Anon – A meditation on the fraught relationship between technology and humanity

“The interesting thing about the war for privacy, is that we have already lost. There never even was a war. We gave away our privacy, without a fight, in the service of convenience.”

From the astonishing and prescient mind of acclaimed filmmaker Andrew Niccol comes Anon, his latest meditation on the fraught relationship between technology and humanity.

In 1997, Niccol first introduced his interest in these themes with his debut feature, the critically-acclaimed and visually definitive Gattaca. Soon to be followed with his Academy Award-nominated screenplay for The Truman Show, and feature films Lord of War, In Time, and Good Kill – all of which questioned the human and moral implications of advancements in technology.

Born in New Zealand, Niccol was a writer and director of commercials in London before coming to Los Angeles to make films, in his words, “longer than 60 seconds.” Gattaca, an original screenplay by Niccol, was his feature film-directing debut. The Truman Show, received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Screenplay, and Niccol received the BAFTA award for screenplay. S1mOne was Niccol’s second feature film, which he also wrote and produced. Niccol wrote the original story for and was Executive Producer of Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, and has gone on to write and direct Lord of War,  In Time, and he adapted and directed Stephanie Meyer’s The Host.  Niccol wrote, directed, and produced Good Kill, which was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival.

In Anon, Niccol focuses this exploration on information technology and the evaporation of privacy in the time of social media, Snowden and WikiLeaks, while returning to a film noir aesthetic reminiscent of the movie that launched his career.

“It’s been in the back of my mind for many years to tell a story exploring the conflict between security and privacy,” explains writer/director Andrew Niccol. “People have been ‘life logging’ since the 1980s, police now routinely wear bodycams (and occasionally tamper with this evidence). We all life log to a degree, documenting our lives with our mobile phones and social media sites – and it’s common to manipulate the photos and footage. Those ubiquitous phones and other devices mean we are evolving towards becoming biotech or synbio.”

The End of Anonymity

Anon tells the story of Sal Frieland (Clive Owen), a cop faced with a series of murders that appear to be linked. Like any detective, Frieland sets out to find the killer, but in the nearfuture he has a distinct advantage: in this world everyone’s life is recorded down to the millisecond and downloaded to a vast grid called The Ether which law enforcement can access and is available for you to return to.

Everyone has a biosyn computer implant which records these life records called The Mind’s Eye and literally nothing and no one is anonymous – as you walk down the street information about every single person you see, the watch they are wearing, the store where they bought their car, appears at the periphery of one’s vision – a relentless information stream. Privacy as we understand it today has completely vanished – and with the absence of privacy comes the virtual end of criminal behavior. Without the promise of anonymity, criminal activity has been relegated to petty crimes and the rare capital crime occurring only in an unpremeditated, heated moment. The evidence to convict the perpetrators is so easily accessible to the police that apprehending and prosecuting a case has become little more than paperwork – the police have become largely symbolic. The long process of justice has collapsed into an effort hardly any more arduous than downloading a movie off the internet.

What becomes evident as Frieland begins digging deeper into a surprising increase in apparent murder cases, is that what they have in common also signals a major breakdown in the system on which society has come to rely. Someone has figured out how to hack into The Ether and edit life records, replacing sections with loops of mundane activity to cover up crimes. Frieland and his superior Charles Gattis (Colm Feore) are under greater pressure than ever before to apprehend the perpetrator and to repair the crack in the system.

As he delves into the case, Frieland has an odd experience, which initially doesn’t register its significance. As he’s walking down a city street, a young woman (Amanda Seyfried) passes by who doesn’t register in his Mind’s Eye – no identification for her comes up. Something he initially assumes is a minor glitch, an anonymous girl, becomes the first clue that security of The Mind’s Eye has been compromised, sending Frieland off on a mission to find a woman who effectively doesn’t exist.

On Privacy

On June 5th, 2013, internationally renowned and award-winning political journalist for The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald, published the first of many stories based on leaked documents by former NSA employee Edward Snowden. One of the biggest political stories to break this decade, Snowden’s ongoing publication of nearly 10,000 documents revealed previously unknown details of a global surveillance apparatus run by the United States in close cooperation with its international partners. These programs enabled the NSA to access private cell phone records and almost anything and everything private citizens were doing online – all without a warrant. While the story dominated the news cycle that year and beyond, little changed practically and public outcry was muted.

In 2016, 21-year-old Russian photographer Egor Tsvetkov conducted a social experiment for his art project titled Your Face Is Big Data. Tsvetkov spent six weeks taking photos of a hundred strangers on the Saint Petersburg’s subway before using FindFace (a facialrecognition app) to track down their profiles among the fifty-five million users on VKontakte (Russia’s biggest social networking site). Using the face recognition software, Tsvetkov was effortlessly able to identify and locate about 70% of the passengers he photographed without their knowledge.

In Anon, Niccol squarely takes on questions about the end of privacy that our society studiously avoids asking.

The brilliance of his filmmaking is that he does this not in a documentary form or some other kind of social treatise – but instead in a thriller that satisfies the audience with all of the pleasures of the genre, from the high-contrast lighting to the rapid-fire gunplay to the grizzled anti-hero who cannot resist the charms of the elusive femme fatale.

When he brought the project to producers Oliver Simon and Daniel Baur at K5 Film, they were immediately struck by the salience of Niccol’s script and his fundamental understanding of where contemporary society has found itself. Comments Simon, “Daniel and I have always been fans of Andrew’s – his vision and visual style are so striking and precise. His mind always seems to be one step ahead of where society is going. When he brought us the script and we spoke after reading it, he observed how interesting it is that society has given up privacy so willingly – which raises the question that ANON takes on – ‘How much more of our privacy can we and will we give away, and at what cost?’” They had no hesitation about jumping on board with Niccol to make a movie so astutely observing of one of the most pressing issues of our time.

The Man Who Saw Too Much

At the forefront of this story is the character of Sal Frieland, the burnt-out homicide cop. “Sal is a man who has literally seen too much,” says Niccol. “This is a pretty severe predicament for someone who pries into other peoples’ lives for a living. He knows that technology has reduced police work to an almost clerical occupation, but he’s also starting to realize that the so-called end of crime may actually be just the beginning. He’s entering a time where he can no longer believe his own eyes.”

To embody this almost existential exhaustion, Niccol turned to Clive Owen, who recently experienced a career high as an actor with his portrayal of Dr. John Thackery in Steven Soderbergh’s remarkable period medical drama, “The Knick.” Niccol enthuses: “I’ve always wanted to find a project to collaborate with Clive. There’s a noir quality to him that perfectly fits Sal Frieland and the world I was constructing. In his eyes he was able to embody the world-weariness I needed for the character.”

For Owen, the character of Sal was someone he understood intuitively. “He’s tracking a murderer who’s off the grid, and I think there’s a part of Sal that relates to that anonymity. There’s a kind of yearning deep within him for a kind of solitude [because the] technology overload has worn him down. This particular case appeals to him because he’s encountered someone – The Girl – who’s seeking to live outside of the system, to be private.”

“[The key to my character] is something that happened in the past. His son died, and he feels terribly responsible for it,” Owen points out. As nightmarish an experience as that would be at any time, it’s inconceivably worse in the universe of Anon, as Owen goes on to explain: “The idea that you have access to what happened, just by rewinding and rewinding over and over again – it means that there are people that end up very lost. They get consumed by it. And that’s true for Sal, especially when he’s at his lowest point. They say time is a great healer, but if you can relive that whenever you want, and it’s immediate and accessible, no matter how horrible that experience might be it becomes compulsive to go back to it over and over again.”

Owen considers the horror of this idea for a moment, shaking his head. “If you can imagine that all we have as memories can be accessed and actually seen at any time, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be drawn only to the good, you know?”

Who is The Girl?

If Sal Frieland’s are the eyes of ANON, a woman whose name neither we, nor Sal ever actually learn is the beating heart of the film.

Niccol knew from the beginning that his past collaborator on In Time, Amanda Seyfried, was The Girl. “If you want expressive eyes (and much of this story in particular is told through the eyes) you don’t need to go any further than Amanda,” Niccol points out. “But I also needed a bit of ‘go-to-hell-girl’ edge, that Amanda, despite her frailty, can also bring to the screen.”

“Where Clive feels innately guarded with emotion simmering below the surface, Amanda’s vulnerability is right on the surface. They really balance each other,” says Simon. “We needed an actress to play The Girl who could literally bring a cypher to life and be so compelling that the audience and Sal would have no choice but to follow her. Amanda has this otherworldly quality, she really is the girl you would follow to the ends of the earth.”

Seyfried also related very practically to the subject matter. The struggle between the public and private self has become very familiar to Amanda as her own career has blossomed. “As someone who’s a public figure, sometimes I feel like a shell,” she explains. “There used to be boundaries, but unfortunately there are none anymore. I did a play recently that required a small amount of nudity, and I felt safe doing it because it was a play in a 300-seat theatre, and it made sense for the character. But someone took a video of it {and put it on the internet]. I felt very exposed and out of control. It’s very clear to me that privacy really is a commodity, and you have to struggle to hang onto it.”

Despite the mystery surrounding her, The Girl is, in her own way, the most courageous character in the movie. She has done something that is unthinkable in this universe: she’s chosen to value herself over the surveillance state.

To Feore, the refusal to share every part of yourself is a radical one: “[The presumption is always] we must have secrets, we must have crimes, we must be demented and perverted and psychopathic if we choose not to share everything. But The Girl simply says, ‘It’s not that I have anything to hide. I just don’t have anything I want you to see.’ And to me, that was a punch to the chest of expectations. It took the wind out of me. I thought, ‘It’s really that simple, elegant.’”

Anon may explore the themes of surveillance and a society where privacy norms have all but vanished, but it also makes use of the conventions of its genre as well. Film Noir is known for female characters with mysterious pasts and even murkier motivations, going all the way back to The Maltese Falcon. It’s also known for how it objectifies those characters through the male gaze, making a film that directly tackles those questions a fascinating experiment. “The whole men watching women thing, the voyeurism, is definitely a part of it. It’s always going to be there,” acknowledges Seyfried. “But the interesting thing is when everybody is watching everybody.”

Into the Mind’s Eye of Andrew Niccol

It’s the complexities of issues like this that fascinate Owen and lead to his admiration for Niccol’s writing: “I’ve read a number of Andrew’s scripts, and I think for me he’s always been one of the most interesting guys at it. His writing always engages with a theme that’s hugely relevant and important for our time.”

“But,” he continues, “more than that, I’ve had a great time working with him because he’s not only highly intelligent, but he’s also got a great sense of humor. He’s not precious with that. It’s been a great collaboration.”

Clive Owen and Andrew Nicol during filming of Anon

When asked about her director, who is notoriously soft-spoken and wields his on set authority very quietly, Seyfried laughs: “Andrew’s brain works in a way that isn’t really as accessible as some artists. But I like that because I know that he has all the answers that I need. He knows exactly what he wants.”

Producer Oliver Simon adds, “Andrew is always ahead of everyone else not just in his sense of societal and technological issues, but in everything – this is what makes him such a remarkable director. Be it with the script or the production process, he comes into every meeting having identified an issue he saw coming before anyone else and with several possible solutions already worked out in his mind. He has the most active, precise mind and he never hesitates to change a word, or eliminate a prop detail if he comes to realize that a line or set piece can be improved by even the slightest detail. “

“I think it’s so attractive, the world he creates,” Seyfried muses. “Everything is kind of bigger than life. Everything’s very moody, everything’s kind of film noir. But it makes sense for the dystopian world that he’s creating. It’s exciting to live in it for a little while. It can be tiring, but it’s incredibly exciting.”

Feore seconds that sentiment: “Andrew Niccol has a kind of style and sensibility so that everything he does is meticulously planned and beautifully, elegantly articulated, either in the writing or in the cinematography, in the choice of the shots, the way he describes how he wants you to see it. To live in his world… to be part of that, and to understand what that’s doing, that’s really thrilling.”

A Central Enduring Theme

Andrew Niccol found his theme early in his career and it has stayed with him in no small part because it really is the major issue of our time – the problematic relationship between humankind and technological advancements: “I’ve always been interested in how we balance our humanity with technology. I return to that question over and over because it never goes away – it’s the age in which we live – we’re constantly trying to balance the two.”

“You know, it’s easy to say, ‘We need to know everything about everybody,’ because we’re living in dangerous times,” says Owen. “But there are huge dangers with that. It’s not something I’m particularly comfortable with. But, often we’re sharing tons of information without even realizing it. There isn’t a sort of negotiation where you say ‘it’s okay if I do this’. We don’t realize quite how much we’re giving away every time we go online.

“So we’re slowly but surely entering a world where there is no privacy left. In just my lifetime, there’s been a radical shift in the way that we live our lives. And it’s not necessarily a good and healthy thing.”

“I think that this is a provocative film that will hopefully force us to ask ourselves some difficult questions,” Feore asserts. “The broader question is what kind of restrictions can we legitimately ask for? When is [this degree of surveillance] too much? How and when do morals and ethics interfere with good government, with crime prevention? That’s the essence of what we’re talking about in this movie and around the world right now.”

Privacy is such a profound yet intangible value, it remains something that society by and large hasn’t fought very hard to protect. With Anon Andrew Niccol squarely asks ‘when will it be too much?’

“The interesting thing about the war for privacy,” Niccol concludes, “is that we have already lost. There never even was a war. We gave away our privacy, without a fight, in the service of convenience. Anon takes that conflict to its logical conclusion.”