'Unsane' shows anyone can make an average film on an iPhone

Review: An iPhone may have gotten Steven Soderbergh's latest film made fast, but the results don't necessarily serve the story.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Fingerprint Releasing/Bleeker Street

If you've ever fancied yourself the next Steven Soderbergh, his new movie "Unsane" shows all you need is a phone.

Unfortunately, this low-tech psychological thriller filmed on an iPhone 7 Plus demonstrates that even an Oscar-winner like Soderbergh can make a distinctly average movie.

"Unsane" is certainly an interesting case study. It shows filmmakers can produce something professional with just a handful of chums and kit costing little more than a couple of hundred bucks, if that. Unfortunately, the results are probably more satisfying for the people who made the movie than for the audience.

Soderbergh's latest stars Claire Foy from "The Crown" as a young woman in a mental health clinic questioning her sanity. The story owes a debt to hospital-set "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" and "Shutter Island", only it's more lurid and low-budget. Call it clinicsploitation.

Taking barely more than a dozen crew members to an abandoned hospital north of New York City, Soderbergh filmed with his iPhone by day and cut the footage by night. At the wrap party, cast and crew went bowling while the "Ocean's 11" director huddled in the corner editing on his laptop -- and by the time the last bowling pin fell, he was able to show his stars a complete version of the movie.

But you need more than a phone and a laptop to make a good movie. You also need a good story, and that's where "Unsane" wobbles. 

Writers James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein cooked up the screenplay in 10 days, and it features an underwhelming and familiar plot. The film leans hard on the question of whether the main character is crazy, but answers that question far too early, draining much of the tension.

Fingerprint Releasing / Bleeker Street
Enlarge Image
Fingerprint Releasing / Bleeker Street

Director Steven Soderbergh trains his iPhone on Claire Foy in "Unsane".

Fingerprint Releasing/Bleeker Street

So why use an iPhone? 

"I knew at some point I would make a movie with this technology because I looked at it as the future," said Soderbergh, who's been playing around with phones and lenses for years. The phone kept the production nimble: Without cumbersome camera equipment, complex lighting setups or any of the other myriad elements of a traditional production to slow things down, the filmmakers could crack through shots and scenes much more quickly. And the small camera could get right into the action.

"The iPhone created a greater intimacy," said co-star Juno Temple. "You would sometimes forget it was there. It could be put into places that would make the scenes up close and personal."

For "Unsane", Soderbergh used three iPhone 7 Plus phones, shooting 4K video with an app called FiLMiC Pro controlling shutter speed, colour and focus. A few scenes were shot using just the phone on its own, but the rest of the time it was souped up with clip-on Moment lenses and a hand-held DJI Osmo stabiliser -- essentially a fancy selfie stick. All the filming equipment, including microphones and spare batteries, fit in one backpack. 

"Our biggest logistical challenge with regard to the camera department was not misplacing the pack," producer Joseph Malloch joked. 

Enlarge Image

Claire Foy gets to grips with a more old-fashioned phone.

Fingerprint Releasing/Bleeker Street

So filming on a phone is great for the people making the film. But what about what the audience sees? 

"It was my intention that the resulting movie be one that any person can go to a theatre and watch --  and have no concept of what it was shot on, or care, because it looks like a normal film," Soderbergh said. Being an established name, Soderbergh was able to nail the first bit. Producing the film through his own production company, Fingerprint, and distributing it through 20th Century Fox, meant people could indeed go to a theatre and watch "Unsane".

But it definitely does not look like a "normal" film.

Smartphone cameras are only recently dabbling in what's known as "bokeh" -- blurring out the background. Generally, video shot on a phone starkly records everything, with the background almost as crisp as the foreground. That gives "Unsane" a very different look to most movies in which backgrounds are often artfully softened to focus on the film's stars.

The distinctive phone-shot look really works in "Tangerine", the critically acclaimed 2015 also shot on an iPhone. "Tangerine" is about life on the streets, so the background teems with random passersby and signs for drug stores and bailbondsmen. This crammed-in urban minutiae complements the story and performances, making the street feel alive and vibrant like an extra character in its own right.

The crisply detailed background gives "Unsane" a harsh, hyperreal feel that neatly evokes the story's chillingly clinical suspense. The characters can't hide from the lens. But when the film tips its hand later on, the stark and crisp visuals begin to feel matter-of-fact. After blowing the twist, events get increasingly lurid and stylised but the visuals still look very real, lifting us out of the story.

There's nothing wrong with seeing phone footage on the big screen, but we are used to seeing it in a certain way. Whether it's on YouTube or Instagram Stories or on a friend's Facebook feed, phone video is usually raw and uncut. "Tangerine", for example, was much more naturalistic than "Unsane", bobbing on the characters' shoulders with unobtrusive editing. 

By contrast, Soderbergh edits "Unsane" with changes in shots and angles, like a "proper" movie. Once again it creates a jarring and unsettling effect, but it also lifts you out of the story.

"Unsane" opened in the US and UK last week, and will continue to roll out around the world through July.  

2018 sci-fi, fantasy and geek movies to get excited about

See all photos

Tech Culture: From film and television to social media and games, here's your place for the lighter side of tech. 

Apple: See what's up with the tech giant as it readies new iPhones and more.