Profile, premiering in theaters on May 14, is the latest in director Timur Bekmambetov’s collection of what he refers to as Screen Life films. Following his critically acclaimed Unfriended and Searching, his newest work follows the online romance of young journalist Amy (Valene Kane) and a Syrian ISIS fighter named Bilel (Shazad Latif) from its investigative roots to its more harrowing reality.
Bekmambetov spoke with Screen Rant about why he finds that literal screens often represent life better than films, and how the unique casting and preparation process came together for this story.
What themes jumped out at you, from the book, In The Skin of a Jihadist, that you knew would be right for the screen life format?
Timur Bekmambetov: The whole story happened in digital space. You cannot tell the story using traditional tools, like a camera that has nothing to shoot. It all happened on screen.
It was a moment when I was looking for stories, specifically written to use screen life as a language, and it was a perfect match. When I met Anna Erelle, the author of the book, I had a chance to see the glimpse of her real screens [where] she spoke with Bilel. It was unbelievably impressive and scary, when you see the real [thing]. And this language makes everything real; it’s not illusion.
Traditional movies are an illusion of the reality, like shadows on the wall that you think is a window into another world. But screen life has a different meaning, because screen life is real. It’s not an illusion anymore. It’s a very new language.
It’s this cross-platform of immersion and entertainment in a film. How did you connect to Anna Erelle’s story of being a journalist?
Timur Bekmambetov: Because my mother was a journalist, and my sister is a journalist. I grew up in a family where, during lunch, I heard a lot of conversations and a lot of discussions about what does it mean to be a journalist.
What I remember from my mother is you’re not expressing yourself, you’re delivering the information. The information should be correct and not corrupted. It’s not your impression; it’s just thatthe audience, the reader, should get the information as it is. This was my understanding of journalism.
You got to see the real Skype calls with the real Bilel. How much did that help inform not only the casting, but the storytelling and design of the film?
Timur Bekmambetov: Of course. First of all, it set the level of realism. You don’t need to invent this. Of course, I invent a lot of new story beats, and I designed the scenes as I see this, but I remember my feeling and my impression. I was trying to follow this level of intimacy.
Because what’s great about screen life is that it’s an inner-hood. You’re inside the character, because we’re not hiding things from our screens. It’s exactly who we are, which is why it was important to see the real screens.
You decided to cast this film mostly through Skype. How did that process play out?
Timur Bekmambetov: First of all, it’s very pragmatic. Because you can get more people to talk to from different countries, from countries all around the world. There were actors from the United States, from France, from England.
But second, it was very important for me. I decided that it’s not right to connect these people in a physical space, because the audience will never feel it. It was important for me to meet actors and to develop relationships online, because it’s exactly what audience will feel.
Valene Kane is brilliant in this film. What were some of the qualities she possessed that made her right for the role of Amy?
Timur Bekmambetov: It was important that she’s a girl next door. It’s very important for me when the actor has a very real, grounded nature. She’s not an actress when you speak to her; she’s a real person. But at the same time, she has a lot of soul. She has a very deep and very romantic personality, and it’s a very good and important combination for this role. To be well-rounded, like every woman can relate to her. Because every woman’s trying to get things done, even if it’s so scary, like in this movie.
At the same time, she has a dream. She’s a smart woman, and she understand the level of complexity of this story. It’s a roller coaster, and it’s a dramatic roller coaster. It’s very entertaining, but it’s entertaining because it has a lot of twists.
Shazad Latif is so convincing and so charming and the role of Bilel. What did he bring to the role that may have surprised you?
Timur Bekmambetov: We think that people in ISIS are from different planets. They’re not. They’re from London, from Paris, from Berlin – and they grew up on the same streets. Bilal and Amy, they were maybe classmates; they had the same ice cream after the school and sang the same songs. They had the same favorite bars in London.
What was important is that he is different, but he just made the wrong choices. It’s so scary, but understandable at the same time. A good villain must be very compelling and relatable, and that’s what he created and. And he’s charming, like any recruiter. He must be seductive, otherwise it would be very bad.
I read that you gave Shazad and Valene a scene to create, which is actually in the movie. It’s backstory for Bilel. Can you talk to me about that collaboration process?
Timur Bekmambetov: We shot almost 15 pages per day; 15 minutes of the movie every every day, because we shot the whole movie in 10 days. To make it happen, we had a long process of preparation. They had a chance to talk to each other, to meet each other, to spend time together, and to create this kind of trust.
Also you should remember, it’s 15 pages with a lot of twists inside; with a lot of dramatic collisions. And you’re close up all the time, like we’re talking now. It’s not like a wide shot, it’s like a theater. It’s like a show, and you must be ready to do the whole play in one take. It’s what we rehearsed.
There was a day right before the shooting when we left them alone, and they spent time together at the bar and just talking about things and bonding. And it was important in the process.
I can’t wait to see what the next screen life film is going to be, because I’m fully on board.
Timur Bekmambetov: I will tell you, probably. The next one will be Ice Cube and Eva Longoria in a sci-fi alien invasion movie. It’s already shot.
The only problem of screen life language is it’s quite difficult to explain to people what does it mean, until they see it. When they see it, there’s no questions. But it’s why we are spending time with the critics and with the journalists, because we need you guys to explain.
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Profile opens in theaters May 14.
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