A Conversation with Eugene Kotlyarenko

The world of VR or "Virtual Reality" is ever expanding, ambitious and its potential is still yet to be completely tapped in to. Virtual Reality is similar to film as a medium, in the sense that it's an evolving format. There are new ideas and approaches that continue to define virtual reality as a device to tell stories along with have its users interact with them in unique ways. While virtual reality hasn't been mass marketed to the effect of say how many people own media players or go to the theaters, it is an evolving medium and it's a platform with lots of potential. Eugene Kotlyarenko is no stranger to the virtual reality scene, with the film We Are serving as a re-telling of his work at a VR startup. And while his film is neither an indictment or a glorification of the world of virtual reality, it does beg answers to certain questions about its intended purpose and place in our society. So much so that at Purely Kino we decided on reaching out to the talented director of such films like Spree and Wobble Palace to talk about his satirical film We Are. The following questions are closely transcribed to the best of our ability from a conference call held with the director.

Purely Kino: I was reading some Letterbox'd reviews about the intended format to watch We Are. Should people be watching it on their phones or... should it be a VR viewing experience?

Eugene Kotlyarenko: I would love it if people were watching it in their headsets! (laughs) Although it really wouldn't be taking advantage of any of the... cool things about virtual reality. Besides maybe putting them into a kind of claustrophobic, unwieldly, literal headspace where they have something strapped to their face.

The experience of watching We Are is as close to what Eugene talks about without the VR headset. We are witness to a somewhat experimental, surreal comedy from the perspective of a character named Doug who is hired as a night shift employee for a start-up company run by a wildly ambitious CEO named Vikas. Doug is witness to multiple acts of inappropriate work-place situations along with being tied up with family drama at home. His relationship with his job is intertwined with a new friend named Stick who convinces him to take back his life and control of his work. The movie is very surreal in its process of telling this story with erratic use of random subtitles, bizarre character exchanges and moments of visual popups on the screen that keep the audience glued and perplexed.

PK: Do you think you'd ever consider going beyond the film medium and doing some sort of tale through a virtual (game) or experience?

EK: I was living the life of Doug, essentially at the time I made We Are. I was working at a virtual reality arcade... that's depicted in the film. I was seriously considering... VR shorts... as cinematic experiences. I was like, what are the limitations of this medium? What are the opportunities of this specific medium and what kind of story could you tell? I think Horror would be a great genre because horror is all about the unknown. And with virtual reality you can really figure out like there's actually something behind you, right? If you're in a 3D space that you can explore, the space potential for something to be behind your back or out of your field of vision is high so you could do a lot of paranoid scares in that way.

PK: Sure.

EK: So, I didn't really pursue that because I'm not exactly interested in that medium. It doesn't feel like a mass medium to me. I just don't really think there's enough people involved in virtual reality viewing to make it interesting to me. I was interested in the... Bandersnatch Netflix movie from two years ago...

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

PK: Well that's kind of why I wanted to ask about that because we're going into this sort of "Black Mirror" like sense of immersion for audiences in movies.

EK: My first movie was like "a screen movie".

Here Eugene refers to his first feature released in 2011 titled 0s & 1s. This movie involves a young man's search for his missing computer, and is told through the use of computer sites and screen sharing, as if we are watching the movie through our own use of a computer.

EK: Part of the project is allowing viewers to make a decision on where to look, where to find out important information. And then you know the conductor behind the scenes (is) trying to manipulate where (the audience) is looking through color and movement. So I'm always interested in those ideas of giving viewers kind of more freedom to figure out where the important information is, when you overwhelm them with information. So my first film is a project sort of overwhelming people with... multiple screens and chat comments you know uh rolling in. So when it comes to something like Bandersnatch the choose your own adventure Netflix thing, I was very excited about it as a filmmaker. I just think they set the bar really high, so I would only want to make something that is better than that you know?

PK: Right.

EK: And also when it comes to interactive cinematic storytelling, you have to ask yourself "why don't I just make a videogame?" So you have to come up with something that's very specific to the film medium, which is a passive medium. Once you start getting too interactive...the viewer stops being the viewer and start being a player, and then it's not really a film in anymore in a way. It's a tricky thing to sort of nail, but I am interested in it for sure.

0s & 1s (2011)

PK: That's a great answer. Do you think you have a good finger on the pulse to a lot of the viewership of the audience that would be seeing Spree?

Spree is a 2020 feature by Eugene which stars Joe Keery from Stranger Things as a amateur YouTuber and vlogger with high aspirations to go viral with his website Kurt's World and Instagram, which Eugene actually ran in real life as preparation for the fictional character of Kurt. Eugene fleshed out the virtual comments that are on screen throughout the entire film. Kurt's project called "The Lesson" takes him in the direction of murdering his passengers for more followers online.

EK: I try to do my best to keep the cinematic form relevant to the contemporary communication mode. I think I have a grasp on what film grammar is right. And there's no reason why film grammar can't incorporate the things that are unique to those other mediums to expand what it does. So yeah, I'm interested in incorporating chats, texts, messages and multiple screens into film because that's how a lot of people process information.... through multiple tabs and lots of texts and overlapping windows and all this kind of overwhelming shit. I think most millennials and even older people are on social media and their phones 24/7... and it seems like films should incorporate that.

Joe Keery in Spree (2020)

Most of Eugene's large body of work can be found online. Wobble Palace is on Amazon Prime, Spree is on Hulu and We Are can be found at

Eugene created and actively provides content for @kurtsworld96 which is a live Instagram account created for the fictional character of Kurt in Spree. It currently has more than 70k followers.

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