Martin Carr speaks with writer-director Veena Sud and series lead Dane DeHaan about Quibi’s The Stranger…
The idea of Maika’s character coming to LA and being exposed to homeless, racism and so many other things really stood out to me. Was it important for you to show those sides of Los Angeles?
VS: The whole desire behind the LA of The Stranger was an LA we don’t traditionally see on the big screen. So it was an LA which speaks to homeless, to brutality and the non-glitz of Hollywood and also speaks to a city that many of us who live here may not know. (Ultimately) it is my love letter to Los Angeles.
Carl is very insular in his anger towards Maika’s character from the get go. How was the experience of playing someone so deviously mean?
DD: I think of the fun things about the job of just being an actor is sometimes you get permission to just misbehave. We certainly had a really trusting, loving and kind set which really helped bring this thing to life. So although the insular aspect of Carl’s character is not something to necessarily be glorified, it is an interesting aspect of society and within that it can be really fun to misbehave for a living.
Can you tell me about the inspiration behind The Stranger and why you developed it for Quibi?
VS: Interestingly enough The Stranger didn’t bloom on its own. It was really the first story I have ever written which was determined and borne from the actual palette I was given. I was not sure what Quibi was, wanted to meet with Jeffrey (Katzenberg) and he explained it to me and all of a sudden it was this revelation that I could play in a very different type of storytelling sandbox. So knowing these would be quick bites of story and that a cliff hanger at the end would be ideal, the screen would be small and thus what was in it would have to be deeply compelling, which is where The Stranger came from. Then the other thing I had been thinking about a lot was the election of 2016 and the anger a lot of people feel around what happened. Dumbest man in America beating the smartest woman in America; so that was my nod to that.
How did you find your character and what was that process like for you?
DD: It all happened fairly quickly but still more quickly than I am used to, or necessarily prefer a project to come together. As I didn’t have a ton of time to research, to do the things I always love to do; not that there wasn’t time for that but there was some. But I think Veena created the character so vividly on the page and he talks so much and I feel a lot of the characters I play are much more stylised than Carl E. (Whereas) Carl just talks and talks and talks (meaning) the research which came out of it was to do with my conversation with Veena, about the why as in why is he doing these things, which lead to conversations about algorithms, about being able to predict behaviour and Veena sent me some podcasts and quick studies. So I could learn as much as possible as quickly as possible.
What was it like working in this new format and working with Veena?
DD: I had a really awesome time and it was a fairly condensed schedule to what I’m used to and we shot for a total of five weeks, which is really short. Plus within that I was only there the first and last week and a half. So it had this real energy to the shoot as we had to work faster, but I was really also super into the Quibi of it all and that came from conversations with Veena and her understanding of the platform. I think if The Stranger had been a movie I’m not sure I would have been as into it as project as I was. Veena really took this platform and made it work in a way that was really innovative and exciting.
To what extent do you both think Carl E is the real threat in The Stranger?
VS: I think Carl E in the fictionalised world where we did take creative liberty in terms of what AI and technology is capable of doing Carl E is the tip of the iceberg right. He is just the beginning of what we already know as a society are the dangers around a technology that we’ve not created any ethics or perimeters around. Where someone like Carl E with his brilliance and his access that allow him to basically crack open this young woman’s life certainly reflects the reality we are living in today.
And for you Dane?
DD: Within the context of the story I certainly think Carl E is the threat. Technology and algorithms can be used for good or evil, while ultimately it falls into the hands of the person using them. I hadn’t necessarily played a bad guy in a long time when I signed up to do The Stranger and this is the first time I was playing a bad guy with a different outlook on the world and of people. With an understanding that there really are people out there who are bad and doing things for the wrong reasons, whereas before I would play characters who thought they were doing good and doing things for the right reasons. So I had a different world view going into this. So I certainly viewed Carl as the threat within the story.
Leading on from that to what degree do you think a social media presence is essential to personal identity today?
VS: You are asking someone who is not on Facebook and the only reason I have a Twitter is because my network told me I had to at one point. It’s a really good question and it’s a deeply personal one and I think it’s also for me personally just an ethical question about how much truth is there about what I put out in the public eye anyway; or any of us put out there. There are only twenty four hours in a day and do I really want to get stuck in the loop of pushing that rock up that hill that keeps rolling down. So for me it’s not necessary.
And yourself Dane what do you think?
DD: I think it’s just an individual thing. I think there is lot to be said for people that just put stuff out on social media and create identities that are not themselves, but I think also it can be used in a kind of incredible, informative and wonderful way as well. I really love my personal relationship with social media. I wouldn’t say I’m good at it but I also don’t stress out about it and I feel that I get a lot of useful information from it and I’m able to keep in touch with co-workers and friends overseas. But like anything with technology it’s the responsibility of the user to use it in the correct way, while it is certainly easy for a person to take control and use it for the wrong reasons.
Having had more time to develop character and story in your television work, how did you adapt yourself to writing in shorter beats and how quickly did each script come together?
VS: It was certainly a radically different experience than writing a thirteen hour season. Just the fact that the real estate was so different, that just necessitated a shorter amount of time at work but it also went really fast. From the development of the idea to actually being in edit was much faster than anything I have ever done in the past. The writing itself was this really interesting hybrid between a three act structure for film, a pilot for television and a ten minute act structure which we already do a lot in television. I wrote it as a film then went back and broke it up into ten minute episodes, then refashioning it based off this new iteration.
Do you enjoy watching villains on screen or were there any you thought back to as you were crafting Carl E?
DD: I never really base my characters off previous performances because it’s not part of how I craft a character. However, often times I feel the villains are the most interesting characters in the movies. When we were making this Joker came out and I think on a day off I watched a double feature of Ad Astra and Joker and obviously that was an amazing performance. Heath Ledger’s Joker is an amazing performance and Jack Nicholson in The Shining are the performances which come off the top of my head as being more showy, talky portrayals of the villain.
What was it about producing this story specifically for phones that enticed you and how did you utilise the limitations of the technology to tell the story?
VS: Content wise it was about holding someone’s attention span for a short time and urging them to come back again and again necessitated the story itself. I usually write very slow burn, very character based dramas so to play with this type of energy was really different. The actual technical aspects of having a screen shrink down to the size of your phone, meant many conversations around how to you create a world which feels as lush and rich as one would feel watching a much larger screen. What we realised really quickly was it would be the vertical format most people would be watching, so they will not have east or west, it will not be wide screen and so in order to feel the world they have feel depth. Which is why Claire is constantly running through different and very novel spaces like China Town plaza, like the train station which was to purposely create the depth on screen.
What conversations did you have around colour palette with your cinematographer?
VS: We talked in terms of world creation and going from naturalism and ordinary life, then as things develop and the reality of this chase goes on into the night creating richer and more Technicolor palettes. Then going for deep reds, bright yellows and oranges in the same way Dorothy left Kansas then walked into Oz, we wanted that move into a surreal world. Though we talked a lot about colour my palettes in the past have always been very cool, so this is a whole other adventure. Then in terms of a different aspect ratio and vertical versus horizontal screens we knew there was a capability in Quibi to do both. So we had to make sure that all the information from the screen was being transmitted to them and that they don’t feel like they are missing something. It is not as simple as shooting for widescreen then cutting, we actually had to play with eye lines and cheat the camera a little bit so they are straighter to the lens. All those subtle and not so subtle things were all talked about for a long time.
Being a psychological drama how did you direct your actors to approach the subject?
VS: It was such a pleasure working with Dane because Carl E came alive in a way which made him such a fascinating and human and terrifying man. Without going into really any backstory it was almost like I could understand the hate and misogyny, not by accepting it, but understanding the human being behind it. That makes it much more immersive than any type of cut out character and the conversations we had were always ultimately about the reasons. With the actors it was always talking about, not the psychology necessarily, but just talking about whatever they were doing at that moment which was interesting and the why behind it. Also conversations around Carl E’s intelligence and having control over Claire in what she was doing in the moment without her having knowledge of it.
How did you come round to casting Dane and Maika?
VS: Dane is someone I’ve wanted to work with for a very long time and first saw him in Place Beyond the Pines where he just broke my heart. So when the character of Carl E was borne I knew I was going to shoot for the fences and try to get Dane. In this role he brings so much humanity to the bad guy and Carl E is more terrifying because he is a human being who could be appealed to, but he has shut off that part of himself. I think every classic bad guy we love is someone with a broken heart. Who has turned deeply cynical and bitter and angry, which is what Dane brought to the character of Carl E. I first saw Maika in It Follows and Maika is an actress who shows up as the human being irrespective of genre, she and Dane both show up faithful and loyal to their character. That allows me to feel a lot more for a woman in peril if I sense that she has life behind her, which is what I felt for Maika’s character in It Follows. She was not doing anything clichéd as the woman in peril in that story and that’s what I wanted Claire E to be.
And finally Dane did you have a lot of interaction with Maika prior to filming?
DD: I don’t think there was any kind of intentional separation of us. I got to Los Angeles a week or so before filming and we spent a lot of time in a room together with Veena going through scripts, making sure we were all on the same page. It was a very traditional process and it is a luxury when you actually have time to sit down with everyone and rehearse. The only thing I did that was fun was Googling things about Maika when I was away from set and try to learn as much about her as I could, then within out actual conversations just ask her questions I already knew the answers to and see if I could lead the conversation using that information. This hopefully informed the performance and was a playful way of keeping the relationship on screen kind of similar in real life.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with Flickering Myth today and stay safe.
The Stranger is available to stream on Quibi now. Read our review here.