Recently, PPF and SeedyReview got a chance to sit down with Mark Netter, the director of Nightmare Code, and talked in depth about Nightmare Code and horror movies in general. The podcast can be listened to over at PPF.
PPF: We have MARK NETTER, the director of Nightmare Code, and we actually get to talk to him about the nature of movie and what his intent was. So, where you from?
MARK: Oh gosh, originally I’m from my outside of Albany New York, a town called Delmar New York. I’m actually happy to say that this past month we did a hometown screening in Albany, and we got a great turnout.
PPF: Awesome, did everyone like the movie?
MARK: Yeah, they seem to. It’s funny because a lot of them were my parents friends. We actually had the oldest average age audience. Because the movie has a kind of interesting visual style where for at least half the movie we’re using four images at once on a surveillance monitor and I really wondered how it would play out. If people see it in their teens or 20s they got no problem. I have kids that are 12 and 15. They watched TV with a devices in their hands. But believe it or not, it went really really well.
We got a tremendous set of questions in the Q&A afterwards and great compliments, and I think it worked.
PPF: And we really I enjoyed it, as well.
MARK: Thank you so much.
PPF: We think it’s always fun to explore the antagonist, especially when it comes to Horror. So, maybe start off talking about the AI and explore that a little?
MARK: Sure, let me take you back to the original concept. The whole movie grew out of an initial concept which was when I worked in the video game industry years ago. I am not a programmer. The movie takes place in a troubled startup trying to finish this behavior recognition program called Roper, and it’s called Roper because it ropes in all the video in the area. We came with an acronym for it as well, but it’s not as interesting. and I actually been put on the spot to come up with that and I kinda forget the whole thing.
What was interesting was the idea that before I started in the business I thought if you had two programmers of similar skill and gave them a task to perform, like creating elevator programmer or a calendar app, that the code would look side-by-side 90% similar maybe 95%. It turns out it’s not true at all. Any programmer will tell you that different programmers solve problems different ways and build things differently. What that means is that deep inside of your programs in your computer, your phone, the DOS kernel that’s hidden inside Windows, which goes back to the late 70s early 80s, there is the personality of a programmer that expresses logic, just like a film-maker would be expressed in shots and editing and music choices and things like that. Our idea was well what if that logic and personality were sentient and what if it was extremely pissed off? That was the core idea behind Nightmare Code.
Then I guess the antagonist in the movie is really the program, ROPER. They’re desperately trying to finish it, but it doesn’t seem to want to be finished. The program is writing its own code. Then there’s some question as to whether or not the original architect of the of the program was an old programmer from the old days, a guy named Foster Cotton and this is gonna be his last hurrah. As you learn during the movie and before the movie starts, Cotton had gone on a murder suicide rampage at the start-up. He started killing the top executives who he felt was lying to him about certain things. Then he kills himself.
The question as the movie goes on is whether or not this code is taking on a greater intelligence. Not only can it recognize people’s behaviors and interpret what they’re thinking and feeling, but it is sort of modifying the behavior and starting to resemble those who are closest to the programmers working on it, as well as resemble that of the dead programmer. The question is are you just dealing with a super brilliant artificial intelligence that Cotton created? Or, Did Cotton’s personality or soul in some way enter the machine, and is he the true antagonist that you’re up against. Hopefully with the movie you’ll have an opinion But I hope it’s also ambiguous enough that it’s something you could argue about or discuss afterwards.
PPF: In my reading, when he became part of the computer he lost his humanity. Is that what your intent was? Once you digitize yourself, you lose your physical form and some aspects of your humanity?
MARK: I love that. You know, it’s funny like a part of me is the film-maker and I don’t want to give you all the answers. But I think what you’re bringing up are incredibly great questions to explore.
So, here’s a couple different things about it. One of them, is there is a good question of why Cotton is so bitter and so angry that he’s being betrayed that this program is being outsourced and that other people will be finishing it. You know, if his soul does enter the machine or he programs his soul into the machine in some way which I wanted it as, I tend to lean more toward your camp although not all of the people who worked on the movie would agree with you. Maybe that it is just an anger that just continues on.
I love this idea about the loss of humanity because of what the title Nightmare Code is actually inspired by. To me, it has three different meanings. One of them is obviously working on computer code that’s very difficult. Sometimes programmers are brought on to work on someone else’s code. Those programmers will always say that the code is written really badly. They’ll say it’s spaghetti code, it’s all over the place, or in our case it’s Nightmare Code. It’s also reference to one my favorite film noir. It is a really dark movie called Nightmare Alley. I’m gratified to see if you do a search on Amazon for Nightmare Code usually Nightmare Alley is right after it. I even took a screen shot of it. Then, the third thing is the idea that I think all movies are about codes of behavior and that at some level you figure out in the first 5 to 20 minutes of the movie who are the good guys who are the bad guys and why are they good. Depending on the type of movie, you may be rooting for the mafia guy who is the better one of the mafia guys. You might be rooting for Clint Eastwood out there killing people. I think that you know the set of values and codes. I think that what Nightmare Code is kind of saying is that the human codes of behavior, those things that for centuries bound us together, are being loosened or changed. Maybe our humanity, like you’re saying, in the characters are metaphors for being lost because of our interactions with technology.
The example that I like giving is; all these guys who think that somehow they are going to get away with cheating on their spouses by going on AshleyMadison.com. Until the day that, just like Roper, Ashley Madison betrays them and their names are released to the public. Not AshleyMadison itself but the hackers who manipulated the technology. For example, in the movie the main character is Brett Desmond who is this young programmer that is brought in after Foster’s done this horrible act. He’s the one guy, the one programmer left in the office trying to fix it. He’s sleeping in the office. He’s away from home. He is desperate to help finish this because of problems in his own past. He’ll be on Skype or a video chat with his wife and daughter who’re halfway across the country in Chicago. The great thing just like with our Skype call right now is technology enables us to be connected in ways that we never could prior to the existence of things like Skype. By that same token, it can also be very distancing and can provide the sense of “well, they’re really over there, so it doesn’t matter what I do over here”. Or, it can provide a sense of loneliness. They can engender a sense of loneliness that I can say good night to my kid but I can’t kiss her, I can’t give her a hug or I can’t be sleeping in bed with my wife. Sometimes I think technology can emphasize that sense of loneliness. I really do think we’re asking the question is technology not only getting beyond our control but is it changing the way we behave. Is it loosening those bonds.
PPF: The one that we really dug about this movie was that your protagonist wasn’t a clean-cut character. He wasn’t your traditional protagonists. He wasn’t a hero. We have seen this guy before in the real world.
MARK: I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that this past him to be involved in some sort of whistleblowing. I think it’s a good question as to whether or not that was a good or bad thing to do. I mean, there is obviously laws that he is broken and things that he’s in hot water for. Supposedly if he helps finish this program, everything will be okay. I think the tragedy of Nightmare Code is Brett Desmond. He is played by Andrew J Wester who did a great job. People, and your fans may know from The Walking Dead where he played Garrison in Terminus.
This guy is a brilliant programmer and in a sense he is the best guy for this job, but the question the movie asks is can anybody beat technology, can anyone beat ROPER? Even the best guy… to avoid giving away the movie but it takes a pretty dark view.
There are also things in his personality that we want to be kind of R-rated, you know? You don’t know if he’s completely good or completely bad. I mean, there’s this way he’s somewhat dismissive when he’s talking to his Indian counterpart. He’s the company our optics is now outsourced almost all the programming to except for Brett over to India. There’s some moments he is dishonest. He doesn’t particularly take good care of himself. He is using some chemicals to stay awake at work late nights. I just like that because I think most of us and believe we’re good people but everybody’s got some sort of secret. Everybody’s got different sides to them depending on the situation, certainly depending on the amount of pressure you’re put under.
PPF: Would you say knowledge is one of the corrupting factors in this story?
MARK: You know that’s kinda like a real Adam and Eve thing, right? It’s like the whole idea that the Apple was knowledge and that somehow they got the knowledge of their nakedness and then suddenly down comes the garden or they were kicked out of the garden. I think that’s really kind of interesting idea.
We were kinda going with the idea with Cotton. That you never know who’s watching you. I think we live lives now where even in private we have to be careful of what were doing isn’t being publicized in some fashion. Since we started working on the movie and telling people about it, other people tell me that they cover up the camera on their laptop or their computer. Unless they want to be seen and they flip-up a piece of cardboard, but they keep it covered.
But, I think you’re kinda right in a way. I think it’s kind of a cool horror movie thing to write. The the familiar classic horror idea is Bluebeard. Bluebeard gets his young wife and says, “you can go to any place in my home you like. I’m going out on a business trip or hunting trip or whatever it is just don’t go in to that room, okay? If you stay out of that room everything will be okay, and of course she goes into that room. She finds mutilated previous wife corpses. She drops the key. The key gets blood on it. She can’t get the blood off. She comes out. She thinks that she’s okay and locks the door. Bluebeard comes home and within five minutes he knows that she’s been in there and that’s going to be curtains for her. So I think that’s kind of our horror idea of be careful what you want to know. Maybe that’s our way of doing it in Nightmare Code.
Also, if you’re an audience member, you know that the way we kind of ended up showing what happened and the actual massacre that Foster did is we find out when Brett does. Brett gets onto Foster’s computer because he has to at a certain point look for previous builds because his old and new ones are getting corrupted. He finds the videos that Foster has saved on his computer around and even after Foster’s death. The one that Brett finds one that’s a whole point of view sequence for Foster going to the office and basically extracting his revenge on people. Each time he comes across somebody, it’s in a sensor of ROPER. The technology is making a decision and you see it based on how they’re interpreted with it whether they’re friendly or whether they’re angry or they are somebody that Foster is gonna want to kill or not. He makes his decisions about who he’s going to pick off and who he is not going to pick off. To some people who are fans of the movie it is a sense of justice. They almost agree with him about his choices which is crazy, but I think that what is really fun for the audience is you’re kind of seeing it go through Foster’s eyes and are also seen through Brett’s eyes, because he’s watching it at the same time and getting just as shocked as you are. Then you’re watching through your own eyes as well, so you’re getting a triple vision going on. There’s a lot of knowledge coming at you very very quickly.