Picture the Monopoly man. Got it? Good. Now, what does he wear on his face? You probably said a monocle, but if you did, you’re wrong. In fact, the Monopoly man has never worn anything on his face. Go ahead, Google it. Strange, right?
If you absolutely know that you’ve seen Uncle Pennybags wearing a monocle, then you’re suffering from the Mandela Effect. This popular conspiracy theory deals with collective false memory, where a large group of people all remember something that never happened.
One of the most famous of these false memories revolves around Nelson Mandela. Many people insist they remember the human rights activist’s death in the 1980s, but the problem is Mandela didn’t die in the 80s. In fact, he passed away just a few years ago in 2013.
While some would probably chalk this up as a coincidence, others aren’t so sure. What if, they ask, these memories are evidence of multiple realities? What if those memories are real and they’re from a different, parallel timeline?
In THE MANDELA EFFECT, Writer/Director David Guy Levy explores this interesting phenomenon through the story of a husband and wife dealing with the sudden loss of their only child. It’s a mind-bending journey that plays by its own rules, and I liked the hell out of it.
I had the opportunity to speak with David as well as actors Charlie Hofheimer, Aleksa Palladino, and Robin Lord Taylor about their experience making the film, and it was a fun (sometimes existential) good time.
DAVID GUY LEVY AND CHARLIE HOFHEIMER
You clearly have a love of horror, as this is a return trip to the genre. What do you enjoy about telling darker stories?
David Guy Levy: I think ultimately I’m a very existential person. So when I get to really delve into the existential questions, that’s where I feel the most interested in my work. With this film I got to question reality and poke the bear with the journey of this main character.
I like asking myself these bigger, possibly disturbing, questions, and then exploring what the answers might be.
And do those questions disturb you or are you more pragmatic about it all?
David Guy Levy: I’m a little more pragmatic. I was a very anxious child, so I got most of that energy out at a young age. Now I just sort of accept in a nihilistic way whatever comes my way.
Charlie, you’re playing a character who is either losing touch with reality or finally seeing it. How did you approach playing a character going through something like that?
Charlie Hofheimer: Grief is certainly something I’ve contended with in my in my own life and in various roles throughout my career. But a particular challenge of this character was the way that he goes about dealing with–or not dealing with–grief.
He has a very peculiar way of not being able to accept [loss] and then needing to search as a way of dealing with it. I mean the part I think we can all relate to is–even if it’s not the particular tragedy of this film–loss and the grief that comes along with it.
The research involved in trying to connect the loss [of a child] to the particular rabbit hole Brendan goes down in the film required becoming obsessed with this quantum-theory-parallel-reality subject matter. Fortunately when Dave approached me with the idea for this film, these were things that I–like David–was already interested in and curious about.
But to connect with Brendan’s obsession required an even deeper dive and just more time connecting the dots between these various theories and how they could potentially be a resolution to the pain Brendan is in.
While you were doing this research, did you find anything unsettling or was it all kind of stuff that you’d heard before?
Charlie Hofheimer: Interestingly I don’t think I had heard of the Mandela Effect itself, but I loved the way that Dave was using that as a sort of bread crumb into the concept.
I was surprised to see people as in the public eye as Elon Musk saying that there was a billion-to-one chance that what we are experiencing as reality was in fact base reality. And lots of other great thinkers as well–great quantum physicists who certainly understand the science better than I do, lending credence to these seemingly far-fetched concepts. So that was a surprise to me.
David Guy Levy: There was one moment, when I was writing this with Steffen Schlachtenhaufen, where we came across this video of [the] professor and physicist James Gates, who studies string theory. [He was talking about] going through a lot of the equations in string theory and finding the exact same equations in the code for early browser windows when they were starting to come out. And that to me was just such a creepy, eerie moment. I still have not really been able to wrap my head around it.
Another thing I really enjoyed about the film was how intimate it was, almost like a four-person play. Was there ever a version of the script with a larger footprint or was it always a tight story?
David Guy Levy: Well no because we knew our limitations–we knew our reality–when it came to making an independent film. And we knew we wanted to keep it that way, because we were hungry to tell the [story] sooner than later. So the idea was to take a big idea and tell it in a simple way.
We approached it almost like it was a play, because there’s a lot of true emotion between characters and a lot of big ideas surrounding them while they’re going their personal journey.
Charlie Hofheimer: I think we found ways of using the limitations to our advantage. This movie wasn’t trying to have as tangible of an antagonist as other movies in the mythology. [By keeping the antagonist’s motivations vague], you leave the door open for people to answer for themselves which theories resonate.
You can’t really relate to Neo in The Matrix, or these bigger movies when it’s all about the action, but you can relate to a husband and a wife who’ve lost a child. And you can relate to questioning the world you’re living in. And when you keep it [to a human perspective], it’s a lot easier to think about these things in a realistic way.
One of the central themes in the film is that “ideas are dangerous,” and that resonated with me as something you hear these days in political arenas and on social media. How aware of that were you while writing the film?
David Guy Levy: Well I think there are a few audiences for this movie. One in particular is the Mandela Effect audience. They call themselves the “affected,” [they are individuals] who truly let it define how they spend their time thinking about life. I know for sure I’ve heard people say, “Good luck getting this movie out there, because the forces that be are gonna get in your way.”
On a creative level, I would say I think ideas are dangerous things, even if it’s not because your ideas are going to ruffle the wrong feathers. It’s also because your own ideas will just affect you. You will have an idea, you’ll discover something about your life, and things will be different from that point on.
But also in the context of the story, if this is a simulation, what would the people running it think of the way you’re approaching that fact? Would they want that to be the data that affects the simulation, or would they want to change things up and get you out of the way? What was their motive and purpose? There’s a lot of angles to look at that question from.
Charlie Hofheimer: I appreciate this. I mean our social/political universe was already well divided, and in the interim two years since we made this movie it’s obviously gotten even crazier. But I can’t imagine anybody on either side of these political/social voids that we live in right now not asking themselves the question “How can people have such diametrically opposed ideas about what is right, [about] what is fair, [about] what is happening?
David Guy Levy: Ultimately we just want people to watch the film and then when they’re done have discussions about their lives and the realities of people.
ALEKSA PALLADINO AND ROBIN LORD TAYLOR
Throughout your careers, you’ve had the opportunity to dip into many different genre styles like horror on the TV show The Walking Dead or the film Holidays. Do you approach your characters differently depending on what style of film you’re doing?
Robin Lord Taylor: For me it’s pretty much always the same with each character. I think especially with genre, what really excites me is trying to find the humanity of the character, and in genre projects characters tend to be going through extraordinary circumstances.
I use [The Walking Dead] as a perfect example of what really excites me about that. It’s finding a human being going through something so crazy that it’s hard for us to imagine it happening. But to see [a character] going through it and still maintaining a connection to the world that we all live in, I always find that extremely exciting.
Aleksa Palladino: I agree. It is always about finding the humanity of the character. The only thing that I do find different with genres–especially period pieces–is there’s a physicality difference that happens, especially with women. The way women held themselves in the 1920s was very different from the way they physically hold themselves now. That stuff is fun to really adopt, because it informs so much of your emotional world. The way you are in your body can really affect the way you interact with the world.
I do think that some genre comes with a physicality that’s different. I mean even humor and horror. I mean think of your body language in a horror film.
Aleksa, your character Claire has a very interesting arc in the film, from losing a child to watching her husband slowly unravel, how is Claire’s perspective on their journey as a couple different from Brendan’s?
Aleksa Palladino: I really had to tap in with an emotional through-line for her, and how these things made sense in both a realistic world and in an alternate reality. What I really felt was that the body remembers the trauma. On an intrinsic level she knows something’s happened, [but when faced with the] reality that’s in front of her, she starts to crack.
One of the things that I was really drawn to about [the film] was just how much our memories really create our identity for ourselves. There’s this continuity that we feel over our lives, and these memories that we cling to are so valuable to the integrity of that identity. And when you start to mess with those pieces, we just fall apart. We are not who we think we are.
We all do live in a simulated reality, it’s just called our memory. I liked being able to play that through Claire. What does the body remember? What does the mind remember? Are there different worlds even just there? We know that from trauma; we know that from muscle memory–people not even being aware that they’re driving home and then they’re there.
I would love to explore more of that.
Robin, your character also has a unique perspective in the film, as Matt is almost more of an observer of the drama as it unfolds. What challenges did you face playing a character like that?
Robin Lord Taylor: I really feel that my character is, in a way, the audience. [He is] the audience’s perspective. Nothing is directly happening to him, but he has such a strong emotional connection to these people and a strong connection to “reality,” that I really feel like he’s sort of standing in for the audience’s perspective.
That can be the hardest thing in acting, just being reactive, just going along and observing what your fellow actors are bringing to the scene and how that informs you. I find that in a story like this, it was just a really nice muscle to use again. And then to play someone soft and reactive and supportive and loving, I just found that incredibly freeing.
THE MANDELA EFFECT explores the pervasive nature of conspiracy theories on the Internet. Where do you fall on the scale of belief in conspiracy theories with one being Scully and ten being Mulder?
Aleksa Palladino: I feel both. I feel like in terms of science, I’m a total Scully. In terms of trust in the government, I’m a total Mulder.
Robin: This could be reacting to the spiraling news stories that come out every day, but I’m having a very negative reaction to conspiracy theories. I like to believe in science, and reality, and what I see in front of me. I don’t appreciate this divisionism of science, and also truth and reality, that is happening, particularly on the Internet. I feel like I’m seeing the ways in which humanity is manipulated. I think the Internet has put a giant spotlight on it, and I think conspiracy theories are all part of that.
So ideally in my head, I would like to say that I am a Scully, but at the same time you know it’s Halloween, so I love a good ghost story.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.