Most science fiction films deal with the kind of technology that you can hold in your hand, sit inside of, or do battle with face to face (I’m thinking giant robots here). However, this ignores that a lot of our scientific growth over the last 80 years, and certainly a large percentage of our research dollars, are coming from biological and specifically pharmaceutical developments. The happy pills of “Brave New World” are closer and closer to becoming a reality, if they aren’t already, and the thing about technology that comes in a swallow size is that it can seem so innocuous in the palm of your hand. As we unlock the secrets of the human body, we are going to face more decisions about technology that can exploit those secrets.
All of this leads to one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen in the last few years, REALITI, directed by Jonathan King and written by Chad Taylor. This New Zealand SciFi film deals with a media executive and his investigation into a new drug, called Realiti, which can change both your perceptions and opinions. It is another opportunity for big conglomerates to change the way society operates, and under the drug no one would even know it was happening. “Information changes perception, but how much of that information is accurate?” asks screenwriter Chad Taylor; “our personal experience relies on our five senses and our perception of linear time, and we all know how easily these can be subverted. So what if some chemical was invented that kicked that process along? What if you could pop a pill that simply changed your mind? Logically the two things would come together.”
I had a chance to discuss the film with Taylor just as it was being released on VOD. I had seen REALITI at Fantastic Fest the year before and just couldn’t shake it. The writer said the idea came to him back in 2004 well in Los Angeles. Even though the Iraq war was on the news and in the papers nonstop, everything outside was perfect and sunny. “Afterwards when I flew back to New Zealand, the exact same war footage was playing on TV with a different reporter talking over the top and the same headlines were in the papers,” he says, “and outside everything was still perfect and sunny. It was a very disconnected experience, like being in a loop.” In addition, he had just written a short film called THE ALIBI GIRL, about people selling a street drug that alters the perception of time. Instead of getting you high, it induced a jump-cut. Just a few months later, director Jonathan King, asked him if he had any ideas lying around for a script, and the news coverage and the street drug found themselves tied together in a frightening bit of future tech.
“I’ve written about shifting realities a lot,” says Taylor, “my second novel “Heaven” (1994) was about an architect who imagined he could see into the future of a changing city, and “Electric” (2003) was about a computer repair man who props himself up on drugs when his real world begins to fragment.” So the themes of reality versus interpretation run through a lot of his work, but in this case, he takes on two of the biggest perception ‘enlighteners’ – Big Media and Big Pharma. “They’re bigger than you, bigger than us,” Taylor acknowledges “and existing on that scale creates different priorities.”
In the film, Vic (Nathan Meister) has just received a promotion to the head office of the primary television station in the nation. A job like that comes with its own set of dangers and his head of security has to babysit him through the process of getting his wallet back from a hotel that the doesn’t remember being at, held by a drugged-out woman he’s never seen before. Or has he? As he tries to get to the bottom of who she is and what his connection to her might be, he unravels a conspiracy that may go directly to the top, where he currently sits. It’s a bit of Philip-K.-Dickian-inspired paranoia that never lets the audience feel particularly comfortable with what they are seeing. Is Vic getting to the truth, or is it the drug someone injected him with, and that’s the reason he can’t remember being at the hotel? “When Vic starts questioning things, the sheer scale of what he’s up against justifies his paranoia but also makes what he’s believing more unlikely,” says the writer, “I like the drama of that. Either way, he’s fighting the tide.”
REALITI has a sleek look to it. It is the future of now, just a few years ahead. The technology is recognizable; the society is similar to ours. This of course helps with a modestly-budgeted genre film, but it also makes it much more immediate. “That was part of the idea from the beginning.” says Taylor, “dramatically, the everyday setting contrasts with the complexity of the concept; thematically, it makes things more confusing because there’s no obvious technical agency within the narrative to explain the phenomenon –- there’s no holodeck.” Director Jonathan King designed a few markers, like cellphones that are little more than a glow screen, that tell the audience its not quite today, but it might be next week. He also scouted the locations, most of which were in Wellington, New Zealand. “The descriptions in the script were very sparse,” explains Taylor, “for me in a script what something looks like is secondary to what it is. So I had a glasshouse with nothing growing in it, or a corporate building with an endless car park: their function is symbolic.”
Instead of writing with specific locations in the mind, Taylor and King discussed the look in depth, using stylistic references like The Prisoner and The Twilight Zone to guide choices. “Just a touch of weirdness,” the writer suggests. King went out with a shopping list of locations and came back with settings that somehow all looked futuristic, and tied to together in the same place, and yet of course, all actually existed. “The surreal Brutalist building you see Graham McTavish standing outside is an old media center,” says Taylor, “Vic’s house looks like a set from Mad Men but it’s a real place and all the decor is as it was on the day.”
You will recognize McTavish from The Hobbit series; he played Dwalin, the bad-ass Dwarf with runes on his bald head. He is just one of several characters that exist in moral uncertainty in the world of REALITI. Is he on Vic’s side as his closest ally, or is he part of the cover-up? In fact, filming presented a few complications for the cast, who had to deal with different shades of the same role, depending on whether they were in reality or realiti. “I remember Michelle Langstone asking things like ‘Which one am I again?” confides Taylor, but thankfully, keeping track of that on set, when you are already shooting out of order and with gaps, fell on the director. “As I was writing I knew the script tracked logically but that wasn’t what it’s about,” the writer says; “it’s about the experience of perceptual uncertainty. Echoes of doubt.”
Langstone plays another character that may or may not be there to help Vic, or may not even be there at all. As an audience member experiencing REALITI, you are never really cozy with the authenticity of what we are seeing after curtains are pulled back a bit. Part of the exquisite craft of King and Taylor’s film is finding that perfect balance of just how much you can mess with the audience, when to pull their strings, and how hard. “If it had been a big budget movie we would have had to hold the audience’s hand more,” says Taylor, “that was what Jonathan liked about the script: that it didn’t go for the usual beats.” The audience is constantly wondering is the world changing, or is it just one man cracking up? He might be saving the world, but he also just might be paranoid. REALITI never really lets you get a firm foothold because Vic doesn’t either, and like a great noir, we are left to follow the clues with him. “I think films used to do that a lot more than they do now,” the writer says, “modern movies are more signposted. It all works out in the end, is what I would say.”
REALITI is out now on VOD from Vimeo to stream and download: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/realiti