Streaming: Quibi's <I>The Stranger</I>
Issue: May/June 2020

Streaming: Quibi's The Stranger

Despite increasing awareness — and protests about — the stark gender inequality and lack of diversity in Hollywood, women directors still find it hard to get projects made, unless they choose to direct polite period pieces or light comedies. But the times they are a’changing, as evidenced by the career of Veena Sud. The Canadian-born, Indian/Filipino writer/director/producer (pictured) has built an impressive resume that defies the odds and traditional expectations. She’s happily embraced horror, crime and heavy drama in such projects as The Lie, her Emmy Award-winning series Seven Seconds and her Emmy-nominated series The Killing.

Now she’s embraced Quibi’s groundbreaking new mobile platform for her latest project, The Stranger. Starring Dane DeHaan ( A Cure for Wellness, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) as a psychopathic monster and Maika Monroe ( It Follows, The Guest) as his quarry, the intense slasher/horror series tells the story of an unassuming young rideshare driver who is thrown into her worst nightmare when a mysterious Hollywood Hills passenger enters her car. Her terrifying, heart-stopping ride with the stranger unfolds over 12 horrifying hours as she navigates the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles in a spine-chilling game of cat and mouse. 

Sud assembled a behind-the-camera team of collaborators that included DP Paul Yee, editor Philip Fowler, post supervisor Nanette Corbett and supervising sound editor Marcello Dubaz.

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, Sud talks about making the series and her love of post.

How did you get involved with Quibi?

“They came to me so I had a meeting with [Quibi founder] Jeffrey Katzenberg, sort of as a lark, as I wasn’t planning to do TV as I wanted to take a break. But within minutes of talking to him about his vision for the platform I was convinced I wanted to do it. It’s such a different type of storytelling from anything I’d done before, such a different sandbox to play in, a whole new format, and I was really excited to get involved.”

You’re well-known for your slow-burn approach, so how different was it tailoring this project for this new platform and an era of phone-viewing, as you also wrote this?

“It was a radical 180 for me, as I usually do stories that slowly build and that are built for a very big TV screen. The aspect ratio is wide-screen and I love cinematic, very visual storytelling, so to try and do similar things but for a screen that’s as small as your hand was a huge challenge. But very quickly I realized I’d be telling a different type of story – one that’s propulsive, high-octane and fast-moving, that’s also physically very different in terms of shooting from the way I’d worked before. The story itself demanded a ton of movement, as the hero woman’s on the run for over half the movie, and she’s moving through different physical spaces that we had to purposefully manage so that the visual experience would be as satisfying and lush as widescreen is.”

How tricky was it dealing with the 10-minute format and sustaining suspense?

“It was quite tricky and so different, and I began writing it as a very traditional three-act movie, and then I went through the script and broke it down into 10-page sections. So literally at each 10-page mark I’d stop and see where I was in terms of the story. Then that necessitated a re-imagining of certain points of the story, because if an episode ended on: ‘She’s eating an apple,’ I obviously can’t go out like that. So then I’d start to lean back into the episodic structure and the idea of a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, and the act structure of a TV show, which for me doing my one-hour dramas meant they landed approximately at the 10-minute mark. So it’s basically a hybrid of two structurally different types of storytelling. 

“And then after I did that, I also went over all the episode-outs, making sure they didn’t feel repetitive, but felt new and original. So that by Episode 5, the audience would still be on for the ride and not feel it was a one-trick pony.

The heroine hails from Kansas, she has a little dog, and there are a lot of references to The Wizard of Oz. Fair to say it’s a turbo-charged homage to that classic, coupled with a slasher/horror film vibe?

“Yes! It’s the story of Dorothy who meets Kubrick. He was a big influence on me, and there’s an homage to The Shining in the third episode with the long, creepy apartment hallway. And that was a real hallway, not a set.”

You have a great cast. What qualities did Maika and Dane bring to the mix?

“They both inhabit the truth of their characters as real people, so that makes the monster Dane plays even more terrifying, as he’s human like us. And he has such a broad range. What I love about Maika’s work and why I wanted her to play Claire is that she fully inhabits the trope of the ‘scream queen’ but makes it so multi-dimensional, because she honestly feels every moment of what the character’s going through. She’s not play-acting, and it’s a unique skill, and she went there for five weeks straight of night shoots, and had to be present every moment, which is very tough.”

Talk about the look you and DP Paul Yee went for. Obviously you had to really embrace the phone format and platform.

“Absolutely, and this story is 100 percent designed for your phone. So Paul and I spent a lot of time talking about the visual experience of this story as seen on a phone, and we were also very aware that people would hold the phone the way it was designed – vertically. That meant the aspect ratio would be radically different from the one at the theater or on your TV, and you’ll be getting far less real estate left to right. So Paul, me and our production designer Jenny Moller talked endlessly about how we could get depth and the lushness you get with wide screen. How do we have the physical spaces Claire is moving through feel like the Technicolor world of The Wizard of Oz? How do we find those locations – like Chinatown, the train station, the gas station and so on – that have natural infinity lines in them? Or do we create those infinity lines? 

“For the gas station shop scenes we actually pushed all the aisles closer together so that as the camera chases Claire through them it really heightens the surreal feel. Then we searched so long to find that long hallway, and you’d never shoot it in real life as it looks so weird and so unnatural, but as we needed that infinity line, it was just perfect for us. So the whole thing was a very radical way of shooting, and Paul and I also experimented a lot with eye-line in all our camera tests. We got eye-line far closer to camera than you do traditionally, and you just can’t design and shoot for this format in the traditional way.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was brutal, as for five weeks of night shoots we all existed like vampires. But it was fun too as I got to spend so much time in every nook and cranny of LA, which you can endlessly discover. It’s a megatropolis, with all these unknown things, like the underground subway which was a real one from the 1930s.”

Where did you do the post?

We cut at J/Kam Digital in Burbank, and Technicolor did the sound and color for us. I love post, as it’s where you do all the endgame rewriting, and I love the edit.”

Talk about editing with editor Philip Fowler. 

“He’s worked with me since The Killing, and we’ll spend hours discussing the characters and motives, and he’s very honest with me about what works and what doesn’t. He’s hugely collaborative and a key creative partner.”

What were the main editing challenges? How did you decide on the best length for each episode?

“Most of the lengths were baked into the script, so that was already our blueprint and we didn’t vary from that. The big challenges were tone and tempo, as they were so different from anything I’d done before. But Phil’s edited a very wide spectrum of stuff, so having his experience and guidance was so important. The other big one was cutting for the vertical aspect ratio, so we actually cut in the traditional horizontal mode and then we went back and re-imagined it all for the vertical cut, as we had two Quibi deliverables – vertical and horizontal. So we had to do a lot of post camera movement and swap out some of the wide shots.”

Talk about the visual effects shots. Who did them? What was entailed?

“Important Looking Pirates in Stockholm did all our VFX, and they were phenomenal. They really elevated our game. I hadn’t done a ton of VFX before, so it was a great learning experience. All the crashes and coyotes and the train scenes with the tracks were all VFX.”

Talk about the importance of the sound to you as a filmmaker.

“It’s really important to me, as I did radio journalism for a long time in my ‘20s, and Phil is also very sound-centric as an editor and builds it into his cut. We talk a lot about the sound design for each shot, so when I start post with my sound team I can be very specific about what I hear and want. I love the design aspect of it and it really is half the experience of all cinema. And Bobby Krlic did a great job with the score and creating so many cues full of dread and atmosphere.”

What about the DI. How involved are you?

“Tim Vincent is my colorist, and he’s also been with me a very long time. Grading is always crucial to me, and it was especially important on this as we wanted to go from a very ordinary look into this gradual hyper-surrealism and a cacophony of color, so we spent a lot of time playing with color and how it affected the story.”

Did it turn out the way you hoped?

“It did, although it had a lot of challenges.”

Despite all those challenges, it must have been a lot of fun?

“It was, and I think we’ve just scratched the surface. I’d love to see a bunch of 14-year-olds who’ve grown up on YouTube and smart phones create a whole new visual language for creating stories on the phones, as they’d probably come up with some really cool stuff. It’s very natural for them, and it’s a living thing – the way we see the world. That’s what was so exciting about the Quibi experience – playing with a whole new visual language.”

Do you want to do more projects for Quibi?

“I’d love to. It’s a real fun platform.”

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Considering that women directors were again shut out at this year’s Oscars, do you see much improvement in diversity in movies?

“Incrementally, but the fact is, our industry probably has the worst gender inequity numbers of any in the world — and that’s really bad. My advice for any woman trying to break in is, it’s a long game. Keep trying. Keep pushing.”