Interview: Theo Anthony on Reading Between the Lines in “Subject to Review”

When Theo Anthony arrived at the O2 Arena to film a tennis tournament for his latest short film “Subject to Review,” he was taken with how little of it actually makes it to broadcast.

“You realize what a massive complex organism the event is,” says Anthony. “You have so many people on the sidelines, from the caterers to the security to the ballboys to the announcers…and there’s so many people working on the sidelines to make this happen that by the time the main event actually happens, you forget it’s actually a small fraction of what’s going on, so to be a filmmaker and to be able to look in a new way is just a really fun place to be.“

And Anthony is a filmmaker with a gift at taking something we’ve seen and finding a new angle in it, often so sharply it can bleed. His debut feature “Rat Film” took the shrewd view of the rodent infestation issue in his hometown of Baltimore to expose greater systemic rot when the problem largely affects communities of color and only serves to highlight the racial inequalities in the area, so when he was contacted to make a “30 for 30” short about instant replay, you can be assured it is about far more than how it’s changed officiating in sports. Using the history of the Hawkeye Tennis Line-Calling System that was implemented to more accurately pinpoint whether a ball remained in play or not, Anthony uses the insertion of rigid technology into a game played by humans to explore how the precise application of rules without the nuance that a human judge could bring can create its own chaos.

It’s fitting that Anthony chooses a game involving a court when the implications such equipment has on justice in all areas of society are profound, and while “Subject to Review” sticks to the sport, it invites audiences to think beyond it, both in pulling back of the curtain practically to expose the machinery behind the Hawk-Eye System and the film itself – slyly allowing one to view the recording of the film’s narration – and puts the increasingly blurred lines between the virtual and real world realms into a context into which it can actually be felt, with help from an ethereal score from Dan Deacon and untethering its perspective from the way in which a human might see the game to how a computer is trained to process it. Following a festival run that began earlier this fall at the New York Film Festival, “Subject to Review” makes its national debut on ESPN this weekend, and Anthony spoke about his general interest in how technology is shaping our experience of the world, how he became fascinated with the Hawk-Eye System and filming tennis in a different way.

How did this come about?

Almost two years ago, ESPN approached me about pitching on a “30 for 30,” and I had this idea of making a film about the history of Instant Replay and understanding how the introduction of video technology really changed our relationship to television, entertainment and the whole industry. As I went deeper into the project, it seemed impossibly broad and we really decided to focus in on tennis and its use of the Hawkeye system in particular as a way to crystallize these questions.

It was interesting to see this because I had read a few years back, you were looking into a feature on camera technologies and wonder if this branched off from that.

Yeah, that’s another feature of mine that’s due out next year called “All Light Everywhere.” I’m emerging out of my editing cave right now to talk about this, but I was doing both projects at the same time and what really allowed me to do that was they do feel like they’re two sides of the same coin. [There’s] a lot of the same questions of how cameras put together the world and the very human decisions that go into that process. My other film is much more about the history of surveillance and does a lot of close readings on different tools that have been used for surveillance throughout history, but I was really writing this so every line could act as a double, [where] we could just be talking about tennis or we could be talking about something entirely different.

If you look at the history of Hawkeye, you have a lot of inciting incidents where people perceive there was this massive injustice that happened – a line judge really, really messed up a call and nobody wants injustice to exist in the world and as humans, we feel the need to counteract that. But sometimes we can go too far and I think you see that in a lot of instances [in the larger world]. If you look at crime in a city, nobody wants muggings to happen, but how do you respond to a spike in criminal activity? Do you send more police officers there that might only exacerbate the situation? Do we surveil an already overly surveilled demographic? I think there’s a lot of things that you could apply [the ideas behind the Hawkeye replay system] to, especially in terms of the wizard behind the curtain. We live in this era of big data where we’re being watched and recorded in ways that we don’t really know and it’s being processed and put in front of us in ways that we can’t see or really understand, so there’s a real accountability that has to happen in understanding when and how this is happening. All of these ideas scale up pretty quickly to these same things, like who is the authority that puts forth this image and who is it that grants them that authority?

Was that what was behind the idea of pulling back the curtain on the filmmaking process, where you can see the narration for the film being recorded?

Yeah, when you’re talking about Instant Replay and who gets to put forth this authoritative image, it’s really a way to question and undermine a lot of our assumptions about documentary filmmaking itself and as in a lot of my work, I’m really interested in challenging a lot of documentary tropes, namely the voice of God narrator, the authority that seems from nowhere and you trust them and they tell you this is the way the world is. That has a lot of problematic ties to history and to ethnographic filmmaking and it’s this very colonizing way of looking at the world through this Western-centric perspective. We’ve all seen those documentaries and in my work, I’m very interested in engaging in that history and trying to subvert it, so I did that a little bit in “Rat Film” and in this film, I realized early on, I was making a film about this invisible authority, so it would be really hypocritical of me as a filmmaker in a position of power to not also make myself visible as well, so I knew I wanted to have something in some way [that revealed] the narrator and myself within the film.

Was it interesting figuring out what the interplay would be between the virtual and real worlds?

Yeah, as you might’ve seen in “Rat Film,” I always get super excited about simulations and maps as a way to talk about the filmmaking process itself and we were presenting tennis in a way that people weren’t used to. We really avoided the classic shots — when you imagine a tennis tournament on TV, there’s like four or five shots that you can list off the top of your head – the baseline shot, the sideline shot, the close-in on the judge and then the close-up of the player pumping their fist in the air after scoring a point, but there’s just so many other ways to look at tennis. Knowing that we were going to be cutting back and forth between these physical and virtual worlds, we made sure to mimic our shots in the physical world that we were going to get in the virtual, so working with my cinematographer Corey Hughes, we spent a lot of time really studying replay footage, understanding what angles these were from and setting up our shots in the physical world so that they would match cut to positions in the virtual world and vice versa, so it was always done through thinking in both physical and virtual realms.

Did you have much time to scout the court in advance before this tournament where you shoot the live footage?

That was what was so much fun about doing the research and getting the blueprints. You’re watching old matches trying to gauge where you’re going to sit. We did a lot of prep work before we got there and then we had five days in London [at the] 2018 ATV Finals at the O2 Arena. We were there for three days of set-up and that was just the ATV guys setting up the lights and the speakers and also Hawkeye is there calibrating their system, so we were able to be there filming, but also figuring out exactly where we’d be sitting [during the matches], so a lot of shots in the film are very carefully choreographed, knowing how far we’d be from the action and what lens we’d need to get this shot from here or there. It was a lot of walkthroughs and we had the good luck of getting there early and really being able to scout the grounds.

There’s a beautiful transition that seems unreal when a cloud hovers above the court in one scene. Was that fog actually something you were expecting?

That was a gift from God, 100 percent, and maybe one of the more serendipitous and magical moments of my career. We were there in this massive arena and there were maybe 20 people in there setting up the court or putting down the lines. All the doors were closed, and there’s not that much breath in the air, so there’s no breeze and they tested out the fog machine and this cloud just went up and hung there for like 45 minutes, right over the court as they were calibrating everything. If you were Scorsese and had $100 million budget, I don’t think you would’ve even been able to think of that before [shooting]. It was just something that happened, so I was really, really lucky.

You also have a really evocative score from Dan Deacon, with whom you worked on “Rat Film.” Did you get him involved early on this?

Yeah, very early. Dan’s a great friend and he’s been so important to my life, but also in my development as an artist and we loved working together on “Rat Film,” so we knew we wanted to work together again and this was a really cool growth of that trust that we built on “Rat Film.” We watched the film together and we talked conceptually about what different sounds represent at different moments in the film. Not only did he send me the tracks, but he’d also send me the stems [for the music] — all the individual layers — so sometimes an individual track can have anywhere from 10 to 60 layers and he trusted me to go in and actually fade in and fade out the layers on my own. That’s a huge amount of trust to place in someone, and Dan’s such an incredible musician and I’m not a musician at all, but it was really cool to work in that way where he gives me this semi-raw material and I process it and he processes it again.

This is more experimental than what I would’ve expected of a “30 for 30.” Surely, ESPN knew that in commissioning this, but did they give you free rein?

Yeah, I would say it definitely pushes ESPN’s aesthetic, which I’m really excited about. They were really open to a lot of creative directions and it was cool to take this much more experimental approach and have it on such a large platform. I love the idea of someone just channel surfing and stumbling on this film at a bar. That’s really exciting.

“Subject to Review” airs on ESPN at 3 pm EST and will start streaming on ESPN+ on January 13th as part of the “30 for 30” Library.

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