Many people often wish to escape to an at-times fictional, imaginary place, where they can escape their true reality and instead thrive in a world of make-believe. Whether that location is the glitz and glamour of filmmaking in Hollywood, or the more accessible world of the internet and social media, the initial benefits may be rewarding, the ultimate consequences can actually become dangerous. That life-altering experience of realizing another reality isn’t always as satisfying as it originally appears can be seen in the short-form crime thriller web series, ‘The Stranger,’ which stars Dane DeHaan as the threatening title antagonist.
The Fox 21 Television Studios show was written, directed and executive produced by Veena Sud. The 13-episodes of the first season of ‘The Stranger’ are now all streaming on the short-form mobile video platform, Quibi.
‘The Stranger’ follows an unassuming young rideshare driver, Clare (Maika Monroe, ‘It Follows’) as she’s thrown into her worst nightmare when a mysterious Hollywood Hills passenger, Carl E (DeHaan), enters her car. With the help of a gas station attendant she just meets, JJ (Avan Jogia), Clare’s terrifying ride and subsequent stand-off with Carl E unfolds over 12 hours. Along the way, she’s forced to navigate the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles in a chilling game of cat and mouse, in a desperate attempt to clear her name.
DeHaan and Sud generously took the time recently to participate in a press conference call to talk about starring in, and writing and directing, ‘The Stranger.’ Among other things, the actor and filmmaker discussed how developing and shooting the series for Quibi encouraged them to create a story and characters in a uniquely modern way, both creatively and technologically. They also mentioned how people sharing details about their whole lives and identities on social media, which may not always be true, allows predators like Carl E to have the ability to target them.
One of aspects of developing ‘The Stranger’ for Quibi, particularly the inspiration behind writing the series, was one of the first topics that Sud delved into during the conversation. She admitted that the drama “didn’t bloom on its own. It was really the first story I have ever written which was determined and born from the actual palette I was given.”
The writer also revealed that “I wasn’t sure what Quibi was, so I wanted to meet with (the platform’s founder,) Jeffrey (Katzenberg). When I did, 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,” she added.
“So knowing these would be quick bites of story, that a cliff hanger at the end (of each episode) would be ideal, the screen would be small and what was in each episode would have to be deeply compelling, is where ‘The Stranger’ came from,” Sud also divulged. “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. The dumbest man in America beat the smartest woman in America, so this show was my nod to that.”
While ‘The Stranger’ tells its story over 13 episodes, which is the average length of a limited television series, the scribe felt that penning the scripts for Quibi was “a radically different experience than writing a thirteen-hour season. Just the fact that it necessitated a shorter amount of time at work, it went really fast. From the development of the idea, to actually being in the editing room, was much faster than anything I have ever done in the past,” she confessed.
“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 refashioned it, based off this new iteration,” Sud also shared.
“I was also really super into the Quibi aspect of it all, and that came from conversations with Veena and her understanding of the platform,” DeHaan also chimed in about making the thriller show for the mobile streaming service. “If ‘The Stranger’ had been a movie, I’m not sure I would have been as into it as a project as I was. Veena really took this platform and made it work in a way that was really innovative and exciting.”
With Quibi being a mobile platform, Sud used the technology it offers for phones to also influence the way she told the story. “It was about holding someone’s attention span for a short time, and urging them to come back again and again, which was a necessity of the story. I usually write very slow burn, character-based dramas, so to play with this type of energy was really different,” she admitted.
“The actual technical aspects of having a screen shrink down to the size of your phone meant having many conversations about how we would create a world which feels as lush and rich as we would feel if we were watching a much larger screen,” the scribe noted. “What we realized really quickly was that most people would be watching in the vertical format, so they wouldn’t be watching in wide screen. So in order to feel the world, they have to feel depth. That’s why Claire’s constantly running through different and very novel spaces, like China Town plaza and the train station, which purposely created the depth on screen,” she also shared.
Further speaking of the locations where they filmed, one of the main driving forces throughout ‘The Stranger’s first season was the idea that Clare just moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a writer in Hollywood, where she’s exposed to such contemporary issues as homeless and racism. Sud noted that she felt it was important to show those sides of L.A. throughout the 13 episodes.
The filmmaker stated that “The whole desire behind the L.A. of ‘The Stranger’ was a city we don’t traditionally see on the big screen. So it was an L.A. which speaks to homeless, brutality and the non-glitz of Hollywood. It also speaks to a city that many of us who live here may not know. Ultimately, it’s my love letter to Los Angeles.”
With the drama show airing on such a new technologically-driven mobile platform as Quibi, and phones also playing such a vital part in driving the story’s creative conflict, the director also revealed that she thinks whether or not people have a social media presence is essential to their own personal identity. She admitted that she “doesn’t have a Facebook account, and the only reason I have a Twitter account is because my network told me I had to at one point. For me personally, it’s an ethical question about how much truth is in what I put out in the public eye.”
DeHaan also chimed in on the subject, saying “I think there’s lot to be said for people who put stuff out on social media and create identities that are not themselves. But I think social media can also be used in an incredible, informative and wonderful way,” he divulged.
“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. I’m also able to keep in touch with co-workers and friends overseas. But like any kind of technology, it’s the responsibility of the user to use it in the correct way. But it’s also certainly easy for a person to take control and use it for the wrong reasons,” the actor added.
Sud also discussed what the casting process was like for ‘The Stranger,’ particularly for DeHaan and Monroe. The director divulged that “Dane is someone I’ve wanted to work with for a very long time. I first saw him in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines,’ where he just broke my heart.
“So when the character of Carl E was born, 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. Carl E is more terrifying because he’s a human being who could be appealed to, but he has shut off that part of himself,” Sud noted. “I think every classic bad guy we love is someone with a broken heart, and who has turned deeply cynical, bitter and angry, which is what Dane brought to the character of Carl E.”
The filmmaker added that “I first saw Maika in ‘It Follows,’ and she’s an actress who shows up as the human being irrespective of genre; she and Dane both show up faithful and loyal to their characters. I can 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 to be in this story.”
Once DeHaan and Monroe signed on to appear in ‘The Stranger,’ the acting duo was able to spend some time together to build their professional bond. “I don’t think there was any kind of intentional separation of us,” he admitted. “I got to Los Angeles a week or so before we started filming. 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’s a luxury when you actually have time to sit down with everyone and rehearse.”
The performer added that “The only thing I did that was fun was Googling things about Maika when I was away from set, and tried to learn as much about her as I could. Then within our actual conversations, I asked her questions I already knew the answers to, and see if I could lead the conversation using that information. This hopefully informed our performances, and was a playful way of keeping the relationship on screen kind of similar to the relationship we had in real life.”
Sud also discussed how she directed DeHaan and Monroe once they began filming the drama series. “It was such a pleasure working with Dane because Carl E came alive in a way which made him such a fascinating human and terrifying man. Without going into 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.”
The filmmaker added that “the conversations we had were always ultimately about the reasons. With the actors, we were always talking about whatever they were doing at that moment, and why they were doing it, which was interesting. We also had conversations around Carl E’s intelligence and him having control over Claire in what she was doing in the moment, without her having knowledge of it.”
Both Sud and DeHaan also both agreed that to some extent, Carl E is the real threat in ‘The Stranger.’ The helmer pointed out that “we did take creative liberty, in terms of what AI and technology is capable of doing, and Carl E’s doing with it is the tip of the iceberg. He’s 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. Carl E’s brilliance and access allow him to basically crack open this young woman’s life, which certainly reflects the reality we are living in today.”
DeHaan added that “Within the context of the story, I certainly think Carl E is the threat. Technology and algorithms can be used for good or evil, but that ultimately 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 people. For this role, I had 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 things for the right reasons. So I had a different world view going into this,” the performer also noted.
The actor also delved into how his character is very insular in his anger towards Clare from the beginning of the series, and what the experience of playing someone so devious was like throughout the shoot. “I think one of the fun things about 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,” the actor divulged. “So although the insular aspect of Carl’s character is not something to necessarily be glorified, it is an interesting aspect of society.”