Nacho Average Thriller
Elijah Wood and Nacho Vigalondo update 'Rear Window' for the digital age
Do you know who's watching you? Really know? Do you even want to know? With techno-thriller Open Windows, director Nacho Vigalondo said, "I wanted to bring back the feeling of being permanently exposed as a negative thing."
In Open Windows, Nick Chambers (Elijah Wood) is the webmaster for a site dedicated to actress Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey) who finds himself dragged into a bizarre conspiracy to manipulate and expose the starlet using webcams and live feeds. Spanish native Vigalondo's first English-language film, set and partially filmed in Austin, uses the annual Fantastic Fest horror, sci-fi, and genre film festival as its backdrop: Vigalondo went so far as to reenact the fest for the opening sequence, because it holds a special place in his heart and his career trajectory. His first two films, Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial, received their world and U.S. premieres there, and Vigalondo has become its unofficial mascot. He said, "It's a love letter to Austin and Fantastic Fest, as much as telling a story involving extortion, torture, and murder can work as a love letter."
Wood, like Vigalondo, is a Fantastic Fest regular. In fact, the actor said, "I don't know if it could have happened without Fantastic Fest." His first filmed collaboration with the director was dramatic in a different way: The duo was locked in a Faraday cage at the FF 2010 closing party, headbanging as local arts/physics collective and America's Got Talent finalists ArcAttack played Slayer's "Raining Blood" using lightning from Tesla coils. "That happened, that really happened," said Wood. The pair had become email pals after Wood told the Spanish press how much he loved Vigalondo's 2007 debut, Timecrimes, and in 2011 the director told him about his idea for a movie set completely on a laptop screen. "I've always wanted to work with Nacho," Wood said. "He's a very good friend of mine, and the concept's insane."
Like a high-tech Rear Window, Open Windows is a thriller with a gimmick: The entire movie is told in real time on Nick's computer monitor, through a mixture of video and audio feeds. It has all the hallmarks of a modern thriller, with tense surveillance sequences, car chases, shoot-outs, and virtualized grand larceny, but Wood didn't get to see much of the action. He said, "The actual shooting was a relatively solitary experience, in that I was sitting in front of a camera or running with a camera, and looking at it or slightly below and imagining everything that was happening on my computer screen." He didn't even get to spend much time on set with his co-star. "It's not until the end of the film that my character interacts with Sasha Grey's character, because prior to that it was all communication via webcam."
Film historians may look back on Open Windows as the third act of an unofficial trilogy of Wood movies playing with the cinematic fourth wall. First there was 2012's remake of sleazeploitation classic Maniac, told from Wood's POV as a deranged killer. Then last year there was the real-time thriller Grand Piano, written and directed by Vigalondo's old friend and Timecrimes composer Eugenio Mira. Like Open Windows, it casts Wood as the panicking pawn of a malevolent disembodied voice, a slave to an electronic god. Vigalondo called the similarities "a cosmic coincidence. I wrote Open Windows years ago, and Eugenio offered Elijah Grand Piano without knowing both movies would deal with a character suffering the same set of threats. We even made jokes about including clues suggesting Elijah was playing the same character."
Vigalondo's movies have always blurred the line between high-concept sci-fi and kitchen-sink relationship comedies. In Timecrimes, schlubby husband Héctor (Karra Elejalde) struggles with his past and future selves as a time machine wreaks havoc on his marriage. His follow-up, 2011's Extraterrestrial, puts an awkward love triangle against the background of an alien invasion as Julio (Julián Villagrán) uses the threat of intergalactic war to turn a one-night stand into an extended sleepover. With Open Windows, the technology is less fantastical, but don't expect it to pass rigorous inspection for accuracy. "If you ask a geek, he'll tell you it's absolutely impossible for a current laptop to work the way it does in the movie," Vigalondo admits. "We have faked the syntax of the webcams, the security cams, the cell cams, but we manipulated the image where it made sense, for the benefit of tension or drama. As it happens with the best found-footage films, like the V/H/S series, we played with the rules instead of being slaves to them." He was far more interested in the technology making narrative sense, rather than subscribing to literal accuracy. "The first draft of the Open Windows script was written in 2008. If I tried to be realistic back then, the movie would be a period film today." When he finally started shooting, what intrigued him was how quickly people got used to cameras everywhere. "Two centuries ago we were worried a photograph could steal our soul, and now it feels like if you are never in the picture you may be the soulless."
The technology – and how it can be abused – would have been unrecognizable in the era of Vigalondo's inspiration, Rear Window. If any of James Stewart's neighbors wanted to stop the surveillance, they could just close the curtains, but it's not so easy anymore. Wood said, "We are a very observed people, and we choose to ignore it most of the time, because if we let that into our headspace, we could get very paranoid." It's not just government surveillance or professional paparazzi that have people worried. There have been multiple prosecutions of hackers who turned on someone's computer, console, or phone cameras without the owner's knowledge, and Internet security firm Norton has issued blunt advice: Don't have any webcam-enabled tech in your bedroom. "It's a software manipulation away from someone observing you in your space without you knowing it," Wood said. "It's a creepy notion." For him, what it comes down to is choice. "If you're an unconsenting person with someone trying to get something out of you, something vulnerable, that's an uncomfortable thing, regardless of who you are."
That question of consent makes Grey's casting as Jill even more pointed. Vigalondo wrote the part the year before Grey started her transition from the adult industry to mainstream cinema with Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, but, he said, "her identity as an ex-adult movie star not only echoes the character perfectly, but also gives a funny layer of irony." In key scenes, the camera becomes extremely intrusive, culminating in an uncomfortably erotic webcam session. He said, "The movie can be seen as a story about exploitation, and talks about how we came to a point when we, as a mass of consumers, have a crush on a teen star, to the point of demanding we see her naked, and at the same time we hate her loudly."
Visions, World Premiere
Monday, March 10, 9pm, Alamo Ritz
Wednesday, March 12, 9:15pm, Alamo Ritz
Thursday, March 13, 4:30pm, Alamo Slaughter
Saturday, March 15, 11am, Alamo Ritz