Director Robert Mockler talks about his debut feature Like Me and Terry Gilliam at SXSW

One of the films that made a splash at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas was Robert Mockler‘s directorial debut Like Me. A film that was set around society’s obsession with social media, I sat down with the director to talk about the kickstarter campaign that made the production possible, its backstory and our mutual adoration of Terry Gilliam.

You’re kicking into your thirties in style. You have your directorial feature debut here at South by Southwest (SXSW), which has been several years in the making to say the least. When did you first start working on the script and on the concept of Like Me?

About five years ago. So for me it’s like the movie that consumed the last of my twenties. In a very real way. About five years ago I was like … I was living with my Mom at the time. Like literally came up with the idea sort of like, came from my Mom’s basement, in that sense. I had no idea how to go about making a movie.

Had you studied film? Did you do the whole film school thing?

No I didn’t do film school. I couldn’t afford film school. But like, I just obsessively watch movies. I didn’t really participate in High School very much, I just watched movies throughout High School I think. There was this video store near me and it was like, when DVD was coming in, VHS was phasing out, they would do like $7 for 7 movies and you could just like, stack up on everything and they had like a Criterion Collection section. The video store was really cool. That was sort of my education, just like watching things. And then sort of … couldn’t afford film school … I had a bit of a health scare. Was misdiagnosed with MS, which kind of like …

Misdiagnosed?

Yeah yeah. So it gave me a little perspective of like, I just wanna do what I wanna do and try it.

Well that’s the best case scenario though, when you are diagnosed with it, that it is wrong.

Yeah exactly. But it was like a little jolt of like … you know you’re only here for so long type of thing. So like I signed up for a local county college, and like they had really great film equipment. You only had to sign up for one class and then you have access to the equipment locker. And nobody takes out the equipment. So it was just like, free equipment. And it was just like, learning and failing learning and failing type of thing. I don’t know if that answers your question, but that is like some of the history of it anyway.

So you started working on the script while you were at college? And while you were stealing the equipment?

Yeah yeah. Yeah exactly, right. And then I met a friend of mine. Her name is Jesslyn and she ended up being a producer on the project and we edited the movie together. We lived like 15 minutes from one another. We just equally like, became possessed over this idea. We started a crowdfunding campaign. We filmed a concept trailer.

Yeah I wanted to ask you about that because … I wasn’t able to actually watch the trailer, the original concept trailer but it feels like – I saw some stills from it – and it feels like you were really clear about the aesthetic from like, day one. At least from when that campaign started.

Yeah I mean the basic genesis of the idea was there. I feel like it became more refined but I feel like the raw idea was certainly in that. And then it’s just like, I’m a visual person so, that’s my entry point. I eventually moved to an apartment, and that apartment just became plastered with nothing but references. And it was just like, years of just collecting; ideas for costumes, ideas for compositions, ideas for lighting, ideas for colour palettes and like, that’s sort of my entry point into the world.

I mean colour palette is a strong theme in the film. Everything’s really bright. I read in an interview with you when you launched the Indiegogo campaign that finding locations was your biggest fear for the film. How did that end up translating? Because the locations that were used were quite strong.

Yeah well I mean some places are … like … you can be really sort of like … honest about it and they’re supportive. Other places you’re clearly a little more locked down and we use a really small sort of photo still camera. Usually it’s traditionally used for taking photos, it’s the Sony H7s2. It has this like, incredible low-light performance. It’s a beautiful camera. I mean it’s not like what most movies are shot on for sure, but it gave us this covert thing where in situations where we knew we couldn’t 100% lock the place down, we could go unnoticed.

That’s a good camera. It’s a really good camera. Bowfinger approach.

Some of the motels in the movie, we found in Rockaway. There’s this place called Plainwell Motel, and Rockaway is like a shore town in Brooklyn that got demolished by Sandy. And these artists came in and they designed these motel spaces and they’re just beautiful. The hope was to inject some excitement and bring in some tourists. But unfortunately they shut down recently but their work was just magnificent.

Banksy just did the same thing on the Gaza … the wall. He’s just done a hotel. Like a pop-up hotel.

Oh really?

Yeah. Right literally on the wall … So the theme continues. I was struck by the performances from Addison and Larry in the film. Tell me a little about casting them.

Addison … We were taking a bunch of meetings through the casting director. I met with her at a café. We just like instantly connected over like … We has a shorthand immediately. Which was like … I knew it was gonna be everything because you have a compressed production window, you have to move quickly. And if you can’t communicate quickly, then you’re dead in the water essentially. So we had similar interests, we complemented one another really well so it seemed like a perfect fit. And the thing is, is that she didn’t have a superficial read of the character. And that was the thing that I was most afraid of because you can look at the script and you can be like “Oh this is just a completely vapid person whose only drive in life is to be liked.” But like, there’s more to it than that, and she had that read.

Larry … He was a producer on the project for a while. And I was a fan of his work. His Blu-Ray box had just come out and I got to see like a new transfer of his career. He’s so … I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that movie but it’s kind of like a John Cassavettes vampire movie. But he’s so wonderful in that movie. And I just saw some of this character in that and I was like, “oh.” If we could get back to that spirit this could really work. I think he did amazing in that movie.

As much as this film was conceived five years ago it’s as relevant now as it was five years ago, which I’m sure is part of the reason why you went down this path because you knew this shit wasn’t going anywhere. And it was only going to get worse; the vapid deterioration of our society perpetuated by social anxiety is rapid and giving us precedence. Tell me a little about your thoughts on the modern social world and whether putting this film together has changed your perception of it at all… It’s a loaded question I’m sorry.

No no I mean, I get it. It is a sort of like … internet troll just became like a precedent right? So that’s a terrifying concept but … I don’t know like … I think I started of like really pessimistic. It was like this knee-jerk reaction of like “Okay this is like the most absurd step for humanity that we could possibly be taking right now” And it’s like this distilled thing of the worst things about capitalism and consumerism and social status and like, we are now literally … you can be quantified. You could be looked up as a statistic of this many followers, so they are this valuable of a person right? Which is a scary thing but like, more and more…

I like to think that’s gonna change, that aspect of it will change, because I just feel like, brands are being told this is the case and then any brand you talk to they kinda come back and go “We didn’t get our money’s worth.”

Exactly, right.

I’d like to think that’s changing.

Yeah yeah. Me too. I’m becoming a little bit more optimistic. I feel like the thing is it’s just a tool, right? And you can leverage it to do something really great or you could kind of like fall into the worst of it. But it’s sort of this amplifier or mirror that sort of just reflects things that were already there. What I’m really encouraged by is like, you know, there is this swell of energy here in the States right now anyway of like, people that are terrified of where we’re going to go. And I think what could be cool, is if, you know … There’s all these great thought leaders of the sixties I could only imagine what they would do with social media and how you could take all this energy and do something like, really profound. So, optimistically I’m looking at is like … it was new, we’re all adjusting to it, and now hopefully we can leverage it in a way that we can do some great things with it.

Do you hope that through the film that people take away that sort of message from it?

I mean I don’t want to project like an intention or anything with it but … my personal view, I certainly don’t look at it as purely like a corruptive, corrosive force. I see it as like … It’s exposing something that’s in us, it’s reflecting something that’s in us, and it’s up to us to figure out how to use it.

I mean look at crowdfunding and Indiegogo, even that is a social media tool so you know, you can’t play the victim too hard in the social world because there are positives to it.

No, completely. Yeah it’s just a new thing. And it’s easy to condemn something that is new.

Would you say that people would have rejected radio in the newspaper era and as people rejected cassettes in the radio era and as people rejected CD’s and laser discs and DVDs …

And televisions…

Oh I expect television is a great example because everyone thought “Oh, if people can get this content for free are they ever gonna go to see – ” People thought, when TV’s came in and they started showing movies on TV that no-one would go to cinemas again.

Right. Or it’s just gonna rot your brains and you’re gonna like, turn into zombies which … I mean partly true right? The thing is, is that, it’s like a camera like, when we saw the first photos of ourselves right, there’s that shift of like it changes our perception of who we are in the space of reality. And I feel like that’s sort of what social media did to science to some extent. It’s like now you’re authoring this other person out and you’re looking at yourself from this other perspective which, can kind of cause this weird fracture or like existential crisis. It certainly poses a bunch of interesting questions.

Beyond SXSW what’s next for the film?

Not exactly sure. Think it’s all about how it goes here, to some extent right?

So what does it mean to be screening at SXSW?

Everything. I mean like, five years ago when my producing partner and I, Jessalyn Abbott came up with the idea … we wrote on a piece of paper that this is where we wanted to land. So it’s like, a surreal result to end up here.

What was the reason for that? Was it like, similar sort of style, films … ?

Yeah. I just like what Austin is as a city but … I came here once before, and Rob Rodriguez was here and he’s sort of like, an inspiration as far as just someone who … Like I read his book Rebel Without a Crew and it was just like, you just figure out how to get it done.

And that feels very much like what you’ve done here. I mean you’ve just gotten it done. And I think unless you get really lucky, the majority of first-time directors that’s just what you do. You cut corners where you need to but not in the output but the … Like you said you get the camera so you can just walk into places and maybe not do it totally legally.

Well I mean … Most of the stuff was … Everything was …

Everything was fine, let’s put on record everything was fine yeah.

But … You have to find a new way. You have to figure out what is the landscape of technology now and like, what can you do to get your vision without hopefully losing its potency, and translate it right? And I found a really amazing DP his name was James Siewert and he made this movie – this short called The Past Inside the Present. And it’s comprised of like seven thousand frames that were hand-drawn over it. And he creates these amazing DIY rigs and he does lots of overhead shots, lots of things that spin so when I saw it I was like “Oh, this is someone that could make this film work.”

“He’ll get my scripts.”

Well ’cause we both came from this DIY, unconventional rigging sort of place. We both love Terry Gilliam we both love things that are just surreal and strange and …

Favourite Terry Gilliam movie?

Brazil.

It has to be doesn’t it? I mean it’s his masterpiece.

I think so. I think so. But I mean I love The Fisher King too …

I do love The Fisher King. It’s one of William’s best performances as well. But Brazil for me … I mean I’ve got The Criterion box set at home. I don’t think I’ve actually sat down and watched all of them though.

Right right right. That was one of those horror stories of like … A studio stealing a movie from somebody and then like, he waged a war in the press with them and then like …

What?

Yeah, right?

Well if anyone’s gonna win it’s Terry Gilliam.

I mean I love Terry Gilliam. He said this thing once that like I embrace as a philosophy. He was like, “I’m not an auteur, I’m a filteur.” And I think that’s like … when you’re making a movie it has to be collaborative. I feel like there’s this preconception that like every idea has to emanate from your brain as a director but I feel like it’s the exact wrong philosophy. It should be about like, collaborating with people, finding the best ideas …

Cool. I mean you look at someone like Rodriguez or Wes Anderson or Tarantino or even Scorsese, they use the same people. Like, they try to use the same – Hans Zimmer is in almost every Christopher Nolan film. And Christopher Nolan has never made the same film twice, except when he’s making sequels of Batman movies, but … he’s often working the same DPs, Coen brothers as well.

Yeah. It kind of goes back to the thing of why I chose Addison. It was like the shorthand that you develop with someone is like, invaluable to the greater process. And eventually you don’t even have to like, really communicate with one another. You can kind of just, give one another looks it is kind of strange like “Oh I didn’t hear a … That wasn’t a … Yeah okay.” And then you just go ahead and do it. And it eliminates all of the awkwardness that comes out of like, trying to talk about creative vision on the fly when everything is like, spinning around you.

And I imagine you’ve already got a million other ideas for films to come next?

I have four or five. But yeah very excited to get into the writing stuff again so …

So watch this space. Hopefully it’s not another five year process for the next one.

I hope so too!

Like Me premiered at SXSW earlier this month.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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