Part of the pleasure of attending an established film festival like South By Southwest is the caliber of emerging talent it attracts: when you’re seeing a new director’s feature debut, you can rest (reasonably) assured that the cream of the submissions pile has risen to the top. Such is the case with Zachary Wigon’s first film, “The Heart Machine.” Starring John Gallagher, Jr. (“The Newsroom” and last year’s SXSW breakout, “Short Term 12”) and Kate Lyn Sheil (an indie darling who recently appeared in season two of “House of Cards”), the film explores the technological implications of the current dating climate, where sex-with-no-strings is available at the touch of an app, yet intimacy can be kept safely at bay via one’s computer screen (read our review here).
When we meet Cody (Gallagher) and Virginia (Sheil), they are in the midst of a long-distance relationship conducted exclusively via Skype. Though they have never met, they profess to be in love—and they are counting down the days until she returns to New York after a six-month fellowship in Berlin. After several naggingly unsettling clues cause Cody to suspect all may not be as it seems, his obsessive paranoia soon supersedes all other aspects of his life. We see the relationship from both sides, and without giving too much away, the audience begins to really worry about both Cody’s sanity and Virginia’s self-esteem and capacity for intimacy.
“The Heart Machine” contemplates a number of challenging issues, including the possibility that technology is fraying our ability to connect intimately (and honestly) in real life. As more and more couples meet online—for long- or short-term assignations—deception is playing a bigger role in how we present ourselves to the world. We caught up with the director and his two stars on the day of the film’s world premiere at SXSW.
Zach, this is a pretty big stage for your feature film debut. What does it feel like to be here at SXSW?
Zachary Wigon: It’s really, really exciting. I started writing the script about two years ago, and to be able to be premiering here at South By is awesome.
John and Kate Lyn, how do you guys describe “The Heart Machine”?
Kate Lyn Sheil: I call it a tragic love story, personally, without revealing too much of the plot.
What attracted you two to the roles?
John Gallagher, Jr.: I liked the character; I felt like I understood him. He’s a good-hearted person who does some very questionable things throughout the film, and that’s my life in a nutshell. [laughs] So I really related to him, and kind of empathized with his plight a little bit. I also really liked the love story—the two characters and how they found each other and fell in love… And then I met Zach, and I had a nice time talking to him.
Zachary Wigon: We had a very nice Skype chat.
John Gallagher, Jr.: Yeah, I downloaded Skype for the purpose of meeting Zach! It was a whole ordeal, and it didn’t work the first time, and we had to keep arranging Skype dates. I had also seen some of Kate’s work, and I was a fan, so I was like, “This is a no-brainer.”
Kate Lyn Sheil: Zach and I went to college together, so I’d known him for quite a while. And I related to the character. I thought she was a very lonely and insecure character who really wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, but she gets involved with some very questionable behavior. I wanted to play her, and I kind of had a protective feeling towards her.
So what do you think “The Heart Machine” says about social media, and hookup apps, and how this generation deals with love and relationships and intimacy? Zach, what inspired the story?
Zachary Wigon: Well, there’s a huge umbrella of stuff. One thing that comes to mind is compartmentalization, and the way that all these dating apps and technology allow you to compartmentalize what used to be just one relationship. There’s an app like Blendr, for example, that’s used in the film, which allows you to hook up with someone who’s nearby; it’s sort of like ordering sex instantly, to put it crassly.
Like Seamless for sex.
Zachary Wigon: It sounds crass, but when I think about the app, that’s [what] comes to mind, frankly. And then there’s Skype, of course, which facilitates communication at great distances. So the idea of all these different technologies being used to compartmentalize the various aspects [of a relationship]—to really break [it] down… and put it into various compartments—was really interesting to me, and something I wanted to explore.
It made me think about Spike Jonze’s “Her”; I’ve been saying for months now that I don’t think we’re that far from that sort of relationship—it’s not that much different than the Skype one Cody and Virginia have. There may be an image and a voice, but there’s not really a physical person. Have you had relationships anything like this, kept alive by technology?
John Gallagher, Jr.: Not really, no. I’ve had relationships where distance has come in here and there, but not for long periods, and certainly never without a foundation established prior to, and that’s something that was so interesting to me about this story—that because there is no physical aspect, it’s… built on nothing; there’s nothing to really hold onto. I think their connection is very real, and I do think they come to care about each other very much, but it’s built on shaky territory.
That’s becoming more and more common, I think. My husband has a friend who moved from California to northeast Canada to marry a woman he met online.
Kate Lyn Sheil: Yeah. I met someone once in person, and came to fall in love with them over the course of many, many long hours of conversation and email. I didn’t have a computer that allowed me to Skype at the time, so there was actually no visual image whatsoever. But it was not to last… But yeah, I understand it.
Zach, I hear you did have a Skype relationship, but not necessarily like this.
Zachary Wigon: Not like this, but it was something that became the genesis of the film, the first seedling of the idea. I was in a relationship—but with an in-person foundation—that ended up being carried out for an extended time over Skype. It worked really well over Skype, but then when the long-distance part ended, and we were in the same place again, it didn’t work at all.
So that got me thinking: “What if there were someone who would prefer a Skype relationship to a relationship in person?” That’s kind of how the film first came about.