By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Though we sat down to talk to writer, director, and actor Franklin Ritch just last summer after the world premiere of his film THE ARTIFICE GIRL at Fantasia, the world of AI has changed rapidly since then. Back then, ChatGPT did not yet exist, and the only markedly accessible version of artificial intelligence was generating impossible images based on simple suggestions from the population at large. If you wanted to see what a computer thought it would look like to see a clown eat a burrito, you were in luck, but that was about it.
This is why THE ARTIFICE GIRL’s release this spring feels threateningly topical. Focusing on character-driven dialogue and deep examination of the ethical dilemmas AI surfaces in everyday life, the film looks directly into the eyes of what might be the pros and cons of humans encountering these smart and responsive programs.
How was it to watch the film with a crowd?
Oh my god, it’s magical. You get so close to it when you spend so long working on it. Especially since I was editing it, I felt very close to it. I had forgotten that there was humor in it too. When you write the script you think, “oh, this will, this will be great,” but once you’re so acclimated to it and obsessed with it you no longer register that. Hearing the audience’s reaction was really gratifying.
Were there any beats that they laughed at that you didn’t put a joke in?
Not that I recall. But I do remember there was one very obscure reference to 12 Angry Men that one person in the audience thought was the funniest thing they ever heard, and everyone else was dead silent. And I thought, those are the kind of jokes I love. I made one person out of 200 really happy.
How did you decide this was a story you wanted to tell?
I’ve told people before, I’ve always been interested in the idea of technology being used for investigation and criminal intent. Reading articles many years ago about people making CGI models of children in order to entrap predators was always fascinating. I didn’t feel compelled to write anything until discovering this thematic parallel between the adolescence of AI and childhood trauma. That’s when it became clear to me. I had to tell the story.
Were you always planning to play Gareth?
No, not necessarily. Very early on when we were talking about doing the proof of concept with practically no money, it was obviously gonna be cheaper, but more importantly with COVID. Shooting in the middle of 2020, we knew that one less person in that room was going to be very helpful. I felt comfortable being in front of the camera for this project just because I had so much trust and faith in my DP (Britt McTammany). We had planned every shot, every composition, and all of our coverage very precisely. We went in with a lot of planning.
You had to cast an older version of yourself too.
Well, we were kind of astonished by the end result. Lance [Henriksen] was at the top of our list, for obvious reasons. Obviously, there’s the likeness, but also there’s so many meta-thematic reasons of course with Bishop [Aliens] and so many other incredible sci-fi projects that he’s been a part of. Having his legacy as a part of our film, and then also pairing him up with a young rising star was just a dream come true for us. Their chemistry together was instantaneous. His commitment to the script, his commitment to doing the table work and talking about the character, understanding his character and understanding the story, is what I think makes his performance one of the best things about the film.
The film feels like three acts of a stage play, with Cherry as the fourth wall. How did you make sure that you kept it cinematic?
That was a big discussion that we had very early on. It is such a dialogue-driven film. It takes place in one room, essentially. So how do you keep that interesting and said, cinematic? For us, again, just making sure that all of our shots were deliberate. Making sure that coverage wasn’t ambiguous and that we would figure it out later in the editing room. We wanted to make sure that we kept all of the shots dynamic. We never wanted to revisit the same shots too many times which has helped shooting on one camera. We could just focus on the frame. A lot of ensemble staging and blocking helped with that. And then of course, when Cherry gets introduced into the film. it just provided an extra layer, an extra element. It was a helpful source of light in the scene [laughs]. And it shifts the tone. With all that in mind, our intent was to just keep things feeling fresh and interesting.
How did you cast Cherry? Did you have a really specific vision?
I knew it was gonna be Tatum [Matthews] when I started writing. I had worked with her on previous projects, on some of our other short films. A stage play is when I first saw her audition. She blew everyone away – made us cry with her with one monologue. And it was clear, this girl’s obviously got the part in the play. But in my head I was thinking, I gotta give this kid more stuff to chew on because I know she can do some incredible work. And we were very lucky that she was available and that she and her mother felt comfortable due to the very touchy subject matter. But we had a lot of discussions about making sure that she was going to be comfortable. That she had enough of an understanding of the subject to play the role, but she didn’t need to know what 11-year-olds don’t need to know yet. Striking that balance was really important. Ensuring that her comfort and safety were the number one priority.
And the two other investigators?
Deena and Amos. Played by Sinda Nichols and David Girard who were both local, just like Tatum and myself. Local Jacksonville people. I knew them again through the theater community and previous film projects. I worked with David several times. He’s the kind of person that I’m gonna make sure to cast in everything I do in the future cuz he’s so incredible. And Sinda and I had done a show a few years before where she played my mother and we had a lot of really great scenes together. We already had a strong trust in each other during this project.
How much workshopping and rehearsal did you do?
Lots. Because of the pandemic, it actually ended up being kind of advantageous. We had weekly or sometimes biweekly zoom rehearsals. We would just all hop onto a Zoom and just go through each act a few times. And it was incredibly helpful. Sometimes we ended up just doing a lot of table work and discussion. Each character has an equal proportion of growth, which I really enjoyed. Rehearsal time was very important.
I’ve been hearing from other directors that the one good thing the pandemic brought them was time to rehearse. Would this film have existed in the same form had you not had all that workshopping time?
I don’t think so. I do think it helped because we had nothing but time. It did force us to really take the rehearsal process seriously. I also think the intimacy of the setting is important to the story as well. How that evolves over the course of the film. I don’t know if that would’ve been the same thing if in a non-COVID era this film might have ended up with maybe too many characters or too many sequences that were unnecessary to the core of what the story’s about. I am really glad that it played out the way that it did. I think that’s the way it was always supposed to be.
When did you become interested in AI?
I had no interest in AI and I never actually ever wanted to write sci-fi. I love philosophical and ethical discussions. I feel so behind on the times because it wasn’t until after the script had been written and we were shooting act one that someone introduced me to Star Trek: The Next Generation. People have been doing this so well for so many years. Gene Roddenberry’s idealism and ethics in a sci-fi context was what we were trying to do as well. Taking these ideas and discussions and putting them in a science fiction context. The AI stuff was just a necessity to learn about and research.
I took several online courses and again, with COVID and nothing but time. I had plenty of time to do research and talk to so many professionals who know how all this stuff works. I barely even scratched the surface. And as I said before, I’m sure by the time that people see this film again, I wrote the script two years ago, it’s probably far outdated now. We had to use fiction in a way to try and project what the future is going to look like, within reason, but then also grounded in a present-day reality so that the audience can connect the dots very easily between where we are now and what the future is.
I have a good friend who works with AI to make music, but he’s also putting fellow musicians out of work.
I love that discussion, though. A lot of people are doing all this AI-generated art now which is so intriguing and fascinating. I don’t know if that necessarily diminishes the importance of human-made art, but I think it’s just a fascinating discussion.
It’s interesting you started to like the conversation saying you weren’t into sci-fi. But as a lifelong genre lover, these big discussions are what genre is all about.
That was a huge discovery for me. And of course, I binged every episode and I think you’re right. I’ve now come to have a love and appreciation for sci-fi because like it’s been my life for the past two years, and coming to understand that science fiction isn’t just flying cars and people with gears in their chests. It’s about people and about culture and about technology, which is what THE ARTIFICE GIRL is all about.
You can go all the way back to Metropolis.
I don’t know if you caught them but, there are tons of Metropolis references in THE ARTIFICE GIRL. That would be one of my all-time favorite science fiction films. One of the best. I’m sure there, there are lots of little hidden references and nuances. Max Headroom references too.
How did you research the darker, abusive elements in the film?
I didn’t want the film to necessarily be too much about that side of it. I feel like even depicting it in the film runs the risk of romanticizing it, which is the opposite of what we’re trying to do. I never wanted to show any of that To Catch a Predator stuff. I never wanted to show any of that because that’s just not what the story was about. That just provided a very grounded context and provided everyone with a shared motivation. We want to solve this problem that everybody can agree is a problem. And it does set up this idea that even with the best intentions, how you solve the problem is just as important because you then run the risk of potentially harming others, or completely being ignorant of who you might be causing harm to.
So yes, obviously there are a lot of themes and ideas of systemic abuse and trauma. But again, we wanted to approach all of it from a more nuanced, philosophical perspective rather than a more blatant brutal depiction. That’s just not what we were going for. But as far as research is concerned, talking to people in this line of work was super insightful. Everyone to some degree has experienced trauma or abuse. In this day and age, it seems like a lot of us have grown up with it. Being sensitive to that and being honest about that with ourselves personally because it’s no one else’s business what other people have gone through. If there’s anything I want from this film in that regard, it’s that it encourages people to just be more thoughtful and mindful and empathetic, and compassionate. I think that’s something that we can all do and we all should do.
What did you glean anything from your research that made it into their characters?
I can only speculate to the extent, but obviously, it takes a toll on your emotions, your personality, even how you look at your own family and children. But at the same time it’s also, it’s a nine to five and you do have to compartmentalize a little bit. I hope that the characters in this film accurately portray the variety of sides to working in that kind of line of work and doing that kind of justice.
I really appreciated that everyone was so earnest about it. They were all approaching it from different angles.
That was, to me, a huge draw to this idea. There’s no discussion about what it is we’re trying to do. No. The question is about how we do it and are we doing it the right way? I always love stories about characters that are one-track in their objective. It’s just very earnest. They all have the same goal and it’s not questionable that they’re on the same team.
It is not sensationalized. None of this is done for anything other than showing respect for humanity.
That was important. And I’m sure, you know, it makes for a very dry and dialogue-driven film. But at the same time, I do think that it is preferable over something that romanticizes something that we don’t need to do that for.
We very early on said we’re not going to show any flashbacks or montages. We want to keep the audience in that space and in this, in the middle of this conversation; like a fly on the wall. People have asked, did you consider shooting any of the background story? No, that was never a thought. We wanted to keep the focus on forming characters.