At this point in Andrew Niccol’s career, audiences should be pretty clear on when they’re watching one of his films, even if they miss the opening credits. Niccol specializes in high-concept stories about the ways technology affects society — sometimes radically, like in his science fiction films Gattaca, In Time, and S1m0ne, and sometimes more subtly, as in his drone-warfare drama Good Kill or his arms dealer story Lord of War. He’s a writer as well as a director. He scripted Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, which stars Jim Carrey as a man raised in a bubble as a reality-TV project, and he was a writer on Steven Spielberg’s Tom Hanks vehicle The Terminal.
But mostly, Niccol writes and directs his own projects, which he tends to give a chilly, oppressive feel. His characters are often rigid and repressed, reflecting their worlds’ considerable anxieties and frustrations. His latest film, the Netflix release Anon, is another case in point. The film takes place in a dystopic future where everyone has embedded technology that records their point of view from infancy onward. They see the world through an augmented reality lens that adds advertisements to the buildings, playback mode for their own endlessly recorded memories, and a constant stream of information about everyone around them. Clive Owen stars as Sal, a detective whose job is more or less like a file clerk’s: when a crime is committed, he shuffles through the folders of other people’s memories until he sees who’s guilty. But then corpses start showing up with their memory feeds hacked, and no recorded evidence of the crime.
The entire idea of private acts is subversive and terrifying in a society with no privacy, which leads Sal to an encounter with a woman known only as The Girl (Amanda Seyfried), and it lets Niccol address how the endless information-gathering and information-trading of institutions from Facebook to the NSA would play out in a world where someone could escape them entirely. I recently spoke with Niccol about Anon’s familiar coldness, how his films approach conformity and technology, and how it all relates to Black Mirror.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
So many of your films have a similar sterile, forbidding tone and look. How did you hit on this style?
Well, it’s the stories that dictate the style. They all have a slightly different feel. If you go back to Gattaca, characters are scared of leaving a trace of themselves, so the world is very sterile. And in The Truman Show, everything looks artificial because the protagonist is living in a counterfeit world. In Time is slightly different as well because time is precious, so nothing exists that would be a waste of time. For instance, there’s no graffiti, because why would you spend time scrawling on a wall? And in the world of Anon, there’s almost no signage because all the ads are really in your head. So the story often dictates exactly the look.
But even if the stories all have different reasons for these severe, clean, oppressive futures, they all seem to come back to a similar aesthetic place.
Yeah, I guess many of these movies have similar themes. Although I don’t personally try to analyze what I do. I’m superstitious that I won’t be able to keep doing it. But I can see that there’s an element of surveillance and voyeurism in there. Even in a movie that’s almost contemporary, like Good Kill… I wondered why I was doing that movie. Friends said, “Hey, why are you doing a movie about the drone program?” And then I saw an article that said “this is more Truman Show than Terminator.” And I realized, there’s an eye-of-God perspective that I’m obviously drawn to.
If I were to try to draw a connection between your films, I would say they all have a theme of conformity and the individual struggle with an accepted, prevailing wisdom and a status quo that says conformity and passivity is a net positive for society.
That does ring a bell. There’s some sort of rebelliousness. The Girl in Anon is definitely fighting back. I get that element. But I’m also often looking at how humanity and technology intersect. It’s always something to explore. It’s not just that I come back to these themes. They keep rushing at me. I find it difficult to ignore. No technology is all good or bad in my mind. It’s really how it’s used and / or abused. That interests me.
You mentioned how the signs all over Anon’s city only exist in augmented reality. We’ve seen so many futures recently where the cities are haunted by giant hologram ads, but your world looks so different because they’re all built around these very simple gray lines. How did you approach designing the visual world of Anon to fit your imagination?
Well, I realized that any signage in this world was superfluous. If it’s all in what I call your mind’s eye, there’s no need to physically build it. It’s always going to be there. I shot the film with two different aspect ratios. One was more square, which is a subjective point of view because it mimics your actual vision. And then there was an objective point of view, which was very cluttered with data, as our lives are now. You know, you see people walking down the streets looking at phones, sitting on buses on the phone. I just updated their technology. If you step back from that point of view, of course, there’s no signage at all in the real world, because why would you? It’s all in my technology.
I actually found it quite strange. Sometimes I would do a shot and realize it was meant to be subjective, so I would have to digitally remove signs, like parking lot signs. And then when I looked at the shot in post, I would digitally add back a virtual sign that said “parking lot.” It was an interesting concept because it would be redundant to have physical signs anywhere, and you couldn’t change them at will.
The reason all the signs and ads have a single, uniform look [is] if we all had the same implanted technology, what we called “human user interface,” also known as HUI, then someone would have to pick the typeface for whatever government or corporate state was initiating this technology. I chose DIN, a German typeface. And I drained the world of color because I wanted to go with this grayscale that would be very legible when you were walking around the street and everyone had the same built-in technology.
There’s a conformity in how your characters express themselves, too. They’re very dialed-down, very unemotional. It seems like it comes from trauma or a fear of vulnerability, but it’s really common throughout your films. Why is that kind of expressionlessness appealing to you?
Well, Clive Owen’s character, Sal, is literally a man who has seen too much. If you imagine a job where you’re mostly looking at the last moments of people’s lives… he’s obviously disenchanted with his work, but he’s also used to proving right and wrong. And when he starts to be hacked, and he can’t trust his augmented reality, he gets to the point where he can’t prove anything, which I think would be traumatizing for anyone. So I found that aspect interesting. And yes, I guess I deal with a lot of traumatized characters, for one reason or another. Maybe I’m traumatized myself!
What did you tell Clive and Amanda about how you wanted them to play these characters?
With Clive, I had to actually direct for once because he’s put in a position where he’s being hacked. I had to actually talk him through all these things he’s seeing because he’s reacting to things that aren’t there. It was interesting for him, I think. With Amanda, it was kind of the same thing as well, in that she’s editing people’s lives. So even though she has perhaps the world’s most expressive eyes, I had to talk her through exactly what she was doing in her mind, as she edited memories.
Is that unusual for you? Are you usually more hands-off with actors?
Well, I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek. But normally, the best advice I could give any director is to cast well, stay the hell out of the way, and trust the material. Normally with an actor, if they’re good, I just have to lean them slightly in one direction or another.
With In Time, you made a tie-in short film to explain more about the world and how it happened. In Anon, you have another world where we can intuit how this world might have come about, and we can compare it to our world. Were you ever thinking about doing the same kind of subsidiary material, that could tell us more about the backstory?
Well, I think making that short was more for the studio’s comfort, to give people more information. I actually had narration at the beginning of Anon, which Clive did really well. But then I realized that he starts the film walking down the street, seeing the information on everyone around him. Because we all walk down the street staring at phones, the audience was there already. They didn’t need me to tell them how it came about. It’s already here. That’s why I think of this as a parallel present. You go to a concert, everyone’s got a phone in their hand, videoing the event. They don’t watch it with their own eyes. I just improved real technology a bit.
It seems like this is the perfect time for this film, just after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with a new mainstream interest in how society is approaching privacy and transparency. Has the loss of privacy through technology been a long-term concern of yours?
Yeah. I’ve thought for a long time that we’ve been given this false choice, “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.” That’s not the point. I prefer the way Amanda says it in the film: “It’s not that I have something to hide, it’s that I have nothing I want you to see.” Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are now giving people pause because they’ve given themselves up for nothing. It’s all for convenience, and maybe people are thinking twice about that. Perhaps that is an element to this. It’s a cautionary tale.
Given that the film is on Netflix and that it takes place in a high-tech dystopian future, people will inevitably compare it to Black Mirror, especially episodes like “Crocodile” and “The Entire History of You,” which have similar memory interfaces and people fishing around in other people’s pasts. Are you familiar with the show? Are you interested in exploring its take on these issues?
I haven’t seen the show, but oddly enough, people do say, “Andrew, it’s a lot like your stuff!” So maybe I should watch the show. But as far as Netflix is concerned, one thing I find interesting is that, in my world of Anon, there are no screens at all. People say, “You’re a purist. Your film has to play in theaters.” But people often have home theaters that are arguably better than the local multiplex. So I don’t think you can be a purist anymore.
Andrew Niccol’s Anon debuts on Netflix on May 4th, 2018.