It’s fitting that “Jackrabbit” centers on a digital apocalypse known as “The Reset” since Carleton Ranney’s debut feels like something distinctly new created from overlooked remnants of the past. A mystery that would be called noirish if so much of it didn’t take place in the harsh desert sun, the film centers on Simon and Max (Josh Caras and Ian Christopher Noel), two hackers who join forces to figure out the particulars about why a friend named Eric (Ryan Dailey) has taken his own life, their only clue being a hard drive named Jackrabbit on which he embedded an enigmatic video of himself. Working with only the most rudimentary of technology – their home of City 6 is a wasteland of exposed motherboards and chips – the duo is ultimately led to suspect the involvement of VOPO, a tech firm that has assumed a powerful position in everyday life for the city after the Reset and as it happens is where Simon works.
With a synth-heavy score and nods to the Cold War-inspired, tech-fueled paranoia thrillers of the ‘80s, Ranney doesn’t hide the influences of his youth, but updates it to deal with the moment we’re living in now where privacy has been compromised by the information we provide online and there’s no shortage of well-heeled organizations willing to take advantage. Shot with striking clarity by Ashley Connor and filled with the kind of detail that makes one want to stop and take in the sights, if only Ranney wasn’t so intent on creating such an energetic and propulsive potboiler, “Jackrabbit” skips forward, feeling not only like a rush of an experience, but a leap for an exciting new filmmaker. Shortly after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Ranney spoke about how he turned his hometown of Austin, Texas into a dystopia, the inspiration for the film and mirroring the lo-fi ingenuity of the characters in the film behind the scenes.
There’s that tech-based aspect of Austin with all the companies there, but at the same time, a salt of the earth feel. Would you say that’s something that shaped the film?
Yeah, definitely. Growing up in Austin, before it became this boomtown, there were all these tech guys. Advanced Micro Devices is there. Michael Dell lives there and I was always around that. I think they call it the “Silicon Prairie,” and what’s interesting about Austin was I knew that town so well. Visually, there’s pieces of it that really could be anywhere and I knew that I could piece together these pieces of Austin to create a world that seemed foreign to an audience. But I definitely wanted that Texas vibe in there, [particularly] Texas winters. We shot in the winter, and Texas winters are pretty crisp. It was overcast, so you get this nice lighting. The landscape [also] lends itself to being like you can’t contain it visually. It’s just something out of our control, which I think works for the movie.
So how did this crazy idea come about?
I had reached a point where it was time to make a feature film and I read this Rolling Stone article about Aaron Swartz after his suicide. He was a co-founder of Reddit and an activist, and he was facing up to 35 years in jail for hacking the MIT database and leaking these publicly funded journals in protest. He was basically made an example of, and I was just thinking about that. You have a hacker and for them, their core belief is to have access to equal information. So the idea of a prison sentence and of not being able to have any contact [with anyone] is almost like a death sentence.
Also, the idea of the hacker made me think of the movie “Wargames,” which I loved when I was growing up. I just started thinking about how to make a mystery in the modern age and it seemed impossible. In the modern age, it’s going to be people Googling on their computer. Everything is so easily connected, so we needed something narratively to make that more difficult. The idea of the prison made sense to create like a dystopian city and it turned into more of a sci-fi parable with those elements.
Did that also contribute to the analog nature of this world where there is technology, but it’s very rudimentary? Having no cell phones does creates a lot of tension in a lot of things.
It started with the no cell phones, then that [grew into], “Okay, then we’ll do analog and we’ll do it in the vein of these movies we grew up on as kids. These 80’s movies we love.” It all combined together. From a narrative standpoint, [it’s worth noting that] City Six is rebuilding after this technological infrastructure collapse. Most technology today is built with planned obsolescence. Things are built so that they die in three years so that you have to go buy another laptop. And the idea was that after the Reset, none of your MacBook Pros or Samsung laptops are going to work, but these old IBM computers from the ‘80s would still run like a charm if they’re intact, similar to Cuba or even West Berlin, so the citizens are left with this more analog technology. It can be controlled. It was pre-Internet era. Then VOPO Technologies is more in control of the advanced technology, which they keep to themselves for the control.
You build such an immersive world, but was there balance involved in making it recede to the background so it wouldn’t overwhelm the story you wanted to tell?
Yeah, it’s really tricky because the world is just so rich and there are so many elements to convey about the world to the audience while at the same time there is a mystery going on. The idea was to have this be very subjective. You just airdrop the audience into City Six and it’s scary and it’s confusing and it’s bleak. There’s just so much to take in. At the time of making the movie, I was really thinking about the anxiety of the world we live in now and tried to channel those anxieties into the movie and just have it be this overwhelming experience.
Part of that experience is the score from Will Berman of MGMT. How did he come onto the project?
Will Berman came on in pre-production and he had seen this prospectus that we had been shopping around for investors. He basically was like, “Oh, this movie sounds really interesting. I could imagine the musing being like Tangerine Dream or Vangelis and John Carpenter…” During the writing process, I had already made playlists — I always do — and it’s not necessarily music that will go into the movie, but it’s just music that influences what I want the movie to feel like. It’s a big part of my process and Will just got that. He just started making tracks and sending them to us. They were just spot on. We had them on set with us. I’d share them with the actors. Will just ended up being the perfect match. It just ended up being like there was no work involved with him. Then in post, we made a lot more music. There were definitely tracks that we would work on together, and it was great because we have very similar music tastes. That’s how we communicated with each other. It was like, “Oh, well have you heard this track or this song? I want it to sound like this.” We would just sit in his apartment and just come up with this stuff.
This may have been more the domain of the sound department, but there’s a great buzzing sound that opens the film and it accelerates the feeling of dropping into this world. How did it come about?
My sound designer, Collin Alexander, had one of those vibrating massage things and he put a contact mic on it. You would move the contact mic over it to create that drone noise. A lot of our sounds were made like that. Collin did a really great job. He would get really experimental and playful with it.
Was that a big part of the process? Did it parallel the film in finding practical solutions to complicated problems?
Absolutely. The DIY ethos was a major part of this movie. The characters in the movie are scrapping together things to build these computers and that’s how we were doing it. It was just coming up with a lot of complicated obstacles to take on, but trying to think of inventive ways of how to overcome that.
Was there a particularly tricky day on set?
There was a lot of tricky days. We had a lot of locations and maintaining the world [was difficult as well]. There’s some shots where if the camera was pointed a little to the left, it would be outside of our world. The trickiest part was just constantly, wherever we were shooting, what we were doing, “Is this in the world? Is this part of the world that we’re creating?” You really have to think about it, so we made a list of rules to the world to try and abide by.
Was it a different experience to make a feature?
It was a completely different experience. It takes so much time and it evolves. We worked on this for two years and the way I like to make movies, I like to be very collaborative. For everybody involved, you pick the people you think are brilliant in what they do and you listen to their ideas and that in turn influences everything. Then the thing gets bigger and it evolves. You just have to be there to manage it and steer it in the right direction. We would rewrite the script on set and the actors had a lot of input. If I had written a bad line, an actor would say, “I can’t say this.” Like, “Okay, what would you say?” Even in the editing process, things were changing. But that’s what I love about movies. I feel like good movies reveal themselves and it leaves room for growth.