Plus, a Q&A with writer-director James Ponsoldt
A new trailer for The Circle (due April 28) has arrived, and it asks a big question: Do you behave better or worse when you’re being watched?
The debate is out on that, but the film — based on the novel by Dave Eggers and centered on Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a young woman who lands a position at the titular tech and social media company and soon participates in a boundary-pushing experiment — will no doubt address surveillance and many other modern, technological issues.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though, even if John Boyega’s Kalden warns that things at The Circle need to change. The trailer also shows the ways the company transforms Mae’s life by, for example, bringing her family onto its health plan to assist with her father’s multiple sclerosis.
Here to expand on what’s really going on — is Mae in a dream or nightmare?! — is writer-director-producer James Ponsoldt, who spoke with EW about what attracted him to the story, what the actors brought to their roles, how this relates to modern day, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What it is about the story of The Circle that made you want to take it on, both as a screenwriter and as a director?
JAMES PONSOLDT: It started with Dave Eggers’ amazing novel. I’ve been a huge fan of Dave’s writing since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. When I read The Circle, I wasn’t just moved; I was also terrified, and it didn’t feel like abstract horror. I felt that the journey of the main character, Mae Holland, it was one that I could really see myself in, for better or for worse. I think I connected to her in her worst moments and not her best moments, and when I read it, my wife was very pregnant and we were about to have our first child — we now have two babies. I started thinking a lot about the world that my son was going to be born into and the intentionality and choices that we as parents are able to make on his behalf and how much of it we really had control over — that control was the real illusion — as far as documentation and sharing of his life. When I was a kid my parents didn’t have to ask a lot of these questions. I could sort of live a freely private and autonomous life and there wasn’t going to be a digital footprint haunting me into the job market in my twenties, and that very much is the world that my kids are going to grow up in, and Dave’s book tapped into that in a really deep way that I couldn’t shake, so that’s how it started for me.
What were your conversations like with Eggers as you were going into this project and throughout the process? How did he help you realize his book for the screen?
Dave is the best collaborator on Earth. He’s so supportive. He gave me freedom, but then helped with the script and talked about everything, about his real intention with his book, the value system, tone. [I wanted to] make sure that I got it right, really know where he was coming from. The things that I found really hilarious in the book were dark and I also thought were funny; then it was understanding them in the right way. He was a great partner throughout the entire process. His novel, like many novels, if the novel has hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of ideas, if not many more, a film is only two hours so you have to choose what you’re going to focus on, and I just wanted to make sure that I was on the right track and that I was doing justice to his book. His book really affected me as all of his books did, so throughout the entire process, he’s been a great collaborator.
What would you say, then, you focused on here?
You know, at the end of the day it’s the story about Mae Holland, who is a young woman a couple years out of college. She has a college degree, but a job she’s not passionate about. She’s living with her parents, and she’s not living the special, unique, important life that she feels she should be living, and then her life changes. An old college roommate throws her a lifeline and she gets a job at The Circle. It feels like the most exciting place on Earth and it’s her surprising journey of going from getting the dream job to becoming something of almost a religion, ideology…and she becomes to some degree the public face of the company, sort of a glass prison of celebrity.
I think the central issues are about privacy and surveillance and not just the gadgets in the movie. I think in a lot of films about technology people fetishize the gadgets too much and I think to the disservice to the film and the experience of the filmgoer. At the end of the day, as a filmgoer you have to find yourself engaged with the hopes and dreams and fears and anxieties of the main character and then, and only then, will you go to crazy places with them. If you don’t connect with them, if you don’t care about them, it’s all a moot point. We were really, really lucky to get Emma Watson, who’s just a brilliant human being and she’s kind of a hero to a lot of people and justifiably so. She stands for a lot. She’s a deep thinker, she’s a challenging thinker, and she’s a really great partner in the film.
What would you say some of the other actors — Tom Hanks, John Boyega, and Ellar Coltrane — bring to the film and to their respective roles?
Tom’s one of my favorite actors of all time and deservedly he’s sort of a standard there for a certain type of decency and emotional complexity in a protagonist, which as filmgoers, I only speak for myself, but we’ve gone to crazy emotional places with him as our surrogate. I think Tom is completely aware of his persona and excited to have fun with it. He was a big fan of Dave Eggers. He was the first person we cast. He was so excited, I think, to tweak his persona and his character is someone who believes what he believes deeply. He’s not a hypocrite, but what he believes is kind of extreme and you can understand how the character’s message would be very seductive to people and how they would believe him. I think Tom also understands what’s deeply funny in a dark, ironic way about the characters.
Patton Oswalt also is one of the “Three Wise Men” of The Circle. He’s one of the funniest people alive and he basically owns Twitter and he, again, was perfect for this. It wasn’t in my mind having a “comedian” play this character, it’s just that Patton understands this character on such a deep, deep level. He understands what makes a character like this tick… He really serves the role well. John Boyega, he’s amazing. I’d seen him in Attack the Block, which was before Star Wars came out, and Imperial Dreams and was blown away by him in both of those movies — just one of the best young actors out there, so I was just thrilled to have him play this role.
Ellar Coltrane, it’s a funny thing…I feel like we grew up with him, like we really know him through one, really memorable role [Mason in Boyhood], and he in a lot of ways feels like he is this character he’s playing, which is a young character who’s trying to slightly disengage and is not completely connected to the modern world. Not a luddite, but someone who’s trying to be really intentional in going against the grain, and because of that he feels like kind of an outlier perspective. It’s a really fine line to cast [and play] that character without them feeling sort of finger waggy and judgmental, and Ellar’s a decent, complicated human being and just got that character.
Karen Gillan is also in it, who I loved on Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Selfie. She’s a brilliant, hilarious, deeply moving actor. She’s really the first person that we as an audience meet in The Circle. She plays [Mae’s] old friend who helps her get the job and [she has a] sense of humor, humanity…and complexity. Her humanity makes the place seem more humane and not just scary. There’s a really bad version of the movie where everybody wears the same haircut, has the same outfits, and is humorless, and that’s not the world of any of these places in real life and not the one that I wanted to create.
Where did you pull from, in terms of real-world and artistic references? The trailer reminds me of so many modern tech companies — Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc. — as well as works like 1984 and Black Mirror.
I think there’s the trope that’s become maybe a cliché in movies that are about technology or science fiction, and I wouldn’t even call this science fiction; I think it’s basically about the world we live in right now. I think those films, we know them when we see them. Everything is symmetrical, everybody looks the same, they’re joyless, and I think what was important to me with this movie is [that it’s] not a critique of that industry or of a region of the country. I’m sure someone else could make a great version of that story, but I wanted to get all the details right and I have friends who work at all the major tech companies and probably like most people, who wouldn’t want to work at one of those places in 2017? They have so much to offer. They have so many resources. They want to change the world. Who doesn’t want to change the world?
There’s so much idealism in these places, so I wanted to depict this honestly and humanely and advocate for their position because we know what the counterpoint is, both because the audience understands the genre and because we live in the real world, where even in the past year technology has disrupted, in a profound way, the status quo in politics, in the world in a way that has a lot of people really scared. So the film is, at its core, about privacy, it’s about surveillance, it’s about what is the value of keeping some part of yourself just for yourself and not sharing it and how you live an important life, how you live a life that’s memorable and what you need to document or not document. My parents, when they were getting out of college The Graduate was a really big movie for them because they could see the fears and anxieties of Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman’s character in that film; his fears were their fears, and I think in a lot of ways that’s what we’re all kind of dealing with, especially young people. How do we leave a mark and how do we change the world? I think especially when you get technology involved, it’s ever evolving and changing every single day. We don’t know what’s going to be five years from now. We can speculate, but we don’t quite know.
We already share so much about ourselves. Is this film meant to be a warning about that?
I would never want to make a propaganda film — for something, against something — just because I think they’re simplistic and reductive and the world is complicated. I would never want to make a movie that would wag its finger at the audience or make them feel bad for the way that they live their lives because man, there’s better ways to spend a Friday night. I hope this movie is fun and that there is enough dark, comic, slightly thriller-y distance between what happens in the movie and your own life that you can just appreciate it on that level and then maybe self-examine if you so choose. I feel like there is maybe a debate that’s happening in cyber punk kind of novels — like 30, 35 years ago, or films from the ’90s — that were asking, does technology bring us closer together or push us further apart? To me, that feels sort of tired. We already asked that question, and I think it’s a moot point; there’s no going back.
I think for young people it’s the only world that they’ve known; there’s no before. When I was a kid, I did what I did and it was undocumented, except for polaroids. Like my parents, I lived a private life. I could screw up privately. That’s just not an option. That’s not part of the world. I think when it comes to what we choose to film and share, it’s easy for us to advocate for when we can see groups where there’s systemic abuses of power. I think especially in the moment that we’re living in, we want to bring truth to power, and if documenting the experience helps either make people behave better or share what was happening, it’s easy for us to advocate for that, but it becomes a slippery slope. If you’re going to put a body camera on this person, why not that person? Why not that person and that person and that person?
…The film, at the end of the day, hopefully it feels like a character that you can see yourself in for better or worse, that you spend time with. Where you wind up at the end of the film, hopefully it’s really blurry because I think the truth is a really blurry reality. The film doesn’t have a message as far as that goes — a simple, easily digested message. I think the main character is actually very complicated and is probably underestimated by the people around her initially and the film hopefully has a lot of shades to it and can certainly argue the position of what all the beautiful, shiny technology has to offer. These are the horror stories in the world that we’re living in right now that speak to what disruption, in the biggest forms, what it can bring us for better and certainly for worse.