Interview with Nicky Larkin

I think evolution ended when we got the internet”: an interview with Nicky Larkin, director of Gone Viral

In Nicky Larkin’s Gone Viral, a middle-aged couple who have yet to learn the language of the internet throw themselves into the social media circus. Here, Larkin talks about the dangers of online life, writing a film during lockdown, and his pessimism for the future standard of cinema.

Nicky Larkin is worried about the internet. During our conversation, talk ranges from digital footprints to online echo chambers, from the Trump administration to smartphones sending us targeted ads. “I’m really interested in what the internet has done to our brains,” Larkin says. “It’s terrifying. But it’s really interesting as well.”

It was these interests and anxieties that powered Larkin’s new comedy short, Gone Viral, screening at the Oxford International Short Film Festival this year. The film stars Steve Blount and Abigail McGibbon as Pat and Lizzie, a middle-aged married couple trying to get by in the first Covid lockdown. Rather than baking banana bread and downloading Duolingo, Pat and Lizzie have a more ambitious game-plan: making it big on the internet. They stream an online live show that consists of them churning out inflammatory content, in the hopes of keeping the viewer counter ticking upwards. In Pat’s words, they’re seeking validation “from real people, Lizzie – people on the internet!”

It’s a comic take on the ways we willingly turn ourselves into ciphers for social media. Pat and Lizzie, like the rest of us, may be trapped by the ubiquity of the internet, but they’re the ones voluntarily revving up the webcam – walking their own online planks. Nicky had already been writing a comedy about this zany couple becoming internet provocateurs before Covid hit the UK. It was Gone Viral’s producer, Ray Lau, who suggested reworking the script to be set during the lockdown. “Initially I was quite hesitant, because in my naivety I thought Covid was going to be over in 2 weeks, and that the film would quickly become an outdated piece of work,” Larkin explains. Of course, the rest is history: “I thought, maybe I’ll give it a go. And then the pandemic just never ended.”

Larkin struck gold in his revision of the script. Gone Viral’s premise of “silver surfers” jumping on the social media bandwagon has extra pull when set during lockdown – a period when the internet was one of the only things we had. For Larkin, this era brought out people’s worst instincts. “There was a rise of mad conspiracy theories. All of the people who are prone to that sort of thinking anyway now suddenly had a whole lot of time on their hands – broadband, the internet, and nothing else to do.” The way isolation accelerates online cravings is reflected in the film, too. Pat is an aging wannabe actor, stuck at home and unfamiliar with the rules and etiquette of new technology: he’s pre-disposed to make a mess of his online profile. “He already has all the stuff social media is bringing out in us – that narcissism, where it’s all about ‘me, me, me’.”

But for all the egomania the first lockdown may have nurtured, there are details in the film that make it feel like a period of innocence – a time when the ‘it’ll all be over by Christmas’ spirit was still strong. Lizzie does indoor yoga; a stack of hoarded toilet roll becomes living room décor; the clap for carers is still a weekly routine. The rewrite thereby gave Larkin the opportunity to satirize this early Covid mentality. “I just hated that [clap for carers] from the start, that’s why I was determined to put it into the film,” Larkin claims. “There was a whole lot of community spirit about it all that has subsequently turned very fucking sour.”

Until Gone Viral,Larkin’s filmmaking career had largely focused on documentary. 2019’s Becoming Cherrie focused on a Northern Irish drag queen and the struggles of living with HIV, while 2020’s Abomination examined political theatre. In our discussion, Larkin mentions the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, which gives a Frankenstinian thesis of social media – its early creators had a pure vision of human connection that has since gestated into an unstoppable, toxic behemoth. Given his familiarity with the documentary form, why did Larkin choose to opt for comedy instead when it came to Covid and the internet? “When you’re making a documentary, you’re very much bound by your contributors. But there’s no limits when you’re writing a script – you can go as extreme or dark or funny as you want,” Larkin explains. “And there’s no point doing anything if it’s not a bit funny.” Indeed, when asked about any exciting contemporary filmmakers he loves, Larkin lists off a slew of comedy talent – Michaela Cole, Sharon Horgan, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “I really love stuff like Fleabag that takes a wild risk on the form.”

The production of Gone Viral was in and of itself a wild risk. The film was shot in only two days, squeezed in during a brief window between last year’s spring and autumn lockdowns. “Everyone was delighted to be back doing stuff. But at the same time, there was a lot of fear,” Larkin says. With a budget inflated by spending on Covid tests and PPE, rehearsals being forced onto Zoom, and a Covid officer safeguarding the set, “it was the weirdest shoot I’d ever been on.”

Larkin and Lau now have funding to create a comedy series based off of Gone Viral – post-Covid this time, but still centring on Pat and Lizzie’s forays into social media. As more and more people make careers out of performing online, I ask Larkin if this form of content is competing with film as a medium – if, faced with this challenge, the position of cinema will have to change. “I could be very pessimistic about it,” he says. “The bar is being lowered all the time in art. I’m not hopeful where we’re heading. I think our IQ has been lowered – I think evolution ended when we got the internet.”

Larkin predicts a slippery slope where the separate categories of ‘online life’ and ‘real life’ will get blurrier and blurrier. At least for the generation after Pat and Lizzie’s – Larkin’s own generation – a pre- and post-social media divide can still be recalled. But that doesn’t make putting down the screen any easier. “I’m completely addicted to social media as well, but that’s why I’m fascinated by it. I would love to be able to just get off from social media altogether,” Larkin admits. “But I would have the worst case of FOMO ever.”

Gone Viral is screening at the Oxford International Short Film Festival 2021 in the Isolation block playing online on 30th August, 8pm.