In his three documentary features to date, Rodney Ascher has demonstrated a keen interest in the way human beings process and interpret sensory input, from the byzantine fan theories about The Shining in Room 237 (2012) to the bespoke permutations of sufferers’ sleep paralysis experiences in The Nightmare (2015). Ascher’s fascination with our varying interpretations of reality (and its accompanying intersections with pop culture) continues with this year’s A Glitch in the Matrix, which premiered at Sundance 2021, now on Hulu.
Using the content of a 1977 sci-fi convention keynote speech by late author Philip K. Dick as its jumping-off point, Matrix is an exploration (and meditation) on the emerging concept of “Simulation Theory,” which posits that present-day reality as we are experiencing it now is, in fact, a highly detailed artificial simulation being maintained and operated by outside forces.
An essayistic look at issues from technology dependence to media consumption, semiotics, philosophy and video game mechanics, A Glitch in the Matrix certainly gives the viewer plenty to ponder over. We recently chatted with Ascher about the film, Simulation Theory and the process of creating his unique directorial vibe.
My sense watching A Glitch in the Matrix is that you’re perhaps more inclined to believe in Simulation Theory than you are any of the Kubrick fan theories presented in Room 237. Is this accurate?
Ascher: I wouldn’t cop to it. My ambition with both films was to let the audience see things through the eyes of the people featured in them and to keep my own POV fairly discrete. At the end of the day, I don’t have a more direct window into Kubrick’s head or the nature or reality than anybody else, so even if thought that Group A was more right than Group B, that wouldn’t make it so.
In both instances, you use the “prompt” of the film to create character studies—not necessarily of your subjects themselves but of their thought processes.
Ascher: I never formulated it quite like that but I like how it sounds.
Regarding the use of digital avatars for your Glitch interviewees, what led to the use of this device? And why did you choose to apply it to the characters you applied it to and not the other experts who appear?
Ascher: I’m a pretty visually-oriented filmmaker so early into the process, before I even do any interviews, I think about the way they’ll be presented onscreen. Perhaps I overthink it, but the more a film’s style can reflect its themes, the more I like it. To me, using digital avatars felt like a way to comment on the fact that much of our person to person communication is already an artificial digital creation—from Zooms to gifs to emojis to snapchat filters, etc. etc. etc. If, as some suggest, the simulation will be inevitably be built sometime in the future, it feels to me that these things are steps along the way to getting there. Watching my son and his friends talk with one another about everyday elementary school life while embodied as robots, ninjas and superheroes in Fortnite makes it pretty clear how comfortable we are operating in digital worlds.
Ascher: As in Room 237 and The Nightmare, I was originally going to restrict my subjects to the people who had first-hand stories about the subject at hand and animate everyone. But in conversations with people like Erik Davis, Emily Pothast and even Nick Bostrom—folks who had a lot of insight into the idea but weren’t really talking about it through the lens of their own beliefs/experiences—it felt like I needed to differentiate them. For those people, I went with rephotographing their Skype calls off of a cathode ray tube monitor, courtesy of my friends John and Cathy, who own an amazing old school HD trinotron. The suggestion was maybe that the “eyewitnesses” were talking to us from inside a computer looking out, (perhaps they were videogame characters on their day off) but the “experts” were outside looking in. Surprisingly, or maybe not, it wasn’t always easy to decide who fit in which category.
And the approach is different again for Joshua Cooke.
Ascher: For Joshua Cooke, animating him felt like it might play a little glib, and since I didn’t have any video—I interviewed him from a prison pay phone—we opted for showing his story more or less through his literal POV (or an approximation of his memory/imagination.)
You definitely have a signature vibe that I believe is consistent across all of your projects, but each has its own unique aesthetic approach based on the content. The Nightmare, for example, feels very warm and analog to me, whereas Glitch feels very cool and digital. Perhaps describe your visual approach?
Ascher: I certainly try to execute each project in a visual style that speaks to the film’s subject—collage/found-footage for 237; studio-bound, live action, horror movie inspired reenactments for Nightmare; then all digital all the time for Glitch. As for the common aesthetic between them… I get it. It’s a style I’ve been tweaking since The S From Hell, though I don’t know how well I can deconstruct the nuts and bolts of it here. Obviously Jonathan Snipes’ music (and sound design!) play a gigantic role in creating the mood as well. His Glitch score is a crucial element of the movie—and is now available on vinyl through Deathbomb Arc Records!
What is your process like for assembling a film like this? Does it start with interviews that are edited down into a sort of podcast and then overlayed with an animatic or something like that?
Ascher: Yes, more or less. But what I and co-editor Rachel Tejada did first was create an insane amount of 3-10 minute long scenes from each and every interview. If I remember right, people I spoke to for a really long time—people like Paul Gude—might have gotten more than 30 of them. Only once they were all done, we’d start looking for connections and braiding them together into chapters, and then sequence those chapters into the shape of the movie.
At what point do the original animations come in? The music? The archival footage?
Ascher: Those short scenes would sometimes be very bare bones, though sometimes we’d begin to weave in archival footage right away when it was clear what was called for. I’d also start to cut in simple storyboarded shots where appropriate so we could visualize what we’d be animating and where to give scenes room to breathe without constant voice over.
Ascher: Temp music would go in right away to establish the emotional atmosphere and flow—Jonathan created some free-standing early demos and gave me some suggestions for temp tracks at the beginning of the process, too. He only got into the real score as the cement was hardening. Likewise, animation didn’t really begin until there was a rough cut of the entire film. We couldn’t afford to waste their time having them animate anything that wouldn’t get into the final movie. I think there’s less than 30 seconds of animation they created that’s not in the movie. The team—spearheaded by my old college friend Syd Garon, from Mindbomb—included Lorenzo Fonda, who did unbelievable work with the avatars/re-enactments, and one-man band Davy Force, who you might remember from the mind-melting short The Chickening, did the more photo-real stuff: the guy in the theater and the spaceship, among other scenes.
You’ve done three feature-length documentaries now in your own unique style. Would you ever want to direct a narrative feature? If so would you expect it explore similar themes of reality, technology, spirituality, projection, etc.?
Ascher: Absolutely, I’d really enjoy that challenge. The scripted projects I’m looking at now—or swung at and missed—deal with themes/ideas that clearly relate to the docs. In a perfect world I’d get to alternate between them—and then maybe try a VR experience.
Lastly, my overall sense at the end of watching this was “Well, when you’re a hammer every problem looks like a nail; when you’re a gamer, every weird quirk of either the natural world or our own brain chemistry looks like a bad video game patch.” Is that an appropriate takeaway?
Ascher: Sure, and that’s not a world away from how Paul begins the movie, talking about people comparing the world with whatever dominant technology was around at the time. With the caveat that there are people probing the genuine scientific possibilities of the idea—google “the holographic universe” or “string theory” for starters—the way I’d put it is that videogames give us some incredibly vivid metaphors to describe the world and our place in it. If Shakespeare wrote As You Like It today he might’ve started it with “All the world’s a MMORPG.”
A Glitch in the Matrix is currently available to stream on Hulu. Film Independent promotes unique independent voices by helping filmmakers create and advance new work. To become a Member of Film Independent, just click here. To support us with a donation, click here.
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