Anti-social networks

Director Henry-Alex Rubin is braced for flak over his film on digital dangers, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 5:05pm

Henry-Alex Rubin is cradling his smartphone lovingly. "I have a relationship with this," he admits. "I love it. I panic when I think it's gone."

Like most of us, the filmmaker's umbilical-like attachment to his gadget comes from the connectivity it offers - access to e-mail and the internet, especially his beloved photo-sharing site. "I know that I'm on my phone too much," he says. "But I think everyone is dealing with this; it's not just me."

I believe we spend too much time on the internet and on our phones - I do. We should probably be a bit more conscious of how precious it is to spend real time with real humans
Henry-Alex Rubin

Not everyone will make a film about it, however. But the co-director (together with Dana Adam Shapiro) of the Oscar-nominated documentary Murderball (2005) now returns with his first fictional movie, Disconnect. It stems, he says, from wrestling with a series of questions about technology in today's society that intrigued him - everything from the etiquette of texting and using your phone at the dinner table to the ethics of spying on your child's online activity or the dangers of placing too many personal details on the web.

Told in three separate but loosely connected tales - think Paul Haggis' Oscar-winning Crash but for social media - Disconnect is a stark warning about the dangers that lurk in cyberspace. Not that Rubin, as you might think from his love of his iPhone, is a technophobe. "I love technology," he says. "It's the most incredible thing that we've invented as humans. It's put men on the moon but it's also created the atom bomb. But technology is a tool, it's amoral."

Indeed, as Disconnect shows, technology in the wrong hands can be a deadly weapon. In one story, a lonely teenager (Jonah Bobo) is the victim of cyber-bullying, after two classmates trick him into revealing intimate photographs via a fake Facebook account. In another, a young mother (Paula Patton) finds comfort in an online chat-room after the death of her child, only to discover that a fellow user has stolen her identity. A third plot revolves around a journalist (Andrea Riseborough) who tries to expose a sex webcam business.

As the title suggests, the film - which also stars Jason Bateman and Hope Davis - primarily deals with the way that a technology designed to bring us together can often leave us feeling isolated. "That's really what I'm focusing on in this movie," says Rubin. "You may feel more connected to someone, but the irony is you're not. You may seem to have many more friends, but you don't, because everything is so much more superficial than when you can look into someone's eyes."

When the script (written by Andrew Stern) came to Rubin, he immediately related - not least because "they were all stories that I would've absolutely made documentaries about". Given his non-fiction film background, the first thing the director did was find real-life counterparts to match the characters Stern had written. "It was a bit of a reverse-engineered documentary - the research came afterwards. Andrew himself did a lot of research, obviously, to write his script, but I wanted real, physical people - it's the only way I know how to do things."

Furthering this quest for authenticity, he allowed the actors to hook up with these real-life examples. Frank Grillo, who plays a cyber-crimes detective hired by Patton's character, spent time with John Otero, former head of NYPD's computer crimes squad. Evidently it worked: Eric Schmidt, chairman of internet giant Google, attended one screening, proclaiming it "the most authentic portrayal of the internet" he has seen in a movie.

Admittedly, Rubin is not the first to tackle this subject. Miranda July's 2005 comedy Me, You and Everyone We Know, for example, examined the hazards of anonymous cyber encounters. Japanese director Hideo Nakata depicted the fallout from teenagers all meeting online in the 2010 thriller Chatroom. And David Schwimmer's drama Trust (also 2010) looked at online "grooming" - the unsavoury practice where male predators scour the internet for naïve youngsters to lure them towards sexual trysts.

This may explain why Rubin feels "nervous" about the audience's reaction to Disconnect. While powerful men such as Schmidt praised his film, the director was battered by early reviews that seemed to, as he puts it, "dismiss entirely the theme of the movie". Trade paper Variety, for example, called the script "dated", arguing that the film "would have seemed a comparatively minor effort seven years ago" let alone now.

"I think some people are going to react badly [and think] it sounds preachy," says Rubin. "They'll go, 'Oh, you're telling me the internet is dangerous - f*** you! I don't want you to tell me the internet is dangerous!' And I know I'm going to get that. But I believe we spend too much time on the internet and on our phones - I do. We should probably be a bit more conscious of how precious it is to spend real time with real humans. That's what I believe. And it's only going to get worse!"

Certainly, the well of films about the web does not seem to have run dry. Andrew Douglas' forthcoming thriller uwantme2killhim? is based on a real-life fatal incident in Manchester, England. And Alex Gibney's dense new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks deals with the controversial government-baiting website - currently in the news with the developments regarding US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Whether Rubin - the son of art historian James H. Rubin - will carry on with fiction films after Disconnect remains to be seen. "I'm a documentary filmmaker. I don't really consider myself a fiction person. It's a bit of an experiment for me, as to whether or not I want to continue doing this." That being said, his background could have sent him either way.

After studying film at Columbia University, he was mentored by director James Mangold, working as a second unit director on his narrative features Cop Land and Girl, Interrupted. Around the same time he completed his "essay" film Who is Henry Jaglom? - a study of the titular filmmaker - before going on to produce Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, the documentary about hip hop MCs. Then came 2005's Murderball, an account of quadriplegic athletes who play wheelchair rugby that won the Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award and garnered an Oscar nomination for best documentary.

In the interim, Rubin has directed commercials for such corporate giants as Coke, Adidas and Volvo, though unlike some directors, he doesn't dismiss these as money gigs. "Most of my commercials are documentary influenced," he says. "I use a lot of real people. I think real people are often more interesting than actors." His work for Samsung, featuring a series of disabled athletes in the run-up to last year's Paralympics, is a perfect example.

It's this interest in humanity that makes Disconnect seem more than just a cautionary techno-tale. Rubin says he made the film for parents. "It's hard to know how to protect your kids from the internet." And with that, he picks up his phone, snaps a photo of my T-shirt and uploads it to Instagram.

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Disconnect opens on Thursday