The horror sci fi film “Circle” made its world debut at SIFF 2015.
Dig if you will the picture of you and I waking up in a black void. We’re standing on discreet red dots, two amongst many, each holding a person, 48 others, all of us arranged in two concentric circles. In the middle is a black orb, and on the floor around that orb is a bristle of white arrows, one tip pointed at each person.
Someone tries to move off of their red dot. The orb zaps them dead. People scream. Where are we? What’s going on? A minute later, the arrows pulsate in a sequence of some sort, stopping on one person. The orb zaps that person dead. This keeps happening, like clockwork. We figure out that we can control who gets zapped, casting silent votes with our hands. We only have a short time between votes to decide who dies next. So. Who dies next?
This is the setup for a new film called Circle that enjoyed its world premiere at SIFF this year. Fifty people in a void face the repeating, inescapable question: Who dies next?
“Circle” producer/actor Michael Nardelli.
Photo: Patrick Maus
It is a powerful setup. Think Survivor with all the extra nonsense removed. If you’re voted off that little island of red dots, you die. And someone will die every minute, whether the votes are cast by human beings or chance.
Who dies next? It’s one of many questions asked by the film’s characters, and the only one that matters. Who are these people? Why are they there? How did they get there? What is the point of all this? None of that matters. It’s all extraneous wastes of final breaths between selections and death. The film itself asks many more questions of you, however. What would you do in this situation? Is this really all we amount to, when everything else is stripped away? Would you kill others to survive as long as you could, or would you sacrifice yourself for your principles?
You will be hard pressed to find a tighter, more focused bit of film making. Circle is science-fiction storytelling in the classic Twilight Zone vein, with a spartan visual aesthetic supporting a complex exploration of human ethics, morality, and behavior. It is a film that isn’t without its flaws, but for any fan of sci-fi that asks questions and provokes thought, it is not to be missed, especially in a theatrical setting. For this film, you want to be in a dark room surrounded by strangers, just as are the hapless fifty characters on screen.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Circle‘s producer, Michael Nardelli, about this surprising black diamond of a film. Here’s how our conversation went down:
John B.: Hi Michael! Thanks for taking the time to talk about Circle. You produced an interesting, important film that might surprise audiences with its experimental narrative structure and extreme visual design constraints. What drew you to this project? What about it excited you the most when you first encountered it?
Michael: It was just such a fun, engrossing read. Lots of times when you read a script they feel derivative or predictable (probably because I see way too many movies). This was just one that you sat down and wanted to finish right away. So it seemed like if we did all our jobs right, the movie could be that engrossing. Also, I’m a big sci-fi, genre movie fan so I kind of just ate it right up.
JB: I am impressed that Circle takes place almost entirely in a black void. It is a bold move to set a feature-length piece in such a stark environment. As a result, the script and acting elements are foregrounded to a kind of extreme. Could you say more about the choices behind Circle‘s structure and design? What unusual production challenges did they create?
Michael: The design for Circle was very “lo-fi” by design and by necessity. We had to work within the budget that made sense for the movie, of course. But also, our directors Mario and Aaron are big fans of the streamlined look and the “do it yourself” approach to filmmaking (see: their web-series “The Vault”). They like putting characters and themes at the forefront and keeping things pretty clean visually. The trickiest challenge production-wise was continuity and composition. Actors had to make sure they tracked their movements VERY carefully so shots would match up in the editing room (moreso since most people are in frame at any given moment due to the circular set). Eye-lines were also a big issue – so our script supervisor Chanel Raisin had her work cut out. Visually, Mario, Aaron and our DP Zoran Popovic had to keep things fresh with different angles and camera movements.
JB: Was there ever a moment where you thought this highly stylized and formalistic project wasn’t working? When did you know for certain that it was?
Michael: On set while shooting it always felt pretty riveting. The actors all worked really well with one another and since we always had to assume we were in frame, everyone brought it each take. There were times in post-production where effects didn’t seem to be working or perhaps a cut felt too long (we always wanted it to be a 90 minute roller coaster), but each revision got a little more exciting. I have to say though, watching at SIFF with a sold out crowd was probably the most satisfying experience I’ve had on anything I’ve worked on. People were laughing and screaming, it felt really great to know the audience was entertained and going on the adventure.
JB: Circle features a large ensemble of actors and no major stars. Was it a difficult film to cast? Also, perhaps you could say more about the decision to avoid exposing audiences to overly-familiar faces, a casting strategy that seems important to the film’s setting and themes.
Michael: I actually take it as a source of pride that we got to put a lot of new, fresh faces in Circle and let them all shine. Our casting director Lindsay Chag worked overtime to find fifty great actors for fifty great roles. She did an amazing job. And I’m really happy we have a very diverse cast that represents all walks of life. Most movies nowadays are cast more in terms of which actors bring the necessary foreign dollars to meet their production budgets. I’m happy we weren’t dictated by those rules on Circle. In terms of the film, Mario and Aaron always felt that casting fresh faces would give you no preconceived ideas on who would survive and who would perish, and they were right. I love Orange is the New Black for the same reasons; it’s exposed us to so many new, great talents that we might not get to see in more traditional fare. I’m really proud of all the actors in Circle. Standing in one place all day everyday is actually pretty grueling, but they all worked hard and brought something special to their roles.
JB: A major strength of Circle is how it poses an unrelenting series of tough sociological questions, and yet refuses to answer them, or to moralize. I wonder if you could say more about the narrative neutrality of the film.
Michael: The Circle is basically a microcosm of the world. It puts 50 people in a pressure cooker and sort of let’s things come as they may. It’s a bit cynical, but I do sort of believe things would play out much the same if this were reality. Human beings can be very ugly when big things are at stake, and there’s nothing bigger than your own life. The film has somehow become very topical, particularly in the scenes between the racist cop and the African-American man. And then, in some sequences, you see that certain stereotypes are actually valid within the context of the Circle. There’s a lot of blurred lines. It’s hinted in the film that the engineers behind the game in Circle hope to gain insight into the human condition and I think the narrative neutrality comes from the fact that the human condition is still a work in progress. There’s nothing clear cut, or black & white when it comes to community.
JB: Circle makes explicit the analog, parallel existence of its subjects and its audience. Both groups are composed of strangers assembled by mysterious forces in dark, featureless spaces. The scenario inside the frame could easily and instantly begin outside of it, in the theater itself, at a moment’s notice. This implied merging of subject and audience creates an uncanny effect. I imagine, too, that viewers will become hyper-aware of the strangers around them in the theater, and wonder what they might do if they were suddenly subjected to the rules within the frame. Perhaps you could address the relationship between the people in Circle and the people watching Circle. Is there any difference between art and audience here?
Michael: That’s a really interesting question. And Circle does sort of tap into the voyeuristic Reality Show, Instagram, Facebook kind of world we live in where people make quick judgements on others behind the guise of their computers or television sets that they might not do when face to face with someone. As I witnessed at SIFF, watching it with an audience was very interesting. The film is, in a lot of ways, a satirical dark comedy, but it was fascinating to watch what scenes got laughs from different audience members. When Carter Jenkin’s frat guy character (who’s revealed to be a bit of a sociopath) convinces everyone to start offing the elder’s in the circle, you could hear a lot of people in the audience gasp with shock – but also a bunch of younger kids in the audience sort of gleefully snickering. Even amongst my friends who’ve seen the film, we’ll joke “Well so and so would definitely just kill everyone to save their own ass,” or “So and so would be too sweet to play the game, they’d bow out.” We joke, but it all is a little twisted. And on a meta level, why do we want to watch a movie about 50 people fighting desperately for their lives? Why do we love horror? Are we any better than the “forces” that designed the deadly game seen in Circle? I’m a fan of science-fiction that makes you look at your own world with a more deciphering eye.
JB: What are you hoping audiences will feel during the picture? What do you hope they’ll take away from it?
Michael: I hope it’s thrilling. I hope it’s intense and keeps your interest. I’m really happy people are finding the dark humor in it. That was very clear from our audiences in Seattle. It doesn’t take itself so seriously that you roll your eyes, which I think is great. And on a deeper level, I think it opens up interesting discussions on where we are today in the world with various social, moral, financial and political issues. You’ve got the sector of “contestants” in the film who are more on the progressive side and then, when push comes to shove, a lot of really backward thinking individuals pop up in the game and show that on a deeper level we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to valuing each human life as equal.
JB: Is there anything about Circle that you think makes it especially relevant to LGBTQ audiences in particular?
Michael: Again, it’s another source of pride for me that we delve into issues of sexuality in what is advertised as a “Sci-Fi Thriller.” There’s an entire sequence in the film wherein a strong, lesbian woman’s safety is jeopardized by a white businessman in the circle who realizes he may be able to save his own ass by directing negative attention to her and her sexuality from the more limited minded majority in the circle. It’s fascinating to watch who does and who doesn’t come to her aid in that moment. It’s an uncomfortable scene, but it’s necessary because it’s the same kind of judgement the LGBTQ population has to deal with everyday from backward thinking half-wit’s. I’m happy Mario and Aaron found a moment within the context of the story to shed some light on this.
JB: What would you do if you woke up in the Circle?
Michael: Oh, geez! Hard to say right? I don’t think I’d last too long, sadly. I’m a lover, not a fighter. And also really claustrophobic, so no.
JB: Thank you again, Michael, for fielding these questions, and for doing the hard work of producing such an unusual, provocative film.
Michael: Thank you thank you thank YOU John for watching and spreading the word! And great work with Seattle Gay Scene. I love your city and will now keep up to date on all the happenings with your site!
Tags: Circle, Circle (Film), Film Interviews, Interviews, Michael Nardelli, Sci-Fi, SIFF, SIFF 2015