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Fantastic Fest Review: Open Windows with Elijah Wood & Sasha Grey

In another acting experiment for Elijah Wood, Nacho Vigalondo’s latest directorial effort is the strange mix of Rear Window, Hackers, and the now infamous Sega CD game Night Trap. The film approaches found footage from an interesting perspective: the desktop of the main character’s computer. The “open windows” the film’s title suggests are in fact browser windows that give a website editor an in-depth look at the subject of his daily obsession. With a unique premise and decent acting from Wood, the film holds your attention, even if it loses sight of its own premise.

Elijah Wood plays Nick, the editor of a fan site devoted to Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey), an actress who’s ready to leave the power plays and manipulations of Hollywood behind. Nick is scheduled to meet Jill after winning an online contest… that is, until a rep from her team explains that she has canceled without notice. Though Nick feels slighted, Ms. Goddard’s well-intentioned manager Chord (Neil Maskell) finds her snubbing of a fan atrocious and offers to give Nick a deeper look inside her life.

Chord very quickly goes from helpful devil to string-pulling puppet master as the layers begin to peel away to reveal something much more sinister than letting a fan get a dirty peek at his favorite star’s life. Two steps ahead and defiantly devious, the pleasant voice guiding Nick on a digital tour of Jill’s life turns menacing when he manipulates Nick into attacking and detaining her agent. This gives Chord all the leverage he needs to begin pushing Nick to do his dirty work.

While the film starts as a meditation on the voyeurism that fueled Hitchcock’s Rear Window, using today’s technology and our increased reliance on computers as his spring board, Vigalando manages to create a film that will make any technophobe even more paranoid of back door access to their systems. The film is dialed in to a persistent fear anyone with a modem is now used to: Who has access to me?

Though the movie almost completely abandons its unique premise in its final act, the near seamless conceit of all of this happening on a user’s desktop is a remarkable hook. In the 1992 Sega CD game Night Trap, you play as an outside observer watching a slumber party through hidden cameras, operating a system of traps to capture creatures intent on kidnapping the girls you are watching. Anyone who played the game will get a feeling of déjà vu as Chord and Nick go back and forth with Jill’s life hanging in the balance. While we as viewers can’t drop a net on the bad guy, it’s curious to see such outlandish concepts from the early nineties make it to screen in a way that both makes you squeamish and fearful of the technology we’ve graciously allowed in our lives.

Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows experiments with expectation and form. With enough red herrings and wicked turns to give you whiplash, the film constantly keeps you guessing as to who is manipulating who and what the ultimate end game is — even if it can’t quite stick the landing. While some of the elements the director plays with fall on the wrong side of implausible and a bit goofy, the film as a whole works thanks in no small part to Elijah Wood’s subversively subdued performance.

After screening the film at Fantastic Fest, we spoke to Nacho, the unofficial mascot of the festival, about the film, working within limitations, and being willing to experiment.

Nerdist: When you started to conceive of what the project would be, how early did you know you wanted to lock it down to a single computer desktop? How much of that was just seeing if you could do it?

Nacho Vigalondo: Seeing the process of asking me to make a movie which really had a deep presence onscreen… it seemed interesting to me, but I wanted to take it to the edge and propose what would happen in front of the computer. So yes, it’s a big, massive limitation, but I think that, at least from my point of view, the limitations had the ultimate choice for us to make. I don’t know what I could do if I have a movie in the future where I can tell whatever I want with no restrictions. I don’t know – a space opera or a period movie with a lot of backing behind. I don’t know – how would I react to that?

N: One of the things that I really appreciate with the movie is – I was an big fan of an old Sega CD game called Night Trap. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.

NV: Yeah, I know Night Trap. Yeah, yeah, yeah! The Sega system right?

N: The movie plays like a throwback to that kind of voyeuristic exploitation. When you’re making a movie like this, and you’re trying to inject some type of fun into it, where does that come from? Where does the balance come from?

NV: OK, I love to make a movie that even if it’s maybe talking about something with issues in it – I don’t know, maybe I’m dealing with some future stuff, but I always love when a movie is giving you the chance to laugh at it, all the time.

I want those movies to have a chance to be taken seriously. I don’t know – we take all things into consideration. But I love the fact that if you look at the movie from one point of view, they feel exploitative, they feel like, I don’t know, old thrillers from the past. One of the things that I liked about this the most was that at the beginning it seemed like a German erotic movie from the 70’s. Because this guy, he sees a naked girl, and he goes behind. That is the beginning of really low-grade erotic movies from those years on TV, when I was a child. Kind of like a killer in the room.

Yes, I want – I love the movies. I love when movies can be taken seriously. But it’s something that is asking you to be active in this case. I won’t say boring – a movie that seems serious from the very beginning. It seems like officially interesting, you know what I mean? I prefer if there’s something meaningful in the movie, I prefer you to find it. I want the movies to have a life with their own interest. I don’t want you to be passive while watching the movie.

N: Elijah Wood gives a really great kind of Hitchcockian innocent hero performance in this. He conveys this innocence and unaware nature of the film that there are so many things being peeled away. Anyone who had read the script, it would have been very easy to give things away with an expression or a look, and he plays everything just right. How was it finding that balance of tension and bewilderment, and what was working with him like on the set?

NV: The thing is that I knew Elijah. He is my friend. And I trusted him, not only because of his skills in the cinema, but also because the kind of person he is. He’s really nice. He’s really in love with the process of film making. He’s not – he’s really a lover of the process of making movies. The more people involved in shooting, he’s, like, really into it, and I’m really attracted to that kind of person, because for me, shooting a movie is like a celebration. It’s a constant celebration. I love to shoot people who feel the same.

On the other hand, the way he behaves on the screen, it’s something I knew he exactly was going to make perfect. We know that Elijah can be innocent, and feel innocent and creepy in a second. He is so powerful. He can be nice and terrifying instantly, and I wanted to know that the character evolves into visible nerves – evolves from visible nerves into something which is more scary, more serious, more fictional somehow. And I knew that Elijah was perfect for this position.

I’m not only interested in the experience of the state of what it was on the screen. It’s almost an evolution, and I think he’s perfect to approach that evolution of the character.

N: So the film shows a lot of technology that is available, and some things that hackers can do with remote systems, as well as some predictive technology. Getting yourself into that world and seeing what everybody was capable of – what was going through your mind as you started to see some of the real-world applications of these very scary technologies?

NV: Yeah, well the movie has to feel actual, but only more, which is one of the hassles with science fiction. I don’t want it to be constrained by reality. I wanted to make a movie that could be interpreted as science fiction at some point.  For me the movie’s a fantasy.

But all the time I’m awoken to realize, OK, a lot of photographs that invade the privacy of – sorry, I don’t know what it is to say – some of them, a lot of photographs of naked actresses who are famous have been stolen. I don’t know how that was made. I don’t know how the hackers managed to steal the photographs from actresses. That problem is evoked in the movie, it’s approached in the movie. But since I don’t know the real process, I prefer to – I don’t know, this highly connected way of showing this reality.

N: And that kind of just leads to my final question – how do you feel about being able to release the movie and screen the movie now that a real climate has been created for a movie like this? It’s definitely not intentional, but this movie is definitely more applicable now, after the big leak, than any of the other films that may be touching this subject matter any time soon.

NV: Obviously all real life is fuel. We always celebrate when our movies have relevance, and talk about serious issues that are happening in real life, everyday, that we see on the news. Of course, I love movies, but at the same time, I can say that I’m highly uncomfortable about this. I don’t – it horrifies me that our privacy is being destroyed again and again. It feels like getting worse all the time.  The movie, we had the rate of transition with some photographs, some stuff, listed into the internet. But the fact that these things are getting worse? I don’t know, somehow makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t know – I think the movie is not pointing – I think the movie is pointing at a scene, it’s pointing at us – at all of us – our responsibility while on the internet.

Open Windows pops up in theaters November 7, 2014 and is currently available on VOD.

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