Interview : Peter Vack on love in the anti-social age and more in PVT Chat

If you caught my interview with writer/director Ben Hozie last year – or read my review of the film after it screened at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival – you’d probably be able to guess that PVT Chat was one of my favourite movies of 2020.

Jack is a lonely internet gambler living in New York City. He quickly becomes fixated on Scarlet – a cam girl from San Francisco. As Jack learns more about Scarlet, he discovers her unrealized talent as a painter and begins to fall hard for her. His obsession reaches a boiling point when fantasy materializes in reality and Jack sees Scarlet on a rainy street in NYC Chinatown. While Scarlet is clearly hiding her whole truth, milking Jack’s wallet in the process, she also seems to develop genuine feelings for him. Jack has to find out – is their emotional connection real or is he just being taken for a ride?

Shot in a hand-held, gonzo style that puts us right up in the headspace of its troubled protagonist Jack, PVT Chat is a darkly comedic and insightful exploration of love and intimacy in an age of social isolation. Thanks to a certain global pandemic, it’s only become more and more relevant as our ability to connect with others has been relegated to Zoom calls and Telegram chats.

I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Vack, whose performance as PVT Chat‘s protagonist Jack imbues the film with unpredictable, barely-on-the-rails energy.

Under a different screenwriter, a different director, or a different actor in the role of Jack, he could have come off as a Patrick Bateman type or an incel. But really, he’s a surprisingly sympathetic character. I’m interested in what your direction was with portraying the kind of person Jack is.

Performance is always a joint effort between actor and director. It’s interesting to note that Ben (Hozie, writer/director) revealed to me that he didn’t necessarily think I was right for the part, because I’m not sure if he’d ever seen me do anything with this boyish giddiness that he always knew would be a part of the role.

I agree with you; on the page, you could see another filmmaking team and actor come away with someone more of a straight-down-the-line manipulator; a Patrick Bateman. 

But Ben is a very romantic guy, and he does see this as a romantic comedy. He did always direct me to play against the darkness or the cynicism whenever possible.

Yes, it’s true that Jack is a depressed and perhaps bitter loner character. But I also felt when I was reading the script for the first time that he was a hopeless romantic, who was deeply in love with someone that really did impress him and he really was able to connect with. 

It’s definitely a little sad – if we’re judging the character from some critical distance – that he can only connect with someone who’s on a computer screen who he’s paying to dominate him sexually. But he does still love this person, and that brings out a lightheartedness and a playfulness that makes him not just a Bateman incel.

He’s a very real person, and I walked away with the feeling that Jack’s definitely a person out there in the world. People who do have sincere feelings and intentions, but don’t necessarily have the social skills to go about it in a better way.

Exactly. Especially now, in our world where it’s easier and easier to not develop your social skills, and instead develop parasocial relationships. You know, people that feel that they’re friends with the hosts of podcasts. They feel that they’re friends with Instagram accounts, who they don’t know and who don’t know them. 

So somebody who is starting off already with a limited capacity for socializing, which I think Jack is – we’re not living in the best time for somebody like that. I think it’s very easy to call someone like him a creep or an incel, and some people are creeps and incels. But many are mislabeled and are people that, for whatever reason, are not able to develop themselves and are partially crippled by new technologies. 

They make it easy to socially cripple yourself. I think you’re really right; underneath the cynical rhetoric that he spouts about every relationship being transactional, I think it’s really an outfit that he’s put on to mask a really deep, naive romanticism that’s somewhat impossible to really live authentically in all moments. It opens one up for a lot more pain and critique, and it’s much easier to just masturbate to cam girls and talk about how life sucks and knowingly mock each other. 

But that’s not what Jack really thinks. He’s on the search for love. He’s a sort-of Romeo deep down.

Speaking of those cam chat sequences; I know a lot of similar scenes are shot one-sided and then edited together in post. What was the actual technical process for going about shooting the cam sessions between Jack and Scarlett?

Well, the room that Julia was camming from – her sort of domme dungeon – was in the same apartment set that Jack was in. So she was really just in the other room. We were connected via Skype – we probably would have used Zoom if it was shot today – and I think Ben just framed out the Skype logo. I forget, but we were actually video chatting, that was all actually happening.

Julia’s been landing some fantastic roles in the last few years, and she truly is a one-of-a-kind actress and person, but not one who strictly comes from an acting background. What was it like working with her as an actor?

For the actors out there who will come across Julia or this conversation, I speak to them directly. The mistake that a lot of actors who come from an acting background make is that they neglect to develop themselves as people. They’re so focused on wanting to be anything for any director that they come out sadly hollow. 

And this really is the opposite of Julia. She’s a person who has such a deep and rich inner life, and the talent is that she’s able to share that in her life with the camera. I remember that from the very first time we read together, it felt very special. I was excited to do the movie, but when Julia signed on, I was like “wow, this movie really might be good!”.  

Her rise to fame was very unexpected. I felt like I was doing the movie with a great, undiscovered personality and actor; we weren’t aware she was going to become a real cultural figure. But she does deserve that place, because she is a singular and iconic personality, and that’s the kind of person who cinema is always looking for. 

The truly iconic performers, I don’t think they can just learn that. They come from anywhere and everywhere. It’s just luck and magic and good timing. I was very lucky to get to work with her, for sure.

It’s so strange to watch PVT CHAT at this particular point in time, given how much the themes of social isolation and the complications of physical intimacy has become so present in so many people’s lives with Covid-19. How has that been for you now that we’re coming up on a year of lockdowns around the world?

I’m not sure my thoughts are fully together on the subject because it’s still an ongoing reality. But it’s amazing how quickly everyone has adopted it all. I remember distinctly before the lockdown that video chatting was really kind of a nuisance; it was so much easier to talk on the phone. 

And I remember a lot of people agreeing with me, old and young. It wasn’t like the kids a decade younger than me were completely adept at FaceTiming and I just wasn’t. I thought everyone felt like, “eh”. But you know, just the other night, my friend I don’t see often FaceTimed me out of the blue, and I’m much more likely to pick it up now because it’s so much more difficult to stay in contact. 

So yeah, I think we are getting very, very comfortable with these technologies. When we shot PVT CHAT, it did feel like we were seeing characters engaged in niche activity. It’s striking how much more mundane the situation of two people having a connection or falling in love or even just shooting the shit over computer chat seems. 

What felt niche now basically feels mainstream. And I do think it’s part of why the movie is striking a chord; because I know a lot of people have been forced to date and feel romantic things with the circuitry of the computer and the video chat applications.

The psycho-sexual thriller PVT CHAT will release in Theaters February 5th and On Demand & Digital on February 9th.

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