During the Sundance Film Festival, which took place in January as the tempestuous swearing-in of Donald Trump was unfolding, a long line formed outside a party following the world premiere screening of “Marjorie Prime.”
The reason for the long line was that festivalgoers wanted to meet one of the movie’s stars, John Hamm, who plays the part of a hologram of a man who had died a few years earlier. His family decides to “revive” him in order to help his elderly, Alzheimer-stricken wife (played by Lois Smith, who also appeared in “How to Make an American Quilt”).
Hamm, well-known for his role as Don Draper in Mad Men, honored the event with his attendance, but confusingly, it was possible to meet him after he’d left, thanks to a hologram in his image created and produced at the instigation of the film’s producer Uri Singer.
As reported by the Hollywood Reporter, who came up with the nickname “the Holohamm,” this was the first instance of a well-known Hollywood actor being presented as a hologram. It was a result of a collaborative venture between Singer’s production company, Passage Pictures, and the 8i virtual reality software company, which specializes in holograms. Hamm joins a long line of musicians who have appeared as holograms, including 2Pac, Snoop Dogg and Elvis. This trend, which started in 2012, could change the entertainment industry since it enables the creation of stars out of thin air – as is currently happening with hologram-based pop stars in Japan – and be used for the revival of musicians and actors who have passed away.
“Marjorie Prime” is based on a successful play of the same name by Jordan Harrison, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015. The film is a slow-faced drama that focuses on the relationship between Marjorie (Smith) and the hologram of her dead husband Walter (Hamm). Due to her illness, it’s doubtful whether Marjorie realizes that the man she is sharing her life with is not a human but a software that has access to Walter’s memories and life experiences.
As in “Be Right Back,” an episode of the British science fiction series “Black Mirror,” the movie deals with memory, family and intimacy, asking what would happen if we could bring back into our lives a spouse, children or people we love who were taken from us.
“I met American director Michael Almereyda a few years ago after he had purchased the rights to the story of social psychologist Stanley Milgram,” Singer recounted in a Skype interview from his Los Angeles home. “He then cast Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard as the main characters for his movie ‘Experimenter.’ The story behind Milgram’s controversial experiments interested me and I went to New York to meet Almereyda. I was deeply impressed by him. He is quiet, brilliant and precise. It’s a pleasure to watch him working on the set. ‘The Experimenter’ came out in 2015 and received raving reviews. It was screened at film festivals in New York, Sundance, Haifa and all around the world.
“Michael and I decided to continue our collaboration and this led to ‘Marjorie Prime.’ Michael saw the play on which the screenplay is based in New York. It is the story of a sick 86-year-old woman, and at the same time I was in Israel since my mother had just suffered a stroke – the screenplay therefore spoke directly to me and I wanted to produce it.”
When did you decide that Hamm would play the leading role?
“We both knew we wanted a glittering cast of stars who would help us with wide distribution. Michael said he wanted Lois Smith, a veteran and well-respected actress who had played the main role in the stage production. We were looking for a male lead and someone suggested Hamm, who really liked the script. I really liked Mad Men and was glad to learn that Hamm is very professional, a very nice and congenial person on and off the set. Later, Tim Robbins and Geena Davis also joined.”
It’s surprising to see Hamm in a low-budget, small art-house film.
“None of these actors worked under the conditions and for the wages they are accustomed to. They did it almost as volunteers, since they found the story interesting and compelling.”
The virtual reality age
The movie, which received mixed reviews, remained faithful to the stage version, avoiding special effects. In fact, there is a deliberate blurring of the distinction between humans and holograms, with no way of telling them apart. In the film’s strongest scenes, Walter and Marjorie conduct philosophical conversations on memory, forgetfulness and repression, wondering together whether it’s better to imagine an alternative past rather than return to traumas that scarred their family forever.
Singer says that “Michael told me that we weren’t producing ‘Minority Report’ or a Tom Cruise action movie. Even though the movie takes place in an imaginary future, he insisted that the special effects and choreography would be minimalist, not futurist.”
Singer, 56, was born and raised in Haifa, leaving for Brazil at the age of 25. After setting up some successful businesses (“I had a car accessory business, after which I set up a women’s undergarments business,” he relates), he entered the world of advertising and eventually became a film producer. A few years ago he moved, with his Brazilian wife and three sons, to Los Angeles, where he now owns a production company called Passage Pictures.
When asked if he still considers himself Israeli, Singer answers in the affirmative. “Of course, I’ll always be Israeli. I still have an accent when speaking English and I drive like an Israeli. But I have no intention of returning to Israel.”
These days, he is working on five interesting projects: a star-studded biography of American-Israeli tycoon Marc Rich, a cinematic version of Don DeLillo’s book “White Noise,” a new movie directed by Almereyda based on the biography of inventor Nikola Tesla, a version of Niv Kaplan’s mystery-thriller “Tracks” to be filmed in New York and the Sinai desert, and a comedy directed by Ted Melfi, now a hot item in Hollywood after the great success of his movie “Hidden Figures.”
Ultimately, “Marjorie Prime” is about memory, but it has an almost subversive message about the need to forget and repress. Is that how you read it?
“Yes, absolutely. Human memory is very selective. We’re not always aware of the things we choose to remember or forget. The movie also asks who we would bring back to life if we could. That’s not easy to answer. The technology is already there in some respects. In Japan there are now holograms that take care of the elderly, keeping them company. This industry is in its infancy, but we’re closer to it becoming a reality than we realize.”
So can we bring back our parents after they die?
“Theoretically, we can. Combining big data technologies and 3-D printers will allow us to do that. Ahead of the Sundance and Berlin film festivals I wanted to do something original that would evoke interest in our movie. I turned to a company that specializes in creating a virtual reality in order to make a hologram of Hamm that could communicate and talk to festival attendees for 15 minutes. This technology is quite common in the music world, but this is the first time a hologram was made to promote a movie.”
Nevertheless, it sounds like a gimmick. Do you think this is where the future of the music and film industries lies? What is the appeal of holograms?
“In general, I believe that virtual reality will become increasingly dominant in our lives. In Japan it’s easier for young people to emotionally communicate with robots, computerized dolls and holograms. This is very worrisome, but I think that’s the direction we’re going in. Big corporations like Google and Apple are developing new technologies that are similar to what we describe in this movie. However, there is more potential for this in video games and pornography than in the movie industry. Games and sex are areas in which there is a huge advantage to being able to communicate with virtual images.”
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