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“Everybody can be a sucker”: Marc Maron and Lynn Shelton on how conspiracy theories flourish

The comedian and director talk about tackling the dark corners of the Internet in their new movie Sword of Trust.

Marc Maron and Jon Bass in Lynn Shelton’s new movie, Sword of Trust.
Marc Maron and Jon Bass in Lynn Shelton’s new movie, Sword of Trust.
IFC Films

Sword of Trust is a movie about conspiracy theories, but it’s not a thriller or a pedantic documentary. It stars Marc Maron — who’s garnered raves for his performance in the Netflix series GLOW and is well known for his popular interview podcast WTF with Marc Maron — as Mel, a pawnshop owner in Birmingham with an assistant named Nathaniel (Jon Bass). One day, a couple (played by Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) walk in with a sword that one of the women inherited from her senile grandfather.

At first they all mistrust one another, but eventually the group concocts a plan to make up a story about the sword and sell it to a group of conspiracy theorists who make YouTube videos arguing that the Civil War was actually “secretly” won by the Confederacy, and seek artifacts that “prove” it.

It’s a funny setup, but it’s also more than that. Director Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Laggies) relies on improvisation to make her movies, and her collaborative process means her characters feel very organic — like people you might pass on the street, rather than actors playing a part. In Sword of Trust, the result is a darkly funny story about people who are trying to find something to believe in, whether it’s zany theories propagated on the internet, or love and friendship that makes life worth living.

I recently met with Maron and Shelton on New York’s Lower East Side to discuss the movie. We talked about making an improvisation-heavy film, and just how hot it was in Alabama during Sword of Trust’s 16-day shoot. But we spent most of our conversation on conspiracy theories, 4chan, and what happens when the behavior of toxic groups on the internet spills over into real life.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Celebrities Visit Build - July 12, 2019
Marc Maron and Lynn Shelton talk about Sword of Trust in New York in July 2019.
Jim Spellman / Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

Sword of Trust is obviously a movie that’s partly about conspiracy theories, and how they spread online. How many of those rabbit holes did you go down as you worked on the film?

Marc Maron

Well, I don’t think my character really goes down many at all. But in my life, I have gone down those rabbit holes before at different points, before they became sort of the weapon against truth that they’ve become. At another point in my life, I was into the Robert Anton Wilson books, the New World Order books, Illuminati stuff, Freemason stuff. There was a point where I was kind of interested in the sort of poetics of it all.

The Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson, which I read at the time as potentially factual history, is a little crazy. So I’ve definitely been way down the more old-school rabbit holes of conspiracy. I read Don DeLillo’s Libra [about Lee Harvey Oswald and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which the novel portrays as linked to a CIA operation].

I was adept in the classics years ago, so it’s definitely in my wheelhouse. For this movie, I didn’t have to do that, but I understood where it was all coming from. I think the older conspiracy theories are a little more exotic. But [most conspiracy theories] end up with the Jews being a problem.

Alissa Wilkinson

And if you’re playing a character like this, I suppose you have to be in a particular headspace, where you understand why people jump down those rabbit holes.

Marc Maron

Over time I have believed the idea that people need to feel part of something bigger than themselves to give themselves meaning. And I would say probably 95 percent of the time, those bigger things are not great.

Alissa Wilkinson

And the internet kind of makes it all the more easy to find new ideas to believe in.

Marc Maron

The more horrifying thing, to me, is just how vulnerable the mind is. There’s this assumption that people are strong, and can really make their own decisions. It turns out to not really be true. We don’t have much of a defense against the constant assault on our perceptions, and our senses of self, and what we believe and don’t believe.

I don’t think that most people have a real internal barometer of true and false, or really even a broader sense of right and wrong, outside of maybe a personal behavioral morality.

Alissa Wilkinson

And conspiracies and lies are coming at us from all angles.

Marc Maron

Yeah, we’re all being worked.

Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Marc Maron, and Jon Bass in Sword of Trust.
Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Marc Maron, and Jon Bass in Sword of Trust.
IFC Films

Lynn Shelton

People think of themselves as strong or right-minded, so they can’t be swayed. That was one of the reasons why I wanted there to be vulnerability among the heroes in the movie: to show that everybody can be a sucker. We can all be suckers, you know?

Alissa Wilkinson

Even the ideas we’re presented with in our everyday lives, about what it looks like to be successful, or to live “correctly,” sometimes turn out to be conspiracies of one kind or another. Student loans, for instance. Or the housing crisis.

Lynn, did you jump down any conspiracy rabbit holes while prepping to make the movie?

Lynn Shelton

Yeah. It was fun.

What’s really interesting is there are all these little self-made videos out there. Some of them are very much trying to be the Voice of God — “These are the facts!” But even those will start out as, like, “21 Facts about the Flat Earth,” or hollow Earth, or whatever. And then it’ll just digress into some crazy rant against another truther who the video maker bonded with over Pizzagate, or the Twin Towers being an inside job, but now they’re fighting over whether the Earth is on fire or whether the hollow Earth is the thing. It’s fucking crazy, and it’s very entertaining.

Alissa Wilkinson

Those things happen in fandoms all the time, too. I’ve always been amazed to find out that there are these beefs that happen in fandoms that I didn’t even know existed.

Lynn Shelton

At the very beginning of Sword of Trust, you see a YouTube video [about how the Confederacy really won the Civil War]. We were going to create this whole parallel storyline where that guy on YouTube was fighting with the guy watching the YouTube video, a frenemy kind of relationship.

Alissa Wilkinson

These are incredibly niche-y concerns, but they matter so much to the people involved with them. I’ve been thinking about the appeal of conspiracy communities again because of what’s been going on recently with QAnon. All these people were printing out JFK Jr. masks and bringing them to the July Fourth celebration in DC, because they are convinced that JFK Jr. is alive, and they thought he was going to reveal himself and team up with President Trump.

Marc Maron

There’s a book I just read called It Came From Something Awful [by Dale Beran, coming out on July 30]. It’s about the history of 4chan, the evolution of that. What I see in these weird confrontations between antifa and whatever the other side is — Nazis, I guess — is that they were all wearing these ridiculous outfits.

The truth is that a lot of that stuff is manifested online by people who are building mythologies, and they don’t get out much. So when they decide to do something outside, it looks ridiculous. I’m like, is this even real? Is it staged? And it’s not staged, but it’s a fantastical idea of how these characters would present themselves.

So when they go out into the world, they make these decisions to present themselves like that. It’s like, this is not an organized situation. This is a nerd fantasy community that’s doing this horrible shit.

Alissa Wilkinson

I went to a college that was focused on science and engineering, and people would LARP [live-action role play] all over campus all the time. So you would see people in baffling costumes just, like, on the quad. Like cosplay crossed with Dungeons and Dragons. It’s not hugely different, though there are far more serious consequences.

Marc Maron

Right, like that’s the foundation of a lot of this stuff. They’re miserable, nihilistic, and morally bankrupt because they were raised by this garbage on the computer, and they were easily turned out by the alt-right. But the theatrics of it is how that type of hacking started to gain mainstream traction.

And then [the book] talks about the other side of it, the [hacktivist] Anonymous movement. They were horrible culture jammers, but more progressive-oriented ones. So there are these two camps of very young fantasy nerds, and [in the last decade] they started to dictate the cultural conversation around feminism, and around the opposite of that.

Alissa Wilkinson

And most people never really knew it was happening, so it’s especially bewildering when their ideologies suddenly pop up in the mainstream, as they have in recent years. It seems like they came out of nowhere.

Jon Bass, Marc Maron, Michaela Watkins, and Jillian Bell in Sword of Trust.
Jon Bass, Marc Maron, Michaela Watkins, and Jillian Bell in Sword of Trust.
IFC Films

Lynn Shelton

The thing that I find fascinating, too, is that they don’t seem to have any sense of their effect. The fact that there’s real people who are affected. The Charlottesville guy [James Fields], who was recently convicted after he ran over and killed [Heather Heyer] — he was almost thinking he was in a game, like he didn’t even really register it was real life.

Marc Maron

That guy turns out to have some sort of mental issue. But I do think that the troll culture that evolved out of gamer culture had spent years saying the worst things to each other in the game, and so they’d become completely numb to the effect.

So they moved off the screen — where they just find the grossest, most morally offensive shit and throw it at each other — and into this other “game.” Once they started to throw that at real people, who were sort of like, “What’s this Twitter thing?” — all they want is the reaction.

But, I think that guy [in Charlottesville] was mentally fucked. He had deeper problems, and really locked into white supremacy. And I think in that moment, I think he knew he was ready to kill.

Lynn Shelton

My friend Lindy West did a This American Life story about confronting one of her trolls.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah, and she has a storyline about that in her TV show Shrill too.

Lynn Shelton

Yes, but it played out a little different than real life. [In real life, her troll] really is affected, and is shocked that he’s had such an effect on a real person. It’s really interesting.

Marc Maron

The conceit of [Beran’s] book is that these kids were raised fully aware that their prospects were dim culturally, that they didn’t have a place, that the American Dream was garbage and consumerism was garbage. Then they sort of demonically embraced it. So they were brought up online by weirdos and freaks, and their parents were sort of like, “I don’t know, he’s on the computer.” They’re causing pain and horror, and that’s how they learned to function socially. So they’re not adapted to right or wrong or conversation or relationships or anything.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yes, and making that cross over to real life has always been part of it, with swatting, and doxxing.

Lynn Shelton

Swatting?

Alissa Wilkinson

Swatting is where you “prank” someone by calling emergency services to their house for no reason. There are similar practices that are less dangerous or annoying, more meant to troll them, like sending 50 pizzas to someone’s house.

Marc Maron

That happened to me.

Alissa Wilkinson

Really?

Marc Maron

Yeah. At a show, where was I? I don’t remember. I was just, like, I don’t know what those pizzas are. It was right before a show, too. I don’t remember what city it was in.

Alissa Wilkinson

But then sometimes, someone will call the police over and over, and say there’s a problem at your house in the middle of the night, and they’ll send a SWAT team.

Marc Maron

People have gotten killed because of that.

Lynn Shelton

Are they targeted for specific reasons?

Alissa Wilkinson

Sometimes it’s Gamergate stuff. Or they’re just playing a “game.”

Marc Maron

There are other guys they’re in games with.

Alissa Wilkinson

Or, you know, you were a woman on the internet, and you said a feminist thing, and got people angry online.

But you’re right — I get a lot of angry emails, and when I respond, it’s funny that sometimes people are like, “I didn’t think anyone was reading this.” I’m like, “This is my personal email address!”

Marc Maron

They’re all dudes, too. We don’t even have a comment board on the podcast site. It’s all dudes. And it’s usually like, seven of them total.

Alissa Wilkinson

But they’re very involved.

Lynn Shelton

They might have 10 different handles. Yeah.

Alissa Wilkinson

Speaking of theatrics: This movie in particular feels like it’s not theatrical at all. It’s understated, and very lived-in — all of these people feel like absolutely real people. Improvisation is a big part of your method, is that right?

Marc Maron

All of it.

Lynn Shelton

I have a tightly structured plot. But I ask all the actors to do all the heavy lifting of actually finding their way through the beats and the scenes, and then to do the dialogue.

Marc Maron

I didn’t know how it would look, but because it all sort of happens organically, and everything’s different with every take, it creates a sort of naturalism that you don’t get from bigger-budget comedies, or movies in general. [Lynn] is able to put it together and keep us on track, and after a day or two, the characters sort of found themselves and got grounded.

It’s very compelling, because the improv works and the characters are grounded. You really don’t know what’s going to happen, or what’s going to be said. When a conversation happens or something funny happens, it’s happening in real time. You can feel that it’s different from heavily scripted, weighty movies that have a lot of money.

Lynn Shelton

You see those scripts with like seven credited writers.

Alissa Wilkinson

Which I think is why so many studio comedies are just abysmally unfunny. Too many cooks.

Lynn Shelton

Horribly.

Alissa Wilkinson

So Lynn, when you write this way, what are you actually writing down? Just that you want to get from point A to point B, or that certain actions will happen in the scene, or what?

Lynn Shelton

Both. I’ll know, exposition-wise, what has to be conveyed to lay the groundwork for future payoffs. Then, just broad strokes, basically: If there needs to be an emotional dynamic conveyed, or a particular arc that has to happen in that scene. Like where are we at, and what’s happening right now?

So [the screenplay for Sword of Trust] was like 50 pages, with some scenes really written out. You know, like the Mel/Deirdre scene is actually a lot more written out. [Shelton plays the small part of Deirdre, Mel’s ex-girlfriend.] I was a little looser, while his responses are pretty much as written.

But the heart of the movie is the scene in the back of the van. [In this scene, Mel delivers a long, notable monologue about how he came to own the pawn shop; Maron’s performance is unforgettable.] And the screenplay just says, “They get to know each other in the back of the van.”

Alissa Wilkinson

Oh, wow.

Jon Bass, Marc Maron, Michaela Watkins, and Jillian Bell in Sword of Trust.
They get to know each other in the back of the van.
IFC Films

Lynn Shelton

I mean, you have to understand that do a movie like this, in my book, you’ve got to have a ton of backstory so people really know who their characters are, where they’ve come from, and what their stories are when they come in. Who they are to each other. That kind of stuff.

So I got the actors together before we made the film, to try and establish a dynamic beforehand between them. That’s really important.

We shot in 12 days. And if that work hadn’t been done beforehand, it couldn’t really worked, I don’t think, but especially for a scene like the one in the van.

It still took all day. Like they’re just in the back of that fucking van. I’m torturing them.

Marc Maron

It was hot. No air conditioning.

Lynn Shelton

No air conditioning in Alabama. It was a nightmare. The worst day, probably, humidity wise. Also one day on set at the farm, we were all just like pouring, sweating bullets. [To Marc] I’m surprised you guys don’t look soaking wet that day. It was insane.

But yes: That was the most highly improvised part of the movie, and it’s the heart of the movie. It really turned into the best material of the whole thing. It’s pretty great.

Alissa Wilkinson

For you, Lynn, what is the primary theme of the film? It’s ostensibly about this conspiracy theory, but really it’s about something much deeper.

Lynn Shelton

It’s the characters.

Of course, I wanted to make a culturally relevant satire that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists when you walked out, something that makes you feel like, Okay, I feel validated in my feelings of destabilization in this crazy culture that we’re in. Other people understand.

And also — as you guys were discussing before — this danger that’s out there. Be aware. Don’t be an idiot. Don’t be a sucker and fall for idiot ideas. There is such a thing as objective truth, sometimes.

But that’s almost like window-dressing for me. The most important things are these characters, and their story, and their relationships. This idea that people who start out suspicious of each other can kind of soften, and actually connect. They find out that Oh, I can actually sort of trust this person. You know?

So that’s why the movie is called what it is.

Alissa Wilkinson

Sword of Trust really does feel different from other movies that are trying to be of our particular moment. When I am pitched a movie that’s like, It’s really relevant! I want to run in the opposite direction.

Lynn Shelton

Oh, yes. Go away. I don’t want to be near you.

Alissa Wilkinson

If you’re selling your movie on the strength of being full of really “woke” jokes, or empowered women characters, that’s sometimes a signal that it’s actually really lame. But Sword of Trust feels very different, while also landing its point about truth. And it’s funny, because again, a lot of the conspiracy theorists on the internet sell themselves as people who can show you the truth. You’re taking the “red pill,” from The Matrix. Now, you’ll see the truth.

Lynn Shelton

Exactly.

Alissa Wilkinson

And it’s impossible to disprove them.

Marc Maron

Well, it’s impossible to disprove to people who think that “the truth” is just another conspiracy.

Lynn Shelton

That science is a conspiracy.

Marc Maron

The meme culture came from that bunch.

Alissa Wilkinson

From 4Chan, right. It all comes back to 4Chan.

Marc Maron

It’s a good book. I think everyone should read it. Just a few pieces of the puzzle.

Alissa Wilkinson

A big confusing and strange puzzle.

Sword of Trust opened in theaters on July 12.