Matthew Lessner's stylish thriller 'Automatic at Sea' challenges perceptions of reality.
In many ways, we are living in increasingly solipsistic times, characterized by science denial and the emphasis of one's "personal truth" (which often eclipses the objective truth). Matthew Lessner has captured this zeitgeist of unreality in his creeping film Automatic at Sea, now streaming on iTunes.
In the existential thriller, a young Swedish traveler, Eve (Livia Hiselius), follows a pretentious American heir to his family's private island, where the two hole up for some old-fashioned downtime. But while at first the isolation and natural beauty appear to be idyllic, the tenor of the vacation quickly turns unnerving. Soon, Eve can no longer distinguish reality from fiction. Are her feverish phantasms just that—figments of her imagination—or is there something strange afoot? Are her paranoid thoughts (heard in voiceover) simply delusions, or does the loud-mouthed heir have a sinister plan in store?
"Maybe there is no such thing as consensus reality. Maybe you can never actually share anything. That's one of the most frightening things I can think of."
No Film School caught up with Lessner to discuss his "deep love" for unreliable narrators, his instinct-based production method, the crazy conspiracy theory in which the film got caught up, and more.
No Film School: Much of the appeal of Automatic at Sea is its obfuscation of the "real plot" in favor of a subjective narrative experience. What did you hope to investigate about hyperreality with this film?
Matthew Lessner: As odd as it may seem now, the genesis of the film was actually an earnest attempt to make a straightforward horror film. (Laughs.) I had the sense that my first feature, The Woods, was too alienating from a narrative perspective, and it occurred to me that the horror genre could provide a good scaffolding to build a story around, to create something accessible. When I started to try to unpack the things that were really terrifying to me, I kept returning to this idea of hyperreality—of feeling unable, at times, to distinguish the real from the unreal or fact from fiction.
Lessner: I became really fascinated by this idea that our beliefs can actually shape reality, or at least our perception of it. I was haunted by the thought that you can be sharing the same physical space with someone else, believing that you're sharing the same experience, but actually be inhabiting a completely different reality based on a difference in beliefs or perception. Maybe there is no such thing as consensus reality. Maybe you can never actually share anything. That's one of the most frightening things I can think of, particularly when considered in the context of a partnership or close friendship.
"I'm of the mind that several narratives can coexist simultaneously, and that was the general approach here."
I was also fascinated by the idea that what in one culture might be considered mental illness, in another might be revered as a gift or tool to perceive and maybe even interface with alternate levels of reality. So it only made sense to try to create a more subjective, immersive experience [for the film], where hopefully the viewer is undergoing some of the same emotions, the same loss of footing and perspective that the main character is.
NFS: As evidenced by the recent fake news phenomenon and science denial, we're in, as the Golden Globes put it the other night, a "my truth" vs. "the truth" moment.
Lessner: It is kind of wild how some of these ideas that seemed pretty abstract when making the film are now being demonstrated on such a massive scale in everyday life. I think within art it is an interesting exercise to invite people to have their own interpretations of the truth, but when that same principle expands to reality itself, it can become a little overwhelming—a little dangerous perhaps, a little scary.
Lessner: On a societal level, we seem to be undergoing a kind of breakdown of consensus reality. Perhaps it's always been this way to some degree, but it really feels like we're increasingly finding ourselves inhabiting different realities based on what we choose to absorb, where we choose to look, and subsequently what we choose to believe. To some extent, it feels like the film has come to represent the horror of being alive right now.
NFS: How did you build out Eve's truth narratively, both in the script phase and during production?
Lessner: There was never really one version of truth within the world of the film—not even, necessarily, for me. I think throughout the process I've had many suspicions surrounding the truth of the narrative, but no real beliefs. I'm of the mind that several narratives can coexist simultaneously, and that was the general approach here.
"None of the actors ever had access to a complete version of the script prior to the day we were shooting something."
While writing, I was thinking a lot about the multiverse and nonlinear time—about this idea that on some level, everything that can happen is happening all at once, and that all these layers of reality are simultaneously present. Perhaps sometimes they are seeping through into others, and that cause and effect might be constantly ping-ponging back and forth throughout time and space.
Lessner: None of the actors ever had access to a complete version of the script prior to the day we were shooting something, and even when we were preparing for scenes, there was never a definitive way of interpreting anything. I imagine at times this may have been a bit frustrating, and I think it required a great deal of trust. Things were handled more in terms of the truth of the moment, as opposed to the truth of the narrative on a whole. There was never a moment where we all sat down and said, “This is what is really going on here.” I think that would have taken some of the fun away, some of the magic. We were investigating and exploring this space together.
I think that exploration has carried on throughout the entire process of making the film, even now, into this phase of sharing it with the world. I never wanted to fully commit to anything, because I wanted to leave that ultimate interpretation up to viewer, as a kind of gift. The film is an invitation to have an experience, and I think the experience has more value if the viewer is invited to be an active participant in that process, perhaps gaining some degree of ownership over it. I've had 10 different people give me 10 different interpretations of the film, of Eve's truth, and they are all equally valid—perhaps more so than my own.
NFS: What is interesting— and challenging— about unreliable narrators in general?
Lessner: I have a deep love for unreliable narrators. I love the way Nabokov uses them in Lolita and Pale Fire, and Terrence Malick in Badlands and Days of Heaven. They are such amazing ways to play with the sense of truth, and they also offer such great potential for humor. As one of my primary goals within the film was to create an environment where the audience, like the main character, is unsure of what is real and what isn't, I found an unreliable narrator to be a great tool for doing this. They help create a state of uncertainty, and you can play with allegiances, like, “Don't believe what you see—believe what I say.” There is so much potential in that juxtaposition between what you are seeing and what is being expressed. I think this has a certain degree of modern-day resonance as well.
"A lot of what wound up on screen was out of our hands—a controlled chaos. I like to think of it as collaborating with the universe."
NFS: In terms of mise en scène, how did you create the paranoid tension that escalates throughout the film?
Lessner: Often, in my dreams, I am simultaneously inside myself and outside myself, watching from afar, like a cosmic voyeur in two places at once. Things seem to be happening and to have already happened at the same time. Much having to do with the creation of this film sprung from the unconscious, so I think we were chasing that feeling. It was definitely a process where instinct took prescience over logic.
Lessner: Most of the cast and crew lived together on the island in the house from the film, and we designed the production in such a way that we were able to be adaptable to different opportunities as they presented themselves. To a certain extent, a lot of what wound up on screen was kind of out of our hands. It was a kind of controlled chaos. I like to think of it as collaborating with the universe, or sculpting in timelessness.
I had a very clear sense of how I wanted the film to look and feel, but I didn't have a lot of control in terms of the elements that made it up. The scale of the production wasn't such that I could dictate whatever I wanted in terms of props or locations. So I made lists of all the kinds of things I would like to have access to in a dream scenario and then we put that out, shared it with this amazing community on Martha's Vineyard, and worked to the best of our abilities with whatever we got back. It's like I had blueprints for a house, but then I built a portion of it with whatever was given to me.
"We shot the film on Martha's Vineyard in the middle of the summer and Obama happened to be vacationing down the road from where we were shooting."
Often, objects or opportunities would present themselves with little to no advance notice. Everyone had to remain open and adaptable. Many of my favorite elements of the film couldn't really have been planned; they just kind of manifested spontaneously. There isn't really any traditional improvisation in the film, but many of the scenes were written on location, directly inspired by situations and experiences that unfolded as we were shooting. There was obviously a certain degree of construction atop of all that, but it is difficult for me to really comment on. I was just a vessel, often operating in a kind of somnambulic state.
NFS: Did you encounter any interesting challenges during production? How did you overcome them?
Lessner: We shot the film on the island of Martha's Vineyard in the middle of the summer and Obama happened to be vacationing down the road from where we were shooting for much of the production. The airspace over the island was completely shut down for the duration of his stay. This initially posed a bit of a scheduling issue for the shooting of our own plane scenes, as well as for getting people on and off the island in a timely manner, but it wound up being really helpful in terms of recording sound when we were shooting outside, which was the majority of the time. But the empty airspace meant that we never had to hold for the sound of a plane, which was convenient.
There were a few scenes involving some minor pyrotechnics on the beach that had the producers stressed that the secret service might swoop down on us, but everything wound up being alright. There was a general sense that we were being surveilled, but I guess that's just kind of the norm these days.
"We shot on the RED EPIC. We really wanted to use the Barry Lyndon zoom, but it didn't work out."
NFS: There were many slow zooms and long takes. What kind of conversations did you have with Aaron Kovalchik, your cinematographer, about the visual approach?
Lessner: I've never had a collaboration quite like the one I had shooting this film with Aaron. We definitely developed our own visual language, and at some point we could communicate without speaking. It was a beautiful experience. I feel very thankful. I love that man. We created a set of rules at the beginning, and just tried our hardest to stick to them.
3 Women was definitely our biggest conscious visual influence. We watched it over and over and over again before shooting; we really tried to let it seep into our pores. Also, Stanley Kubrick's zooms, particularly in The Shining and Barry Lyndon.
NFS: Which lenses and camera equipment did you use, and how did you decide on them?
Lessner: We shot on the RED EPIC. We really wanted to use the Barry Lyndon zoom, but it didn't work out for whatever reason. We wound up using a Cooke 25-250mm zoom that we shot the vast majority of the film on, except for the slow-mo handheld shots, which were shot on a Cooke 35mm prime. Most of our visual references were from the mid-'70s, and we wanted the film to feel like it was of that time. We couldn't afford to shoot on film, so shooting everything through a big, older piece of glass seemed like a good way to give us some texture and cut down on the digital feel. Shooting pretty much everything on the zoom also helped simplify things in terms of building a more consistent visual language.
"We couldn't afford to shoot on film, so shooting everything through an older piece of glass seemed like a good way to give us some texture and cut down on the digital feel."
NFS: How was the experience of premiering at Slamdance and then finding distribution?
Lessner: We actually started working with MEMORY prior to premiering the film, which has been an amazing experience thus far. They are on a very similar wavelength, and I think immediately understood what we were trying to do with this film. I also really admire their curation and feel a deep kinship with all of their projects, so it feels really exciting to be a part of that world. The festival was a great time, the audiences were super smart and welcoming and receptive. I feel very thankful for the experience.
NFS: You had a conspiracy theory experience with this film. What can you tell me about #pizzagate and its relationship to Automatic at Sea?
Lessner: Yikes! That's a rather involved question. I wrote an article about the experience for Filmmaker Magazine that I would encourage anyone who is interested to check out.
In broad strokes, #pizzagate was (and I guess still is) a debunked internet conspiracy that resulted from the hacked and leaked emails of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta. The conspiracy alleged that a child sex trafficking ring was being run out of the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C called Comet Ping Pong that had been the site of several high-profile Democratic fundraisers. Conspiracists began harassing and threatening everyone involved with Comet Ping Pong, particularly its owner, James Alefantis, who, in an odd twist of fate, was also an executive producer on Automatic at Sea and my previous short film, Chapel Perilous.
Lessner: It seems when people started Googling James—trying to dig up dirt and harass him online—one of the things they found was his IMDB page. It only had three listings, two of which were my films. The final sentence of the synopsis for Automatic at Sea on IMDB mentioned pizza: “Gradually the idyllic natural beauty of the island gives way and Eve finds herself trapped in a state of surreality punctuated by bizarre visions, dimensional shifting and secret pizza.”
"I was accused of being a Democratic operative, of creating coded propaganda for the Clinton Foundation, and of being associated with a Kubrick-style moon landing hoax."
The conspiracists seemed to take this as a kind of smoking gun. They started harassing me on YouTube and Twitter, as well as the actors in the film. I was accused of being a Democratic operative, of creating coded propaganda for the Clinton Foundation, and of being associated with Kubrick-style moon landing hoax stuff. I received threats on my life. These people also started to dissect all of my previous work frame by frame and draw all kinds of bizarre connections and conclusions.
As horrible as it was to be associated with such accusations, there was definitely something flattering about having my work viewed with that level of scrutiny. The whole thing was a weirdly interesting example of many of the things the film was attempting to explore, particularly the ways belief can shape reality. It was a deeply surreal thing to be caught up in.
The other crazy thing was that when all this was happening, Automatic at Sea hadn't even been released, so these people were dissecting whatever they could find, which was mostly just still images or our Kickstarter page. Now that the film is finally out, I've been patiently awaiting their interpretations. So far, I haven't heard much.