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Spook Country: Spencer McCall on The Institute

Just what the hell was the Jejune Institute? After watching Spencer McCall’s fascinating and intentionally puzzling documentary The Institute, I’m still not quite sure. An interactive, multimedia, experiential game, based in a nondescript building in San Francisco’s central business district that thrives of]n the memory of a woman who disappeared into the Bay Area night a quarter century ago and never returned? Perhaps, I guess. A scripted experience surely, an alternate-reality game involving participants in events both spooky and merely bizarre, including scavenger hunts to fairly ominous locales, mock public protests and sundry hijinks that would feel right at home in a Thomas Pynchon novel surely. But to what end? Self-actualization, empathy, fairness? Beats me. What I can say is that more than 10,000 people participated in a life-altering San Francisco mind trip, surely inspired in part by David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game, whether they knew it or not.

Apparently there was an organization, or two, that plotted the whole affair from a purely benevolent perspective, but in interviews with participants and realms of archival footage from various events associated with Jejune, it’s not clear how benevolent the intentions of the “creators” are. What is mainly revealed in interviews with the participants is how wonderful the process, however opaque, made and continues to make them feel, to a remarkably creepy degree. Are we dealing with a cult here? Is one being brainwashed by merely watching this film? Is it, indeed, part of the experience Jejune is ostensibly offering? This viewer knows not. What I do know is that the film, and it’s subject, are wonderfully strange; The Institute proves to be oddly engrossing viewing, a trip down a rabbit hole you will never get to the bottom of. The debut feature film from Spencer McCall, it world premiered at Mill Valley and screened in competition at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival. It opens today in Manhattan at the Cinema Village.

Spencer McCall
Spencer McCall

Filmmaker: How did you first hear about the Jejune Institute?

McCall: It actually started a long time ago. I got out of school and I landed a job doing videography for this really weird biotech company. I had to sign a “do not disclose” agreement before I did the interview and it turned out to be a dog-cloning company for really rich, eccentric people.

Filmmaker: They clone dogs?

McCall: Yes. They clone dogs. Yeah. I got to travel around the world shooting video of cloned dogs right after I got out of school. It was pretty cool. It was $150,000 to clone a dog and the company was launching right at the height of the recession. It pretty quickly went out of business and I got laid off. I was floating around for a while after that. A friend of mine named Gordo, he’s an actor and a street performer and he’s the guy that leads the protest in the film. Everybody in San Francisco had heard whispers and rumors about the Jejune Institute. People knew that something miraculous and bizarre would occur should you travel to 580 California on the 16th floor. I hadn’t done it at that point but Gordo had. He talks a little about that and how he had found one of the people behind it. Sometime during the protest or right before it, we heard from someone involved that they were looking to build a series of propaganda videos, alternate history videos about the Institute. He gave them my name and email and said I’d put some video together if they needed it.

It wasn’t immediate but a couple months later I got this email from them that was really weird and cryptic and ambiguous. Along with it came this FTP log in to download so much footage. They sent me voice-over and descriptions as well. It was very strange. I put together what ended up being the induction video that you see at the very beginning. I never met them or spoke to them. From 2008-2011 I would get these strange emails or letters or packages from the post office that would contain hard drives full of footage and assets and creepy photos. It didn’t make a lot of sense. So I would edit these two- or three-minute videos for them and then send it back. I never really saw where these ended up until after it was all over. Never met them. They didn’t really pay much, but they were generally easy to do, it was just assembling what they wanted and what they referenced in their emails.

I got an email from who I later found out was Jeff [one of the “creators”] saying they were shutting everything down [and they needed] some stuff for the final event. At that point he sent me in the mail a hard drive that had hundreds of hours of archival footage, footage shot by participants, really weird stuff, footage of people in sewers. I edited the video for them and then they just dropped off the face of the earth. They left this hard drive with me. I was still unemployed and I couldn’t really figure out what the point of the Jejune Institute was. I never participated in it at all, but I really wanted to know what it meant. I started going through this hard drive, assembling the footage, organizing the footage chronologically, if just to try to figure out where this started and where it all ended up. That didn’t really answer any questions. I started recognizing the people in the clips and sometimes there names were used so I started reaching out to them and asking them for interviews. That’s basically what I did with about 20 people, only nine of which ended up in the film. I just had them tell their stories about what it meant to them and how they got involved. I put together a cut that was about two and a half hours. It explained a lot more than the film does now but it was just too much. As I was interviewing subjects, word of it got back to Jeff. He said, “If you’re going to do this, that’s fine but I’d like to get my opinion in there a bit.” So I sent that super long cut to him and luckily he really liked it.

Filmmaker: How long did the project take you to put together after you started making it into a longer thing?

McCall: I was shooting while I was editing. I’m a multimedia developer and an adjunct professor teaching motion graphics design, so the way my brain works, I just shot to benefit the edit. When I don’t have the assets or media I need, that’s when I’d do the walkthrough on a little Steadicam thing or that’s when I’d go and get an interview. The story is so wild, I really wanted to tell it in a structure that was familiar to people, I wanted to tell it in three acts, I wanted it to be chronological, I wanted to introduce the world, make it dark, make it depressing and then resolve the problem of what this was, what it represented, to a lot of people. I wanted to have some kind of very familiar revelation, even if there isn’t an explosion or something. I tried to structure it the way you would watch and action movie or a thriller. Something very recognizable for people. So when I had a road block, when I didn’t have a piece of footage, I’d just go out and shoot it. It was originally going to have voiceover throughout the entire film, but then I started to think about it like Alice in Wonderland. Alice doesn’t have someone holding her hand through wonderland. If I had a voiceover, it would be outside of the spirit of the project I was documenting. The participants had so little explained to them that ultimately I thought the whole experience would be a lot more fun if there was more nuance to it and little was explained to the audience, I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt and the chance to explore on their own. The film is just the beginning, it’s just the doorway to something else that’s coming in a few months. You can step through the doorway yourself, but nobody is going to push you through it. If you don’t like the film, that’s totally cool, but you’ll probably miss out on some experiences that are being built for people in the next few months and looking at the world in an interesting new way.

Filmmaker: What is the Jejune Institute in its essence?

McCall: In its essence, it’s an elegy for a girl who went missing in the ’80s, it’s an art project that tries to represent what this girl believed in, what her philosophy was, everything she was wrapped up in. That said, it’s an experiment in experiential art and transmedia storytelling. That was something that was important to Jeff outside of his knowledge of and relationship to this girl who went missing in the ’80s. I think Jeff was a guy who was very interested in transmedia and pervasive play and all of these concepts that he had worked up, but the inspiration for all of it was this girl he knew in the ’80s. I know it sounds crazy, but 10,000 people participated in those three years and everyone was saying, “What is the point of this? Where is this money coming from? Who is doing this? What is the point?” It wasn’t selling anything. Often a marketing campaign will use an alternate reality game to push a product, but not here. Jeff wouldn’t necessary consider it that and nor would I. It is a similar type of medium that it could be compared to however.

Filmmaker: I couldn’t help but think of The Game, the Fincher film, when contemplating what this might be.

McCall: Which is also set in the financial district in San Francisco. A lot of inspiration was taken from The Game. I wanted the film to be about the experience, to have the audience experience what the participants experienced, very little contact with the game makers. I wanted it to be a very first-person experience for people and in a way turn the movie into a game. That’s what I wanted to do with it. For Jeff, he was a troubled child in the 80s, really into drugs and petty theft and he got expelled from tons of schools. His parents, being northern Californians, sent him to this bizarre treatment center in Marin. It was a new-agey, healing, pop-psychology retreat. He’s got an appreciation for that kind of stuff, but perhaps it’s a cynic’s view of it. I don’t know myself where he draws the line between seeing that stuff and silly and seeing it as useful and helpful. It’s a mix of both for him.

For me, I felt the story was fascinating and that’s what I wanted to capture. A lot of people I showed this too initially were gaming enthusiasts or alternate reality gameplayers. They thought I should explain more how you set up an alternate reality game, how the systems and workflows work. I’m not a gamer of any kind, I don’t play video games, occasionally I do a puzzle, so the gaming wasn’t what I found interesting, what I found interesting was telling the story in multiple forms of media. That’s what I wanted to relay. Even if it’s almost blasphemous in a way given that I’ve taken a project that tells a story in many different mediums and condensed it down into one, which is a film. The advantage of a movie or a video is that even if it’s just on a screen, a spectator piece of art that you can’t manipulate and experience in a tactile way, it is sight and it is sound, so it’s not entirely blasphemous, but it might be a bit hypocritical to even make a movie about something like this.

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