Part of the pleasure of attending an established film festival like South By Southwest is the caliber of emerging talent it attracts. When you’re seeing a new director’s feature debut, you can rest (reasonably) assured that the cream of the submissions pile has risen to the top. Such is the case with Zachary Wigon’s first film, “The Heart Machine.” Starring John Gallagher, Jr. (“The Newsroom” and last year’s SXSW breakout, “Short Term 12”) and Kate Lyn Sheil (an indie darling who recently appeared in season two of “House of Cards”), the film explores the technological implications of the current dating climate, where sex-with-no-strings is available at the touch of an app, yet intimacy can be kept safely at bay via one’s computer screen (read our review here).
When we meet Cody (Gallagher) and Virginia (Sheil), they are in the midst of a long-distance relationship conducted exclusively via Skype. Though they have never met, they profess to be in love—and they are counting down the days until she returns to New York after a six-month fellowship in Berlin. After several naggingly unsettling clues cause Cody to suspect all may not be as it seems, his obsessive paranoia soon supersedes all other aspects of his life. We see the relationship from both sides, and without giving too much away, the audience begins to really worry about both Cody’s sanity and Virginia’s self-esteem and capacity for intimacy.
“The Heart Machine” contemplates a number of challenging issues, including the possibility that technology is fraying our ability to connect intimately (and honestly) in real life. As more and more couples meet online—for long or short-term assignations—deception is playing a bigger role in how we present ourselves to the world. We caught up with the director and his two stars on the day of the film’s world premiere at SXSW.
Zach, this is a pretty big stage for your feature film debut. What does it feel like to be here at SXSW?
Zachary Wigon: It’s really, really exciting. I started writing the script about two years ago, and to be able to be premiering here at South By is awesome.
John and Kate Lyn, how do you guys describe “The Heart Machine”?
Kate Lyn Sheil: I call it a tragic love story, personally, without revealing too much of the plot.
What attracted you two to the roles?
John Gallagher, Jr.: I liked the character; I felt like I understood him. He’s a good-hearted person who does some very questionable things throughout the film, and that’s my life in a nutshell. [laughs] So I really related to him, and kind of empathized with his plight a little bit. I also really liked the love story—the two characters and how they found each other and fell in love… And then I met Zach, and I had a nice time talking to him.
Zachary Wigon: We had a very nice Skype chat.
John Gallagher, Jr.: Yeah, I downloaded Skype for the purpose of meeting Zach! It was a whole ordeal, and it didn’t work the first time, and we had to keep arranging Skype dates. I had also seen some of Kate’s work, and I was a fan, so I was like, “This is a no-brainer.”
Kate Lyn Sheil: Zach and I went to college together, so I’d known him for quite a while. And I related to the character. I thought she was a very lonely and insecure character who really wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, but she gets involved with some very questionable behavior. I wanted to play her, and I kind of had a protective feeling towards her.
So what do you think “The Heart Machine” says about social media, and hookup apps, and how this generation deals with love and relationships and intimacy? Zach, what inspired the story?
Zachary Wigon: Well, there’s a huge umbrella of stuff. One thing that comes to mind is compartmentalization, and the way that all these dating apps and technology allow you to compartmentalize what used to be just one relationship. There’s an app like Blendr, for example, that’s used in the film, which allows you to hook up with someone who’s nearby; it’s sort of like ordering sex instantly, to put it crassly.
Like Seamless for sex.
Zachary Wigon: It sounds crass, but when I think about the app, that’s [what] comes to mind, frankly. And then there’s Skype, of course, which facilitates communication at great distances. So the idea of all these different technologies being used to compartmentalize the various aspects [of a relationship]—to really break [it] down… and put it into various compartments—was really interesting to me, and something I wanted to explore.
It made me think about Spike Jonze’s “Her.” I’ve been saying for months now that I don’t think we’re that far from that sort of relationship—it’s not that much different than the Skype one Cody and Virginia have. There may be an image and a voice, but there’s not really a physical person. Have you had relationships anything like this, kept alive by technology?
John Gallagher, Jr.: Not really, no. I’ve had relationships where distance has come in here and there, but not for long periods, and certainly never without a foundation established prior to, and that’s something that was so interesting to me about this story—that because there is no physical aspect, it’s… built on nothing; there’s nothing to really hold onto. I think their connection is very real, and I do think they come to care about each other very much, but it’s built on shaky territory.
That’s becoming more and more common, I think. My husband has a friend who moved from California to northeast Canada to marry a woman he met online.
Kate Lyn Sheil: Yeah. I met someone once in person, and came to fall in love with them over the course of many, many long hours of conversation and email. I didn’t have a computer that allowed me to Skype at the time, so there was actually no visual image whatsoever. But it was not to last… But yeah, I understand it.
Zach, I hear you did have a Skype relationship, but not necessarily like this.
Zachary Wigon: Not like this, but it was something that became the genesis of the film, the first seedling of the idea. I was in a relationship—but with an in-person foundation—that ended up being carried out for an extended time over Skype. It worked really well over Skype, but then when the long-distance part ended, and we were in the same place again, it didn’t work at all.
So that got me thinking: “What if there were someone who would prefer a Skype relationship to a relationship in person?” That’s kind of how the film first came about.
What were the challenges of filming the Skype conversations? Did you film them in real-time, as they were having the conversations? And what were the challenges of acting in that medium?
John Gallagher, Jr.: We filmed [both sides of the conversation] at the same time. Kate was in another room, on another floor in the building where we shot. Honestly, one of the biggest challenges was the technology itself, because we were constantly losing the internet connection…
Huh! Talk about metaphor…
John Gallagher, Jr.: Yeah. We would be in the middle of a scene, and then it would just go away. Or I would continue talking and think, “Oh, Kate’s just pausing a really long time—oh, she’s frozen.” [all laugh]
Kate Lyn Sheil: I would try to improvise, and then, oops! Should we call it? Let’s call it…
John Gallagher, Jr.: There was something really fun about it, too. It was its own kind of challenge, something that I’d not really experienced before. In a way, doing the scenes that way really made me understand the way the characters get kind of intoxicated in that relationship—how it is kind of easy and comfortable. You just have this frame, you have this window into this person’s life…
And you decide what they see and they don’t see.
John Gallagher, Jr.: Yeah, exactly. It made me kind of understand the comfort they take in that. Like I said, despite some of the technical drawbacks, there was a comfort to shooting those scenes.
I seem to remember some Skype scenes on “The Newsroom,” too, no?
John Gallagher, Jr.: There were some Skype scenes in “The Newsroom,” and a lot of those we did the other way—we were forced, because of schedules, to shoot them where one person would shoot theirs, and then you would shoot it with a pre-recorded version of the actor… But for this, I felt like I wouldn’t be able do this story unless we were able to do it face-to-face. And that was one of the first things that Zach said.
Zachary Wigon: I should add that John and Kate are both very talented at improv, and one of the things that really helped out—because we needed to create a sort of current of emotions going back and forth in these scenes, and it’s difficult when part of it is on a monitor—is that a significant amount of the Skype scenes… particularly the first Skype scene, where they are talking in Cody’s bedroom, the dialogue in that scene was almost entirely improvised by the two of them. They are just very, very talented at improv, and that was a real luxury.
Had you scripted it, and then let them improvise?
Zachary Wigon: Yeah, exactly. We had shot a scripted version, but with the communication happening over Skype, there is a certain natural quality to the interaction that has to come across, and it’s tougher to come across when it’s scripted. So there were a number of scenes in the film—not just Skype scenes—where we would shoot the scripted version and then be like, “Okay, you guys just go ahead and improv.” I was very lucky that they were so good at it.
Kate, you are an indie film veteran — you’ve done like 30 films in five years—
(Publicist off camera): 38!
Kate Lyn Sheil: 38? That seems impossible…
And you’ve also had a recent stint on season 2 of “House of Cards.” How do you manage such a busy schedule, and what’s next for you?
Kate Lyn Sheil: I think there was a very, very concentrated period wherein I worked pretty consistently for a year and a half, and I think a lot of those films were shot during that period of time, after which I slowed down significantly. Also, I think people cooled towards me as well—it was a mutual decision that I would do less movies. [laughs]
The “House of Cards” things came by surprise, and I cleared my schedule for that, because it was a very exciting thing for me. But yeah, it’s been a lot.
What’s next for you?
Kate Lyn Sheil: I’m editing a film that I co-wrote, which is being directed by Zachary Treitz.
Zach, do you have something next in mind?
Zachary Wigon: Yeah, I’m writing my next film now, but I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it. [laughs]
John, can you tell us anything about “Olive Kittredge,” which will also air on HBO? I loved the book.
John Gallagher, Jr.: Yeah, it’s a really good book! I think its going to air in the fall, but I’m not 100% sure. I haven’t seen any of it, but I play the son of Frances McDormand, the title character. It kind of tracks him from his early 20s to his late 30s, and his interaction with the family dynamics. I think it’s going to be really cool—there’s a lot of really talented people in it. It was fun to make… And I got to meet Bill Murray, which made the whole thing worthwhile.
"The Heart Machine" opens on Friday, October 24th.