Tribeca ’15 Interview: “JACKRABBIT” Director Carleton Ranney

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Carleton Ranney is a first-time film director from Austin, Texas. After catching a screening of his science fiction hacker film JACKRABBIT, I got in contact with him to discover the thoughts behind some of the crazy machinations of the 80s homage film, complete with am old school synth score by MGMT’s Will Berman.

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<?> Congratulations on the debut of your first feature film! What inspired you to get into filmmaking</?>

<Carleton:> Thank you, it has been a long journey for everyone involved. It’s incredibly surreal that we have made it thus far…I caught the filmmaking bug real early in life. My parents, for better or worse, let me get away with watching films that were pretty advanced for a youngster. Even though I probably didn’t really understand what I was watching, I remember the feeling. Not to get all weird, but it was like opening the door to the 4th dimension or something, I had discovered a very powerful medium.

carelton-raney-jackrabbit-film-tribeca At the age of 10, I was severely injured in a car accident, and spent the better half of a year in the hospital. All I could do in my spare time was watch films. During that experience I discovered the true potential of movies and how, as a language, they communicate the human condition. I really connected to this idea and wanted to be apart of that tradition. I would say this is when I decided to become a filmmaker. 

<?> I would personally say Jackrabbit does an amazing job at world building, was that a goal throughout the production</?>

<Carleton:> Absolutely, building the world was one of the major goals for the film. The production really was an exercise in movie magic and how much we could immerse an audience into a completely made up world. 

<?> We’ve seen dystopian futures before, but not really like this. What inspired the ideas for The Reset and Sector 6</?>

<Carleton:> It’s funny you say that because the ideas for both The Reset and Sector 6 were inspired by the anxieties of modern era. I read this book, Cyber War, by former defense secretary Richard A. Clarke. The book explores the idea of a hypothetical cyber attack, and reveals just how vulnerable our technological infrastructure is. The Reset is inspired by this kind of scenario where a cyber attack could completely wipe out any system that is connected to the internet, which in this day and age is everything. The seed of inspiration for the film came from a Rolling Stone article on the suicide of Aaron Swartz. He was a hacktivist that was facing 35 years in prison for leaking publicly funded journals in a protest of sorts. The department of justice was basically making an example of him. For most hackers the idea of prison, a place completely cut off from access to information, is a death sentence. We live in a time where freedom of information is being hindered in the name of security. Hacktivists are more and more being seen as a threat. The wikileaks scandal, drone surveillance, and the Ed Snowden case were also major inspirations for Jackrabbit.  Sector 6 is an amalgamation of these zeitgeist elements. It is a prison city where its citizens are under heavy surveillance and cut off from the outside world. It’s a fantastical world that is a magnified reflection of the society we live in today.

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<?> Barely any of the tech in the film looks datable beyond the 1980’s, how did that design choice come about? What year would you say is the film set</?>

<Carleton:> Besides the fact that Jackrabbit is inspired by the films of the 1980’s, which got me into filmmaking, the design choice served as a function for the narrative. There is no mystery left in the world, information is so easily accessible. If our characters had the tech tools of the modern world, they could’ve just as easily solved the mystery using google or cell phones. We constructed the narrative to allow our characters to interact with the world around them. Antiquated technology, hard-lined systems, and no internet created obstacles for our characters to discover the truth about the world they live in. This 1980’s design choice makes it pretty ambiguous as to what time period the film is set in. Most technology today is made with planned obsolescence. Your new mac book pro will be dead in 5 years so that you will have to go spend 3k on the new better mac book pro. The idea was that after The Reset, our modern technology was not built to last, so the citizens of Sector 6 had to dust off their old IBM computers which, with a few tweaks, still work like a charm. For me the film takes place in an alternate reality of a world similar to the one we live in.

<?>Throughout the film, there are a lot of old video game throwbacks and very much a kind of 80s sci-fi vibe. Did games influence you as much as film did growing up? What aspects of those games would you say made it into Jackrabbit</?>

<Carleton:> I wouldn’t say that games have influenced me as much as film, although I did play video games early on in my childhood. I loved Super Mario World and Street fighter for the super nintendo system. I also played chess every night with my Dad before bed. I think these subconsciously made their way into Jackrabbit. Max is dressed all black, Simon in the white shirt. They are attired like opposing chess pieces. Now that I think about it, there is a wide shot at the very end of the film which looks like the Street fighter game interface. Max and Simon are standing on either side of the frame having a showdown.  So much of Jackrabbit is inspired by childhood, which is why these throwback game aesthetics are in there. I also just think gaming is a big part of hacker culture.

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<?>Our two leads, Max and Simon, are kind of a foil to one another. Can you describe their relationship a bit? How did you arrive at the casting of Ian and Josh</?>

<Carleton:> Max comes from the fringes of society. He doesn’t have any real family, and lives a pretty bleak and solitary existence. Max is connected to the underground hacker resistance of City VI, but has pacified himself with “future” drugs. Simon is more on the opposite path. He is assimilating himself into the regimented life of City VI by taking a job with VOPO technologies, the big brother company which controls the city. Although they share the same motive of solving their friends death, their incompatibilities make their relationship pretty contentious. This relationship brings each of them into fully realizing where they stand as individuals and their roles in society. It’s a dark coming of age story in a sense. Casting Josh to play Simon and Ian to play Max was the obvious choice. They are my best friends, and the film was written for them and their particular strengths as actors.

<?>The score is simply awesome. What did you want to achieve with the sound of the film? When did MGMT’s Will Berman come into the picture, and how did he make it unique</?>

Will+Berman+Jackrabbit+Premiere+2015+Tribeca+Pvsti1sR5kel<Carleton:> I wanted the film sound to have a dark atmospheric undercurrent. I also wanted a score that reflected the tonal and technological aesthetic of the film.  Will Berman came onto the picture in pre-production. He understood what we were going for from day one. Will started making tracks during production, we would listen to them on set for inspiration. I really feel the process of creating the score with Will was unique, in that we never scored to picture. I would go over to Will’s house and we would just work on tracks together. Later on we would put them on the soundtrack and see how they fit. The process became more about the emotionality of the music in that way, Will’s ability to create the score wasn’t inhibited by molding it to specific cuts or scenes.

<?>As a new director, what was the biggest lesson you learned through the production of Jackrabbit</?>

<Carleton:> Oh man where to begin, I learned so much making Jackrabbit. I would say the biggest lesson I learned was understanding your limitations as a filmmaker, and really just working within those imitations.

<?>After premiering at Tribeca, what’s next for Jackrabbit? What’s next for yourself</?>

<Carleton:> I plan on playing as many film festivals as possible with Jackrabbit. As for what’s next, I am writing a period piece set in the late 1990’s, it’s about four people who are drawn together with the belief they will board a U.F.O. and travel to outer space. There is a subversive element to it…. I’ll just say this, it is not a Sci Fi film.

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#JACKRABBIT @CarletonRanney

Boston, Massachusetts: Evan is a 23 year old college graduate with a degree in English and Journalism. He's had a lifelong passion for film, games and reading things. A living movie quotation machine, and obsessively analytical, Evan will always give an honest and fair opinion with an insertion of wit where appropriate. (Who are you kidding? It’s always appropriate.) Additionally, he is an aficionado of the superhero genre, old video games and (yes, subjectively) awesome movies.