There are few films as keenly of-the-moment as "The Circle."
This nifty little cautionary thriller, based on a book by vaulted author Dave Eggers, follows Mae (Emma Watson), a young woman who gets the chance of the lifetime when she's given a job at a staggering tech behemoth (run, in part, by Tom Hanks, playing a character as charming as he is potentially dangerous). In "The Circle," ideas that are in the current conversational bloodstream, provocatively channeling our own fears about transparency, privacy, and surveillance are packaged within compelling character work and a familiar suspense framework. Some of the movie plays like the most edge-of-your-seat TED talk you've ever watched, other portions are like "Black Mirror," but with the more absurd elements toned down considerably.
And you could feel those modern anxieties at the film's premiere, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, in New York. Watson and Hanks were there, as was the film's director, James Ponsoldt, who I got to sit down with the next day in midtown Manhattan. The filmmaker, who some will know from his previous films "The Spectacular Now" and "The End of the Tour," makes bold leaps forward with this film, which is playful, colorful, and slick. (Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a frequent confederate of Darren Aronofsky's, absolutely kills it.)
It was a refreshingly wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from working with Eggers on the film's screenplay to being one of the last filmmakers to direct the late, great Bill Paxton, to what his interest levels are in taking over a big Hollywood franchise. As always, Ponsoldt is engaging and forthcoming. He is, like Mae in the film, totally transparent.
What was it like adapting Dave Eggers with Dave Eggers?
It was great. "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" came out when I was in college. It made a huge impact on me and pretty much everyone I knew; we were all obsessed with the book. I think I've read everything of his since. He feels like a cultural commentator who is speaking not only to my generation, but definitely to my generation. When "The Circle" came out, I was excited to read it was a Dave Eggers novel but it felt really different. It was plagued with genre and was a dark satire and Mae was a character who I felt was compelling and frustrating, and I realize my complicated relationship with the character was because I saw some of myself in the character, for better or worse, probably for worse. And the book really haunted me. That's what I was bringing to it.
When I first talked to Dave about it he was just great, in as much as his take was, the book is the book, the movie should be the movie, it shouldn't be blindly adherent. He thinks the best film adaptations of books take the theme but invent and necessarily have to strip away and invent things for the screen. I think a literal adaptation of that book would have had to be a 10-hour miniseries, and perhaps a great one.
So Dave said that at the outset, but there was a part of me that was wondering. I would be, if I spent years on a novel, [apprehensive] if someone was diving into it and ripping it apart in some cases. But he was just the best. The first draft of it he read and he sent me back a printed out copy with some penciled in notes but was very supportive. And then it became a constant back-and-forth. He had no ego in it at all. He was the first one to say, "What about this?" and "What about that?" The entire time I found it constantly inspiring. He was a great collaborator.
Now that Tom Hanks has been in two of his adaptations, is he the Tony Stark of the Dave Eggers Cinematic Universe?
I don't know! It's so funny! It's pretty cool, that relationship. I was at an amazing fundraiser in San Francisco on Monday night, and Tom was the guest of honor. It was raising money for an organization that Dave is part of. Just watching their rapport was like, Yes, I would listen to one of our most celebrated novelists and one of our most celebrated actors talk all night long. That's pretty cool.
Was there any fear that you were going to get to it too late? Because the story is very of-the-moment.
Yeah, for sure! I think any film in the history of films where technology is any part of it, you have that question, because technology changes. So does the movie become moot? I think that's always a question. I don't think so. If you just fetishize the gadgets then, yes, that's potentially a place where you can get into murky water. But if your real concern is issues of privacy and surveillance and overreach and us and the way we relate to technology and our own ego and our desire for privacy and yet our desire to be known and our love of free and new stuff that might come with fine print that we may or may not read, I don't see those issues going away.
A few pages into Dave's book, he says something to the extent of, "The Circle is a company that has subsumed all of its competitors." It's five minutes into the future, it's an alternate now. We went out of our way to make sure all of the tech in the film is either built from the ground up or seriously adapted from other things so you'll really only see it in the film. Yes, the technology will definitely change but we still watch movies with older cars.
And there is a little bit of magic to the technology.
Oh, totally. There's certainly a sense of humor to the book and hopefully the movie. It is satire and it is ridiculous and I'm not sure, when the book came out, that everybody read it that way. But it does have a sense of humor about it. I don't think it an overly techno-phobic or Luddite book. I think there's some belief that if you write something that engages with issues of technology, that you hate technology. That's like making a movie about fascism and saying that you hate politics. But it's like, no, you'd argue for good politics and ethnical politicians. But we were trying to tell the story through one person.
Was it fun going from the wintery desolation of "The End of the Tour" to "The Circle," which is so sunny and bright and has graphics all over the place?
Yeah. But they present their own challenges. On one hand, it's easy to do a naturalism, although "End of the Tour" had a period naturalism that was pretty hard actually because it was 20 years ago. We think we know what 1946 or 1968 looks like, but 1996 is like now but not quite. So a lot of it was just removing, removing, removing. In this case, I think people are used to anything involving technology being dystopian looking -- cold and symmetrical and everyone wears white. But that's not how these companies look and feel, and it doesn't benefit the story, it makes things a little too binary. These companies are young and fun and idealistic. They can also feel naïve but there is a youthful energy and spirit there, for better or worse. My time at tech campuses, I spent time in giant open floor plans with walls that say, "DISRUPT." Where you're like, is this a parody of itself? But it's easy to be a cynic in that world.
You bring up cynicism and what's interesting about Mae is that she never succumbs to cynicism. She's the same optimist at the end of the movie that she was at the beginning. Was that important for you?
Yeah, totally. I think Dave's book is tricky and fun. It's like a dark fairy tale or adult fable or something. Through Mae's choices, there are tragic, cataclysmic repercussions, and it doesn't mean that she doesn't fundamentally changes her feelings about privacy or what she's open to or what she sees in the future. Personally, she's not going to get into government regulation antitrust issues. She's a believer. She's a disrupter who, like all of us, believes our position is better than those that came before us. But the truth is her vision for the future could be far worse. She just can't possibly know. This year alone we've seen what disruption means and that can be aided by the Internet and Twitter, with people using it as a platform to affect elections in multiple countries. I'm sure there were people on both sides who believed they were right and the other side was wrong.
I wanted to ask you about someone who is becoming a regular collaborator: composer Danny Elfman. His score for this movie is amazing, and I don't know that he's ever done a score that's this electronic.
I don't know that he has. You go back to Oingo Boingo, there's a lot of synth stuff there. Danny is amazing. I was a huge fan. I knew who Danny Elfman was before I understood what composers did. "The Simpsons." There's definitely a sound. Danny can do anything. But there's the stuff with Tim Burton and the stuff with Sam Raimi. There's also the stuff he's done with David O. Russell and Gus Van Sant. I was excited for "End of the Tour" because, like most of my films, there's probably about 20 minutes of music. But I was excited to collaborate with him in a way that I hadn't heard him do before.
With "The Circle," it was a movie with a lot of sound, especially when she gets into the world of The Circle. Surprisingly, there's a lot of human voice that's been futzed with, or auto-tuned to the point that you can't recognize it's a human voice, which was intentional. We talked a lot about electronic music and I'm a huge fan of it. To some people, who are not fans of it, it can sound cold, but for me I've never found that. But starting with Kraftwerk and onward there's so much humanity and wit and warmth to it. We wanted to create a soundscape for Mae that was overwhelming. There's a lot. In the same way that the camera doesn't stop moving when she starts working at the Circle, neither does the score.
Can you talk about working with Beck?
Yeah. Working with ... "My pal Beck," say that with quotes. The truth is, when you go to some of these places and I went to one of them for research and there was a free Hot Chip concert on a Thursday night. Of course there's a free Hot Chip concert and yoga and free food. We wanted someone to come in and perform that feels very matter-of-fact, another Tuesday night at The Circle. When his name came up, I had been a huge fan forever but I didn't think there was any way he'd do it. And then we heard that he thought it'd be really fun. But I still didn't think it would happen because I just assume things would fall apart. And we got to the day and it was like, He's really going to be there, huh? And he was there and he was amazing! It's hard to tell, but the camera swoops down and swirls around him; it's pretty elaborate. He was great and had incredible dance moves and was spot on. He did it again and again. Then he said, "We probably have another hour, hour and a half in us." So I was like, "Cool!"
Did he know your movies or was he a fan of the book or what? Did you ever find out?
That's a really good question. Some of the folks involved, like our music supervisor, grew up in L.A., and she had grown up in some of the same circles as Beck. I don't know what she told him. I assume he read the book because he's very cultured and he and Dave Eggers know each other. But beyond that I didn't fish too much. I didn't want to tempt fate. I was just excited that he was there.
You dedicate the movie to Bill Paxton and his performance is so great and affecting. Everyone loved him, and he was known as being the nicest guy. What was your experience with him?
He was the nicest guy. I hadn't worked with him before, so my only frame of reference was with this film. He had this kind of aw-shucks Texas demeanor, but he was genuinely kind, properly disciplined; he knew how to do his job and was obsessed with getting the details right for his character and framing the character honestly and humanely and not judging the character.
Like most great actors, he was most concerned with making his fellow actors feel good. And he was also a really good filmmaker. It's obvious that he understood how a set worked and what everyone's job was and had a lot of respect for everyone. He was the glue on set with this animating energy. He is someone who would text me and say, "Turn on TCM, there's a really obscure noir you need to watch." I knew him through the lens of that experience.
Everyone loved him and he seemed to genuinely love everybody. I feel bad, first and foremost, for his family, but it feels like a bummer for everybody -- his family, his fans. He should have been here for decades to come.
Your take on casting is really interesting. Because when I found out Bill Paxton was in the movie I assumed he was one of the Three Wise Men. Can you talk about your approach to casting?
With the Three Wise Men, my first frame of reference was Dave's book. So I checked there; I was thinking about people in the real world although they're fictional characters. It's like, "Who would have been a hacker programmer in real life?" What do those images look like? And have they been influenced by other movies I've seen? What do people who actually run multimillion-dollar companies look like? How do they talk? What's their background? Are they villainous like I think they'd be? Probably not. It was a lot of those things. In the case of Tom Hanks's character, what are the aspects of a charismatic person who really believes what he believes? Really wants to democratize the world but that being said is making billions of dollars for the company, which muddies up the intentions.
Bill's character was hard because it's tricky to portray someone with a chronic illness. That's part of the dynamic of Mae's family, it's part of the drama, part of the anxiety, and one of the aspects of The Circle, which is that they have an amazing health care and can treat a member of her family with a preexisting condition. You need an actor like Bill Paxton to get that character spot-on.
Was it hard casting an actor as charismatic as John Boyega and leaving him in the back of the room for most of his scenes?
Well, it's Emma's movie, right? She's in every scene. But one is really fortunate to get amazing actors to play those other roles. I'm someone who would make a movie with that actor or actress and have them in every scene. I can't wait to make a movie that's John Boyega in every scene or Karen Gillan in every scene. That would be really thrilling. John's amazing, and you see Tom doing it as well. Tom has had no problem starring in movies but they also have no problem serving the story and being a supporting role. I had loved John in "Attack the Block" and met with him and found him to be so intense in the best way. He was charismatic, intense, and focused. So I was thrilled that he was going to do it, because his life was going to change very soon.
As a filmgoer, I'm always excited when actors who are typically stars play a very different version that what they're known for or play a supporting role. Part of having a vibrant career is making those decisions.
You're of the age/resume of filmmakers who are having big projects thrown their way. Has that happened to you? Does any of that stuff interest you?
You know. Yes, they have offered things to me. But it depends. For me, I like ideas that aren't beholden to massive corporate interests. I could imagine making a movie that's an absolute no-budget movie or a movie with a pretty big budget. But something that is just part two or three or four or five doesn't necessarily sound as exciting to me.
I am writing something for Disney, but it's an original idea that, if I'm lucky enough to make it, will be a much bigger budget than what I'm used to. So there will be those pressures. But I'm excited to build that world. I have tremendous respect for those filmmakers, some of whom are friends of mine, who step into a franchise where there's a lot of love for the graphic novel or whatever it is it's based on. It's a different type of pressure. It's nice to build your own little universe and go on and build another one.
"The Circle" is out today everywhere.