Rodney Ascher On His Dark, Trippy New Doc, ‘A Glitch In The Matrix’

Director Rodney Ascher (who previously directed the deep dive into every theory about The Shining, Room 237) admits his new documentary, A Glitch in the Matrix, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, isn’t really what he initially envisioned. We’ve all had those moments maybe after a couple pints, where someone asks some form of, “Hey, what if we live in a simulation?” which is usually followed by a couple of weird stories that are maybe best summed up by the word, “coincidence.” Then everyone laughs. But, then, what if?!?! Anyway, it sounds like the original idea for the film was stories like this from true believers.

Instead, Ascher’s film is a dark and twisted path into some really disturbing topics. The conversations change from, “what if we all live in a simulation?,” more to, “What if I’m the only real person and everyone else is fake, an AI video game bot?” This all culminates with an interview with a man who killed his parents because he decided we didn’t live in reality. Ahead, Ascher takes us down his journey into this world and explains the dangers that come along with getting in too deep.

So, I noticed a lot of the people you interview start off with, “Are we living in a simulation?” But then the longer they talk, the more it sounds like they think life is a video game and they are the main character. It goes into some dark places.

That’s the first fork in the road, what does that mean about other people? Is everybody I see, like me, in a pod in the matrix? Or am I the only person and everybody else is just sort of some AI-controlled video game character. And which of those forks you take has some pretty serious consequences.

There’s a big difference between thinking “we’re all in a simulation together” and “other people are just AI.”

Yeah. Well, I don’t think it made it to the final cut, but at one point, one of them says it all depends on what the purpose of the simulation is. Perhaps this is for some rich guy in Korea to perfect his golf game, right? North America is just instructed to make sure that the wind blows through their bodies correctly so that things are accurate on the other side of the planet.

There are people who think they when they’re walking down the street that the people they see aren’t real people. That seems like a real problem.

Yeah, well, you don’t even necessarily need the digital metaphor to think about other people as less than in some way. To my thought, at a certain point, simulation theory just becomes another creation myth. But everything else is still more or less the same.

That seems the healthy way to look at it?

I think that’s the healthy way to look at it, but in a way, that’s also assuming that it’s not real. Because if it is real, then is your obligation to find a way to get out of it? To communicate to the programmers or to find a cheat code? What is it created for? What is it asking of us to do?

When you first envisioned doing a film about this, is this movie darker than you thought it’d be?

Yeah. Especially, in that last third. In my mind’s eye, this movie was going to be a sort of Reddit thread, “glitch in the matrix” stories people talk about. “I was thinking about my girlfriend, I went outside, and then she was there.” These weird, looping, impossible experiences that people have had. And I thought we were going to be doing a series of those, but that’s not where the path led me.

And instead you’re getting into the guy who killed his parents because he thought they weren’t real, that is very difficult to listen to.

Absolutely. And I had no idea that that’s where it was going to go. We reached out to him because, in my research on simulation theory, I came across the idea of The Matrix defense. And that at least a half dozen people, I think, have used the fact that they didn’t believe the world this real. And I thought that that was a fascinating thing about the real-world implications of this. And me being me, I didn’t want to talk to a lawyer who would explain it in sort of a dry, impersonal way. I wanted to talk to someone with skin in the game, someone who had lived it. And we found Joshua and that’s where his story went.

Are you different about this subject from before you started and after? Just as an observer, I always thought it was just something kind of fun to talk about every now and then. And now after watching this it seems dangerous.

Yeah. I still think it’s fun to talk about and to spin around…

Yeah, but I bet people get hooked on QAnon — “oh, this is kind of fun” — and next thing you know, they’re storming the Capitol.

I don’t disagree. And I think QAnon and a hundred other conspiracy theories sort of tie into this idea of, what evidence do people need to decide about how the world works? And then where do they go from there? I don’t necessarily have an answer, but I think part of the question that this movie tries to get at is how do people decide we are all living in the same world? Or is everybody living in a world that they construct from what they read on the internet, what their friends tell them, what they learn in school? Is there a hope for us to establish a consensus reality?

What I have learned over the last couple of years is there are a lot of people out there who don’t think this is just a fun game to talk about. Whether it’s QAnon or this, which, like you said, kind of ties in a little bit anyway.

In a lot of ways it’s a religious idea. For most people religion is a time for, once a week, to get together with their community and to humble themselves in front of a greater power and meditate on ancient stories. But for other folks, it can be a call to battle.

So what would you say to people who really want to start exploring this idea? I want to be clear, I have no idea what happens to a person when they die so I’m not being dismissive…

I would be suspicious of anyone who is a hundred percent sure.

Right. But I feel some of the people you talk to feel pretty confident that this is real. And again, some people have acted dangerously based on those assumptions. How would you present it to someone who’s like, “Hey, I want to really start getting into this.” It feels like that can be a dangerous road.

For him, the school didn’t realize that he had issues. His parents weren’t there for him. He never got a diagnosis for his schizophrenia. This didn’t get into the film, but it’s pretty relevant, is that when he went to the sporting goods store to buy a gun, it was the easiest thing in the world. And he was like, “I’m the last person anybody should sell a gun to. And if they didn’t sell me a gun, I wouldn’t have done anything. I didn’t have the guts to stab anybody.”

Why did you cut that out? That seems like an important point to make.

Well, because in the timing of the movie, there was only one slot it could have gone in. And the choice I made was between that and when his father confronted him about seeing the search in his cache page. And I thought that was more dramatic and ultimately it was like another system failure. That should’ve been a warning sign for the parents to take action. But also more tragically human, right? And, ultimately, it only answered the question, where did he get the gun? Well, he got it at the gun store.

I’m just imagining if this was a normal Sundance, being at Eccles, I can see that line getting a gasp with that crowd.

Possibly. I’m sure there’s a thousand versions of this movie. But this is the one that I wound up putting together.

Well, obviously that scene is on your mind, because you mentioned it.

Yeah. Well, someone might have done an entire movie about Joshua and it would have a thousand other little nuances, and that’s one of the painful things of making a film like this. You’re taking 30 hours to 40 hours of interviews and condensing it into an hour and forty. And how does that make the most satisfying story? There’s that phrase, kill your darlings.

I guess I just worry because, like a lot of people, I’ve lost friends recently down conspiracy theory wormholes. And you show the dangerous side of this.

Yeah. Absolutely. I don’t know the solution to that, but I hope that this kind of thing prompts the question of how are people making sense of the world. And is everybody trapped in their own simulation? Are there ways to break those bubbles? Is consensus reality possible?

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