Filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo and actors Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey know that someone is probably listening to their phone calls and watching what websites they visit online, but they don’t really mind. Actually, they might mind, but it’s not like they can do anything about it. All of them agree that if you want to be a functional citizen in this technology-centric world, you’re going to have to give up some of your privacy sooner or later. Vigalondo explores some of those timely themes in “Open Windows,” his new thriller that sets in motion a dangerous game between a mysterious computer hacker and a young man (Wood) whose evening turns extremely bizarre when he is given the opportunity to spy on his favorite actress (Grey) from his very own laptop.
During an interview at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival, I got a chance to sit down with Vigalondo, Wood and Grey and talk about how having total privacy is a thing of the past, and what they dislike most about having an online presence today.
Some of the marketing materials I recently received for the movie call it the “‘Rear Window’ for the 21st Century.” Is that distinction something you’re comfortable with or would you rather this film stand on its own?
Nacho Vigalondo: Well, I’m a big [Alfred] Hitchcock fan, but I don’t consider him a big influence on this film. I mean, you can’t escape from Hitchcock.
Elijah Wood: Well, [Hitchcock] is so pervasive. He’s part of the fabric of cinema.
NV: Yeah, it’s like saying, “I breathe oxygen.” Well, of course you breathe oxygen. As a filmmaker, I think you are condemned to breathe Hitchcock. It’s part of your DNA from the very beginning. I don’t feel comfortable with “‘Rear Window’ for the 21st Century.” I get a little scared.
What about you Elijah? Is selling a movie like that something that is hard to live up to?
EW: Well, to a certain degree it’s to be expected. This happens with all media where something comes out, whether it’s a record or a film, and people try to contextualize it. What is the easiest way to reference it so people can understand it? It happens in all art forms. So, it’s one of those things that I sort of accept.
The film brings up a lot of interesting themes about technology and privacy and things of that nature. Would you like moviegoers to come out thinking about those more complex ideas, or do you want this film to be consumed solely for its entertainment value?
EW: I feel at its core, regardless of whether it’s on a computer screen or not, it’s a thriller. That’s something we can all relate to in terms of cinema and storytelling. I think if people walk out of the movie with a sense of our relationship with technology and what that is, that’s fine. But I don’t think that’s the intention of the film.
NV: I like the idea of making films that can work both ways. It’s your choice if you want to find something much more profound or interesting in the movie. I don’t care if someone thinks my movies are hollow or meaningful. I’m OK with both.
EW: I think both are definitely there – our relationship to technology and the way we communicate. I think one of the more interesting elements of the film is the moral ambiguity of having an online presence. I mean, we can be moral and innocent individuals and then do things online, that if we were faced with the same actions in real life with actual people, we may not do those things. My character ends up becoming complicit in his actions that he wouldn’t do in real life. But there is a distance that you have online that allows you not to be accountable for your actions. If there is any commentary to this movie, I find that element to be the most fascinating. I think we’re all guilty of doing or saying things online to people that we wouldn’t do or say in front of their face. Instead, we would write a fucking crazy comment about how much we hate them.
Elijah, as a young actor, do you feel like having that online presence is necessary? Nowadays, if someone doesn’t have a Facebook page, it’s almost like they don’t exist to a certain faction of people. Is it important to stay valid in that way?
EW: To be valid in it, no, not really. I mean, part of me wants to quit all of it.
NV: Yeah, I know what you mean.
EW: But there are certain elements of it that I love. There are elements of Twitter I think are very interesting. For me, I think Twitter is the easiest way to connect with someone without a middle man. You meet people who are of a similar mind, who you may not meet naturally. Also, Facebook is interesting because you can keep in contact with people you don’t see all the time. But I could also imagine quitting all of it. It’s a lot of noise.
Nacho, what about you? How much does social media play into your everyday life?
NV: I do have an active presence on Twitter. But you will never hear from me about things that are useful for my career or my image. It’s not helping me as a filmmaker. It might be helping me as a person, but there is no strategy behind it. I’m not promoting myself through Twitter. I’m just posting myself, which is not the same thing. Posting yourself can be appreciated by people. Sometimes people can see that you are a human being. Maybe they can find a connection. It’s not a tool. It’s almost a weapon – a weapon you can use against yourself.
Is the whole idea of privacy something you think about? I mean, when you get up in the morning, are you worried that the NSA is really listening to your phone calls?
EW: It’s just such an abstract idea. I think we understand this as a conceptual thing. It’s probably happening, but it’s so abstract. It’s not like there is someone peering through your window, which is a physical thing that would be very creepy. Yes, the implications are scary, but I also feel by having a presence in the online space you’re automatically giving away some kind of sense of privacy. I think we’re being naïve if we don’t recognize that. I think by having that understanding, we should have a greater responsibility for the fact that we are having public lives online. Mainly, I think the youth need to recognize that. I think people who are younger are sort of flippant about the shit they’ll share with the world. I think it’s important to have a sense of responsibility with who you are in that space.
NV: I think we have a schizophrenic relationship with privacy. If you see a science fiction movie from the 80s about a future dystopia, one of the big fears is being watched and losing your privacy. Now, we have shown that we really don’t care about privacy at all. We don’t give a fuck about it. We know big companies are selling our data to even bigger companies, but we’re OK with that because they’re giving us free stuff.
What about you Sasha? Do you get on your cell phone and worry if someone is listening to your calls?
Sasha Grey: I grew up really paranoid, so, yes, absolutely. (Laughs) But, honestly, I have a feeling that if you’re on the internet at all – if you shop online or use social networking – you’re sort of giving up your right to privacy. I don’t agree that it’s right. I think we have to accept that if we are going to be part of the online community.
EW: I totally agree.
SG: It is scary though.
NV: (Turns to Sasha and Elijah) I haven’t told you this. You know what happened to me two weeks ago? I met a girl who was having an online relationship with someone who was impersonating me through a fake email account for years.
EW: Stop it!
NV: It was so disturbing. I read all the emails. This guy was pretending to be me and asking for photos for a movie.
SG: Oh no!
NV: Yeah, I had to talk to the police and everything. That really freaked me out.
What do you feel is the most annoying thing about technology these days? For example, for me, if I look for a pair of khakis online, I’m buried in khaki advertisements for the next two weeks. Isn’t that something we could live without?
SG: (Laughs) That can be obnoxious, especially if somebody sends you and email and you open it and then you’re being targeted for ads for whatever that email is related to. You’re like, “I’m not even interested in that!”
EW: Yeah, or LinkedIn.
SG: LinkedIn! Oh, LinkedIn is the worst!
EW: I am tired of getting LinkedIn requests.
SG: Yeah, I don’t know you and I don’t want to be on LinkedIn!
EW: Yeah, I’ve got my own file to get in contact with people. I don’t need LinkedIn!
Sasha, you’ve been doing more mainstream films for a few years now. What are you looking to get out of this new career now that you’ve put the adult entertainment world behind you? Have you felt the cutthroat nature of this industry yet?
SG & EW: (Laugh wildly)
SG: I’ll answer the last part first: Yes I have, absolutely. But I have a pretty strong backbone. I’m used to putting up with bullshit. At the same time, there are always great people like Nacho and Elijah to work with. That’s what I look forward to. I look forward to cultivating relationships with people I admire. With [“Open Windows”], I was a fan of [Vigalondo’s last film] “Timecrimes,” so when I heard Nacho was making another film, I had my manager get in touch with his manager. It’s not always that easy, and it wasn’t along the way. It still took several months and I didn’t know if I was going to get the part. I always feel more comfortable when I get to meet with the filmmaker beforehand and develop some sort of communication because that’s what helps you along the way. Once you start filming, that relationship is already there even if you’ve only met a few times. Sometimes going in blindly to auditions, you’re just another person in the room. So, I want to keep acting and keep challenging myself. The hard part is to get those roles, but I’m down for the challenge.
EW: I see you as a filmmaker, too. You’re such a cinephile. You’re so motivated by your love of movies. I see you eventually moving beyond acting into something else in the realm of cinema.
NV: It should seem obvious that someone who works in movies would love movies, but it’s not like that. [Sasha and Elijah] really like movies. It’s really interesting to share opinions with them. I really hate meeting people who make movies but don’t really like watching movies.
EW: How could you be in this industry and not love movies?
SG: They love fame.
EW: I guess. I just couldn’t be satisfied with acting alone. So much of what motivates me as an actor is working with people like Nacho and being a part of cinema. That has more to do with what I’m doing than just filling a role.
“Open Windows” premiered at SXSW 2014.
For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.