This isn’t the first time writer/director Benjamin Dickinson has had a taste of SXSW, having visited here last year with the premiere of his short film Super Sleuths. This year, the New York filmmaker is here promoting his dark comedy/drama Creative Control…and he confesses that the experience is exhausting in comparison.
Thankfully I was able to grab a minute with Dickinson, a definitive intellectual and philosophical free-thinker, and have a conversation about his new project. WARNING: This may contain spoilers.
Cara: First thing, before I even dive into Creative Control, I noticed that you mention historical filmmakers like Kubrick, Woody Allen, Antonioni who inspire you as a filmmaker. These guys all play a significant role in film history, and I was wondering who inspires you the most?
Ben: For this particular film, or in my life?
Ben: Those three are the biggest references for the movie, and it echoes in many different ways. Antonioni was inspiring from an aesthetic and thematic level.
Cara: About capitalism and excess pleasure, right?
Ben: Yes, and in Antonioni’s films in the 60’s, people were alienated by technology- in his case it was really industrialization and the banking system -but that’s not separate from the technology we have now. It’s a continuum. And as for doing long master shots, Woody Allen did it all the time in Annie Hall, Manhattan, etc.
Cara: I knew Kubrick did it, but I guess I never noticed Allen’s knack for it.
Ben: Woody does a lot of his films in one shots, and I think it’s such an elegant way to make movies. If you can make it work, if you don’t need to see specific information on the screen. It’s just a pleasure to watch, because of what it does: editing compacts time, but if you do a one-take master shot, it makes you feel like you’re watching something that’s really happening.
Cara: That reminds me of your commentary on your other feature, First Winter, where you delve into elements on cinéma vérité, and each shot deliberately lingers on the action. As if the audience is experiencing it in reality.
Ben: First off, I don’t really know what reality is. (Laughs) There’s a lot of disagreement about that. We seem to all agree that there’s gravity, but beyond that we don’t have a good idea of what reality is. I think you can, in a movie, show someone a different way of looking, so part of what I was doing in First Winter with some of those long takes was to get people to slow down and look a little bit. Rather than just being entertained, or mesmerized.
Cara: Which is a very interesting concept, because many people believe that filmmaking is purely for entertainment.
Ben: Well that’s valid. But I do think that there’s a cynicism and a laziness in Hollywood, where there’s a lot of assumptions about what people will respond to. But don’t get me wrong, I got into filmmaking because of movies like Star Wars, so I’m not subscribing to the idea that watching a movie should equate to taking disgusting medicine. But why can’t it be both?
Cara: (Laughs) “Creative Control– disgusting medicine and and artform”.
Ben: And entertainment. I was conscious of trying to make an entertaining film. I wanted to see if I could make this entertaining movie that still had my particular dogma, and do both at the same time.
Cara: Now about David, he didn’t strike me as a traditional hero, or an anti-hero…he’s hardly a very admirable character. Were you acutely aware of that while developing him?
Ben: Yes. I didn’t think that David was a nice man, and he’s definitely not a hero. I don’t really know what a hero is. I think part of the interest in heroes is a way for us not to deal with how we actually are as human beings. It’s an escape, ya know? And even people who do incredibly courageous things have done crumby things. So I actually think the idea of a hero is actually holding us back as a human race, and I think we should stop trying to be heroes and start trying to be existential crusaders with courage to look into our own darkness, into our own contradictions, our own hypocrisy. I think David is an everyman, and I don’t think David’s a particularly bad man.
Cara: He’s just average.
Ben: Yeah, I think he’s a guy under a lot of pressure, he’s a drug addict, he doesn’t know how to communicate with his girlfriend. I think he’s sexually caged, and he’s trying to do what he thinks a nice, middle-class suburbanite should do. But it’s actually a bad fit for him, he’s too sensitive. And yet at the same time, he’s narrow-minded. At the end of the movie I think there’s a little hope for David, though.
Cara: Switching gears– about Reggie Watts’ character, I felt that what he was saying was very profound, acknowledging that the themes of the movie touched on the irony of human isolation in an increasingly connected society. In my opinion I felt that his character, who was ridiculous, was also the most wise and profound…which reminds me of the classic concept of the Shakespearean fool.
Ben: Yes! You’ve exactly described Reggie’s function in the movie and my intentions. Reggie actually wasn’t in the first draft, and as I was writing it I sensed that people might accuse me of blaming technology, which I’m not.
Cara: You explained in the Q&A how you believe technology is neutral.
Ben: It’s a tool, like a hammer. You can build a house with it or murder somebody with it, ya know what I mean? So I realized that I needed that court jester, somebody who was choosing their relationship with technology and who was engaged with it, not just letting it tell him what to do.
Cara: Now with the music, I know that the Barry Lyndon theme used in the movie echoes the theme of Barry Lyndon as a character, because like you said earlier, David is trying so desperately to conform to a society that he finds ultimately uncomfortable.
Ben: Absolutely, David is very much a “Barry Lyndon”. And what I love about Barry Lyndon is that it’s a beautiful film, but it’s a comedy…at least to me. That movie is just about people’s ridiculous pretensions. So yeah, that was a direct reference, although with [the musical theme] Sarabande, we did an electronic version in our movie.
Cara: Well I just have one more question: are there any projects in the works for you? And are they based on film movements like Italian neo-realism and cinéma vérité?
Ben: No, I think I have the confidence now, so I don’t think I need that foundation anymore. I mean, you can’t avoid it obviously- art is always building on itself -but the next story I want to tell is weirder than anything I’ve ever done, and more ambitious, and I’m very excited. I don’t want to say too much about it now, but it is science fiction.