Shelli DeRobertis 5:08 p.m., June 19
Interview: Austin Vickers on his film People vs. The State of Illusion
I think it's fair to calls Austin Vickers's film People vs. The State of Illusion an investigation into the human person, conducted for the sake of enlightenment with an eye toward personal improvement. To make the film, Vickers sought out and interviewed expert "witnesses" in various fields — physicist Robert Jahn, psychologist Thomas Moore, pharmacologist Candace Pert, business analyst Peter Senge, et. al. Then he built a narrative illustration of their key observations, a sort of modern-day version of the medieval Everyman plays.
In the narrative, single dad Aaron Rogers kills a mother of two in a drunk-driving accident and is sentenced to a prison term for his crimes. Once in prison, he clashes with a sour, scornful guard before meeting a janitor sage. Over time, the janitor helps Rogers to gain a new perspective on his situation and on his life in general.
Vickers, who is also cofounder of the Human Process Mastery Institute (a personal leadership program), passed through San Diego last week, and was kind enough to sit down for a chat about his project.
Congratulations on getting this made and on getting Samuel Goldwyn to take it on. How did that happen for you?
I originally made the film for PBS. But I had just finished making it, and we were getting really good audience response whenever we showed it. Through a mutual friend, I got a connection to the Harkins movie chain in Arizona. They agreed to show the film for one week, just to see how it would do on the big screen. We sold out, and it played for two months. Our revenue-per-theater was four to five times normal, something like $10,000 a week. Based on that, Samuel Goldwyn and others became interested.
Amazing. How did you market it?
Just grassroots, really. We put an ad in the local paper, but for our genre of film, it's much more about word of mouth. Using social media, contacting groups that are into mental health or self-awareness: yoga studios, coaching associations. Plus just hitting the streets, passing out postcards, talking to as many people as we could.
How did you choose your expert witnesses?
It was purely selfish. I'd read material from all of them and gotten a quantum leap in understanding of one form or another from each one. So they had all touched my life. They also represented different segments of society, and they were heavyweights in their respective domains. Finally, these are people from MIT and Princeton. This isn't woo-woo science; they're working from well-established principles.
Dr. Jahn's work around human-machine interactions and the effect of intention on inanimate objects like computers set the groundwork for all this stuff many years ago. He was largely responsible for creating jet propulsion in this country, which helped put people on the moon. The government wanted to know, "If we're going to put people in billion-dollar rocket ships filled with highly sensitive electronic equipment, and a guy is pissed off at his wife, is his emotional state going to affect the equipment that he's operating?" It's a fascinating question. After 25 years, they concluded their research by saying, "There's no reason to continue to see whether or not this works. We know it works. What we need to do now is figure out what to do with it."
Yeah, the experiment with the chicks is the most dramatic moment in the film. You've got those chicks that think the robot is their mother, and the robot sort of betrays its random-motion programming to stay near them.
I love that, because the baby chicks don't know they're in an experiment. Humans have the ability to manipulate, but baby chicks are just operating on that pure, raw intention.
This is a fairly heady subject, with lots of experts talking at length about this or that aspect of human experience. Why make a film, as opposed to a book?
We're becoming so accustomed to TV and movies — viewership for those probably far exceeds book reading in this country. And it's a rich medium. There are a lot of layers built into the movie in terms of the dialogues, what's going on from start to finish.
Indeed. Tell me about the progression. I noticed that the front seemed loaded with the talk about stress and the effect of emotions in general, while the latter half focused much more on thoughts and patterns of perception.
There are a lot of different progressions. There's that one you mention, but also, the discussion in the beginning is much more brain-based and neurological, and toward the end, it's heart-centered. We're taking the viewers on a journey, and it's much more emotionally compelling toward the end of the film.
Of course, the Aaron Rogers narrative helps with that.
One of the things I've learned from working [with] lots of people over the years is that people like to externalize issues. If I asked you, "Matt, what are your issues? What do you really struggle with?" you might be reluctant to answer. Also, you might not really know what your issues are. But if I said to you, "Tell me who are the people in your life who have really bothered you and what is wrong with them" or "What issues have showed up most in your life with your friends or your family?" you'd be able to tell me relatively easily. That's because it's an externalized viewpoint. As long as you're talking about somebody else, none of your ego defenses go off. But I know that if I get you to identify that external life issue, whatever it is you're telling me is really about you — for all the reasons that we explain in the film.
So, Aaron Rogers serves as a stand-in for the viewer.
We're telling stories about what he's gone through, but what the viewer hopefully realizes by the end is that we're putting the viewer on trial. If they're conscious, then they're going to be looking at themselves throughout the film, asking themselves how they're responding, what is the pattern of that response, and if they always respond that way when challenged.
How did you come up with the particulars of the narrative?
All of the dialogues are real-life dialogues I've had with clients over the years, dialogues that worked in transformative ways with those people.
Certainly the most challenging moment in the Aaron Rogers story is the...
The alcoholic exchange.
Right. Aaron asks the janitor what he would say to an alcoholic, and the janitor says that he would ask what was good about being an alcoholic. At the very least, this seems counterintuitive.
It's completely counterintuitive.
The janitor goes on to explain himself, of course, and I don't want to give too much away. But is there anything else you'd like to say about that scene?
I've worked with lots of alcoholics, so that conversation has come out of work that I've done. I spoke at the Ben Franklin Institute a couple of years ago — it's basically the largest association of mental-health providers in the country. Essentially, I told them that in many respects, traditional psychotherapy can be part of the problem as opposed to the solution. It becomes a problem when a person walks into your office and says, "I've got a problem with addiction," and you say, "Okay, I'm going to help you with your problem."
Is calling it a problem a problem?
Long before the actions of the alcoholic, you've got the mindset of the alcoholic, the lack of care for self of the alcoholic. We go through a series of pains and hurts, and we start to numb ourselves, and if we're not conscious about that, it can spiral out of control, to the point where it starts to create all kinds of issues in our life.
Whenever I ask an alcoholic or addict, "What's bad about your drinking?" they can talk for hours. But the minute I ask, "What's good about it? Why might whatever's inside you seek the experience of alcoholism from a positive standpoint?" all I get is a blank stare. Because they're so fixated on the idea that there is something bad about them. But there are underlying values to all behaviors — anger, depression, addiction, violence. There are times when numbing out is a really good thing to do.
So it's never about objectifying or staying fixated on the behavior itself, because that's not the problem. The problem is what underlies the behavior. Typically, an addict is a person who has a very strong desire for connection and for presence, and because of whatever has happened in their life, they've become fixated on ideas that don't allow them to be present. That makes it difficult for them to stay connected, and they turn to these addictions to resolve these issues."
So the alcoholism is a symptom, and you're trying to treat the disease?
Think of the addiction as a glass of ice that needs...healing, so to speak. A known principle of the universe is, "Energy attracts like energy," right? So if I have this glass of ice and I bring an icy wind to it, what happens? Nothing. If I want to melt the glass of ice, I've got to bring a completely different energy. In this case, I would bring hot air. The ice melts. It becomes water, and eventually, it becomes steam, which is the most like the hot air that I'm bringing to it.
Do you think an alcoholic thinks of themselves as whole, or good? No — they never do. So if I bring the idea to them that they're less than whole, that there's something wrong with them, that it's a problem, well, then I'm bringing ice to ice, and I can't expect the ice to change. But by asking them, "What's good?"... Also, in the film, we present an idea called a content-to-process shift. The content is the conversation about alcoholism and the behavior. But the process is the type of question that's being asked. What that actually causes or creates. So when I ask, "What's good about being an alcoholic?" or "What's good about alcoholism?" am I integrating the alcoholic or separating them from themselves?
You're attempting to integrate.
Yeah. Because if the alcoholic starts to think, "Well, what's good about being me?" then he's integrating to himself. And that's the exact opposite of what he's probably been thinking, which is what got him into trouble with the alcoholism in the first place. So from a process standpoint, it's a conversation of integration. When you're integrating, you're bringing that heat energy to that glass of ice, and that's the best chance that glass of ice has to change.