Interview: Henry Alex Rubin (Disconnect)


Anyone who has seen Murderball knows that Henry Alex Rubin is fantastic at weaving disparate stories together. The documentary director has decided to take that skill and apply it to narrative film with this Friday’s release of Disconnect, a ensemble cast film about how technology is affecting our lives. Through a series of loosely connected plot lines the film uses a removed, documentary style to unfold how tech is both hindering and aiding our modern lives.

I got the chance to talk with Rubin (ironically over a phone that hampered the beginning of the interview) about how he doesn’t hate technology, making the jump to non-documentary film and what’s next on his plate. Plus, the awesomeness that is working with Jason Bateman.

The first question that instantly jumps to mind is if you’re a regular user of all the gadgets and social networks that you cover in the film. If you do how did you handle the contradiction of using it and making a film that’s digging into it?

Henry Alex Rubin: I like everyone I know, and everyone who is reading this interview, have become very connected to my electronics. They’re both incredibly useful in my life as well as a distraction. But the movie itself is much more about the way people are communicating to one another or trying to do that.

Judging from the film it seems that you believe it makes it harder to communicate.

HAR: No, no. I don’t believe that. Of course not. I mean I’m talking to you right now over a phone. There is, baked into the movie, the question mark as to whether or not the only way to communicate to people openly and honestly is face to face, but really you can be open and honest through electronics as well. I think Disconnect for me was much less the primary meaning of the word, which is disconnect from the technology, and much more the secondary meaning, which is people that are disconnected from each other. You follow each one of those stories, and it’s about lonely people trying to communicate with each other. 

You left the ending open as to how we really handle this disconnect that’s occurring.

HAR: Yea, I’m not sure I had a pat thing at the end that I wanted to express. The writer and I wanted to make sure we brought all the actions into conflict and leave you with a suite of emotions. We wanted each story to leave you with a different feeling. I think it’s very forgettable when films don’t leave you with a lot of different emotions.

The only way I can really honestly answer that is that as a filmmaker I wanted to slow down and the moments at the end of conflict. I wanted to see and feel what the conflict was emotionally, not just intellectually. That’s the most important thing to me: to build and track the emotions and have an effect on the viewer. Nothing would make me happier than to describe this movie as an emotional thriller because I worked hard on making all the characters emotions feel real and intense.

Your site describes the film as an “easeddropped naturalism,” which is actually a great little bit of jargon. Can you talk about shooting it in the style you did?

HAR: That was really because I’d never made a film before, and coming from documentaries I shot it the way I shoot everything I shoot. I shot it and constructed it like a documentary, which means long lenses and being farther away from the subjects. It means letting them be and breathe with no aggressive camera movies and the camera no in their face. It’s all very… well, easedropped. 

I did the same thing with that actors. Having never directed actors before I treated them like a subject. In a documentary you never want to get to close to your subject because they will then feel the presence of the mic and camera and act different. It was the only thing I knew how to do so I moved the film making apparatus away from the actors and a I mic them and got the booms out their faces. They could just do take after take and forget, or try to forget, that we were anywhere near them. We just let them be because the hardest thing to do is get actors to just be. If you give them freedom of movement then they’ll be more likely to give you natural performances more quickly. 

What made you want to switch over to narrative film?

HAR: That’s a great question. I have avoided making movies for many years. I just loved staying in documentaries and I’m blessed with a fantastic commercial career. I just read hundred of scripts and this script felt very real to me. This story also felt like it had been ripped from the headlines so to me it seemed like I could make documentaries about these stories so I knew how to do that and that’s why I was attracted to the film. I researched the hell out of it and in all cases I found real live people who have gone through the same things in the movie. Then I shot and I basically tried to make three little documentaries, but with actors. Then I sat down with the editor and we wound them together. 

Was it challenging to interview the stories together?

HAR: It’s actually a great technique because as soon as you want to change the mood or change the subject you can go to the next story. It’s what we did in Murderball. I actually felt very comfortable cutting them together because I’d done it in Murderball. As long as all the stories are good you can actually make something that is bigger than one story.

So has this kindled a passion for narrative film or are you going back to documentary after this movie?

HAR: It really depends. I’m curious to see the reaction to this movie. I really don’t know how it will be received. It’s very easy to dismiss this movie as a film about how the Internet is bad. That’s a very superficial, first-lever reading of the movie and I’m hoping that isn’t the general response. I hope people pick up on the things we were trying to do. If the reaction is good I wouldn’t mind making another fiction movie. If I get smacked down I may just go back to what I feel very comfortable doing, which is making documentaries. But I really enjoyed the process. In the same way I tried to give Murderball fiction film touches and elements I went reverse to give this fiction film elements of documentary realism. It’s that hybrid I love a lot.

Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Flixist. He has worked as a critic for more than a decade, reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and videogames. He will talk your ear off about James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.