In contrast to the metaphysical tone poems that seem to be populating our cinemas and hearts, there are a handful of starkly realistic films out this spring that look to truly shed light on the bizarre and ever-changing time that we’re living in. People are plugging in and emotionally turning off, yet we’re better able to engage with a wide mass of people around the world—our inability to navigate personal attachment and real-life communication where the staggering questions lie. With his first narrative feature, director Henry-Alex Rubin mediates on that theme with his thrilling drama Disconnect.
After garnering acclaim for the Academy Award-nominated Murderball, Rubin wanted to try his hand at a fiction feature, and, along with writer Andrew Stern, crafted a large-scale yet emotionally intimate drama that deals with how one small decision or one moment is able to impact an entire network of people. Starring Jason Bateman, Alexander Skarsgard, Max Thierot, Hope Davis, Paula Patton, Marc Jacobs, Frank Grillo, and Andrea Roseborough, Disconnect is told through multiple interwoven story lines that come together and spin apart to give us a riveting drama and intensely immediate film.
Last week, I got the chance to chat with Rubin about transitioning into the narrative world, portraying theme over message, and the brilliance of composer Max Richter.
What I enjoyed most about the film was how it kept me gripped and felt very thrilling while still having a lot of emotion. But in terms of storytelling, how did you decide to make the switch from documentary over the narrative film?
Well, like anything, you’re curious to try something you’ve never done before. I was never in a rush to make a fiction movie because I love documentaries, they are my first love and will always be my true love and I will continue making them, but I had read hundreds of scripts and this one moved me. It also seemed to be asking things that I thought were relevant, things I ask myself: how much are you supposed to be on your phone, how much time do you give to the people around you, what’s the etiquette for keeping your phone on the table when you eat dinner—all these questions that no one really has an answer for yet, everyone’s just figuring it out. And I liked that that was food for thought in the movie, and it was clear that I didn’t really have any answers, we were just presenting a movie that was set in the now, that really shows how people IM and text and talk to each other. It’s a normal percentage of our life, mostly we’re still talking, but there’s a percentage of our life that’s spent communicating in other ways, and when you watch movies you don’t really see that because it’s not cinematic. But I don’t think it’s a big deal, the texting and IMing in this movie, to me, feels real.
That also has something to do with the way in which you chose to present it, and your decision to show their conversations in the space next to them rather than simply on a computer or phone screen.
What I tried to do was just have big close-ups of the actor’s faces and watch their faces as they read and react to those messages and then in the negative space next to them, there would be what they’re writing. But I love how you started this conversation, because you said the film was gripping to you yet you also felt something, which is really nice to hear because I’ve seen some very mixed reviews. The negative ones seem to think I’m trying to tell them something preachy and that I have a message. And the other ones, the ones that liked the movie, say it’s moving. And I also feel like it’s a Rorschach test for critics especially. If you watch the movie and sit down with an open heart, you’ll be moved by it; if you go in looking for things wrong with it or looking for messages, I’m sure you could find a lot of things to say. But what I’m interested in is what you feel.
Well, I think that’s the best way to approach anything, especially with something like this that has a lot of ground to cover.
It’s the same as when we made Murderball in that we really talked a lot about the emotions of the movie. We talked about withholding emotion through the whole film and allowing it happen only at the end so that it would be a release and this felt the same way. To me, it’s a thriller in the vein of Traffic or A Separation or The Lives of Others in that those are movies that are dramatic thrillers, in a way. I love a movie where you’re invested and you have empathy for your characters but you’re really gripped at the end you’re nervous or anxious about what the outcome will be.
That’s also true when you have these multiple storylines, which you know are, bound to become interwoven at some point in the narrative. And coming from documentary filmmaking, did that inform your knowledge of how to create these very human, authentic characters.
First and foremost, I just wanted to get it right. So all these stories were pulled out of the headlines by Andrew Stern, the writer, and once they got into my hands, I interviewed people who had experienced all of these things. I interviewed people who had lost loved ones, I interviewed people who been cyber bullies, I interviewed a porn performer, I interviewed FBI agents, I interviewed someone who has lost a child, someone coming back from Iraq, etc. And the more people I interviewed, the more details that came out of these interviews would go right back into the script and refine the script and even change it depending on some of the conversations we had. I also made all these people available to the actors—so that they could if they wanted, get inspired based off the experiences of these real people. As someone coming from documentary and not really knowing how to make a fiction movie, my first concern was getting all the facts straight, or at least drawing on some real life experiences. All the things you do as a journalist, I did before I shot this movie so that I’d be able to get it all right, you know? And one of the greatest compliments I got was from Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google, who came to the premiere—which blew my mind—very cool guy, invited him on a lark, and he said, "You got it right." He said it was the first movie that really got the Internet right. You couldn’t get a bigger compliment from a smarter person, for me at least.
It definitely shows both the danger and the possibility of the Internet, which was something that I enjoyed and I didn’t feel like it cast judgment, rather just presented the good and bad as fact of the times.
Definitely. People jump into conclusions that this is an anti-Internet movie or it’s preaching get off your phone, and that first level reaction is probably there because it’s so current and so a part of everyone’s live—it’s like making a movie about running water. I had to get it right or I knew there would be a backlash and although there’s really nothing I could do against people who kind of read the movie on the first level reading, I can only hope there are people like you or Peter Travers, who wrote something very beautiful also, that there’s complexity and that this is a theme and not a message. Traffic was similar, in that its theme was addiction and the war on drugs was its subject, but it was really human. I remember caring so much about Michael Douglas and whether or not he would be able to save his daughter from her addiction. I just love that in movies, when you care about people, where it’s tense and you’re going through emotions watching the movie and yet you care deeply about the characters. And in terms of what you said about documentaries, the only way I knew how to make this movie was just putting up two cameras at all times and letting the actors just talk over each other, move wherever they wanted, or look wherever they wanted—then they were free. And that was more like real life than if I staged it and told them, you have to look here. And with two cameras you could always be able to cut it together, like with a documentary. So the movie looks at times a little eavesdropped because I always had the camera far away or through windows and doorways.
Yes, it did feel very voyeuristic throughout and that idea of looking in on moments we really should not be seeing is intrigiung.
When you watch YouTube videos of people doing stupid shit, you know it’s real, it just looks real, there’s no acting going on. In my mind, that’s the high bar for realism and most movies are so far from real. I love that movie Catfish; you’re watching that movie not knowing whether they made it up or if it’s real. And everyday on set, I was hoping to capture that kind of authenticity in moments between the actors where they weren’t quite acting, just being.
Most of the film felt so naturalistic but then at the crescendo, there’s that slowed down, very stylized moment. Can you tell me a little about that decision in juxtaposition with the rest of the film?
The thing is to me, if you’ve ever experienced a moment or violence or terror or fear, the world really does feel like it slows down and so I wanted to capture that. It’s the only moment where I allowed myself to be a little more cinematic and less naturalistic while being very aware that that moment is going to divide people. I know that most critics will criticize it because up until then, the film is very naturalistic. But that slow motion has been described to me a few times as, the film having its grasp around your neck and you not allowing you to breathe in that moment. I’ve heard that from people, and so I feel like if you’re watching this movie and you care about these characters and you’re in it and empathizing, that moment will be horrific and incredibly effective as a stylistic choice. It will be even possibly more emotional than if the moment flew by in seconds. That said, I know, for a fact, that critics are going to seize on it and say, well that was contrived. But it just depends on whether or not you’re in the story. If you’re not in the story, you’ll just roll your eyes, I think. I’m more interested in emotional violence than violence.
I must admit, my first thought when seeing that scene was Lars von Trier.
Yes, if you’ve seen Melancholia that moment in the beginning and at the that end is very beautiful. But that was less on my mind than like Naqoyqatsi, just a rocket ship burning, tumbling towards the earth with Philip Glass’ music. Suddenly the movie becomes something else.
The cast as whole was really fantastic but could you tell me a little about casting Jason Bateman and why you wanted him for that role?
He considers it his first dramatic performance. But I grew up watching him, like a lot of us, and I always thought he was magnetic and I was always curious to see him do a real dramatic role. He’s done smaller ones before but never anything substantial. So I reached out to him. I asked him to grow a beard so that people would forget him as a funny man, and hopefully the beard helps a little with that. He was totally game to do this performance and he blew me away. It was a little bit of a risk because you never know if the audiences are going to accept someone as a dramatic actor.
Those scenes when he’s on the computer looking for answers, he did such a great job of portraying that sense of desperation and pain. I really hadn’t seen him like that before.
And he doesn’t even speak in those scenes. He blew us all away with how much he could do with just his eyes moving.
And of course, music played a large role in the film, especially Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight.” Personally, that’s the song I’ve always said I want played at my wedding, funeral, all major events really so, it’s a really important song to me and I’ve never heard it featured so heavily in film before.
Oh my god, that’s so awesome that you love that song. I love it too and I’ve loved it for years. It’s so touching, it just really reaches down into something deep. But Max Richter is incredible. He’s really one of the great contemporary classical composers.
And this really utilized the song, especially when it was really blasting over a moment.
That’s what he said too. He licensed it and they used different clips of it in other things but nothing where they’ve actually let the song play out and grow in the way it’s meant to be heard. It was always sort of like a quick cutting to the climax before.We really wove that song, you hear it four times at least.
The last half hour of the movie was pretty much just that.
It was, it was just that growing and growing. That’s so nice to hear though, that you love it. Blue Notebooks, the album it’s on, it’s just so gorgeous. That week with Max Richter was one of the best weeks of my life. I’m a classical music fanatic and so sitting with him in Berlin in his studio, we were just two kids geeking out over our love of music. He would hum things to me and I would hum things back to him, and the score came together really beautifully and organically. You’re not supposed to notice the score that much but if someone does, that’s nice. This piece builds and builds in emotion and so he feels like this is it, he now can out this song to rest.