“It doesn’t seem like a leap …”: Director Randall Cole Talks About Tech and Voyeurism in New Stalker Horror ’388 Arletta Avenue’

When filmmaker Randall Cole looked at the way advancements in home video technology had made smaller cameras more ubiquitous, he began to wonder about how someone might use them for less-than-wholesome purposes. With a society primed for harmless voyeurism through early shows like Candid Camera and more recently, YouTube, Cole wondered about the kind of person that might take that hidden-camera notion and take it out of the familiar realm of the comedic prank or practical joke to a darker, more insidious place.

The result of these musings is 388 Arletta Avenue, a psychological thriller about a young couple—he, a rising star at an ad firm; she, a PhD student—who are secretly being filmed 24 hours a day by an anonymous, hooded stalker, in what can only be called reality TV taken to the nth level of hell. The film, shot entirely using concealed surveillance camera footage, has the effect of making the audience simultaneously feel like voyeurs—as viewers can only see the stalker’s point of view—and victims—as they empathize with protagonist James Deakins’ (Nick Stahl) increasing and justified paranoia. When his wife disappears, this circumstance only kicks things up to a higher level of fear and distrust of his surroundings and friends. And it becomes obvious that before long, terrible things will occur.

I had a chance to discuss the film with writer and director Randall Cole and producer Vincenzo Natali, who also worked on such films as Cube, Spliceand Nothing.

So I saw the pre-screening. That was an amazing movie. I guess my first question is, where did the idea come from to make it completely surveillance-camera and handycam footage?

Randall Cole: Just messing around with the idea of wanting to mess with someone’s life, and having some personal experience from something that seemed to be going on in our home. And I thought about, if someone were doing it, how would they, sort of . . . what would they get out of it? Because, you know, you pull a practical joke on someone and you kind of want to see the expression on the person’s face as you’re doing it. This goes much beyond a practical joke. But if you don’t get to be there, there’s the idea of “how could you be there.” Then, realizing the technology was becoming smaller and smaller cameras, you could hide cameras and sort of have your cake and eat it too, you know. You get to see the results of whatever prank you’re playing on the person. And I guess it goes back to Alan Funt and that show—[to Natali, beside him] What was that show called?

Vincenzo Natali: Candid Camera

RC: Candid Camera, yeah. Again, the whole hidden-camera idea, but to play that, instead of as comedy, play it as kind of horror. And it kind of came from that, about someone wanting to make a movie about real people. And that impulse seems to exist right now. I mean, it doesn’t seem like a leap that someone’s going to do that anyway.

That’s true. You have YouTube videos of people pranking their siblings and things like that, and keeping cameras or a webcam. Like you said, it’s not a leap because you do use technology that is available right now. So is it because of the fact that technology is getting smaller and easier to manipulate that you went in that direction?

RC: Yeah, I think I wanted to se what that person’s movie would look like. I mean, since they can, this person becomes a filmmaker. We sometimes talk about it as a micro-budget version of The Truman Show remember that movie? Jim Carrey’s life became a TV show, but they needed this big production. The idea was that they had to build a fake city and fake people. But with the shrinking technology, tiny technology, anyone can sort of make someone else’s life into entertainment or a movie.

That’s scary, though, that thought. And the story actually does play on the paranoia that in modern life it is so much easier for people to invade your privacy, and you literally have no control over what goes on the Internet. You said in the press release, this isn’t about reality TV but about people who watch reality TV; so tell me about that. It’s kind of like you have normal people as opposed to people who want to be out there and exposed?

RC: Yeah, I mean, the choice of opting out is maybe . . . not given here [Natali bursts out laughing] because they don’t know. And yeah, I kind of picked a couple who wouldn’t normally be the usual exhibitionists who are doing it anyway. But yeah, I think it was the idea that it’s out of our control. It’s part of what’s really horrifying about it.

So what went into the casting, actually, of picking Nick Stahl and Mia Kirshner?

RC: Nick was someone I mentioned earlier when I brought it to [producers] Steve [Hoban], Vincenzo [Natali] and Mark [Smith]. I wanted a kind of actor who kind of disappears into the role, you know? The thing about Nick Stahl is, the way you might think about an actor—where you always feel like you’re thinking about the person and their acting ticks—Nick is very accomplished, but he kind of disappears nicely into the role, which is good for this because you want him to feel like an everyman. And also, for that sort of dark side he has. I’d seen him in a movie, when he was a teenager, called Bullyand the idea that he was maybe a character like that—kind of grown up, but had that sort of dark background—just seemed right.

And it’s true, you kind of do see that coming out when he’s with Devon Sawa’s character [Bill Burrows], where he’s like, “Oh, I know what it feels like now to be harassed. I didn’t think about it at the time.” And it’s almost like this idea of him being selected as this unknowing participant in this reality show. It’s almost like karma for what he did to Devon Sawa’s character. Was that something you were thinking about, going into the writing of it?

RC: Well, that’s definitely something that he’s wondering about—is this some kind of payback. And maybe it is, or not. I won’t say for the sake of the interview! Find out in the movie. But it’s certainly something that whoever is behind it is able to manipulate. Information is power, and he’s finding out about this guy, and sort of what he does is influenced by what he finds out along the way. That’s why it’s such a fun game for the person doing it. It’s like this movie is unfolding before him, but he sort of gets to play the hand of God—or the devil in this case! And toy with this couple.

[To producer Vincenzo Natali] You’re no stranger to films that aren’t very conventional; I think almost all of your movies have been outside of the box! So what drew you to this one, to 388 Arletta Avenue?

VN: One was inside a box, yet somehow remained outside the box [joking about his horror filmCube]. It’s exciting for me, both as a filmmaker and a viewer, to see a movie that isn’t quite like anything I’ve seen before. And there’s kind of a high-wire act that goes along with making something like this. I saw in Randall’s script this very daring conceit, which is that the film is shot entirely from surveillance cameras, and yet it’s a suspense film. So Randall, by definition had written—or written out—any possibility of a close-up, and that’s a very daring thing to do as a filmmaker, when you’re trying to build suspense and horror and all of those things. And I thought that that kind of obstruction was interesting, as an experiment to see if it would really work. And I think it does. Actually I think it actually avoids a lot of the clichés psychological thrillers often fall into because he didn’t allow himself to have those tools, and so he made something more interesting. And ultimately, I think, more chilling.

388 Arletta Avenue opens in theatres Friday, June 15.