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Henry-Alex Rubin

The Disconnect director on interpersonal relationships in the Internet Age

Apr 30, 2013 Web Exclusive
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Filmmaker Henry-Alex Rubin was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 for Murderball, his documentary about quadriplegic rugby players. As a highly lauded commercial director, he creates campaigns whose distinctive style often makes them feel more like short documentary films than advertisements.

Disconnect, his fiction filmmaking debut, is now in theaters. Jason Bateman, Alexander Skarsgård, and Frank Grillo lead a strong ensemble cast in a series of interwoven stories, connected by the consequences of misused technology. Pertinent and moving, Disconnect isn’t a warning against the dangers of our digital age, but a bittersweet parable about how failures to communicate ruin our relationships.

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): You came from making documentaries and commercials; Disconnect is your fiction feature debut. Can you talk a bit about the journey that took you from documentary to feature filmmaking?

Henry-Alex Rubin: I was always curious to try to make a fiction movie. Disconnect, when I read the script, felt like three documentaries intertwined, all that I would have enjoyed making myself. All the people in the film seemed very real and human, with real and recognizable motivations. I also related to some of the people I read about. If you had given me access to any of these stories that are told, I would have been interested in making documentaries about them. Insofar as the journey, the documentary work that I’ve done has dovetailed very organically into the commercial work that I do, that is almost exclusively documentary-feeling. I work a lot with non-actors, and I film a lot of events, so it’s been an easy continuation of the documentary work that I was doing.

I avoided making a fiction movie for a long time because I’m more comfortable with documentaries, and I like doing reality, I suppose. I’d read hundreds of scripts, and this one just felt like the truth for the characters in it. Certainly, the questions that the film asks about the way that we are all talking to each other, and whether or not technology actually makes it easier or more complicated for us to communicate and connect with each other, that’s something that I think aboutI’m sure you do, toobecause I know that I’m on my phone way too much, and I struggle with being on my phone as opposed to being present. That’s very common to not just myself, but many of my friends.

I was afraid Disconnect would be overly preachy about the dangers of our digital age, but that’s something you avoided very well. The film was more about the emotional wear and tear on these characters’ relationships, and in most of the cases they had deeper-rooted problems at play than technology.

That’s what I tried to do. No one wants to be preached to. I think technology is going to stay, and it’s one of the most exciting things in our lives, frankly. But with it comes a new series of questions, challenges, and dangers, which is something I think [Disconnect‘s screenwriter] Andrew Stern wanted to at least talk about.

It’s tough when you talk about something that’s so present, because people will react badly. Certainly, from the synopsis, some people have gotten to thinking it’s an anti-technology film, but it’s really not. It’s in the same way as the movie Traffic was about addiction, but the summary wasn’t “You shouldn’t get addicted.” It was a movie about people, and I was moved by it.

Along those lines of Traffic, I have to congratulate you on making one of these large interconnected dramas where the connections between the storylines don’t feel contrived or overly coincidental.

I’m not sure that the characters intersecting was that important for me, or for [screenwriter Andrew Stern]. I think for him, when you tell three stories, it’s a bigger canvas to make psychological observations about people than if it were just one story. For me, frankly, it was easier, because I recognized this as something I could do. Specifically because Murderball had three interconnected storylines. It was all about the same subject, but it had a Canadian coach who was hell-bent for revenge, an American guy, and a third character, who had just broken his neck, and we followed him throughout the film, and what it was like for him. So, reading three stories together didn’t seem unfamiliar to me. I like those movies, whenever it’s like Short Cuts, or Traffic, or Babel, or Amores Perros.

You did a lot of research to prepare for this film, conducting interviews with real victims of cybercrimes, FBI agents, veterans suffering from PTSD, and others. What sort of things did you learn from those interviews that you used in the film?

To be perfectly honest, those interviews came out of my insecurity about coming from documentaries and not really knowing or being comfortable with fiction film. The only thing I really knew to do was go out and find real people who lived through, or had the jobs of, all the characters in this film, so I could be certain all the scenes and dialog I was shooting was authentic. That’s why I did that.

I interviewed someone who had bullied a classmate, and I was surprised to find out that they weren’t some sort of uneducated, nasty criminal type. It was just some kid who was shy and looking for a laugh with his friends. It humanized the other side of it. Some of that went into Colin Ford’s performance, who plays the cyberbully. Even more influential, I think, was interviewing a kid who had done a lot of pornography. He’d even done some underage pornography; he started when he was 16, doing it illegally, and is still doing it now. He does a lot of online stuff like Kyle, who’s played by Max Thieriot in the movie, does. He was very defiant about people judging him, and he flat-out said to me that it wasn’t his problem that everybody else in the world was so hung-up on sex and unable to accept what he does as being legitimate. He was proud of what he did, he was proud that he could turn people on, and he didn’t care about what the perceptions were. Some of the things he said went straight into the character’s mouth in the film. We learned loads from researching real people, and I made all of the interviews and interviewees available to my actors.

Let’s talk about the actors. Jason Bateman was outstanding in a role that was kind of unusual for him. You don’t see him often in such a serious part, but he fit very well cast against type. What did you see in him that led you to cast him in this role?

I think he’s a brilliant actor, and he’s never really given the chance to do dramatic roles. When someone has the magnetism that he has, and seems so trustworthy and likeable, I thought that I’d love to see someone like him go through what the father goes through in the film. I thought it would create empathy. Whether you’re making documentary or fiction, you’re always looking for a moment where the audience becomes empathetic to the character. There are these moments where somebody in the audience cares; it’s like an on-and-off switch for the character. That’s important, because it means they’ll care about the journey and the ending. And with Jason, you almost don’t have to do anything, because he’s so likeable and so magnetic that you like him from the start.

Another area that really impressed me was your younger cast, who played the teenagers and students in the film. It’s rare to see young actors that are so believable. What was most important to you when assembling the younger members of your ensemble?

Obviously, I tried to pick people who had great instincts, who were natural. When we were on set, I shot them in the same way that I shoot documentaries, which is very removed, with long lenses rather than right in their faces. What I would often do with the younger cast is let them play the scenes out without letting them see where the cameras were. I wouldn’t say “cut.” I would ask them to do it again, maybe do it this way, or give me a bigger reaction here, and we’d do five or six takes without cutting. So, that combination of never cutting, filming them when they were on and offthey were always just beingand filming with the cameras very far away…the more you moved the filmmaking process away from them and just let them be themselves, the more natural they got.

Something that seems to get lost when writers are focusing on other aspects of the film, I think, are the family themes, particularly fathers and sons. Those were the story threads that had the biggest effect on me, personally. Do you feel that parents are presented with a tougher set of challenges by our modern, connected age?

No question. I just became a parent 16 days ago, and I can tell you that this is one of the questions, when talking with other parents, that they don’t have answers to yet. How much time do you let your kid be on a laptop or computer? Do you spy on their passwords? I had this conversation with Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google, and he said, “Yes, 100%, parents should know every one of their kids’ passwords.” I’ve met other people who’ve said, “No, that’s total intrusion,” if their parents had done that to them they’d have hated them. I’ve heard both sides to that debate. Frankly, I don’t know what the answer is.

I just wanted to bring up some of these questions. How much time should you be on the computer? Should your parents be watching you? Should you have your phone at the table when you’re dining, or even have it in your pocket? How much time is too much time? How much of your information should you put online? No one has the answers to all of these questions yet, I don’t think. It’s all still new to us. A lot of this stuff is still only five to ten years old.

But fathers and sons, the family relationships…those are what attracted me to this film, much more than the questions of technology. Those were, to me, almost just a bonus, a side plot to the film. The central idea of this film is human relationships, and how important it is to be able to communicate with each other. In each one of these stories, what you see is the failure of a father to communicate with his son, or a couple who has lost their spark and ability to fully communicate. To me, that was what was most psychologically interesting in the movie: these relationships.

This is always a question I feel bad asking, because, obviously, you’ve just finished and released this feature; but I do have to ask if you’re ready to tell us about what’s coming up on your horizon. Do you have your next project lined up yet?

I’d like to finish a documentary I’ve been working on for a while, about West Point cadets who play rugby. It’s almost like jinxing yourself to talk about making a documentary before it really clicks, because you can just run into a wall at any time. Documentaries are my first love, and I’d like to finish this one that I’ve been working on, but I seem to be getting more scripts that are filled with emotion because of this film. That is, as a filmmaker, what you’re most interested in. If you’re going to have someone pay to see your movie and sit in a theater, you need to deliver an experience that’s moving.

[Henry Alex-Rubin’s new film, Disconnect, is now in theaters.]



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Reagan Ross
January 14th 2017

Great interview and just such an important choice for an “under the radar” film! I especially think this point made by Rubin is just so important to emphasize: “Certainly, from the synopsis, some people have gotten to thinking it’s an anti-technology film, but it’s really not.” Because of the marketing lines and synopsis, people go into the film thinking it is an anti-technology film and that is just way too simplistic for this complex film! For more, check out my post on the film: http://www.yourfilmprofessor.com/disconnects-re-connect-revealing-ideologies-technologies-disconnecting-dehumanizing-us/

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