Glass Prison: James Ponsoldt’s 'The Circle' posits a world without privacy

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A tech company swallows up its competitors, amasses unlimited power, and unleashes a camera-driven computer program that can pinpoint anyone on the planet. Should we embrace SeeChange as a protector of the underprivileged, a witness to human-rights abuses, a defender of the common good? Or will the program destroy our privacy, empower a vindictive mob, turn into the Big Brother of consumerism?

When Dave Eggers published his novel The Circle in 2013, writer-director James Ponsoldt was drawn to what he saw as a hilarious, if creepy, satire of the tech world. Already a fan of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Ponsoldt collaborated with Eggers in adapting the novel for the screen.

Through his Playtone production company, actor Tom Hanks pursued the project as well, and took the role of Eamon Bailey, a charismatic tech leader. (A fan of the author, Hanks recently starred in another Eggers adaptation, A Hologram for the King.) The STX release had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival prior to opening in theatres nationwide tomorrow.

"I'm going to mangle this quote," the director says during a phone call, "but it's been said that speculative fiction like The Circle is never about an era in the future, the faraway or near future. It's about the era in which it's made."

And events have in some ways caught up to The Circle. Crimes have been broadcast live on Facebook, and in China students are surveilled by cameras that broadcast their classrooms live across the country.

"I don't see Dave's book as speculative as much as providing an 'alt' version of the world we live in," Ponsoldt says. "I didn't want to fetishize the gadgets in the film too much, because it's not about gadgets, it's about people. Really about the protagonist, Mae Holland, who's a kind of surrogate for the audience."

Played by Emma Watson, Mae is, in Ponsoldt's words, "someone in her twenties, fairly typical, just out of college, stuck in a job she doesn't love. Still living with her parents. I think she's an idealistic person who wants to make the world better. She just doesn't know her opportunities or her calling yet."

Mae scores a job at The Circle after a friend arranges an interview. At first she answers phones on a help line, bewildered by the complexities of life on the Circle campus. Through chance encounters and a few poor choices, Mae finds herself in an executive office, being grilled by Bailey and Circle co-founder Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt).

As a result of the meeting, she agrees to be a test subject for SeeChange, making her life "transparent" by broadcasting it live on the Internet, open to comments from anyone who watches.

"Her arc in this film is in some ways the great American success story," Ponsoldt observes. "She rises through the ranks, earns a tremendous amount of power which she is not equipped to have, and gets exactly what she wanted—which also turns out to be a glass prison of celebrity."

In most Hollywood movies, characters are drawn from a relatively small pool of possibilities. A businessman may be good or bad, upbeat, depressed, a success or a failure. But apart from a few personal quirks, he is fixed as a businessman, never doubting who he is or how he should behave.

Ponsoldt's characters don't know who they are. Kate Hannah, the teacher in Smashed; Sutter Keely, the high-school senior in The Spectacular Now; even the author David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour—all are at a crossroads, unsure of their futures, their identities in flux, just as liable to fail as succeed. They don't behave like stick figures in a narrative.

"At the center of any good story is a complicated character who maybe doesn't know what he or she wants," the director argues. "A lot of the films I admire the most are not predictable, they have tonal shifts and characters who don't always make the best decisions. Mae wants to please everyone, she's open to everyone online. It's a scary situation in which you can lose your moral compass. But I don't judge Mae, I relate to her."

Ponsoldt's movies are also memorable for their grounded sense of reality. He accepts how his characters live, eat, drive around, not trying to present a dressed-up version of their world. The End of the Tour is filled with dreary strip malls, fast-food joints, suburban ranch houses, beat-up cars. It's the world Wallace lived in, not Hollywood's take on it.

For The Circle, part of this vision comes from research, the time spent looking at tech companies. Did workers have standing desks, yoga balls, treadmills? What plants were in the halls, what art on the walls?

But Ponsoldt also credits his collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Together they worked out two styles to reflect Mae's life. For her middle-class home in northern California, the camera is formal, locked-down, presentational. "Once she gets to the Circle, we wanted something dynamic, electric," he says. "We wanted the camera to rarely stop, to be a character in the film, the energy and spirit of what someone would feel entering a new world."

Libatique fashioned swirling pans and crane shots, one swooping from a wide shot above a crowd down to Beck performing on a stage. Ponsoldt also experimented with filling the screen with texts, at times too many to decipher, a kind of visual wash of comments ranging from banal to profane.

Key sequences in The Circle play out in an auditorium packed with true believers. It's where Mae, under the watchful eyes of Eamon and Stenton, announces her decision to go transparent. In the moment, Watson displays a touching eagerness tinged with fear.

"I've seen most of the movies she's been in," Ponsoldt says of the star, "all the Harry Potters, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, which I loved and found terrifying in a similar way to what we were going for. I also admire Emma for being so articulate and so intelligent. She's brave and speaks her mind, and has a wicked sense of humor."

The director compares Tom Hanks to actors like Jimmy Stewart or Jack Lemmon, performers who project intelligence and decency. The chance to play against type gives his work in The Circle an unexpected edge.

"I don't think Tom saw Eamon as a villain, he's someone who's a world-changer, a success story, someone slightly messianic. You can understand why you would like to follow him to the ends of the earth," Ponsoldt says.

"I don't think Eamon says a single wrong thing in this movie," Hanks pointed out in a radio interview. The actor captures that ambiguity, simultaneously playing up Eamon's appeal and menace.

"We spent a lot of time talking about the character, talking about the script," Ponsoldt remembers. "A long time leading up to the shoot, figuring out things so we are on the same page when we are shooting. He still did something like improvisation, and we had some happy accidents, but a lot of that happens before we arrive on set and people are standing around waiting for us to call ‘Action.’

"All great characters probably have some secret," he continues. "Actors come up with secrets they choose to share with the audience, or not share. Maybe it's revealed in a monologue, maybe it's something that the actor and director and screenwriter talk about and is revealed only in the eyes of the actor. Tom obviously has his own process which seems to be working for him," he finishes, laughing.

Ponsoldt sees Eamon as someone who would have been a protester in the 1960s, "a Marin County, windsurfing, Burning Man, pseudo-hippie capitalist tech entrepreneur. He believes technology can bring out the best in mankind. And in the real world, CEOs of tech companies have for the most part behaved pretty ethically. But what if someone comes along who isn't ethical. Say Steve Bannon had all your personal information, what would he do with that?"

Hanks actually e-mailed a question for Ponsoldt: “How much of the film is pre-shot in your head and when do you go with the immediate on-set flow?"

"When you're writing a script you're imagining locations you have yet to find and imagining actors who haven't been cast," he answers. "Once you have a script, it becomes a blueprint. Then you work with your production designer, location scout, cinematographer, you design a shot list and maybe storyboard a little.

"Take the scene with Emma and Tom and Patton sitting in an office, we ask, 'What is this scene about? How can we express it visually?' We're constantly refining, but really I'm just trying to be in the moment. I'm usually standing right next to the camera, I want to be as close as possible to the actors, I want to respond to what I'm seeing. Because emotional honesty is the number-one priority for me."

Ponsoldt cites works by Robert Altman, Hal Ashby and Paul Mazursky, movies filled with "messy honesty, a messy humanism. Moments when you feel like you are watching life unfold. Maybe they did five or ten or fifteen takes, maybe the actor flubbed a line or tripped. Maybe that's the moment, the tiny epiphany that makes you think you're alive."

What Hanks may have been driving at was Ponsoldt's willingness to work fluidly, to drop ideas that aren't working, to improvise solutions. "Look, if you wanted a sunny day and it's cloudy, and you lie to yourself and pretend that it's not what it is, your work is going to be fundamentally dishonest on some level," he contends. "If you embrace the world that's given to you, it might be better than what you had in mind."

Ponsoldt's movies so far, including The Circle, have been independently financed. He's making his next, Wild City, a live action-CG hybrid similar to The Jungle Book, for Disney. In it, a mountain lion loses its home and joins other refugee animals.

Ponsoldt doesn't want to be seen as anti-technology, and he isn't interested in making what he calls agit-prop. "But fundamental issues about privacy and surveillance and human rights as they pertain to our online identity, these are considerations I think were timely in the past and all the more timely in the future," he adds. "I don't think this issue is going to go away. Reality right now is dark and absurd and upsetting and frustrating and approaches the tone of a satirical novel. I guess in the case of the current political climate, that would be a Russian spy novel that's too pulpy to believe."