How the Upcoming Screenlife Thriller Was Produced
In 2012, Timur Bekmambetov signed on to produce Unfriended, a micro-budgeted supernatural horror movie that unfolded entirely on the computer screens of its protagonists. He saw the screen-centric approach as exciting new cinematic language and a logical step in the evolution of motion pictures. As he puts it, “Over the last two decades, human drama has migrated onto digital interfaces. From video chatting to texting, to sexting, our modes of living and loving have become inseparable from different types of screens – computers, phones, tablets. And if our stories hope to stay true, I believe they must move on as well.”
Released by Universal in 2015, Unfriended was a runaway success, grossing approximately $65 million worldwide on a $1 million budget. Encouraged by the international response, Bekmambetov decided to produce more films in the format he dubbed Screenlife. He sought out talented young filmmakers to develop new Screenlife projects: his hit tech thriller Searching was a feature debut for Aneesh Chaganty (who has now directed Run with Sara Polson) and Sev Ohanian (Oscar nomination for Judas and the Black Messiah); for R#J, his Screenlife production of Romeo and Juliet he brought Sundance alumni Carey Williams.
Meanwhile, Bekmambetov was looking for material that he could direct in Screenlife. One day, his production banner Bazelevs’ producer Olga Kharina sent him a link to an article about a newly published book called In the Skin of Jihadist, by a French journalist who used a fake online persona to infiltrate an ISIS recruitment operation. The article noted that the book incorporated transcripts of Skype conversations and Facebook messages between the journalist and a French-born militant based in Syria.
Bekmambetov had found his Screenlife project. In the Skin of a Jihadist was a natural fit for the Screenlife format, and had all the makings of a taut, emotionally complex thriller. Says Bekmambetov, “I knew when I read the book that I had to make this movie,” he affirms. “It was a perfect combination of journalistic suspense and crazy online romance.”
He was also drawn to Erelle’s story on a personal level: his mother had been a journalist. “Because of my mother, I grew up with the belief that a journalist’s duty is to tell the truth, to report thoroughly and without bias,” he remarks. “It’s hard; it’s an everyday moral choice to weigh their duty along with everything else, including personal feelings and convictions. Like doctors in wartime have to treat the wounded regardless of what side they’re on and judges in court have to render unbiased verdicts despite their personal feelings, journalists have to tell the truth to us. It’s in the DNA of their profession. I admire Anna. She allowed us to get under her skin by incorporating uncensored materials from her investigation. That requires a truly strong will and comes at a high price.”
Erelle’s investigation did indeed have serious and lasting repercussions, including a fatwa issued against her. The author’s true identity remains a secret and she has round-the-clock police protection. The ongoing threat to Erelle’s safety was evident in the precautions taken when Bekmambetov took a one-day trip to meet with her at a Paris hotel. “It was like something in spy stories,” the director recalls. “Anna’s lawyer came into the hotel room first, to confirm that it was me. Then she called Anna to come in. And I met an unbelievably intelligent woman who I found very relatable. We spent the next four hours talking about what happened in her book and how it happened. We talked about her life and about my life. That connection was very important.”
Erelle not only described her experience to the director; she allowed him to view the laptop she had used in her communications with Bilel. The breadth of access – the ability to view Skype recordings, archived messages and the desktop itself — was a critical advantage as he moved forward with Profile. “I had a chance to see the real people and the real conversations,” he explains. “I saw the screens and witnessed how the story developed. That was very interesting and useful for casting, for storytelling and for the design of the movie.”
He decided to set the film in London and the characters’ nationalities changed accordingly. After Britt Poulton wrote an initial draft, Bekmambetov and Kharina took over the story development and script revisions. Fittingly, the partners used a collaborative screenwriting program that enabled them to work efficiently from their different corners of the world — Bekmambetov in Los Angeles and Kharina in Moscow.
The script they wrote embedded some verbatim exchanges and actual events from Erelle’s book into a larger fictitious narrative. The story unfolds on the desktop of Amy Whittaker, a 26-year-old freelancer working in broadcast journalism. She’s already filed a news piece on an English girl who joined the Islamic State in Syria, and she’s on deadline to file a follow-up piece on ISIS recruitment techniques. The story begins with Amy’s creation of a bogus Facebook account and profile for a 19-year-old Islamic convert named Melody Nelson. Her new avatar sends friend requests to young European girls who have taken up the ISIS cause, and populates her timeline with triumphal videos by ISIS militants in Syria. Moments later, one of those militants, Abu Bilel, has Melody in his sights. And Amy has a potential blockbuster story that could boost her financially precarious career.
Amy embarks on the venture with the understanding that Bilel’s goal is to recruit Melody, but Bilel does not know that Melody is a fiction. What he sees on Skype is a bashful young woman in a black hijab, not an ambitious journalist who used YouTube to learn how to arrange her head covering. “What’s interesting is that it’s not only the recruiter who is lying,” observes Bekmambetov. “Amy is lying so she can get her story. They’re both wearing masks.”
Amy has to be prepared for Bilel’s questions about Melody’s life, her conversion to Islam; he will subtly test her about her beliefs and knowledge of religious laws. She also must be aware of the different stages of the recruitment process, seemingly benign gestures that are designed to bind her closer to him. But her behavior and responses must appear natural and unpremeditated. It’s a complicated and difficult balancing act that takes Amy into uncharted emotional territory. “It’s a scary emotional rollercoaster,” Bekmambetov observes. “The only way for Amy to deliver this story is to really try to feel something about this person. Bilel is testing her, and little by little she 6 must let her feelings control her. It reaches the point where she doesn’t really know if she is playing the role of girl falling in love with a terrorist or if she really is falling in love.”
The lines aren’t clear-cut for Bilel, either. The native Londoner begins his communication with Melody by asking what part of the city she lives in. While that approach is certainly a way to establish commonality with Melody, it’s not simply formulaic. As Bekmambetov sees it, “Bilel rejected European culture and went to Syria to fight. At the same time, he is European and I think it’s lonely over there for him. Recruiting Melody is a goal but she’s also very attractive to him.”
A relationship begun under false pretenses quickly morphs into an emotional entanglement neither fully understands. “This game between them creates very strange feelings,” says Bekmambetov. “Amy is free to block his account any minute but she doesn’t. And it’s not just because of her job. I think it’s the same for Bilel — at some point he understands she is lying. But they continue because they like each other.”