Privacy has become a rare commodity, if it exists at all. We must assume that all of our phone calls and messages are being monitored. Somebody’s always watching. The only sanctuary left exists in our minds, with our thoughts, but what if this fell away? What if “they” could read our minds the same way they read our emails?
This is the frightening premise of the new thriller film The Circle, which is based on Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel. The Circle is the name of a powerful Internet corporation that trades in freedom, privacy, and surveillance. Tom Hanks, who also produced the film, plays the head of the corporation. Emma Watson plays a young tech worker who joins The Circle and quickly unearths a conspiracy that could affect the future of humanity.
I recently had the chance to talk to James Ponsoldt, the director of The Circle, which opens in wide release on April 28.
DG: How would you describe the plot of the film?
JP: Mae Holland, a young woman who’s been out of college for a couple of years, isn’t happy with her post-college life. She has a boring job, and she’s living with her parents, and it’s very bleak. Then a friend of hers from college contacts her out of the blue and tells Mae that there’s a job opening at the company the friend works at, which is called The Circle. Mae gets a job at the company, which seems like a dream job to her. She starts off in the customer experience department, which is like being a customer service rep but much more exciting than the customer service rep job Mae was working in at the start of the film. This dream job becomes Mae’s life. It’s like a religion. There’s a cult-like aspect to The Circle, and she becomes a true believer. A utopian environment seems to exist within the corporation, and it takes over Mae’s life. Then she becomes the face of the company. This is when she begins to learn about everything that’s going on inside the company.
DG: What attracted you to this project?
JP: I loved the book. It stirred my imagination. I was swept up in Mae’s journey, which is a fascinating, strange journey. I felt a deep bond with her as I read the book, so much so that I felt protective of her. Then, as I continued through the book, I began to find parts of her character and personality unappealing, which really threw me. I had access to her thoughts, which is one of the key elements of the story, and then I realized: What if someone could read my thoughts? Well, maybe they wouldn’t like me so much either.
DG: What do you think audiences will find most compelling and frightening about the film?
JP: Our relationship with our devices, gadgets, has become frightening, and that’s what the film is about. I was horrified when I read the book, because it made me realize how addicted I was to technology. Could I let go of all of my gadgets? My wife and I were about to have our first child when the book came out, and the book made me think about the world that my child was about to enter. Now I have two children, and I hope the film makes people feel the same way. How much freedom and privacy will my children have in the future? How much will their lives be documented, and how much choice do we have over this?
DG: Having adapted books previously, what were the challenges you faced in turning The Circle into a feature film?
JP: I wouldn’t say this film shows an alternate vision of the future as much as it represents an alternate version of now. Because of that, it was vital that the film appear to be relevant, and I was very worried about how the film would age. When you make a film, you usually can’t worry about how your film will age in five or ten years, but I had to think this way with The Circle. While the book seemed very speculative when it came out in 2013, the ideas and themes are much closer to reality now, so how will the story appear in five years? However, the book really wasn’t about the technology. It was about our lives. It was about people and humanity and privacy, and the potential for our world to turn into a surveillance state. Having said that, nothing dates a film like its technology, so how we showed the gadgets was very important. In our film, there’s no Apple, no Facebook, and there’s no Twitter. There are Circle products, and the devices in the film don’t exist in our world yet, so people won’t be able to look at this film in ten years and laugh about how outdated the devices are.
DG: What did Tom Hanks and Emma Watson bring to this project that surprised you?
JP: I knew they were great actors, but what surprised me was how they respond to their massive followings, especially Tom. They understand that millions of people watch what they do and say, and they’re very cognizant of this, which relates to the film. This isn’t ego or vanity on their part: They’re famous actors, and the reality is that millions of people are following them, which gives them a very rare, unique perspective.
They communicate with their followers through technology. They have to. The film presents a possible future where everyone can become a celebrity, which isn’t far off from what’s happening today. Everyone has a website, and a social media platform, and everyone wants to feel important and to have their voice heard.
Tom, in particular, has been a major star for so many years, for decades, and he had a unique take on this film and its themes. He’s a producer on the film, and he was a champion of the book. He’s not the star of the film, which is very interesting, a new role for him. Emma’s the lead in the film, and because Emma and Tom are at very different points in their careers, they have different takes on the power of social media but also a deep understanding of its power. How many other people, celebrities, understand more than Emma and Tom do the power of social media and the paranoia of celebrity, of feeling that someone’s watching you at every moment in your life? It’s scary.