It’s time for movies to be honest about our relationships — with our phones

Despite the fact that so much of our communication now happens online, TV and film have traditionally done a bad job of translating our texts, emails, and DMs to the screen. There are a lot of good reasons why: text communication doesn’t have the inherent drama of face-to-face dialogue. It dates itself quickly. And, as Tony Zhou pointed out in his video “A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film” on Vimeo, dedicating precious screen time to depicting, well, another screen, can be counterintuitive and expensive. Text-based conversations on-screen often end up feeling awkward and unnatural, with geriatrically large text to let us read over a character’s shoulder, off-brand emoji floating in midair, or, worst of all, characters that narrate their texts out loud.

The issue is so pressing that in 2016, two of my colleagues argued over how best to tackle texting in filmmaking. Jamieson Cox finally landed on a simple suggestion: “Don’t make your characters text unless it’s a fundamental part of the action.”

It’s a smart suggestion. It’s also a cop-out. Chances are, the most emotionally memorable moment of your day sprang from online correspondence: a frustrating Slack conversation with a coworker, an ambiguous text from a crush, a passive-aggressive email from your boss. In an era where many of us have developed anxiety over actual phone calls, choosing to ignore our text exchanges in TV and film increasingly feels like an abdication of responsibility.

Wobble Palace, which premiered at SXSW this past weekend, takes a different tack. The film centers on Eugene (played by director and co-writer Eugene Kotlyarenko) and Jane (co-writer Dasha Nekrasova), a couple who decides to split their apartment for a weekend shortly before the 2016 presidential election. Each of them gets to do whatever they like in their home for one day in an effort to cope with their deteriorating relationship or maybe just hasten its demise. True to life, both characters spend a considerable amount of time on their phones: Tindering furiously, ordering Ubers, concocting affected Instagram stories, and taking BuzzFeed-style basic bitch quizzes.

Kotlyarenko’s directorial approach to these interactions is straightforward: he intermittently lops off a third of the screen and projects what’s happening on either Eugene or Jane’s phone. We see Eugene workshop a Tinder message to death before hitting send. When he sees an embarrassing blog, he scrolls down the page, then back up, then zooms in on the cringiest part. The space and time dedicated to these interactions is a refreshingly honest admission that, for better or worse (probably worse), we spend an inordinate amount of time on our phones. They’re our conduit to the people and experiences around us. It’s time for filmmakers to acknowledge that.

The morning after Wobble Palace’s premiere, I spoke to Kotlyarenko about why filmmakers are so reticent to engage with technology and how our phones drive our neuroses.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

So, the movie opens on us casually scrolling through what looks like a years-long conversation between Eugene and Jane: everything from the first text to the inevitable nudes, the cute “I miss you”s all the way through to the terse, prosaic texts that mark the end of a relationship. It’s a remarkably succinct way to recap a relationship. How’d you come up with it?

I was standing with the editor, and he had just gone to see Get Out. I hadn’t seen it yet, but I knew the premise: they were going to see the girl’s parents for the first time. And I said, “What’s the opening?” And [the editor] said, “[It’s] just them driving and it’s kind of moody and they hit a deer.” And I said, “Well, that’s kind of boring.”

I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if you could see their entire history up until that point? Maybe in some sort of crazy time-lapse, or you could see their text conversations so you knew what their relationship was like up until this crucial moment when he meets her parents for the first time… And I said, “Well a good filmmaker would probably do something like that. Too bad we can’t do that for our movie.” Then I went to the bathroom, and I was sitting there and was like, well, maybe we can do this for our movie. Let’s do that, let’s create a text history between these two characters. Let’s start the movie off with that.

I called Dasha and we got together, and it actually took us four days to make that sequence come together with all those texts and stuff. Because if you go through it frame by frame, it all makes sense. It’s an entire relationship history. Even just going from the green texts to the blue texts, it was all very intentional and planned out: she got an iPhone at some point. I’m very happy that we did that. And, for the record, when I did see Get Out I thought, “Oh that’s a perfect opening sequence for this movie because that’s clearly a motif that runs through the film.” But I’m glad I hadn’t seen it at that point because it led to this cool thing for us.

There’s a reticence on the part of TV and filmmakers to fully engage with technology onscreen both in how the characters communicate but also the devices they use. And when filmmakers do take on technology, more often than not, it comes off dated and stale. Why is that?

In some of those filmmakers’ defense, part of it has to do with how long it actually takes from the conception of a film to the release. The progress that tech and our personal devices make between raising money and the release of a film is actually startling. I actually felt that very intensely in my first movie [0s and 1s]. It took us three years to make it, from basically 2008–2011. When we started, the smartest phone was a BlackBerry, and by the time we were done, there were iPhones and Androids and shit. It affected the movie. In the movie, the lead character loses his computer. And by 2011, 2012, when the movie played in a few theaters it was like, “Okay, well, you lost your computer, but at least you still have your smartphone.”

A lot of my favorite filmmakers ignore technology and willfully make period pieces so they don’t have to deal with today. Or maybe they feel like they’re dealing with today in a more allegorical or symbolic way. I’m thinking of people like [Paul Thomas] Anderson. He’s one of the greatest filmmakers, and you’ll never see any sort of phone [in his movies]. His last attempt at phones was Punch Drunk Love, and it’s all about landline phone sex, which is so different than this age of internet porn and cam girls and stuff.

But then there are people like Brian De Palma who made a great movie called Passion in which there are thrilling elements generated by email and webcam, weird surveillance cams and stuff. It comes down to the kind of filmmaker you are, but I think most filmmakers are too scared or too lazy to figure out how to make sense of it.

There’s a sequence in Wobble Palace where Eugene is Tinder messaging with a match, and he spirals into a neurotic frenzy when the woman he’s chatting with doesn’t respond quickly enough. It’s an extreme example, butthe neuroses we’ve developed around texting are very real. It’s bizarre that so many filmmakers decide to ignore that part of our lives.

For sure. [With texting], you can go through a lot of great accounts of women who have experienced the vitriol and the complete egomaniacal stupidity of men who can’t wait and assume the worst things. And that isn’t on the woman, for sure, it’s on the thirsty man. But in another way, it’s also on the technology. It sets up a world of expectations and a whole new way of interacting that is totally skewed from our emotional evolution as human beings.

We’re not hardwired for instant gratification all the time, but now we’re offered that. And now that we’re used to it, [whenever a situation] occasionally deviates from that expectation… it creates a serious disjunction in that person’s emotional and psychological state. And that’s where you get a lot of people flipping out, and getting into flame wars, and writing and saying all sorts of shit that they would never say in real life. I’m sure much smarter people than me have written long think pieces about this stuff — the mentality that’s created by communication over the internet. I thought that was important to put into a movie.

I wonder if that constant search for stimulation and gratification can doom our relationships and whether that’s what weighs on the characters in your movie.

People’s relationships with their phones are potentially the strongest relationships [they] have in their lives — even if they have real relationships. How often do you go out to dinner and see couples sitting across from each other on their phones the whole time? It happens frighteningly a lot. I see it all the time. Whether or not that’s why [Jane and Eugene]’s relationship doesn’t work, I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to the viewers.

After the screening last night, I had a lot of people come up to me and say that it was really triggering. People were thinking about their relationships or their past relationships — women, men, older people, younger people. They all said similar things to me. It was funny, and then it was just really sad. You can’t help but reflect on your own situation. That’s one of the questions the film is posing: what happens to relationships now? How does having Tinder around [affect them]? Or having Snapchat around? How does being able to text any random person at any time, affect your relationship with fidelity or monogamy or love or longevity?

I wonder if that’s a set of questions that’s really only pertinent to people in our generation. We’re both in our early 30s, and we’re part of this bridge generation that remembers a pre-internet age but also feels comfortable in the digital era. I wonder if that leaves us particularly vulnerable to nostalgia for a less connected era than someone in their teens now.

That’s a fair point and a fair question. I think, and hope, that they’ll care more than ever, honestly. Yes, I’m in this transitional generation, this sort of bridge generation. I think that’s sort of lucky because I remember what it was like before and I can pretty organically pick up any new developments that happen in technology — for now, at least. And for probably the next 10–15 years before I also become a dinosaur. But I remember what it used to be like.

I do think that people who are 17 years old, who are 23 years old, are experiencing the same anxieties I’m experiencing. I don’t think that having had the pre-millennial or the pre-smartphone experience means that you’re the only one who has anxiety from these things… I think people who are 10 years younger than me get that this shit is fucked. It’s not a natural way to live: on your phone all the time, projecting some image that may or may not be you, constantly negotiating how other people feel about you, communicating all the time. It’s draining. It’s exhausting.

I have a theory that the median mortality age will probably go down by 10 years. This is me, cockamamy Eugene, but we’re really draining our minds and exhausting ourselves by constantly worrying and investing and doing this shit all the time. Straining our eyes, thinking about yourself in this weird projected way. It’s twisted rotten. It is an addiction. I’m not trying to get polemical because there are a lot of great things about it, and it’s our lives now — what’s the point of hating it? But it is deleterious to our psyche and our health. Maybe this is old fogey shit and maybe I’m already irrelevant, but I don’t think so. I think teenagers have to deal with it, and a lot of their anxiety is exacerbated by social media and their phones.

It really can feel exhausting, keeping up on all our social media platforms, our projections of ourselves.

It’s a hamster wheel, really. There’s a Sisyphean quality to it. The second you feel any bit of achievement, up on top of the hill, it kind of rolls back down. It’s a twisted reality, but it’s the reality that we’ve made for ourselves. So… rock ’n roll!

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