‘The Stranger’ Director Talks Reviving Her Quibi Show as a Film

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Rich Polk / Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Rich Polk / Getty

Veena Sud’s new horror film The Stranger hits Hulu on April 15, but some viewers might have already seen it years ago in a very different format. Does anyone remember Quibi?

Sud, who is best known for developing AMC’s version of the Danish crime drama The Killing, originally released The Stranger in 13 bite-sized episodes as part of Quibi’s launch back in April 2020. The streaming service lasted only six months, but as Sud recently told The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s short-lived platform offered creators a unique value proposition when it came to copyright ownership. Two years after The Stranger debuted on Quibi, her contract stated that she would be allowed to do whatever she wanted with the material—whether or not the platform survived.

“When do TV creators ever get to own our work?” Sud said. “Never.”

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Katzenberg, who oversaw Disney’s animation renaissance before going on to found DreamWorks, has been known to work miracles in the industry, and even if he didn’t pull this one off, Sud knew her work would live on somewhere. And so, she embraced the unique challenge of figuring out how to tell a propulsive story through a phone screen.

Now, she’s re-worked her Quibi series into an equally terrifying, full-length horror movie. For all the technical differences, it turns out that the storytelling fundamentals are pretty much the same, whether you’re watching on a horizontal screen or vertical.

Sud first began working on The Stranger in 2019. Donald Trump was still in the White House, and #MeToo—which had first broken two years before—still felt fresh as revelations continued to pour out of Hollywood. In other words, she was angry and wanted to find a way to tell a story about toxic masculinity. Enter Dane DeHaan as Carl E., an incel who stalks and terrorizes female ride-share drivers by tracking them through their phones.

Scream queen Maika Monroe plays Carl’s latest victim, Clare, who moved to L.A. from Kansas to pursue her big dreams of becoming a writer. Minutes after poor Clare picks Carl up from a mansion, he tells her that he doesn’t actually live there; he just finished murdering everyone inside. Then, he starts ranting about how much he hates women, which gets him so dizzy with rage that Clare manages to crash her car and run away. As she soon finds out, however, there’s just no escaping this guy.

Thematically, Quibi was the perfect platform for a project like The Stranger. What better place to watch a horror movie all about the perils of cellphones and algorithms than on our phones? Sud embraced this new playground, along with its interactive potential, as she planned her series. She even pitched the higher-ups on using the creepy text tone Carl programs into his victims’ phones to announce new episodes as they dropped into subscribers’ accounts.

Maika Monroe in The Stranger

A scene from The Stranger.


Sud had considered releasing episodes hourly, so that by the time the series reached its halfway point, users would find themselves tormented by the scary text noise at 2 a.m.. Sadly, this struck some as a little too much. (The first two episodes debuted on April 13, 2020, and after that, subsequent installments released daily on weekdays.)

“There was a whole thing about privacy and not being invasive and creepy,” Sud said with humorously affected frustration. “But you know, I’m like, we’re trying to be creepy!”

As much as she enjoyed tailoring her ideas to the confines of a cellphone screen, Sud knew that her project would one day live elsewhere. This required some planning of its own—including setting up her shots in such a way that they could be cropped vertically and horizontally.

“I like really still frames and composition,” Sud explained, “but in a vertical frame, you’ll be bored out of your mind, and you can even see it.”

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In the case of her Quibi cut, Sud knew that she’d have to find depth going straight down into the screen. “That’s why we have Maika kind of constantly moving, trying to jump on the train station. Like, we were always behind her, following.”

The original The Stranger clocked in around 90 to 100 minutes across its 13 installments, which was far too short to re-cut as a traditional TV series but just long enough for a movie. (The re-cut feature version now clocks in at 1 hour and 37 minutes.) Throughout her original shoot, Sud worked with cinematographer Paul Yee and production designer Jenny Möller to create satisfying vertical shots with enough horizontal buffer to one day edit into a traditional feature.

“We shot a huge amount of footage,” Sud said. “And it was not just a huge amount, but also a wider, wider, wider frame than you usually do. Knowing that at some point, we would be able to use the left and right hemispheres.”

Just like the visuals, Sud’s writing had to perform double duty. Her pacing would need to include natural episodic endings for the Quibi series but also conform to the three-act structure of a more traditional movie. Some of that happened after the fact, when Sud re-cut the film for Hulu with her editor, Philip Fowler. Mostly, she said, the process came down to taming some of the “ahhhhh! moments” that punctuated the Quibi episodes. When you’re watching one fluid movie, Sud acknowledged, “you don’t need to punch the audience in the face.”

Maika Monroe in The Stranger

A scene from The Stranger.


Regardless of which version of The Stranger you watch, however, there’s one feature Sud absolutely did not want you to miss: the adorable dog who stays by Clare’s side throughout her journey and, refreshingly for a horror movie, does not die in the end. Her name is Pebbles, and she’s nothing short of heroic.

It turns out, this character was inspired by Sud’s real life. From the very beginning of this project, she said, “I wanted a cool dog involved.” The real-life Pebbles, who also shares a name with her on-screen avatar, is a Yorkie that a relative of Sud’s found abandoned in a shoebox as a puppy. The dog had been abused, and Sud’s cousin’s brother-in-law—a veterinarian—found, cared for, and ultimately adopted her.

“She’s the tiniest thing in real life,” Sud said. “She has a drooping lip because of the abuse. She’s missing half her teeth [but now], if Pebbles walks in the room, she just runs everything.”

Although Sud wanted to arrange a set visit so that the real-life Pebbles could spend a day calling the shots on the production she helped inspire, scheduling complications kept the pampered pooch away.

“We were shooting overnights,” Sud said, “and Pebbles is used to her nine hours of sleep.” Pebbles will just have to catch the finished product on Hulu, along with the rest of us.

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