One of the most visually provocative films I witnessed at FANTASIA was Graham Skipper’s SEQUENCE BREAK, the story of boy meets girl, boy ignores girl for arcade game, arcade game has sex with boy, arcade game has sex with girl, boy…. well, I don’t want to ruin it. But seriously, there is some weird shoit that goes down in this film. Chase Williamson (BEYOND THE GATES, JOHN DIES AT THE END) stars as Oz, a loner who excels at rebuilding and restoring ’80s arcade games. The shop that has served as the focal point is about to close and Oz has basically done nothing with his life, and has next to no human interaction. Then Tess (Fabianne Theresa, SOUTHBOUND, JOHN DIES AT THE END) comes into the shop and everything changes. Oh, her and the mysterious game that arrives without any instructions or provenance. Just as Oz and Tess’s romance flourishes, so does his obsession with the cryptic game. As Oz plays, he feels himself drawn more and more into the images flashing across the screen, in an almost sexual way. No, it’s not almost. This is man/machine carnal contact of the Cronenbergian kind.
SEQUENCE BREAK is the kind of film that at its core is a simple story, but its ability to transport you into another plane of existence through the sheer provocativeness of its imagery means the film continues to chill you long after its running time. Armed with an incredible 8-bit meets John Carpenter inspired soundtrack, Skipper’s film makes out like a much darker version of Tron, but instead of trying to get out of ‘gameland,’ the game is seems trying to get a foothold in our world. A ‘sequence break,’ in common usage, involves the player of a video game finding a way to beat the way outside of the developer’s intention, basically taking advantage of a glitch or exploiting an inadvertent hole in the world of the game. In the game, Oz may just have found the sequence break for his own life.
I had a chance to speak with wirter/director Graham Skipper after the film’s screening at Fantasia:
BEARS: So obviously, you can’t make a movie like this without a love of video games.
Skipper: I’ve always been the kid who, over summer break, would rather stay inside in the air conditioning and play videogames all day. Some of my earliest memories of videogames were either on my Nintendo at home, playing Super Mario Brothers, or in our local arcade. The one I used to frequent the most was actually in the movie theater lobby that we used to go to. So whenever my parents would see R-rated films, I would be allowed to just hang out in the movie theater lobby while they were watching the movie.
BEARS: That’s funny that was a real thing – an arcade outside the theater. Because I remember watching the film, and when Tess says that her did that, I was thinking, ‘what terrible parents!’
Skipper: It was a different age! It was a different age and your kids could run around by themselves for a while. I remember that being a thing. When me and my buddies would be going out with my friends’ parents, it was the same deal, you know? They would go see movies and we could either decide to go see a movie ourselves, or we could just hang out in the arcade. Most of the time we chose the arcade.
BEARS: Any particular game that makes its influence overt in SEQUENCE BREAK?
Skipper: Tempest. For whatever reason, that game always freaked me out. I can’t really put my finger on exactly why. I just remember it was so surreal and strange. Your ship reminded you of a spider and there’s things coming out of a black hole at you. Yeah, that game always used to freak me out, but I enjoyed playing it.
BEARS: So when you got down to designing the game, and how it would look in this film, how did you talk about that?
Skipper: When I sat down with our visual effects supervisor who was Jason Muller, and then Neil Jonas, who actually designed and animated the game itself, I basically gave them two guidelines. I said I want it to be inspired by Tempest and although it’s supposed to be menacing, I wanted it to be beautiful and hypnotic. The image that I gave them was that of a Tibetan Mandala. We talked about different functions of how we think the game is actually played. Although that’s not expressly talked about in the movie, we wanted to establish a set of guidelines, that at least we knew how the game was played. One element of that was important to us was that there wasn’t any kind of a life meter, or a power bar, or anything that would be a traditional indicator of whether you’re doing well or you’re doing poorly. I think this game, when Oz plays it, part of the mystery of it, part of the danger of it, is that you don’t know how to play it and you have to figure out for yourself.
BEARS: So your film had a lot of Cronenberg in its DNA. Especially that idea of getting pulled into a game and actually having some sort of human, technology connection to drawing in, obviously eXistenZ is the film I’m thinking about most – but that’s something that seems to play in the film, about not being able to separate himself from the video lab that he’s in, and the playing of the game. Can you talk a little bit about how that worked in the writing of the script and how you wanted it to play out on screen?
Skipper: For me, what is scary about that idea of not being able to separate yourself from the game, is that it’s ultimately about a loss of your humanity. The scariest thing for me is not be able to trust my own mind. That has always been a thing that has been a big fear of mine. What resonates with me and what I tried to put into the script, is when you give up yourself to whatever it is – whether it be technology or in general, I think it could just be a passion – when you give yourself over totally to that, you lose a little bit of yourself. I think the idea of losing yourself to technology is so strong to us to a culture right now because we do continue to get more and more reliant on it. Conversely we also look back to the past more and more to the things we’re nostalgic about – like arcade games. Like old VHS movies. I think we’re caught in the middle ground right now where we’re both looking back and trying to be obsessed with the technology we’ve left behind, and then we’re just obsessed with the technology that we’re hurdling towards.
BEARS: It seems like Oz has trouble separating himself, once he starts getting into it. It reminded me of when I was a kid and I would play games like Super Mario. I would play for three hours straight, because that’s what you do, because you’re trying to beat it. And you’re still playing in your brain when you go to bed. You can’t turn that part of your mind off.
Skipper: I don’t know why that is either. I was really obsessed with Tetris for a number of years and it was the same sort of effect on me. You start to see the shapes in real life. Or more recently, there’s a great game called The Witness. It’s all about basically drawing little mazes. A lot of what that game actually talks about, it starts to get kind of meta to where after you step out of the game, there are still mazes to solve, just in real life. I think that’s really fascinating. I agree with you. Aside from horror films honestly, which dig their way into your head and stay there, like even in a subconscious way. You still think about Jaws when you go to the beach.
BEARS: It’s interesting too that your lead character is set up as somebody who could design his own videogame. He certainly has the talent and the engineering ability, yet he hasn’t. It speaks to this group of people who play with art but yet still find themselves removed from it. What is his next stage of life after this? He’s forever playing games with his life.
Skipper: To me that whole element is a comment on how as an artist, it becomes very easy to get complacent with what is safe and what is working right now. I know for me, the idea of directing a film was a huge leap. It was a big scary thing and it’s a big task you’ve got to undertake. In the past, I used to run a theater company. I remember the hardest conversation to have is the conversation to say, “we’re going to do a show and we’re going to commit right now to doing it.” For me, that’s what I see in Oz. He has all this immense talent, but he’s scared. As he said, “I don’t want to half-ass anything. I want my first thing to be perfect.” While I think that’s certainly valid reasoning and I totally understand that, you can’t think like that. At some point you’re going to have to make the leap. If this is something you really want to do, you’re going to have to do the dangerous thing.
BEARS: So when you were working on the film and the design, was there ever any thought of, “I’m making this videogame a little too sexual,” to the point where it does look like it’s cumming on somebody? It’s so graphically sexual, it’s almost shocking. It’s like, “Oh, I see the reference, I know what’s happening,” – and then all of a sudden it’s not a metaphor. Now it’s gone all the way.
Skipper: It was always the intention to have it be sexual. To sexualize this machine. When we sat down with our special effects artists, Josh and Sierra, that was one of the first things that my producers and I really talked to them about: “don’t be afraid to go as far as you want.” Often times, the direction was go further, go further, go further. I think with something like that you do a disservice to yourself if you do it too subtle. It’s already a strange concept to think about a sexualized video arcade game machine. With Oz, when he’s encountering this thing, this arcade machine really wants to fuse with him. How explicit can we make that? How sexually can we see Oz push? That’s what the temptation is about. That’s the lust. A lust vs. love thing.
BEARS: If he had to choose between the girl and the machine, who do you think does it for him more?
Skipper: I think he ends up – I don’t want to give anything away about the ending – but to my mind, I think he figures out a third alternative. For me, a major theme of this movie is that we often get caught up in thinking we have to make a binary choice. It’s either got to be this, or it’s got to be this. I think there’s always a different way you can look at it. It’s ultimately about changing your perspective. I think the other major element of the movie is that human interaction is a very important thing. The more healthy relationship for Oz is with Tess. Not to say that his relationship with the machine is bad, but I think the more fulfilling life would certainly be one with the real girl.
SEQUENCE BREAK is currently screening at festivals.