'Profile' Director Timur Bekmambetov Believes Screenlife Is The Future Of Cinema [Interview]

It's fitting interviewing director Timur Bekmambetov over Zoom. Towards the end of the conversation, when the pleasantries and goodbyes were over, something about my reaction to finishing the call made him say "You see!" I didn't see. Maybe he saw how exhausted I actually was the morning of the interview after I hit pause on the recording and was exiting the digital room. I imagined he got a kick out of seeing something surprising over Zoom, something he wouldn't have gotten over a phone call – my true face of the day following a jovial conversation.

Maybe I'm projecting, but something had the director of Night Watch and Wanted exclaiming in excitement. "You see!"

I could see his true joy for the screenlife format at that moment. I got to hear all about his passion for it during the interview, but seeing it, especially over Zoom, made the filmmaker's love for the modern technique all the more tangible. The director's belief in this format, which tells stories entirely through computer and phone screens, is strong.

He's already produced several movies using screenlife, including Unfriended and one of the most original thrillers of the past few years, Searching. Now, Bekmambetov has directed his very own thriller using screenlife: Profile. It's based on a true story about a journalist (played by Valene Kane) trying to infiltrate ISIS, to see how they recruit young women. Naturally, things go wrong.

Bekmambetov wants to push the boundaries of screenlife – and he thinks it is the future of moviemaking.

More than ever with Profile you test the boundaries of what you can do with this format, especially given the subject matter. Did you know from the beginning this story was right for screenlife?

Yes. Over the last seven years, I've been looking for stories you can't tell otherwise than using screenlife. This is a story clearly for screenlife. They never met each other. I read the book and thought it was perfect material for a screenlife movie. It all happened online. It was challenging because the book is not just genre; it's also a little drama. Dramatically, it's dense. There is an arc.

I thought it'd be best to do it myself because it was very promising and challenging. I was trying to develop the language. I've been doing it with other filmmakers, too, but for me, this was an interesting experiment. I thought, can I make a very emotional, nuanced story with screenlife?

And with a potentially unreliable protagonist you start to question. 

Yes, yes. The movie has a lot of layers. First of all, it's an interesting cinematic experiment. Second, politically, it's very edgy. It's not about ISIS at all, it's about us and how we live. With this guy, he's just a boy from London. They were once neighbors. They probably ate the same ice cream and sang the same songs. It was a real story, too, that was important to me. I had a chance to talk to her before I made the movie. She even presented me with her real laptop with her real screengrabs. It is so scary and real. Then, I had a light tower, knowing where to go.

Due to the pandemic, life-changing conversations and relationships have developed over Zoom. How do you think the last year will have influenced how people look at screenlife movies?

I think we were a little bit ahead of the time with screenlife. COVID really changed the world. Now, no one has the question, do we need screenlife? It is a way to talk about us, our civilization, our lives, our wishes, everything, that traditionally can't always capture. I mean, right now, you see a guy holding a phone. Now, you look in the phone, you see a guy robbing a bank or saying goodbye to his wife. There's a lot of drama. If you see the actual screen, you'll understand what's happening in their lives.

Directors almost always used to say how boring it is to film characters talk on phones or typing on computers. 

Yes. Without screenlife, it is boring. It's not cinematic. Nothing is happening. When you see the screen, you are really with the character. What's interesting is, the screenlife can show the inner life of the character. From what you see on the screen, you can get a sense of a character. Like, if somebody is looking up how to buy a cheap dog, you can assume he's probably lonely. It takes 10 seconds to show he's lonely rather than minutes in traditional filmmaking.

Is more control than traditional filmmaking a part of the appeal, too? 

It is, but it is one of the biggest challenges. You change the story 100% until the end of editing. You can change a lot. You can change too much. With traditional movies, you have the script, the shoot, and the edit. You can change, but you can't change too much. Until the last second with screenlife, you can alter or change the whole story. It is one of the biggest changes. At the same time, you're right. Screenlife is almost, like, writing. Every person can write a book. You just need a pen and paper. It's the same with screenlife. It's almost the same. You don't need a lot of resources. You don't need 100 people or a team.

Having to work with a lot of people, especially all the cooks in the kitchen on a Hollywood production, did you get tired of that?

I did, I did. The whole thing happened for two reasons. Yes, when you're making a movie for over $100 million, there are a lot of scared people. It is normal and it's understandable, so you feel a responsibility. You don't have a lot of freedom. You can feel that in theaters today. You see 99% of movies made by a collective brain and made by formulas. You feel it. With screenlife, because it's not expensive, you can make your own choices. It is very important. That's one thing, but another thing is, how many movies really surprised you in the last five or ten years?

It's a low number. Maybe a few a year?

Unfortunately, maybe I'm wrong, but I'm not surprised anymore. There are a lot of movies and a lot of good stories, but aesthetically, there's not much new in the last 10 or 15 years, like The Matrix. There's nothing new.

What about Mad Max: Fury Road?

Yes, it's good, but in general, when I'm in a theater, I feel I see something similar. You know, Tony Scott was someone experimenting with a new language, aesthetically. Then, over the last few years, that experimenting is gone. With screenlife, real experiments can happen.

It's fitting you mention Tony Scott. He had his finger on the pulse, knowing how fast audiences can take in visual information. With screenlife, too, you seem to do the same for younger audiences.

Yes. Tony Scott or Baz Luhrmann, they were surprising. There was a moment, like the MTV era. It was like a big earthquake. Then, we got good stories and good movies, but not something surprising, aesthetically. It's why I believe screenlife is the future and revolutionary. It's not only a new way to tell stories but a new way to tell a story about the new world. Like, it's a new world with new rules, new characters, and even the dead living with us, like dead people still having accounts on the Internet. We will continue to try to understand our new lives in this new world.

I see you are a fan of a Russian hockey player.

[Note: Timur noticed a framed Alex Ovechkin jersey in the background]

Greatest hockey player in the world. You a fan?

Yes, yes.

This reminds me, I have to ask about Night Watch and Day Watch. Those were such groundbreaking Russian movies.

Okay, so I have a question for you. Next time you watch Night Watch and Day Watch, look for two scenes in screenlife. I forgot about them, but a few weeks ago, I found them. In Night Watch, it's a big scene. In Day Wach, there's a total screenlife scene.

I'll look for that next time. Are you still interested in making the third film in that series? 

Okay, it must be screenlife. It will be screenlife. Where do the dark ones and light ones live today? In a digital space. I think it will happen in screenlife.


Profile arrives on May 14, 2021.