‘Phobias’: Writer/Director Joe Sill on embodying Robophobia

Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Joe Sill tackles a topic that has become very dear to all of us in the age of COVID-19, technology. He, of course, dives into the darker side of technology in the anthology horror film Phobias.

Phobias synopsis: Five dangerous patients, suffering from extreme phobias at a government testing facility, are put to the ultimate test under the supervision of a crazed doctor and his quest to weaponize fear.

Starring: Alexis Knapp, Martina Garcia, Charlotte McKinney, Hana Mae Lee, Lauren Miller Rogen, Macy Gray and Leonardo Nam. Directed by: Camilla Belle, Maritte Lee Go, Joe Sill, Jess Varley, and Chris Von Hoffman; each taking a phobia segment of the film for this anthology. The five phobias include atelophobia, robophobia, hoplophobia, vehophobia and ephebiphobia.

Can you explain the process of putting this film together? 
Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Joe: I think it’s a good place to start where, Eric, one of the producers had kind of decided to broach the conversation with all of us pretty early on before bringing us together like ‘what, would you think about doing if you were to make a short about a certain phobia and do it quickly?’ I found it to be an interesting topic and prompt to kind of try and create within, and as soon as we all sat in the same room, realized I was working with some friends I already knew. Some new friends that I would certainly become collaborators with, and I think, just coming together on the topic of focus itself, I think that was what really got us all very excited. By that time we had a couple ideas individually, threw them on a wall with everybody else in the same room and realized what everybody was gravitating towards. You could see what people would get excited about and what people felt was going to be most cohesive with what they were excited about. So, for me, I had what ended up being robophobia and a couple other ideas, and it just, it felt natural that the one we ended up going with for myself was the one that was most exciting to the team as well.

What exactly is Robophobia?

Joe: Well, I guess the dictionary definition would be the fear of robots and AI, just the general fear of mechanics and artificial intelligence. For myself, it was specifically directed towards a fear of AI. And I think it was an exciting perspective on if you met a fledgling AI in a chat room and you didn’t know it was an AI, because it was so adaptable to your expressions and your emotions and your wants and needs that it became human. You obviously couldn’t see its face and then once you heard its voice, you realize that it’s quickly adapting to everything around you and becoming very entrenched in your life, and how possible that is. Mine definitely veers into a bit of the magically realistic at a certain point, and I think that was just something I was excited to do to take it from being very grounded and very supposedly realistic and take it into the more dramatic flair. But it does pose a fascinating point for me that with things like Rephase, and even apps like Clubhouse or Zoom, where your voice, your likeness, it’s all being catalogued and reserved. It would not be surprising if AI could talk like you and look like you at some point.

Is this something that you would consider to be a phobia for you? 

Joe: You know, it’s funny because I find myself to be very much, in every part of my life, very much in partnership with technology. I think I’ve used technology to drive my storytelling since I was a kid. I’ve been very invested in visual effects based stories because I naturally want to build worlds with my stories so I have to use technology. And, in fact, I want to most of the time because it gives me so many tools and affords me so many things that I could do that is not possible in just quote unquote ‘the real world.’ So I think I have, personally, a very interesting relationship with technology where like, I love it, and then I’m also fascinated and terrified by it at the same time… It’s everywhere. I mean, our desire to make our lives more convenient is also what is coming into direct conflict with what makes our lives organic and human.

What was it like tackling this section of the movie, not only as the writer, but also as the director?

Joe: It kind of just went hand in hand. I had a lot of control when writing my piece. I knew exactly how I would want it. I’m particularly a very visual storyteller, so I think it was nice to be able to write all the specific visual directions that you would want to see on the screen as early as on black and white pieces of paper.  It was great to kind of control the narrative very early on. And also, it was exciting to see what everybody else was writing, specifically speaking to their particular phobia. So, I think it was fun. It was fun to start from the ground up. 

Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
What was it like working with Leonardo Nam?

Joe: It was awesome. He’s a really cool guy and I was really honored to work with him. We had met a little while back before this project and kind of started to talk about what we could do together and what we could try out together and this just became the perfect place for us to begin a project together. He was extraordinarily collaborative and already had kind of a very specific perspective on how he would like to envision the character, which was great because having known him for a little bit, we identified with a lot of similar things so by the time we got to this short we realized we had very similar talking points that we would discuss. He’s very invested in family and I’m very invested in family driven stories so I think we wanted to make sure we were telling the story about a young man who desperately cared about the safety of his father.

That’s awesome! So, you got to collaborate with him?

Joe: Oh yeah, it was great to, like, explain what I was going for and share early drafts with him and kind of discuss from a character driven standpoint, how best can we evoke these scenes and how can we expand upon them. And when we got on set, it would become even more of a reenvisioning. We would kind of reimagine the blocking and reimagine some of the dialogue and atmosphere and it was a very exploratory process. 

Is there anything else that you’d like to add about Phobias?

Joe: I’m excited to see it come together with all the other films. It was great to see that while we were working with the same teams, like the same cinematographers the same production designer, everybody has their individual voice and their individual tastes so it’s just going to be exciting to see everybody’s voices come out.

Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
Phobias will be released On Demand and digital on March 19th.