With James Ponsoldt’s The Circle now in theaters, a few days ago I landed an exclusive interview with the busy director. If you’re not familiar with the film, it’s based on the novel of the same name by Dave Eggers and stars Emma Watson as a young woman who lands her dream job at one of the world’s most powerful tech and social media companies. As she rises through the ranks, she is encouraged by the company’s founder (Tom Hanks) to engage in a groundbreaking experiment that pushes her to go “transparent” – which means broadcasting everything she does at all times. Her participation begins to affect the lives and future of everyone she knows. The Circle also stars John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, and Bill Paxton.
During my wide-ranging interview with Ponsoldt he talked about why he wanted to take on this material, how he landed the incredible cast, what he learned from early screenings, deleted scenes and more. In addition, with Ponsoldt working on a number of other projects, I got updates on I Want My MTV, Inconstant Moon, and Wild City. Check out what he had to say below.
COLLIDER: So what was it about this project that said ‘I need to do this, I need to direct it, this is something that I have to do’?
JAMES PONSOLDT: Well, it started with Dave Eggers’ novel. I’ve been a huge fan of his writing since his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which came out when I was in college and I fell in love with it. I’ve read all of his books and he’s just an author who when he has something new I get really excited about it, because he’s such a great storyteller and he’s someone who I think, his finger’s on the pulse of culture, of where we are. And so I was equally as excited to read The Circle as I was his other books and yeah, I was really blown away by it. I mean, it was different than his other books, it was sort of a thriller, in a way that was different than his other books, but I found it darkly hilarious. I mean, it’s dark satire in the vein of, people refer to it as Orwellian, I would agree with that. And then there’s other sort of 70s, like Paddy Chayefsky or movies I could point to like Network or Hospital or even the paradigm conspiracy films from the 70s like Three Days of the Condor and Conversation that I really love that it reminded me of, but mostly, for all the ideas bundled up in it, it was Mae, the main character, who I found just wildly complicated and compelling and I’d never read a character quite like her who I found so recognizably idealistic and hopeful and yet so unknowable at times, and frustrating and sad and lonely and maybe angry.
Yeah, just the type of protagonist that I love, a complicated sometimes really messy person. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her and I think I could see myself, for better or for worse, in her, and I think it was that sort of coinciding with my wife and I getting ready to have our first child where, yeah, we just started talking about our own childhoods and how we were gonna raise our son. We now have two kids, but how we were gonna raise our son, and whether we would share information, like share photos on Instagram, things like that, and we wanted to be intentional and give our child the freedom of not having a digital footprint the way we had, you know? We were able to screw up in private and figure out right from wrong, or at least what we thought was right and what we thought was wrong, in a way that is part of the process of becoming an autonomous, self-sufficient adult with your own moral compass, and we realized that our kids, no matter how much we tried and no matter how much intentionality we brought to it, they probably wouldn’t really have a choice. Their lives would inevitably be documented, the moment they start driving, and the moment — I mean, really, I have no idea, in 10-12 years, whatever the future holds, everything they do, they’ll probably be a record that follows them to college and their first job and beyond, and they won’t have the luxury of having been unobserved. The idea of personal freedom, part of what’s inextricable from that is the idea of being able to opt out so to speak, or simply be alone, unobserved, and being a private citizen, that seems pretty central to it, and that sort of privacy seems to be on the way out.
Well, we’re living in an age where everything is online and people used to say, you know, ‘I can’t imagine ever sharing this information,’ and now everyone willingly shares everything. It’s crazy. I think the film is trying to tackle some of those issues. I’m sure you had a lot of conversations with the cast and a lot of conversations with people, but were you surprised with anything you learned about what people are feeling right now in terms of that balancing act?
PONSOLDT: I mean, I think people have always — I think there is something classic in the story, an archetypal, whether it’s sci-fi or speculative or just a dark fable about a young person from the country who gets a job in the city, a dream job. In this case, that dream then becomes her religion which then becomes a glass prison of celebrity, but there are sort of paranoid conspiracy components to it of the ilk I really like, the 70s films where the bad guys aren’t really the bad guys, or there’s another bad guy behind them, or just like a bad, flawed system and you never even get to the truth. I think that was kind of the genre I thought of. In all of those, there’s a big governmental agency like the CIA or the NSA or something that’s surveilling the characters and watching them, an evil Big Brother. I think the irony was that I think we know that to be true, it is part of our life now. We know about the CIA or the NSA, that in fact they are kind of doing that, that’s kind of our job. The thing that I think the book gets into, and hopefully the film gets into, the irony is that we focus on those stories, we focus on tragedies that occur online, through people doing like a Facebook live thing or whatever it is.
We focus on the tragedies, but it’s not really the great boogeyman, our personal information isn’t going to be stolen by the government, it’s that we will freely give up our information. We will freely give it to these companies who are genuinely doing amazing things like taking us to the moon, exploring the bottom of the sea, connecting us all, they’re doing all of these great things but they’re all gathering all of our information, whether we know it or whether we don’t know it. They are collecting it, storing it, maybe monetizing it, and depending on what the future holds for a privatization of the government, perhaps even weaponizing it, who knows? But it’s like, once it’s out there it’s not ours, and we’ve kind of willingly acquiesced to this reality and it doesn’t seem to bother anybody. And it should! Because what we’re talking about, again, it’s not as binary as you like technology or you’re against technology because it’s so integrated in everyday life. I’m not a technophobe, I love technology, but I think a lot of these big companies, there’s a centralization and an accumulation of power, wealth, and information, and information does equal power and money, that is unprecedented with little to no government oversight, and it’s just — I don’t know that any company, and certainly no person, should have that amount of power. It doesn’t end well.