“Imagine the most sincerely encouraging, feel-good movie you’ve ever seen. Then imagine the 180-degree opposite — the most sincerely helpless-making, devastating movie you could ever see. Then imagine not being able to look away.”
—S.T. VanAirsdale, Movie Line.
In this interview with Movie Line, director Chris Smith talks about the making of his terrifying, darkly hypnotic documentary, Collapse, the challenges of preparing for a debate with someone with thirty years more experience, and the lessons he took away from the experience.
How did you meet Michael Ruppert?
In the ’70s Michael became a whistleblower in terms of a connection between the CIA and drug trafficking. Consequently his life sort of fell apart. The story that we had heard about came up just while we doing another project. We had just finished a film and were researching new things, and this was one of the ideas that we thought would be interesting to pursue, just to see if anything would come of it. It was really born out of just trying to have him talk about that project. When we contacted him and set up a meeting at his house, he had just finished writing a book basically about what he sees happening — the things that have led to the point in history where we are now — and what he sees coming our way. When we went there we realized very quickly that he wasn’t interested in talking about the past, but he was very much consumed with what he sees happening around us.
So we just kind of went with it. We spent two or three hours at his house, and it was this incredible sort of train-of-thought monologue. We left not quite sure what to make of it or Michael or anything else we thought of doing with him. But we kept coming back to it over the next couple weeks; we kept thinking about what he said and the way he said it, and kind of came to this conclusion to see if anything was there. So we organized to shoot with him for a few days in March 2009. That kind of started the beginning of the process.
How did you conjure and create this setting — this dark, empty space where Michael holds forth?
Our goal was to not do it in a studio. I was much more interested in trying to get the audience into Michael’s head — the world he lives in every day, the way that he looks at the world. We decided we wanted to film him exclusively in a setting that was visually engaging and interesting. We originally started looking for locations that had a postapocalyptic feel; the idea there was to put him in a place that would be representational of the world that he’s describing. Then we moved away from that because the more we got into the project, it seemed more appropriate to film somewhere where it felt like an interrogation could take place, and also played up his past connections to this underworld between the CIA and drug trafficking. It felt like some secret, hidden bunker where you’d take someone to transfer information that was perceived to be dangerous or top secret. It was a combination of those ideas that led us to that place. And also, cinematically, it felt like it was from that world.