A Pair of Lonely Keyboard Warriors Face off in Samantha White’s Desktop Horror ‘Friends Online’

Desktop horror has become prominent in recent years with films like Unfriended and Host tackling our inherent inability to unplug. Samantha White’s Friends Online follows in their footsteps but what sets it apart is its comedic aspects. Described by White in our interview below as ‘a cartoon come to life’, Friends Online engages with our understanding of online stereotypes and uses it to its advantage. White’s characters are as unsettlingly vibrant as the sets they inhabit with performances that equally match. Twelve Cabins logged on to speak with White about the inspiration behind her short, how she worked with her actors to develop their creepy personas, and the six months of hoarding that informed her set design.

What inspired you to create a film about chatroom culture?

Well, that was never really the driving intention; I wanted to create a film about loneliness, about desire and fantasy vs reality. The chatroom aspect of it was more of a narrative vessel to explore the themes and feelings I was trying to evoke. The film is quite short so I relied on the tropes of chatroom culture so that we’re able to go straight into the story, to the main character’s intentions and relationships and through his actions learn deeper aspects of him that perhaps even contradict the stereotype. If anything, the chatroom culture set the precedent of what was to come, the online social media age we live in now and though society’s relationship with online communication has changed somewhat, the loneliness, the designed personas we promote of ourselves and the ways we interact with each other behind the safety of a screen, haven’t changed that much at all. It’s even considered bizarre to be offline these days, especially for my generation, so ultimately, the film was born from a frustration of the ‘now’. It was just easier, and cheaper, to hark back to a simpler online age.

Desktop Horror has definitely become prominent in recent years but what I most enjoyed about Friends Online, which separates it from others within its field, is its comedic elements, was that an intention of yours from the beginning?

Absolutely. Though it might seem a bit unorthodox to make a comedy about online predators, the joke was always on them, on the absurdity and absurd behaviour they adopt when they think no one is watching. When pitching the film I would describe it as ‘a cartoon come to life’, because it’s very much a caricature of chatroom culture and I think that allowed us to be a bit funny, to ‘take- the-piss’ out of these characters, because, like, they’re not even good at it. The film also makes a bit of fun of the all too often over-sexualisation of young women in film/TV. As a teenage actress, I would often come across scripts where young women were given dialogue that was borderline ‘porn-esque’, naturally written by those who didn’t exactly interact with teenage girls and continued to perpetuate a stereotype that was hyper-sexualised and one-dimensional, which naturally I felt was a poor representation. The dynamic of this film allowed that hyper-sexuality to contrast quite well comically with what we actually witness in the film. I find there is something extremely cathartic and relatable about making a mockery of human behaviour, which I hope, in the end, is the defining take-away of this film.

How complicated was it to develop your own chatroom aesthetic?

Well, with the older online ‘look’ in mind I consulted with the Editor Marta Biancheri and Graphics Assistant Silene Madonna with the intention of embodying an early 2000s chatroom aesthetic that would be familiar to audiences but original enough that it didn’t resemble an existing online forum/website. The bare, bright and pixelated look that would contrast well with the dark rooms of the characters, the bright white screen being the dominating light source of their rooms, the only ‘hope’ in their lives. Highlighting their desperation and need to ‘connect’ with the others. The entire ‘chatroom’ which we see in the film was made in post and built by the editor, so hats off to Marta, she did a phenomenal job.

There’s a really strong sense of characterisation across each of your characters. How did you work with each of your actors to establish that?

Thanks, I’m very attached to these particular perverts. As I mentioned before, the film’s characters were designed to be quite ‘cartoon’-like, so working with playful and trusting actors on this project was really important to me, luckily we struck collaborative gold with this cast. So much of shooting was done with the actors reacting to an LED in front of them, without the others around to play-off, so we organised a long read-through a few days before shooting, allowing them to have fun with it, to improvise and react. Alex Blanchard who plays Stacey, was a really sincere and methodical actor who cared about Stacey a great deal, his ability to be vulnerable was so valuable to fully creating Stacey. During the casting, we would do lots of improvisation and miming and on the spot, these actors truly ‘went for it’, which is what I appreciated as a previous actress myself. Marc Susbielle, Eva Quinto, Felix Bruneau and Ginni Luckit came in ready and roaring with their own quirks, they just got it. Then of course we had the online voices of the two key characters, giving the fake online personas some life which I and a friend of mine voiced. I’ll let you guess which I voice.

Each of the rooms feels packed with character too, how did you approach set design?

I cannot even begin to explain how much fun we had building these sets. It started with drawings. I drew the rooms, the outlandish ‘theme’ of each character in detail, the trash, popcorn, you name it. We needed to ‘get’ these characters so early on that the opportunity to paint them with set-design was too fun to simplify. I had three criteria for each; firstly, each character had a colour. Stacey was blue, Ellie was red, etc. A cheat to evoke their mindset, so with that in mind, the tones for the walls, posters, pictures etc everything used had to aid the colour choice of that character. Secondly, details. My Production Designer Lisa-Marie El-Khoury tried to imagine living in these locations and then building off the initial drawings, keep adding, let’s make it as outrageous and disgusting as we can. Thirdly, our budget was minuscule. I did not have a generous budget going into the project and knew that when first conceptualising the piece, so I had to plan for what was affordable. The majority of the set design came from months of collecting old porn magazines, old desktop screens, cables, posters, cans, etc. My small Parisian apartment looked like a hoarders dream for a good six months before production started.

Looking ahead, what’s next for you?

Well, I graduated in Dec 2019 and returned to the UK in January 2020. Two months later the pandemic hit, so I’ve had plenty of time to write, panic, mope and plan for what could be next. I’ve written the first few episodes to an eight-part TV series called Piece Of Cake, which follows a matriarchal gang leader in 60s East-London, think Peaky Blinders meets the Carry-on film series. Lots of charm, cheekiness and heated gang rivalry. At this moment in time I am developing a short film called A Few Dollars Poor, a coming-of-age comedy set in 2000s Birmingham, where the day-dreams of an aspiring eleven-year-old cowboy weave into her reality. What’s next in the scope of post-lockdown? Whose to say, the industry and the world has had quite a shock but it’s also an exciting time, the unknown and unpredictable I find particularly intriguing and right now, dovishly enticing.

Friends Online was programmed by the Twelve Cabins team after being sent through our submissions route on FilmFreeway. If you’d like to see your film on our pages, submit here.

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