SXSW Interview: Timur Bekmambetov and Shazad Latif on new techno-thriller Profile

During our time at SXSW Film Festival this year, we got to sit with director Timur Bekmambetov and actor Shazad Latif to chat about their new film, Profile. Adapted from Anna Erelle‘s In the Skin of a Jihadist, the film looks at the complex online relationship that develops between an “undercover” reporter and a jihadist, shot entirely through the reporters computer (and social media accounts, e-mail and Skype).

I want you to take me back to the origins of this; when you first picked up the book, In the Skin of a Jihadist, what made you want to turn this into a film?

Timur: We made a movie called Unfriended in 2015 and I understood that I was not dealing with a specific project, I was dealing with a new language. The language which is most contemporary, most promising and unique, because there is no other way you can understand who we are without screen life. The only way to understand the character, the order, the society is to use this language. Our emotions, our moral choices are not on our faces and in our environment anymore, it’s on our screens.

To understand ourselves, it’s what we do for a living – making movies – to understand ourselves and share with the audience. I was constantly looking for new stories, organic for this language. This story was absolutely perfect for screen life; it’s a real story. After Unfriended, I decided we should make different genres in screen life. We’ve made a comedy called Liked, based on a Cyrano de Bergerac play, and then we made Search, a detective story. This is an investigative journalist thriller with a little more drama in it. I decided this was perfect material to try and make a more sophisticated story with.

I met the author of the book and she screened for me secretly, the screens of her real conversations with the guy. It was fantastic, it was very inspirational. I was trying to make a story as close as possible to the original.

Shazad, what attracted you to this role?

Shazad: One, the chance to work with Timur, obviously. The initial concept process was interesting, we had to do an improvised audition, which is always exciting for any actor. When you read the book, it’s verbatim script, so seeing their conversations and tackling this like a terrorist subject in that way…it’s just a two-hander. I think it’s an incredible, weird, strange, online behavioural love story. You get to do so much with that. Lots dialogue, lots of talking, lots of deep emotional stuff. It’s a minefield to get involved with, that’s what’s exciting.

It’s a very complicated love story as well; you’re immensely charismatic in the role. It’s so hard not to empathise with you. I tried so hard! Was that a challenge for you? Being morally conflicted and bringing sympathy to this character?

Shazad: I don’t think I could judge that character, I had to just behave how he’d behave and come at it from his angle. Obviously just try and tell his story. My sort of personal beliefs are not important in that moment, I had to play these scenes for what they are and what he’s trying to do to her – the story would tell itself. I just had to play his actions, really, and try and seduce the audience.

Timur: It’s a very interesting question, because there were a lot of topics in this movie you could spend hours on discussing. For example, they grew up on the same streets, they were probably neighbours. They listened to the same music and went to the same schools; he’s not an alien, he’s like a neighbour. It just so happened that he had a different path. They’re really close to each other, you know? They’re both lonely.

Shazad: Loneliness is key. Everyone can relate to that, what your loneliness is. This is just on that next level. It makes sense to everyone, especially on screens.

Timur: Plus, they have anti-establishmentarian beliefs. She’s a left Liberal and he’s an extremist. It’s an interesting investigation, say, about who we are today and how we live today.

I feel the techno-thriller aspect of it acts absolutely perfectly for this kind of storytelling. I particularly loved how much tension you felt with even the smallest details; like how long she took to reply or backspacing, stuff like that. Was it a conscious choice, with the cat gifs and the emojis, to humanise him? We can relate to that sharing.

Shazad: Those things are real as seduction techniques but who knows if they enjoy hanging around with cats? Just by doing it, are they enjoying it? I’m sure they are. These things are happening.

Timur: Olga, my producing partner and co-writer, she knows everything about it. She researched it and everything you see in the movie, like fingers and cats and using music…it’s all in the tutorial. They have a tutorial – How To Seduce. It’s 26 days, they can pull any girl.

From your point of view, beyond the book, how much research went into this for you?

Timur: The original book, the author of the book, we call her Anna Erelle but we don’t know her real name; I’ve known her for two years. I don’t know her real way! She’s a smart and lovely woman. She researched a lot; we used her book plus our own research. All the intelligence services are probably now following us because we’ve researched so much! They probably think we’ve lost our minds. It’s all true, there’s nothing wrong and nothing non-specific.

Was there any learning points for you or differences, jumping from producer to director of a clickable storytelling film?

Timur: No, it’s just a little bit of a mess. When you’re just producing it’s very clear, what you should do. When you’re a director, it’s also very clear what you should do, but when you mix them, it becomes a mess. As a creator, as a director, I want to learn. Nobody can stop you! You keep trying. We spent a year cutting the movie, just trying different versions, nine day shoots and one year of editing. I still have some ideas of what could be done. I’m just enjoying the process, because no one had done it before us.

In traditional filmmaking, when you make the movie it’s like, ‘This is like that 1968 film when so and so did it,’ or ‘Francis Ford Coppola did the same thing’. In this language, in this world of screen life movies, there is nobody; we should invent everything. How to tell the story, how we can cut [it]. Can we cut between his close up and her close up? Yes, we need a squeak of sound and then the computer allows you to switch the size like a Google Hangout; the camera will seem bigger. How we mix the movie too, because we pretend this is real footage, but she can mix it. He can use character to make the movie or scores, how you can change the music; she has Spotify on shuffle or she’s picking the music as a choice. It’s a storytelling bit. For example, there’s a moment where the disc is full and she has to delete something; she’s changing her life by deleting her boyfriend out…these are totally new tools, we began this process and I hope other filmmakers will pick them up and develop it.

Yeah, when found footage and stuff first came out, people did see it as a gimmick. It grew from there…

Timur: There’s a huge difference. Found footage, I believe, is a gimmick. It’s about the same world, but a different source. We are talking about a different world. It’s [all] screens, this isn’t the physical world. It’s a different world. It’s another reality, it’s not physical. It’s not who we are; on our screens, we are very different. I cannot explain it because I’m not a critic, but critics should probably understand what we’re doing. I think we are inventing and exploring…we’re lucky. We’re exploring like a Wild West thing because it’s a different philosophy. It’s like we went to Mars and we’re just trying to understand what’s happening there.

Film says a lot about how we interact with the digital age and how we build our lives and manipulate people; what do you want people to take away from this film?

Timur: For me, my school and how we were taught in Russia as filmmakers, you should love your characters and the reason to make movies is to understand something about yourself. That’s what I’m doing. For me, I’m trying to understand how we live on screens and just understand, to connect with the characters. To the journalist, the jihadist, understand what’s inside and the meaning of life.

Shazad: The online behaviour, that’s what’s interesting for me. For me, it’s about how we behave.

Timur: You said it perfectly – it’s a techno-thriller. Exactly right. It’s not a political thriller, who cares about that? It’s about fears dealing with the internet, not the jihadist. It could be ghosts or zombies, whatever. It doesn’t matter.

Profile was screened as part of the SXSW Film Festival. Transcription by Sosefina Fuamoli; interview by Chris Singh