With social media continuously receiving debates about whether or not it truly brings people together, or causes them to lose the ability to truly emotionally connect with their peers, the fate of society’s future potential doesn’t bode well either way. This meaningful and evocative question is humorously and powerfully explored in the new independent dark bro-mance comedy, ‘Friended to Death.’ The feature film writing, directing and producing debuts of actress Sarah Smick is a witty, tongue-in-cheek satire about today’s hyper-connected world of social media, and the desperate attempts people take to realize who their true friends are.
‘Friended to Death,’ is now playing in theaters and on VOD, follows the extremes to which a desperate Facebook junkie will go in order to figure out who his true friends are. Obnoxious Los Angeles parking enforcement officer Michael Harris (Ryan Hansen) is fired from his dream job and ditched by his best friend, Joel (Zach McGowan). As a result, Michael begins to question whether anyone would care if he died.
With the help of his pushover ex-coworker Emile (James Immekus), Michael does what any social media-obsessed loner would do: he fakes his death online to see who will show up at his funeral. In just hours, Michael’s fake death post attracts a promising 22 ‘Likes.’ Eager to continue with the prank, Michael convinces Emile to help him stage a faux memorial service. But as plans start taking shape, Michael’s reality gradually implodes, forcing him to reconsider what it means to be a “friend” in today’s hyper-connected world of social media.
Smick generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Friended to Death,’ which she co-scribed with actor Ian Michaels, over the phone. Among other things, the writer-director-actress-producer discussed how she instantly knew Hansen was the right fit for the role of Michael, as he makes the character likable, even though he’s a jerk; how she cherishes the fact that the independent comedy has received continuous support and praise from audiences at the film festivals it has played at so far, including Cinequest, where it received a coveted encore screening; and how she enjoys going to the theater to see films, but also watches movies on VOD, which allows viewers to access a lot of great content that’s not available in cinemas.
Question (Q): You directed ‘Friended to Death.’ As the helmer of the film, what was the casting process like for the main actors?
Sarah Smick (SS): It was a little different for each actor. Our casting director, Nicole Arbusto, is fabulous, and brought in some incredible talent. She brought in the actor who played Emile (James Immekus), and from the first time he read, he was that character. We read other actors, of course, and had some really great talent who came in, but since James played it so perfectly, it was a no-brainer.
Angela Bullock, who played Emile’s mother (Charlotte), is an incredible actress. She’s so emotionally available, and is so truthful and honest in her acting. She’s African-American, and we had no thought going into casting into what the race would be for Emile and his mother.
We ended up saying, “What do we do? James is perfect for Emile, and he’s Caucasian. Angela’s perfect for his mother, and she’s African-American.” So I thought, we’ll just have to re-write the script, because we want to cast the best people for the roles! In the film, there’s a little bit that explains their different races. It’s suggested that Emile may have been adopted.
We were really open in the casting process, and wanted to bring the best cast together. We had written the lead role of Michael for my co-writer, Ian Michaels, to play, but he ended up portraying Kev. We had originally thought of Ryan, who ended up playing Michael, for the role of Kev, since he often plays jerky characters.
Then we had this epiphany when we had the opportunity to work with Ryan that he would be amazing as the lead. So we just flipped it on its head, and had Ian play Kev, and Ryan play the lead of Michael. He makes that character likable, even though he’s a jerk in a lot of ways.
We were very open in casting, and I think the result was serendipitous. I’m very happy with the cast.
Q: You also served as one of the producers on ‘Friended to Death.’ Why did you decide to also produce the movie? What was the experience of producing it independently?
SS: I think if you’re directing an independent film, you’re going to have to produce at a certain point. You don’t have the luxury of a ton of manpower behind you to help push it through. You’re always going to be your film’s best advocate, because you’re working on it, even when you’re not being paid. You continue working on it, even when you’re sleep deprived, and you don’t know if you can push on any further. You find yourself doing it, even if you’re not calling yourself a producer.
I think for me, the producing element really came in a lot during pre-production, and during pre-production, to an extent. But to be honest, the directing and acting was really my focus during production. During post-production, the festival circuit and the release and marketing phases, my producer’s hat has been on constantly.
Q: ‘Friended to Death’ has played at several festivals, like you mentioned, including Silicon Valley’s Cinequest, and this month’s Seattle True Independent Film Festival. What does it mean to you that the film has been accepted to the festivals? How have audiences at the festivals responded to the movie?
SS: We’ve received an incredible reaction at the festivals, which has been great. When you make a film, not everyone’s going to like it-that’s the nature of art and people. So we braced ourselves for that.
When we arrived at the festivals, we were thrilled to have gotten in. The film has a commercial feeling, and isn’t your traditional indie or “festival film.” Once we played, audiences were really receptive to the film. There were people who were excited to see the film, just based on a little blurb they had read in the program, or heard a friend mention it.
When we had our American premiere at Cinequest, we packed the house in a 500+ seat theater, which was amazing. The audience demand was so great, we were granted one of the encore screenings, which is a coveted achievement at Cinequest-only a handful of films are given an encore. We were blessed to have been received so well by audiences. We hope audiences keep enjoying the film, and can take something away from it, and can reflect on their lives and relationships.
Q: The film has received a theatrical and VOD release. Are you personally a fan of watching movies On Demand, and why do you think the platform is important for independent movies like that one?
SS: Yes, I think digital and On Demand sources of watching content are great. They allow a lot more films to reach audiences. But with that being said, it does make it more difficult to market your film, because there is a lot more content out there. So you need to be resourceful and find ways to make your film stand out. You really have to convey to audiences what’s unique about your film. It’s a difficult process, but thank goodness for those platforms that allow smaller films to really have a shot.
I personally really enjoy going to the theater to see films, not that I don’t watch movies on VOD or iTunes. That platform is really convenient, and it also allows you to access a lot of great content that’s not available in theaters. But if I get the opportunity to see an indie that I’m excited to see in a theater, I jump at the opportunity, especially if there’s a filmmaker Q&A after. I don’t know if I’ll ever not enjoy that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find digital streaming quite useful.