Franklin Ritch on Getting at Something Real in “The Artifice Girl”

“No one uses chat rooms anymore,” Gareth (Franklin Ritch) informs Deena (Sinda Nichols) and Amos (David Girard), a pair of special agents in “The Artifice Girl” who are on the hunt for sexual predators in Florida and question him as if he’s one of them. Of course, he’s referring to the virtual space, but finds himself in a similar situation away from his computer when everyone in the room can still find ways to hide their true intentions as he’s being interrogated, realizing when the two are ruthlessly trying to confirm his online handle that they aren’t exactly strangers, all having engaged with one another before under various aliases. In Ritch’s fiendishly clever feature debut, there is often a cover for something else going on and while it may be suspicions of criminal activity that brings this particular trio together, the thriller locates its central intrigue elsewhere when their talk turns to Cherry (Tatum Matthews), a young girl Gareth is thought to be associated with, though he can sit back comfortably in the hot seat, not only at ease from a moral standpoint, but from a legal one as well when the girl is entirely a product of AI technology.

Ritch shrewdly allows for much of the computing to be done in the audience’s mind when Deena, Amos and Gareth grapple with the potential of such innovation when Cherry can lure potential criminals out of the woodwork without putting any actual person in jeopardy yet also retains the inherent biases of human coding as it develops its own consciousness. The thoughtfulness of “The Artifice Girl” extends from in front of the camera to behind it when the actor/writer/director charted a course for the high-minded/low-budget production that would take the way in which such films patch together financing into consideration when the film was conceived with a three-act structure where Cherry’s own development could occur over a number of years, Ritch and his fellow cast members had the time to age — or at least grow a thicket of facial hair, and eventually convince Lance Henriksen to come aboard when the film might be too tonally tricky to pitch just right to the sci-fi icon with words alone. “The Artifice Girl” may highlight the perils of looking to technology for answers that only humans can answer for themselves, yet concerns about being completely overtaken by algorithms and avatars become both a great source of tension as well as relief when the filmmaker shows ingenuity throughout that suggests true originality, either in technological terms or in cinema, is impossible to replicate.

After building a head of steam since its premiere last fall at Fantasia Fest to its recent bow at SXSW where it was a festival favorite, “The Artifice Girl” is rolling out into theaters and VOD this week and Ritch spoke about taking a novel approach to the futuristic potboiler, going back to old fashioned stage techniques to foster a sense of investment amongst the cast and how he’s been excited about the dialogue that the film has generated.

How did this come about?

I’d read a lot of articles over the years about how AI and technology was being used to hunt down criminals and combat online predators and I love the idea of technology being used for good in that way. I always wondered what kinds of interesting conversations were the developers having behind closed doors and thought that would be really fun to explore, but the scope of it seemed massive until I was re-approaching it from the perspective of [asking myself] could I tell the story in one location with just a handful of characters? At one point, there was this epiphany where I drew a thematic line between the budding adolescence of AI and childhood trauma and once that happened, suddenly it was like, this is a story that I have to tell.

Did you actually know how time would work in this film? There’s a really interesting use of a three-act structure related to how characters age.

Yeah, surprisingly, that was an early decision because when I started working on it, I knew I wanted to start in this interrogation room as a really fun way to exposit the information and set everything up in this very tense sequence, but I also wanted to explore what was going to happen 50 years from now. I knew I wasn’t going to be doing a three-season series, so I had to figure out what are those key moments in the development of this program and tell them in these tight, real-time scenes. That was conceptualized really early on in the process, and I really love that structure. I’ve seen it work on several other wonderful films – obviously “Steve Jobs,” but more recently in “Blackberry.”

I feel like as an independent filmmaker, you have to approach challenges as opportunities, so I saw the challenge of setting it in one location with multiple characters as an opportunity to try and find ways of making the film still feel like it had a sense of momentum and I just really needed to focus on the dialogue and how that was structured, delivering information to the audience, and how that was going to be paced. All of that, we were so precise because we had to be and I think that benefited the film.

Were these actors you had in mind while you were writing?

Yeah, casting was easy. I’ve worked with all three of them – Tatum, David, and Sinda on some short films and some theater stuff [over the years], so there was already that pre-established trust that we had in each other and that gave me the confidence to play the role of Gareth too, which wasn’t necessarily intended. I don’t know if I’ll ever play such a prominent role in my own project again. I definitely prefer to be behind the camera, but we had an intensive pre-production [with] lots of rehearsal time over Zoom [like] two or three times a week [before production], which was very helpful and gave us a lot of confidence. It was just a great way to communicate to each other as actors and then myself and my cinematographer were just very meticulous with how the shots were going to be structured and how they were going to cover the scene, so all the planning, the rehearsals, and that sense of trust made acting and directing at the same time a lot easier and I had so much trust and faith in the other actors and my cinematographer to help me with my performance, it just worked out that [I could take the lead] and that trust was essential.

You’re never in the same room as Tatum’s character Cherry, but the interactions looked spontaneous. Was that difficult to pull off?

This is something I love to talk about and I wish there was a way we could prove it. I guess we could just like upload the raw footage somewhere, but all of the sequences with Tatum as Cherry on the screen is live. We’d have Tatum on a set just outside the room that we were shooting in and fed an HDMI cable through the ceiling into the TV, so she was on screen for us to play off of in real time, which was great. We never used any compositing for that, except maybe in one or two instances, but it was really helpful for the other actors and I to feel like she was present and it made the chemistry a little more evident.

Is it true you broke this up into separate shoots over the course of many months? Besides growing a beard for the second part, I wondered if this allows you to rethink things based on what you got in the can.

Yeah, we shot the first act first as a proof of concept, and then we actually shot act two six months later, and then act three was shot six months after that, and there weren’t really a whole lot of changes made in between the acts. We definitely had more time to prepare, which was great, but things ended up pretty accurate to how we had rehearsed them prior to filming act one. Most of the biggest revelations [were things that] went against our preconceived notions that happened on set, which was wonderful and gave everybody a chance to organically contribute a little bit to the story.

I wouldn’t want to spoil his role in the film, but Lance Henriksen comes in to give it such gravitas. What was it like getting him on board?

It was obviously so exciting, and there was at first a little bit of pressure because he’s a science fiction legend and I’ve admired him since I was a kid. But he put everyone at ease with just how passionate he was about the story and how well he connected with everybody on set, especially Tatum. Their chemistry was immediate and electric. It was so wonderful to have someone who wasn’t just there to perform the role, but someone who genuinely cared about the themes, the ideas, the characters, and the story, and having lengthy conversations with him over the phone and in person just about the story and about his character and about everything that the film speaks to was, as a writer/director, the greatest gift you could ever get. It was just a huge bonus that it was legendary actor Lance Henriksen, so we were so incredibly thankful that he took a took a chance and read the script.

It seems like it’s sparking those kinds of conversations everywhere the film’s played. What’s it been like getting it out into the world?

It’s been wild. I started working on the script back in the spring of 2020, so it’s been three years of not being able to talk about this film. And now that it’s out and I can finally talk about it, that’s been really exciting. It’s a huge deal having this feature out into the world. Everybody said, “When the film premieres, your life is going to change,” and I said, “okay, whatever.” But it really has. I’ve been so grateful to see that it’s resonated with so many people and it’s been such an incredible experience getting to hear people’s thoughts on it, getting this kind of reaction. When you’re editing a film for so long and you get so focused, you forget all of the things that make it special and watching it in a theater, which I highly recommend if you have the opportunity and experiencing it with so many other people, was incredibly special. I’ve actually been encouraging people, “Hey, when you watch the film, reach out to me, let me know what you think” because I love hearing all the conversations that it’s sparking. It’s been really wonderful.

“The Artifice Girl” opens on April 27th in theaters, including screenings at the Los Feliz 3 in Los Angeles on April 27th and May 3rd, and available on demand and on digital.

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