Visual Literacy: An Interview With Robert Mockler of ‘Like Me’

Robert Mockler reflects on enabling collaboration, the solitude of the edit, the guidance of film history -- and the exciting changes social media is bringing to film.

“…Phones with cameras are almost as ubiquitous as the pen, and you are going to have all of these kids growing up with a whole new appreciation and understanding of visual literacy.”

There’s an air of opportunism to Robert Mockler’s debut feature Like Me, the story of outsider Kiya (Addison Timlin) who takes to social media to chronicle her crime spree. Opportunism, in that contemporary society is witnessing the use of social media or new technology as a tool for sharing violent behaviour that lends a dark underbelly to a platform with ambitions of expression and connection. From the assault of unsuspecting victims filmed on mobile phones at the beginning of the decade most commonly referred to as ‘happy slapping’, social media platforms have been used to broaden the ability to share videos of violent altercations. New technology has served to exhibit the dark inclinations of human nature — a spectacle of violence technology has evolved from Rome’s Coliseum set blood sports.

In conversation with PopMatters following the showing at SXSW, Mockler reflected on the journey from spectator to filmmaker, and how the two are still fundamentally intertwined. He also discussed the potential course social media and technology could steer visual language in the future, the importance of sharing authorship with his actors and audience, and the inevitable transformative experience of the filmmaker.

Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

I guess I just gravitated to it ever since I was young. Looking back and maybe trying to intellectualise it, it’s this thing that blends all the art forms. I love music, I love images, I love sound, I love performance, and it’s this perfect synthesis of all those things when it’s at its best — that is what it is at its core.

Initially, I was drawn to it when I was very young and curious, and then when I found out that films were made and were not just this thing that magically appears on your television set, are something you can be a part of, I instantly wanted to be. I don’t know that there was necessarily a specific moment, but there were certainly films that were very inspirational and helped me to understand what films can be.

Which films stand out as particularly inspirational and important in helping you to understand the form?

Initially, it was being four-years-old and watching Star Wars. Then when I was 13 I saw Requiem for a Dream that experimented with visuals, narrative and expression in a way that really cracked it open for me, and made me curious about what inspired this filmmaker. It opened up a whole gateway to different films that I had never heard of in foreign cinema and so it was a special film in that it introduced me to another side of filmmaking. So Star Wars and Requiem for a Dream, and 2001, which I saw on VHS when I was a kid.

I didn’t quite get it, but I was intrigued and then I saw the Blu-Ray release on a50-inch screen. Suddenly that film had this hypnotic huge scale attention to detail and it really hit me. Then, when I saw it on 70mm it just gave me a whole new appreciation for the craft, and experimenting with what you could do with the form and also a real appreciation with exhibition and understanding that certain films have to be seen on the big screen. The strength of a film specifically like 2001 is when you get to see it the right way.

A filmmaker remarked to me in conversation that it’s not possible to have expectations on a first film, only from the second film onwards. Would you agree and if not, how did the expectations of your feature debut compare to the realities?

I guess it’s tricky and it’s different for everyone. I don’t think there’s any one experience that will translate. I obsessively watch YouTube interviews and I really like Nicholas Winding Refn, and his advice, which is some of the best advice I heard, which was to basically do it your own way. The sentiment there is true because everyone’s experience is going to be different and it’s not necessarily about trying to apply some formula to your experience, but being open to what’s around you and trying to make the best of it. You just have to take every moment as it comes and growing up wanting to make movies, you feel that it is going to be this constant creative energy.

The biggest awakening is that reality often interferes with the creative experience, and a lot of filmmaking is logistics and problem-solving in a way that is not always creative. So moving into another feature, it’s nice to know that much.

Filmmakers have told me that editing is the best training ground for a director. How do you look back on the experience of editing this film?

I love the process of editing. I’m a very cerebral person and so it affords me the opportunity to work in solitude for a little while, and to not be distracted by the things that are moving around me. I think the idea that you make the movie three times is very much true. There’s the movie that you write, the movie that you direct and then ultimately there’s the movie that you cut together. But again, every experience is different. I don’t think I would ever not want to edit my own movies because I feel you have control over the tone, and you can really craft the performances and the structure of the film. For me it’s about watching other movies for the experience and seeing if there’s anything that’s a guide to helping me.

In this film, the cutting was aggressive at times and there’s a lot of imagery that I was inspired by. I watched a film called Daisies, this Czech New Wave film that came out in 1966. The filmmaker [Věra Chytilová] is brilliant. She uses a lot of stereoscopic effects and quick cutting abstract transitions, which was something I was very interested in. For this project some of it was looking back 40 or 50 years into film history to see the cuts and edits that were being used, that were cutting-edge and were pushing the medium forward. When you are editing you are stuck in your own little world, but you are also trying to look back and find guidance from those people that have made films over the last 120 years, to see what you can be inspired by and to hopefully peel off of that.

The emphasis of social media lends the impression of a contemporary film, yet it’s a meeting point between past and present. Cinema is, of course, a communal language, and Like Me reminds us of the ongoing development of this language that is dependent on the present feeding off the past.

It seems as though there were certain periods in film where there were pushes, there are now of course, to crack open how we can play with imagery in a different way. How information was played with and presented in those Czech and French New Wave films, and the various movements that were pushing editing and storytelling in very aggressive and new ways, always interested me. I always saw this film as an opportunity to maybe synthesise and figure out how I could fuse modern storytelling with some of those techniques that I was obsessed with, and build upon it to hopefully introduce some audiences to some of these ideas.

The social media stuff — and I guess in particular this looped repetitive distilled imagery — is kind of connected to the kinetoscopes, and the early motion picture machines of the 1890s where people would go and drop a nickel to look at a loop of a bird flying or a cat playing with a yarn. I feel these things are coming back in different areas of our lives and they’ve always been there, but now they are oversaturated and are fracturing our attention span. I would imagine they are certainly having an effect on our brains and how we perceive the world.

The most encouraging thing about now, the most interesting thing to me, is that phones with cameras are almost as ubiquitous as the pen, and you are going to have all of these kids growing up with a whole new appreciation and understanding of visual literacy. That’s extremely encouraging and I’m very excited for what that means for the future. There’s a whole underworld in social media. There’s the surface level, then there’s a whole sub-culture of avant-garde imagery where people are doing interesting things with these old distilled ideas — what can you do with a few frames and how can you express yourself in that way? Now that cameras and expressing yourself visually is so accessible, we are hopefully going to see people figure out new ways to push the visual in a whole other direction, to make it accessible and interesting to people.

The traditional narratives and storytelling that are in the multiplexes now, it seems people usually have an aversion to anything that moves away from a standard that has been set. But I think the encouraging thing about social media, aside from some of its negative drawbacks, is that visual expression is growing in a different way. If that can permeate into the mainstream and permeate into cinema, then I would be really interested to see what that synthesis could mean for the future.

Addison Timlin as Kiya

When we think of the French New Wave, the filmmakers have a formidable presence as the authors of these works, yet the actors also leave their mark on the films. While Like Me has a strong visual quality, Addison Timlin’s performance is inseparable from our memory of the experience that echoes this evocative presence of the actor.

It was a delight to work with all the performers. Addison’s brilliant and so are Larry [Fessenden], and Ian [Nelson]. Addison just brings so much to the material. She experiments and gives you so many options, which as an editor is exactly what you are hoping for — to have all these different tonal palettes that you can use to sculpt the film. She never makes a superficial read of a scene or a line, and she’s always offering and building upon what the thing was. I wanted to give her as much freedom and authorship over the character as I could, and I am a big believer of being collaborative with that process. I crafted the character, but there is a handing-off point and that responsibility is the performer’s.

As visual as the movie is, what’s kind of cool right now is that the way technology is moving. Even at the lower budget level you can start to make visually aggressive movies, but still not inhibit the performers because the technology isn’t as cumbersome or intrusive. So you can still do these things where you are giving people a lot of space and you don’t necessarily always have to give them a mark that they have to stand on. You are giving actors as much freedom to author their performance and giving them the flexibility to find these spontaneous moments that inevitably breath the most life into movies — the thing that you don’t expect and you didn’t plan, because that’s the most honest. So hopefully I was enabling that.

Then with Larry, I love Habit and I re-watched it just before I offered him the role. What he did with that movie in the early ’90s, this John Cassavettes vampire movie that deals with addiction, he’s so charismatic and delivers such a sensitive performance. I like him when he’s in that zone and so it was great to go back to that in some way. They just had such a great charisma, and Ian, too, has great instincts and likes to experiment. It’s all about getting as many options as you can and being as open to following this current on the day, while still being attached to the original intent.

On the subject of authorship and handing-off, when I interviewed Carol Morley for Starburst for the release of The Falling, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?

Yeah, I think so and certainly in some ways. It’s not yours anymore, it’s now up to the world to define and I can’t do that — it’s not my role. Everyone is going to bring their own individual perception to it and very much in mind with what you’re saying, they’re going to complete that gap in their brain. So much of that is completely subjective and I understand and agree with that sentiment.

Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me in an interview for FrightFest: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

Yeah, absolutely. I am a completely different person than when I started this process four or five years ago. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a painful and amazing process, and all of these things combined, it is this strange amalgamation of all the people you were throughout the process of making it. As long as you are honest about how that translates, then that’s what filmmaking is to a degree. But yeah, it has to be, it has to change you — it’s all too traumatic for it not to [laughs].

Photo from Robert Mockler’s Twitter account

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