'Like Me' Filmmakers Robert Mockler & Larry Fessenden Talk Social Media And Horror [Interview]

Whoever still generalizes January as a cinematic wasteland has clearly not watched Robert Mockler's Like Me. This is an introspective timebomb that bursts with ambition, execution and payoff, all the while told through a lens that burns with the vibrant fluorescence of this first timer's splash-making debut. Mockler has a vision that's never sacrificed; boundaries are tested by setting the screen ablaze with neon tragedies. January is for phoned-in franchise five-quels – what's this cautionary social media takedown think it's doing around these parts?

The film's star, Addison Timlin, manipulates her way through a gonzo road trip fueled by "likes" and "shares" on internet posts. The crazier her stunts – from robberies to kidnappings – the more people discuss her abstract artistry. She craves attention like a drug, caught up in a sea of endorphins that spike whenever content goes viral. Unfortunately for her latest muse, a schlubby motel owner played by indie horror legend Larry Fessenden (who also produced the film), this means there's no telling when her antics will stop.

I had the pleasure of moderating a post-screening Q&A of Like Me alongside Mockler and Fessenden in New York City this past week, which we primed with an interview at a local diner beforehand. The three of us sat and chatted about our views on social media, tried not to gag while recalling some thematic food usage, and grappled with the business ins-and-outs of indie filmmaking. Here are two honest creators talking about how Like Me came to form – and how nothing was going to stop them.

Let me start by asking if there was a specific event or occurrence that brought upon the birth of Like Me. Obviously, it's a skewering of our society's current digital obsessions, but where did this idea start?

Robert Mockler: I always wanted to make a movie about loneliness. I really enjoy narratives like Taxi Driver and One Hour Photo. Then there was this major paradigm shift where social media really started to become ingrained into our culture. I saw this image in my head of someone holding up a convenience store with a cellphone and I thought that opened up intriguing territory. It played directly into my interest in America's obsession with "the outlaw." All these things started converging in a way that I thought could potentially be worth exploring.

Mr. Fessenden, given how you can't be found anywhere on social media, one can assume you're not too much of a fan?

Larry Fessenden: Is that a known thing? [Laughs] Yes, I find it contemptible.

Given this stance, when you read a script like Robert's, are you surprised by the increasing stranglehold social media has on our culture?

Larry Fessenden: Oh, I was particularly excited to do a movie that explored social media. We all know it has two sides, but I do think these obsessions are dividing us as much as uniting us. There's this endless, dreamy idea that human progress is always pushing towards the good and what I like is that [Robert Mockler] created a cautionary tale. Like Me is about the loneliness, and then there's the context of the contemporary communication situation. I mean, you could make a movie about telephones as well – it's just that social media is present right now.

Robert Mockler: For me, social media is a tool like anything else. I think it amplifies impulses and behaviors that are innately inside us. And I think sometimes those impulses – behaviors – are ugly and horrifying, but they're undeniably human. I don't know that social media is sort of an actively corrosive force. I think it's more about what these programs expose inside of us.

Larry, I apologize for not knowing this offhand, but did you get involved with Like Me as an actor or producer first?

Larry Fessenden: My associate, Jenn Wexler – she works with [my company] Glass Eye Pix as a producer – first got wind of the film. It was with Dogfish Pictures, James Belfer's company, and she brought it to us. It was a bigger budget at the time, and we met with Belfer, and we said, "Whoa, this sounds like something we'd really like to do." They needed an actual production company to come in and put boots on the ground. I like it when a so-called horror or thriller – whatever type movie this is – engages with something culturally relevant. Belfer could tell Rob had other things on his mind besides just the social critique. It was obviously about his characters very specifically. The script and his vision were very rich, plus Robert also had made a concept short using one of the scenes which was really, super engaging. I immediately knew [Robert] was a filmmaker worth nurturing.

Was there one specific aspect in the script itself that jumped out as a major selling point? A single scene that made your mind up on the spot?

Larry Fessenden: This was a movie about social media and our obsession with "Likes." A movie that asks if that's a misplaced desire. It's been done before, but as I said – in conjunction with the short – I could see [Robert's] cinematic eye and that became exciting.

It certainly has been done before, but not with this kind of artistic intent. Stylistically, Like Me is on a different level compared to something like Unfriended.

Larry Fessenden: I like to aesthetically break the mold. Try different things. We just made a movie called Most Beautiful Island which is a series of very long takes – that sort of a Dardennes brothers approach – whereas I could tell that Rob was a collagist, and that seemed so exciting and so different for our little company. His fractured narrative in our consciousness YouTube world. It just seemed like a great opportunity for a different-looking movie.

Alright Robert, I have to ask about your usage of food imagery. To me, it's a statement about overindulgence. Is there truth to that assessment? How do you explain the close-ups on chewing mouths and messy eating?

Robert Mockler: For me, a part of this film is about how we medicate our loneliness. I think food is one of those ways. Technology is one of those ways, I think pet ownership as well in some strange way...

Larry Fessenden: [Laughs] Beg your pardon?

Robert Mockler: [To Larry] I've had pets all my life but it's this weird inter-species hostage situation, you know? So, yeah – food is one way that we medicate feelings of estrangement and loneliness, but it's also about overconsumption and being inundated with a constant influx of information and material things.

Larry Fessenden: Real colorful things...

I was just going to ask about the scene where you, Larry, are bound to a bed and force-fed "treats" by Addison Timlin until you puked. Was that fake movie magic or did you have to eject all that slop from your body? 

Larry Fessenden: Let me tell you this. We took a lunch break on set and I got a call from my doctor. I had this ringing in my ear that was previously checked out, and my doctor told me it's "possibly a brain tumor but we'll keep checking." Then I had to go back into the shoot and get tied up, which – to add – I'm extremely claustrophobic. I knew the art director and I said, "Colin, you know, I've gotta be able to pull out of these." I was essentially stuck because I'm strapped up. Then came the force-feeding and "torture." That I was fine with, but I did laugh to myself, "Am I really going to choke and this will be my last thing on film?" Anyway, I don't have a tumor so far! That worked out. I mean, look. When you're an actor, your job is to expose yourself and do stuff that isn't particularly comfortable. Otherwise you're not really putting yourself out there. We had fun. It was great, and Addison was awesome. In fact, it had been a long-time fantasy. [Laughs] Sorry, I'm not allowed to say things like that anymore!

Robert Mockler: It did all start to smell like sour milk very quickly.

Larry Fessenden: It was gross.

Robert Mockler: It was a very small room, with like fourteen people huddled around slowly rotting food and milk.

I was going to say, that scene featured pizza, cheese balls, gummies, any junk snack you can imagine.

Robert Mockler: Everything. So it was just this sugary, milky smell that was rancid.

Larry Fessenden: What's funny is that I'm a pescatarian – which means I don't eat meat – and so of course we had a bacon scene in the film. Ask anyone who has voluntarily given up meat for political reasons about how bacon is still this forbidden food you dream about. I was like, "Rob, you sure we can't do another take because I feel like I can do that better. I can try that one again, right?" You can't use fake bacon in person. It's just dripping with the fat and oil. So that was a very fun scene for me to do personally despite breaking my "code" for a second.

Robert Mockler: You also got very personal with the toilet, as well.

Larry Fessenden: [Laughs] Luckily I got so distracted by the bacon I didn't mind having my face in the s***ter.

like me

Jumping back to Addison Timlin, was she always the first choice for the lead role of Kiya?

Robert Mockler: Yeah. I met her...

Larry Fessenden: [Laughs] On social media!

Robert Mockler: [Laughs] No, no, no. We met in person, actually. A human interaction.

She has brilliant instincts and had a really fascinating take on Kiya. I think it could've been very easy to have a superficial read of this character, and she did not. Addison brought a lot of layers. That was unexpected and opened up new territories. She was attached to the project for about a year, so I was able to start tweaking the script to her which was awesome.

Addison's character does play to her powerful persona, exactly like how you just said. It feels like you scripted Like Me for her specifically.

Larry Fessenden: It was interesting because the script took a real journey. As casting was underway, we realized we didn't have the money to fully realize some aspects. Scenes might have originally been planned to be in the desert or another location – but let's stay East Coast. That's a fun thing to watch happen. To see how ideas change and develop. What you first see as intimidating – like you're letting go – eventually shapes what the movie truly is.

Robert Mockler: The big key that allowed us to complete Like Me within allotted budget figures came down to a random find. Our motel locations were always designed to be very surreal. For the longest time we thought we were going to have to build them out. Then Jessalyn Abbott – who's a producer and editing partner of mine – found two amazing motels. One was called the Playland Motel, in Rockaway, and what happened was when Hurricane Sandy hit, it wiped out that entire hotel space. With no real usage, all of these artists used the structure as a canvas to design these amazing, surreal spaces and rooms. We built onto them, but it provided this amazing backbone for us to make these spaces that we didn't think we were going to ever be able to achieve. That was just an amazing find, and if it wasn't for Jessalyn, we wouldn't have been able to pull the cutdown off.

Inherent production value! 

Robert Mockler: Exactly.

To boot, you really come out of the gate with your own visual style. Your color palette is so vibrant and full. Did you take inspiration from any specific works or artists?

Robert Mockler: A lot. It was five years of just gathering references. Jessalyn and I lived in an apartment together and while developing the script, we just covered the walls with prospective imagery. It helped us tap into the tonality of the movie as we were developing it. This daily reminder that we're not giving up, this thing is going to get made, and it's going to haunt us until it gets made. I do have to specifically say I love Suspiria and that's always been a big influence. [To Larry] I don't know if you remember, but when we first met, that was something I brought up to you.

Larry Fessenden: It's funny. Because of the budget aim and because of our close-knit filmmaking family, I pitched Jenn Wexler to suggest James Siewert for the role of DP. He's a very unique artist. Director of music videos, short films, animations – he really has this sensibility of building camera rigs and this architectural film style. It was fun to watch his innovations help create what [Robert] was looking for.

There's one stand-out circular overhead shot where the camera keeps passing over Addison Timlin's character in her room – I'm assuming that's what you're talking about when you mention custom rigs?

Larry Fessenden: Yup, that's one of James' rigs. He and Robert make such a great pairing. As a producer, it's fun to get guys like them hooked up. That's how you put a movie like this together. Budget be damned, we have an artist in the stable!

Robert Mockler: We should say that James Siewert's short, The Past Inside The Present, is on Vimeo and should be watched.

Larry Fessenden: Rob had some fantastic stuff cut into the edit that he'd found. Animations, doodles – everything from old Betty Boop cartoons to random clips. Some of that stayed in the final cut because it's out of the copyright, but for other things he'd just say, "James, can you give me something like this?" It'd be something like a wolf's mouth – which I remember the original was so enticing – and James pulled it off with ease. He's a great collaborator and fellow artist in these kind of situations.

Robert Mockler: He's also someone that makes it his entire life when he comes onto a project.

You keep talking about the budget, so I can assume Like Me started with more lofty financial ambitions. I'm just curious – what were some of the notes that had to be adjusted to hit a lower monetary goal?

Larry Fessenden: [Laughs] Well, they hired me!

[Laughs] Save the money for somewhere else?

Larry Fessenden: Yeah! "Look at that hack actor in the corner, he'll do a good job!"

Robert Mockler: Maybe some of the technically ambitious things? The script's basic intent carried over to this version. It was still preserved.

Larry Fessenden: I want to say, in Rob's defense, it was just that the production moved so fast. Rob's a first-time director, and he's just like, "That was it? That's all I got for that scene?" Schedules were more than fair, but things were a little whiplash-y.

Robert Mockler: I mean, it was a super compressed time window and everyone in key departments were doing their jobs for the first time. This is my debut as a director. It's the first time that James Seiwert was a cinematographer for a feature. We were thrown into the situation together and we had to bond really quickly. He actually moved in with me for three weeks before we shot and we just drove each other crazy.

Larry Fessenden: With James, for example – his concern may not be eye line. So I come on the set, I go, "Guys, are you thinking about the eye line?" Then everybody would be panicking, like, "Oh s***, eye line! Oh, well, OK!" Cut to us and then we'd be drawing diagrams. [Laughs] In other words, that's part of the thrill. It's very exciting to work for people who are finding their way because there's going to be surprises.

It's an evolution.

Larry Fessenden: Exactly. But to speak to the budget specifically, the only other thing I would say is the original script was more of a road movie. [To Robert] Right?

Robert Mockler: Correct.

Larry, you're a veteran of the genre and filmmaking scene. What do you expect from a first-time filmmaker at this point and how did Robert stack up?

Larry Fessenden: What I like about an artist is when they have a vision they can't get out of their head. They're committed to it. Even to the point of being slightly tortured, slightly being stubborn – all of these things that Rob maybe has. That's what you want to tap and create a safe space for. I'm trying to produce the way I wish somebody would produce for me. Create that nurturing environment, get them to be realistic so they can successfully finish all tasks, but also fight for their vision. It was easy to do with Rob. He knew what he wanted. Glass Eye Pix also has Peter Phok, who's a very technical-minded guy. There was a lot of collaboration. The whole office gathers together and figures out what is needed for each individual artist. We all argued about format, because it wasn't immediately obvious we'd shoot on the A7S2...

Robert Mockler: Well, that's something I brought up early on. I always wanted to treat color in a really extreme way. James' compositions and camera movements were absolutely brilliant, but I think we have to talk about Blase [Theodore] and what he added to the mix. One of the things that unlocked the budget was that we shot with a Sony A7S2. It's a really small camera and it's really sensitive to light. We didn't have to bring in a whole lot of lighting rigs to achieve the look that we wanted to achieve. James had an AwoX Smart Bulb system where we could put in regular Smart Lights and control them with our film. Really experiment with colors. We wanted to feel things out while we were in the middle of shooting, so it was all very flexible. That helped us move faster. We had a lot of latitude to really expose colors, but we weren't able to do that completely with the A7S2. But Blase, because he's this...

Larry Fessenden: Wunderkind!

Robert Mockler: [Laughs] ...this color scientist. He was able to really push the format further. A lot of the look of the film was unlocked during the color process. We only had three days in the color room. I had to do temporary color grades – this was basically what I wanted scenes to look like – but anything that I did introduced a lot of noise and the image broke down. Blase was able to look at that and be like, "OK, I see where you're coming from," and then he was able to do that in a more technically proficient way.

Larry Fessenden: Was it really three days? Didn't we get a couple extra?

Robert Mockler: Maybe there was an extra day?

Larry Fessenden: [Laughs] I remember a very long phone call where Rob was like, "If I don't get another day, the world will collapse around us!" I feel like we got another day. But you can hear [Robert] as he speaks. It's the whole idea of absolute commitment to a certain film, and that's what excites a producer like me. I mean, he's gonna get three whole color days because he cares so much! [Laughs]

You gotta earn it, though! You gotta earn it! 

Larry Fessenden: I need full passion for that!

When I get to interview creators, I always like to end with this question. If you were given full rights, what property would you remake with your own spin? Robert especially, the way that your colors pop in Like Me is like a signature already – but this question is surely for both of you.

Robert Mockler: I'll let you go first, Larry.

Larry Fessenden: I'm doing it. I'm starting to shoot in a week, but I can't tell you what it is. I'd better not announce yet. [Laughs]

Oh really? How can I prod something out of you...

Larry Fessenden: [Deflecting like a pro] Well now, this is Rob's show anyway. I'm just here for window dressing.

Robert Mockler: I've always been interested in trying to do – and there's been a lot of them recently, so I feel silly saying it – but I've always been interested in doing a darker, more twisted version of Beauty and the Beast. There's something about the Beast, to me. He's always a little too well-coiffed, and he looks a little too pretty. Some of the elements that Beauty And The Beast explores struggle with our primal side. I was always interested in the Beast continually drooling but wiping it with a handkerchief or something. I'm interested in a more nightmarish version of that movie.

Larry Fessenden: I'll give you one: Scrooge. I love that story. It's been made probably more than most, but it's a story that can be told so many other ways and truly be scary. They're ghosts or something. Plus I always love a redemptive tale!