“Unfortunately, I’ve Always Been Seen as Very Earnest”: Hayley Garrigus on You Can’t Kill Meme
I first saw Hayley Garrigus’s feature nonfiction debut, You Can’t Kill Meme, in 2019 as a work-in-progress cut. As I wrote last year, Meme
is bookended by the unnerving image of an CG-animated Pepe the Frog cradled like a baby in a man’s arms before slowly turning his head. Meme branches out from 4Chan’s infamous r/pol board to interview subjects who include online meme warriors on the left and right, a self-described “lightworker” who hosts workshops at her home and R. Kirk Packwood, whose 2004 book, Memetic Magic: Manipulation of the Root Social Matrix and the Fabric of Reality, codified how memes might be used for real-world gain. Diving into unsettling conversations with a variety of (often disturbed or disturbing) people, Meme is anchored by Garrigus’s coolly delivered narration, which diagnoses and teases out the implications of her footage.
Meme is both harrowing and oddly sympathetic, a one-on-one engagement with a number of interview subjects forming into a larger tapestry of conspiratorial narratives. Four years after Garrigus started working on the film, Meme is set to premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, with an on-demand release to follow this fall from Utopia. The delay didn’t just force Garrigus to craft a new, pandemic-acknowledging conclusion for her film — what once might have seemed a needless deep-dive into Intellectual Dark Web-adjacent areas is now on mainstream news schedule for where we’re at.
Filmmaker: The movie engages with a very specific subject that, when you started, was a fringe journalistic concern at best. Now, at the moment this is entering the world, everybody in America is aware of, if not meme magicians, some of the confluences that got us here, specifically QAnon.
Garrigus: People have caught up.
Filmmaker: In the same way your relationship to this material and your subjects has presumably changed accordingly over the last four years?
Garrigus: I don’t necessarily think my relationship to my subjects has changed too much, at least with my main subject Kirk. He and I keep in touch, and I find that even more so, he saw and knew something that took people a long, long time to catch up with, at least on the mainstream level. I had an interesting email come my way from one of the subjects in the film, who for some reason didn’t remember that we filmed at his house in 2018, saying that he didn’t know that he participated in the documentary. That’s cleared up, obviously, because there’s a release and many email exchanges, but the characterization of the film—he had someone writing on his behalf, and the way that she characterized the film was, “It came to blank’s attention that he was part of a film with a fascist agenda called You Can’t Kill Meme.” I thought that was really interesting, to see how people are potentially going to start categorizing the film without even seeing it. Anything about the alt-right or meme magic or those online communities, at this point because it’s been so cycled through the news and other outlets, I think is almost synonymous with, “Oh, there’s an overwhelming sympathy for them [in this work], therefore this is fascist.” I think if you see the film, you know that that’s not true.
Filmmaker: You started shooting by spending ten months in Las Vegas. How did you navigate the day-to-day of being there? A lot of your subjects were there, but it’s a difficult place to live.
Garrigus: I had the idea because I stumbled on Kirk’s book. At the same time, I wanted to make a documentary about the nuclear waste facility in Vegas. I was like “I’m not doing anything right now, I want to make this movie, so I’m just going to go to Vegas and see how things flesh out.” I lived about 15 minutes from the strip, so it’s a very different Vegas—it feels more like you’re in a suburb of Phoenix, a desert suburb with condominiums everywhere and strip malls and palm trees. So, I did feel this weird removal from the bustle of the strip, which I guess would make it feel even more isolating.
The first two months I was in Vegas, I did a bunch of interviews about, and had footage of, the nuclear waste facility, while I was concurrently starting to interview meme magicians and Kirk. There came a point where I thought I was going to combine the two, and talk about Las Vegas as this receptacle, but realized I was more interested in this other subject. Once I made that decision, I started looking for more of that in Vegas. That’s when I linked up with the lightworkers and the nuclear waste project was canned.
Filmmaker: As someone who’s familiar with a lot of fringe conspiratorial theories, I didn’t know about lightworkers.
Garrigus: It all spawned from this one meditation meetup I went to at this woman’s house, who ended up being [lightworker] Carole. I was going to the meetup not to find subjects for the film, but because I wanted to find a little bit of a community while I was there alone: “Oh, I meditate, I’ll go to this meetup.” When I met Carole and all of her friends, I realized this was part of the story. It’s difficult because, obviously, when I interviewed them, I have my own interest in spirituality and different esoteric subjects. So, I did have a curiosity about that and wanted to let them speak their truth on it. I do feel protective of them, because some people who watch the film watch it in earnest, with some sincerity, and they take something way different away from the film than someone who has their own perception of reality. There are a lot of laugh track moments for them. That’s really difficult to navigate, because there may be certain moments in the film people will laugh at where I’m like, “That wasn’t supposed to be funny.” That’s something I’ve dealt with my entire career going back to my thesis in school, when I was sitting in the audience during the screening and people started laughing. I didn’t mean for them to laugh at a section that was sincerely put in there. But I have to deal with that as a filmmaker who goes into things with the intention of a kind of naïveté. And unfortunately, I’ve always been seen as very earnest, and knowing that my audience may not be, that’s the gamble I have to take.
Filmmaker: There’s this very sincere relationship you have to your subject matter, but there’s also the construction of the Hayley narrator. Your character in the movie basically has to be taken at face value. I don’t know if, when you’re making this feature and then all these different experimental shorts, there’s one Hayley Garrigus or multiple Hayley characters.
Garrigus: I definitely think that a different narrator comes out with each subject. Especially for Meme, the narration was always crafted as an alternate Hayley going on this journey. The narration was crafted post-script, in the edit—I didn’t have narration going into filming. The structure and story came in the edit…which I will probably not do again, depending on what the subject or feature is. Going into the subject with a script or direction in mind definitely saves a lot of time and energy. And also scrapped edits.
I wrote out the script while I was in the edit and edited it down as we continued to refine it. There’s huge sections of my script that didn’t make it in. It was a game of Tetris after that—some parts meant to be at the end ended up way at the top. It was just about how my thoughts ended up forming with the visuals. The narration at the end with Kirk walking away into the distance was meant to be at the top, like the introduction to this world. It’s literally at the end now. I think I was trying to add some intrigue at the top, like a cold open, and it just didn’t work with the visual material.
Filmmaker: You started working totally alone, with some support from your parents, then got various forms of institutional support along the way. You’ve said you don’t want to do the process as a one-man band again. What were the takeaways from your practical knowledge learning curve?
Garrigus: I always say that I was a one-woman show, but obviously I wasn’t, because I had the support and material from all the people I was interviewing. I wasn’t making an archival essay film all alone, you know? But in terms of outside support, I’ve actually swung back the other way. When we last spoke, I was like, “Oh, I’m never going to do this again, I’m going to do this the right way and go into a more professionalized mode of being.” But it’s been almost a year since we last spoke about the film in this way, and in that timeframe I’ve been working on my next feature and actually realized that I really value and appreciate the input of producers from the start, and people in general who want to work on the film — creatively and also logistically. That’s really important. I won’t ever go into a project again without having a small team to talk through ideas and the logistics of those ideas.
What I learned does actually work for me is: in the process of “professionalizing” a feature, I started losing the reason I wanted to do it. It became about putting so much energy into pitching and selling it, crafting the perfect pitch reel and deck, that the film itself and the reason I wanted to do it became more and more abstracted. So, I’ve actually pulled back from that. I do enjoy working in a way where I’m like, “I can do this as cheaply as possible and still create a finished feature that I appreciate.” Will it take a little longer? Maybe, or maybe not, because people end up waiting five, six years to get their feature fully funded. I don’t know if it would take even longer to get funding, or just a little funding as it comes along. It may suffer from a certain quote-unquote “visual quality,” but I’ve also realized that I get further and further from the integrity of the idea when I’m focusing on trying to sell it.
Filmmaker: Is part of the exhaustion having to re-present it in different contexts?
Garrigus: It’s not even the re-presenting, it’s the stalling factor of continuing to present it. I felt like I wasn’t going to the next step with the film because I had this idea of these A-B-C steps you had to do to get a feature funded and produced, forgetting that I got a feature done without any of those steps. I think that’s still possible, and I’ve had many conversations with a lot of filmmakers where I feel like, more and more, people are starting to realize the futility of that system. You may get a feature funded. Let’s say you’re on the “ground floor.” A “ground floor documentary,” in the professional sense, is 150 to 200K. But there’s no guarantee that you or your financiers are going to get any of that money back. So, what really is the payoff in that? Right now, where I’m at with that is, “Let’s forge ahead and do what we can with what we have.”
Filmmaker: Having lived with this for so long, as you approach the release, do you feel like you have better answers for people if you’re accused of platforming fascism or something like that?
Garrigus: Of course I knew going into it, and also my producers knew when they came onboard that this is going to make some people really uncomfortable and unhappy. I’m not making a biopic about anyone, I’m not doing a music doc. I am prepared to answer the difficult questions when they come. But, at the core of it, when I rewatch the film, I don’t think there’s ever a moment where a sensitive topic comes up, or I’m interviewing someone with controversial opinions, that I don’t address or put into context in the voiceover. At the end of the day, there are the people who really like the film and want to support it, and there are going to be people who are like, “You didn’t go deep enough.” I know, for myself, that if I had more time and a longer film, or another six months of filming, I definitely would have gone deeper into the history of certain topics. But, at the end of the day, we had to make certain choices to make the film watchable, because unfortunately I don’t have the luxury of being Adam Curtis and having a four-hour special where I go into all the nooks and crannies of every single topic. Maybe the answer to that is, if you can’t go deep into that topic, why engage with it at all? The idea of platforming these ideas has been the number one question from people.
Filmmaker: But you’re no longer platforming anything, because this is all now in mainstream discourse.
Garrigus: Which is an interesting place to be.