Fathoming the Fog: A Nice Conversation with Mark Leidner
Here’s those pictures I googled up:
Mark Leidner holding a blue umbrella
And now he’s got a movie, actually his second, not even including this favorite video of mine:
Once when we were all playing cards I asked Mark how long it took to make his short videos, particularly this one. He said that he spent a really long time on it, days and days, but that’s because it came out of a larger project that, heartbreakingly, he abandoned. This was just the part he could use.
Mark’s latest film project, alongside director Yedidya Gorsetman, is the movie Empathy, Inc., which came out last fall and is available to stream at Amazon. It received a glowing review at Parade, where Samuel R. Murrian notes,
“This movie freaked me out more than any traditional horror film I’ve seen all year. The plot deftly grips into real-world, modern-day fears and anxieties that most Americans can relate to … it often feels like we’re watching real events unfold.”
Here’s a summary that barely scratches the surface:
Joel, a hotshot venture capitalist, just had a multimillion-dollar deal go up in smoke and he’s at the lowest and most desperate moment in his life. Having just moved in with his in-laws, he meets an old friend who’s seeking investors in a new technology known as XVR—Xtreme Virtual Reality—which offers realistic and moving experiences for customers by placing them in the lives of the less fortunate. Joel takes a big risk and gets the startup its funds, but soon discovers that the tech’s creators have far more sinister uses in store for their creation, and that the reality it provides its customers isn’t virtual at all.
And here’s the trailer:
(You might want to watch the movie before reading our conversation below, but I don’t think we give anything away.)
Do you write poems because you want to write stories? Do you write stories because you want to make movies? Do you make movies because you love poetry?
I love all to a degree, but I’m not sure one causes the other. They’re more like different spokes of the same wheel.
You’re the writer of the film, but I imagine that you did a lot of other things too. What was a typical day like for you during the entire production process?
On set I had the duties of a production assistant (food pickup, prop prep, grip help, location hunting, emailing, gophering—whatever no one else had time to do). But I was the writer and was a partner on the business end, so I was also a little like an Executive Producer, working closely with director Yedidya Gorsetman and producer Josh Itzkowitz, weighing in on all major decisions, arguing passionately for what I wanted and always being listened to. The most gratifying part of being a writer on set was when our actors would ask about something in the script. The actors would have an idea that made sense for the character or story and I’d learn something about the story I didn’t know. Then I’d explain the original thinking behind why the script was the way it was. Then they’d triangulate my perspective with their own and the director’s… to arrive at something more vivid or original.
Could you give an example of when this happened—when you learned something new about the script?
In the original script, when the main character Joel (played by Zack Robidas) tries the virtual reality technology for the first time, he’s really anxious. He wants it to work so he can make money—and when it does work he’s really blown away. Well, Zack had the idea that instead of being nervous / anxious, going in, Joel should be casual if not downright flippant. This was a revelation and helped his post-virtual reality awe seem like much more of a change, using performance to make the plot device more believable. To me, Zack’s decision to do it this way, even ad-libbing a line about having eaten a big meal to make fun of the warnings he receives about misusing the tech, was a revelation of who the character truly is. Even when Joel is anxious, he’s not going to show it; he’s going to remain outwardly cool as a power move in every possible relationship. This coolness early on makes his vertiginous anxiety and paranoid desperation at the end of the movie much more meaningful.
Just think about it. [very brief pause] So what do you think?
What were some of your favorite lines as you wrote them?
My favorites are actually the ones where the writing is dull but the performances take it in an interesting direction. Usually it’s people being cruel while pretending to be polite. In one sense that’s the disease this movie is about and maybe the main disease in the world. Early on Joel gets fired and, full of distress, asks his boss Sonny (played by AJ Cedeno), “I’m buying a house in an hour. What am I supposed to tell my wife?” Sonny ignores the question and says flatly, “I need you out of here by the weekend.” It was never funny in the script, but the deadpan undertone of AJ’s delivery is: “Fuck you. I couldn’t care less about what you tell anyone about anything.” This line makes me laugh, even though there are more effortful comedic moments in the film. Sometimes with drama, the richer the line is from a writing standpoint, the less there is to do with it as a performer. But the more flat the line is from a writing standpoint, the more spin the actor can put on it. And when the actor is having fun putting unexpected spin on lines, the dialogue can really come alive, because it’s working in concert with all the other body language the actor is channeling. If we do another movie I hope to make the dialogue even plainer, but with situations that are more torqued up, giving the actors more dramatic wind in their sails, so to speak, while giving them more options for how they want to spin any given line.
So there were a lot of lines that came out differently than you expected when you saw it on screen?
Too many to count or remember. At first the script is the journey. Then when it’s time for production, the script becomes just a map, and production the journey. You discover all the lines anew—an actor might add a new line, cut an old one, or the director may request three different line readings: more desperate, more indifferent, more confident. So during the shoot you’re grabbing all kinds of things you never officially intended to grab. Once you have all that, editing begins. Now the footage you got in production becomes just a map, and the editing is the journey. There you discover new ways of arranging lines, combining one confident line from one take with an indifferent line from another take, for example. By the time you get to the end, at least for me, you can’t even remember what you expected when you wrote the script a million months and a hundred stress-lifetimes ago.
The performances are amazing. Was it scary to trust your words to others?
It wasn’t, because I trusted our team and knew letting go would be a necessity of getting the film made. The words I was also less worried about in general. If an actor wanted to change a line and had a good reason (as was frequently the case on this film), I was all for it. If anything I sometimes worried about the story overall and whether any improvisation would reduce overall tension or mess up something in the structure. But the actors and the director were all such astute analysts of the script that I can’t even remember it coming up. Everything they added, every ad lib and improv, ended up deepening characterization and making “my” words sound better.
During an argument, one character says to the other, “You’re being ignorant.” In that moment it seemed blunt, but intentionally so. I wonder, would you have developed that much differently in a story or poem? Do you find yourself writing in shorthand more with screenplays?
In a story or movie, dialogue can be blunt and still have layers due to the characters’ motivations or the dramatic situation. So even though it’s a one-dimensional observation, it has dimension because a daughter says it to her mother in a heated political conversation that is doubly disturbing to the daughter’s husband due to his secret business endeavors. Because of all these interpersonal dynamics, the line can thrum with tension. If the line were in a poem, it might not have that tension since most poems (at least mine) are monologues of some sort with much less clear dramatic context. The absence of dramatic context in a one-off poem means the line has to be richer in some other way to achieve the level of complexity that might make it worth reading or rereading.
Well, you know a lot about screenwriting and how cinema changes writing. Can you compare how you learned about writing in general, like your poetry and short stories, to how you’ve learned about writing for film?
I learned about poetry from writing and sharing it and reading it. I learned about fiction the same way, but it was slower because it takes longer to write, share, and read fiction. With screenwriting, I started out writing reviews of movies for a blog with another poet, Hannah Brooks-Motl. One year we went to roughly 70 movies in the theatre and wrote about them all: brief, two-paragraph critiques talking about what worked and what didn’t. That was super fun because I love writing unhinged criticism and will literally go see any movie in a theatre. But at the end of that year, I was tired of just being critical. I started to feel guilty, actually, because my reviews were so pompous and judgmental. I started to wonder if I was a hypocrite for judging movies when I didn’t actually know how to write one. So I got curious: could I write one? I certainly thought I knew a lot about them, but could that translate into actual making? That began the long, hard, stressful, stupid, intermittently fun, and ultimately satisfying road to trying to learn how to write movies. This involved reading every book about screenwriting I could find as well as writing bad scripts and trying to figure out what to do with them. One summer when I was living in Northampton, MA I answered a Craigslist ad for a guy who wanted to produce a short film and who needed a writer. We met up and made a disastrous short that we never even completed shooting. I had never even seen a short film, and I learned that I didn’t know anything about writing for film or production. But me and that guy (producer Josh Itzkowitz) got along, and two years later, when he had saved up enough money to make his first feature, he asked me to help write it. That led to Jammed, our first feature-length movie, which led to other various filmic misadventures. One thing about making movies is, every time you finish something you swear you’ll never do it again because it was so stressful, risky, and exhausting, but a few months later you realize you’ve learned so much that it feels like wasted knowledge unless you use it again, so assuming your life can accommodate it, you dive back into the fray. It’s like an addiction, as I guess all learning can be. Not very different than the trial and error most poets and fiction writers probably use when learning to write—except in terms of risk and scale.
Well, you know a lot about screenwriting and how cinema changes writing. Can you compare how you learned about writing in general, like your poetry and short stories, to how you’ve learned about writing for film?
I learned about poetry from writing and sharing it and reading it. I learned about fiction the same way, but it was slower because it takes longer to write, share, and read fiction. With screenwriting, I started out writing reviews of movies for a blog with another poet, Hannah Brooks-Motl. One year we went to roughly 70 movies in the theatre and wrote about them all: brief, two-paragraph critiques talking about what worked and what didn’t. That was super fun because I love writing unhinged criticism and will literally go see any movie in a theatre. But at the end of that year, I was tired of just being critical. I started to feel guilty, actually, because my reviews were so pompous and judgmental. I started to wonder if I was a hypocrite for judging movies when I didn’t actually know how to write one. So I got curious: could I write one? I certainly thought I knew a lot about them, but could that translate into actual making? That began the long, hard, stressful, stupid, intermittently fun, and ultimately satisfying road to trying to learn how to write movies. This involved reading every book about screenwriting I could find as well as writing bad scripts and trying to figure out what to do with them. One summer when I was living in Northampton, MA I answered a Craigslist ad for a guy who wanted to produce a short film and who needed a writer. We met up and made a disastrous short that we never even completed shooting. I had never even seen a short film, and I learned that I didn’t know anything about writing for film or production. But me and that guy (Producer Josh Itzkowitz) got along, and two years later, when he had saved up enough money to make his first feature, he asked me to help write it. That led to Jammed, our first feature-length movie, which led to other various filmic misadventures. One thing about making movies is, every time you finish something you swear you’ll never do it again because it was so stressful, risky, and exhausting, but a few months later you realize you’ve learned so much that it feels like wasted knowledge unless you use it again, so assuming your life can accommodate it, you dive back into the fray. It’s like an addiction, as I guess all learning can be. Not very different than the trial and error most poets and fiction writers probably use when learning to write—except in terms of risk and scale.
Some of what you describe is maybe a “match cut.” The ending image of one scene visually rhymes or off-rhymes with the opening image of the next. Hitchcock used these all the time, though perhaps some people consider them cheap. They are, literally, cheap, and that’s why we used them. As a rule of thumb, a low-budget movies tends to feature more close-ups and fewer wide-angle shots. That’s because wides reveal more of the cheap set. So if you have no budget for set design or dazzling location, you can preserve the illusion of an authentic experience with tight framing, which means more close-ups. A close-up on a guy’s face in a bar arguably looks the same whether the budget is $100K or $100M, but a wide shot of the bar will look hugely different. The drawback of a tight frame is that it can make the story feel visually monotonous or claustrophobic in the wrong way, hinting at the cheapness and therefore inauthenticity of the world. So linking tightly framed scenes with ironic or poetic match cuts compensates the viewer’s brain who may be getting bored. Presumably, viewers take some delight in pondering the juxtaposition of two close-ups that echo one another thematically or visually. Overall, an affordable way to give the brain the visual bread crumbs it needs to follow a 90 minute narrative. I think these transitions also imbue Empathy, Inc. with a tone of playfulness that pairs well with plot’s melodrama.
Related to that, I like how much you take for granted in presenting the complex storyline. The movie has a riveting story—I was on the edge of my seat—but you seem to emphasize emotionality over even trying to explain the science. I think that makes it more enjoyable. Did you ever consider trying to balance plausibility more?
We were looking for the minimum plausibility that could deliver the main payload of the characterization. Plausibility in a fantasy is an illusion created by dialogue, production design, special effects, character, and structure. If you make people want to see Marty McFly time travel, they will forgive you the inherent absurdity of going back in time. They forgive it because they want it to happen, and you make them want it to happen by giving them characters they want it to happen to. To that you add window dressing: the deLorean, the flux capacitor, the flaming tire tracks, the score, etc. If characters are interesting, usually a teaspoon of spectacle is worth more than a pound of plausibility. In fact, I think the harder you try to make a sci-fi fantasy “plausible” you only raise more questions. But if you treat the plot device as a given, people will believe in it even more. All the “science” in Empathy, Inc. is ridiculously made up. I think most people don’t care because we don’t come to fiction, especially not independent film, for scientific veracity. We come to it for escape and revelation about moral experience. An interesting character delivers both at a very low cost. The opposite is not true. If the characters are inert, then no amount of plausibility or spectacle will make the illusion wanted. Hollywood is full of movies that prove this.
The flux capacitor also looks cool—or at least it’s a funny device. And while I love your point about the power of characterization, another device that I don’t want to overlook in your movie is the monitor that shows the uplink or whatever it is when the people… do the thing. I love the software on the screen and the graphics. It’s low cost but not chintzy, and that makes things easy for the viewer too. Where’d that come from?
The interface was made by our animator Matthew Cohen working with our Production Designer Ally Spier. Like with most things, we tried to do it ourselves, for free, at first, but our draft looked awful, so we ended up hiring Matthew. The goal was a MS-DOS aesthetic, which I grew up staring at and playing games on. I knew it would be easy to match it as long as the animator was skilled, and Matthew was. I think the graphics look good for our movie because they are a reference to something that was once a real thing. I think when software looks bad in movies, it’s usually because it doesn’t reference anything specific, so it seems fake. At least that was our running theory for “how do we make this look ok enough?” which was the question we asked of everything in the film. Even in big budget movies, I think when software doesn’t reference anything familiar or have some kind of metaphorical callout to it, it seems fake.
How’d you get the airplane shot?
We shot the film in NYC / New Jersey. To get the plane shot, the director Yedidya Gorsetman and cinematographer Darin Quan went out near LaGuardia and recorded some planes. Then they messed with the footage to make it match the rest of the movie.
The soundtrack is great—at one point I jotted down a sloppy note, “Is that a Fender Rhodes?” Who was in charge of the music?
Omri Anghel did the score sound design—no idea what his setup was. Music was the last phase of editing and took forever. Although Yedidya and I had a vision for the score, we’d never worked with a composer before, so there was a lot of trial and error around translating our wishes into something Omri could run with in his own direction. In my opinion, he took it in a phenomenal direction that adds several layers to the film, solves multiple problems in several scenes, and even feels unique to Omri’s own voice as a musician. I’m really proud of the work he did as an artist and I’m proud of the movie for being launchpad for such a characterful electro-noir soundtrack.
How did working on Empathy, Inc. compare to your last movie, Jammed?
They were two of the physically hardest things I’ve done, and after finishing each one I swore I’d never do it again. But like I said the addiction kicks in. Plus the people I made the movies with are my friends so working together twice has a feeling of family that is deeply satisfying. Key differences: Jammed was an independent comedy with no stars and shot for no money. Everything no distributor wants, created by three people who hadn’t worked together and among whom no one had experience making a movie. There were 500 reasons why Jammed was never going to be financially viable, and learning that was a painful process for some of us. Learning how phenomenally wide and deep the chasm of your ignorance always is. Yet we were extremely proud to have completed it at all, and many people really love it.
For Empathy, Inc., just crossing the finish line wasn’t going to cut it. We needed to work in a genre distributors could be interested in, and the film needed to be good enough to stand out in a crowd of similar movies with 100X bigger budgets. So the bar was higher. We also took more risks: using black-and-white, having a complex plot, a complex theme, and spending more money. But those risks were also calculated; in a sense it would have been riskier not to take them, since at our level, to find any kind of audience, the film has to feel different than other films. You can’t compete against big or even medium budget films by doing the same thing they do, you have to do your own thing.
Due to those risks, the failure would be worse if we fell short, but the payoff would be higher if we met our goal of making and finding distribution for a stand-out story. The advantage we had in our pocket was total creative control, no time limit, and the experiences of Jammed and other misadventures that had taught us a handful of things not to do. I feel much more proud of Empathy, Inc., but it was much more work. As the sole writer I also got to exert more control over the story so it’s a little more skewed to my personal tastes, which was a huge privilege to be able to see play out. I love mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, and noir, and I am extremely lucky to have gotten to to play with all of them.
Can you share anything about the finances? How’d you fund this?
Yedidya and I asked ourselves how much money we could raise from friends and friends of friends if we had a good script. Once we landed on that pathetically small figure, we brainstormed ideas until we had the biggest possible story we could pull off with that tiny budget, assuming everything went perfectly. Then we wrote that. Then we went out with the script and an illustrated PDF full of info about the movie that would give potential investors a sense of what the movie would be like and how we’d try to make their money back. We were able to raise what we estimated almost to the dollar, and as soon as we had reliable commitments on all of it, we began pre-production.
How would you compare selling a book to selling a movie?
For the short stories in Under the Sea, Gian at Tyrant Books wanted to publish something of mine, so it was just a matter of finishing something we both liked. I might not have even written those stories if I hadn’t had a probably publisher for them already. So it didn’t really fit that classic model of work hard on a thing, send it out and see who wants it, and then strike a deal if you get someone’s interest. I’ve still never really done that and may never do it.
With Empathy, Inc., it was also not like that. It’s more like a partnership with the distributor, so that if the movie does well, we both get rewarded. But the immediate pleasure of the sale is that the story will be seen by a larger audience than it would otherwise. We could have self-distributed, as many small films have done, but then we’d have to do the work of distribution, which is something I’m not especially interested in, as I’d rather be writing / spending time with family.
thethe What did you mean when you said making these movies was physically hard?
You’re parking, loading, unloading, hauling, transporting, packing, unpacking constantly, and you go from about dawn to midnight, especially if you’re in a managerial position because you have to meet and hash out executive decisions after the physical work is over. On set there’s lots of waiting, and that’s easy, but when you have a skeleton crew, moments of true stillness are rare. Add to that high financial, artistic, and personal stress (being away from friends and family), and the gallons of caffeine needed to stay awake on no sleep, and copious alcohol needed to relax or go to sleep when you’re that caffeinated and anxious, and unhealthy food (no home-cooked meals), etc., left me a shattered husk of my normal self on most days. For anyone who has seen Empathy, Inc., those massive chairs were about 600 lbs. of solid steel each. And we had to lug them up and down stairs into every single location you see them in, requiring three to four people helping each time. Filmmaking is nowhere near as hard as many jobs other people do every day, but for me, a lazy writer by nature, every day was a shifting maze of different types of exhaustion. Luckily the endocrine system produces adrenaline in these situations.
Is it easy for you to work with other people?
I definitely hate it a lot of the time, but it is easy. From a managerial standpoint, much of filmmaking is addressing/resolving conflicts that inevitably arise in any collaboration or traveling circus. Me and my core team (Director Yedidya Gorsetman and Producer Josh Itzkowitz) fight all the time and can’t stand each other at certain points. But you get used to it. People-induced stress is the price of collaboration, but it’s also the only way big projects get done, and sometimes those conflicts create a better product, as in the case where I want something, the director wants something else, and the producer wants a third thing, and by arguing about it for a month, we reach something better than either of us would’ve come up with on our own.
As a writer, I would prefer never to have to deal with people, but as a teacher, I have also had a career’s worth of practice dealing with thousands of personality types and people from different backgrounds and trying to understand and help them all, as well as learn anything I can from them. Even if someone is hard to work with, the teacher in me usually gets excited for the opportunity to learn something from them, or to try to teach them something they might want to know. In making a film even as tiny as ours, you must work with so many people that you inevitably run into those who are hard to work with, but they are just people, and for all I know, to them, I’m one of those hard-to-work-with people. So I try to reserve judgment (which is the first rule of teaching, I think) which makes working with anyone pretty easy.
I don’t know where this question comes from, but I made another sloppy note that says, “Does artistry require a moral code?” What was I thinking? It’s difficult for me to define what I admire most about your work. There’s the intelligence of it, the virtuosity, the depth and nuance, the fact that it’s always about something that’s easy to recognize even while, perhaps, what it’s about is ineffable. Beyond all that, though, or amidst all that, there’s still something perceptible, and I guess maybe it’s this moral code hitched to your artistry. I don’t know. This might be the nicest non-question ever, or maybe you can spin it?
I don’t know if artistry in general requires a code, but it does for me personally, albeit a very loose one. My father died recently and I’ll try to answer this in light of him. He was very loving and religious and demanding in terms of behavioral expectations for his kids. I rarely lived (or live) up to those expectations, but I consider the value he put on morality as my most important inheritance. I think morality is what matters most to me in life and art, but it is not the transmission of simplistic moral lessons because I think that is actually unhelpful and can even be immoral at times. I am more interested in the discovery of moral reality, which is complex and contradictory and has few easy answers. I don’t think dogma, even if it promotes good behavior, supplies what people need to sustain a moral life. Art ought not demonstrate good behavior but awaken wonder about morality at all. This takes for granted that to awaken wonder one must sometimes suspend moral conventions, especially when certain moralities are so calcified as to be invisible. Another thing is in order to be good enough at any art to make people feel anything, you must experiment with form, and formal experimentation also undermines moral constraints, since any morality’s convincingness is tethered to its form. So to understand right and wrong on the deepest level, one must continually deconstruct moral conventions. This exploratory view is to me the only way to prepare the conscience to take on the unexpected dilemmas and depressions and crises of will that age and the shifting tides of history and psychology throw at you. To awaken a conscience, even if that conscience later missteps, is a more important role for art than to correct missteps or trumpet pieties. My favorite writers continually point at moral inquiry as the meaning of life itself. If we become unpracticed in fathoming the fog, we become the kind of drones that shame history. Do I think of any of this bullshit when I write? Not really, but it’s in the background like the wind. At the end of Tommy Boy, Chris Farley’s dinghy gets stuck in the pond, and he asks his dead dad to help him. He does, and the wind blows, but it knocks the sail into Farley’s head, and he says his catch phrase one more time. “That’s gonna leave a mark.” And it has.
although the american office was twice as funny as the british office, those laughs were spread out over 14X as many episodes, resulting in an abysmal 86.1% drop in per-episode office-based hilarity— mark leidner (@markleidner) January 11, 2020