The Internet can be a comforting place or a disturbing, disorienting one, and both sides are intertwined in Like Me, the latest exercise in personal unease from Larry Fessenden’s independent genre outfit Glass Eye Pix (available on VOD February 20). Produced in conjunction with Dogfish Pictures, whose thriller Compliance also explored how modes of communication can be twisted to unpleasant ends, Like Me is first-time feature writer/director Robert Mockler’s look at how damaged souls both hide and find a devil’s playground in cyberspace.
Addison Timlin (Little Sister, The Town That Dreaded Sundown) stars as Kiya, who is first seen terrorizing a convenience-store clerk (played by The Battery filmmaker/star Jeremy Gardner) while capturing it all on her cell-phone camera for uploading to her on-line channel. Kiya’s life is lived obsessively in the world of the web, and her next unwilling partner there is Marshall (Fessenden), a seedy motel manager whom she seduces and ties up in one of his rooms. The psychodrama that follows is spiked with weird, trippy imagery and editing inspired by both Internet videocraft and older influences ranging from Dario Argento’s Suspiria to Vera Chytilová’s Daisies.
The picture of the social-media environment that Like Me paints with bright, deep and Day-Glo colors isn’t the most positive one, though Mockler stops short of representing it as malignant. “I don’t necessarily believe social media itself is a corrosive force,” he says. “I just think it’s a tool that amplifies behaviors and feelings that are innately within us. Sometimes those things are horrifying and ugly, but they’re undeniably human.
“I’d wanted to do a movie about loneliness for the longest time,” he continues. “I was inspired by movies like Taxi Driver, The Conversation and One Hour Photo, and I felt that this kind of paradigm shift, where social media seems to be the only way we’re communicating, opened up territory that could be interesting to explore, regarding loneliness entwined in this landscape of isolation, and how it’s amplifying feelings of estrangement.”
“Social media gives a false sense of us being connected,” seconds Fessenden, who produced with Jenn Wexler, Jessalyn Abbott, James Belfer and Mockler himself. “That’s an important thing to discuss, and I love that this story addresses it, yet it’s not literal-minded with any kind of social critique. It’s just the backdrop in which Rob explores these characters who get lost. Just like Taxi Driver is about that particular activity of driving a cab in a lonely city, and all the people he encounters; that made sense for that period, and Like Me makes sense for this period, to really address that false sense of connection.”
Mockler first began considering a film project about social media several years ago, and its rapid evolution—some might say mutation—since then has only strengthened Like Me’s relevance. “It became apparent how intrusive this media had become,” he says, “and how completely ingrained into our lives it is.” Mockler himself took advantage of the possibilities of tapping into the Internet world when putting together the digital version of his screenplay. “It was the first script I’d ever read that had hyperlinks,” Fessenden reveals. “It said, ‘And now we go to something like this,’ and you’d click on it and see something on YouTube that was startling or unexpected. It absolutely set a stage, which was fabulous. You saw there was a complete vision at play.”
Taken with that vision, Fessenden signed on to not only produce but co-star as Kiya’s hostage, whose most grueling torture involves the force-feeding of assorted foodstuffs. “That was fun,” he recalls. “The script had all those beats with the cheese and the pizza and the milk, and then we’d say, ‘Should we do one more weird thing?’ Those were not my personal tastes; I was ready to eat whatever was required, but this would not have been my menu. I don’t like sweets, so there was no joy in that stuff! But it was all very carefully crafted, as you have to do with a scene like that. Sex scenes and violent scenes—and this was a little of both, as well as an eating scene—all have to be meticulously planned.”
The result is a harrowing experience for the audience, though Mockler says he had no anxiety about putting his producer through this punishment, or about directing his boss in general. “Just the opposite, in fact. Larry was a mentor; I had never been through this before, I didn’t know anything about the industry, I was very green, and he taught me so much. If I was feeling vulnerable or insecure, if I was feeling I didn’t know what I was doing or I was in over my head—because it was such a compressed time shoot—I was always able to talk to him and he would help me solve the problems. He was nothing but generous, and very supportive throughout the entire process.”
Mockler decided to cast Fessenden after a rewatching of the latter’s semiautobiographical vampire drama Habit, and noting the similarities between Fessenden’s protagonist Sam in that film and the Marshall he had imagined. For both that role and Kiya, he notes, “It was going to fall apart if we didn’t have the right person. They’re both severely flawed characters who are morally questionable, and not inherently likable, so it was all about the level of humanity they would be able to bring to those parts. Addison is just brilliant; she has the best instincts and is super-intelligent.”
Also key to Like Me are its visuals and locations; surprisingly for such a stylized movie, none of it was shot on sets. “They were all practical locations,” Mockler says. “My producer and editor and location scout, Jessalyn Abbott, combed the entire East Coast—anyplace we could get to—and found these perfect places that we could then enhance digitally. We thought we were going to have to build some of those spaces, but she did a terrific job.”
“Glass Eye always believes in production design through location,” Fessenden adds, “and this was a great example. We actually found some enticing places upstate, but then when we discovered these motels in the Rockaways, that was clearly where we needed to shoot. We use that principle all the time, and it’s amazing, the production value you can get from just doing that research.”
As might be expected on such an indie exercise, bits of Like Me’s exteriors were shot guerrilla-style. “There’s this sort of travel montage in the film, and a lot of that was stolen shots,” Mockler discloses. “We had a small camera, and we just ran in and got what we could get before anyone yelled at us.”
He’s hoping for a more positive viewer response to Like Me, and advises those who check it out not to expect a straight-up scare film. “I love horror movies, but I don’t think I would categorize it that way,” Mockler says. “That’s not up to me; it’s for people to decide on their own. It’s kind of none of my business. I am curious about how people feel about the movie overall, and I just hope it finds an audience.”