The first-time filmmaker tackles isolation in the obsessive age of social media.
Robert Mockler’s Like Me is an unshakable film. Here is an aggressive, often angry assault on our desperate desire to connect in the age of likes, follows, and retweets. Concerned with the cinema of isolation, Mockler partnered with genre legend Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) and actress Addison Timlin (Little Sister) to produce a visually visceral descent into the psyche of the social media obsessed. Not quite Natural Born Killers, the crime spree of Like Me is a pulsating and painful conversation surrounding our Information Age addiction.
After making a significant splash at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, Like Me is finally ready to be set loose upon the rest of us. We talked with Mockler about the anxiety of putting your baby out into the world, the challenges of capturing the language of YouTube, and the inspirations that fed his narrative.
Honestly, I found Like Me to be a rather difficult watch at times. It’s so aggressive in its visual language. Or, at least, maybe the internet culture that it is absorbing or adapting is so aggressive.
Got you. In what sort of way?
When you’re adopting the unfiltered look of a wannabe YouTube star or Facebook Live or whatever, it’s such a caustic environment. You’re playing in that realm, attacking us with that imagery spliced into the narrative, and it can be really uncomfortable.
I see, I see. Okay. In a way that works for you, or in a way that it’s difficult to watch, that you’re distracted by it?
I think it certainly works in antagonizing the viewer, and maybe it aligns with your message. But it’s not an easy sit.
I see. Got you.
What was your approach to adapting social media content into your narratives?
Oh, man. That’s a tough question to answer, I guess. There are actually a lot of films that I felt were important to helping unlock that, to a degree. Věra Chytilová’s Daisies was important to me. I felt like there’s sort of like connective tissue there in a lot of the ways that she was exploring editing techniques and stereoscopic effects. I think there are similarities and… Sometimes with internet vernacular there, the way that she’s using this fast cutting imagery and what sometimes can seem like non-sequiturs but actually has some sort of abstract emotional connective tissue.
Enter The Void was also something that sort of helped me piece this together. More specifically, I think the opening credit sequence, that was something that was inspiring, that energy, that frenetic sort of fragmentation. I was just trying to convey how I feel I absorb information now. I can only speak from my own empirical experience of this, but my attention span seems to have shrunk, I feel. I notice that I feel uneasy when things are too silent. I require noise and stimuli to the point where I kind of had to actively try to treat that in some way, if that makes any sense.
You’ve talked about how, when you set out to make a film, when you’re looking for your subject matter, you specifically were looking to tackle loneliness.
When you thought of loneliness in the 21st century, you immediately go to our obsession with phones and the internet?
I think that’s only an element. I’m not expert when it comes to social media. I’m certainly not some kind of internet guru. I have my own thoughts and opinions, it’s something I’m sort of addicted to in my own way. But for me, social media is just one element among many that the film explores, and it’s not necessarily the central focus. It’s really just kind of a tool that has become infused into our everyday life. I don’t think it’s necessarily a blatant, corrosive force, because it really just reflects our amplified impulses and behaviors that are sort of innately in us. Some of those things can be ugly and horrifying, but they’re undeniably human. I think sometimes social media can be an incubator for our tendencies to try to escape our isolation and a certain powerlessness due to sort of like a communal pleasure in humiliating or judging people. But for me — and bear with me on this — hopefully it doesn’t get too convoluted.
No, you’re good.
Guillermo del Toro said, to him, Frankenstein was sort of about the essential loneliness of man and sort of being thrust into this world you didn’t create and didn’t understand. Bride of Frankenstein was about this absolute compulsion for company and the need not to be alone. For me, I did my best to try to explore those two concepts. Addison’s character is rebelling against the world she doesn’t quite understand, while searching for companionship and an outlier to quiet this pain and restlessness that she feels through her isolation. That outlier ended up being Marshall, who is played by Larry Fessenden.
So, you don’t necessarily see Like Me as a Black Mirror cautionary tale?
I think it could be, but I don’t really want to necessarily point anyone in one direction. I like the idea of not… I’m always trepidatious to solidify a meaning because I feel that that could potentially rob someone’s personal experience with the movie. But I think that’s certainly a valid interpretation of it, if that was one’s interpretation.
How about your own relationship with your phone or online entertainment? I know you have a Twitter feed. You’re well connected. You’re out there promoting this film using social media. Has your relationship with the online culture changed in making this movie?
I don’t know. I guess. I’m still trepidatious of really getting out there with Twitter in any sort of… I don’t really use it that much, to be honest. I use it as sort of a news aggregate. I try to use it more sort of like an information aggregate. I don’t know that I’m terribly active with it. I don’t know if that will change, one way or the other. It’s all sort of foreign territory to me in some way and also very familiar, but I feel like it is that way for a lot of people.
It has been a long road from SXSW for you. Now Like Me is finally hitting theaters. What has it been like living with this film as a finished product for so long and now finally unleashing it upon the public?
It’s like this fusion of excitement but then anxiety and terror. I remember watching an interview with Ti West a while back, and he was talking about how making a film is a very traumatic experience. I didn’t really understand that until I went through the process. You feel vulnerable in some way. I gave everything to this thing for five years, so it’s anxiety inducing to see where it goes but very exciting that it’s finally going to live outside.
You act as writer, director, producer. You co-edited the film. I imagine that there are various stress levels in each of those positions in putting this together.
Yeah. I guess that’s true.
At what stage were you the most confident in what you were producing? When did you feel like you really had something here?
Probably during the edit. You go out and capture these pieces during production and you have an idea of the tonality and how these performances and these characters are going to come together and what the atmosphere and the mood is going to be like, but you don’t really have a firm grasp on what the thing is until you start putting it together. I would say during the edit is when I started to figure out what it really was.
Is there a moment in the film where it all clicked?
No. I feel like every element is intended to cohesively sit together. I don’t think that there’s necessarily one scene that is more important than another scene.
How did Larry Fessenden get involved, first as a producer and then as an actor?
It’s a long story so I’m trying to figure out how to truncate it, but that will get boring. I was working with a producer, James Belfer, who produced Compliance, and he had just finished producing Prince Avalanche. He started this accelerated program for filmmakers that my partner and I, Jessalyn Abbot, who is also a producer on a project and an editor, we got accepted in. It was sort of a process of, we were developing a script and we were trying to look for the right producing team to partner with to really bring this to life. We were struggling to find someone, a team that we shared the same sort of philosophies that we were comfortable with.
I met Jenn Wexler, who is a producer at Glass Eye Pics, and she read the script and she loved it. We had a long conversation and Jessalyn and I felt really comfortable with her. She eventually introduced us to Larry and then we all just kind of sat around the table and talked and got to know one another. We all got along really well. Then it was months down the line that I revisited Habit. I love that film. I love his performance in it, and I felt like there were similarities between his character and Marshall, certainly dealing with loneliness in some way and addiction in some way. I felt like it could be a good fit, he could really give a humanity to that character.
What was his biggest contribution? I know he’s acted as a mentor to you over the filming of this, so, what was his contribution behind the scenes to the script that you really took away from it?
I think that’s just really it. He was a mentor in the sense that he helped me find a level of confidence and ask the right questions to help me explore that material. I could talk with him about the stresses and vulnerabilities that you might feel going to this process. Just being able to talk to someone who has been through it so many times themselves as a filmmaker in many different capacities was invaluable.
I can imagine he would be a goldmine of information.
Yeah. I was so lucky to meet him and I’m so fortunate that he was interested in the project.
I found it to be an incredibly visceral experience. As I attempted to say at the start of our conversation, at times it was hard for me to look at the screen just because of the images that were assaulting me and the pain that radiates from Addison. She’s phenomenal in the movie.
Oh yeah, she’s brilliant.
What was your relationship with her? What was your relationship with her? How did she take to the material? How did she process it with you?
She was attached to the project for months. After a while I was sort of able to write for her specifically and we were able to exchange ideas. She was really involved, even through post-production. I wanted her to have ownership over this character and really feel like it was her own. She’s so incredibly smart and has so many great instincts. Like Larry, she was just another amazing ally that I was very fortunate to find to really gravitate to the script, love the script, put her all in it, sacrifice for it, went above and beyond. I really could not have been luckier there.
Now the film is done, and it’s coming out, where do you want Like Me to reside in the cinematic landscape? What films do you see this movie, your movie, sitting next to in the great video shelf in the sky?
I don’t think that’s for me to say.
No. I have films that I love and I admire, but I would never say that I hope it sits behind this certain film or that certain film. Hopefully it finds an audience and hopefully certain people connect with it.
Are you eager to jump back into it? Your film has barely been born yet, but are you eager for another child?
Oh, yeah. Of course. I love the whole process. It’s like nothing else. I hope I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity again.
‘Like Me’ lands in theaters on January 26th, and will become available on VOD and Digital HD on February 20th.