Inside the Directorial Manifesto of ‘Creative Control’ Director Benjamin Dickinson
"I want to entertain people. I don't want to be didactic. It's not a polemic. It's more of a conversation," says Benjamin Dickinson. "A good conversation over dinner is like a good laugh, and let's get real. That's what I think a movie should be.”
Dickinson’s sophomore film, the satirical black & white feature Creative Control (which came out last month on digital, and is out this week on DVD) has had many people, myself included, shouting the film's praises as the work of a cinematic crackerjack. As both the director and leading man, Benjamin’s smart directorial articulation is impossible to miss; the film is as perturbing as it is funny.
The stylized black and white aesthetic alone is a captivating study — and for more specifics on that you can read our great No Film School interview with DP Adam Newport-Berra here. Long before it’s Amazon release, No Film School sat down with Benjamin at SXSW 2015 to talk about his film on the eve of its premiere. Here is our interview, with Benjamin talking about anything from the importance of unbroken takes to the genius of Monty Python.
NFS: How did you come up with the idea for Creative Control?
Benjamin: The movie really did start with that image that used to be the opening of the movie, which was two characters having sex doggie style and the man pauses in the middle of it and takes a picture of it on his phone. That image came to me and I saw it as funny, and also sad and ironic. That one image encapsulates the themes of the movie with narcissism, but also the extra window, the extra layer of self-reflectivity that we're experiencing through our technology. Sex is pretty good, but somehow bringing in this third person through a camera is making it more pleasurable. That's strange. That was the first image and when it came to me and I was like, "This is a satirical image; it's also sexy and it's also beautiful and weird and it seemed to contain everything," it grew from there.
I also knew early on that the characters would be creative class types, and once that was clear, the Brooklyn environment and satire just came hand-in-hand. It's a world that I know well. I also think the first thing I wrote down in my notebook was, "Wouldn't it be interesting to look at the Brooklyn creative class?" I'm going to avoid using the word "hipster" because it's not meaningful to me. What if you were to look at the Brooklyn creative class through the lens of early '60s Antonioni? Or maybe Italian neo-realism because I thought I saw some thematic similarities in ? So it started as that image.
"This is a satirical image. It's also sexy and it's also beautiful and weird and it seemed to contain everything." It grew from there.
NFS: Was the choice to set the film just slightly in the future, or “five minutes in the future” something that gave you more freedom with the film?
Benjamin: Once I established that it's almost a parallel reality, as opposed to a future reality, that we're not quite in the familiar world, people can relax and I can play around. The suspension of disbelief is there. If I'm saying, "This is the reality you know," people can't suspend their disbelief when I want to have a robot girl avatar. I also just knew I wanted to have wearable technology that doesn't really exist yet. The augmented reality glasses in the film are these big, ridiculous things. We're far from having a retinal-projected augmented reality, which is what augmented would be. It would be literally projecting onto your retina. We don't quite have the circuitry. Stuff isn't small enough and flexible enough yet. I wanted to have that technology in my movie so I had to change it a little bit.
I wanted to make it slick and aspirational and beautiful. The clothes are beautiful, the shots are beautiful, and then have the people living in this beautiful world of glass be not very happy -- using slick advertising language against the purpose of advertising to emphasize what's not working.
NFS: You mentioned Antonioni and Italian neo-realism. Was there any connection there to shoot in black and white? What was your strategy with this film, visually?
Benjamin: Well, I sort of had a dogma. The black and white has a narrative function, which is that everything's in black and white except the technology — that’s a very clear narrative function. It actually helps us be unclear if the character Sophie is real or not in the middle of the movie. Aesthetically, that's fun.
I think I wanted to set this movie apart from other independent movies about these types of people. It just needed to feel like something you haven't seen before, in a world that you think you're familiar with. Also, I wanted to make it slick and aspirational and beautiful. The clothes are beautiful, the shots are beautiful, and then have the people living in this beautiful world of glass be not very happy — using slick advertising language against the purpose of advertising to emphasize what's not working. It's the classic mid-life crisis thing. It's like, "Well, but I got all this stuff — I did what I'm supposed to do. I'm a consumer and I have a life and I got a car and this house. Why aren't I happy?" Which are the questions being asked in those Antonioni movies, too.
There was a dogma that Adam Newport-Berra [DP] and I had. We didn't have a manifesto or anything, but you may have noticed that many scenes in the movie are unbroken master shots. Obviously, that's something that you have to be deliberate about. There is no handheld camera in the movie except the final scene, which is all handheld, and there's quite a bit of cutting in that scene. In that scene David is not in control anymore. He's completely lost control and he starts to become more of a human. He's feeling his emotions. He's actually listening to his girlfriend. They're having a communication. He seems to experience love and pain for real. I wanted to subvert the entire aesthetic situation I'd set up previously in the movie because when you shift like that it's unconscious. Someone was like, "Was the last scene all one shot?" I was like, "Oh, no. There are many cuts." It has an unconscious function when you change what you're doing with the camera at a particular moment in the movie. That's just the power of movies to shift someone's experience and it can really happen on an unconscious level if you're clever about it. That's one of the tools that you have in your trade.
Then watching stuff in unbroken takes makes stuff seem like it's really happening. Even if something's well edited, at some level you're aware of the smoke and mirrors. But when you watch a dialogue scene on an unbroken take you feel like you're there; you feel like you're with the people. I like that. I like that feeling. It's beautiful — aesthetically beautiful. There’s too much cutting in movies, in general. Sure, you need to cut in an action sequence, but it's better for the actors not to have to do 10 takes in a close up, 10 takes in a medium shot, 10 takes in a wide shot. It just drains it of energy. When you know that you're going to get it all in one shot it's more like theater and the actors can really use all of their tools, already knowing that it's going to be a close up so they don't really have to do the work.
Knowing that once we get it we're going to move on, they can really bring it. They can really go there. Other times it doesn't work for the storytelling, but when it does I try to use it.
If you want to make a movie about just two people having a conversation, 4:3 would probably be a better format because it's square and we're more square. Well, we're more portrait. We could shoot a whole movie like this on an iPhone. For spaces, anamorphic is such a great format.
NFS: What tools did you use to create these slick, beautiful images? Did you shoot in black and white?
Benjamin: No, we shot in color. We shot on the ALEXA Studio, which has a square chip. We shot anamorphic lenses, and you're just basically using as much of the chip as you can. You're not cropping a bunch. We knew we wanted to use anamorphic lenses. It's a beautiful format. It is so wide that it feels to me a little bit more like vision. There's this sense of peripheral vision. It also a focus point and it blurs around the edges of some of the distortion. I think it's beautiful. That's why Manhattan is such a visually stunning film. It's those anamorphic lenses and you just have a sense of people in their environment, which was really important for this movie.
I think environment is a huge factor in the movie — the spaces that the characters inhabit. It's great for that. If you want to make a movie about just two people having a conversation, 4:3 would probably be a better format because it's square and we're more square. Well, we're more portrait. We could shoot a whole movie like this on an iPhone. For spaces, anamorphic is such a great format.
There’s too much cutting in movies, in general. Sure, you need to cut in an action sequence. But it's better for the actors not to have to do 10 takes in a close up, 10 takes in a medium shot, 10 takes in a wide shot. It just drains it of energy.
NFS: In the film, you have a handful of extremely slow motion sequences. How would you describe the purpose of those?
Benjamin: Just indulgence. Masturbatory indulgence. [laughter] Well, first of all it's beautiful to look at. In those sequences, there’s this beautiful moment in David's life where things slow down, and there's something beautiful. There's an ease and there's a fluidity. There's a romance. The rest of his life is so anxious. It's fraught. Anxiety all the time, pressure, disconnection. Then, he puts on the glasses and he has this amazing moment that he's in control of and everything slows down and becomes beautiful. That shot of Sophie walking up the spiral staircase in slow motion — suddenly we're in this world where everything's so buzzing around. I just wanted to slow it down and be like, "This is what it feels like for him and this is why it becomes an addiction because he doesn't have this in his life and he needs it."
NFS: On your debut feature, First Winter, you did a lot of improvisation with your actors. What was your process like in Creative Control?
Benjamin: This was much, much more controlled. I did 8 drafts of the script. There are hard jokes in this movie. You can't get those kind of hard jokes if there's improv. It's not possible. You really have to set it up right. So there was a lot more writing. That said, once we were on set and we blocked it, I would be like, "Okay, on this take let's shift it up a little bit." There's a fair amount of improv once we're in the context, but at that point, if there are jokes or there's punch lines, once you've already done it by the book a few times, then you can loosen up. We did get some good stuff with the improv. Then Reggie [Watts] only works in improve, so I had to design the shoot around him. It was a pleasure to do. He came up with great stuff.
I will say as much as First Winter was loose, this was almost a little constrictive and I wish I'd had a little bit more freedom to experiment. I think, too, I clung too much to the script. I think for my next movie I can find a balance; I could have a little bit more of the freedom and the looseness that I had in First Winter and then still know I have the structure of the script. I'm figuring it out. I went in a different direction and I feel like maybe I can balance it out going forward.
NFS: About the casting of people in the film — I know you cast some people who are actually playing...
Benjamin: Versions of themselves.
NFS: ...versions of themselves. People from the tech world, for example. What was the motivation behind that?
Benjamin: I had access to these people so it seemed strange to cast actors to play them since they already are them. It's pragmatic. It was a pragmatic solution, but I think there's an aesthetic reason, too. I mean, I haven't talked a lot about this but as much goofy humor and hard jokes as there are in the movie, the performances are very naturalistic and low key, I think. If you're making that kind of movie, you can bring in non-actors and they'll just blend in. You find that in Antonioni. Fellini's a little bigger. It's kind of a carnival but Antonioni, too, it's very low-key acting. I just like that. I relate to it.
I was into Monty Python long before I was into Antonioni or Kubrick.
NFS: Since you bring up the hard jokes and the humor in the film, do you feel like Creative Control is a satire?
Benjamin: Yeah, I think it's a satire. I think that's the word I would use to describe it. I mean, I love Monty Python. I love the movie, The Meaning of Life. Fucking love that movie. Oh, my God. Because their target is hypocrisy, right? I feel like that's my target, too. Just to draw so much silliness out of it, too. It's so silly and then the satire's great. From the opening scene in The Meaning of Life, when the woman's giving birth and they're just like, "We're going to bring in some more expensive machines." To the Protestant couple arguing about why it's better to be Protestant than Catholic because they can use birth control. What does he say? Graham Chapman is like, "Every time they have sex they have to have a baby." His wife's like, "It's the same with us. We have 2 children..."
I was into Monty Python long before I was into Antonioni or Kubrick. Incidentally, Dr. Strangelove is one of the funniest movies ever made. I'm sure you've read interviews with Kubrick where he's like, "I was going to make a serious movie of it and I realized that people would never believe it. It's so ridiculous that it has to be a satire." I think when you are serious and you have a serious point, humor goes a long way. I think it's a good storytelling strategy, too, because there's a lot of tension and negativity in my movie and it builds and builds and then there's a nice joke and it releases. I'm not a lecturer. I'm not a preacher. I'm a filmmaker. I want to entertain people. I don't want to be didactic. It's not a polemic. It's more of a conversation. A good conversation over dinner is like a good laugh, and let's get real — that's what I think a movie should be. It's belly laughing and then it's, "This is what I'm fucking dealing with right now." It's like dinner with your best friend.
I want to entertain people. I don't want to be didactic. It's not a polemic. It's more of a conversation. A good conversation over dinner is like a good laugh, and let's get real. That's what I think a movie should be.
NFS: This is your second feature. So what’s your advice to other filmmakers?
Benjamin: Just do it. That's my advice. Don't wait for anyone to give you permission. Protect your instincts and be humble enough to take criticism when you need it. But protect your instincts. I don't have any advice for a filmmaker trying to become rich or trying to enter the Hollywood system. I don't know about those things. But if you want to be an independent filmmaker, and what's important to you is making a film because you have something that you want to express, yeah, just don't wait for permission from anybody else. Just do it. Be willing to screw up and be willing to fail. Take good care of your baby. It's tough because it's very difficult to find investors for a second film, let alone a first film. You just got to do it with whatever you have at your disposal.
First Winter was not going to be my first movie. I wrote a movie that I could make with what I had access to. It was a very, very snowy winter. I had access to a farmhouse and I knew some actresses, so I wrote a movie that was me and talked about what I was interested in, but just in one location. Look at what you have access to. You don't need a lot of money to make an interesting film. Not even a visually interesting film, either. I say just do it. Just Nike it.