This head-scratching mindbender of a film — which explores the notion of self while revolving around an archivist, location organizers, special eyeballs, and a red sphere — may go down as the best SBIFF entry ever for the mind-altering substance crowd. Of course, you really don’t need the drugs to feel like you’re on them while inhaling this film, whose labyrinth-like storyline puzzles yet intrigues throughout until you’re left just as confused as the characters seem to be. But you can also tell they’re onto something, and you might be too as you meander out of the theater. Or are you? Am I what? Yea, it’s like that.
To help us get a better grip on You Are Here, director Daniel Cockburn — who won an award for emerging talent from film critics in Toronto, where he lives — answered a few questions last week while stationed in the Dutch city of Rotterdam.
This is a truly bizarre, thought-provoking film. What was the genesis?
Conceptually, it came from my 10 years’ experience as a maker of short films and video artist, becoming familiar with the strengths and limitations of shorts versus features, and wanting to have my cake and eat it too. I decided I wanted to make a program of short films that the audience slowly realizes is not really a collection of shorts at all, but a single unified story — sort of like a concept album as opposed to a mixtape. In the process of writing, shooting, and cutting, the short-film-program idea sort of went out the window, and it became a 100 percent feature film … sort of. The fragmented structure lives on.
On another level, though, it came from my experience several years ago of having a nervous breakdown and becoming very paranoid, thinking everything I saw, read, and heard was some sort of message to me that needed to be decoded. That experience has stayed with me and worked its way into just about everything I’ve written and directed, and You Are Here is a compendium of characters dealing with the question of whether their life is just a series of random events, or whether there’s some “Great Code” at the heart of it all. It’s a cerebral concept, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s scary and exciting and sometimes even funny, and that, for me, is the heart of the movie.
Which films would you compare this to?
Todd Haynes’s Poison was a big inspiration, structurally: three short films cut together in way that doesn’t make immediate surface-level sense but hits you on a gut level. Synecdoche, NY was also a Rosetta Stone of sorts in its willingness to seriously mess around with the supposed rules of filmmaking and storytelling, but ultimately being a comprehensible and moving experience that hits you on levels you didn’t even know you had.
When making a film like this, what do you tell the actors? Do they immediately “get it” or do you have to work with them to understand the idea?
Because of any number of practical restrictions, I didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse with the actors. I did get the chance to chat with them about the script and the ideas, and I think that was probably more useful than rehearsal would have been. They were all professional and intuitive people — lucky for me — and I didn’t even realize until we were on set how much they did, indeed, “get it.” In a Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival, the immaculate performer R.D. Reid said he thought his role — and the movie — was about how to deal with deep-seated despair. This is something that he and I had never talked about, but I was gratified to hear him say it; it’s exactly what I saw in his performance, a performance which frankly went far beyond what I had expected for the role. So all this to say that the actors in fact brought themselves to the roles in ways that I hadn’t expected, that took the movie beyond its on-paper status as cerebral mind-games and into realms that give the audience something strange and sad and lovely to connect to in the midst of all the cryptic confusion.
In your mind, is there a real point to the film, or is it purely entertainment?
Well, entertainment can be a point unto itself … and, anyway, if you collapse “introspection,” “alien emotional experiences,” “creepy humor,” and “swimming in a sea of story without a life preserver” into the definition of entertainment, then yeah, it’s pure entertainment.
What do you have up your sleeve next?
Right now I’m at Rotterdam participating in the CineMart with a feature script I’m developing called The King of the Cats. It’s about two friends who become lost in the city, caught in a rivalry between two shadowy corporations, while conducting a sleep-deprivation experiment on themselves. I also have an Ontario Arts Council grant to make a fictional documentary about film criticism, based on reviews of movies that don’t exist.
Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here screens on Wednesday, February 2, 8:15 a.m.; Friday, February 4, 8 p.m.; and Saturday, February 5, 10 p.m., at the Metro 4. The schedule is subject to change, so see independent.com/sbiff for updates.