What if we are living in a simulation, and the world as we know it is not real? This is the question director Rodney Ascher (ROOM 237, THE NIGHTMARE) asks in A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX. Using a speech from acclaimed sci-fi author Philip K. Dick he begins a quest that traverses science, philosophy, and conspiracy theory, while presenting interviews with real people as digital avatars.


In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Ascher spoke about our obsessive impulse to understand, the thought process behind the film’s visual aesthetic, and how cinema is enriching the common language we share.


FRIGHTFEST: It's a commitment to make a film, requiring you to give up a period of your life. Does there have to be something more like obsession than interest to compel you to make a film?


Rodney Ascher: It certainly has to be something you can happily spend multiple years talking about, even if you've driven everybody you know crazy. When Tim Kirk and I were developing ROOM 237, we'd both had babies around the same time, and we'd go on long walks pushing the stroller around the park. We never ran out of things to talk about when were discussing theories about the meaning of THE SHINING.


What was this obsessive study of a movie like that all about; what was it evocative of? I had felt that way about the three topics of sleep paralysis, the things that people see, and simulation theory. It could be that the one thing all three have in common is that they're mysteries, but there's no solution. Once you come across the solution you quickly lose interest in the mystery, but these topics are, the best I can tell, unsolvable. The only way out is to sort of give up [laughs].


FF: The need to understand, to try to find the answers to questions that have no closure is part of our obsessive human nature. It can be as frustrating as it can be rewarding when filmmakers play on this.


RA: Exactly, and that black and white photograph at the end of THE SHINING feels like it's being presented as if it were Rosebud being thrown into the furnace. But it's not, it doesn't give you a “eureka” explanation for everything that's happened in the past two plus hours, and those are the ones that stick with you. Sometimes people are afraid, I'm supposing here, but it feels like most movies need to have answers because the audience will not be satisfied. And that might be true in the short term, but in the long term, those are the movies that you keep going back to, that you're trying to solve like a knot that you can't untie in a shoelace.


FF: The visual presentation of the interviews in this film are particularly creative. What were the thought processes that led to this approach?


RA: I read the Wikipedia plot summary of the movie, and it has nothing to do with the tone, or with the emotional experience of watching a movie. Those are the ways that you can say that plot thread doesn't add up, which for me is often the least important part of the story. I'm very happy with the way things came together on this one, and in hindsight, they feel like obvious solutions, but it was that worked at the time.


It was difficult to figure out how we were going to tell a lot of this story, and what it was even going to look like. One example might be the four avatars that our characters speak through. I always knew I wanted them to be animated, that I wanted there to be a juxtaposition between the real and the unreal in these conversations. We went through many iterations, and thought that perhaps each of the characters would be a different style of animation, by a different artist. Ultimately what we went with were characters that were all designed by the same artist, Chris Burnham. He’s an amazing comic artist who has worked with Grant Morrison and Robert Kirkman, and he has a great knack for character design.


Then the guys at Mindbomb turned them into these 3D characters that to me look like video game characters, who might be licensed from a movie or a comic book, or an animation that you maybe haven't seen, but is popular with other folks. The idea that they look like characters out of a video game makes perfect sense, because there's so much discussion about video games and our relationship to those characters, and whether in fact our life is like a video game. But that's only something we fell into after a series of trials and errors.


It also gave us the great luxury that we were able to use the same characters who are in the interviews within the re-enactments, so you don't have to have an actor who looks like the person you're talking to, to play verse with them. They look much more at home in the re-enactments than they do in the interviews, but that was something that took six or eight months before we landed there. Once it came together, of course it was the only way it made sense, but it was not inevitable by any measure.



FF: Cinema is prone to criticism because of its mass appeal, but through your work you’ve shown that it’s able to promote a thoughtful discussion of a range of captivating ideas.


RA: Obviously if I didn't love cinema, I wouldn't be able to make projects like this, or bear doing it – to be able to spend a year and a half looking at every shot from THE SHINING.


One of the things I love about cinema is the way in which it gives us a common language. Not that everything revolves around THE SHINING, but I remember in the first week of lockdown in LA, a friend was on Twitter posting the days as they happened, because remember there are those title cards in the film, and so everybody knew what he was talking about. They're able to put a pin in different emotions and stages of your life, different metaphors for what's happening, and sometimes what feels like the less spectacular side of the screen.


I've become especially fascinated in the last couple of years with gifs, and how movies fragment into these. If a movie were a Russian novel, then that the shot of Orson Welles clapping from Citizen Kane is a sentence for just a word [laugh]. This vocabulary is getting richer and richer every year.


The trailer for GODZILLA VERSUS KING KONG launched a couple of days ago, and already I've seen a 100 memes based on that shot of King Kong punching Godzilla right in the face. That’s part of our common language now, and in the way that a fragment of ROMEO AND JULIET has been for how many hundreds of years, so can a shot of two giant monsters fighting.


A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX is released on digital February 5th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray May 10th.


Paul Risker.


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