SXSW 2020 Interview: Adam Barton on Witnessing the Tech World Come of Age in “The Boy Who Sold the World”

Not long after you see Ben Pasternak become a media sensation at the start of “The Boy Who Sold the World,” a natural for news networks eager to anoint the 16-year-old tech prodigy as the next big thing when he arrives in New York from his native Australia, you are zipped back eight months earlier to seeing the moment his mother says goodbye to her son, urging him to sweep up after himself and take out the garbage — while coding comes naturally for the app developer, the concept of clearing out a dryer’s lint board is considerably more perplexing. (“How does that happen?” he asks, staring at the accumulated lint as most would a trigonometric equation.)

Left to his own devices, it is uncertain how Pasternak will find his way in the world as a person, although his financial security is all but assured by venture capitalists who are drawn like a moth to a flame to the teen who developed the popular iOS game Impossible Rush in his spare time away from school and has bigger ambitions for social networking, and as it turns out, he isn’t the only one onto something far larger by allowing filmmaker Adam Barton to film his maturation process every step (and misstep) along the way. In “The Boy Who Sold the World,” Barton is there to capture the successive launches of three of Pasternak’s creations — Flogg, a marketplace for teens to sell and trade sneakers and video games, Monkey, a safe space for video chat with stricter age limitations than ChatRoulette, and NUGGS, a meatless chicken nugget product developed with the rigor any app would – and provides a nuanced counterpoint to the hype that surrounds each one, observing how he is built up to be a wunderkind since it makes for an easy media narrative, but the reality is far more complicated.

While one suspects Pasternak would hardly have a traditional life had he stayed in Australia, his life goes into overdrive upon hitting America, having his pick of internships at Apple, Google and Facebook before deciding to go it alone and without much guidance besides a Kanye West poster in his spare apartment to tell him, “Listen to the kids, bruh” — his supportive parents can’t be of much help with tech corporate affairs, especially from afar — he is faced with investor calls, deadlines to submit to the App Store and ethical decisions regarding each of his products that would confound executives with triple the experience he has. As much as Pasternak seems to thrive on chaotic energy, the film gradually reveals how he is humbled and grows a social consciousness, taking into account the unhealthy cultural obsession with anointing whiz kids who can stumble into that identity without having the space to create their own.

In that sense, it isn’t only Pasternak who can be seen as being ahead of the curve as the tech world grapples with the responsibility of the powerful tools they’ve created, and not unlike the films of producer Chris Smith (“Fyre,” “American Movie”), who is caught here during his foray into app development, “The Boy Who Sold the World” gets at these larger ideas in a wonderfully entertaining way. Despite having its intended premiere at SXSW cancelled as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, Barton graciously spoke about finally putting the finishing touches on his longitudinal documentary and witnessing firsthand how Silicon Valley has had to grow up as a whole.

How did this come about?

Jack Turner and Chris Smith, the two producers on the project, introduced me to Ben back in 2015 when Ben was still just 15 years old and still just moving from Australia to Manhattan. Chris is a really accomplished filmmaker in his own right, but at the time wasn’t making films and was in touch with Ben on a mentorship level, so I was introduced and I brought a camera, knowing that [Ben’s] a product of the YouTube generation and had his own successful YouTube channel, so telling his story in the visual medium was just a natural extension [of that]. The first time I met him I did an interview with him that is actually in the film and when I asked the first question, he just talked for 30 minutes. He was just going through this move halfway across the world, he was trying to close funding [for Flogg] and he was beyond precocious. He was incredibly poised and really open, so from the get-go, I was like, “Wow, this is a story.”

Since his parents return to Australia, was it interesting being the only adult in the room? Does that make it a different situation than other documentaries you’ve worked on?

Definitely not a normal documentary situation, and there were a lot of times when I was the only adult in the room. I never felt like I was in a parent substitute role for him, although at times he’s told me there are moments where he felt that way. I tried to be responsible, respectful, and I always tried to be in touch with his parents as well. He’s got great parents and the decision they made to let him go ahead with this was an agonizing one, so I certainly felt some level of responsibility, but he’s an incredibly self-reliant kid and ultimately, he was really out to prove that he could do it, that not only he could raise money and start companies and have successes with that, but do it all at the time of being a 15, 16, 17 years old. He’s incredibly responsible and focused, so there really wasn’t that much there to worry about with him.

Just by the way you shoot Ben from those earliest days, it feels there’s a real sense of the type of energy you wanted the film to have. Was that in fact the case, figuring out the pace?

Yeah, it evolved with time, but my approach to filmmaking is to try and create as many authentic moments as possible, so in doing that, I tend to try to shoot as much verite footage where I just keep my mouth shut or ask just one-word questions and just be present. I think you see that from the first scene of the movie with [Ben] and his mom, who’s packing up and leaving and going back to Australia, just trying to get them to forget the camera’s there a lot of the time so that real things happen.

There’s also a lot of really organic moments in the film because when I couldn’t be there, I tried to put filmmaking tools into Ben’s hands. He’s obviously someone who’s comfortable with technology and as someone who had a YouTube channel, was familiar with cameras, so I gave him different filmmaking tools from a GoPro to a DJI Osmo [action camera] to the Canon DSLR set-up, which at one point was much more what Casey Neistat used to use to video blog, and let him shoot. For the most part, he had a sense of the moment in terms of “Okay, I’m submitting this [app] to Apple for review and maybe I should film that” or moments like that, where I couldn’t be there or they’d happen in the middle of the night, and there’d be small little details that keep the journey enriched and keeps you feeling like you’re looking into this world organically, which was really my goal throughout.

Is there a moment for you where you had an idea of what this movie was going to be and then it changed direction on you?

Yeah, it happened with each of the three companies. I intended to make a documentary about Flogg initially and we did release pieces of the footage as a web series, mostly stuff that didn’t end up in the doc, but in the back of my mind, I was like let’s just hang in here and see because I felt like we needed to follow his journey for longer for a richer story and I was right. I started filming him [again] when he pivoted to Monkey, his second app, which ended up being much higher profile and ran into a lot of controversy, and as it was happening, it was really uncomfortable for me to see. I didn’t really fully understand what was happening or what the app was for. It felt like it could be used for things that weren’t exactly positive and there was a lot of media coverage to that effect, so I got nervous about it and backed off a little bit in terms of filming, not really knowing what was going to happen.

Then eventually [Ben] found his way through that and then had a big pivot again into his third venture [NUGGS]. That was really the moment I thought this was a film because I thought I’ve now seen him grow up, which is really what I wanted the film to ultimately be, tracking him from 15 to 20, these really formative years in a person’s life. You really see him and his mentality change from being an app developer to being someone who’s now running a real mission-based company that has a pro-environmental stance to it and really aligns with his values in a new way and in a way that when he was younger, he wasn’t thinking [about]. He wasn’t thinking, oh my personal values should be reflected in the company. He was just like “I want to make a cool app and make it blow up.” And that really shows a growth from being a teenager to a young adult and an entrepreneur to being a socially responsible entrepreneur, which to me was a really encouraging step that made me want to really get this film done.

This probably happened organically, but his story seems to reflect what’s been going on in the tech culture as a whole and when you dip out of Ben’s experience during filming, did the larger world influence what you wanted to put in this film or did you simply see it firsthand?

When I started filming with Ben, [it was said] maybe he’s the next Mark Zuckerberg and then that was considered a giant compliment, but by the time he was even just 17, that would’ve been an insult because Zuckerberg was under incredible scrutiny that he’s still going through until this day. And Ben was very much on the inside of that. He was getting venture funding [for Monkey] and people that were interested in seeing the next great social network get formed, but right in the middle of that happening we had this awakening about the effects of social networking. Then when he grew Monkey to the point where he was on the doorstep of becoming a profit-seeking social networking company, he started to realize, “If I’m successful, my whole mission is to get people to stare at their phones, staying on apps longer” and he stood back and thought if that’s my mission here, I’m not doing something positive for the world. That was part of the development that was echoed culturally as we all had the same awakening, so I definitely wanted [the film] to be a little bit of a microcosm of what’s happened in the world of social media and tech in these last five years.

It was so interesting to me to see that seemingly throwaway moment early on in the film where he tells his father he thinks he was spied on by a pedophile in a New York park, and then you see how he becomes so adamant about protecting minors on Monkey. Was it interesting to find something like that connect through the years?

No, it’s sort of dark and funny at the same time, but [the earlier scene] was just a moment that happened organically between he and his dad, which was notable at the time because early on in Ben’s journey in New York, there was a lot of concern about his safety, so stories like that were very alarming to his parents. But again, Ben keeps a good head on his shoulders and when you come back around to Monkey and there’s this threat of people using it for nefarious and terrible things, I think it was just coincidence. But it was something he tried to build his entire company of Monkey to fight against and they really did try and put as many measures in to make Monkey a safe environment for young people, and you know, I’ve heard from him and Isiah, his chief technical officer, that the experience that people under 18, by and large, had was extremely positive.

The app created more difficulties when the older people would log in – there’s actually two versions of it and you couldn’t get into the under 18 if you said you were over 18 and there was technology to ensure your age, so it was like two different environments, and the older environment was much more prone to having less than ideal things happen. That was actually the experience many journalists had, so they had a lot of bad press for stuff that was actually part of the process of keeping it safe for people who were under 18, but they were working hard on the side of right, and ultimately it was too much for them. [Pedophilia] certainly was a huge problem and remains a huge problem [as is] internet stalking and bullying when you’re dealing with the internet and the anonymous nature of many of these apps, and they were right in the middle of that fight, testing things that actually were really important for how we police and regulate the internet going forward, but ultimately they started it with a sense of joy and that joy, with all the problems they were dealing with, was gone at a certain point.

With all the hardship that he faced, was Ben always as accessible as he was at the start of the process?

Not always. It waxed and waned. We consistently had a good relationship. There was never a time in which we had a falling out, but there were times in which we were less in touch. The latter stages of Monkey when we were battling all this stuff, we were less in touch, but as [Ben] was pivoting into NUGGS, I remember him coming over to my house and taking a long walk in the park with him and just talking about the whole thing, he was just so excited at that moment. That’s when I started reengaging more as he launched this meatless chicken nugget product. There were [also] times when he had to go home to Australia and I didn’t make it a priority to go because I wanted the film to be Ben’s journey as an entrepreneur in New York, so, so those moments ended up being lost, but they weren’t really my intention in telling this particular story.

You seemed to have gotten what you needed. It’s an unusual situation since you’re still awaiting a proper premiere following the cancellation of SXSW, but after working on this for the past five years, what’s it like to be letting go of it?

It’s certainly a challenge and I’m trying to keep perspective on all of it. There’s so much going on in the world and SXSW getting cancelled is the right thing. All the measures we’re taking are necessary and people need to treat this COVID-19 with an incredible amount of respect and take immediate action, so I have no regrets in that regard. But we really put our heart and souls into making the film — I think for any film to have any chance of finding an audience, you really have to put your whole self into it, which we did — and then to not have the moment that we thought we were working towards is certainly a disappointment. But films are a wonderful thing in that they can be shown in so many different ways and we’re just hoping that the health care in this country and across the world just improves and we can get back and find a new normal and that our film, in time, can find its audience because I want more talented people like Ben feeling like they can just go and seize the moment and do something. But in doing so, I think Ben’s story also offers cautionary notes and I hope the film can get out and be something that people can learn from, but hopefully just enjoy because I think he’s a pretty funny guy on top of everything else. I hope people have that chance.

“The Boy Who Sold the World” does not yet have U.S. distribution.