Interview: 'The Social Dilemma' Documentary Director Jeff Orlowski
by Alex Billington
March 5, 2020
We're all addicted to technology - the internet, social media, messaging, news. Everything that comes with it. Documentary filmmaker Jeff Orlowski is the latest to make a film about this dilemma. His new film is literally called The Social Dilemma, and it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. For the last 10 years, Orlowski has been making extraordinary films about climate change's effects on Earth. His first feature documentary, Chasing Ice, landed him an Oscar nomination. He then followed that up with Chasing Coral, one of my favorite films of 2017. His new film isn't about the climate this time - instead, it's about how and why climate deniers still exist. What is fueling their delusion and is technology helping spread the misinformation that encourages more denialism? Of course, the answer is yes. I'm glad I had a chance to meet up with Jeff while at Sundance and talk about his latest doc film and the reasons he made it.
Orlowski's The Social Dilemma goes hand-in-hand with The Great Hack from last year. A stark, no-bullshit explanation of what's going on and how bad it is and how we need to stop. First, by stopping ourselves. (We can do it!) Second, by changing the market and economy. There's optimism in this film, I just hope people change. It all starts with breaking the addiction yourself. The film also features with numerous tech execs, coders, and others who explain exactly what they built and how these systems work. They're designed from the ground up to capture your attention, and sell your interests and data. I always enjoy Orlowski's films and this one is damn good. Not his best, but still damn good. I've always wanted to meet him and chat with him, and we talked briefly about making The Social Dilemma and how it connects to his entire filmography.
This interview was conducted in-person with Jeff at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT this year.
This film seems like an evolution in your work so far because, after making Chasing Coral (2017), I wonder if you experienced pushback from climate deniers and you were wondering, why, and where exactly is this coming from?
Jeff Orlowski: You hit the nail on the head, yeah.
And, of course, this is where we end up.
Jeff: That's it. Ever since Chasing Ice came out, we were trying to do impact to help solve climate change, and constantly kept getting confronted with denialism. And in 2011, I heard Eli Pariser's TED Talk on filter bubbles. And I was like, holy crap, this is why. This is such a huge problem. And I didn't know how to do a film about it. It was just an early thought and it planted a seed in my mind. And it was the same thing on Chasing Coral, we were doing our impact work – constantly getting this resistance and resistance. Which is a large reason why we made those [two] films they way they were… We were trying to design them as "Trojan Horses": you can see this beautiful landscape and learn that it's changing and not try to attack with the science. Trying to address climate change has been very, very difficult. And I think this is the underlying cause that is factoring into it. And that the way information is designed, this whole notion of giving people what they want, is bad when you multiply that out at humanity scale.
So this is where we're seeing the challenge. Yeah, you totally nailed it.
The other film I felt a strong connection to is The Great Hack from last year. When it came out, everyone was telling me about it. Which was a great thing because it's an important and powerful doc. And your film follows up on that one, almost saying, look The Great Hack is opening the door to these questions. You even have that moment in yours where they say straight up say at one point, "it wasn't a hack".
Jeff: Interesting that you point out that one. That film team, I'm great friends with directors Karim [Amer] and Jehane [Noujaim]. And [producer] Geralyn [White Dreyfous]. And love, love, love what they did. I'm so proud of that film and for, as you're saying, opening the door to this conversation. Those guys went through a lot to make that movie. It was such a huge endeavor. And we've been talking quite a bit during the process because we're both, all of us, were trying to figure out what's going on here. What's going on? Why and how? How do you film it? How do you tell people about it? How do you make it accessible? And understandable, digestible to an audience. And it was really, really great [what they made]. They hung on to the Cambridge Analytica story.
What we were looking at [in our film] was: what's the underlying cause? What's allowing that to take place? For me, really, it all comes back down to the business model. There are a lot of different arguments and critiques you can make of different aspects of the technology, but for us the big critique is that we have a business model that is misaligned with human civilization, just like the fossil fuel business model is bad for society at large. And those, for me, are the big points. How are we going to run a civilization, how are we going to run society? How is humanity going to continue if the very way we operate our business is in conflict with humanity? I think that's why I've latched onto these stories and had interest here, because for the sake of humanity, we need to fix these things.
I was relieved that you got to that point by the end. Asking specifically "what's driving tech to be bad?" I was thinking, please have someone say it because we need to hear it.
Jeff: Then there's this mic drop on capitalism.
Jeff: And drawing the direct parallels between climate change and the tech crisis that we're facing now.
The narrative story featured in this film seems like a way for you to connect these exact issues to the everyday person, to make it more relatable to everyone. It also seems like a way for you to prove yourself as a narrative director. Is that the case?
Jeff: Maybe. [Grins] But that wasn't…
Is narrative filmmaking something you want to transition into?
Jeff: Well, I do. I don't even think of it as a transition. I started doing narrative [filmmaking] in college. That's where I got into film was through narrative work. And then documentary became the place to really showcase it. And that's been the stories that I found most compelling for the last few years. For me, it's just using a camera to tell a story. For me it started with still photography. And I love narrative, cinematic storytelling. This particular project, I couldn't shake this idea.
I remember I was on a plane flying to California to meet with Tristan [Harris] [from Center for Humane Technology] and his team. I was listening to some interviews we'd done with him. And just as the "Voodoo Doll Avatar" analogy kept coming up, this idea that they're creating this model… We were joking imagining Will Ferrell at a control panel with a dozen people in the room talking about how he's trying to manipulate a human on the other side. And I just couldn't shake that idea. And trying to make it funny and accessible and ironic and get to play into the tropes that we're all dealing with every day and we see every day. So that idea just kept sticking around. At first we were thinking of it as a single sketch, a little comedy sketch.
Oh, so just in the middle of the film? Only one segment?
Jeff: Yeah, in the middle, and with a handful of different comedy sketches. Then one day I was like, wait a second, let me tie all these ideas together. This is one whole story. This is one family representing all of us and the struggles that we're all feeling in these different ways. There were a lot of people who kept saying, "are you sure you want to do this?" I just couldn't picture it any other way.
So this whole idea came about midway through production?
Jeff: Yeah. We were probably working on the film for about a year. And then the idea came about. And then a couple of months later we wanted to start writing the screenplay. But it was really, really challenging, because the doc wasn't done. And I didn't have the structure of the doc finished yet. We were still learning, what are we trying to say in the documentary? Every time we changed the doc, we then had to change the screenplay structure. And then we were changing [the screenplay], and we had to go back and change the doc. And it was a huge, huge challenge to integrate the two to make it flow.
Jeff: So what we ended up doing, when we finally got to a stage where, it's getting into the technical stuff… I had this software that we were using to storyboard the whole film and have our little post-its. I was looking at the documentary timeline and looking at the script. And going back and forth between these two and we had these color coded boxes – this will go into this, that'll go into this, that'll go into this. I was shuffling these two storylines together like a deck of cards. Then we then did storyboards for all the narrative stuff.
We then had our editing team record voice-over. So we started editing together the movie, editing the two films together, and then seeing what the narrative scenes would look like with full-on storyboards, and we recorded dialogue, and got it to fit and flow. And figured out how it was going to go back 'n forth between the doc and the narrative. And that's where we were starting to give life and shape to this interesting, new hybrid. Then when we felt good with that, we rapidly, rapidly shot the narrative part. And put it all together.
Now a tough question: do you think films can truly achieve change?
Jeff: Oh absolutely.
Extending that question further into your film - does a documentary have more social impact than a narrative? Will someone watch this and actually say, I'm using my phone too much?
Jeff: Yeah. The stories that I've heard from the [festival] screenings so far, I know that people already have immediately changed the way they use or interact with their phone. I'm not trying to encourage people to delete social media, as opposed to just be aware of what it's doing and why and how. And our critique is not against the technology. I love tech. That's my roots. That's what I was doing in college. I used to work for Apple, and I was an Apple evangelist. And sold millions of dollars worth of Apple computers on campus.
So for me… It's not about technology as a whole, it's about when technology is designed for us versus for somebody else. And there's this new class of technology that is designed for somebody else, and we are the resource that’s fueling it. We put a couple of different film references in our film. We reference Requiem for a Dream and Terminator, some other films… But recently I've been thinking more and more about Soylent Green. We are just eating ourselves. We are consuming ourselves through this process.
I was impressed by how many (former) executives and people who'd literally written the code being used against us were willing to speak to you and admit that this is what's going on. I feel like that's something that hasn't happened before.
Jeff: That's… It’s been hard to get those people on the record. It was a lot through Tristan's network and people that he was aware of. It was friends of mine from college and them opening up doors to other friends. And people understanding our perspective on it and what we were trying to say. And to some degree, I think it's people wanting to cleanse themselves emotionally, I guess. They're feeling that some remorse is there. And this is how they can make their contribution. And make amends.
Of course. I've been sensing that a lot with many people in general recently. We have to do something now and admitting it, talking about it, is always the beginning.
Jeff: Right. It is the first step. We have to acknowledge the problems that we face [in modern society] and our role in those problems if we're going to solve any of them.
Thank you to Jeff Orlowski for his time. And thank you to MPRM for arranging the interview.
Jeff Orlowski's The Social Dilemma first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It is still seeking distribution and has no release dates set yet. Follow the film @SocialDilemma_ or visit the official website. You can still watch Orlowski's previous two docs - Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral in the meantime.
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