Mind and matter

Franklin Ritch on artificial intelligence, ethics and The Artifice Girl

by Jennie Kermode

The Artifice Girl
The Artifice Girl Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

The Fantasia International Film Festival has long had a reputation for supporting thoughtful, intelligent science fiction, and this year The Artifice Girl is one of the standouts in that area. It’s directed by Florida filmmaker Franklin Ritch, who also stars as Gareth, a computer programmer who sets out to create an artificial intelligence capable of hunting for child molesters online. When his project attracts the attention of the authorities, Gareth is forced to make compromises, but what really complicates matters is the process of change going on within the AI itself, which raises a series of difficult ethical questions.

The film is split into three acts, the first of which takes place in a single, dimly lit room, beginning as an interrogation and gradually morphing into a negotiation. It’s the sort of scene which is really tough for writers and directors to pull off, especially if they have little prior feature film experience, but somehow Franklin gets away with it, so when he and I met to discuss the film, it was the first thing I asked him about.

“You're absolutely right. It is tricky,” he says. “And it's something that I was definitely nervous about throughout the whole process, starting with the writing, just making sure that the information was revealed over the course of a nice structure with a good pace. So that we're not just dropping a lot of exposition all at once, making sure that we every time we give them a little bit more information, it also has an additional mystery on top of it that keeps the audience engaged. And then also with production, it was a similar kind of thing where you didn't just want to keep cutting back to the same shots of people, you had to keep the camera and inner shot compositions dynamic in some way. Without it feeling like you were going crazy by the end of the scene, you wanted it to still feel consistent. So yeah, we spent a lot of time trying to make sure that, especially in that first act, that the audience got a sense of ‘Okay, this is a story that's going to take place in one location. And we can settle into that.’ But at the same time, keeping it like you said, dynamic, and keeping it fresh.”

There’s an additional challenge there because Cherry, the AI (played by Tatum Matthews) is just a face on a screen, and a fairly blank face at that.

He nods. “Cherry doesn't show a lot of emotion in that first act so the onus was on the other characters. It was more about how are they reacting to Cherry. And in particular, you've got a character who is trying to look for that emotion, trying to look for that personality, and is just kind of befuddled that it's that it's not there. I'm sure that when they watch it, there are going to be some people that say ‘Oh, was she actually CGI?’ even though no, we shot her in live action and just did a little bit of visual manipulation afterwards. She is not CGI. But we also chose to do it so that we were Cherry from the perspective of of Amos, who sees more than just, you know, a CGI avatar. He can't distinguish the difference between that and in a real child. So it was more about what the characters were experiencing and emoting in those scenes with Cherry on the screen.”

I congratulate him on managing to avoid most of the clichés which usually find their way into stories of this type. It is very bluntly explained to Amos that Cherry was artificially generated and doesn’t have emotions. Was it important to keep it grounded in that way?

“Absolutely. That was the idea going into into this, that I didn't want it to be a clichéd representation of artificial intelligence. I wanted to start the film in a place that felt very grounded in reality so that later on, when we start to push the borders of what's possible, people can connect the dots more easily. So yeah, I think also, the more that the character Gareth keeps insisting that Cherry is artificial and Cherry doesn't experience emotions, the more the audience wants to prove him wrong.“

There are already some real devices a bit like Cherry which are being used to hunt for predators online. Did he do a lot of research into those before writing?

“That was kind of what initially turned me on to the idea,” he says. “I had read articles about people that were using motion capture avatars to hunt online predators. And then in a separate part of the world, people were using text based chatbots to hunt down predators. And so I thought that'd be interesting, seeing a merging of those two things into something a little more complicated and a little more cinematic. But then I didn't feel any interest in writing a story until I had made a connection between that and this ethical dilemma, and this parallel between the growing adolescence of AI and childhood trauma.

“Once that connection was made, for me, it was like, ‘Alright, this is a story I have to tell.’ But yes, there's a lot of research that was done into these real programs that people are using. And again, I don't know, I'm sure we are only told what's on the surface, I'm sure there's a lot that has to be kept secret – and, you know, kudos to those people. I can't imagine how complicated it is and what kinds of dilemmas and problems that those people have to solve, but Godspeed to them.”

There’s a lot of concern expressed, within the film, about the psychological damage done to people who do that kind of work. I ask if he wanted to pay to them through the film – and perhaps also to people who do things like dealing with trolling complaints on social media, and have to read that kind of thing all day.

“Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think that was part of the the real kind of appeal to me of this idea that hunting down online predators and traffickers is hard for people to do, because of that emotional connection that you will just inherently have as a human being with the victims. And it's, it's heartbreaking to have to address that, and do it without it affecting you emotionally. So the idea of letting an AI view it, to me was genius. But at the same time, you know, at what point will the AI get smart enough to experience trauma of its own? And you know, that may not be possible in the real world. But to me, it was at least a hypothetical that I thought was worth exploring through fiction.”

I mention the fact that I see a lot of panicky articles about how AIs set loose on the internet pick up lots of racism and misogyny from people out there, and it always seemed to me that the real issue there is the lack of anyone to parent them through it, because that's exactly the same thing that would happen to a human child. By contrast, Cherry goes through this experience with humans around her and with people who are perhaps authority figures whom she can learn from.

“Absolutely. You know, I think children are a reflection of the people that raised them, and the same goes for AI. Like you said, if you put an AI on a website where people are prone to saying things that are prejudiced or hurtful, the AI will probably reflect that. To me it was like, rather than tell a story about that AI, what about putting that AI in a environment where it was being raised by people who had one singular priority, which was to save children, and to do it intellectually, methodically, and with civility, but at the same time, there's always going to be those negative human traits that seep through, for instance, Gareth’s, childhood trauma, and the way that he kind of projects that onto Cherry ends up having damaging consequences, which ultimately plays into the this theme throughout the film of the cycles of trauma and abuse.”

He didn’t initially intend to appear in the film himself, he says. That happened for budgetary reasons, but it paid off onscreen.

“I figured, you know, this is a character that I feel like I definitely put a lot of my own negative qualities and traits into, so I think I have just as good as chance as anyone. I have a little bit of acting experience so I didn't feel like I was lost at sea, but I will just say, it was totally worth getting to act alongside some of my favourite actors that I've ever worked with. David Girard, Sinda Nichols and Tatum Matthews, who are what I consider to be the real leads in the film. They are just absolutely incredible performers, and they helped me a lot to grow and evolve as an actor just throughout the process of shooting this.”

They were all part of the creative group he usually works with, he explains.

“David Girard is someone who I have always said like, in every film I do, David will have a role. We've been friends for for several years. And then Sinda Nichols was someone who I acted on stage with several times before. Most recently, she played my mother in a play by Aaron Posner called Stupid Fucking Bird, and we have a lot of intense scenes together. So we already had that kind of mutual trust as actors. And then Tatum Matthews was someone who I directed in a few other film projects and a stage play.

“So I was already very familiar with just the fact that I didn't even have to worry about her, she was ready. Of course, we're all going to be riding her coattails by the end of the year. She's absolutely terrific. And you know, for such a demanding role for a child to play, such an intense character that spans so many different stages, I barely had any table work time with her. All of the research that she did, she initiated. Every time that I was like, ‘Hey, you might want to consider this.’ she was like, ‘Oh, I've already done that.’

“So I had known all of them before except for, of course, Lance Henriksen, who I was absolutely fangirling over when I met him and when he shot his scene – and he and I have become very close friends since. It's been really tremendous getting to work with someone of that calibre.”

How did he come on board?

“That's all from Paper Street Pictures, our producers, who were very generous in letting us tell the story that we wanted to. We had already shot half of the film and sent it to them and they I liked it enough to give us that extra boost. And so when we talked about casting Lance's character, which I won't spoil, his name was at the top of the list. He loved the script, and from the first phone call that he had with me, it was it was clear that we had someone who wasn't just going to show up on set and do the lines. This guy wanted to talk about the story and talk about the character for hours and hours, which was like a dream come true for director and writer. So that that was absolutely fantastic, and an absolute blessing.”

As we move through the film, we're effectively moving from somewhere which seems close to our present, some way into the future, and we see the spaces used in the film open up and get brighter. Was that a way of intimating that the world is changing, or was he also wanting to talk about the way that Cherry is opening up as a character over that time?

“I think visually, because we were only working with a few spaces, we had to show a very distinct transformation over the course of time. And to me, it just made sense, because Act One starts in such a dim, dark, kind of desolate space, that yeah, it should feel more vibrant and more open. Not just so that it implies that we're moving forward into the future, but also to represent Cherry's evolution, starting from just a server in an empty room to something a little more sophisticated. So there are a lot of parallels to the visuals that we chose.”

He’s thrilled about being at Fantasia.

“I couldn't be more excited. This is my first feature première, and to get to play the film alongside some of my favourite storytellers...” He grins. “I'm also a bit of a dork, so to see something like Shin Ultraman on the schedule, like, the day before my film, it's insane to me. But I'm also just really excited to get to meet everybody and meet all these creative people. And see some familiar faces as well. I'm a huge fan of Mickey Reece and his film Country Gold, so I'm really thrilled to get to just be included alongside these incredible storytellers.

“Because of quarantining and things like that, I've been doing a lot of writing. So I have several projects. I definitely want to break away from the tone of Artifice Girl. I'm really pleased with how it turned out and thrilled that as a straight drama, you know, it seems like it's resonating with people, but I definitely would love to get back to some of my roots with dark comedy. I would love to try a political comedy and, you know, maybe a very kind of bizarre, subversive horror sometime. There's lots of stuff I'd like to like to try. So I've got plenty of scripts and no shortage of stories.”

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