Meeting HIM

in 38th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Maya McKechneay

They call him the DIY-distribution-guru. You just need to Google Lance Weiler, and that’s what you’ll find: a YouTube video of the thirty-something Weiler talking enthusiastically to an audience about new strategies in getting at one’s target group. Young strategies, involving the internet or mobile phones.

Lance Weiler used to be a film director. He started out with a Bolex and developed the 16mm material in his own bathtub. Very old school. With time Weiler has taken to the new media. He has created an online experience together in collaboration with the British “Hammer House of Horrors” and has made several films, the last of which was called Head Trauma (2006). A not so bad B-movie-approach at the haunted house-genre with a Carnival of Souls-ish plot twist in the end. In fact, this piece was far better scripted and directed than most of those ‘a bunch of teenagers enter the scary mansion’-flicks that usually get a release.

Now, Head Trauma was already promoted on the internet before the actual film was done. You can still find the website that resembles an animated graphic novel, with speech bubbles and flickering surfaces that reveal some secret message when you move the cursor over it.

In the YouTube-video Weiler talks about how he suffered a real head trauma with a memory loss. And how that inspired the film. Everything connects. Inside world, outside world, online mysteries and movie-scares. Or at least, Weiler is good at making it look that way.

At the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2009, Lance Weiler presented his new project with the working title HIM at the CineMart. It takes his whole idea one step further and involves gaming, mobile devices, activities in public space and, yes, a movie to convey a teenage paranoia-sci-fi-horror-plot. In the 26-year-history of Rotterdam’s CineMart (which is one of the largest co-production markets in Europe) Weiler’s HIM is the first cross-media project ever that has made it into selection. And not only that; at the end of the CineMart HIM was awarded with the Arte France Cinema Award, worth 10,000 Euro, for the most successful project.

In advance of the festival, it is not so hard to find Weiler on Facebook and to request an interview via his Facebook page. Weiler reacts to mails only seconds later. It’s a little harder, though, to find a real face-to-face interview during his Rotterdam stay. He’s already in a tight schedule.

We meet at the ungodly time of 9am in the Hilton lobby. Weiler is punctual, orders a mineral water and starts to neatly unearth phrases which could be taken from a manual-book (yet to be written). So velvety-smooth runs the description of his vision that one has to be on guard. Has the future of cinema really arrived? Is this what it looks like? “Part of the story”, explains Weiler still in subjunctive, “would play out in the cinema, but there is other parts that would play out across gaming consoles in living rooms and stuff that would come across mobile phones and elements that would be online. And then (there are) things that are in the real world. This is a combination of ways to put people in the shoes of the protagonist, to put them into the experience to be part of the film.” Yet, sometimes he gets carried away a little and switches to the indicative mode: “I create a whole project universe around the movie.”

The plan is to put a mini-series of 15 episodes (each of up to four minutes long) out on the internet. In addition there will be what Weiler elegantly calls “micro narratives” that people can listen to through their phones. There will be a game to use on a game-console. And, of course, there will be the movie. Weiler stresses the fact that each of these elements work individually as well as in combination with the others. Mysteriously he hints, that the game has already started, even though the shooting of the film hasn’t yet begun: “On the internet?”, I ask. — “Yes. And in the real world”, he says.

Weiler talks of symbols, that one might find in public spaces and that stick to the mind. Mysterious messages. A USB-drive, that gets lost randomly. And when somebody connects it to their computer, it contains messages, a part of the story. Now, how can you not think of David Fincher’s The Game?

The interviewer’s phantasy starts to envision a world where Weiler’s multi-layer concept has indeed become mainstream. A world, where the average student job is no longer handing out supermarket-flyers in some stupid animal-costume. No, students will then furtively drop thumb-drives, secretly scribble messages on the back of bus-seats, catapulting another game into reality. Now, is that my very own cultural pessimistic view on things?

For a screening of a priori film at the Museum of Moving Image, New York, Weiler employed a friend to act as a street preacher in front of the entrance, handing out what seemed to be religious messages that would make sense only later, in the context of the film. He wrote a script that made public payphones ring. He changed reality according to his film. Later, during the film, people could interact with the screening by sending text messages. The numbers were saved, and later, when the screening was over, the same people would be called, asked weird questions and the answers they gave would be played back at them with an echo effect. “The movie would follow them home”, says Weiler.

“What about data privacy protection,” I ask. “People opt in and can opt out at any time. It’s not like we purposely keep driving them crazy”, Weiler replies. And how does one get out of the game? “A simple unsubscribe will do”, says Weiler. That’s true for most of levels, I guess. But what about reality? And what about public space?