This year’s 2014’s Tribeca Film Festival had a heavy focus on filmmaking futurism and new technologies, with an Innovation Week track, an entire Interactive Day given over to symposia and art exhibits, and much more. But possibly the most exciting premières of the festival were two innovative shorts that let viewers create their own viewing experiences, without forcing the creators to give up on telling a specific story. Presented by the filmmakers, Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, and Billy Chew, the two pieces suggested that there’s more to interactivity than making films resemble videogames: As technology provides more ways to tell stories, it’s possible for storytelling to keep up instead of falling behind.
In “Possibilia” (directed by Kwan and Scheinert, a veteran team who make shorts and videos as “Daniels”), Girls’ Alex Karpovsky and The Mindy Project’s Zoe Jarman star as Rick and Pollie, a couple in the middle of a messy breakup. As she starts to storm out, and he urges her to stay, viewers can pick between two thumbnails of the action at the bottom of the screen, and see the scene play out with the same script, but from different angles, and with different tones. As the six-minute short continues, the thumbnails multiply, until viewers have 16 choices appearing in tiny insets below the main image. Clicking between the thumbnails creates a fractured, emotional indie film, where the couple continues to fight in the garden, smash things in the house, relive good times in flashback, or fall into each others’ arms. As the possibilities for viewers expand, they’re reflected onscreen: Rick and Pollie also multiply, encountering many versions of themselves, all caught up in the argument. But viewers are only changing how the story is told, not what the story is. Eventually, all the possibilities collapse, and the short loops back around to that moment where Pollie heads for the door, and Rick tries to forestall the inevitable.
“The Gleam” (directed by Scheinert and Chew) is a beautifully shot documentary short centered on Guntersville, Alabama’s remarkably news-free hometown newspaper, The Advertiser-Gleam. Viewers see and hear a mosaic of available video clips; choosing one makes it play out and lead to other choices, with the overall result feeling like an absorbing mini-profile of the Guntersville community. What’s most remarkable is the way the final result feels seamless, as if each edit was planned, rather than selected on the fly via the user interface. Users can pick an ending, or keep daisy-chaining clips until they’ve all played through.
“Possibilia” and “The Gleam” were both produced by California-based PRETTYBIRD, using technology from Interlude, the digital-media company that recently gave the world the wild, much-passed-around interactive music video for Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” featuring Drew Carey, Marc Maron, and Danny Brown. Neither short has been released to the public yet; Interlude co-funded “The Gleam” with PRETTYBIRD, which owns it and is taking it to other festivals while looking for a distributor. Xbox Live Entertainment funded and owns “Possibilia,” and is still considering a marketing and release strategy. In the meantime, Kwan, Scheinert, and Chew—college friends who went into filmmaking together—talked to The Dissolve about how the films were made, why interactive entertainment isn’t limited to what’s come before or what they’re doing now, and how new technologies can bring new emotions into film projects.
The Dissolve: Which came first in this, the chicken or the egg? Did you have an idea and take it to Xbox? Was Xbox out shopping for experimental projects?
Daniel Kwan: The process was very messy, actually. Xbox wanted interactive long-form and serialized content, like TV shows. Essentially, they pitched to us, “What if something like Game Of Thrones had an interactive element?” Obviously, that’s the most marketable thing ever, but impossible to actually execute, because no one knows what that is. It’s like no one actually really knows what “interactive” means. That scared us, and also made us feel like there was an impossible task. So we came back to them and said, “What if we pitched you a bunch of small interactive movies, almost as a way to test out different versions of interactivity, and different ways to navigate that world?” We pitched them three or four different ideas. There was a horror film about changing perspectives and miscommunications—
Daniel Scheinert: —a coming-of-age teen comedy about ninth-graders crashing a party that the 12th-graders are throwing, but it has a bit of a Scott Pilgrim videogame aesthetic, where we would try to take that manic energy teenagers have and try to explore it with interactivity, where they’re like, “What do I do? Who am I going to be? I feel trapped!”
Kwan: “Possibilia” was the last thing we pitched. To them, it was the most accessible, because it was very simple, two people in a relationship, and that’s what we ended up going with. It changed 50 times while we were doing it. I definitely don’t think we went into this going, “We’re going to make a break-up movie about different possibilities.” None of that came out of actual brainstorming. It just came out of necessity, almost. It wrote itself, in some ways.
Scheinert: The other part of the whole “why the hell this movie got made” thing is, the company Interlude, which did all the back-end, is a startup that wants to champion interactivity as a way to tell stories. We did one project with them two years ago, and they’ve been these ridiculous champions of ours. Every time they give a talk, they’re like, “These are the guys! You need to hire them! We talked to Nickelodeon—Daniels, will you pitch something?” And it’s lovely. They’re just these hyper-sweet Israeli guys, Yoni [Bloch] and Alon [Benari], who came and started this company here in New York. They’re the ones who brought us to Xbox, and they protected us creatively every step of the way. No matter how ambitious our ideas were, they were always like, “We will find a way. We will figure out how to do this.”
Kwan: Honestly, the pitching process for any of these things is impossible. No one understands it, no matter how we do it. You could do a traditional treatment written out with all the images, the producers won’t get it. You can send them a map of the storyline, they wont get it. Nothing gets to them until they actually play with it. It took a lot of trust on their end, and a lot of fighting back on Interlude’s end. Also, Prettybird, the [creative agency] we’re signed to, they’re really into just trying new things. There was a lot of pushing back and just saying, “Trust them, trust them,” which is not always the best idea. I’m glad Xbox trusted us with this one.
The Dissolve: What was the scripting process like?
Scheinert: Super-hard, and weird. They asked us for a script, and we were like, “That’s really hard,” because we wanted it to develop organically. Somehow, we convinced them that was okay. We wrote a broad-strokes break-up scene that just hit beats we thought could be interpreted in different ways, like, “Let’s have her say, ‘I’m going to do something drastic.’ That way, a multitude of drastic things could start playing out onscreen.” The script wasn’t something we wanted them to learn verbatim—we sat down with Zoe and Alex for an afternoon and just had them improvise through it, beat for beat. We edited that raw footage into a five-minute audio track they had to memorize, and we sent that to Xbox and were like, “Hey, here’s a script. It’s an mp3 script.”
Kwan: The script was done a day before the shoot. It was very last-minute, all of it, because of everyone’s schedules. The script is the most generic version of a breakup you could ever think of. There’s no way you could apply what they’re saying to 60 different actions if it was very specific.
Scheinert: There were times when we came up with jokes and were like, “Hey, that’s a cool joke that could be in a love story,” but we couldn’t imagine shooting it eight different times in eight different places. We were like, “Wait, that joke is going to get so limiting. It’s going to really hurt the joke, that it’s done these different ways.” Instead, we did lines like—
Kwan: “You’re leaving?” “I’m leaving.” “Okay. What if you stay?”
The Dissolve: You mentioned in the Tribeca presentation that the actors had to memorize the script, then keep the timing precise, second for second, as they performed it over and over. Was that to make the changeovers seamless?
Kwan: It was pretty awful. We come from a music-video background, so we’re used to having playback, and having the bands lip-sync to playback. It was a fun idea when we were like, “Oh, what if we just do that with the dialogue?” Essentially, the actors had little earbuds, and every time we got to a certain section, we’d be like, “Okay, guys, we’re going from 30 seconds to 2:15. Remember this section? Review it—okay, great. We’re going to do that here in the living room, but this time, rather than being super-mad at each other, it’s a little bit tender.” The whole process was a bit of that, massaging the same thing over and over with different approaches. It was kind of an actors’ nightmare, but also maybe an actors’ dream.
Scheinert: They said the exact same thing each time, word for word. At the bottom of the screen, when there are four thumbnails to pick from, we had to shoot that scene four times. Once it gets to 16, we had to shoot that scene 16 times. That 16th scene is the one that drove us all insane. At the end, when it gets chaotic, and there’s 10 Ricks and 10 Pollies in one room, we spent a whole day just shooting that scene. For a whole day, the only dialogue they were saying was, “I drive you crazy? I drive myself crazy! Shut up! Stop! Okay, fine, let’s stop it. Stop! Stop!” So we all got crazy.
The Dissolve: As directors, how do you keep that kind of repetition fresh? You have to keep the energy level high if you’re going to use every take in some way, but if you’re just having someone yell the same line over and over for hours, how do you keep them engaged?
Scheinert: I think what you just described is what kept them energized. We were going to use it all, and we weren’t going to do a lot of takes, so we recklessly changed their motivations at all times, like, “Hey, that take was fun, but this time you’re scared of him. He’s acting differently than you’ve seen him act before. Let’s see what that feels like. Go! Okay, that was pretty good, now let’s change it! Now you’re both regretting everything you say, you don’t really mean it. Go!” It was like an acting class and a directing class for us. If Dan went in and gave them a note I thought was dumb, I’d be like, “Well, let’s see what happens.” We’d film that, and then I’d try something. It made it a low-stakes set where we were just like, “Let’s try things!” There were no wrong answers.
Kwan: They were very trusting. Maybe too trusting. They were wonderful to work with. The fun thing is, not only do we have a spacial map with all the thumbnails, there’s also an emotional map. It’s the spectrum of all the different versions of this same exact script. Whenever we write anything, this is what we do. It was actually freeing, to know, “It’s okay if this version’s not the best, because we have all these other versions as well.”
The Dissolve: Do you have an ideal path through the short? Like the one where Rick catches on fire, something that seems particularly exciting?
Scheinert: Not particularly. There’s definitely moments where we don’t want people to switch, because they’ll miss a cool transition. Only recently have we gotten to show it to people in its finished form and just let them play, and that’s so pleasant. It’s so fun to finally not be in control of which one they see, and to see people react differently at different times.
Kwan: Everyone has a different style, everyone has a different pace.
Scheinert: I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of about it, is that I don’t have an ideal path. We were afraid we would finish it and be like, “Man, I sure wish we’d just made one movie, and it was this one.” Instead, it’s like, “Thank God it’s interactive!” because I don’t like any one direction. What I like is that there are so many directions.
The Dissolve: During the presentation, you said you enjoy implicating the audience in the breakup, because the viewer may be looking for the path where they don’t break up, but there isn’t one. What about that draws you in?
Scheinert: I stole that phrase from someone I look up to a lot—Daniel Kwan. [Laughs.] When we were brainstorming ideas over the last few years, that was the one thing he came up with that has become our touchstone of, “Why the fuck am I making interactive movies?” We’ve come back again and again to, “It’s only worth it if we implicate the audience in the story.” If because they’re clicking, they’re more invested, then it’s worth this added distraction.
Kwan: It’s funny you say it came from me, because I’m pretty sure that came from a conversation I had with Billy Chew, because of the Walking Dead game.
Billy Chew: Not the show. I’m not a fan of the show. We were talking about the idea of including new emotions in entertainment experiences, like regretting a decision you made, and making that something you’re personally experiencing, instead of vicariously exploring. The idea of making a viewer experience emotions you wouldn’t normally experience in a narrative film, or a non-interactive film. It’s really weird and bizarre to think about.
Scheinert: Billy always talks about playing the Walking Dead game, and—killing this guy for no reason?
Chew: There’s a scene where there’s a woman who kills someone out of passion, and you can just abandon her at the side of the road to die. It’s not even like she was an important character who comes back later so you get an item. It’s just there so you can feel bad about what you did to this woman. I left her on the side of the road, and I felt so bad about it. The idea of doing that to people, implicating them, is fun and interesting. And an interactive film might bring in certain people who aren’t interested in videogames, for better or worse.
“We have to make sure the paths are still fulfilling and satisfying, and everything’s always still rewarding, just like any other film or story.”
The Dissolve: At what point do you draw the line between videogames and interactive films?
Kwan: I think everything kind of moves in waves. Right now, there are very defined lines, but things are starting to bleed back and forth. Some videogames are basically animated movies, with cool things you can change, but you’re still mostly experiencing a story, like Heavy Rain. They’re taking from movies, and now we’re trying to steal from videogames, essentially. I think as technology gets better, they’re going to become one, and we’re going to have to define lines again. But for now, we’re in this messy no-man’s land. I don’t think we should draw lines, I think we should go back and forth along the spectrum. But with “Possibilia” and “Gleam” specifically, our goal was to make sure it was not videogame-y. Your actions don’t create a reaction or consequence.
Chew: There’s no bad guy you’re trying to beat.
Kwan: A lot of people got hung up on the lack of consequences with “Possibilia,” because it’s a clean, perfect loop that has no resolution. It’s more about exploration. The narrative, and its thematic elements, are tied into what’s happening with interactive, because of this idea that “Possibilia” is kind of this weird, fruitless cycle. We try so hard, we explore everything, we go down all these different paths, we’re constantly wondering if we’re watching the best version, we’re constantly wondering if we should be looking at everything else. Much like in any relationship, you’re constantly wondering, “Am I in the best relationship I could be? Could I go out and be somewhere else with someone else?
Scheinert: Then at the end, you go, “Was it all pointless?” We try to make the viewer feel that way too. We’re like, “Cool! I’m making all these choices,” and then at the end be like, “Did any of that matter?”
Kwan: It’s not completely hopeless, obviously, because it starts all over again. There’s this little glimmer of hope, and a desire to explore more, as well. I think how the interactive is going to work, as far as how videogame-y it’s going to be, depends on the story, and what you’re trying to mirror thematically. The form should never be divorced from the theme, because that’s where bad interactive content is created.
The Dissolve: One of the things that’s so compelling about “Possibilia” is the way the fractured narrative gets more fractured as viewers interact with it, and that’s part of the story about how this couple is coming apart. The story gets messy because the emotions are so messy. Do stories told with this interface, this structure, inherently have to be fractured and confused?
Kwan: It’s completely different depending on the story. The horror story we want to tell is about six people trapped in a room with something otherworldly, and you can switch between their own personal films. Essentially, everyone has their own narrative. It’s about different perspectives, and what happens when those perspectives clash, and when there are miscommunications.
Scheinert: Hopefully no one reads this and makes that movie now. [Laughs.] I was talking to another person named Daniel yesterday, this filmmaker named Danny Madden who’s amazingly talented, and unafraid to tell me he isn’t sure how he feels about our movies. He says interactivity bores him, because he wants to tell stories. He says all films are interactive, at least that’s the goal. You’re always trying to implicate an audience in any story you tell—that’s how you get them to care. That’s why they jump in their seats when it’s scary. The only films that aren’t interactive are bad movies. [Laughs.] The movies on a loop at a hotel, those aren’t interactive.
The Dissolve: Do you have a preferred term for your work that would distinguish it?
Scheinert: We definitely don’t think we’re very good at naming things. We just like to make fun of whoever does name things. Like, “Oh, that guy’s an idiot.”
Chew: “Quadruple skippy.”
Scheinert: Oh yeah. “Sixteen Skippy-bits.” Two to the power of four movies is what “Possibilia” is.
Kwan: The idea of “Possibilia” wasn’t for us to say, “Okay, boom. This is it. This is now how people should make interactive films.” It was meant to be a way to intrigue people and make them think, “What else I can try?” I think I’d be really bummed if people started copying this structure, because this structure was made for this story.
Scheinert: I actually just made this other documentary film called “The Gleam” with my friend Billy.
The Dissolve: How did that split happen, with the three of you making two movies as part of the same project?
Scheinert: We’re close friends. Billy is a screenwriter by trade, so he’s always giving us feedback on the stuff we write, and we love his work.
Kwan: He’s acted in a couple of our things.
Scheinert: We’re always casting him in our movies, and he scored “The Gleam.”
The Dissolve: That music pulls it together in a particularly smooth way—even as you’re switching from interviewee to interviewee, or location to location, the music makes it feel like a single cohesive, planned work.
Chew: One of the things we tried to do was have a theme for each storyline, or for each moment. We tried to basically put everything in the same key. There’s a lot of weird music theory stuff. I collaborated with this really amazing composer, Alessandro Tabora, who also did the score for “Possibilia.” When you’re making an interactive film, when you’re jumping all over the place, it’s hard to have emotional arcs and a traditional theme, so it was really a matter of tone and texture and getting things to segue in a non-dissonant way. I think there’s 12 songs.
Scheinert: How it happened, two things: Billy writes a lot of content about the South, and about rural America, and we’d been talking about this newspaper for years. As soon as we brought up the idea of a documentary about The Advertiser-Gleam it was like, “Oh, Billy’s going to be involved.” Then, as a matter of convenience, we did both of these projects in the last six weeks.
Kwan: Shot, edited, finished it. We were working on debugging it the day of the première screening.
Scheinert: We accidentally made two features this month. If you string all the footage together, they’re both about an hour long. It was a matter of convenience that Dan Kwan could knuckle down and finish “Possibilia” while we went off and shot in Alabama.
Kwan: It was out of necessity, basically. [Laughs.] It was fun to screen them both together, because they’re so different. Again, it goes back to the fact that I don’t want people to watch these things and leave saying, “Oh, so this is what interactive film is.” They’re meant to break the preconceived ideas of what interactive film is. I just had dinner with my mom, and she’s like, “I don’t know why you didn’t give us an ending, or different endings.” She was basically arguing for a choose-your-own-adventure film, because that’s what a lot of people are used to. I think interactive films are the worst when you have 10 different endings, because every time you tell a story, you’re just tricking your brain into believing you have something real to empathize with. The moment you give me more than one ending, you’re diluting that, you’re actually breaking the trick, ruining the illusion. That’s why I don’t care when the options are like, “Did he die? Did he get married? Did he run away and live in Paris?” It doesn’t matter, because there’s nothing to be invested in.
Chew: It ties back into the theme element. It’s all about the viewing experience. There could be an amazing way of doing that multiple-ending kind of thing, if that’s the appropriate way to tell that interactive story, if you have a story that does it well.
Scheinert: I was trying to think of why we wanted to make “The Gleam” interactive, and the first reason was just selfish. We just wanted to go to Alabama and make this. Interactivity gave us the freedom to go into this project with no agenda, as opposed to, “We have this three-act message we’re going to deliver about Alabama.” We were like, “No, we’re going to go meet people, and let the audience do the exact same thing.” It was so creatively freeing to be able to just show up, with the only message being, “Hey, talking about the South doesn’t have to be about a message.” We weren’t saying these people are good or bad, we’re just saying they’re humans, and they interest us. That’s something I hope other filmmakers can latch onto. Interactivity doesn’t have to be a gimmick, it can just be a nice construct to creatively tackle any given topic. You can be like, “Hey, let’s explore!” as opposed to, “Oh, I got this great ending! Let’s build toward it!”
The Dissolve: You briefly noted onstage that the Xbox interface affected your storytelling on these projects. How did that work?
Scheinert: It was more Interlude, the interactive company. They’ve worked with Xbox to make sure the film is Xbox-compatible, but Interlude is the back-end tech on both these projects.
Kwan: We wanted to make something that could potentially, one day, play on any platform. We’ve been burned in the past where we’ve built things for a specific platform, only to realize that those platforms didn’t work, or didn’t even get fully developed.
Scheinert: It was very surprising—Xbox wanted that too. They didn’t say, “This movie will only be seen on our devices.” They’ve started a department at Xbox Entertainment Studios with the pure goal of making good content. They’re not setting out to be too exclusive, or to make movies you can only control with an Xbox controller. It’s still to be determined how these films will get released. Their biggest piece of input was the fact that they didn’t want to have much input. They trusted Interlude, and Interlude convinced them to trust us, and then we just set out to try to set the bar high as far as how unique the content would be. We were all scared every step of the way that we would not pull it off, but I think they were happy.
Kwan: Interlude created a pioneer software they’ve released, called Treehouse. Avid and Final Cut created an interface to let people do non-linear editing. Interlude is doing the same thing, but with presentation. Now you can take clips, arrange them in any way, in crazy, complicated webs, and output it so it can be viewed on mobile platforms, the Internet, Xbox, Safari, whatever. We just kept asking each other, “Is this possible? Can we do this?” And if it was impossible, Interlude would invent something within the program, because they can. And that was an amazing resource to have, because we don’t really know much about that stuff.
Scheinert: Alon is the guy we worked with most on this, and his answer was always, “Okay, the short answer is, yes we can do this.”
Chew: Then he just sits and stares at code, like those characters in The Matrix.
Scheinert: These were kind of pet projects of his, because they mostly do projects for ad agencies, which want to create video where you choose which makeup goes on the actor. So he’s so excited to have stories.
Kwan: They’re a very smart group of people. They’re tech-savvy, but they also understand that the best way to spread anything, and to perpetuate any idea, is if it’s attached to good creative content. So they make a point of reaching out and forming relationships with people they trust, and people they know have good impulses. They’ve been super-kind to bring us into that circle.
Scheinert: We’re not sure where Xbox is going to release this, or how. This whole thing is an experimental film.
The Dissolve: You’ve talked about how interactive content can make directors afraid of losing control of their work, because so much control is in the viewer’s hands instead. You said you’re comfortable with that, but how do you deal with letting go of control to a company that has exclusive rights over your work? What if Xbox never releases it?
Scheinert: That happened to us once already, and it was a bummer, with another Interlude project two years ago. But it was still one of the most rewarding projects we’d done in so long, and that’s why we did another. It’s rare that you get to try something so new.
Kwan: I think the reason most filmmakers don’t want to do this kind of storytelling is because of giving up control. Filmmaking is just showing someone this shot, then showing them this shot, then showing them this shot and knowing how those three shots, in that specific order, with this specific timing, will play with viewers’ emotions.
Scheinert: It’s very manipulative. We get very self-conscious about how manipulative film is, and a lot of times, that results in us making these weird meta-narratives, like, “Isn’t it weird? But we know it’s weird, but you know we know it’s weird.”
Kwan: When you’re used to that kind of control, and the ability to craft a narrative, it sucks to think that viewers can choose a worse version of your film than the ideal. I don’t blame filmmakers that don’t like it. We were kind of repulsed by the idea of doing an interactive film when we first were asked. An unnamed filmmaker—we won’t say who he is—saw our first interactive film and basically told Interlude and Yoni, the CEO, “What you guys do is a circus. What I do is poetry.”
“We’re trying to create more of a playground where you drop someone into this area you’ve built, and see what happens.”
Scheinert: And it was George Lucas! [Laughs.]
Kwan: Oh no! Stop it!
Scheinert: But it was, apparently!
The Dissolve: Really?
Scheinert: Yeah, supposedly. We weren’t there. This was just what we were told. [Tribeca Film co-founder and CEO] Jane Rosenthal has been a huge champion of interactivity, and every once in a while, we get an email where she’s like, “I showed it to this famous person,” and we just have to delete that email, and say, “That’s not real!”
Kwan: It is a scary, terrible new thing.
Scheinert: But we don’t blame him. We laughed and we were like, “Yeah, I mean, the sentiment is not wrong.” It is a circus! But circuses are cool. Circuses are really great, so I took it as a compliment.
Chew: The idea of maintaining authorship was big for us. We can’t just let these films be the equivalent of watching our favorite YouTube clips without any kind of filmmaking involved. We have to make sure the paths are still fulfilling and satisfying, and everything’s always still rewarding, just like any other film or story.
Kwan: I mentioned this at the screening—I say it all the time, now that I’ve come up with this analogy—but a traditional linear film is like a ride. You go to Universal Studios, you get on the E.T. ride, you get on the bike, and you go through a journey that everyone else goes on. And it’s great, and it’s fun. But we’re trying to create more of a playground where you drop someone into this area you’ve built, and see what happens. They can get hurt, they can fall over, they might be bored. But every now and then, you might see them running around, playing tag and saying the floor is lava, and it’s magic. And that’s wonderful. Sometimes, feeling you control everything is much more satisfying, because that’s so much more true to what life actually is. We do have control over the things we do. We’re creating a shared authorship, basically, between ourselves and the viewer.
The Dissolve’s lodging for Tribeca 2014 was kindly provided by Hilton New York Fashion District. We gratefully acknowledge their sponsorship.