Obsessed began as a dark, abstract vision in the mind of Screen Gems’ president Clint Culpepper. He had an idea for a scary, dramatic thriller, and he needed a talented writer to bring the vision to life. Culpepper approached writer David Loughery, who wrote Screen Gems’ recent hit psychodrama Lakeview Terrace.
Loughery couldn’t resist such a thrilling, captivating premise, and signed on to write the script. The story, which Loughery actually describes as a cautionary tale, centers on a happy, successful couple, Derek and Sharon Charles, who find their idyllic lives threatened by Lisa Sheridan, a temp at Derek’s office who develops a disturbing infatuation with him. “Obsessed is a dark tale of what can happen in the workplace,” says executive producer Glenn Gainor. “A very perverse love triangle is created, unwillingly.” When Lisa’s obsession takes a sinister turn, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top of the twisted triangle…or who will survive at all.
Screen Gems showed the script to British director Steve Shill, a veteran TV helmer with an incredible list of top shows he’s worked on, including The Sopranos, The Wire, The West Wing, Deadwood, Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Tudors, Rome, ER, Big Love, and Dexter. Shill was immediately intrigued. “It interested me because it’s a psychodrama,” says Shill, “which implies genre, camera work, music – all the hallmarks of a great, edge-of-your-seat thriller. And my particular interest was to go deep with the actors into the psychodrama of it all. “Plus,” he adds, “Beyoncé was already attached – it was pretty hard to refuse.”
For dueling femme fatales Sharon and Lisa, the filmmakers needed actresses who could effectively play such emotionally complex, physically demanding roles and could also walk the tightrope of drama and tone that comes with such an audience-rousing, engaging thriller. The filmmakers had been lucky enough to sign iconic recording artist and actress Beyoncé Knowles for the role of Sharon.
Knowles has an accomplished and steadily growing acting resume, but this film marks a new direction for the performer. “This was definitely different for me,” Knowles says. “This is a psychological thriller, but it’s not just any thriller. It’s very smart and not typical.” Obsessed is Knowles’ first purely dramatic role portraying a character other than a singer or performer. “This is the deepest I’ve ever gone to be prepared for a film,” she says. “It’s not about anything but the emotion and psychology of the relationship between Derek and Sharon.”
“I knew that she was ambitious for it,” says director Shill. “I knew she wanted to do it, and it was nothing but a great pleasure to sit there and watch her. She fell on it like a tiger. She brings all the energy to this that she brings to her stage performances, plus a freshness and authenticity – it’s absolutely breathtaking. She brought all the skill of someone who’s been doing it for 20 years.”
In preparing for her role, Knowles challenged herself to convey as much meaning as possible in each scene. “I wanted to make sure each scene had a purpose, a conflict. I didn’t want it to be typical; I wanted it to stand out. I worked closely with the filmmakers, dissecting and understanding the meaning and the purpose of each scene.”
Knowles would sometimes turn to her first passion, music, to help get into the right state of mind for a scene. “She would ask for music sometimes between takes, just to keep her pumped and in the mood,” says Packer. “We didn’t have any music, so I would have the crew sing some of her greatest hits.”
nowles was instantly attracted to the role because of Sharon’s strength and empowerment in the story. “Usually in a movie like this, the man in the end comes and saves the day,” Knowles says. “What I loved was how Sharon handles herself. She gets that out-of-body strength we have when we have to protect people we love – and she saves the day.”
In describing her character further, Knowles says, “Sharon is a mother and wife, but she used to be her husband’s assistant, which is really interesting. They became best friends and she knows him as well as he knows himself.” In the film, that depth of understanding is what causes Sharon to start wondering if her husband is telling her the full story. “All the little games he would play with the other women, she was right there,” she says. “So when something strange happens with the temp, Lisa, she has this intuition. He plays it off, but when she finds out the relationship is a little different from what he said, she gets very suspicious. She knows her man. They have an ultimate trust, so when that trust is betrayed… that’s the turning point for Sharon in the film.”
Knowles acknowledges how Elba’s Derek could have gotten into the situation in the first place. “Derek likes the attention that he gets, like any man would, and it gets misread by Lisa,” Knowles says. “In the beginning he’s just doing friendly flirting, and she takes it the wrong way. She becomes really infatuated and in her mind, she thinks that Derek really is her man, that the house really is her house, and the family really is her family.
“For me, Obsessed is about a woman’s fight for her family,” she continues. “A woman who’s willing to sacrifice and take care of her son while her husband gets his promotion, but who is also very strong and wise and street smart and knows when something is not right – a woman strong enough to take control.
“There’s a moment where Sharon and Derek come home and find that Lisa has been inside their house,” says Knowles. At that point in the film, Sharon has “depended on Derek and the detective to take care of this crazy woman and she thinks that Lisa is out of her life. But when she finds out that Lisa has not just been inside her house, but had contact with her child, she’s like, ‘Enough is enough.’” Another new challenge for the actress was the film’s strenuous fight scenes. Knowles had to get physically pumped for her character’s climactic, crowd-rousing showdown with Lisa, which Knowles performed herself. “I did a lot of stunt work,” she says. “I was covered in bruises.”
“It’s similar to choreography,” she continues, “but it was very difficult keeping it up for hours and hours. On top of doing the stunt choreography, you still have to be in the scene and have your performance as an actor.”
To add to the challenge, Knowles had to perform the fights in high heels. But, she says, “I’m pretty used to the heels. Actually, out of everything, the heels were the last thing I was thinking about.” Knowles enjoyed working with director Shill. “He’s very intelligent,” she says. “Working with him I could tell he used to be an actor. He knows how to communicate, and I felt very comfortable.” Overall, Knowles felt she learned something important about the nature of intimate relationships. “In the end,” she says, “you just have to be completely honest, even if you think you’re protecting someone by withholding information.”
As mentioned, Sharon’s counterpart in Obsessed is Lisa, the sexy temp who falls head over heels for Derek. Lisa makes it her mission to have Derek…. at any cost.
In the film, the seductress appears at Derek’s office carrying few clues about her past; Loughery says he purposefully left a little mystery to the character. “I didn’t really delve into her past or try to explain why Lisa is the way she is,” he says. “It’s scarier if we never really know how she’s developed this personality that can go from very loving to ultimately deadly.”
Heroes star Ali Larter plays Lisa, and the actress was attracted to the film because she saw it as a modern take on a classic story. “It’s definitely a thriller – a throwback to some of the great thrillers of the past, which we haven’t seen in awhile,” says Larter. “There’s something great about just being able to go escape to the movies for a couple hours – sheer entertainment. When I first read this, I thought it would be an amazing ride.”
At first Larter was intimidated by playing a person so unhinged. But as she studied Lisa she began to see the character from a different perspective. “Lisa has many facets to her personality,” she says. “It was a chance for me to take something that could have been interpreted one way in a really different way, to try to see outside the box and find creative solutions and ways to illuminate her.”
Though her character is undoubtedly the film’s villain, Larter argues that Lisa is really just a lonely young woman who wants to be loved. “She’s filled with love,” Larter says. “But she has a lot of insecurities in her life, and she overcompensates for them in certain ways. Overall, I think she’s someone who’s had a large amount of sadness in her life and is just looking for someone to love and share her life with. From my character’s point of view, Obsessed is about a woman who falls in love and will do anything she can to keep her man. She’s fallen in love on the deepest levels, and there is no rationalizing why they shouldn’t be together. For her, there are only reasons why they should.”
In preparing for the role, director Shill and Larter had lengthy discussions about why Lisa does what she does, and how to approach it. “Ultimately, we decided it’s not so much that she’s playing crazy. She’s playing the love,” agrees Shill. “Lisa loves Derek so much she falls into a bottomless well of love and just can’t stop. That’s what becomes so frightening to Derek, because it’s irrational. “The greatest coup is for you to have the audience walking away saying, ‘Oh, that poor woman,’” adds Shill, “to sympathize with her because her feelings are all coming from a real and authentic place.”
Lisa was a challenge for Larter, but she loved every minute of it. “It’s pushed me out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I’m drawn to these emotionally demanding roles and women that are broken in different ways, so I feel lucky I get a chance to play this great character.”
Larter also relished her scenes with Knowles and enjoyed working with the superstar. “She just gets it – she’s such a professional,” says Larter. “She was kind and really open and candid. You never know what you’re walking into with someone that has that kind of schedule and that many things going on in her life, but I’ve really enjoyed working with her – she’s incredibly dedicated to her work, and you can see it in this movie. She gives it everything she’s got.”
In summing up Larter’s performance, producer Packer says, “Ali plays a character who’s difficult to like and a little difficult to understand, but she really fleshes it out.”
The object of Lisa’s obsession? Sharon’s husband, Derek Charles. Successful, respectable Derek is the embodiment of the American dream. “He’s Ivy League, he has an MBA, and he’s an asset manager,” says director Shill. “Because he looks after other peoples’ money, he has to be squeaky clean. There has to be an intense sense of propriety, because any possibility of a smear on his character could mean the end.” Unfortunately, when Derek meets Lisa, his spotless image is threatened.
Actor Idris Elba was working on Screen Gems’ Prom Night when the studio told him about Obsessed. Elba couldn’t resist the role, especially when he found out whom he would be starring alongside. “Three films into my relationship with Screen Gems, and they say, ‘Want to do Obsessed? You’re going to be working with Ali Larter and Beyoncé,’” says Elba. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s tough,’” he laughs.
Getting into the film, Elba was fascinated by the twisted, scary aspects of Lisa’s obsession with him. “It’s about the social awkwardness of the situation,” Elba says. “How do you react to that? In real life, if someone’s obsessed with you, it’s pretty scary. What does that do to your marriage, your relationships, and how you relate to other people?”
Elba describes Derek and Lisa’s initial meeting as an innocent encounter. “The first moment you see them together is in the elevator, and they end up in the elevator alone. Lisa strikes up a conversation and she drops all her papers; Derek helps her pick the papers up, but there’s no spark. It’s just, ‘Hey, she’s attractive.’ That’s it. Then she ends up being the temp that works on his desk… and hell breaks loose.”
Delving further into the progression of the two characters’ relationship, Elba says, “Lisa’s probably used to a lot of attention and probably had her heart broken a few times. Derek extends a caring arm for her to cry on one day, and the combination of her personality and that gesture sparks some sort of ‘Wow.’
“This guy’s married, he’s got a kid – he’s not trying to start a relationship with her,” Elba continues. “He was just being nice, and she gets obsessed with that attention. Then she gets obsessed with his dedication to his life. He has a beautiful wife, a child, a home, and she wants all of that.”
In his relationship with his wife, Elba feels like things are perfect until Derek lets his masculine attachment to being in control get the best of him. “Derek feels like he’s got it under control and it’s probably not going to amount to much,” he says. “He decides not to tell his wife.” Not telling Sharon the truth ultimately almost destroys their marriage and gives the film much of its emotional wallop. In coming onto the project, Elba was walking into a working relationship with co-star Beyoncé Knowles and he was interested in seeing what it would be like performing with such a powerhouse worldwide star. “Working with Beyoncé is definitely an experience,” he says. “The image of Beyoncé is huge. She’s an amazing talent. But when she gets on the set she’s very much an actress. She’s very dedicated to the film, to the role.
“I remember the first day we met,” Elba continues. “We had to do this photo shoot for some of the pictures in the house. It literally went, ‘Idris, this is Beyoncé. Beyoncé, this is Idris. Now you’ve met each other, we need to see you stand over there and kiss.’”
Elba had not one, but two attractive co-stars, and loved working with Ali Larter as well. “There was a time we were doing this scene and rehearsing,” he says. “There’s Ali, there’s Beyoncé, and they’re both in the room arguing over me. We’re reading the scene and it was my turn to speak and I just burst into laughter. Everyone in the room was asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I just said, ‘It’s weird to see these two beautiful women arguing over me.’ It was quite surreal.”
For her part, Knowles was happy to have Elba as her costar. “Most of my leading men have been Oscar®-winning actors,” she says, “and Idris definitely will be one day. I’ve been a fan of his, and he brings out the best in my acting. In my field, music, I’m very comfortable, very confident, but this was so different for me and I still felt a little insecure. He was just wonderful, and really supportive – I’ve learned so much from Idris.”
Larter agrees with Knowles on their leading man. “I learned from him every day,” she says. “It really was a pleasure. He’s such a gentleman, and he always came in with a good attitude. We had a great time working together, finding ways to do interesting takes”
When designing the set for Obsessed, the filmmakers challenged themselves to create a tense, eerie atmosphere within a domestic setting. “This is a psychodrama and a thriller, so I thought, ‘We want a touch of Roman Polanski about this,’” says Shill. “It’s got that uneasy edge to it.” On board as director of photography was Ken Seng, whose work Shill admired in his previous Screen Gems production Quarantine. “It didn’t look like typical Hollywood; it didn’t look cosmetic,” says Shill of Seng’s work. “It looked real, and that was something that we were all very interested in.”
Seng hoped to create an updated Hitchcock feel, using a wide variety of shooting styles. “We have some really gritty scenes inside the hospital and in the kitchen, hand-held with very long lenses and people going slightly in and out of focus. I think that really breathes a lot of energy and life into those scenes,” says the DP. “Then we have a lot of those Hitchcock-style dolly moves in the office and in the house, where things are slowed down and it’s a very subjective kind of camera.”
Another star of Obsessed was the Charles’ house, where most of the drama would take place as well as the final action sequence. The house has special significance in the film, Gainor explains, because it represents a family’s hopes and dreams, which are literally shattered by the end of the film. The filmmakers set out to find a dream home for the fictional family, and decided on a craftsman house in Alta Dena for all exteriors, built in 1923. The size of the house helped to set the film’s uneasy atmosphere. “It’s a little too big for just Sharon and the baby because Derek is out at work all the time,” says Shill. “It’s a little awkward and a little bit eerie.”
For the action-intense interior scenes, the studio decided to build a set versus filming inside an actual house. “We asked someone if we could go in their house and smash through the attic and destroy the living room ceilings and so forth, and they said no,” says Gainor. “So we set out to construct the perfect environment.” The filmmakers believed a controlled environment would be the best place for the actors to focus on their highly emotional performances. A sound stage also offered safety advantages, and was beneficial because the filmmakers did not have to worry about the time of day.
Creating the Charles’ house interior was an eco-conscious process, with a touch of old Hollywood. The set was constructed on the Sony lot on two 15,500 square foot sound stages. The house was a reincarnation of a craftsman house built for Screen Gems’ The Stepfather, which had previously been an apartment complex for the film Quarantine. Of recycling sets, Gainor says, “There’s so much waste that goes into films, and when you take a set and reuse it you’re being more green. It’s cool to preserve the environment as best you can.”
The Charles’ home had to be luxurious and cozy at the same time. “Warm and fuzzy is kind of what Shill asked for,” says production designer Gary Steele.
A key space in the Charles’ house set was the living room, built with a 25-foot ceiling to house a chandelier, which would become the centerpiece for the film’s climax. “It’s all about emotion until somebody is dangling from a chandelier two stories up,” Gainor says of the deadly final scene. The chandelier had to be custom made after the crew was unable to find one that was big enough.
To dress Obsessed’s sexy cast, the filmmakers brought in fashion-savvy costume designer Maya Lieberman. “Maya was great,” says Knowles, “She is such a fashionista.” Lieberman’s job was to create a distinctive look for each character that conveyed his or her unique personality. The result was a wardrobe of designer clothes.
As a beautiful young wife and mother, Obsessed’s heroine Sharon had a style all her own. “We talked about a very natural look,” says Lieberman. “Beyoncé plays a housewife, and it was important that the clothes felt real, but not to let go of her sexy, glamorous side.” Sharon’s look would be comfortable and sophisticated, while channeling the natural glamour of Beyoncé herself.
“Sharon’s look is a little more similar to who I am in my real life, when I’m not performing or on the red carpet,” says Knowles. “I still had to make sure I had my Louis Vuittons so she had a little flair, but it was the easiest wardrobe I’ve ever worn – very carefree and comfortable.” Lieberman wanted Sharon’s wardrobe to be high-end, but to consist of believable choices for a young mother. “The Charles are well to-do, so designer stuff was okay, but we didn’t want it to go over the top.”
One of Sharon’s signature pieces was a curve-hugging Zac Posen skirt paired with a sumptuous cashmere sweater, which she wears when she visits Derek at the office. Topping off the look was an Yves Saint Laurent belt and brown suede Jimmy Choo boots. Another recurring piece was a navy and black Diane von Furstenberg dress, worn with Valentino shoes along with the YSL belt. Sharon’s stunning New Year’s Eve look was a simple, elegant cocktail dress by Zac Posen, again in navy and black.
Knowles was the perfect model for the sexy designer ensembles. “She’s a supreme hourglass,” says Lieberman, “She’s like Marilyn Monroe.”
For her final look during the fight scene, Knowles wanted something that would make her feel tough and sexy. She and Lieberman decided on high-waisted Stella McCartney jeans, tucked into suede Missoni boots. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if she had some boots on to do some fighting?’” says the designer. “They wrap all the way up and tie in back – just super hot!”
Lieberman and the filmmakers wanted Sharon and Lisa’s styles to contrast as much as their personalities. “With Ali, our discussion started with wanting really clean, classic and sharp lines, whereas Beyoncé’s character is more soft, more textural cashmeres and knits.”
Lisa’s color palette, consisting of rich jewel tones, contrasted with Sharon’s earthy colors. Lieberman suggested to the production designers that the office be kept monochromatic so Lisa would stand out when she entered. “When Ali walks in, she’s this jewel against a grey palette,” says the designer. Sexy, fitted Gucci pencil skirts paired with chic blouses were wardrobe staples for Lisa. Her signature nighttime look was a black Dolce & Gabbana cocktail dress, worn with a red Burberry trench – a simple classic, but in a bright color to stand out during the Christmas party scene. Lieberman finished the outfit with pearls for an elegant Grace Kelly look.
Like Knowles, Larter says her personal style is similar to that of her character. “I’m not someone who likes fussiness,” says Larter. “I don’t like a lot of jewelry. Lisa’s style is very clean. She doesn’t draw attention to herself through her clothes, but definitely enjoys a saucy pair of heels.
But for her final look, Lisa swapped the sophisticated outfits for an old football jersey. “Ali said, wouldn’t it be great if she does the whole fight scene in something of Derek’s?” Lieberman says. “I got the idea it would be even more dramatic if it was Derek’s favorite shirt that Beyoncé wears to bed; it makes it that much more intimate.”
As a respected young businessman, Derek needed a look that was prestigious yet contemporary. “He’s kind of the peacock in the office,” says Lieberman. “Steve really liked the idea that Derek comes in looking sharper than pretty much everybody else.”
Derek’s sophisticated work attire consisted of timeless two-button suits, mostly Dolce & Gabbana or Versace, with thin lapels to update the look. “Idris wears clothes so well,” raves the designer. “For him, suits fit like a glove. A lot of the stuff we used didn’t even need much alternation.” Underneath a suit jacket, Derek wore classic shirts by Thomas Pink, with French cuffs and cufflinks to add flare.
Even more than a tale of love gone too far, Obsessed is a worst-case scenario of what can happen when the roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. “We live in a modern world in which we all have to sign sexual harassment agreements at work,” says director Shill. “We are now, to a certain extent, at the mercy of the law, and we all have to be much more careful than we ever were. We’re particularly at the mercy of someone who wants to exploit their rights…rationally or irrationally.”
“This film honestly is a great thriller,” adds Elba. “I don’t think it’s going to be what people expect.” Ali Larter says simply, “I can promise you this: you’re not going to sit there and be bored! It’s perfect to get away and be entertained.”
“I think this movie is very well-rounded,” says Knowles. “It’s very dramatic, it’s very suspenseful. But it’s also great fun – Steve understands the humor in all the drama, which is important.” Knowles thinks the film is going to leave viewers feeling empowered, particularly women. “Everyone can relate to it,” she says, “Good karma comes back.”
Production notes provided by Sony ScreenGems.
Starring: Beyonce Knowles, Ali Larter, Idris Elba, Scout Taylor-Compton, Christine Lahti
Directed by: Steve Shill
Screenplay by: David Loughery
Release Date: April 24th, 2009
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual material including some suggestive dialogue, some violence and thematic content.
Studio: Sony ScreenGems
Box Office Totals
Domestic: $68,261,644 (93.0%)
Foreign: $5,115,519 (7.0%)
Total: $73,377,163 (Worldwide)