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About The Production
The inspiration for Friend Request struck one night when German filmmaker Simon Verhoeven was at home checking his Facebook page. "It was a few weeks after one of my friends died," Verhoeven recalls. "I got a new message and started thinking it would be pretty freaky if this message were from my dead friend. All of a sudden I got goosebumps and thought 'Okay, this is a topic for a horror film.' "

Verhoeven, who wrote and directed the European action hit City of Men, winner of the 2010 Jupiter Award for Best Film, teamed with American writer Matthew Ballen and German scribe Philip Koch (Picco) to flesh out the concept of a haunted online community. "We live in a world where so-called friends click through massive amounts of information," says Verhoeven. "As a result, it's so simple to amass hundreds of followers who are not real friends. In this online arena, the likelihood of falling prey to illusions, or even delusions, is heightened."

Friend Request's story centers on those delusions. "Our particular film is about Marina's 'best friend' Laura, who is anything but that," Verhoeven says. "In a flash, this leads to catastrophe when the friendship transforms into disappointment and rage. From there, we infuse the little things that occur on Facebook with horror. Profiles leave tracks. They consist of all these photos and posts that can be like answers to a puzzle."

As a foundation for the supernatural aspects of the story, the writers incorporated the ancient legend of the "Black Mirror." As described in occult lore, including the 15th-century text Munich Manual of Demonic Magic, black mirrors are supposedly portals to other dimensions. Through the ritual of "scrying," devil worshipers go into a trance state and stare at a reflective service to contact demonic spirits. In Friend Request, Marina's ghost uses the "Black Mirror" ritual to terrorize Laura and her friends, partly through Facebook posts. "We wanted to tell an occult mystery story that could be transmitted through social media," Verhoeven says. "Those two ideas intrigued us, so we tried to combine them in our script."

Oscar-winning producers Max Wiedemann and Quirin Berg (The Lives of Others), who worked on several previous Verhoeven projects, were intrigued by the filmmaker's updated take on traditional horror. "We didn't set out to portray social media in an overly critical light," says Wiedemann. "It's more about taking this theme that's familiar to everybody and using it as an engine for the story. Simon is a very observant filmmaker and this script is great at showing real moments of life on the internet and the discovering that a social life online also has its dark side."

After reading the screenplay Berg was confident the online horror premise would resonate with audiences around the world. "When Simon told us the idea, it seemed like an exciting challenge to make the film with German talent while aiming for a global, international audience," he says. "Classic horror is often set in a 'comfort zone' where we feel most safe. Well, the comfort zone of our times is our social network, the digital extension of our home. It seemed like a fascinating setting for a different kind of horror film."


The makers of Friend Request found their star early on after Los Angeles-based casting director Tannis Vallely asked Australian actress Alycia Debnam-Carey to audition for the role of Laura. "Alycia was the third or fourth person who came in and I said right away, 'She's our main character,' " Verhoeven recalls. "We still had to see dozens of other actors but the more people we saw, the more we were convinced that Alycia was the one for our movie. She inhabited the role with such sensitivity that even without scenery and costumes, her star power was apparent. Alycia brought such a compelling intensity to the role that we pretty much built the rest of the cast around her."

Debnam-Carey approached Laura as a sweet, open-hearted character whose compassion ultimately gets her into trouble. "Laura lost her father, a psychiatrist, so she's picked up those qualities of wanting to support people and take them under her wing," Debnam-Carey explains. "This makes Laura vulnerable when she gets involved with this odd girl Marina."

Though she rarely uses Facebook herself, Debnam-Carey understands how social media can enable profoundly antisocial behavior. "It has become such a big part of daily existence now, you can't really escape it," she says. "Laura uses Facebook like a photo album to showcase her life and catalogue her memories. But that gets dangerous when she foolishly posts photos of her birthday party on Facebook and things start to go awry. Marina sees them and it's not just, 'Wow, here's the beautiful life I want.' She also has the feeling that she's never going to have that kind of life."


South African actress Liesl Ahlers underwent a complete physical transformation to portray demonic cyberstalker Marina. "The demon thing was actually quite a process because I had to get a full-body cast," Ahlers says. "They built the whole suit onto the body cast, plus I'm wearing contact lenses and fake teeth, which make it hard to talk. I kept biting my tongue the whole time! And because Marina has Trichotillomania and keeps tearing out her hair, they put bald patches onto my scalp. Oh, and I had a mechanical hand with gloves."

To complete the physical transformation to her demon incarnation, Ahlers walked around on stilts. "That was a big challenge," she says. "The moment I put on the stilts with the suit, I'd look at myself in the mirror and feel so powerful. There's this complete difference between the demon and Marina. As Marina, I hunch over and shut down whenever I walk around and people stare at me. But as the demon I feel like I can do anything."

Ahlers sees Marina's twisted behavior as an extreme response to rejection. "What I love about this character is that beneath this exterior, she's really a fragile, sensitive girl who longs for acceptance and love," says the actress. "I think everyone can relate to that. We all want to be accepted by people and to be loved. And to me, that's why Marina's so cool. I fixate on Laura because she's the first person who really accepts me and then when she lies to me, it's the ultimate betrayal. That's when things take a twist."


Rounding out the cast of college pals, filmmakers took pains to enlist actors who meshed well together. "For a movie like this, it's about finding the right chemistry for the entire group," producer Berg says. "It was incredible when we saw everybody gathered together on the first day because the cast was made up of all these very different personalities, but they all clicked right away." Verhoeven deliberately sought undiscovered talent for Friend Request to keep the cast free of celebrity baggage. "It was important to me that all the actors be relatively unknown faces," Verhoeven says. "For this film the audience needs to identify with the characters as ordinary people, and that's easier when they're not played by big stars."

Laura's clever computer-hacking friend Kobe is brought to life on screen by Connor Paolo. "He's a super wacky and fascinating guy," Verhoeven says. "Connor worked as a child actor with directors like Clint Eastwood and Oliver Stone. In fact, he's so proficient, sometimes I had to hold him back just to bring balance with the rest of the cast."

Brit Morgan, who got her big break in the hit HBO vampire series "True Blood," plays Laura's impulsive best friend Olivia. "The chemistry between Brit and Alycia worked really well," Verhoeven says. "Brit verges on crazy in the role, but it fits the horror genre and our film really well."

British actor William Moseley, best known for his appearances in the Narnia film franchise, plays Laura's boyfriend Tyler, a handsome medical student with heroic instincts. "We immediately liked William as the classic calming influence, the port in the storm," says Verhoeven. "He plays that reliable friend whom you trust unconditionally, who always makes everything all right. William brought a lot of acting experience to the table."

Laura's circle of friends also includes Gustavo, played by Sean Marquette, and Isabel, portrayed by Brooke Markham. "Brooke hadn't even finished acting school," Verhoeven says. "She had zero experience with films but she did a wonderful job expressing fear and terror."


Although Friend Request is set on and around a fictional Southern California college campus, most of the film's 35-day shoot took place in South Africa. "We found locations in South Africa that were quite similar to California," says producer Berg. "Local crews in South Africa are very good, as is the weather."

Verhoeven says he enjoyed shooting in Cape Town, where he had previously directed commercials. "I was familiar with the infrastructure and knew that a professional atmosphere prevails," he says. "The landscapes make really good stand-ins for other regions of the world and urban scenery can also be perfectly recreated."


To keep Friend Request visually arresting even at times when the action is taking place in cyberspace, the filmmakers devoted a great deal of time and energy to online imagery. For example, the macabre videos displayed on Marina's Facebook page were shot by a Berlin-based quartet known as The Horror Workshop. "Marina's Facebook page has video and images that are almost like an additional film within the film," producer Berg says. "We spent three-quarters of a year just making sure we had the right look for these images and effects."

Friend Request also features work by Hamburg-based Deli Pictures, which created the animated shorts posted by the artistically inclined Marina to showcase her creativity. Additionally, Verhoeven incorporated contributions from Munich animator Lutz Lemke. Working with editor Tom Seil, he populated Friend Request with a rich array of disturbing onscreen imagery. "We gathered a bunch of enthusiastic young people who invested a lot of time in these stylistic elements," Verhoeven say. "We didn't want to just show the actors staring at the screen and then cut to static pictures of the displays. We had to fill the entire visible surface of the computer screen with believable content, even if it only appears for a second. It took an immense effort to make sure every single image looked convincing to the audience."


Verhoeven enlisted British songwriter Gary Go to co-compose the Friend Request score with Martin Todsharow after featuring Go's track "Wonderful" in Men in the City. "I admire Gary greatly," Verhoeven says. "He had never scored a film before. As a result, he wasn't just reaching back to a tried and true model. Instead he developed a lot of ideas with great passion and ambition."

Nico Krebs and Ben Rosenkind added to Friend Request's eerie soundscape with the film's haunting sound design. "In Germany, I consider Nico and Ben to be the best guys in their field," Verhoeven says. "They worked with me on Men in the City and they are also big horror enthusiasts. The two of them had devilish fun. Nico searched out the oddest places to capture sonic atmospheres with his microphone, which he then mixed with other elements and matched to the visuals."


The film is a compelling amalgam of 20th-century horror movie traditions and contemporary social media elements. "Friend Request has everything a good horror film needs in 2017," producer Wiedemann concludes. "The main idea is basically a haunted profile. It's something fresh for this generation of horror fans."

Verhoeven expects audiences to be shocked in new ways when they see Friend Request. "It's a particularly relevant kind of horror movie because we portray everyday situations that everybody's familiar with," says Verhoeven. "Friend Request is not supposed to be a warning about the dangers of social networks. But incorporating these situations into the world of horror makes for some very modern scares. Nowadays, the horror audience has become so hardened, knowing when the scare is going to come to the point where it becomes a type of sport to predict it. But I think we'll definitely manage to catch the audience off guard."

Friend Request is also inhabited by people and relationships worth rooting for, observes star Ahlers. "Not only is the movie truly terrifying, but it has really interesting characters," she says. "You've got Gustavo, who's funny, and then you have Kobe, who's different and strange, and then Marina. We even have a love triangle between Laura, Kobe and Tyler. It basically has everything that you want to see when you go see a movie."


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