Get Inducted into The Institute: An Exclusive Interview with Spencer McCall

TheInstitute written by Jasmine Akakpo, ATLFF365 Marketing Associate

In 2008, more than 10,000 San Franciscans physically stepped into “The Games of Nonchalance,” an alternate reality game world that opened the door to an unforgettable urban exploration for its players. The Institute, directed by Spencer McCall, illustrates the original experiences from the perspective of players immersed in an enigmatic world of hidden messages concealed in graffiti, posters, and art to create a social expedition of realistic imagery. The 2013 Slamdance Official Selection, now in documentary competition consideration at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival, grants the audience indirect access to “play” the game alongside its players and view the real world in an unconventional way. Although the game concluded in 2011, The Institute allows everyone the opportunity to be inducted and never experience life the same. Here at the Atlanta Film Festival, we were granted the opportunity to interview Spencer McCall and get the inside scoop on all things pertaining to the Games of Nonchalance.

I know that you just got back from Slamdance! We are so excited to have the opportunity to interview you! How was Slamdance?

 It was good. It was a lot of fun. It was very exhausting though. I work during the week, a 9-5  job. I took a week off to go up to Park City and I thought it was going to be a vacation. I was up at 6 in the morning and I was getting back to the condo we rented at 11 at night.  It was a full day of just a million things to do, interviews, screenings and talking to people. But it was a lot of fun. We had a blast and so many amazing things came from it. We are really, really excited about Atlanta now!

We have had so many people in the office screen your film. Your film was one of our “gossip” films” in the office.  We are all curious what you consider the genre of your film to be?

Good question. I don’t want to be too defining. I would still call it a documentary. I don’t even want to say that it lies or that it misconstrues the truth, but what it does is it gets you to realize that a movie is a movie. Whether it is a documentary, reality show, or found footage movie; it is not something that you can take at face value. It’s a representation. It’s a subjective art form and you should question what you're watching all the time. So I guess for me, I really wanted people to question what they were watching and have fun with it. I like to think of the movie as a puzzle that you somehow have to solve.

How did you hear about the Jejune Institute?

Yeah. It’s kind of a long story. I graduated from SF [sic] State School and was out trying to find a job and do video work. I ended up working for a company that did dog cloning and did that for a couple of years. They went out of business and I went back to where I started. I didn’t have a job again. No one can afford to clone their dogs (laughing). At the time in San Francisco there were these rumors and whispers  “You have to go to 580 California. I can’t tell you what’s there but you have to go experience it for yourself. It cost nothing and you won’t regret it.” I went and was definitely spooked out. I thought it was a satellite office for Scientology. It was too weird so I dismissed it. A little while later a good friend of mine Gordo (who’s in the movie and leads the street protest) referred me for video work that they needed for an installation project. At that point I got to meet the makers of the Jejune Institute, Jeff and Uriah. It was a really brief meeting but they told me that they would pay me a small amount of money to do the videos pieces but I would get some good exposure. They told me that the videos are going to be very need to know and they weren’t going to tell me how it’s going to be used or what they are for.  I did that for a little bit and they would send me weird archive footage from different contestant sources. Eventually I kept making a few videos for them, some promotion, some for the game itself. When the game ended and the company started to shut down, they gave me a hard drive of 600 hours of player footage that participants shot along with more archive footage. At the time I was still unemployed so I emailed Jeff and asked if I could do something with all this footage now that the game was over. He said, “Knock yourself out.” That’s basically it in a nutshell.

So you started making the film in 2011 after the game was finished?

Yeah. I started in late Fall 2011 and finished Summer 2012

There is so much street art in the film, was the use of art inspired by artist Jeff Hull?

What’s really cool about this project is that it did have some investment, which is still a little bit of a mystery to me. I think some of it came from Jeff, some from other private investors, but the budget was limited. So a lot of the art that was used in the film came from volunteers all throughout the Bay area and around the country. People who started to become familiar with the project or people that were friends of Jeff would contribute to making the maps and other things.

So was Jeff an active role in creating the film?

 Yeah. It is kind of funny because when I started it Jeff was probably my first interview and I didn’t end up seeing him again until the film was done. That was about 9 months later. So it was a while. Luckily, Jeff liked the movie..even though maybe... I could have been a lot worse to him.  Ultimately he really liked the movie and that was really good. That was really lucky for me.

From all the different individuals you interviewed, what percentage of people actually considered the Jejune Institute to be more than just a game?

That’s interesting. The first act, which is the induction center 10,000 people go through, there were subsequent acts later on which led to the final seminar at the end. By the time it got down to the seminar there was only 50-100 people out of that 10,000. I only ended up interviewing people that went through the entire process, with an exception to Organelle, who got hurt, bailed out and became paranoid after the experience. Organelle was the only one that experienced the game that intense that allowed us to interview him. We had to develop a three-month relationship with him to gain his trust to sit down and interview. There was a number of others that considered the game to be reality, probably more than I would know because they were super freaked out and didn’t want to speak. I am aware of three other people. The voicemails of one of the woman is used in the film. She would call from blocked numbers.

Wow! Do you feel like games like the Jejune Institute will start to catch on around the country? Have they?

They have. It is really cool. I wouldn’t say the Jejune Institute was the first necessarily. There has been a whole lot of alternate reality games and urban exploration movements. A lot of them are marketing something, like a movie, a video game or sometimes a product. You’ll see this all the time. What was really fascinating to me was that this wasn’t marketing anything. I think initially they had the idea of somehow finding a way of monetizing it but eventually  they just  gave up because they didn’t have an obligation to do anything with the investment necessarily. So they just wanted to give a gift to the world. I know that I wouldn’t have gone into 580 if I were going to be asked for money. That was the thing that was so spooky about it the whole time. People were wondering,  "oh my god when are they going to send me a bill?" I know of a number of participants that went on to create their own games because they loved their experience so much. In the film there is the Elsewhere Public Works Agency and from that participants created the Elsewhere Philatelic Society, which is stamp collectors. They created this game that is all about postage and sending things in to get maps. It is really, really neat. Also the Jejune Institute spread itself all the way to Fargo, North Dakota. Apparently there is something similar up there that one of the players who was visiting San Francisco created.  I hope more are created because they are pretty cool.  It’s a new kind of entertainment. Entertainment is becoming increasingly more and more consolidated onto your telephone or other little electronic form.  It’s kind of neat to see that there is something else emerging that is more real and visceral. Of course it’s not for everyone though. It’s a very interactive experience. In some ways making a movie about an interactive experience like this is almost like sacrilege. It’s kind of hypocritical. One of the messages of the movie is to go out in the world and explore what's around you and maybe stop being such a spectator. At the end of the day, it [The Institute film] was kind of the only way that it was going to live on and I wanted it to live on.

What are your thoughts on individuals that aren’t receptive to your film? How have Q &A sessions been at other film festivals you have attended?? How was the reception?

They have been awesome! They have been really, really cool! I don’t want to give anything away though.

What are you most excited about being a part of the Atlanta Film Festival?

Atlanta Film Festival is super prestigious. It’s one of the best.  If there is South by Southwest, you guys are basically South by Southeast in many ways! I am looking forward to it.  It’s fun being in the festival circuit. You start to see the same people in multiple festivals. I can’t wait to see your lineup and see if I run into similar filmmakers that I have met on my festival trail.

Describe your film in one sentence?

In 1988 a girl name Evalyn Lucien went missing around the Coit Tower area of San Francisco; 20 years later bizarre flyers and posters started going up all over San Francisco about her disappearance, which led people in the city down a rabbit hole of exploration. 


The Institute  screens at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival taking place March 15 - March 24 at the Plaza Theatre, 7 Stages Theatre and additional venues.  Come out and join the exploration in search for Evalyn Lucien and experience this unique, alternative game of art. It will be an experience that you will never forget.