On The Socio-Media-Path: Writer/Director Sarah Smick on Friended to Death

Sarah Smick

Somewhere in collegiate America, students are researching Facebook’s effects on our concept of friendship “IRL”. The fact we have an acronym to distinguish experiences that occur “in real life” is a reminder the virtual realm is a separate playing field—and it also suggests the realms are easy to confuse. Actress/filmmaker Sarah Smick has been interested in making a satire about social media for some time and it wasn’t until she heard a story about a man who faked his death to count his mourners that Smick and her producing/screenwriting partner Ian Michaels decided it was the time to make Friended to Death.

This homey, LA-based comedy features a power-mad Facebook junkie (Ryan Hansen) who believes his 400+ “friends” are proof he’s massively popular. In time for the film’s limited release May 2nd (VOD May 9th), MoviesWithButter talked to Smick about douchebaggery, hyper self-involvement and the influences that create the socio-media-path.

MoviesWithButter: What started the Friended to Death story rolling?
Sarah Smick: My writing partner and I read a story about a guy in Europe who faked his death and only his mother showed up to the funeral. He wrote 44 handwritten notes to chastise his supposed friends for not coming. We thought that was bold and kept wondering what could possibly make a person go to that extreme to find out who his friends are. We looked at what pressures might justify or instigate that kind of behavior and our answer was social media. It can enable the faking of a death with ease but there are implications about what social media does to our sense of each other and society and that’s part of where Friended to Death came from. The social media context helped us create characters that would be bold and weird and mean and these characters could ironically, exaggeratedly hold up a mirror and maybe show us what we could become.

I was a freshman in college [at Columbia] when Facebook was launched and joined literally a month after Zuckerberg put it online. My friends on it were friends from school who I actually knew. Since then I’ve felt a lot of the outrage older users have watching it become this media behemoth. I wanted to explore it in some way and when this idea came along it was perfect and we decided this was the script to make NOW.

MWB: What’s worse: promiscuous friending or the fake “friends” it can produce.
SS: The latter. I love “promiscuous friending” as a term but don’t think it’s evil. It could have benefits if it’s contextualized right and people understand it’s not an accumulation of real friendships. If they’re doing it to expand their marketing network and reach a bigger audience for something—their art or the charity they work on—those broad networks are useful. But there’s a very fine line between friending for healthy purposes and believing that’s where you draw value from your social interactions. The quantity over quality concept of “friends” is deluded and unhealthy.

MWB: The characters in your comedy are mostly jerks, which makes me wonder if there’s a chicken and egg dynamic there.
SS: The source of the film’s douchebaggery may or may not have been the result of social media. We made a point to build significant back stories for the characters to justify everything they did and said. Someone’s behavior, which defines if they’re a jerk, includes personal history, context, circumstances in the moment, and tendencies or habits. There are so many things that contribute to what makes an a-hole and we didn’t want to hang it all on social media, but we wanted the film to be a satire and point to the absurdities of social media and what it’s turning us into. We leaned into social as a facilitator of douchebaggery, but were very careful about making sure there was more to the characters and specific reasons for them to say the things they do in a specific way.

MWB: Can you give me an example?
SS: We shot a scene with Emile (James Immekus) and his mother that was eventually deleted, but in it the two hinted about a betrayal: he and a friend started a dog memorabilia company and his friend made off the website because they didn’t nail down legal. Then his dog runs away. In the deleted scene with Emile and his mom she asks if Michael can sleep over and she says, “I don’t want a repeat of your last so called friend.” We developed things like that for other characters, too. Joel, in our minds, was the class president who couldn’t not be nice and when Michael’s parents died he showed up more as a representative of the school than as a real friend. Of course Michael latched onto that and Joel was stuck in this illusion of a friendship. But hopefully it’s behavior we can all identify with or understand.

MWB: You suggest all these influences you’re calculating are negotiable—you can survive all this stuff and still choose to be your own person.
SS: Yes, but we also slip up, say things we wish we could take back, unleash in ways we don’t mean to. Maybe you’ll apologize and make amends but this stuff happens. Some people stop caring and don’t have much self-reflection. Michael (Hansen) is such a narcissist, so stunted in his growth he can’t rein it in. He doesn’t realize how the loss of his parents affected him. He has no idea his supposed friendships aren’t. For a guy like that to choose to be a better person is unlikely because he doesn’t know he’s not a better person.

MWB: You’re talking about self-awareness.
SS: The weird thing about social media is it encourages hyper self-awareness. We become self-involved and our perspective of the bigger picture gets warped. We’re so into calculating this bigger image crafted around what we want to effectuate it’s hard to hear a wakeup call.

MWB: You’ve been really productive. Any other projects coming up?
SS: I have a few ideas I’m excited about but can’t drop names. One of the scripts is about autoimmune diseases, and its something of a coming of age story—and a comedy. I prefer them. Laughter is such an effective way of breaking down people’s barriers.

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