Q&A: “THE CONSPIRACY” Writer/Director Christopher MacBride
One of the nice surprises on the summer indie-genre scene has been THE CONSPIRACY, a pseudodocumentary thriller from Canadian writer/director Christopher MacBride that hit VOD and select theaters this past month from XLrator Media. Intrigued by its mix of (apparent) fact and fiction, Fango hit up MacBride to get the truth behind THE CONSPIRACY.
The movie stars Aaron Poole and James Gilbert as Aaron and Jim, filmmakers-within-the-film working on a documentary on conspiracy theorists, in particular an obsessive man named Terrance (Alan C. Peterson). At first, his rants seem to be the output of an addled mind, but when Terrance disappears and Aaron and Jim investigate a little too deeply, they find themselves the targets of a mysterious organization called The Tarses Group. Skillfully transitioning from faux docu to found-footage paranoia thriller, MacBride creates an intelligent standout in the reality-horror genre.
FANGORIA: Was THE CONSPIRACY a project you originated, or was it brought to you?
CHRISTOPHER MacBRIDE: It was an original concept I came up with. I did about four or five months of pretty intensive research into the conspiracy-theory world, and then wrote the screenplay. The research actually took quite a bit longer than the actual scriptwriting.
FANG: Have you long had an interest in this subject matter?
MacBRIDE: Truthfully, no. I was introduced to the world of conspiracy theories through friends who encouraged me. Not having any idea that I would end up making a film about it—just out of curiosity more than anything—I started exploring that world: downloading conspiracy films off the web, reading conspiracy books, listening to radio programs and podcasts. It’s a fascinating world, the on-line community of conspiracy theorists, filled with so many contradictions: Smart people. Crazy people. Lies. Truth. Paranoia. Eventually, I realized I could tell an interesting story set in this environment.
FANG: With all the possible kinds of conspiracies to explore, how did you arrive at the movie’s specific subject?
MacBRIDE: Well, the theories that have always interested me the most are the ones that center on secret groups, whether they’re think tanks like The Bilderberg Group or societies like The Bohemian Club. Whether or not they’re up to anything nefarious is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that these secret organizations do exist. And groups of people operating in secret just gets my imagination churning. So I decided to make the film primarily focused on one of these types of organizations.
FANG: How much of the movie is based on actual cases or people?
MacBRIDE: I tried to make sure the film was a mixture of fact and fiction. Some people are actors, while some are just playing themselves. Many of the conspiracy theories in the film are real ones that we haven’t embellished at all. And even the fictional aspects are based on actual groups and people who do exist in the world. The reason I did this was because that’s what it’s like when you’re looking into a conspiracy theory: It’s so hard to discern fact from fiction.
FANG: How were the actors cast?
MacBRIDE: We went through a pretty conventional casting process. I purposely tried to find actors who were very naturalistic, which is such an important skill to have in a movie like this. I also wanted to make sure I didn’t cast anyone who was too famous or recognizable, because that would instantly throw the audience out of the feeling of realism we tried to create. That ended up being a blessing, because I can just cast the best actor as opposed to being forced to use someone famous who might not necessarily have the chops.
FANG: How much of the movie was scripted, and how much improvised?
MacBRIDE: Most of it was scripted, but I encouraged everyone to go off script whenever they wanted. Also, some of the people aren’t actors at all, they’re just real people being interviewed and giving candid, unscripted responses. I love the fact that it’s quite hard to tell who’s an actor and who’s “real” in the film.
FANG: Talk about the film’s transition from pure documentary style to vérité horror.
MacBRIDE: Well, my intention was always that the film feel like a finished documentary—someone had taken the time to edit it together, put music on it, color-correct it. All of that makes it feel more cinematic. So even when the style makes a few tonal shifts—the first is when the documentarians have to start turning the camera on themselves, and the next is in the last act, when we see the action through subjective first-person camera as the characters infiltrate the secret society—I wanted all that to still feel like it was part of the same documentary. A good example of that is THE COVE: The first half is a straightforward doc, but then the end switches to this exciting hidden-camera sequence. So there’s a basis in actual documentaries for these kinds of shifts in how the action unfolds.
FANG: Is THE CONSPIRACY at all intended as a cautionary tale?
MacBRIDE: I could see how people might perhaps perceive it that way, but that wasn’t really my intention. When you’re a storyteller, particularly when you’re telling scary stories, you dream up worst-case scenarios for your characters—so when I was writing about conspiracy theorists, I thought to myself, “What is the absolute scariest thing that could happen to these people?” And in my mind, that was basically the characters digging a little too deep into a certain conspiracy. They click on one link too many on the web, and then suddenly the conspiracy they are investigating starts coming after them.
FANG: Were any scenes especially difficult to stage?
MacBRIDE: Well, the moments where the Terrance character is in the middle of a downtown street, yelling conspiracy theories through a bullhorn, was a little terrifying to shoot. For the most part, those aren’t extras he’s yelling at; those are real passersby who are being screamed at. Shooting those scenes, I kept waiting for us to be either arrested or attacked.
FANG: Has there been any reaction from the conspiracy-theory community?
MacBRIDE: Yes—a lot! I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how the majority of the conspiracy community has sort of embraced the film. I believe that’s because I treat the theorists and their views with respect. There’s a lot of craziness in that world, but also a lot of intelligent people, and I think I’ve kept a fair balance where I don’t discount or disrespect anyone’s views. There have been a few nutjobs, though. I’ve had some conspiracy theorists accuse me of being a CIA agent planting “disinformation.” I’ve also had some people commenting on how “the Hollywood machine” is trying to discredit their views. If only those guys knew how far a small-budget Canadian indie is from Hollywood!
FANG: Are you a believer in any conspiracies, and what are your thoughts on that community in general?
MacBRIDE: The main point I guess I would make about conspiracy theories is that you can’t paint the whole world and everyone in it with one brush. Yes, there are undoubtedly lunatics and idiots who think every single important event in the world is some kind of lie tied to these huge conspiracies. But there are also a lot of people in that realm who are very intelligent and are simply asking important questions that no one else seems to be asking. I’d encourage people to not be so closed-minded on either side of the debate, believer or skeptic. As we’ve seen many times throughout history, sometimes today’s crazy conspiracy theory can become tomorrow’s accepted truth.