Daniel Cockburn, 34
Director and writer of You Are Here
A favourite of film and media-arts festivals, with more than 20 short films under his belt, Mr. Cockburn received a whole new level of acclaim after his feature debut You Are Here had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival and its North American unveiling at TIFF last year. The highly experimental feature is composed of a series of psychological-philosophical puzzles, from a collection of people manoeuvred seemingly randomly around a city by an office of four people, to an archivist (played by the late Tracy Wright) who meticulously catalogues VHS tapes and other pieces of found media she picks up off the street.
The city in the film isn’t necessarily Toronto. It’s supposed to be any anonymous urban landscape. Yet Torontonians will recognize not only faint traces of the physical city, but a few entertainingly unsettling insights into its collective mental state.
Raised in Tweed, Ont., two hours east of Toronto, Mr. Cockburn studied at York University. He is married to installation artist Brenda Goldstein and is following her to New York City, where she will be starting her graduate studies in art.
You Are Here opens Aug. 19 at the Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W.
The film is a series of mental puzzles, like losing your bearings in the big city. And it feels at times like a series of short films. You’ve been making shorts for the last ten years, was that the original intent?
The original idea was to make a series of short films that would surprise the audience halfway through by turning out to be a single feature film. While that approach changed, the spirit of that idea is still there. I wanted it to have the feeling of being all these little pieces struggling to connect with each other. That’s what the characters in the movie are struggling with.
There’s the feel of, say, Being John Malkovich meets Mulholland Drive in Toronto, and Torontonians will undoubtedly recognize the city in the film. Is this (I say this only half-jokingly) as much as about the insanity of Toronto as about the general confusion of modern life?
[Laughs]I’ve had a lot of conversations about this topic recently. It’s funny. It’s a tricky movie in terms of its setting. We were trying to set it in an indefinable era and an indefinable place. You’re not even sure which decade the movie takes place in, because we have different cues leading you in different directions [such as various outdated cellphones, VHS tapes and mismatched technology visible on the screen] And we strove to make it an anonymous Toronto. There’s no recognizable landmarks. That’s by design.
The scene in which a man sits in a cell-like room and writes responses in Chinese, despite the fact that he doesn’t know a word of Chinese and is purely following complicated instructions in a book, is directly based on a theoretical experiment by American philosopher John Searle, which you acknowledge in the closing credits. Are any other scenes based on academic thought experiments like that?
No, I don’t think there’s anything in there adapted in the same way that the “Chinese room” scene is taken so closely from John Searle. Obviously there’s allusions and inspirations all over the place, like [Argentine author Jorge Luis]Borges and [American novelist]Paul Auster, authors whose influence is obviously in there.
Just as people describe cities as living organisms, is the film depicting cities as single mental entities?
I wasn’t thinking specifically in terms of making a movie about cities. I think what the movie taps into – and what the performances get across – is the idea of feeling lost. And that can be lost physically in a building or strange environment. Or in the case of the Archivist [a central character played by Tracy Wright, who died last year] it’s feeling lost in a familiar environment, which is almost scarier.
I think this feeling of being lost is something everyone feels in any number of ways. Anybody who has ever looked at a map and thought, “Okay, this represents where I am, and I’m in here somewhere, but I don’t know how to get where I need to go” – that can be really, really frightening and frustrating. I think we’re coming up with different versions of lost-ness all the time, every day. A city is a really good place to get lost, and the irony is that we’ve built it ourselves.
Speaking of the Archivist: You created the puzzles in the film, but Wright is central in acting out the emotions and confusion caused by the puzzles. Was a large part of what she brought to the film?
What I would say about her applies to the performers across the board, but Tracy was sort of the pinnacle of it. She just really found a way to hone in what was natural and human and emotional, in the midst of this puzzle box. She found the frustration and anxiety of being a person in the middle of it.
Does any of this reflect how you feel living in Toronto?
I certainly think so. There’s a lot of me manifest in the movie. I’m often clumsy, forgetful and misplace things. But if you start thinking how you could possibly forget what you did five minutes ago, you can really freak yourself out. And in the past, I have tended to freak myself out a lot with that kind of thinking.
I was reading a lot of meaning into everything and trying to unscramble words on signs to figure out what they really meant, you know? And what message there might be for me in conversations I was overhearing and words that I was reading. But I think that paranoia and out of control meaning-making is just an exaggeration of what we do all the time as people to live in the world. But there’s a line that, if you cross it, you’re not making useful meaning anymore. That’s a scary place, and it can be an exhilarating place too. I think that’s the place that the movie came from.
When I met with Tracy the first time, she said, I like the script, but I’m not sure I really get it. And I told her about my own experience. And I don’t know for sure, but I think that’s what flicked the light on for her, and gave her something that she could grab onto for her performance.