The Heart Machine
Directed by Zachary Wigon
At the start of The Heart Machine, the debut feature of local writer-director Zachary Wigon, Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil), are doing the long-distance thing, him in Bushwick, her in Berlin; having met on an online dating site, their relationship, though exclusive, is based around chat and funny, sympathetically bad Skype sex. But even though the two never cross paths on “Blender” (the film’s Grindr/Tinder hybrid), Cody has, by the beginning of the film, developed a dossier on Virginia, who, he suspects, lives not abroad but at the other end of the post-NYU axis, in the East Village. The paradoxes of intimacy and distance in the current age (and in an equally current New York City, featuring many familiar locations) play out intriguingly, aided by pitch-perfect performances from Gallagher and Sheil, in roles that demand a superreal degree of relatability.
Zach did his undergrad at Tisch Film, graduating in the late aughts, and has written for The L, along with a number of other local and web publications with a focus on independent film. He answered some questions of mine via email prior to the film’s theatrical opening on October 24, at Cinema Village
How was it directing Skype conversations? The camera is always in either one room or the other for the characters’ chats, which we see unfold in at least somewhat real time. I’m picturing you and your whole crew in a room with John Gallagher Jr., and Kate Lyn Sheil off in her own apartment across the city, with you occasionally directing her via webcam. Enlighten me!
Thanks to the ingenuity of the film’s producers, we actually were able to create a situation that was a lot more conducive to building a dynamic between John and Kate. Each apartment location had a space built into it that we used as a mock-up for the other apartment—so for example, the apartment we used as Virginia’s apartment was actually a two-bedroom, and the second bedroom, which we hid in the Virginia scenes, was mocked up to look like the bedroom in Cody’s apartment. So when we shot those Skype scenes from Virginia’s POV, John was actually just on the other side of the apartment. This was great because we were able to have John and Kate interacting in between takes and whatnot, which really helped them (I suspect) foster the intimate dynamic that is expressed in their Skype scenes. Of course, it’s a challenge to have to film a scene where two characters are relating to one another on a significant emotional level while only one character is in the room, but John and Kate are very talented performers and they were able to bring the emotion necessary to the scenes to supercede the limitations of the technology. Like two people who are really in love might do while talking over Skype, communicating that emotion across the digital divide. It also probably helped that we rehearsed those Skype scenes before the shoot, giving John and Kate the chance to read through them face to face, and hopefully develop some emotions while unimpeded by the mediation of a screen.
Let’s talk about the film’s technological hook, and the embedding of things like Grindr/Tinder, Skype, Missed
Connections, Facebook, Twitter into the fabric of the narrative. How do you think the film will play in a decade or two—or even, given the speed with which these things change, in a year or two? Do you worry that the film will date, or do you hope it will date?
I like the idea of the film being a timestamp of what it was like to try to fight the loneliness that is such an integral part of existence in a specific time and place. I have no doubt that humanity’s relation to technology will continue to dramatically evolve as time goes on, and so the way this film is viewed in two or ten or twenty years will surely be impacted by those changing ideas, but I also like the idea of this film, over time, preserving anxieties and concerns about technology that were visible to a generation of people, such as myself, who are old enough to remember a time before these technologies dramatically changed how we socialize and form intimate connections. My generation is the last to be able to recall growing up without smartphones, for example, and I am certain that future generations will not instinctively observe some of their flaws or contradictions in the manner that people my age do, because, as Marshall McLuhan said, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish”—that is, technology’s characteristics are invisible to those for whom those technologies are all-enveloping. So my hope is that the film will date insofar as it will preserve some anxieties and thoughts about technology that may otherwise die out, for a younger generation of people who might otherwise have trouble accessing such thoughts and therefore have trouble seeing some of the complications or understanding what is lost with respect to allowing technology to dictate how one creates intimacy. That’s not to say I’m a Luddite—I think the film also displays the manner in which technology can be a really beneficial force in creating intimate connections, like the one forged initially between Cody and Virginia—but these beneficial aspects of utilizing technology may be taken for granted in twenty years.
Additionally, though, I hope that at its base the film will play as something that utilizes contemporary technology as a conduit for investigating some very old, very human concerns—what does it mean to be loved? How does one fight the loneliness that one feels at every step without putting one’s emotions at risk? And so on.
How concerned were you with the plausibility of the story? I think, for the record, that it is plausible, but there’s a pretty high degree of difficulty…
I was as concerned with plausibility as one could be without being interested in making a work of
realism, if that makes sense. You know, there’s this great Hegel quote I absolutely love, which Slavoj Žižek referenced in an essay about Children of Men—the quote goes something like, “A good portrait of a subject looks more like the subject than the subject does.” Meaning, art takes the essence of a thing and distills it into a powerful, compact form, a form that is more concentrated than how that thing is perceived in real life. I was interested in doing that here—I wanted the story to be plausible for the sake of the audience’s suspension of disbelief, but I was interested in a kind of heightened story, a story that felt a little bit more like the world we live in than the world does on a day-to-day level. I wanted to take the defining aspects of what it feels like to live in a world dominantly mediated by these technologies and enhance those aspects to a greater degree, so their effects are a bit easier to see. There’s another good quote that comes to mind here, which is that Picasso quip that “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.”
The halfway point of the movie, when Cody arguably reaches his nadir, finding a possible friend of Virginia’s on social media and contriving a flirtation with her outside The Levee, is important for the film structurally and in terms of how we feel about each character; it’s also a very striking sequence of, well, cyberstalking. Did you intend that sequence to be at all alarmist, or were you more interested in using Cody’s stalking technique to explore current realities?
I did not intent it to be alarmist—I don’t think we’re all in danger of being stalked in real life because of the information we share over the internet, though of course it is a possibility and sometimes things like that do happen, but that wasn’t the crux of what I was interested in. I was more interested, in that sequence, in exploring, through Cody’s behavior, the obsessions that the internet, with all the information available on it, can foster. We’re all familiar, I’m sure, with the sensation of seeking out information via the internet with a deep hunger and desire—googling a potential date, trying to do research on a co-worker, etc. I wanted to explore what it might look like if that internet-generated obsession carried over into the real world, so as to better manifest and depict the kind of desire/obsession that these technologies engender.