'Look' spy-cam footage looks real, but isn't
That's the premise of writer-director Adam Rifkin's "Look," a fascinating feature that appears to be actual spy-cam footage strung together, but is really a fiction film spring-boarding off the idea that our comings and goings these days are anything but private.
Produced by Brad Wyman and Barry Schuler, "Look" won the Grand Jury Prize this summer at the CineVegas Film Festival and was recently acquired by the new distribution company Liberated Artists, which is releasing it Dec. 14 in New York and L.A. It was executive produced by Donald Kushner and Richard Bishop. None of "Look's" ensemble cast members are recognizable actors because that would have instantly shattered the illusion that what we're looking at are real people who are being surreptitiously filmed.
Rifkin is best known as a screenwriter with such credits as "Underdog," "Mousehunt" and "Small Soldiers." On the directing front, his credits include co-directing and starring in the mock documentary "Welcome to Hollywood," which featured cameos by John Travolta, Sandra Bullock and Will Smith.
After an early look at "Look," which I've been telling friends not to miss, I was happy to be able to focus on the making of the film with Rifkin. "We all, I think, are aware of it, but I don't think we think about it enough," Rifkin said about the cameras that record so much of what we do in public today. "I don't think most people are aware of it to the extent that it really permeates the culture. When I started thinking about the idea to make the movie, I started looking around everywhere I went and there were just cameras everywhere. Most of the time (when) you're sitting in a restaurant, you're shopping at a grocery store, you're changing in a changing room, you're in a public bathroom, you're just not thinking about it -- but they're everywhere. And interestingly the number of cameras is growing exponentially."
An indication of just how quickly the camera population is increasing is seen, according to Rifkin, in that "From the time we finished the movie to now those numbers have jumped even higher. We had to change the opening cards of our film before the film gets released because the original numbers were roughly 26 million surveillance cameras in the United States generating about four billion hours of footage a week and the average American was being captured 170 times a day. We just finished (the movie) this summer and we showed it for the first time to an audience at the CineVegas Film Festival, where we won the Grand Jury Prize, which was so exciting. The new numbers are every day the average American is captured by over 200 cameras and the numbers are just growing and growing (and the total camera population) is nearing 30 million, which is pretty scary -- or good, depending on how you look at it.
"I did not want to make a political statement with this movie. I did not want to take a stand and say, 'I think (having) surveillance cameras in every store and on every street corner is a good idea unilaterally or is a bad idea unilaterally.' I just kind of wanted the film to spark the debate because some people are very passionate about one side of that fence and other people are really passionate about the other side of that fence. And, if nothing else, I just think it's interesting for people to be aware of because since we started making the film and people have seen the film everybody says that they're more aware of cameras now than they've ever been and they start looking for them everywhere they go. If you allow it to make you feel so, it can make you feel a little paranoid."
When I asked how he'd obtained the surveillance footage used in the movie, Rifkin surprised me by replying, "Well, we created it. The movie is a narrative feature. The concept is that we followed several storylines that are all intersecting, but the movie is shot exclusively from surveillance cameras. But we created all the footage that was shot. It's very much a narrative film where the actors are portraying characters and they're saying lines from a script. We shot all the footage and then we degraded it in post to look as authentic as possible to surveillance footage.
"It was very important to us that we hold very, very true to the conceit that this movie is shot from angles that only would actually be surveillance camera angles. So there's no camera in the movie ever that is anywhere where an actual surveillance camera wasn't placed or would be placed. In most instances, where we shot the film we just put our cameras right next to whatever real surveillance camera happened to be there. And if were in a location that didn't happen to have surveillance cameras, we were very careful to only put the cameras where a surveillance camera would actually be."
Asked how he came up with the idea of making the film, Rifkin explained, "The original spark of the idea hit me when unbeknownst to me I had been photographed going through a yellow light. I thought it was a yellow light (but the police said it was red). The photograph came back and it was me and it was my car, it was my license plate number and I was in that intersection and I was making a very embarrassing expression because I was singing to the radio at that moment. And then I started thinking about there's a true-life case where a man was photographed at a red light cam and sitting next to him was a woman who was not his wife. And when that letter from the police department came to his home with the photograph of him in the car with another woman, his wife opened the letter. It ruined his marriage and he sued the city and it changed the law so now, I believe, the person in the passenger seat has to be blurred. But all those things started hitting me at the same time.
"I started thinking about that story. I started walking through a Target and I was looking around at the cameras on the ceilings and everywhere I went I realized I was being photographed from a different angle. As a filmmaker I started to think, if I were to obtain all these angles and start cutting them together that's coverage. That's like shooting a movie. I mean, granted the scene would be a particularly boring scene of me looking for a super-soaker for my nephew's birthday party, but I thought to myself, 'You know, (it's staggering) if you think about where all these cameras are on any given day and all the different cameras we pass in front of (in places like) grocery stores, banks, hospitals, elevators.'"
At that point Rifkin said he, "Started to look into where cameras were and weren't illegal and I learned that in (only) very, very few states is it illegal to put cameras in public bathrooms and public dressing rooms. In most states it's perfectly legal. So that raised my eyebrows, as well. And then I just started to think, 'If in a random city for a random week somebody were able to compile the millions and millions of feet of footage of all the surveillance cameras and if you were to be able to somehow manage to wade through all that footage to the three, four or five most interesting stories that happened that week and could follow them all, I wonder how much they would intersect, I wonder how dramatic they'd be, I wonder how funny they'd be. The cameras are just capturing life as it plays out, but the advantage the camera has that none of us has is that the camera sees all. The camera sees both sides of everybody's persona.
"I mean, everybody to a certain degree has a secret life and whether the extent of that secret life is you'll only pick your nose if you're alone in an elevator or that secret life is that you're having an affair on your spouse or that secret life is you are living a completely dual personality from the reality that people know as you, you may think you have this information hidden from all the people that you know, but the camera sees all. And that's kind of what the movie's about for me. At its core, to me it's a movie about the things people do when they think no one is watching."
About a year or so ago, he continued, "I said to Brad Wyman, who produced the movie, 'I've got this idea for a movie.' I told him about all the different cameras that exist and what I'd learned looking up some information about it. I said, 'What if we shot an entire movie entirely from the point of view of surveillance cameras?' And he said, 'I love it. Write it immediately. We'll get it made immediately.' So I wrote it really fast. He gave the script to a friend of his, who he's in business with on some other projects, named Barry Schuler. Now Barry Schuler is one of the creators of AOL. They had been looking for things to work on together. Barry read the script and loved it and said, 'I'm in. I want to finance this movie. I get it.'
"He comes from the tech world and he's got so many great philosophies on upsetting the apple cart in terms of how to disseminate information and media. He really was one of the architects of creating the Internet as we know it. He just saw this as an opportunity to have a lot of fun with the kind of stuff that just hits him right in his soft spot. So we all rolled up our sleeves and made the movie together. I think it turned out really good. The first audience that ever saw it was (at) CineVegas and it won. That was just in July. We were so thrilled and so excited."
As for the challenges of making the movie, he pointed out, "When I first thought about the idea, I thought this was going to be the easiest movie I've ever made. I thought, 'OK, we'll put a couple cameras in a couple corners in some rooms up by the ceiling and we'll have the actors come in and say their lines and we're done. We can go home by lunch every day, is what I thought.' I was so wrong. This was the hardest movie I've ever made. The reason being is that it had to feel 100% real. All my other movies relied so much on movie trickery to be able to fudge -- okay, if a line gets fudged here or if that didn't feel real I know I can compress the timing and I know I can do this and can do that. I couldn't do any of that (in this film). I had to believe that when I'm watching this film that it could be real footage and these could be real people that were actually captured.
"So it brought up a whole new form of challenges because where the cameras were set up was kind of out of our control. OK. We're in a 7-Eleven. There has to be one camera there, one camera there, one camera there. We can't mess with that. But how can we tell all these different scenes and tell the story in an interesting and compelling way when we know we can't move the camera and we can't cut in for close-ups. I mean, this is a character drama with no close-ups. That was very scary for me. I had to figure out ways that we could recognize the characters in other ways than seeing a close-up of their face and through working with the actors and with the performances and with the staging within the framework of the static camera angles, how to most interestingly get to know who they were, get to care enough about who they were and do it in some sort of way that's still visually interesting so you don't just tune out."
Everyone is familiar, he continued, "with the two minutes of surveillance footage on the news every other day, but to tell an entire narrative from the point of view of surveillance cameras and expect to be able to feel for the characters was a very scary challenge. I was shocked though by something that emerged that I did not expect. You know, movies are all about voyeurism. I mean, you're looking in on other people's lives. But with this movie, you're forced to continually be reminded that you are not living vicariously through the characters, as is the case with most films.
"You are a spectator into these people's lives so what it basically forces you to feel like is an accomplice sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a bad way. You're forced to be observing things that you sort of feel like you shouldn't be observing. You're looking at things that people don't know are being captured (on film) and, as a result, it's titillating. But it's also at times shameful because you're seeing things that you know you shouldn't be seeing. And that was kind of a neat thing that emerged that I didn't really expect was going to happen."
Real surveillance footage, he explained, "at times is so murky that to see it for two minutes is fine, but to see it for 90 minutes it can give you a headache. So we were very meticulous in creating different looks for different locations to make sure that the film could be watched and digested without giving everybody a headache. The look of every different surveillance camera is authentic to real footage we have researched. But certain locations (look different because) let's say we decided the police station has a higher caliber surveillance system or the mall has a higher caliber surveillance system so the quality of the image might be better whereas the 7-Eleven or the garage or the ATM machine cameras haven't been maintained as well so those cameras are maybe of a lesser quality. And that kind of helped give the film all different locations and all different looks."
Casting "Look" required a different process than is typically used in making a movie: "Usually, making any film we're always trying to get the biggest name actors to attach themselves to our material because obviously it ups the value of the film and enables the film to get seen by a wider audience. In this film because the intention was for it to feel real, it had to feel like these could be real surroundings and these could be real people. We made the decision early on that we did not want any actors of note. We did not want to recognize any faces. And wouldn't you know it, when we sent the script out to all the agents and said, 'Give us all your best actors that may be working but aren't known' more known actors that are big actors that we would have in any other instance be thrilled to have in our film, we had to pass on.
"And the more we passed, the more (those kind of) actors wanted to do it. It was a tough test of character for us all, I'll tell you that, because those things obviously guarantee a film getting more of an opportunity to be seen on the road. But I had to stick to my guns. I had to say no to so-and-so (because) we have to go with unfamiliar faces. And I think that paid off."
On the marketing front, he added, "The film doesn't come out until December so we're not showing it to reviewers yet, but we've started a series of screenings for political shows, political journalists and people that are not necessarily from the entertainment side of journalism (but) from the politics and social side of journalism. We feel that the film, though not a political film, has an inherently political issue in this privacy vs. security issue. And we're finding that, so far, all the different outlets we've been showing it to and the editors and reporters and journalists we've been showing it to have really sparked to that debate, which is really, really exciting.
"We just happened to luck out timing-wise. The movie happens to be about a topic that is on the front page of papers every day. We happened to finish the film at time when all the big cities are wanting more and more surveillance cameras on every street corner to stop crime. The whole situation in London with those doctors who were planning those bombs -- those things were all solved by the complex matrix of surveillance cameras they have there. We were all familiar with the iconography on the news every week of a child being abducted and the surveillance footage is so grainy and we can't see who the guy was who took her or the (footage of) the nanny hitting the baby. There's so many iconic images that are so (much) a part of the collective consciousness to do with this subject matter, I just feel that the timing is right, luckily for us, for this movie right now."
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Dec. 22, 1989's column: "Behind every successful movie there seems to be a story about how many years it took to be put together. The latest such story comes from Freddie Fields, whose production 'Glory,' directed by Ed Zwick and starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington, got off to a fine start for Tri-Star last weekend.
"'A lot of projects suffer that difficulty of getting made,' Fields told me. 'This one certainly did. I suffered the problems of being turned down and rejected for reasons which at times I understood and at other times I became so frustrated about that -- that's what really kept me going.'
"What did they tell Fields? 'I would sit and tell the story and they'd be fascinated and maybe take a full meeting or even a second meeting,' he replies. 'But by the next day or within a short period of time when they got their feedback from their audience researchers they'd say, 'Listen, Freddie, here's the way it looks. Our researchers say, bottom line, who wants to see this movie? It's a period piece. Worse that just being a period piece, it's Civil War. And not only is it Civil War, but it's a Civil War piece about the first black regiment in history. Everything is working against this thin. There's nothing that says anybody wants to see this movie.'
"'So it was really basically that. It wasn't a disagreement that the story was fascinating. It was fascinating and fine, but who wants to see it? Then, of course, when those who did take the time to read the first draft, and many of them wouldn't, they also saw in their minds a very, very expensive picture costing $35 million or $40 million. It was impossible for them to believe, as I said at the time, that this picture could be done for anywhere from $15 million to $20 million, depending on the result that we wanted to get....'
"How did he get Tri-Star to make it? 'I kept hitting Jeff Sagansky three or four times,' says Fields. 'He started to feel what I felt. He then really was the one who sold it to David Matalon (then president of Tri-Star). David Matalon, then, became the champion of the film and still remains its champion. He got Victor Kaufman (then chairman) excited. They put me in touch with Ed Zwick, whom I'd never met before. They were very excited about Ed because they'd had a great experience with him on 'About Last Night.' We hit it off great. After we had our meetings I gave him the Kevin Jarre script and he said he wanted to do it.'"
Update: "Glory" went wide Feb. 16, 1990 with $2.7 million at 801 theaters ($3,350 per theater). It wound up grossing $26.8 million domestically, making it the year's 45th biggest movie. "Glory" did better on the awards front, winning Oscars for best supporting actor (Washington), cinematography and sound and also receiving nominations for best art direction-set decoration and film editing. Washington won the Golden Globe for best supporting actor and the film was honored with Globe noms for best motion picture -drama, director, original score and screenplay.
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.