Kieślowski, WarGames and the ’80s: Carleton Ranney on Jackrabbit
Set in the not-too-distant future, Carleton Ranney’s debut feature Jackrabbit observes two young hackers living in City Six, a dystopian urban environment still recovering from The Reset, an event which caused the city to literally go back to square one. Interacting with the outside world via computers and video game systems that go back to user-friendly technology’s infancy (we’re talking pre-Pong), Simon and Max attempt to uncover the secret of a mutual friend’s murder, while fighting to escape City Six and the police/surveillance state they’ve grown accustomed to. An Orwellian fable, Jackrabbit is steeped in political paranoia and a fascination with the impersonal implications of a corporatized America. Complex but not impenetrable, Jackrabbit is a film in which every bit of information we receive is invaluable to decipher the context of this fictitious world.
As the film gets set to make its world premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, I spoke with Ranney about growing up in Austin, Texas, his appreciation for the pop science fiction cinema of the 1980s, and using Hi8 cameras to represent eerie surveillance footage.
Filmmaker: Were you raised in Austin? There’s obviously a very strong film culture there, both in the production and appreciation of new cinema, and I’m wondering if you would cite the city as an influence on your work.
Ranney: Austin has been one of the biggest influences, if not the biggest influence, on my making movies. I was born and raised in Austin, only leaving when I was 18 to go to film school in New York. I spent most of my younger years at all of the Austin video stories, including I Luv Video and Vulcan Video. The Alamo Drafthouse was pretty brand new at the time — they only had one location — and they would have Quentin Tarantino host an annual film festival featuring his own private collection of movies, and I would go every year. Austin is a very big film town — Richard Linklater is a really big part of that, as is the Austin Film Society — and I definitely grew up surrounded and inspired by film. Aside from film, I think there’s something about Austin that feels all-American, like Anywhere Town, USA. That’s changed over the years, but there’s a pretty strong variety of things to do there, culturally, that also influenced me.
Filmmaker: Although Jackrabbit represents your feature debut, you possess an impressive filmmaking background. You went to the School of Visual Arts and your thesis project screened at Cannes in 2010. How did you find your way into the filmmaking community in New York?
Ranney: I found my way through SVA, actually. I had made a number of shorts as a student there, and Josh Caras (who plays Simon in Jackrabbit) starred in my thesis film, Slasher. Many of my collaborators on Slasher went on to work with me on Jackrabbit, and it’s interesting because a lot of these people were originally from Austin. There was a cross-pollination between Austin and New York going on! So yes, my introduction to the New York film scene came through all of these people who I knew from Austin, and when it came time to make Jackrabbit, I had a group of people who were already embedded in the New York filmmaking community.
Filmmaker: Jackrabbit could be classified as a genre film of a kind. There’s a noticeable early ’80s Cronenberg vibe mixed with other strong dystopian sci-fi fare. Watching the film, I could almost imagine the characters receiving clues courtesy of Brian O’Blivion’s VHS tapes.
Ranney: Cronenberg was certainly a big influence, as was William Gibson, whose novel Pattern Recognition, one of his post-9/11 works, dealt with a girl who has to follow a series of video clues. Jackrabbit was influenced quite a bit by the films of the ’80s, and, as a first-time feature filmmaker, I wanted to acknowledge the works that really inspired me. John Badham’s WarGames was [a big inspiration], and so was the early work of Michael Mann and Cronenberg.
Besides the obvious ’80s works, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue I also served as a huge influence. I showed the film to my actors and producers and DP pretty early on, and we used it as a map, tonally, for how to shoot our film. Much of Decalogue I is close-ups on people’s faces, and I knew that was how I wanted to tell my story [and frame this world]. It allowed us to create a sense of claustrophobia, to provide a subjective experience through our characters.
Filmmaker: Speaking of genre influences, at times Jackrabbit’s score feels reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s main theme for The Thing.
Ranney: It’s funny you mention that, as I showed a few scenes of that film to Will Berman, our composer, to cite as an influence. Will came on board right before we started shooting, and my producer Rebecca Perkins had a conference call with him to present a perspective package of images and story ideas that we were showing to potential investors. Will then sent us an email citing Vangelis and Tangerine Dream as [potential influences] for our film’s score, and that’s when I knew that he “got it.” That’s exactly what I was going for. He went on to create the film’s main theme song prior to us completing the film, and so we were able to have his music played on set while we were shooting. It was very inspiring and influential to us on set. And then while we were in post-production, I would go over to his house and we’d share particular tracks and get more specific.
Filmmaker: There’s an early sequence featuring a corporate promotional video for Vopo Technologies, the evil empire that monitors all the goings ons of CIty Six. The video gives off a sense of false comfort, a corporatized, untrustworthy sense of safety that, with the use of archival footage, feels overly familiar to us.
Ranney: The Vopo video was always supposed to be a clever way to give the audience exposition, of providing context and defining The Reset. At the same time, we wanted to use it through the guise of this funny little industrial video for Vopo Technologies. We knew the tone we wanted to go for, and so I spent a lot of time looking for stock footage with my producer.
I watch PBS’ NewsHour everyday, and there’s always a BAE systems commercial that comes on that we modeled our Vopo video after. It was almost frightening how similar the videos felt, and we really used it as an introduction to Vopo and as a way to frame the ideas that we were setting for the audience. It definitely feels like something you might see in a Paul Verhoeven movie.
Filmmaker: The film touches on the idea of technology as an extension of the human body — state officers scan residents’ irises as a means of identification, for example — which feels very much in line with Cronenberg. One character remarks early on that “technology maintains stability.”
Ranney: For the most part, the technology the citizens have access to is a kind of outdated, analogue technology that hearkens back to the pre-internet era, where computers were hard-lined. However, the state itself possess much more advanced technology. They can use light to scan things such as fingerprints and they have retinal scanners at their disposal. Even the cube that Simon works in uses light to operate the network at Vopo Technologies. A lot of the technology dealing with light-emitting scanning was pulled from modern day stuff that I had read about in my research. We wanted to show that Vopo has access to much more advanced technology than the citizens it presides over, and as a result, can be much more invasive of the human body. They can use the human body as a means of control.
Filmmaker: The world of the film is steeped in video game vernacular. The phrase “Game Over” is distinctly placed in the film, and “The Reset” is the event that dictates every action the characters make. To start over in this story, to reset, means to go back to a world in which video games and computers were in their infancy.
Ranney: That was something that subconsciously crept its way in [to the screenplay]. Our producer Joe Stankus came up with “The Reset” name. He really picked up on the gamer aspect and even designed a video game for the film! When you look at what Simon is employed to do at Vopo, his job mirrors the [physical act] of the playing of arcade games. And of course, the character of Max is always playing these old games.
I think the term “Game Over” represents the end of something, and there’s a reveal at the end of the movie that proves that that term is a major catalyst for the third act. In many ways, it’s like Max and Simon are playing a game with each other, as each other’s opponents, and the video game jargon happens to find its way in.
Filmmaker: How did you find all of the dated computers and hardware seen in the film? They all have the right amount of dirt and grunge to appear well-worn, as if rescued from a technocrat garage sale.
Ranney: All of that equipment was on loan or given to us from the Goodwill Computer Museum in Austin. Our producer and co-writer, Destin Douglas, had been in touch with Computer Chess cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, and found out that that’s where director Andrew Bujalski had received all of his computers. We then contacted the Goodwill Computer Museum ourselves, and they pretty much gave us everything in their giant warehouse carte blanche. The warehouse is very reminiscent of the one in Raiders of The Lost Ark, except this one was filled with computers dating all the way back to the 1960s! We were in awe, like kids in a candy store, filling our truck with as much stuff as we could. Each computer was chosen for a specific character, as I matched the technology to the character.
Filmmaker: Could you speak a little bit about working with cinematographer Ashley Connor? I was a big fan of her work on Josephine Decker’s two films from last year, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild & Lovely.
Ranney: Ashley is wonderful. When she came on board, I had seen clips of Thou Wast Mild & Lovely and her earlier work. My work is much more formal than what Ashley had previously done, but she wanted that opportunity to really show her range. I thought it would be interesting to see her take on a much more formal style of film photography. She was phenomenal to work with. Even though our film is more formalized, you can still feel her presence.
Filmmaker: What kind of camera did you primarily use?
Ranney: We filmed with the ARRI ALEXA, a great camera that allowed us to shoot with a limited amount of light. We didn’t have much available light on set.
Filmmaker: The film represents a world constantly under surveillance. Many of your characters are being spied on, whether in public spaces or within the privacy of their own homes. The surveillance footage is always shot from a high angle, in the corner of a room, giving off the feeling that the people are trapped in a confined space, like prisoners in a holding cell. What lead you to touching on the subject of state surveillance?
Ranney: This all goes back to the zeitgeist elements that were going on when I was writing the film. WikiLeaks was in the news, and the Edward Snowden scandal had just broke a month after I had completed my first draft. I had wanted to stick with older video technology [for the surveillance footage], so we used the Hi8. We filmed all of the surveillance footage with Hi8 cameras from years ago, cameras I was using as a child. I wanted the footage to be its own character, and so we filmed all of the Hi8 footage, played it over an old CRT Television, and filmed off that. We were able to control the texture of it that way.
Filmmaker: Was City Six meant to represent any particular city? It feels particularly cold and ridden of a personality that would make it easy to place. It features people suffering from addictions of various kinds and crime is often apparent. In contrast, the desert, where our characters are trying to escape to, represents a place of solitude and rest. Were you trying to make any visual distinctions between where our characters were stuck and where they were trying to get to?
Ranney: For the most part, the movie is extremely claustrophobic in terms of its framing, in terms of what we actually see. Once we get to the desert, things get very wide. For City Six, we stuck to lights that we could find in hardware stores, collecting different sodium-vapors and fluorescents, lights that weren’t flattering to the natural world. We wanted to keep things cool, and that’s something we really heightened during our color correction. We wanted to make the world feel more cold.
Filmmaker: How did you work designing your visual effects? I’m thinking of a particular sequence where Simon’s father remarks that “children born after The Reset will never get a chance to see the stars in the sky,” as they cannot be seen while in the confines of City Six. You then cut to Max in his van, laying down and looking at a photograph of glistening stars, taped to the ceiling of his roof. The stars begin to float toward him in a very unique, innocently pure moment of VFX.
Ranney: While we were shooting, we took the necessary steps to incorporate visual effects, taking measurements from the lenses to the designated VFX area. The sequence in the van was always planned, and most of the VFX sequences featured a lot of work in post. It was tricky, as our visual effects artist, who was phenomenal, lives in Australia and has another full-time job! It became a process of receiving his work and then sending back notes and going back and forth. While the VFX was meticulously planned ahead of shooting, their creation and style took some tweaking as the movie continued to evolve.
Filmmaker: In what way is this a film about children suffering from the actions made by those who came before them? Simon’s father is hardly functioning, Max’s parents are out of the picture; Simon’s closest adult relationship is with the untrustworthy leader of Vopo Technologies. It’s a constant connection throughout.
Ranney: That was definitely a major thematic element, this idea of the next generation repeating the same mistakes of the previous one. Max and Simon’s relationship is very reflective of Vopo’s Paul Bateson and his former co-founder, and so I was definitely thinking about this idea of what the ramifications are for our decisions. Does the next generation learn from these mistakes or do they keep the cycle going when being presented with a choice? Maybe they’re not even mistakes necessarily, but a series of decisions about the world that you want to live in and how you decide to participate in it. I don’t know if I have an answer or if I even choose to present one, but I wanted to bring up that notion or idea, and I think it’s great that you picked up on that.