Chris Landreth Talks Subconscious Password
Almost three years ago, I wrote about the first time I met Chris Landreth way back when, in a smoky German disco, listening raptly as he discussed with great intensity a short film he was looking to make about a former animator for the NFB whose life spun out of control and was now panhandling on the streets of Montreal. Trying to bring a bit of levity into an otherwise serious discussion, I said to him, “Sounds like a real comedy!” And while his Oscar®-winning film Ryan was anything but a real comedy, his brand new film, Subconscious Password, is indeed just that - a real comedy. And a very funny one at that.
Produced by the NFB and Marcy Page in collaboration with Copperheart Entertainment’s Mark Smith and the Seneca College Animation Arts Centre, Chris’ first stereoscopic 3-D film makes its world debut next month in competition at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. While Subconscious Password is Chris’ first true comedy, as he says, “the silliest film I have ever done,” the film nevertheless brings the director’s razor sharp intensity and gifted animation talents to the proceedings. If you’re thinking a comedy somehow means Chris has “gone soft” or lost his edge, you’re mistaken. If films like Bingo (1998), Ryan (2004) and The Spine (2009) made you question your sanity, Subconscious Password will make you laugh at your own insanity.
I recently had a chance to talk with Chris at length about his new film, the inner workings of the human mind and taking a stroll through the Uncanny Valley.
Dan Sarto: So, let’s talk about your new film.
Chris Landreth: Absolutely. The new film is called Subconscious Password. It’s in some ways similar and in some ways a departure from my other films. It’s similar in that it deals with a person’s inner psychology. I really love that territory.
DS: I was going to say that’s familiar territory for you!
CL: Yah. I’d go on to something else but by god, why? It’s so fun! Seriously, there’s so much to explore. My last couple films went kind of dramatic and had a dark tinge to them. I was exploring, trying to get rich and deep in storytelling. However, in this film I go in a different direction. In some ways, it’s the silliest film I have ever done. I am going silly here. So thematically, it’s a departure from my last couple of films in that, hopefully it succeeds as something of a comedy rather than a tragedy. This time, I tried to keep the rich and deep elements but go into something that was more ridiculous and perhaps a little bit more happy and joyous. Who is it that said there is truth in all jest? I think, I hope, there is lots of truth in this film.
Subconscious Password is a film that deals with a situation that all of us have encountered and I think I have encountered more than my share of it. There are these mini-dramas that take place in our everyday lives. One such mini-drama would be forgetting a person’s name. The indignity and embarrassment that comes along with that. It’s happened way too many times for me. You’re at a party, at the Ottawa Festival, or SIGGRAPH, or Annecy, or wherever and you’re just about to leave when somebody walks up to you, is really happy to see you, offers you a drink, wants to hang out, wants to shoot the shit about old times. And you cannot remember that person’s name. So it’s a period of high drama for all of us. What happens in that time when that person is there and you don’t know what to say.
DS: That happens to me all the time unfortunately. It really is embarrassing.
CL: It really is. It’s one of those mundane, everyday bummers that happen. For me, what I try to show in this film is that even something as mundane as trying to remember someone’s name can be seen as something quite epic and in the end, quite miraculous. How is it that in our subconscious, in the messy process we all have in trying to negotiate the world with our brains, how is it that we are able to remember a person’s name that we haven’t seen in four years? The neurology behind that is a long, long way away from being understood.
Because that happens to me pretty often, I have developed some good mechanisms…
DS: Some coping skills?
CL: …Yeah some coping skills for dealing with this. Stalling the person for example, stalling for time, asking really generic questions like, “How long has it been? It’s been aaaaaaa (fingers snapping) what, like four years since I saw you last?” Okay so you got that it’s been four years. So you keep going, likes it’s a game of 20 questions. But one of two things generally happens. The bad outcome is that the person says, “Oh, you don’t remember my name. It’s John” and then of course, all the oxygen leaves the room and there’s nothing you can do, you’re defeated and you have to deal with the embarrassment. “Yeah…John…nice to see you again, John.” Dan, on more than one occasion I’ve seen that person having their feelings really hurt.
DS: Absolutely. It’s a painful encounter.
CL: It’s a “Don’t you even remember who I am?” kind of thing. But the other outcome is that while you are stalling for time with all those generic 20 questions, your brain is hard at work, in the subconscious part of your brain called the limbic system, deep in the amygdalae and hippocampus.
DS: I studied biochemistry in school so I am familiar with those. It’s nice to see my college education at work now and then.
CL: While much of this part of the brain remains a mystery, what they do know is that there are trillions of these neural pathways that link the limbic system, the hippocampus, where long term memory is generally found to be stored and the amygdalae, which act as the emotional center of the brain. While the amygdalae and hippocampus are doing these 20 questions, while you are stalling for time, they are frantically communicating with one another through these trillions of neural pathways trying to come up with some kind of concept or word association that will retrieve the pointer to who this person is standing in front of you happily waiving their drink and wanting to talk with you about old times.
The bad outcome is that the person tells you their name and “don’t you remember who I am?” but the good outcome is that your hippocampus yields it treasure, the amygdalae couriers it over to your frontal lobe and boom, you say, “Nice to see you John” and the oxygen doesn’t get sucked out of the room and you have a good time talking. That’s the miraculous part that happens. So this film explores that process. It explores that word association, that concept association where your brain is trying to get back that precious cargo of information from the hippocampus. That’s the first part, the “subconscious” part of Subconscious Password.