On_Line : Q&A With Jed Weintrob

How did you come up with the concept for “On_Line”?

My writing partner Andrew Osborne and I had worked on and produced a couple of CD-ROM games and movies. I became more involved with the medium of the Internet as entertainment, as did all of my friends. People wouldn’t leave their houses anymore, they’d just hang out online. One year, Andrew and I had both lost loves, which we commiserated over. I turned to the Internet for distraction, and got hooked peering into the lives of strangers who were starting to broadcast themselves out there on webcams. It was both mind blowing and calming to log on and see Jenni on Jennicam.org, who was also awake at 4:30 in the morning, but in the end it was kind of alienating as well. We all need human contact to survive, and while computers have made this less of a necessity, they have also made the need much more clear. Since then, I have always wanted to tell a story interweaving characters and a story line using the Internet as a connecting medium.

Would you call yourself an Internet geek?

I was the first kid in my class with an Atari game system, I shared it with my upstairs neighbor, and later I got the first consumer PC for my bar mitzvah. I was on the Internet before it was even called the Internet, and I first discovered sex chat rooms when I was 13. So I guess you could say that I’ve been playing with this technology for a while.

Before you directed “On_Line” you worked on developing interactive entertainment in Hollywood. What does that mean?

When I got out of college, I produced movies for a small production company in L.A. that made video games and movies concurrently. Movies with names like “Pumpkinhead 2” and “Blue Heat.” After five years and two corporate mergers, I decided to take the buy-out and took off all of 1998 to go backpacking around the world for a year. I needed a total disconnection and I guess I was searching for what I was really passionate about and wanted to do next. The Web was the only tool that allowed me to stay in touch with my friends and family.

How do you connect your previous experience to how “On_Line” turned out?

I’ve always been involved in computers, I mean, I’ve been a digital junkie since I was 12. We are the Atari generation, the first ones to grow up with this shit. And I’ve also always loved working in the theater, as it gave me a great opportunity to create something unique with good friends. Finally I could bring together friends from the film, theater and technology worlds, many of whom I’ve known since college. It was very gratifying: I’ve known my producers Tanya Selvaratnam and Adam Brightman for 13 and 6 years respectively, my co-writer Andrew Osborne for 14 years, I used to work with our executive producers Richard and Tavin Titus 7 years ago, and our composer Roger Neill has been a friend for 10 years, just to name a few.

It seems like you know a lot about Internet culture, especially online communities and mating practices. What real-life situations inspired the film?

A friend and his wife were in the Internet business in the early ‘90s, and they both kept online diaries on their personal home pages. Once, the woman went away on a business trip and had an affair, and the husband found out about it by reading her diary online. That was the only way they were in contact afterwards.

I was also intrigued by the popularity of Internet dating sites in New York, which many of my friends were using to find dates. You could say that I did a good deal of personal “research” involving online dating.
The character of Al is based on a friend of mine who really started getting into anonymous webcam chat. He would video tape his sessions and show me these movies he ended up making while “meeting” guys on the net. He ended up inviting one of his Internet relationships to his house…

The film is about people who have sex without ever touching, without ever being in the same room. Yet the performances are incredibly natural. How did you shoot the film in order to strike that balance?

Tanya and I have a long background together in theatre. We started developing the film in a 3-week workshop with improvisational actors, bringing them into a rehearsal space where the only way they could communicate was over a webcam and they could only see the other person on a computer screen. The reality of the situation really helped shape the characters and script.
Adam had a lot of experience in production, and he sparked to the project immediately. When we went to shoot the film, it was important to me to recreate the actual environments that these characters lived in.

I wanted to give the actors that feeling of being alone in a room with your computer, but involved in very intimate conversations and activities.

When scouting for locations to shoot in, we had to find each character’s apartment in the same building, so that we could run cables between them and actually have the actors talking to each other over computers and webcams. It was an extremely complex process engineered by our visual effects guru Christian Bruun, but it was totally worthwhile. I think you really get the sense that these people are home alone at their computers.

How did you find your actors?

The casting process took 6 months, there were lots of casting calls. That’s how we found total newcomers like Eric Millegan and Vanessa Ferlito. John Fleck had worked with Tanya before, but he lives in LA, so he sent me a very convincing videotape of himself as Al. Josh Hamilton and I became friendly through a mutual friend. Josh was interested in the script and one day I took him to my office and put him online at a webcam site, ifriends.com, to have him play around with it. Let’s just say it was an eye opener for him. With Josh in place, it became much easier to attract hot talent like Harold Perrineau and Isabel Gillies.

Tell me about casting Angel.

Strange. I was looking for someone who could play a convincing webcam girl, so of course we started looking at girls who actually do broadcast their lives online for all the world to see. Tavin came across a site called DitchKitty.com, and we all agreed that “Ditch” was exactly what we were looking for: haunting and sexy, but with a girl-next-door familiarity.

Can you imagine having to contact a girl over the Internet to ask her to do a striptease over webcam and email it to you as an AVI (a moving image file) to audition for your “indie” feature? Luckily, we had two smart female producers who could talk to her first, so when she and I spoke it was a somewhat more comfortable situation. Liz (aka DitchKitty) is a college student and Web designer in Ohio. I was a bit nervous, because we then had to bring her to New York to do her scenes, and she had never acted in front of a camera before, but she had been putting herself on camera over the Internet for years. Liz ended up being totally cool and really perfect for the part. At one point, during editing, I realized that I needed a little more footage of her, and asked her to do something in front of her webcam and email it to us. The next day, it was in the film.

Were the actors uncomfortable with your approach? Was simulating over-the-modem sex easier or harder than what they’d done on stage or in other films?

It was different for each actor, as it was a totally new situation for all of them. Some were put off by the impersonality of the technology, but Eric, who plays Ed, thought that it was awesome because he’s a huge Internet addict. He loved it, and enjoyed the control he had over his own image by playing with his webcam. Isabel (Moira) found it disconcerting to be in front of a camera and a webcam at the same time, but I think the isolation really helped her performance. Josh liked it quite a bit – he has a big theater background, and the immediacy of the situation made it like a theatrical experience for him. For Vanessa (Jordan), the intimacy allowed her sexuality to be more out there, and she ultimately became very comfortable with it.

On_Line has one of the best orgasm scenes we’ve seen since When Harry Met Sally. Tell us about shooting that scene, and what did you do in terms of editing and special effects to make it work so well?

To me, shooting a great sex scene is like having great sex: you’ve got to practice a lot until you get it perfect. Much to Josh and Vanessa’s frustration, we must have shot that entire scene 20 times straight through. Then Stephanie (the editor) and I started really pushing the split screen technique in post, I envisioned that the orgasm should fracture their world as much as possible..

Tell us about shooting on DV. Was it liberating? Were you able to do things shooting on DV that you could not have done shooting on film?

Shooting in digital was awesome, as we truly took advantage of the uniqueness of the digital format. We had a lot more cameras than a regular film set would allow: we strapped cameras onto actors, we could walk down the streets of New York without seeming like a movie crew, and during the webcam chat scenes, we were able to shoot with 4-6 cameras simultaneously. This in turn enabled us to create the multiple split screens in the film, because we always had multiple angles on each take of a chat scene. Then in post, it was like having no budgetary restrictions to play with the image: anything we could do in the Avid, we could easily recreate in the finished film. That kind of image manipulation would have been cost-prohibitive in 35mm. The low cost of tape stock also allowed us to shoot a huge number of takes at times, so the actors were free to experiment more, almost like a theatrical experience, which helped us elicit such natural performances.

Was there anything you wished you could do that you couldn’t?

Maybe shoot for a longer time…but we did a lot of research in pre-production so everything ended up working out on a tight schedule. I would have liked to shoot the Internet world digitally and the real world on film. But Toshi, our DP, was able to manipulate the digital medium to achieve two very distinct looks for the two worlds.

There has been a lot written about the internet economy falling apart, but porn sites and chat rooms seem forever profitable. How realistic is Intercon-X, and are there any similar sites we should visit?

Sites like Intercon-X really do exist, and with a fast connection anyone can be in the world of “On_Line.” You can go to ifriends.com right now and buy a private webcam chat session with a girl like Jordan or a guy like Al. For about $3 a minute you can tell them exactly what to do, and there is even an area where you can sign up to make money as webcam host from your own home. Webcamnow.com is pretty good, too, and then there’s Ivisit.com, which is like a free playground for the sexually provocative, although there are always a lot more guys than girls. It’s much easier for gay men to have a free webcam session, you usually have to pay to “chat” with a woman.

For the kid in Ohio, it seems like Intercon-X and the suicide site are his only links to the outside world. Where did his character come from?

He’s an amalgam of a few people Andrew and I know. Ed is a kid who has never quite fit into his world, partially as a result of his rural surroundings, and he’s the only character not in New York. Eric, the actor who plays him, is from Oregon, and could really empathize with the idea of using the Internet as a tool to connect to a larger and more open-minded world.

There is a lot of music in “On_Line,” much of it original to the film. How did you choose the music and what role did it play in the movie?

I wanted to combine the online and offline worlds both visually and aurally. It was important to convey what it’s like to live “in” the computer, and what the outside world feels like in comparison. Roger (the composer) and I decided to highlight these moods by playing with unusual eastern instruments like the Chinese mouth organ, and juxtaposing them against more traditional sounds like the electric guitar to achieve a sparse but very resonant score. Matt and Todd (the music supervisors) assembled a soundtrack that also plays between the electronic and organic worlds, from the nasty electric rap of Peaches to the warm acoustics of the Afghan Whigs. The film is literally filled with music, and the score became the accent that helps frame and tie together the six characters.