With virtual reality services and technology becoming more commonplace in our society, director Yedidya Gorsetman has done something pretty impressive and created, with the help of writer Mark Leidner, Empathy Inc., a film where VR is its central focus. The film has recently been praised by Variety and ahead of its wide release tomorrow, Yedidya spoke to ThisIsTheLatest about the creative process involved in making the film, his views on VR in general and his thoughts on the future of the film industry.
TITL: Where did the first ideas for Empathy, Inc. first come from and how did you set about bringing them to life?
Yedidya Gorsetman: I was working with the writer Mark Leidner, a good friend. For our second film, we’d been brainstorming plot devices that could deliver a big hook but were doable on an indie budget. For example, we were exploring time travel between two periods in the present day, mind-reading, people from the past or future in the present day, and actors playing multiple characters, to name a few. Then one day Mark sent the idea for Empathy, Inc. It blended a sci-fi plot device with business conspiracy which is a sub-genre we both were fans of –Wall Street, The Firm, etc. In addition, it had a big theme that we were ourselves curious about: could you really “learn” empathy and better your soul by buying “empathetic” experiences? It also had a bunch of fun stuff that would allow that technology to be abused by bad actors in interesting ways. It ticked off all the boxes for the type of story we wanted, and had the resources to tell, so we started outlining. The script came pretty quick. Then it was just a matter of executing with our stellar producer Josh Itzkowitz and the rest of our cast and crew.
TITL: How did you find the collaborative process between yourself and writer Mark Leidner? Did you find that you both had similar ideas from the start or was there some compromise involved when it came to creating what’s now about to be shared with the world?
YG: Mark and I have worked together many times since our first movie Jammed. I don’t know how other creative teams work, but we spend most of the writing trying to understand how plot, setting, and character interact, and we’ve developed a shared language around that. So we argue and debate pros and cons of any decision to the point of exhaustion, but it can also be fun because we are often starting from the same set of assumptions. When something doesn’t work, identifying the issue is usually harder than fixing it. Diagnosing issues can take months because we have blind spots due to inexperience, but fixing it is usually just a matter of brainstorming and then choosing the most practical solution. During the outlining phase of Empathy, Inc., we had to have a lot of hard conversations about our objectives with the story, what was primary, what was secondary, what was tertiary, etc.—before we both landed on the same page. Once we knew our hierarchy of objectives, though, we usually agreed on the best way to get there and were very aligned throughout production and post.
TITL: What was/is it about actor Zack Robidas that made you feel he was perfect for the star role in the film?
YG: Zack was the 3rd person to read for Joel on the first day of casting. And he read a pretty insignificant moment from the film. But when he started his monologue it was obvious that he was our guy. I think Zack really understood Joel’s character—a charismatic man who knew how to make people like him, whose flaw was that he had to be successful in order to love himself, and he thought he could solve every problem that arose by himself. On the surface, there’s something attractive about someone who can work miracles and make things happen. But Zack also saw the other side of that: a deep insecurity driving a compulsion to succeed. I think it was that depth of understanding that Zack brought to the character that makes Joel feel real. It was very subtle in the casting session, but since we had spent the last 6 months thinking about this character every day, we recognized it immediately in Zack’s performance.
TITL: The film has already been critically acclaimed with Variety recently hailing it as an “ingenious indie thriller.” Even before its wider release, did you ever expect the film to get the response from critics that it has?
YG: We figured that the film would at the very least find a small but passionate following. We also hoped for mainstream consideration but didn’t know if we’d get it. We mistakenly believed a film like ours had to screen at a festival like Sundance, Cannes, or SXSW to get theatrical release or major press, and when we got rejected, it was a hard pill to swallow. I remember thinking, “That’s it. We did the best we could with what we had and it just didn’t break through. Onto the next thing.” But we kind of got a break when we ended up screening at Cinepocalypse, an amazing genre festival in Chicago, and Josh Goldbloom, one of the festival heads, really liked it. He introduced us to Dark Star Pictures in LA. They loved the film, wanted to do a theatrical release, and even wanted our feedback on the marketing side. It suddenly felt like we were in good hands with people who not only believed in the movie but were also interested in our input. Working with them has been like a dream, and we’ve been humbled by the recent positive reaction to the movie. We always thought there was something unique about it, but we had no sense of how real world audiences would respond. To have any amount of mainstream recognition is something we’re grateful for.
TITL: What’s the nicest/best thing anyone could say to you/write about this film?
YG: That they continued to think about the film the next day. Those are the movies I love the most. The ones that stay with you. When people have told me that, it makes me feel like all the anxiety and the gruelling hours were worth it. Knowing someone was affected by one of our characters makes me happy because I feel like I’ve paid forward something that films have given me: a sense of wonder or a sense of emotional expansion without which life would be less interesting.
TITL: Do you personally feel that, in this technology obsessed society we’re a part of, VR will continue to grow in popularity and in the number of things it can/might be used for?
YG: It seems likely as long as people fantasize about changing their circumstances. In our film, we take that to an extreme in a way that I’m pretty sure is impossible, but the metaphor is nonetheless true. Every year VR technology seems to offer new ways to forget who we are. The question is whether it will deliver any real meaning, which is a theme I hope our movie explores.
TITL: Would you agree that there’s too much reliance on things like VR already, and that human interaction etc. between actual people in the real world is slowly being cast aside?
YG: I feel like there’s always a huge plus and a huge minus to any advance in technology. I don’t think it’s helpful or accurate to pine for a long lost time when everyone you knew lived in your hometown and no one had any devices. I think those days had their own horrible problems and we romanticize them at our own peril. It’s probably always the same: some new tech will enable people to satisfy some long unsatisfiable urge while shutting off other urges, or creating new problems like addiction, manipulation, or incoherence. In 100 years, whatever technology we have today that seems cutting-edge will be being pined for by those upset at the new technologies unseating it. I put my phone away when I’m talking to someone I respect or who I want to know better, and that’s about where I stop worrying about it.
TITL: How does this project differ from any you’ve done in the past and is such a difference something you chose deliberately? How important is it to you that you can and do stretch your creative wings, as they say?
YG: Our first film Jammed was a light-hearted comedy. Empathy, Inc. has a couple funny moments, but it’s much more intense and dependent on plot. Practically, we pivoted because it’s hard to find a distributor who will even watch an indie comedy, let alone take one on. But I also believe there is a benefit to stretching yourself creatively. After having made two films, there’s still so much I don’t know that I want to learn, and every time I’ve stretched myself creatively in the past, I’ve learned a ton. In Empathy, Inc. I had to learn how to direct action and special effects on a level I hadn’t before. No matter what genre our next project is in, I’ll certainly be pushing myself to learn new things.
TITL: With Empathy, Inc. about to go on release, have you started looking to/for your next project yet, or are you just going to enjoy seeing and hearing people’s reactions to this for a while?
YG: Although we are currently focused on the release, we have a new script in the sci-fi/fantasy ballpark that we really like. We would be excited to bring it to life, should the opportunity come along. Like Empathy, Inc., it’s focused on a conflict between speculative technology and morality.
TITL: Finally then, where do you see the future of the film industry heading? With more and more individuals looking to make their mark on the business, either as directors or actors, and with films becoming ever more “current” in terms of their subject matter, such as VR, do you ever worry about there being “too much” of it all and somehow being over-shadowed? How are you working to help make sure yourself and your work stay relevant and catch the attention of both fans and critics?
YG: At this point in my career, I generally don’t worry about the state of the movie industry. It’s so far beyond me, and its changes are so unpredictable. My worries are personal, familial, political, and when I’m making a film, I worry about that film. But that’s where I try to stop the worry. I’m not even sure things are any different now than they ever were. Film has always responded to current concerns, and it probably always will, as it should. As for good movies being overshadowed by the sheer amount of movies out there, I generally believe that distributors and audiences and filmmakers are savvy enough to find each other and lift each other up where there is a spark in the work that captures their imagination or conscience. Good stories tend to get told and shared because they are such a huge source of meaning in our lives. I don’t think that’ll ever go away.