Are you a player or a watcher? Surprisingly, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost don't know how to answer this question. Considering it's the proposition of their latest internet-age thriller, Nerve, they take a few minutes to ponder their options.
"A little bit of both," Schulman tells MTV News. "Can you be both?" his good friend and directing partner Joost asks. After several moments of silence, Schulman says, "No, no, I'm a player. I can't turn down a dare. I'm incorrigible. I'm the kid who did dumb shit in high school because people dared me to do it, and I wanted the attention."
As for Joost, he's still not sure. "I don't know what I am," he says. "Who am I? Part of me is a watcher. We started out making documentaries." It all sounds so simple when he puts it like that.
Evidently, Schulman and Joost wouldn't make it very far in Nerve, the anonymous game of increasingly dubious dares at the center of their film of the same name. Players, well, play Nerve for money, while watchers pay to subscribe, observe, and suggest dares.
The directors, who previously helmed the hit documentary Catfish, have built their unnerving canon by deconstructing internet culture, exposing the ways technology can simultaneously empower and endanger its users. Nerve is no exception. With its neon palette and seedy undertones, Nerve is an unsettling viewing experience for watchers and players alike.
In Nerve, Emma Roberts plays Vee, a mousy high school senior in the middle of teenage identity crisis. Tired of being perceived as a watcher by her friends, she signs up to play Nerve on a whim. What begins as fun and games and couture dresses -- as she partners up with an enigmatic player named Ian (Dave Franco) -- quickly turns into something wildly dangerous as the dares become increasingly more life-threatening. Think Risky Business meets The Game.
MTV News talked to Schulman and Joost about the film's nebulous message, why internet storytelling is the most interesting medium everyone's too scared to use, and the sexual Nerve dare they were smart enough to cut.
Having started your career filming documentaries and having since directed a few Paranormal Activity movies, this is kind of like your first linear narrative with a clear protagonist and anonymous antagonist. There's even a bit of highly stylized romance. Was that a new challenge for you guys?
Ariel Schulman: Yeah, this is our first big movie with movie stars. It felt very organic for us. We were ready after Catfish and a couple Paranormal movies. We had been honing our skills, and the subject matter was just right for us. It helped that the actors were really great.
Those high-adrenaline dare sequences were really cool, particularly Vee and Ian riding a motorcycle through New York City while blindfolded. It's also very different for you guys. The scope is obviously a lot bigger on this one.
Henry Joost: I think you see a lot of things on the internet that are so much more exciting than most action movies, and that's what inspired these dares. But when it comes time to recreate them in a movie, you come up against all of these legal and safety obstacles. You can't just climb a crane in New York City. You can't just race a motorcycle down the street. So we tried to keep it as safe as possible without sacrificing the fun action.
Schulman: There are really strict speeding laws in New York City. It used to be 35 mph and now it's 25. And when you shoot on the street, you have to have a police escort. We said, "We've got to go as fast as possible. Maybe even break the rules a little bit." So one thing we could do was have a large part of that stunt take place in a tunnel because we knew the police escort wouldn't follow us into the tunnel.
Nerve definitely addresses many of the themes of your previous work. What makes these themes ripe for storytelling?
Joost: Most things aren't black and white. The internet is neither good nor bad; it just depends on how you use it. I think there's a way of looking at Nerve as a really empowering game, and it's also the most awful thing that you can possibly imagine. I think that applies to a lot of things online and the ways we're living our lives these days.
You guys worked with screenwriter Jessica Sharzer to come up with the dares in the film. Were there any that you had to cut that were maybe too dangerous?
Joost: There was a sex dare, which I think if you've spent time on the internet, particularly the darker regions of the internet, then things tend to head in that direction.
Joost: So it seemed to us that the game would probably push in that direction given enough time, but it was ultimately just too dark and weird.
Schulman: It may have pushed it to an R rating.
Joost: It was just too weird for a PG-13 movie.
Schulman: Yeah, and it was important to us that the movie stay PG-13, just because we wanted to make sure that younger teenagers could see it. We think it has an important message and they'll dig it. There's definitely an R-rated version, but I think it might be too exclusive.
Joost: We weren't interested in making a gross torture movie.
It's interesting that you say that because there was moment where I thought that was where Sydney's (Emily Meade) story line was headed. She tells her watchers that they need to give her a more worthwhile dare and that she'd do anything to make it to the finals. So for a second, I felt uneasy about it — like, Oh no. I don't want to watch this girl be victimized. I was happy that it didn't go in that direction.
Schulman: We definitely considered that direction in development, but you're right, we just didn't feel good about it. That's why it takes a year and a half to make the script right. Sydney originally went down a very different path.
Sydney is definitely a character whose entire sense of self-worth comes from the internet — the friends she makes online, the number of likes she gets, the number of watchers she has, and so on. How do you portray that without being condescending about it? Because I think a lot of people might be inclined to write her off as just another selfie-obsessed Gen Zer.
Schulman: I think the internet feels like high school. If you look at any social network, it looks like a high school cafeteria. Everyone is just screaming across the table. So I don't think you ever have to worry about aging out of that culture. It's rendered us all a similar age. Internet bullying is not just something teenagers do.
You also utilized a lot of these social media apps and platforms in the film. There have already been comparisons to Unfriended, in which everything we saw was limited to whatever was on the protagonist's computer screen. Obviously, Paranormal Activity is another found-footage genre. Why do you think there's still a stigma against the way social media is used as a storytelling element?
Joost: I really liked Unfriended but it doesn't really reflect the way that we all live our lives, which is on and off-screen. There's something inherently un-cinematic about cell phones and screens if they're not used in the right way, but they've become such an organic part of our lives that I think you can't really make movies without them right now. We really try to make it feel as seamless as it does in your everyday life, where every few seconds you're switching between a screen and real life.
Schulman: And that's been a big part of our career, starting with Catfish. We don't want to shy away from our characters' screen lives.
Joost: I think people have shied away from it, and it's created a deficit in internet storytelling, which I think are the most interesting stories out there right now.
How did you choose which moments were appropriate for these second-screen moments?
Joost: I do think there are parts of the movie where you're not really sure if you're watching from the point of view of a character or an actual watcher filming something, and that's a fun thing to play with.
Music is also a huge part of the film. There are times it felt like a 90-minute music video, which I loved. What kind of vibe were you going for when choosing the music?
Schulman: We learned a lot from our music supervisors, Randy Poster and Meghan Currier. It was a really serious process. We knew that we needed to have a killer soundtrack that felt fun and contemporary and big-budget. So it's the first time we ever made a movie with that kind of goal in mind. Catfish only had music that was organic to the story, and Paranormal Activity had no music, as a rule, and this one just seemed like the right opportunity to have a great soundtrack.
Joost: And a great electronic score from Rob Simonsen.
Schulman: Part of that was, if the game of Nerve was kind of underground and dark web, then the music couldn't be the most obvious pop music. It had to be a little underground itself. And you want artists who you might have heard before or maybe you hadn't. Maybe it's someone you'd dig in a year, like Melanie Martinez. When we heard "Soap," we knew we wanted it to be in the movie. So those were the parameters we set. And then there's Roy Orbison's "You Got It," which Dave Franco sings in the beginning. That was just fun for everyone involved, especially Dave, who, despite his performance, is not a singer.