Ending an indefinite sabbatical, Steven Soderbergh has returned to the big screen with the iPhone-shot thriller Unsane, starring Claire Foy, Jay Pharoah, and Joshua Leonard. The film follows a woman who has been duped into signing herself into a corrupt mental institution and finds herself being stalked there by an ex-boyfriend posing as one of the employees. The Scope Weekly spoke to Joshua Leonard in an exclusive interview about the making of Unsane.
In less experienced hands, the film could easily have collapsed into camp. But Soderbergh brings an uncanny realism to an otherwise sensational, B-movie storyline, imbuing the film with the same eerie realism as previous features a la Side Effects and Contagion. As we reported in previous articles, for Soderbergh, the easiness of the technology – an iPhone 7 fitted with an anamorphic lens – makes him want to continue experimenting with moviemaking that way.
The public seems to agree. Unsane scored a fresh 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and thus far has grossed 5 million at the box office over its 1.5 million dollar budget. The film was notable for its fairly quick production schedule, principal photography occurring over just two weeks in New York. The project was kept “top secret,” in the words of star Joshua Leonard, even when Soderbergh’s casting director, Carmen Cuba, reached out to potential cast members. “I had been out of town working, and feeling really guilty because my wife was at home with our eight-month-old daughter,” Leonard said with a laugh, speaking to The Scope Weekly by phone. “I told her that I was honored to be thought of, but that it was not going to be a good time right now.” According to Leonard, this excuse shattered when Cuba finally said, “it’s Soderbergh, you f—er.”
Leonard, an actor, and director is best known for The Blair Witch Project, gives a memorably sinister performance as the film’s antagonist, David Strine. He was picked, according to Soderbergh, because of an earnestness the director saw in his film performances. “He felt that was a really important quality for the character to have,” Leonard explained further adding,
If all we focused on were the dark parts of David, then we’d be dead in the water.
As a result, Leonard approached the character’s obsession with something almost akin to mental illness. Instead of being “evil” per say, Leonard described him as broken by a lack of maturity, and a hopeless infatuation with the film’s heroine, played by Claire Foy. Because of it, the character lashes out in increasingly horrible ways at anyone who he sees as standing between them.
Acting one on one with Foy, he says, was a natural and enjoyable process. “One of the great things about working with somebody like Steven is he doesn’t hire jerks,” Leonard said. “Claire, who I only knew from The Crown, isn’t someone who I think of as a TV actor, but as a real actor. She’s this proper, well-trained British actress. And she could not have been a funnier, warmer, more giving scene partner.” He added, “As an actor, you rely so heavily on what the other person is doing when you look across the room because that is a key to making the relationship feel real. She’s just in it one hundred percent, all times. And because of the darkness of the material, it was really important not to be all silly about being method. So we would laugh and tell dick jokes all the way up to when the camera was rolling, then be right in the scene together.”
In spite of the film being first and foremost a genre piece, Unsane bears a striking similarity to other, elevated thrillers like Get Out, courtesy of its plot having sensational elements touching on real-life issues. Whereas in Get Out, the film was an exploration of the unintentional racism of middle-class white liberals, Unsane has a lot to say about the horrors of corporate privatization. Leonard said,
It was one of the things I really responded to in the script. The fact that without being a message film or heavy-handed in any way, it does horse its way into some really timely issues.
“The specifics are obviously a bit heightened for our movie, but there’s no denying the underlying idea that in privatizing health and rehabilitation, what is good for the board of directors and what is good for the patients become two very different things.”
Indeed, this particular undercurrent of the film rings truer than its genre-friendly content. The disturbingly evocative notion of stable individuals locked away for insurance extortions bathes scenes like the film’s brilliant night chase through the woods in a grim, almost-realism. In many ways, this harkens back to classic 70s pulp fiction a la Robin Cook, at the forefront of introducing the concept of the public service used for insidious means.
For Leonard, all this coupled with Soderbergh’s shooting style helped keep things grounded, and visceral. “Steven would only do one or two takes per scene, so there was just no time to get in your head,” he said. “You just did it, imperfections and all. That technique is primarily responsible for giving the film such a raw quality for the audience.”
Photo credit: Fingerprint Releasing / Bleecker Street
Unsane is rated R by the MPAA for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sex references.
Production Company: Regency Enterprises, Extension 765
Distributor: Bleecker Street, Fingerprint Releasing
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriters: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Producer: Joseph Malloch
Director of Photography: Peter Andrews
Editor: Mary Ann Bernard
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival.