Part of what made Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel, The Circle, such a chilling read was that its technological trappings felt insidiously familiar. And that was before readers ever had to actually confront them with their own eyes.
In creating the film version of The Circle, a hopefully not-too-prescient tale of social surveillance further seeping into modern life, director James Ponsoldt had to assume the role of Silicon Valley impresario. He held up both a mirror and a crystal ball to the tech world; showing off what it might become, while generously larding the depiction with what it is already.
“I think we felt like we were going insane sometimes,” Ponsoldt says, “whether it was trying to create the illusion of a giant campus by using tons of locations, a campus that didn’t feel schizophrenic architecturally, or the products or the screen design. We had to design fake social media apps and emails. We had to create everything.”
Because The Circle takes place in a world in which Google, Facebook, and the like have all been swallowed up by one enormous company, Ponsoldt had to figure out what social media would look like in alternative post-Twitter universe, and what kind of device one might browse it on, with Apple out of the picture. What he ended up creating is a world that echoes the one outside the theater, but is specific to its own secret frequency. The so-called SeeChange cameras in the film, which look like elfin robot eyeballs, seem like something that might be announced at the next MacWorld Expo, with Tom Hanks’s Eamon Bailey filling in for Tim Cook.
With the film, which also stars Emma Watson, now out in theaters, Ponsoldt talked to Fast Company about his unlikely stint as tech culture surveyor.
Around the time of the book’s release, the rumor was that Dave Eggers didn’t actually do any research to flesh out the details in The Circle. The truth is that Eggers had lived in the Bay Area for decades and had friends all over the industry, whom he could lean on for useful information. In any case, when it came time for Ponsoldt to bring Eggers’s vision to life–the two wrote the screenplay together–they wanted to get it just right.
“I went with my production designer on scouting trips to different tech campuses,” Ponsoldt says. “Really, it was with the goal of making sure we knew the world. We already knew the products, but we wanted to understand the texture of the place. We were also looking at it from a design perspective. In this building, is there a lot of glass, is there an open floor plan, are people at treadmill desks, do they have yoga ball desks, do the breakout rooms have ironic names, what do people dress like, are people on their phones all the time or looking at their watches, if there’s outdoor space is it being used, are the meals free, are they partially subsidized, what kind of public events are there, are there concerts on campus, is there free yoga, what is the sound of the place? We wanted to make sure we understood it.
One scene invented for the movie really gives viewers an idea of what these monolithic tech companies are looking for in their employees, and the intense level of scrutiny they put into finding them. It’s an interview scene that’s capped off with a speed round of stupefying questions.
“Again, I talked to friends that worked at different tech companies and asked them different questions that might be asked at interviews,” Ponsoldt says. “There are the classic questions people are asked who are going into iBanking as well, like how would you explain our company to your grandmother who doesn’t really have an intimate relationship with technology. There are also the L-SAT type questions when you’re trying to understand the quality of someone’s thinking process. There are different throughlines that you hear at some of these interviews when you try to understand their behavior and relationship to stress. If the temperature rises in the room, someone sweats about being asked to remember the person’s name who drove them to the interview, things like that where they don’t really care about the answers but wanna see how you respond to it. Some of them start to almost feel like they meet be getting a little inappropriate, might touch into gender politics, but never getting too deep into it. Might be innocuous, might not be innocuous. Is there more to this than there seems or absolutely nothing more to this?”
Getting familiar with the look and feel of phones, tablets, and other devices gave Ponsoldt a deep, heartfelt appreciation for Jony Ive and all the decisions his team puts into creating Apple’s wares.
“The world we live in now, I would argue that Apple and the design of Apple products and the Apple Store have done more to influence the way we think of modern design than arguably anything else,” Ponsoldt says. “There’s sleek and uncluttered minimal look that we know, and I think we both wanted to acknowledge that and live in our own world. We were building off of other products. Non-Apple products and putting scans on them, and modifying in some cases. But we had a big debate about size, whether it was with the SeaChange cameras or the phones. I think there’s always been a push toward smaller and elegant design. I mean, who knows where we’ll be in 5 or 10 or 15 years. We obviously know what cell phones looked like in the late 1980s—that big brick—and it’s something of a joke now. Where we landed was that the palm-size phone feels about right. We can have phones in our ears, we can have them in a watch, but there’s something satisfying about holding it in your hand. If you make it thinner, you might not make it durable.”
The Social Media
At the crux of the movie is the fact that the feeling of connectedness that social media provides can also feel oppressive and like a form of surveillance. One of the main ways the director had to figure out how to convey this aspect is through the nonstop comments or “zings” the protagonist, Mae Holland receives throughout the movie. Messages constantly pop off the screen, written by Ponsoldt, Eggers, and comedian co-star Patton Oswalt. Beyond the words, though, the director also had to decide how the messages would physically look.
“What I wanted to approximate with the zings, which May gets tons and tons of once she [starts recording every moment of her life for an audience] midway through the movie, is how overwhelming they are,” Ponsoldt says. “Whether the people sending them are being funny or they think they’re being funny but they’re not, or they’re off-topic or banal. I wanted it to approximate the visual Valhalla of trying to keep up with the Greek chorus of modern life when you have an audience. We wanted to give it a pop art quality, to give it a sense that they’re beautiful and they’re subjective, trying to occupy May’s headspace.”
“The design we came up with almost looked like poppy lens flares,” he adds. “Just everywhere and kind of lovely and innocuous and pleasant and not cold. Little bits of neon floating around her like fireflies, but where there was a quantity of them and in enough languages that it would be impossible to read them all. It’s a visual wall where you can just make out one or two but trying to keep up with it would make you go crazy and we went back and forth on exactly what the perfect amount was to approximate that and not antagonize the audience, but again, putting enough there so that you’re not really able to read more than one or two at a time—which might still feel slightly antagonizing, despite our efforts.”