you see when the movie opens if people like it. I think it's be putting the cart before the horse if you just started writing. Don't want to be presumptuous.
Joost: Don't want to force it.
You guys directed Paranormal Activity 3 & 4, and horror is having an interesting moment. It's often been a derided genre. But between the huge box office successes out of Blumhouse productions and then art house horror breakouts like The Babadook and The Witch, do you feel there's a shift in the perception of horror?
Schulman: That's a really good question. I'm not sure what the state of horror right now is creatively. I guess there have been a couple of really strange--
Joost: Original, yeah--
Schulman: Mood pieces in horror, like the two you mentioned. I don't know that I can put my finger on it.
Joost: And It Follows, stuff like that too. Oh man, Green Room.
Green Room is great.
Joost: I don't know if you'd call it a horror movie. But (whistles), that was awesome.
I would. But there's that weird stigma of the genre. When some people really like a horror movie, but don't count themselves as horror fans they say, "Well, that's not really horror."
Schulman: It's not simple like it was a couple of years ago. Like we were (making horror) in the age of found footage. We were in the age of supernatural home invasion, when Blumhouse really got their foothold. I don't know what this age of horror is that we're in now.
Joost: I'm into it though. I'm glad that the found footage trend is dormant. At least for now, for a little while it's time to put that to rest.
Schulman: It's kind of the age of the art house horror film now.
Joost: Which is cool, like the auteur horror film.
It's interesting because there's a divide in the horror fan community over those movies, where some think they're great and others think, "No, that's not my horror."
Schulman: But The Conjuring is the king right now, right? And that's pretty straight horror.
It's a throwback to the '70s like Jaws or Poltergeist, where there's a great focus on the family and character to hook you into the horror.
Joost: And the new Purge came out (Purge: Election Year), which is almost like a '70s exploitation film.
What can you tell me about Viral?
Joost: It's a low-budget horror film that we made with Blumhouse and Jason (Blum)--
Schulman: A couple of years ago.
Joost: A couple of years ago. And it asks the question: What would teenagers do during an epidemic? And it's a straight horror movie.
Blumhouse is known for centralizing stories on one location. Will it be like that?
Schulman and Joost: Yeah.
Joost: Very small. We had a lot of fun making it. And just for various reasons, it's coming out now.
Do you want to get into any of the various reasons?
Joost: Not really.
I've seen the fun short you guys did for Vogue with Margot Robbie parodying American Psycho. I'm curious if you have any thoughts on the Vanity Fair profile?
Joost: I haven't! I heard it's something.
He describes her as a "blue mood" or a "slow dance," and says she walks like a "second-semester freshman."
Schulman: Is it good to be a blue mood?
Joost: What's a blue mood?
Schulman: He said she walks like a second-semester freshman? What does that mean? So wait, so people are saying there's a weird confusing Vanity Fair piece about Margot Robbie?
He also describes her as the girl next door.
Schulman: I've never understood that either! There is no girl next door--
Joost: Like Margot Robbie?
Schulman: Like Margot Robbie. Or like any girl that's ever been called "girl next door." The "girl next door" to me was like 85-years-old, and she wouldn't let the super into her house, and her ceiling was leaking. And she was always causing a huge fuss in our apartment building.
I want to see your girl next door movie! That sounds amazing.
Schulman: She's dead.
Nerve opens in U.S. theaters July 27, 2016.