Interview: Spencer McCall and Jeff Hull of The Institute
In The Institute, the new documentary directed by Spencer McCall, we’re given a glimpse into the world of “The Games of Nonchalance”, an urban-exploratory alternate reality game that took place back in 2008 throughout the hilly streets of San Francisco. The participants followed enigmatic clues–graffiti messages, flyers, and other works of street art–that led them to unique experiences and, of course, more mysteries. By being brought into this new world of secret organizations, hidden artifacts, and missing persons, the participants gained a new appreciation for viewing the world as a playground to be explored, appreciated, and enraptured by.
McCall and the game’s creator, Jeff Hull, chatted with us about some participants getting involved with the game on a frightening level, getting people to look up from their mobile devices, blurring the lines of reality for moviegoers, and more. Is the game truly over, or are there still more secrets to unearth?
The beauty of this game you created is that people could get so lost in it. Were you ever fearful that someone could get too lost in it?
Jeff: You know, I had no idea that people were going to engage with it to the extent that they did. The characters that are portrayed in the movie are real people who really did lose themselves in the universe because they didn’t know where it began and ended. I couldn’t have predicted the things that happened, the people who showed up, and the way they interacted with the piece.
Spencer: I’m not saying anyone in the film is schizophrenic, but if you have somebody who’s hearing voices or is extremely paranoid, what happens when you tell them that people are going to climb into their window at night? What happens when you tell them that people are listening to your phone? For 99% of them, they could see that that was just the fun of it, the joy of the project itself. But, there was a small percentage of people where it was just too great to deal with.
When you were interviewing these people for the film, could you sense how deep they’d gotten invested in the game? Could you see it in their eyes?
Spencer: There was one person I had to correspond with and make a trust and friendship with for about three months before he’d even let me record anything he said. There were a lot of different things going on with that individual that aren’t related to the project. I tried to stay focused on what the project meant to this guy.
Jeff: Wasn’t it also true that you still never saw that person in person and all your communication with him was mediated and he never left his house?
Spencer: That’s completely true. He’s still, as far as I know, stuck in his house due to a medical condition. It was really important for me to meet him in person. When the project was done, before he’d seen the movie–which he hates–he did agree to let me come over. I just gave him a gift bag, said thank you. It was kind of like a preemptive, “Don’t hate me when you see this movie.” I knew that no matter what I did, he probably wouldn’t end up liking it. I was right!
Jeff: What’s terrifying for me is, he entertains the notion that his injury was a result of his participation with the Jejune Institute, that somehow I’m accountable for his life taking this turn. The very idea is terrifying.
Spencer: There are only 7 players that are interviewed in the movie, but I interviewed closer to 20. The people who didn’t make it in were, for the most part, saying “This is a game. This is this trivial, fun thing. I’ve done other things like this before. I know everything about this.” I didn’t want to talk to those people at all. I wanted the people who [had] their first experience with a project like this. They were as mind-fucked initially as the audience would be, so I wanted those characters that the audience could empathize with from an understanding perspective. If we just started off with somebody who knew everything about the project, there would be no hook. That’s why I call the first interviewee the “White Rabbit”. He leads us down the rabbit hole. It was only by coincidence that I found out the white rabbit is kind of like a spirit animal for him.
This was a three year project with people running around San Francisco, interacting with the game. How did you keep tabs on how people were doing? Where they were, how they were reacting to the events…
Jeff: We could have done a better job of documentation and tracking players. We did get some feedback from our participants on some level, but it wasn’t very strategic at all. We didn’t think in that way. Everything we were doing was very instinctual and impulsive. Now, we can look back and say, “What have we learned? How can we track and document and be more strategic about the experiences we’re creating?”
In the film, people are having adventures outside, interacting with each other face to face. How do you feel about cell phones and how they’ve changed the the way we communicate and view the world?
Spencer: I think there’s a little bit of irony to the fact that people used their phones to interact with a lot of the games. At the same time, it was a project dedicated to getting you to get off of your media device. The message is getting off your butt and exploring the real world, but occasionally there will be a text message or instructions to log into something.
Jeff: Here’s what I have to say about mobile technology: It promises us three things. It’s going to save us time, it’s going to bring us together, and it’s going to deliver meaningful content to our lives. I would say, fail, fail, fail. Anytime we implemented technology in our design, it’s always in a way that is to get people into the real world and get them exploring and discovering. Getting their head away from the monitor. That’s one of our mottos. “Keep your heads up.”
Spencer: One thing that I’ve learned from this whole project is that media–no matter what form it’s in, whether it’s a movie or a phone–is a great catalyst for experience and education, but if the experience is the media itself, just watching this movie, then you’re missing the point of the movie. It’s the tool to get you to the point B. It’s the elsewhere, the in-between. But, it’s not where you should be all the time. I try to stay optimistic about the world and cell phone use. I do think we live in a much better world now than we did 30 years ago when it comes to civil rights and being closer…I like the world we live in today. For people who are pessimistic about where the world is going, they should realize that there are more ways to appreciate it more, whether it’s a project like this or making your own and exploring.
The participants in the film use their phones to interact with the game, but they’re obviously not enraptured by the device. They can’t wait to put the phone away and just get going.
Jeff: I hadn’t thought about it in the way you describe it. They’re being propelled by the media on the phone and not obsessed with it. I do like that. To see the responses and the enthusiasm of the players and the community that was built is enormously gratifying. I can’t say enough about how rewarding it’s been for me.
What’s great about the game is that there’s an element of truth to it. It’s not a completely silly experience–there’s a sense of danger to it.
Jeff: That’s what I like about the movie. People walk out of the screenings, and the discussion is, “Did that really happen?” I can say that more than 95% of everything shown and stated in the film is totally factually accurate. Because it raises that question or nods or winks to the fact that there’s some playfulness in the storytelling, it opens everything else up. You’re questioning everything about the movie, and that’s a true tribute to the experience as it was. But now, the movie in itself is an experience. You’re investigating it and you want to watch it again. I will say that, for the curious enough, those questions can be answered. There actually is more to discover after you see the film, if you so choose.
Spencer: Early in the film, we see Gordo, and he says, “I’m an actor, and I was hired to be a character in this.” Later, we see other characters, and I felt that if we said any of them could possibly be an actor playing a character, why do I need to say it for all of them? That’ information is there. That’s part of the exposition of the film, that some people are playing roles. Even if they’re playing a role, that doesn’t mean that their experience didn’t actually happen or their opinion isn’t valid or real.
Jeff: That’s what was so hilariousl about Gordo. He’s totally being honest, playing it straight. “I went in, I engaged with this game, and suddenly I was on the production team, and I still got mind-fucked!”
Spencer: Originally, we played with the idea of Gordo doing his interview in character, as Drybones. It just wasn’t as interesting as him telling what was real. That’s what kept happening throughout making the film. I kept playing with the idea of hiding what was real, but I found out that 9 times out of 10, the truth was more interesting than anything we could make up or play with.
The story in the film has an interesting shape. It’s a mysterious, enigmatic film, but at one point, we see Jeff, and people perhaps make their minds up about what they think the project is. Then, the film takes another turn, and we can’t really be sure of anything after that. Talk a bit about molding the story in the editing room.
Spencer: That was crucial. When I first started researching this and talking to the people involved, everybody seemed to want me to make a movie about how to put an alternate reality game together.
Like an instructional video?
Spencer: Basically. How do you design a game? Well, I don’t know anything about games. I don’t play video games…I can’t even do a puzzle. I’m horrible at games. I just didn’t want to watch a movie about how to play a game. I still decided to get that footage of Jeff and Uriah and Sarah. We did long interviews with them, and they did talk about how the game was designed, but I looked at footage and it wasn’t interesting to me. What’s interesting is how little information initially Sarah and Uriah got. It’s like, the people who made the thing don’t even know what they’re doing! The other thing was from Jeff, finding out that there might be an ulterior motive behind all of this. That was why I felt, ultimately, that it would be okay to show these guys. Initially, I didn’t have any goddamn interest in putting these people in the movie. I did feel like I got more out of having them in the movie, giving a glimpse of the insanity not just in front of the curtain, but behind it as well.
Jeff: What I thought was inspired about the filmmaking was that Spencer went to the participants and said, “When did this all begin for you, and what happened after that?” That’s the entire first act, and it isn’t until you’ve experienced the thing through their eyes that we get to look behind the curtain. But, once you look behind the curtain, there’s another curtain.
The game is over now, but is the film an extension of the experience?
Jeff: Absolutely. The game, if we’re going to call it that, is alive and well in the form of a piece of cinema that is the rabbit hole.
Spencer: If you watch it close enough, you might even find a clue to things that haven’t come yet. I want [people who watch the movie] to find Eva. I want them to walk out of the movie theater and go find her.
Will they find her?
Spencer: Yes. If they live with her in their heart. A lot of the locations and installations around the city are still, in some decaying, ruinous way, still there.
Jeff: If they want to, they can discover artifacts and hidden pieces of media that will reveal the truth and also offer them a thread to pull on into future experiences. There’s a thread.