Unsane actor says iPhone movie removes barriers for filmmakers

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iPhone movie
Joshua Leonard on the set of Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Unsane.
Photo: Fingerprint Releasing / Bleecker Street

When director Steven Soderbergh set out to make a movie on iPhone, he cast an actor familiar with surprising audiences with a film shot with lo-tech cameras.

Astute film nerds will make the connection between Joshua Leonard’s first film with his most recent. Leonard, who plays a stalker in Soderbergh’s Unsane, was in The Blair Witch Project, a 1999 indie box office hit shot on digital video cameras.

Blair Witch is found footage from the cameras of missing film students who go deep into the woods to make a documentary about the legend of a witch locals say is responsible for disappearances and killings.

Unsane, which opens today in select theaters, is equally a psycho-thriller. It’s about a woman committed to a mental hospital not sure that her fears of a stalking ex-boyfriend are real or imagined.

Variety magazine said Soderbergh “embraced the freeing possibilities of both the iPhone and the B-Movie” with Unsane.

iPhone movie
Joshua Leonard
Photo: Courtesy of Brigade

Leonard appreciates the parallels of the two ground-breaking digital projects to which he is attached. But he is quick to point out the differences. While the video cameras were a part of the story in Blair Witch, it was also the vehicle that made the project affordable.

“(Soderbergh) approached this film with real specificity and not because he can’t afford (conventional) cameras,” Leonard told Cult of Mac. “He is a master of his craft and has proved himself in many genres. If somebody like Steve can make a film on iPhone, others will feel like they have the permission to do the same thing. There are no excuses.”

Soderbergh is not the first director to use an iPhone. There have been a number of well-received independent films shot with an iPhone, most notably Sean Baker’s gritty yet lush film Tangerine, which caused a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.

Baker had mixed feelings about Tangerine’s success. Baker would still rather work with celluloid film, A-list actors and a big budget. Now that the industry saw what he could do with the iPhone, would be asked to do it again?

Soderbergh, however, talks as if he is ready to set aside the old ways of filmmaking.

“I think this is the future,” Soderbergh said at Sundance in January. “I’d have to have a pretty good reason not to be thinking about (the iPhone) first. There’s a philosophical obstacle a lot of people have about the size of the capture device. I don’t have that problem.”

Leonard said it’s unlikely a cinematographer would use the iPhone to film to shoot an epic like the war movie Dunkirk, “but there are a lot of stories that can be told with this technology.”

Moviegoers knowing the film-making backstory of Unsane might assume Soderbergh needed several accessories, studio lighting, and software to get the film ready for the big screen.

Leonard said Soderbergh mostly hand-held the iPhone and shot “85 percent” of the film with available light. He initially thought Unsane would go directly to streaming but changed his mind about releasing it to theaters as he began to review footage at the end of each day of shooting.

“It was Steven Soderbergh holding the iPhone 7 with nothing else,” Leonard said. “As an actor, the camera doesn’t take up space in the room. There was no downtime between takes. It felt like one solid impulse all the way through.”