Deep below Los Angeles, there's a highly secure facility where genius children are educated at an accelerated pace using augmented reality glasses. When three young people hired as glorified babysitters are plopped into their midst at the start of Let's Be Evil, that sterile underground world turns very dark, very fast.
All images: IFC Midnight
Though it's set in LA, Let's Be Evil is actually a British production, co-written by director Martin Owen, producer Jonathan Willis and lead actor Elizabeth Morris — whose character, Jenny, gets the majority of the film's "shot-through-smart-glasses" POV footage.
The trio had previously worked together on a movie called LA Slasher, a satire in which the protagonist communicates with his audience through social media. The technology angle fascinated them, so for their next film they wanted to continue the theme.
"I was at a party and there was a guy wearing Google glasses," Willis recalls with a chuckle. That obliviously invasive party-goer and the general cultural backlash against "Glassholes" got him thinking about the negative implications of the device. Putting them on kids — "I've always liked the movie Village of the Damned" — who have been parented via technology seemed a promisingly eerie set-up.
Once they started writing the script, Owen and Morris took Willis' idea even farther. "Google glasses were essentially a smartphone for your face," Owen says. "They didn't really dig into the true potential of augmented reality, which is what we're seeing now with things like Pokemon GO, which is completely and utterly immersive, and makes you believe that something digital is existing in your world. So for us, it was: how useful can augmented reality be? How fantastic can it be? But also, when do you push technology too far? What are the potential consequences of that?"
Making a film that takes place through the eyes of characters wearing augmented reality glasses meant that it couldn't be shot like a conventional film — it would have to be point-of-view instead. However, Owen is quick to point out that Let's Be Evil isn't quite in the found-footage realm. For one thing, the filmmakers were very careful to keep the camera as steady as possible.
"Found-footage has been done so much, so heavily," he says. "What interested me was the idea of exploring POV as if it were through someone's eyes, seeing what they're seeing. Obviously we've seen this before in movies, but the idea of maintaining it for an hour and a half, and trying to keep the tension and the believability going was a big challenge. We tried to find the right cocktail of equipment, and in the end we did — it creates this very, very smooth technique of shooting. The camera doesn't bounce around as much, and doesn't give you that seasick effect that people have seen before in found-footage movies. The way that we did that, and the way that it interacts with the interface, is something that we're really proud of. I think we've been able to tell a movie in a traditional way, but using a slightly untraditional method."
An obvious inspiration for the overall look of Let's Be Evil is video games. Owen says he was playing a lot of Alien: Isolation when he started working on the film. "Those sort of games are a real masterclass in showing that with the right framing, the right pacing, all of the simple building-block techniques that are used in video games — you're all in, and sometimes there's nothing happening, but you're still on the edge of your seat. That was what we wanted to try and create."
And just like Let's Be Evil isn't a typical found-footage movie, it's also not just another movie about evil kids. "The point we're making in this movie, in the context of our story, is that it's the technology that's evil. Not the kids," Owen says. "If you are influencing and developing a growing mind with something without understanding the long-term effects — mixing too much information with too much potential — there's a whole new road of possibilities. And some of those roads are evil."
Science fiction stories that explore the combination of technology and highly gifted children are kind of having a moment right now. Just look at Stranger Things. "That show is just crazy good. In terms of themes, I can see the comparison," Owen says. "Let's Be Evil doesn't come from a place where any of us are thinking — 'kids are doomed, technology is evil.' The movie is more like a parental advisory. It's kind of saying, 'Technology is great, but just be careful. Let's not go crazy.' Too much of anything, even if it's deemed to be good for us, can have consequences."