Speaking on the phone from the Montreal set of X-Men: Days of Future Past, the director of next summer’s biggest blockbuster is not discussing some plotline involving the mutant mind-control powers of Professor X. He’s referring to the strange tale at the heart of his latest film as a producer, Uwantme2killhim?
Based on a 2005 Vanity Fair article by Judy Bachrach, the film – which receives its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival tomorrow night – tells the bizarre true story of a British schoolboy coaxed into stabbing his best friend after becoming embroiled in a series of intense online chatroom relationships. “I’d just never heard of something like this,” says Singer. “It was a story from the past that resonated so much with the present, especially now that we live our lives so exposed online.”
The original crime, which took place in the prosperous middleclass suburbs of Greater Manchester in the summer of 2003, became a media sensation when it emerged that the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim (who for legal reasons are referred to in the film and all reporting of the case as Mark and John) involved a complex web of deceit fuelled by their online activity. It’s all a little reminiscent of another Singer film, The Usual Suspects.
“Interestingly, it was me rather than Bryan that took it in the direction of The Usual Suspects,” says the film’s British director Andrew Douglas, joining Singer on the line from his own base in Los Angeles. “Because the story is true, and because it’s so preposterous, I didn’t just want it to be a thuggish story about knife-wielding boys. I wanted it to be a story, which through its telling, caught you and made you travel with it. Simply put, I wanted to tell it from Mark’s point of view: if he saw it, you believed it.”
Finding a way to depict Mark’s gullibility was, says Douglas, a major problem. Given how poor he is at distinguishing between fantasy and fiction, his credulity is a little jawdropping when witnessed in the film. “The starting point for the script was always: this is what really happened; how can we get there dramatically?”
“People also believe what they want to believe,” adds Singer. “Things might seem obvious to the outside viewer or in hindsight, but to a kid who is living that life, the connections made on the internet can be every bit as real.”
That’s one of the dangers the film exposes. Though the online world depicted in the film has been replaced by more sophisticated forms of social networking over the last ten years, the internet’s power to deceive hasn’t diminished. Indeed, Douglas (best known for directing the remake of The Amityville Horror) cites a recent American example where a college quarterback was duped into believing that the woman he’d fallen for online had died; in fact she’d never existed. “I think there are two contradictory impulses going on right now. Because of the recent NSA leaks, suddenly we’re talking about our own privacy, which, of course, we’re slightly responsible for jeopardising. But on the other hand, I think one of the great impulses for going online is still anonymity. I think it’s still dangerous and alluring to go into a dark place on the internet.”
One of the ironies of the film, of course, is that because John and Mark (respectively played in the film by Tony Regbo and Jamie Blackley) were minors when the incident occurred, British law guarantees their anonymity in perpetuity, meaning neither Singer nor Douglas were permitted to reach out to them or reveal anything that would give away their true identities. “I think that’s a healthy thing because it gives them the choice in their adult life to decide whether or not they want to be identified with this,” says Singer. “I also think that this story is so odd that they’re probably very different people now compared to then. There’s a lot of information and transcripts and part of what’s exciting about it is that you can glean a lot about who they were to each other in that cyber-world from the evidence.” The chatroom transcripts recovered from the boys’ computers suggested that John’s actions were driven in part by an unrequited love for Mark. Singer, however, reckons there was more to their relationship. “I think with young people, something may start as a crush but with their friendship we wanted to establish that John’s needs for Mark and his feelings for Mark went much deeper. I think to him Mark was cool, Mark was athletic, Mark was everything that he was not. He relied on Mark’s companionship and Mark being in his life for so many things.”
But this worked the other way too, believes Douglas. “There’s a point in the beginning of the story where Mark seems to have everything: he’s handsome, and successful with girls, and sporty, but he says his life isn’t big enough. He wanted more. He wanted to be the guy about whom people would say, ‘Wow! What’s he doing?’ And John did that for him. He really did give him a mad life.” • Uwantme2killhim? is at Cineworld, Edinburgh, tomorrow and Wednesday, as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and on general release from 6 September.