Thursday, December 20, 2007

Take a "look" with Adam Rifkin and Barry Schuler

Smile, cry, laugh, fornicate, lie, intoxicate, drive, kidnap, kill and die, but always be wary and be obliged: It is hard to hide from the increasing presence of the surveillance camera on the ground, behind the walls and in the sky.

Every week an estimated four billion hours of footage is caught on surveillance cameras in the United States. While that is not much of a shock in our ever technology-advancing world, the way we respond to what we see is what is at stake in writer-director Adam Rifkin’s Look. Intertwining several stories about deception, destruction, distastefulness and de-composure, this 2007 standout illustrates a nation of voyeurs looking at others but not seeing them; voyeurs watching tragedy unfold but not responding to it; voyeurs responding to a crime instead of preventing one; voyeurs obsessed with sensation yet antagonistic toward sensitivity; voyeurs gazing at their own humanistic demise and adapting instead of resisting.

While some interpreters may find Look a confirmation of George Orwell’s 1984's predictions, it could be contested that this is an argument for Big Brother’s surveillance cameras as a means to protect us from ourselves. If only the personnel privy to the images engaged him or herself to what they saw and responded accordingly.

Featuring riveting stories, authentic performances by a relatively unknown cast and a systematic analysis into what it means to be watched and recorded on a frequent basis, this is a big leap forward for Rifkin, whose credits include Night at the Golden Eagle, The Dark Backward and Detroit Rock City. (Is the government watching me as I praise this film?)

Along with Rifkin, in this exclusive interview we also spoke to one of the film’s producers, Barry Schuler -- the AOL, video game and Interactive media pioneer. - John Esther

I understand the genesis for this film was when you received a photo of you committing a traffic violation?
Adam Rifkin: I got a red light ticket. When the picture came in the mail from the police department, I opened it up and there was a clear photo of me running the red light. I thought to myself that this was a little unnerving. Somebody can take a photo of me without my knowledge and mail it to my home address. I started wondering what other cameras are out there photographing me without my knowledge. I started paying attention to where the other cameras were. Everybody knows there are cameras in ATM machines, banks and airports, but I was unaware of just how many there is everywhere. It started to sink in that this would be an interesting way to shoot a movie. I did a little research and found out we were captured 170 times a day on surveillance cameras. Those numbers jumped to 200 times a day by the time we finished the movie and they just continue to grow. The story is topical. It’s an issue about the right to privacy.

Nobody in the film is captured making a traffic violation. Were any of the stories in the film autobiographical?
AR: Nothing was autobiographical per se, but I wanted the characters and the storylines to be relatable to anybody. That’s why I chose characters that could be from any walk of life.

You said at a previous discussion that one of your primary objectives for making this film was to get people talking. Do you have any other larger political objectives?
AR: This is a very relevant issue right now. What side of the fence are you on? Do you think these cameras are an invasion of your privacy? Do you think it’s George Orwell’s nightmare come true? Do you feel the more cameras we have the safer society is? It’s too complex of an issue to say that it’s black or white. That’s why I wanted to show both sides of the movie. I’m hoping the movie will spark that discussion.
Barry Schuler: When you talk about a larger political agenda, what is happening by default is the number of cameras growing every day. They’re networked together. All of it is digital. It keeps capturing stuff into hard drives that stays around forever. It’s searchable forever. More than that, we have this secondary phenomenon we called “Little Brother.” That’s everyone walking around with their videos in their phones, shooting things, putting them on the Internet, sometimes becoming instant news. We have this technology that’s so enabling. Every person can be a mini-surveillance broadcasting system. Then you say, “What’s OK?” There are no answers out there.

On a subtler level the film addresses the fact that while the cameras are capturing all these images nobody seems to be watching, much less responding to anything they see.
AR: Right.

Then you have these crimes occurring right in front of people and they do not notice. If it is not on TV than it is not worth watching. If it is on TV, it is worth watching, but there still is no response.
AR: It’s true. People are desensitized. People often are not paying attention. When we were shooting that scene where a man abducts a child and a mother is running around the food court panicking because she couldn’t find her daughter, those people in those seats were not extras. Those are actual mall customers. They just happened to be there. They had no idea a movie was being shot. We had cameras in high corners of rooms where nobody could see them. All of our actors were wearing radio microphones. We said before we shot the scene, “Whatever happens, go with it.” The actor Jennifer Fontaine (playing the mother) said, “You can’t do this to these people. It’s cruel.” I said, “I’m going to call cut in two minutes. They’re going to know it’s a movie.” We thought people were going to come running up to the mother, wanting to help, and that security people were going to be coming out. Nothing. You saw it. People didn’t react at all. They didn’t want to get involved. They didn’t pay attention. People like to stay in their little secure bubble. They don’t want to pay attention. The same thing holds true in these security offices. There are 30 cameras in the food court, but guys in the office are smoking pot, they’re not paying attention to the monitors. There’s all this technology getting more and more advanced. Is it utilized?

Beyond security measures, why are we keeping and storing so much information?
BS: Paranoia from 9/11. There is a belief that it’s a deterrent. There have been recent polls of the American people, and they are overwhelmingly for more cameras. They feel safer when they’re around. This stuff has become really inexpensive, and Internet digital technology is a huge enabler. If you had all these cameras and they required a separate recorder and they were producing warehouses of tape, then if you ever had to go look for it, there’s not much you could do with it. But these cameras are on a network. The images are digital. They’re stored on hard drives. Searching for them becomes a visual version of searching through Google. Now, you know how quickly you can find things on Google. Well, that’s an amazing enabling aspect that puts all those pieces together. Then they put these cameras up at intersections. OK, we can protect our citizens and give out tickets for running a red light.
AR: And make more money so they can buy more cameras.
BS: They instituted this congestion pricing in London where they have a lot of cameras and they charge you a tax for how often you come into the city. They track it by [capturing] your license plate. The mayor of New York City talked about doing the same thing to discourage people from coming in through the bridges. What you see happening is: They’re put there for security, and then they start to find other uses for them like traffic enforcement. How long can they keep it? Suppose you ran a red light and there’s a bag of dope in your car. Can you be arrested for that?

The camera cannot smell it. “That is just a bag of herbs.”
AR: (Laughs.) Suppose when they get this facial tracking technology installed. What happens when someone walks into a mall and they have an outstanding ticket and they didn’t show up to court a year ago?
BS: The one thing about technology is that it always gets more powerful and cheaper.
AR: Or what about cases of insurance fraud and they hire a private investigator to track you to make sure you are as injured as you’ve said you are? I wonder if there will be a time in the near future where they won’t need an investigator. They’ll just use the facial tracking technology.
BS: Stakeouts would be much easier.

One of the reasons why you get authentic performances out of your actors is that their characters are unaware they are being watched. As more people become aware that they are being watched -- surveillance cameras, reality TV -- how do you think that will change people's notions of how to behave for real and how to act for the camera?
BS: I ran AOL. We had about 20,000 employees and there were cameras throughout our campuses. They were not hidden. We told people they were there. Particularly we had cameras in our data centers where people could get to credit card information. People forget they’re there. They become completely immune to the fact that they're there. And on a fairly regular basis there would be an event like employees having sex somewhere, little acts of sexual harassment, people doing drugs -- we had a couple with a cross-country relationship and they went into a conference room and she did a striptease for her boyfriend on the other side. Do you really think about the camera in the ATM every time you go up to it?

Yes, and after watching your film I am much more conscious of the fact that I am probably under surveillance on a regular basis.
BS: When I saw the dailies of people walking up to the ATMs with the ATM view, I found those scenes very jarring.
AR: Because the film was made very unconventionally. We shot the film from upper corners of rooms. We would go into a location, find where all the real surveillance cameras were and we would put our camera right next to it or right underneath it. We never faked it. We never added another angle just because it was going to help us conveniently tell the story. If we happened to be in a location that didn’t have a surveillance camera, we had a security expert on our team who would help us decipher where the real surveillance camera would go if there were one. Most of the time we were shooting on location. We didn’t close down the mall, the convenience store, or the department store. Everybody you see in the background is real and they don’t know a movie’s being shot. They can’t see the cameras or crew. The actors wore radio microphones so they would be in the middle of the store or department store. They wouldn’t see any of the cameras or us. And very quickly it was easy for them to forget a movie was even being made. As a result, their acting was very natural.

What's the rule about release forms for people who did not know they were being filmed?
AR: We did everything above the board. We would have signs in the mall that would say, “If you’re entering this area, you might be captured on film.” If we interacted with anybody in particular -- like that scene in the food court where the woman was looking for her daughter and interacting -- we had to get them to sign release forms. If we couldn’t get a release form from somebody, we just blurred her or his face out. The idea of this is that it is found footage. If you look at found footage on Cops, they blur out faces all the time.

Lastly, you want to provoke discussion for this film. What do you think about these interviews where you talk about yourself and your film? Do you think it serves the work? Should the work speak for itself?
AR: It’s far too complex of an issue for me to say, “I am 100 percent for the cameras,” or, “I am 100 percent against the cameras.” I’m not Michael Moore. This isn’t a documentary. This is a drama first and foremost and I want it to be entertaining and thought-provoking. The more I learn about the issue, the more complex the issue becomes. The more I find it impossible to say, “cameras are all good” or “cameras are all bad.”

I doubt you could even pull it off as a documentary. It would be very difficult to get any kind of release forms, and with some of those stories you would be accused of exploitation.
AR: Yeah, that’s true. (Laughs.)