What if these brilliant thought leaders in the past had access to the far-reaching immediacy that social media unlocks?
Robert Mockler’s neon-soaked Like Me is a portrait of a teenage psychopath only possible in the 21st century: an Internet fame-hungry woman driven to madness feeding off the viral video age.
The film opens with Kiya (Addison Timlin) holding up a drive-thru market and broadcasting the robbery live on her social media feed. The scared-to-death clerk begs for his life and pisses his pants with a toy gun spelling his end. That video goes viral overnight to the tune of over two million hits and the stunt sets off online personality/jealous troll Burt (Ian Nelson) who rebukes everything Kiya does—dictating new lines of one-upmanship and pushing her to cross the line. Caught up in a days-long crime spree towards new likes, Kiya ups the ante at an oceanside motel, pulling its pedophile owner Marshall (Larry Fessenden) into a cyclone of force-fed junk food, drugs, and doled-out abuse. As a rush of adrenaline ebbing and flowing with each new stunt like ocean waves, the experimental third act sees the unlikely pair setting out on a road trip in search of deeper meaning. Could this newfound connection put an end to Kiya’s wicked ways? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Like Me world premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival and made its international premiere at BIFAN in South Korea. This is Mockler’s feature debut as a writer, director, producer and editor.
Anthem reached out to Mockler in New York City to hears his thoughts on the attention-seeking world of social media, the future of viral sensations, and the wonder of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Like Me is set for a 2018 release. Latest updates on upcoming festival screenings after the jump.
Like Me tells the story of a young woman in a social media landscape who’s lonely and desperate for connection. Was that core point a general commentary you wanted to make about something we all identify with, or was it much more autobiographical for you?
It’s probably a bit of both. It’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve been dealing with social anxiety all of my life and it was probably the most extreme in high school. It made me very dysfunctional. It was actually something that I feared would prevent me from ever making films. So around the same time that I was dealing with social anxiety, I was really falling deeply in love with cinema. I started to gravitate towards films that dealt with loneliness, like Wild Strawberries, Taxi Driver, The Conversation, and One Hour Photo. It was also a subject that I was interested in exploring if I ever had the opportunity to make a film. I guess around 2012, when I became more conscious of social media and more aware of the major paradigm shift we all seem to be in the midst of, it felt like there were things percolating that were motivated from an intense human fear of being alone. There’s this profound effect—discovering our reflection for the first time. There’s this idea of your identity being tangibly authored under a new set of rules. That sort of fractured perspective, in a way we haven’t seen before, is still happening and manifesting in different ways if you look at the fake news phenomenon. I felt like there was this opportunity to explore loneliness and this new world we’re entering. I was also interested in fusing it with something that really fascinated me, which was this scary American obsession with the outlaw.
I love the diner scene. It really shows how Kiya operates. She tries to connect with a real life person, but it’s such a struggle. The homeless man leaves, too. He’s fed, then fed up after a while. I have my own interpretations, but what were you mainly hammering away at?
For me, she’s ultimately not after fame. That’s sort of the candy-coated layer. What she’s really after is trying to connect with people in an unapologetic, involved way. I feel like she was trying to do that in that moment with someone who seemed more removed from the world that she’s inhabiting. I don’t want to entirely, necessarily say what it meant because I want to leave room for interpretation. Hopefully that’s vague enough.
We’re constantly wondering what the next big thing will be in social media. Not to encroach on a possible money idea that you might have, but what do you predict we’re heading towards? How do you think our viral sensations will take shape in the future?
I think the thing that still hasn’t been tapped into yet is converging visuals, text, and audio in a way that’s more seamless. Right now, I think these things exist on separate platforms. I feel like there are still opportunities for media to converge all in one place, in a way that’s much more intuitive and effective in the way we communicate. Also, I think pure aesthetics are missing from a lot of these platforms. They’re really utilitarian in their approach, and often ugly. I do think people respond to aesthetics and there’s a way to integrate all the different types of media we’re communicating with now in a way that’s more aesthetically appealing and also makes more sense.
We know now that there are people out there who will go to unspeakable lengths to garner more followers, likes, and quick notoriety on social media. For Kiya, that means holding someone up at gunpoint. What would you personally group into this dark underbelly of social media that we’re all witness to and endure day in and day out?
I guess from her perspective, and my own brain at times while writing the movie and the way I interpret what’s happening, there’s this appetite for seeing humanity exposed in primal, instinctual ways. I feel like that’s why we gravitate towards these things that pop up, whether they’re super disturbing and violent or strange. For instance, there’s that video of a kid falling out of a rollercoaster that got millions of views. Because there are so many artificial layers in the world that we live in and because so much of our identity is performative and by the book, we have a thirst—when all of that disappears—to see one another in this stripped down way.
The anti-hero you gifted us with in Kiya is very specific to our time. Maybe that makes us repellent to her as well—we don’t always want to admit to our own online proclivities. Were you at all worried that might turn the audience off too much in telling a story?
I was certainly aware of the risk. But, I believe that flawed characters allow us to explore life in a way that opens up more interesting questions. It’s a risk worth taking. Some of my favorite movies in the past, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, really tried to redefine what films could be. Kubrick talked about how films could be more like an album—they don’t have to be like a novel or a play. Whenever you try to do something different, you’re going to risk alienating a group of people. You just hope that there’s enough people that it really connects with. But yeah, it’s a scary risk to take.
What was your first social network and how much of an effect do you think it had on you?
The first was MySpace. I don’t think it affected me that much because I didn’t really participate. I was making music at the time and putting content up. I didn’t really use it as a social networking platform. What really started making things interesting for me was Instagram because there’s this idea of communicating through visuals that I really connected with. Instagram encourages people to be more revealing in their lives with the stuff you wouldn’t normally see. The benefit too is that, hopefully, it starts this idea of visual literacy: Now we can communicate through images and that’s an accepted form of communication. That felt like it could lead to good things.
What do you find distressing on your Instagram feed? What makes you really cringe?
I guess it definitely plays on our insecurities of needing validation. There’s the low-hanging fruit of doing things we know are going to get feedback. Instagram, and Tumblr before it, definitely has an effect on how we perceive our bodies. It’s seeing people taking photos of themselves with these incredible physiques and not measuring up to that. It’s seeing people who seem incredibly wealthy with their lifestyles and not measuring up to that. I think it’s easy to fall into the pitfalls. But what’s still untapped and something we’re still figuring out is, in times of oppression or power transitions or the threat of a Trump administration, social media hasn’t completely grown up in a way where it could be used by thought leaders to effectively mobilize people to its fullest potential. I always wonder, “What if Malcolm X had access to social media?” What if these brilliant thought leaders in the past had access to the far-reaching immediacy that social media unlocks? It feels as though there is still a lot of untapped possibilities.
“Taxi Driver for the digital age”—I’m quoting someone there, you maybe. I want to ask you about the films that seem to mean a whole lot to you. I know there’s Star Wars, Requiem for a Dream—and The Conversation and The Tenant, which drew you to the “lonely man” subgenre. What’s the last film you saw, classic or new, that made you perk up and why?
Well, I just rewatched Heaven Knows What.
The Safdie Brothers!
Yeah! I’m obsessed with those guys. I’m so excited for Good Time. Did you see it?
I walked two hours in Shanghai. That was a one-time thing—don’t get any bright ideas.
[Laughs] They already are/will be legends. They’re tapping into something completely refreshing.
There’s no question that you have a very distinctive and imaginative mind. Could you talk about some of your direct influences and references for Like Me?
Yeah, I mean, there’s so many. There’s… [Laughs] It’s so difficult to explain. It’s just years of collecting imagery that I discovered through artists online through their Tumblr accounts or actual films that I was sometimes pulling from. It’s such an amalgamation of so many things. I don’t think I could really point to specific examples. It’s a cocktail of a bunch of stuff.
We should talk about Larry Fessenden. He’s a very respected figure in genre film. I had no idea who he was only a week ago. He’s a producer on Like Me and also joined the cast. I understand he was a mentor to you as well on the film. Even if he’s not imparting direct knowledge onto you at any opportune time, was he a reassuring presence to have on set?
Definitely. He’s so supportive in trying to actualize whatever vision you have. He has this attitude of, “We’ll just figure it out no matter what the circumstances are.” It’s invaluable to have someone who’s been been through it so many different times, under so many different circumstances. I was incredibly lucky to have someone like that who supported my vision and was completely, 100% devoted to helping me execute it.
You pitched Like Me to your producer James Belfer via a Tweet, which is 100% appropriate for this film and truly genius. But what made you zero in on James in the first place?
I was made aware of this Accelerator Program that he was developing, which was taking off in its first year. Basically, you get a grant and you go to this program to figure out how to finance your film. I was also aware of Compliance, a movie that I really love that I knew he was attached to. And I don’t come from wealth. I didn’t have a traditional filmmaking education. There wasn’t any avenue to finance a film for me at all. I didn’t have any connections either. I was completely on the outskirts of everything. It felt like the only way to take a shot at it.
Why did you @LanaDelRey and @markromanek in that Tweet? It’s very specific.
[Laughs] I don’t know. I thought they might take notice—maybe they’ll watch and Retweet it.
I think Addison Timlin has the potential to become household. How did she get involved?
Through the casting process. We grabbed a coffee and there seemed to be an immediate ease of communication. Our philosophies aligned in a lot of ways. She has brilliant instincts and works so incredibly hard. She ended up being the obvious choice. I met so many talented people that I would love to work with at other points of my filmmaking career, but she just seemed perfect for this and she was super into it.
You wrote a guest blog post for No Film School called “How To Use Social Media to Get Your Underdog Film Made.” In it, you reveal that a main order of business was getting named Indiewire’s Project of—whatever. And that’s not formula—that’s hope. It rings true when directors say that you really need to want it because there’s so much shit you have to trudge through. Your apartment turning into a giant mood board and you waking up to it every single day for five years—that’s serial killer obsession. Is there a second feature?
I have a few things in the pipeline. I’m waiting for something to fall in love with. It is an obsession—that’s appropriate to say. You need to be fueled with something that’s… You’re going to get punched in the face. [Laughs] The world is going to work against you when you set out to make your movie. And you just need to have this blind hunger in some ways to materialize it. It’s not an easy process. For me, turning my apartment into a mood board was this easier way to access the world and the characters I’m trying to create, and the feeling I’m trying to communicate. But also, it’s this thing that’s impossible to escape. You make it impossible to forget about. It’s impossible to give up on because it’s always surrounding you. As much as it’s about building the language for the movie, it’s important to have that connection to knowing you won’t give up on the thing.
What’s the craziest film you can think of that made you go, “This is a lot to take in”?
I mean, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw that on 70 mm two years ago and that attention to detail… I mean, I don’t think they’d seen the Earth from outer space yet when they made that. There were so many unknowns and it’s such a tremendous accomplishment of craftsmanship where all these different departments came together in a way that makes it, still, the best science fiction film ever made. It still holds up and it seems impossible to ever make something like that ever again. Even the filmmaking landscape is completely different. Films like that don’t get made anymore.