The incessant, distracting buzz of a phone plays its own domineering part in an all too relatable awkward dinner between a father and daughter in Kurt Andrew Schneider’s jarring short Notice Me. From the outset it’s clear that Becky, played by Angela Wong Carbone, is a young woman whose life has been taken over by her interactions with her phone and the social media world it provides a portal to, a position that will resonate with pretty much everyone watching. While this may be subject matter that Schneider never envisaged himself tackling on screen, his subtle and delicate storytelling guides the audience through the despair and loneliness behind Becky’s online life and her search for meaning and validation through the screen she adores. Notice Me strategically plays with camera angles, replicating the tunnel vision held by Becky with engaging close ups drawing us into the rollercoaster of her emotions. We spoke to Schneider about wanting to explore a noticeable shift in our use of online platforms, choosing to shoot on film as a counterbalance to the concept and empathising with his selfish, unlikable protagonist.
How were you inspired to make a film about the addicting ills of social media?
After watching a young girl on holiday take countless videos of herself dancing on her balcony, totally unaware of her surroundings, I wanted to explore a change I had been noticing in social media over the last few years. For the longest time social media was all about the highlight real, a means to curate an idealized ‘self’. But recently, I’ve noticed a small shift towards vulnerability, authenticity, and openness in what we want from our social media. There’s a new desire for an emotional connection with other people online. Notice Me attempts to explore this idea of vulnerability online, and question if it’s truly authentic and potentially a way to form genuine connections with others, or if just another way to commoditize our personal moments and curate how we are perceived. I often find my writing tends to turn into cautionary tales targeted at myself, and this was no exception. I don’t have the answer, but I think we should talk about it.
We wanted to show the actual screen as little as possible so figuring out how to make the film work in that way was a challenge.
The phone itself is a prominent character in the story, from its incessant vibrating to its looming neediness. How did you balance how much direct screen time it would have in the film?
I have a strong aversion to films about social media and filming screens in general, so I really never saw myself making a film that was centered around a phone. When I realized that I was doing just that, I began to panic. I eliminated as much phone coverage as possible, but there was no way around it entirely. The tricky thing with phones is that their interfaces are changing constantly. Between the post process and then doing festivals, it might be a year or two before a film is online. With that being the case we wanted to show the actual screen as little as possible so figuring out how to make the film work in that way was a challenge. The choice to shoot on film wasn’t entirely driven by this, there are plenty of other great reasons, but it felt like a great way to add a hint of timelessness to something as rapidly fleeting as cellphones and social media. So we shot with Kodak 35mm Film on an Arricam LT.
There is a distinct shift in our perception of Becky from a self-obsessed screen monster to someone struggling, what was in mind when approaching her character arch?
It’s not something I’m proud to admit, but I can see a lot of myself in Becky. She’s essentially an extremely exaggerated version of my own ego. So while she is a very selfish and fairly unlikable character, it was easy for me to still find ways to empathize with her. Everyone deals with pain, loss, and sadness differently and I have noticed a lot of people online dealing with it in a similar manner to the way that Becky does. While I have my own take on the ending, the hope was that viewers would interpret it differently. Depending on their own personal lens, it might have resolved as a tragedy, a victory, or something in between.
The way she was able to convey such complex emotions through her facial expressions made her a perfect fit for our film.
How did you work with Angela to embody all the conflicting emotions we see her go through in the story right up until the tragic yet perhaps celebratory end?
The casting process for this was probably the easiest one I’ve ever had. I was watching one of the Sundance short film blocks and I was completely stunned by Angela’s performance in the short film Doublespeak. The way she was able to convey such complex emotions through her facial expressions made her a perfect fit for our film. Angela has a tremendous ability to tell a story without words. We spent a lot of time discussing backstory and the specifics of her relationship with both of her parents. We both knew people that had estranged relationships with one of their parents and we drew from those a lot. The frustration that comes when you desperately want to stop seeking their approval yet deep down knowing you’ll never be able to.
One of the element’s I enjoyed in Notice Me is that the cinematography does a great job of firmly placing us in Becky’s myopic perspective. There’s also a dark, yet soothing ethereal quality to the visuals.
We really wanted the camera to be a reflection of Becky’s tunnel vision. That didn’t necessarily mean seeing what she saw, but rather where her focus was. For the first half of the film, she doesn’t ‘see’ her father across the table from her, so we didn’t feel like the audience should either.
Similar to our approach for coverage, we wanted the look of the film to be another reflection of Becky’s subconscious.
The most difficult part of the process was nailing down the tone of the film in post. I knew what it was in my mind, but it was a very specific and nuanced feeling that was challenging to convey. Similar to our approach for coverage, we wanted the look of the film to be another reflection of Becky’s subconscious. There were many others as well, but Black Swan was both a visual and narrative reference for the film. The beautiful dream of stardom in direct conflict with the internal demons that stand in the way.
That final scene is so artfully choreographed to reveal her hurt. How did you plan the staging of shots from Becky to her Dad outside and back to the phone?
I had a rough idea for how I was going to cover the final scene. It seemed pretty straightforward, she’s just sitting in a car after all. However, a few weeks out I began to panic when I realized just how many story beats we needed to cover. I knew if we didn’t cover it right, we could very easily lose all of the tension that we had been building in the film thus far. So, with my wife as my patient stand-in, we shot the whole scene with my phone and then I edited it. After doing this several times, I finally felt like I had an idea of what I was doing.
What’s next for you, any more cautionary tales of technology?
Taking a break from phones for sure. We are in post on a film right now that could not be more different than Notice Me. It’s set in Detroit and centered around the scrap metal industry. There is also a feature length documentary that is in the works as well.