Joshua Leonard, Hollywood’s go-to guy for daring movie-making, plays a stalker in Claire Foy starrer Unsane
Ever since Joshua Leonard helped reinvent indie filmmaking as a star of found-footage pioneer The Blair Witch Project, he has been something of a go-to guy for groundbreaking, no-budget cinema.
Two decades on he’s at it again, in an acclaimed but deeply unsettling role as a stalker in Unsane -- filmed entirely on an iPhone by Oscar-winning auteur Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Traffic).
“The only reason I have a career still is that we availed ourselves of new technology and unprecedented techniques 20 years ago with Blair Witch,” said Leonard, 42, enthusing about how low-fi filmmaking appeals to his impatient streak.
“I think it’s the reason that I was so excited when I got called in to make this project, because I love making films much more than I love waiting to make films,” he told AFP ahead its US release on Friday.
Unsane stars British actress Claire Foy, of the Netflix series The Crown, as Pennsylvania office worker Sawyer Valentini, who has left her hometown under mysterious circumstances.
After an online dating encounter leaves her upset, she seeks help from a counselor at a local clinic, who tells her to sign a routine form before she leaves.
Within minutes, she is committed to a mental institution against her will and pumped full of pills.
A fellow patient whose background may be more interesting than he is letting on, tells her she’s been locked away as part of an insurance scam but that if she keeps her head down, she will be released within days.
However when Sawyer encounters Leonard’s character, an orderly she claims has been stalking her for two years, the audience begins to question her sanity as well.
Leonard’s nuanced, half-pathetic, half-terrifying performance has been roundly praised since the movie premiered in Berlin’s film festival in February, although the acclaim has done nothing for his family life.
“I just I felt terrible that my wife had to watch it, come home and sleep next to me. I want to try to figure out a way that my 15-month-old daughter never sees it when she’s a teenager,” he says, laughing.
Understandably, much has been made of the iPhone novelty but the medium has overshadowed the message to some extent, with headlines concentrating on how the film was made, rather than what it has to say.
Ostensibly a Kafkaesque satire of the medical insurance racket, Unsane is as much a part of the #MeToo moment as any red carpet protest since the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal ignited.
Foy’s brittle, irritable Sawyer isn’t believed when she complains about her stalker, those in charge of her care assuming she is delusional.
The significance of a woman screaming to be heard in the face of threatening male sexuality, as various characters try to “gaslight” her by telling her the ordeal is all in her head, is not lost on Leonard.
Unsane, he points out, was filmed before Weinstein was accused of litany of sex offenses, but he adds that “anything that furthers the discussion is a good thing”.
Ironically, real-life unfair treatment of women has thrust Foy into the limelight recently, with the producers of The Crown admitting she was paid less for her award-winning performances than co-star Matt Smith.
“It’s a conversation that is long overdue, and I think we’ve been operating off an old paradigm for far too long,” Leonard told AFP.
“Bringing some of this information to light, like the pay gap disparity, is the first step in actually making real and lasting change.”
Modern horror classic
Leonard has divided his career between appearing in television that you might recognize -- Bates Motel, True Detective, CSI: Miami and the like -- and cinema you almost certainly won’t.
Cast as the steadfast cameraman Josh in The Blair Witch Project, Leonard balanced shooting the 16mm footage with improvising the increasingly-creepy turn of events alongside Heather Donahue and Michael Williams.
Since its inauspicious release on 27 screens in 1999, the pioneering film from Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick has been hailed as a modern horror classic, despite having no special effects, monsters or gore.
It made use of viral online marketing in a way no movie had attempted before and, despite its tiny $60,000 budget, managed to make $248 million worldwide.
“I laugh at how young I look -- that terrible mid-90s bachelor,” he chuckles.
The movie spawned myriad imitations -- including a couple of its own ropey sequels -- with found-footage movies such as Cloverfield, Rec and Paranormal Activity saturating the market over the following years.
Rather than capitalizing on his sudden fame, Leonard stuck steadfastly to smaller independent films and working the festival circuit.
“When you only want to spend $3 on your film, call Josh Leonard,” he jokes.
Leonard says working with Soderbergh, an avid innovator who likes to play with genres and formats, felt like a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” -- but he wasn’t expecting a theatrical release to come of it.
“That surprised and excited the hell out of all of us,” Leonard said. “Wherever it takes me, I’m excited to keep telling stories in whatever manner best suits the story.”
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