Interview: Noah Hutton on the Entanglements of a Wired World in “Lapsis”

Although writer/director Noah Hutton is careful not to make any metaphor too pointed in the not-so-distant future laid out in “Lapsis,” it would be obviously how the working class is being strung along even if the greatest area of job growth wasn’t in cabling, requiring human hands to run the wires for powerful Quantum computing across the land in a conscientious way, tracked by robots who note their progress. Both the work and the earning potential are seemingly endless when cable can be dropped from the sky when those on the ground get to the end of their line, but when any sense of security seem to be a thing of the past, those lured out to the Allegheny Cabling Zone such as Ray (Dean Imperial), who needs to come up with some fast scratch to pay for a clinic for his mysteriously ill younger brother, the limits of the world can be quite evident no matter how much cable they can run.

While the freelancers’ dedication to running cable may vary, the groundwork Hutton does in his narrative feature debut is without reproach, creating an ever-so-slightly parallel universe where the pressure on Ray to do right by his brother is heightened by the overall burden that’s been shifted onto workers by their employers, an increasingly nebulous and omnipotent entity in an era of corporate consolidation and online services. Though Ray would seem to have an advantage in the previously used CBLR monitor all of the cablers are forced to carry around to keep the points that track their earnings, finding that his still has an enormous amount that he didn’t earn himself, it leads him to be viewed with suspicion by others on the trail with the possible exception of Anna (Madeline Wise), who is far savvier about the ways of the woods than he is.

Hutton, who worked simultaneously on the neuroscience documentary “In Silico,” which premiered last fall at DOC NYC, incorporates plenty of real science into “Lapsis,” but never intimidates when there’s such a warm human touch on display, whether it is the disarming bravado of the Queens-bred Ray (played with great gusto by Imperial, primarily a writer/director in his own right) or the sharp observation of the absurd high-tech rat race he finds himself in, surrounded by idiosyncratic characters just doing their best to make ends meet like him. Shortly before the film’s release in virtual cinemas and on VOD this week, the writer/director spoke about not only his wildly original vision for “Lapsis,” recently nominated for a Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, but for reenvisioning the entire process of making a film.

How did this come about? I’ve heard it was inspired by an essay on the denaturalization of labor by Patricia Reed.

It was many years in the making. That essay by Patricia Reed is more of an intellectual exploration than anything else, but it sparked my imagination in the way that she talks about the pure fiction of the financial world that we live in, that we accept as the ground truth/bedrock logic is a real absurdist fiction. I think we saw some of that these past weeks with all these wild stories about the stock market [such as the GameStop debacle] and day traders against hedge funders. When these things blow up, it exposes many of the fictions that underlie these systems of financial logic that we live in. That was the catalyst for thinking of a new fictional world that explored financial logic, but then there was a lot that got layered on top of it. Thinking about the gig economy and the world itself came to really have an influence from my own interest in neuroscience, which is that it’s the constant rewiring of the brain by these workers.

It’s been interesting to see you have such a strong interest in science – did you ever think that was a career path for you versus being a filmmaker?

I really came into filmmaking pretty much organically my whole life, having grown up around the industry, and I never really had a dream of being a scientist at all as a career. I did study neuroscience in college, but I never thought to go to med school and I took the advice from other directors like Werner Herzog — I remember his advice to young filmmakers was to get real jobs, to experience the world, to get out there and get interested in things and not to stay so involved in the film world as a focus of your studies, but to study the world around you, so I took that to heart. I did lots of odd jobs in my twenties. I got a security guard’s license once. [laughs] So I bounced around and came back ultimately to making documentaries, but as a result of having studied science in school, it allowed an intimacy with the people I was making the films about.

Ray, particularly in how he’s played by Dean Imperial, is quite disarming and key to the accessibility of the film. How did he come into the mix?

Yeah, I wrote the film for Dean Imperial to portray Ray, which sounds a little crazy because Dean had never been in a feature film before. He had been in one short film ten years ago, so I knew him as a friend and I knew he had leading man energy. It was really a gestalt feeling that he was right for this — he was the everyman hero that I wanted to anchor this absurdist sci-fi world, because I felt if the audience could stay with that character, we could relieve ourselves of worrying about quantum computing and all the intricacies of the gig economy. We could just stay with our central character and Dean wonderfully allows the audience to ride on his shoulders.

Was the location in mind from the start as well?

Yeah, this is an area where I live, near the town of Patterson, New York. It’s up near Brewster in Putnam County, so I’ve spent a lot of time here and did tons of scouting. Even as I was writing the film, I was thinking of specific locations and allowing what I knew we had access to in the state park here and also on some private land would afford us that we didn’t have to bootstrap our locations later onto scenes that we had written. It really was written for specific hills and ridges and streams. That familiarity allowed the location to exist almost like a character from preproduction.

Did your documentary work inform how you created this bigger world of the film, both in terms of what you would see on screen and what actual science you would draw on as a base?

Yeah, people talk a lot about world-building [in dramas], but actually what the documentary world afforded me was this world-building mind [because] in any documentary, you’re choosing elements of the world you film to show in your edit, to build the world for your audience and to show them pieces of a whole that end up being emblematic of larger forces that you’re dealing with. So [being] attuned to this as a necessity for making docs came in handy making “Lapsis” because there would be scenes where we set the world in motion. We had a lot of extras, we had workers pulling cable through the forest. There’s one scene where Ray goes to this quantum jobs fair and there’s tons of [extras] around him and I would approach those scenes thinking, “Okay, if I were making a documentary about this scene what are the elements I’d want to pick up if I was trying to show what was going on here?” That documentary approach to narrative filmmaking really useful, especially for moving quickly and staying on schedule because it meant that we could pick a few camera angles that could feel like they could stand for the whole.

One of the things that was really lovely throughout was how you’d see the lives of these people that Ray was meeting along the way through one detail — like there’s a saxophonist at one point, and obviously the saxophone says something about his life. Was that interesting to figure out the shorthand?

Yeah, there were so many characters I had written into the first few drafts of the script in the extended cinematic universe of cabling. [laughs] A lot of them had to sadly get cut along the way, but those who remained, you get a sense hopefully that they’re connected to this larger web of characters because truly they had emerged from that web during the writing process that was a real cross-section of laborers and people from different walks of life. A lot of this is drawn from my own experience as an independent contractor or freelancer for the last decade and seeing other people out there on their hustle throughout the years – musicians, artists – that they may need to go cabling for a weekend to pay their rent. And I got Tim Byrne, a legendary avant garde jazz saxophonist who lives in Brooklyn and I’ve known for several years, out there and he’s the saxophone player in that scene. I just love the idea that all sorts of folks would make their way to cabling, which really opened us up creatively.

I understand you created a real egalitarian tone on set – I know docs can be an isolating process, was it exciting to have a big crew around and seeing what they could bring to it?

Yeah, that was super-important to me. If we’re making this film about the exploitation of workers, to not be exploiting our workers on set became the first principle of organizing this shoot. Why create a microcosm of a film set that replicates the same exact abuses that you’re critiquing in your film? So often in non-union, low-budget independent filmmaking, favors are called in and you have your best intentions approaching the shoot but as time pressures sink in and budgets start to squeeze, your best intentions only go so far. A lot of the time, it can lead to people putting their heads down and grinning and bearing it until the finish line while the writer/director is the one who escapes on the rocketship of success if the film is successful and gets a manager and an agent and continues the journey. So I wanted to be aware of that cycle and do everything I could to work against it.

One of the things that happened – you mentioned the documentary work, it was very solitary and it wasn’t a big collaborative group – but I did make a documentary short in 2018 called “Guts” for The Atlantic about am anti-colonial feminist marine lab, so they do science in a very different way and they have a science lab book that organizes their labor and relations as a science lab. Taylor Hess, who co-directed this short doc and is a producer on “Lapsis,” and I thought this would be great to organize our own relations on the set of “Lapsis,” so we adapted the lab book into a filmmaking handbook. It’s available publicly on our website so other productions can take a look or use it if they want or remix it the way that they see fit and it set out a bunch of protocols to protect against exploitation on our set. For example, everyone made at least minimum wage. There were no laborer favors called in and people go home if they’re sick or tired or heartbroken. Also, all crew were brought into an acquisition bonus if the film turns profitable – everyone stands to make the same bonus, so there were actual guidelines and protocols that we put into place to try to make the film align more with the message of “Lapsis” itself.

Is it true you were even able to get some U Penn students some class credit?

Yeah, we would’ve never been able to get a turnkey solution to our robotics dilemma and build our own [robot] from scratch, so we had to get creative on our budget. I found this lab at U Penn called the KOD Lab and they had a robot that they made back in the ‘90s. It was the first prototype sitting around that wasn’t their next generation, but I loved that because it fit the aesthetics of “Lapsis” which are retro-futuristic, and they were able to build it as a program for academic credit so they sent four students up to control the robots on set. We fed and housed them, but they were able to integrate it into their program, so it didn’t cost the budget, and that was a wonderfully creative solution for our producers to get around our budget restrictions. And I think everyone was super happy with what they were able to do with these robots. They’re simultaneously cute and menacing at times, which is a lovely, delicious spot for a non-human character to be in.

You’ve actually premiered two films in the last year – what have these last 12 months been like?

It’s been pretty crazy because on one hand, I had hoped to be traveling around with these films and it could be even crazier if that had been the case, but because I haven’t been and everyone’s been home, it’s made it possible to get two films out into the physical world, so it’s been tough not to see the films in theaters with real audiences, but in the grand scheme of things this year, that’s the least of people’s problems. I feel lucky that both films have been able to go to virtual festivals and we have gotten great feedback, [which has been] great for a small independent film like ours and then getting recognition at the Independent Spirit Awards, it’s been lucky to have that opportunity in the midst of all of this.

“Lapsis” will open in virtual cinemas on February 12th.