Critically acclaimed director, screenwriter and producer Steven Soderbergh is once again doing something completely different. Hot on the heels of 2017 heist caper Logan Lucky, that and his latest film Unsane couldn’t be further apart Unsane is a deeply unsettling story of a young professional drawn into a living nightmare after she seeks medical help in a new city. Claire Foy – best known for role as Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s hugely popular The Crown – plays Sawyer Valentini, a woman tormented by her past and possibly her own mind. Here, Soderbergh talks about the making of what looks set to be a classic psychological thriller.
Claire Foy has an amazing ability to convey internal conflict. Did you know her from The Crown?
I’d seen The Crown and I’d seen Wolf Hall. But one of the things I loved about the idea of her doing this is it seemed like a great opportunity to sort of annihilate all of her work on The Crown. When I watch the movie, I forget it’s Claire. She’s so different in this, in every particular, that I literally at times forget.
Unsane deals with a threat to a woman and feels particularly timely – well, it’s sadly forever timely. Did that play into the decision to do this?
This came entirely from [screenwriters] Jonathan [Bernstein] and James [Greer]. I don’t know if they had a discussion about the gender power dynamics that exist nowadays and the fact that technology increases those inequities, when somebody predatory uses the technology to their own end. And the kind of social commentary underneath it all about how the healthcare system works. I don’t know if they sat around saying we should do something that isn’t entirely disposable, that has some sort of quiet resonance so that when people leave the theatre it just doesn’t disappear from their minds. I was certainly happy that the movie had these other things going on that were kind of leaking in from the corners.
The film deals to a degree with healthcare and mental health, which is something you touched on in your 2013 film Side Effects. Is that of particular interest or is that just coincidence?
I think it’s just coincidence, although it is something that I’m interested in generally just because it affects everyone. And, at least in the US, there doesn’t seem to be any daylight going forward in terms of a solution. We had something in place that was imperfect but was better than nothing. And now that’s partially dismantled. It’s still unclear exactly what aspects of the healthcare system that was created are still relevant and in operation and which ones aren’t. It’s very confusing, which for people whose lives depend on this is terrifying.
You used an iPhone – with lenses and a rig – to capture the film and shot using natural light. Was that an adjustment for the cast?
You’d have to ask them if it was weird to look in front of them and see this tiny thing rather than huge cameras. They didn’t really seem to care as far as I could tell. They certainly liked the efficiency of it. Because it meant they spent 90 percent of their day acting. Claire has just seen the film, and she wrote me an email that indicated that she was very happy with how it all turned out. I viewed it as a very significant moment in my own personal journey. There were so many aspects of working with this technology that were positive. I knew immediately that I was going to do it again. And I started thinking about what kinds of projects that I’m developing in which I wouldn’t take this approach…
Unsane is incredibly unsettling. Why do you think we like to be unsettled and to be scared?
I think if you listen to the various social psychologists that weigh in on that subject, they’d tell you there’s a part of us that gets pleasure from this vicarious experience. That your brain is actually getting to exercise certain muscles in a safe space and that in a weird sort of way, it’s enjoyable. I think a good movie is both immersive and transportational. I want to feel completely enveloped on every level. And it really is a form of consciousness melding with the person who made the movie. So when I see a film in which all of the tools available to create that experience are not utilised in an intelligent way I get angry. I mean, what’s not on the list of all these things that I watch every year are the numerous things that I start and don’t finish.
How do you want audiences to feel after seeing this?
Like they got a meal and they were satisfied. And that’s not a small thing, because most people who go to see a film like this will walk in with an expectation that’s built upon many, many other films in this genre that they’ve seen and liked. Or not liked. And so my sincere hope, whether they found it unsettling or darkly humorous, is that they just feel satisfied.
Unsane is out in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday April 19.