It has often been said that true science fiction is defined by the first word in that term; take out the science, and there’s no story. By that definition, any number of space adventures wouldn’t qualify, as their basic plots could still be told without the special effects and hardware; one film that absolutely does is Franklin Ritch’s The Artifice Girl. Not only is this dramatic thriller dependent on the extrapolated technology at its center, it also asks provocative questions about its use and where current developments in AI may be going.
The Artifice Girl comes to theaters and VOD/digital platforms this Thursday, April 27 from XYZ Films following festival play, including Fantasia (where it won the Best International Feature award and where this interview was conducted) and SXSW. It begins with programmer Gareth (played by Ritch) under interrogation by sex crime investigation agents Deena Helms (Sinda Nichols) and Amos McCullough (David Girard). Evidence from his computer suggests that Gareth is a child predator, particularly images of a young girl named Cherry. But as the questioning continues, it is revealed that Gareth and especially Cherry (Tatum Matthews) are not who they appear to be. In particular, Cherry is not even human, but an AI construct created and programmed to help entrap those who would exploit young people online. As the story progresses through three different time periods (the last one showcasing Lance Henriksen in the best role he’s had in years), The Artifice Girl raises compelling questions about the boundaries between artificial and human intelligence, thanks to the superb performances and Ritch’s ever-evolving dialogue.
Where did your interest in this subject matter come from? Was it more about the online investigation side, or the technology itself?
I just thought it was fascinating hearing about the technologies being used to this end, and I wanted to know what kind of conversations people were having behind the scenes of working on those kinds of tools. But I didn’t feel compelled to write about it until making the connection between the growth and birth of AI and childhood as a theme, and childhood trauma and abuse. Once I found that thematic parallel, I felt this was a story I needed to find a way to tell.
During your research, did you discover that the FBI or anyone else is actually using AI or simulations for this sort of purpose?
Absolutely. This is no secret, and part of what inspired this film was reading all these articles about the different methods people were using to catch these predators. I discovered that there’s an organization out there that, several years ago, made a CGI child avatar model, and used motion tracking to puppeteer her on livestreams, and other places that were using AI chatbots to infiltrate chatrooms and message these people. So this technology is out there, though I don’t know to what extent it’s being used–and I’m sure we’re not supposed to know.
There’s a lot of technical jargon in the film, and you’ve said that you didn’t know about any of that stuff before writing it.
No, I took a couple of online courses because I came in knowing nothing about machine learning or computing. And then, as I was workshopping the script, a lot of people who knew about the subject helped out in finessing the vocabulary. What was important to me was knowing enough to make sure it felt accurate but to still focus on the narrative, the characters, and the emotion.
As far as the subject of tracking child predators online, did you do any research into that sensitive subject?
I did. A lot of it was just talking to people who work in that field and do that for a living. That was the most helpful form of research, knowing what it was like on a personal level to have to withstand that kind of emotional gauntlet. Obviously, it takes a toll personally. I didn’t want to focus the story too much on the predator aspect, though, and more to use it as a very deliberate grounding of: This is everybody’s motivation, we can all agree that we need to do something about it. And then, from there, what lengths are we willing to go to? How much of ourselves are we willing to compromise in order to succeed at that?
You have some fun references to Star Wars in the interrogation sequence…
[Laughs] Yes, a lot of references to my sci-fi favorites, including Star Wars. This film takes place a few years in the near future, and we reference that there’s a new Star Wars movie. I’d be curious to see, I can only speculate on who would be directing that future film. I doubt it’ll be me!
Was it always your intention to co-star in addition to writing and directing?
Not really, no. That was born out of necessity when we shot the proof-of-concept, for budgetary reasons, but also for COVID reasons, because we shot the feature in 2020. We just wanted to limit the amount of people who had to be in those small spaces. Obviously, we had crewmembers outside of the rooms, but on set, it also helped to be able to stay with the actors in an intimate way and help guide the scenes.
Speaking of working in an intimate way, you found a remarkable variety of ways to shoot your limited settings. What were the challenges of that?
Definitely trying to keep the audience consistently engaged. We had to communicate a lot of exposition in the first thirty minutes, so we tried to find a way of doing that without it feeling like an information dump. One of the techniques we used was always sharing a new secret while at the same time introducing a new mystery, and maintaining that pattern consistently throughout the course of the first hour or so. Also, meticulous preproduction planning of shot compositions and making sure we were very specific and deliberate with our coverage. We didn’t just want to find the story in post, in editing. I knew going into this how I was going to put it together.
How did you find Tatum Matthews, who’s terrific in the movie?
I worked with Tatum on a few previous projects and short films. When she auditioned the first time for a project I was working on, she gave an incredible monologue that brought me and everyone in the room to tears. It was one of those moments where it was like, “Obviously you got the part, but let’s keep in touch because there are even more interesting and complex roles down the line that we’d love to work with you on.” I’m so glad that I’ve now had the opportunity to collaborate with her on something that really puts her talent on full display.
She has a lot of technical dialogue to deliver, so how did you work with her on that?
[Laughs] She has, I think, the most five-syllable words out of everyone in the group! But she was incredibly dedicated to not only researching performance techniques for pulling off something this ambitious, but also doing her homework on what all those words meant, what their practical purposes were, and mastering that very complicated vocabulary.
And as soon as she knew there was going to be a scene where Cherry plays chess, she immediately bought a hundred chess-playing books and three different chess sets, and practiced every day—only to find out that we had the entire chess game choreographed, so she didn’t have to do any of that! But of course, she immediately ran with it. I think that if she were to take on a role where she plays, I don’t know, a child street fighter, she’ll commit to it and learn to do kung fu or whatever she needs to do. She’s just that kind of actor.
You’ve said that for all the scenes where she’s on screen, she did that live while you were shooting?
That’s right, yes. None of the scenes where she appears on the TV screen were composited. That was all done live; we fed an HDMI cable through the wall into the adjacent room and into a camera, and had her white-void mini-set sort of streaming live onto the TV, so the actors on set could react to her and converse with her in real-time.
Was there ever a sense of having to shield her from some of the more unsavory aspects of what this story concerns?
Absolutely. We talked very early on, before bringing her into the project, with her and her mother, who was very supportive of this whole project. We were dealing with intense subject matter, and Tatum’s safety and comfort were the number-one priorities on this project. She managed to be very mature and honest about how she was feeling over the course of the shoot. She understood the material enough to portray the character without having to research anything that would be harmful to someone her age.
And she holds her own opposite Lance Henriksen. How was it working with the two of them together?
Incredible. To get to pair up the rising star you’ve discovered with your legendary childhood idol was surreal. The fact that they had such chemistry, and bonded so immediately, was so satisfying to just bear witness to, let alone collaborate with.
Were there any other choices for that role, or did you always know it would be Henriksen?
Lance was at the top of our list. Obviously, because of his prestigious background in playing these very rich sci-fi characters, it just made so much sense to cast someone like Lance, and we also knew he could play a part like this so well. We’ve seen him so many times in films lately where he’s played cameos or the rough old man, and I’ve always wanted to see him in something where he could really show the depth of characterization he can get to. And our expectations, as high as they were, were all still completely blown away.
Do you see The Artifice Girl as a hopeful film about technology and its possibilities, or a cautionary tale, or maybe a bit of both?
I think it’s less a cautionary tale about technology and more a cautionary tale about how we as humans treat that technology and how we approach it. Some people say that the technological advancements, and the type of singularity and evolution the film talks about are inevitable. Some people say they’re fiction; I can’t say either way. But I do believe that as people, we need to be practicing compassion and thoughtfulness toward any intelligence, whether it’s artificial or not, just so we can develop the right habits. So when technology does catch up with us and overshoots us, when AI does surpass humans–if AI ever surpasses humans–we will be able to empathize with it, be compassionate toward it, and raise it like we should be raising our children.