Filmmaker and documentarian Rodney Ascher has tackled a lot of interesting topics over the last few years, from his deep dive into The Shining with Room 237 to tackling sleep paralysis for The Nightmare as well as The El Duce Tapes, which examined the career and persona of the infamous lead singer of The Mentors. For his latest project, A Glitch in the Matrix, Ascher explores the concept of simulation theory, which is centered around the idea that the world and reality we live in isn’t exactly what it seems.
Recently, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Ascher about A Glitch in the Matrix, and he discussed the influence of Philip K. Dick on his latest documentary, what inspired him to dig into simulation theory in the first place, and more.
A Glitch in the Matrix recently screened as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and will be heading to theaters and on demand this Friday, February 5th, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Great to speak with you today, Rodney. You have always picked intriguing topics for your documentaries, so I was curious if there was something in particular about the subject of simulation theory that really felt right for you to explore for this project?
Rodney Ascher: Well, the connection was not quite as strong as it was with The Nightmare, in that I had gone through sleep paralysis and seeing shadow people. I wasn't necessarily obsessed with the idea that we were living in a computer-created reality, but I did find the idea endlessly fascinating and parts of it around the edges echoed strange contemplative moments of my wayward youth. But as I started digging deeper into it, and thinking about what kind of a movie it would make, it seemed to make all the sense in the world, that we're continuing to sort of widen our point of view, if we're going from, “Well, how do people make sense of a particular movie? How do people make sense of dreams, the subconscious, the supernatural, or the entire world?” It seems to make all the sense in the world and asks the same kind of questions on a larger scale.
It's really interesting that you framed a lot of this around the works of Philip K. Dick, because he was one of the preeminent sci-fi writers, and yet, I still don't feel like we talk about his work enough these days. Can you discuss diving into Philip's works in general? It feels like a really daunting process, and it's fascinating to see just how much of what he was telling us decades ago has come true in one way or another in the present day.
Rodney Ascher: It's still unbelievable the more you look at his ideas. He talked about the fact that we might be living in a computer-created world in 1977. What did a computer look like then? A refrigerator with magnetic reels of tape spinning back and forth. By today's standards, with computer animation and video games and the internet, it’s not so far-fetched. And for me, what I think is really striking are the parallels between some of his ideas and Google Earth, where I can see a perfect simulation of the world wherever I want. But from the time period he lived in, it's just nuts to even think about.
I think in some ways you can call him “Patient Zero” for any existential crisis that is going on. For example, I think it’s in The Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch where there's a character who can't leave his house until he puts a quarter in the box. And it seems like such an amazing premonition of the world of micropayments and how many subscription services you have, where all these companies are just taking a couple drops of blood from us every day.
For this doc, you also spoke with Joshua Cooke, and while I didn't know much about the specifics of the case before hearing them here, I do remember hearing on the nightly news about the Matrix Murders. I was just curious, did you want to get his input so as to give this project some balance, in terms of examining other perspectives that involve simulation theory?
Rodney Ascher: You know, I don't have a horse in the race of whether people think simulation theory is a good thing, a bad thing, or whether it's true or it's false. And I didn't necessarily know what the film was going to be when I started making it. We talked to Joshua, because in my research about simulation theory, I came across the idea of the “Matrix defense.” The best way I thought I could introduce it was by talking to someone who had used it. But as I was structuring the whole movie, in some ways Joshua's an outlier, but there are also steps along the way that are getting there. One of the interviewees, Paul, talks about that uncle of his who asks, "Well, this is all fake. What's stopping me from going door to door and shooting everyone in the head, or shooting you?" And Jesse talks about that guy who stole the plane and crashed it into an island.
So, the dangers of simulation theory, and I think most specifically, not even the version of simulation theory in which other people aren't real, is a thread that started to come together through the course of it. I mean, in some ways it was a surprise to me, as was the amount of time that people started speaking about religion and ethics. Because in a way, I thought this was going to be a non-fiction Twilight Zone type of project starting off, but then it revealed itself over time.
Speaking to that, as you were working on gathering all your information and interviews for Glitch, was there anything that surprised you, or was there anything that shifted your focus at all along the way?
Rodney Ascher: Well, again, the amount of time spent talking about religion was a real surprise to me. When Brother Mystwood talks about Minecraft, it very quickly becomes this Christian metaphor of the creator incarnating into an avatar to come into our world. That blew my mind as he was describing it. In hindsight, it feels like one of the most obvious things in the world.
Another was the way stories would start to dovetail, like at the end when Jesse is talking about, "Well, if this is real, we should try to reach our creators by skirting across the universe and colonizing planets." And now, Elon Musk is talking about colonizing Mars. He's a very Philip K. Dick-ian character in a way, too, because so many of Philip K. Dick's movies or books took place on Mars. All of these parallels were very interesting to me.
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[Image Credit: Above images courtesy of Sundance Institute.]