Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo picked a hell of a subject for his first English-language film. After his audacious 2007 debut Timecrimes brought him to the attention of American audiences (it won Best Picture at the Austin-based genre film festival, Fantastic Fest), he followed up with the 2011 sci-fi romantic comedy Extraterrestial. Now, with his latest, most high-profile, film, he’s taken the opportunity to tell a story grounded in the real-world–and now troublingly topical–issues of celebrity, hacking and privacy.
“The producers asked me to make a movie in which the Internet has a big presence on screen,” he says. Vigalondo decided to interpret that as a feature that takes place entirely on a computer screen. “It turned an interesting idea into this big mess,” he laughs. “It became a theory–to make this insane movie in which everything is told through the Internet. Could I tell a story about the format itself?”
The resulting film, Open Windows, hit VOD this month. With Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey in its lead roles, the film takes some aspects of the Internet that have been in the news lately–the violation of the privacy of famous actresses and the entitlement of some of their fans who want to see them naked–and pushes them to extremes.
In Open Windows, Grey plays movie star Jill Goddard, while Wood stars as Nick Chambers, her biggest fan. When a dinner that Chambers won with the star gets canceled at the last minute, he finds a mysterious stranger on his computer screen offering him a different opportunity: the chance to watch Goddard in her most private moments. When Chambers accepts that opportunity, he finds himself in way over his head–in ways that put himself, Goddard, and others at risk of real harm.
The parallels between Goddard’s situation and that of Jennifer Lawrence and the other stars whose cell phones were hacked last month are abundant. At one point, a website counts down to a teased, gross invasion of Goddard’s privacy, almost identical to the one that launched in September regarding Emma Watson.
We talked to Vigalondo about the challenges of telling a story that unspools on a laptop screen, and making a movie that anticipated a most timely, unpleasant aspect of Internet and celebrity culture.
Instead of focusing on the hows and whys of people who hack celebrity accounts, Open Windows wisely casts its focus elsewhere. The mysterious voice that instructs Nick on how to spy on–and later interact with–Goddard isn’t the focus of the film. Instead, it’s Nick himself, the voyeur who’s only interested in watching what’s available to him.
Vigalondo recognizes that his film is unexpectedly timely, but he explains that he settled on the focus he did because he hates the way that the media too often talks about situations like the celebrity photo leaks–and wanted to examine the role of the viewer. “You love when your movies are talking about relevant stuff that is in the news, but on the other hand, it’s really horrifying that the situation gets repeated and repeated and repeated. And they’re getting worse. I think things are getting worse,” he says. “I don’t want to talk about the criminals who leaked these photos to the big audiences–I’m really horrified by the thought that a lot of people around us, they don’t have empathy at all. They share the photographs, they behave like it’s not a crime. Why are we always talking about network security? If we talk about ethics, we’re involved in a more serious way, and we realize that we are not fully innocent. When I made this movie, I didn’t want to make a strict cautionary tale about how wrong things can be on the Internet–I wanted to explore these things, and I’m so sad that this is more relevant than ever.”
Much of Open Windows involves mistaken identities, anonymity, and disguises, and these are the themes that Vigalondo thinks empower the troubling Internet culture we’ve created, and that the film comments on. It’s a delicate balance for a film that is very much a thriller, and at times Open Windows gets lost in its shifting identities (there’s a reason Vigalondo describes it as a “big mess”)–but that’s also a reflection on the nature of the Internet.
“The movie is a big fantasy, an implausible story, but it’s dealing with the fact that, if we don’t have a face, we become a different person,” he says. “If we cover our faces, we become someone else. And we see that all the time on the Internet and social media. Even people who keep their real names on the Internet, but they don’t show their faces, they become less of a real person, and more of a jerk. For example, when you meet these people face to face, you realize that they’re nicer. What is happening in (our) brains?”
Had a large cache of photos of the world’s most famous actresses not leaked onto the Internet a few weeks before Open Windows reached theaters and VOD platforms, the biggest story about the film would probably be its innovative format. The entire film takes place on Nick’s laptop screen, and while it pans from one area of the screen to another, and the computer moves around throughout the course of the film, we never see anything that someone looking at the screen wouldn’t also see.
“I think it’s impossible to tell this story outside of the computer,” Vigalondo says. “If you tell it without the computer, it’s going to be a different thing.”
In order to tell the story the way he wanted, Vigalondo actually avoided too much reality–he didn’t try to replicate certain parts of the Internet. Nick, for example, doesn’t log on to social media. That puts Open Windows in sharp contrast with another film covered on this site that takes place solely on someone’s computer screen, the 17-minute short Noah.
“That film is a realistic story about social media,” Vigalondo says. “The reason there’s no social media in Open Windows is because I was aware that every attempt to be realistic would be dated by the time the film was released. Technology is faster than feature filmmaking. Instead of trying to be realistic and feeling dated, we just had to make something that evokes reality, but that is not reality at all.”
Few actors do “nerdy everyman” with more authenticity than Elijah Wood. But when it came time to cast the part of Jill Goddard, Vigalondo recognized an even more unique opportunity when he found out that Sasha Grey was available.
“She not only works on screen, but her presence adds new layers to the story,” Vigalondo says. “I don’t want to tell a cautionary tale against pornography, but the fact that some people on the Internet are instantly angry that she’s not making pornography anymore, who are condemning her because she should be doing pornography until the end of time…it’s a male thing–that way of thinking is not far from the evil character in the movie.”
This is all pretty heady stuff for a thriller that includes scenes of mistaken identity and subplots involving comic-relief French computer hackers, and it’s what makes Open Windows such a compelling watch at exactly this point in time. The themes of the film are the themes of contemporary media life, and they’re explored by someone with some innovative ideas about how to present them.