Nerve Directors Talk Making a Movie for The Age of Social Media

The men behind Catfish tackle a dangerous new viral game with their new film Nerve.

Six years ago, the movie everyone was talking about at the Sundance Film Festival was a documentary called Catfish, which followed Nev Schulman’s quest to find the mysterious woman he meets online. Directed by Henry Joost and Nev’s brother Ariel Schulman, the film created enough discussion that the directors were recruited to helm the third and fourth installments of the Paranormal Activity franchise.

Their latest film Nerve is an action-thriller about an internet game that allows the users to either be Watchers or Players, the latter being challenged to a series of dares in order to earn money. Emma Roberts plays Vee, a fairly bookish high school student who becomes intrigued by the game enough to enter as a player, mainly to prove to her best friend that she’s able to get out of her comfort zone. Vee is soon paired with one of the game’s top players, Ian (Dave Franco), as the two work together to overcome more elaborate and dangerous challenges.

Den of Geek sat down with Joost and Schulman a few weeks back for the following interview.

(As luck would have it, Joost and Schulman’s earlier horror film Viral will also be getting a limited release on Friday this week.)

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Den of Geek: I think the biggest surprise for me is when I got to the end of the movie and saw that it was based on a book, because it seems like a concept very well suited for a movie. Were you both involved with developing it from when it was a book? How did you get involved?

Henry Joost: When we first read it, it was already a screenplay, but we worked with the writer Jessica Sharzer a lot on developing it and making it as modern as we could. One of the things that we changed was instead of having it be a faceless corporate villain, the way it is in the book, we changed it to all of us and it’s the idea of the Watchers, that everybody watching is collectively the villain.

Had you read the book beforehand?

Joost: Read the screenplay first, then read the book. Worked on the screenplay for a while with Jessica.

Ariel Schulman: Over a year.

Joost: Yeah, and then got a green light.

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You now have two movies coming out the same weekend. I haven’t seen Viral yet, but it’s interesting to see you go from the Paranormal Activity found footage thing to go to something like this, which is still using a lot of technology. I assume you shot with iPhones and Go-pros and stuff like that?

Schulman: Yeah, there’s some cellphone footage, some Go-pro footage, anything to make it feel authentic.

Joost: I mean, it’s a traditional movie, but we tried to make it feel as exciting as those videos do on YouTube and have it feel modern and point-of-view and accessible.

Schulman: It’s been a pretty organic evolution for us from Catfish to found footage horror movies to a classic narrative movie that still incorporates home video.

Having not read the book yet, there’s so much technology involved, things we use every day, so was a lot of that from the book, too, or did you have to bring that stuff into it to make it more visually interesting

Schulman: That’s the concept of the book. The book had a really simple concept that makes for a great genre thriller. I think the book was written before “apps” were an everyday part of life, so it’s not technically an app in the book, it’s a website. As we’re developing the script and everything becomes an app, it becomes even more realistic.

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It was also interesting the visuals you used like the meters over the city, so how did you develop that stuff?

Schulman: Just trial and error. Graphic design changed over the course of development and shooting and editing to something that we asked ourselves if we were developing this app, what would be the visuals that would feel contemporary and also work efficiently, and you start to realize why apps that are successful have really good, simple designs that are easy for the world to recognize. Periscope and Instagram have really great layouts that catch your eye and are intuitive, so a five-year-old can learn it in five minutes.

Let’s talk about casting Emma Roberts and Dave Franco. How did you know that they’d have chemistry together?

Joost: We didn’t know that they had chemistry together, but we met each of them individually and really liked them. They were kind of interesting sides of the coin in their social media involvement. Emma is super-involved, Dave is not at all. He doesn’t have any social media presence, and they’re both just young, smart, curious actors who are down to collaborate, but it turned out they were old friends and they had just unbelievable chemistry right off the bat, which was a great gift to us and a great gift to the movie. But it was the kind of thing that people just couldn’t believe it, just sitting there at the monitor, we were like “These two…”

Schulman: “They should get married!”

I’ve been writing about movies since Emma’s been doing them so to see her going from Nancy Drew to movies like Scream 4 and the TV show Scream Queens, she has a personality that makes her instantly likeable. That’s often hard to do, and in this, she has to get the audience behind her right away.

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Joost: I think she’s very self-aware and she’s very smart, and you can sense that and it makes her a relatable heroine.

There’s a lot more action in this than I would have expected, such as the motorcycle scene. Is this the first time you guys worked with stunt people to this extent?

Joost: It’s definitely the first time we’ve done true action sequences. We did stunts with the Paranormal movies, which is a lot of getting dragged out of bed kind of stuff, but as a fan of action movies, it was like a dream come true, to finally be able to build up sequences like that with the resources that you need to make a big action sequences.

What about shooting in New York? I don’t know if you filmed the whole thing here but there were certain things that had to be New York.

Schulman: The whole thing’s shot here.

The whole thing? Nice. So how was it doing that?

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Schulman: I guess it’s a little more difficult to make a movie here, so less and less movies are shot here, but I think we just fought for it and said that if “Nerve” was real, it would pop up in New York City. It seems like the right place for this game to happen. One of our producers, Anthony Katagas is sort of a New York City wunderkind, is that the right word?

Joost: He’s a child.

Schulman: No, that’s a “wonder child.”

Joost: He’s an amazing child producer.

Schulman: He was the only guy who could figure out how to do it for approximately the same budget in the city. Otherwise, it’s just a couple million dollars more. I think we decided it would be less shooting days, it would be more difficult and more stressful but worth it.

Joost: And we signed up for that. For some reason, it feels fresh to have a movie set in New York, but I think it’s for that reason that things are set in New York but are shot in Toronto.

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For me especially, I can always tell what parts of a movie are shot in New York and what parts aren’t.

Joost: It makes me really sad to watch those movies.

Schulman: I remember why the decision seemed important. We figured if we’re making a movie for millennials about the internet, it has to be authentic. If it has even a whiff of falsehood, they’ll call us out on it and boycott the movie. That went for how the internet functions, and it also went for where it’s shot. If we’re trying to fake New York City, we’re lying right off the bat.

You mentioned making the movie for millennials, and you guys have been good at making movies for younger audiences, for teen moviegoers especially, and that’s hard to do. Back in the ‘80s, you had John Hughes, and there’s always movies that try to connect with them but they fail. I’m curious how you ended up going in that direction and being in tune with that teen audience?

Schulman: We just sort of stopped developing around 18.

And you also have a 6-year-old producer, too

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Schulman: Yeah, right. (laughs)

Joost: He kept us grounded in reality.

Schulman: Our six-year-old producer and his four children.  There were a lot of kids on set, and there’s no rules against that in our movies. Henry, whenever he sees a teenager, he grabs him by the suspenders and shakes him, demanding answers. “What’s it like? What are you listening to?”

Joost: What are you doing?

But trying to find material that will connect with that younger audience is hard these days, and I imagine it’s just as hard to get them to sit in a movie theater for a couple hours. 

Schulman: Yeah, but I really believe that social media is not a millennial issue.

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Joost: It’s everybody.

Schulman: I think my parents are more obsessed with Instagram than I am, and I find that I’m telling them to put the phone down, more than they would tell me. What social media offers speaks to everyone, which is this connectivity.

Going back to Catfish, I was curious how that became a sensation. At this point, “catfishing” is…

Schulman: A thing.

Yeah. Did that term actually start with your movie?

Joost: Yeah.

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I’m not sure if because of the show, it’s happening less because people think they might get caught.

Schulman: No, more.

Can you talk about how making that documentary about Ariel’s brother became this sensation?

Schulman: It was a pretty wild way for us to begin our feature filmmaking careers. It was a tiny doc, shot right here in New York City for a couple thousand bucks, and it ended putting a word into Websters’ Dictionary. We didn’t start a phenomenon of catfishing, but we put a name on it, because it was happening.

Joost: And It’s been happening, even before the internet.

Schulman: I think it gave us a false sense of relevance for movies. It set a standard for us that we try to achieve with every movie, which is yes, it should be entertaining, hopefully it’s successful, but even better if it echoes a contemporary issue and leaves people with something to talk about.

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When were you making Catfish did you have aspirations to be these genre filmmakers and doing these movies?

Schulman: No, Catfish was an accident.

Joost: Yeah, not really. We just sort of didn’t know what we were doing and made a movie the best we could. Of course, we had abstract dreams of making movies one day, but never thought it would happen like that.

Is it harder to do movies like this with a studio and a budget? You talk about how fast you had to make the movie in order to shoot it in New York, but sometimes making movies fast makes them better since you’re not spending months overthinking things.

Schulman: Nothing’s faster than Paranormal movies, though. That was six months from page 1 to release.

Joost: It was wild. That was a crash course in filmmaking.

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Schulman: This was a pleasure. Lionsgate was awesome.

Joost: Yeah, I think this was the most fun we’ve had since Catfish and the most support we’ve felt. Having the studio behind us and in the same line with the movie we want to make was really helpful. In some ways, it’s harder because it’s a bigger machine you’re working with, but in a lot of ways, it’s easier, too, because you have so many resources at your disposal.

It does seem like it could be a fun movie to make because of all the characters and locations. Is the movie Viral something you made before this one?

Joost: It’s something we did two years ago that’s coming out now. It’s a very low budget teen epidemic movie.

Schulman: Like Contagion for teenagers.

Joost: It is, I would say, a straight horror movie, so it’s a little different.

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Have you figured out what you want to do next? I’m sure that when you got the Paranormal Activity gig you had some ideas of what you wanted to do after Catfish so do you have things still brewing from back then?

Schulman: What do you think we should do next? We’re kind of open.

Joost: Any ideas?

I’m probably a little too old to be your producer, because I’m not six.  Did you just finish this recently?

Joost: Pretty recently…

Schulman: Delivered it a couple weeks ago.

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Joost: We read a lot, we research a lot, we talk to a lot of people. We always have our ears open, and we just kind of wait for a story to grab us.

And you’re still involved with the Catfish show on MTV? What’s involved with producing that while also making the movies?

Schulman: That’s a well-oiled machine at this point.

Joost: We’re about to start airing the second part of Season 5 and start shooting Season 6. It’s happening.

Schulman: It gets harder to cast as people are more and more aware of the show. It’s still happening, but people are trying to catfish the show more.

Joost: We are expanding to international versions of the show, which should be interesting. We’ll see how it works in different cultures.

Nerve opens nationwide on Wednesday, July 27.