I spoke to director Henry-Alex Rubin about his new film Disconnect the day after he became a father. It was something of a surreal phone conversation––with patchy reception––but of a piece with the film’s focus on technologically-mediated relationships. In the grand tradition of Traffic and Babel, Disconnect follows an array of characters at once: an ambitious reporter (Andrea Riseborough), a male stripper (Max Thieriot), an overworked father (Jason Bateman), an Iraq vet (Alexander Skarsgård), an ex-cop (Frank Grillo), and plenty others. What all of these people have in common––other than being in the same movie––is that technology is busy both defining and fucking up their lives. Online peep shows, online gambling, online stalking: it makes you wonder if we should even bring children into this world. Obviously, the film’s director thinks we still should––and on the phone he’s a spritely conversationalist, still flustered from his newfound fatherhood. Here, Rubin explains why he’s not a technophobe, how to make IM’ing cinematic, and what he did to get Jason Bateman and Alexander Skarsgård to show their soft side.
So I hear you’re a father now.
I am. I’m a dad.
This happened yesterday? Thanks for taking the time to talk.
Sure. But I did nothing. I just stood there while my wife pushed. And then it just popped out. They kept saying “Dad’s gotta be there. Dad’s gotta help with the breathing.” I did nothing––just stood there useless.
Did the prospect of fatherhood impact the way you saw the themes of Disconnect? A lot of the film is about parents worried about what their children are doing online.
Not really. I was already in post-production when I knew I would be a dad. It may have a bearing on the next movie, though. They say that once you have a kid you start cringing at foul language. We’ll see about that.
What attracted you to the script?
First, it seemed like a documentary I’d be interested in making if it were only possible––if I had access to an underage porn performer and a journalist who is exploiting him. Or to a couple of punk kids who were cyber-bullying another kid. Those stories sounded like an interesting documentary to me. So there was that. Then there was the third story––about a couple who loses their identity. That prospect has definitely crossed my mind on the web. When I buy an old LP online for example, who sees my information? Where does it all go? So all of the stories in the script seemed relevant to me. They’re touching on––but not answering––questions we are asking ourselves. If you are a parent how much do you control your kids online? How much do you check your phone? Do you put it on the table when you eat dinner with your family?
How often do you use your phone?
I’m on my phone pretty much all the time. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone my age or younger––I’m 39––who doesn’t check their phone semi-obsessively and feels a need to read texts or emails instantly as they come in. In the past we didn’t feel the need to do that. So something has changed our behavior here. Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. This is not an anti-technology movie. The movie just explores these questions. How do we communicate with one another in this new technological environment?
A lot of people have been talking about how this technology is changing storytelling. Like how do you make a text message conversation cinematic? You guys came up with one answer to that question.
I looked at a few movies to see what had been done before. One called LOL would have these corny, cartoony texts pop up on screen. And I remember thinking it looked fake. But I also started thinking what the real version would look like. I mean first of all, texting and IM’ing are here to stay. So filmmakers have to deal with and represent it somehow. Even though it’s icky and not cinematic. But if you do massive close-ups I think that’s interesting. You feel like you’re in their heads. I tried that, I don’t know how effective it is, but I wanted to give it a shot.
Well, it’s definitely a new kind of shot––the IM close-up. Has the press been on your case about the film’s message?
You know it’s very tough to sell a movie. You often are forced to reduce it to a sound bite. So you’re movie is about how you hate technology. It’s about technology and how it’s killing us. And you scratch your head and ask––gosh is that what I made? The writer literally took stories from the news and just reformulated them. But they’re straight out of the headlines––the massive online porn business that nobody really talks about. But it makes a lot of money. There’s a new kind of live show, this peep show thing. Dorm kids do it, housewives do it. It’s a whole industry. And then every week there’s a new headline about kids getting trouble doing something online. The other day kids got convicted for posting naked pictures of a girl. That’s so new. The technology is affecting our legal system. States are still drafting legislation about this new technology. I just wanted to explore these issues. And on a whole other level there’s a lot in the film about loneliness––and how all of us are trying to reach out and feel more full. And I think that’s an age-old human desire.
What about title? You can either pronounce it as a noun or a verb––a command.
That’s 100% right. But I think we were a bit more interested in the noun. The human disconnect…but certainly the title works both ways.
Do you ever feel the need to unplug for a day or two?
Absolutely. And it seems like a silly thing. But people should try it! I’m loathe to turn into the poster boy for disconnecting your phone. Because that’s’ not me. I’m more guilty than anyone about being on my phone the entire day. You know, Marc Jacobs was in a movie. And he was telling to me how he made his bedroom a completely device free space. I thought that was really interesting.
The film follows a relatively new tradition of intersecting plotlines––films like Babel and Traffic. Were these in your mind with the project?
This film is an emotional thriller like Traffic. I love that film. What Traffic did for addiction and the war on drugs, I wanted to do that about communication. Andrew who wrote the script says the idea for the film came to him when he was at the dinner table with four friends and all four of them were on the phone. And that’s when he got the light bulb.
You worked with an ensemble cast. Which of the actors surprised you most on set?
I liked all the actors but the one who surprised me most was definitely Jason Bateman. Bateman was a gamble for us. Here I am––first time director who’s only made documentaries. But I also grew up watching Jason Bateman and I wanted to put him in the movie. I always thought he would make a great dramatic actor. So I held my breath, but then he just blew me away on set. He did such a nuanced job. Even just when we’re filming his eyes. When he’s talking over IM––that scene could put you to sleep. But somehow watching Jason and what little he does with his face, he’s able to suck you in. He can do a lot with a little wince.
Both Jason and Alexander Skaarsgård show a lot of emotion. How did you open them up so much?
Both Jason and Alex came ready to be vulnerable. Which was something I was excited to explore in the film. You have all these lost, lonely people. When they finally get their buttons pushed hard enough for the emotions to come out, what happens? Alex is so statuesque; it’s hard to think of him having feelings. But most people who know him know he’s a brilliant, sensitive performer.
Well congrats on both the film and the kid. That must be a pretty overwhelming cocktail for you.
It was time. I was getting toward forty and I told myself I didn’t want to be an old dad. And you know what––it’s beautiful, it’s crazy. And still very vivid because it happened last night. I’ll tell you this, it’s better than winning any awards or taking any drugs. Just holding your child in your hands. It’s indescribable.