In, what is without a doubt, our biggest interview so far, FinalBoss talk to indie filmmaker Benjamin Dickinson.
From plucky beginnings as one of the Waverly Films alumni, Benjamin has worked for major ad brands and even bigger music artists such as Reggie Watts, Killer Mike and Yoko Ono. In 2015, Dickinson released his feature film “Creative Control”.
Writing, acting and directing the piece, it took in everything from ad companies, celebrity and addiction and packaged it in as a stylish black and white sci-fi that sceptically looked to the near-future. Live from his hand-built shed in his backyard in Brookyln, in this in-depth conversation, Benjamin talked us through his career, and working on his two feature films.
FinalBoss: Can you talk to me about your music video career? I didn’t realise how much work you’d actually done – I had no idea you were part of Waverly Films (Waverly were a collective of young filmmakers from NY who created bizarre, abstract sketches and uploaded them to an early days Youtube). The progress of that is incredible. I know that you’ve done commercials and lots of big ads, so do the music videos present a sort of in-betweeny way of it being commercial vs creative?
Benjamin Dickinson: Well, bear in mind, we started doing music videos 15 years ago so I don’t know if the landscape has changed. I imagine it has. But yeah, it’s sort of in-between – you have a lot of creative freedom in a music video but you’re also working in the corporate world of music and you have to “sell” the band, basically. But depending on who you’re working with you can have a lot of freedom as short filmmakers. Me and the other Waverly guys grew up sort of idolising Spike Jonze and Gondry and Hype Williams. I feel like they were in that first wave of making music videos as art.
But by the time we got in to the game, a decade later, it was much different. The money was much less, this was before streaming, so the budgets were small… it didn’t lead into making features, which is what we were hoping. Spike Jonze went straight from directing music videos to making feature films, and that didn’t happen for us.
FB: Was that what the plan was then? Did you assume it was going to be a stepping stone?
BD: I think we all did. We also just needed to make money. I think we all thought it would be more direct. What music videos did lead to was commercial work, which was a way to make rent. But it really didn’t lead to Hollywood. Or even “Indiewood”. We all kind of make that leap separately.
FB: I’d say that, after watching through the few music videos you did, something you did with your career was manage to make a lot out of very little. For example the Killer Mike video… or the Chiddy Bang video; that last one was ****ing huge when it came out.
BD: Yeah, we made that for 5000 dollars.
FB: I would not be able to tell. I had assumed it was very little, but when that track dropped that was massive – it was such a giant hit. Every dorm room must have had that.
BD: For sure.
FB: Bar the commercials, are most of the projects that you’ve done been very low budget/you having to work with what you’ve got?
BD: I mean… yeah. I would love to stop doing it that way! There was some music videos where we had a decent budget but a lot of times ended up being not my best ones. Mostly because when there’s more money you just have more cooks in the kitchen, record executives getting involved… people are more anxious. When there’s a small amount of money they just kind of give it to you and let you do whatever you want. When there’s more money you’re responsible to more people. Man… I think it’s been buried, Perry Farrell had a music video, I don’t remember what it was called and we did this huge video for it and it was just a disaster.
For the most part it has been doing a lot with a little. And I think that can result in some really interesting, creative things because I think what happens when you have a lot of money it’s easy to get lazy and you tend to do what’s conventional or what’s been done before. It happens at every level of filmmaking. The other thing is if you have a limited budget and you want to do visual effects you have to really think a lot more about what you’re shooting.
FB: Surely, lots more foresight. You’ve got to be eight steps ahead to do that, I’m sure.
BD: I’m getting tired of it. The next one I’m hoping to have a lot more money to do it.
FB: So what made you take on Creative Control at the time? You came from First Winter (Dickinson’s feature film – following a small band of friends trapped in a farmhouse – is low budget and intimate), which in comparison, is minimal. In the nicest way, very little happens. It’s a very actor-y piece, you show off your actors in that.
BD: And cinematography.
FB: What made you take the step up? In comparison that film is just massive to your debut.
BD: I was about to turn 30, and I was like “Why I haven’t made a film yet?”. I’ve been working non-stop since I got out of school, that was one of those things where I had a couple of scripts that were ready to go, and access to my friend’s farmhouse. That particular winter was crazy – there was blizzard after blizzard, like, record cold. And I knew this group of actors through my girlfriend at the time [“A Teacher” actress] Lyndsay Burdge.
FB: It’s very grassroots. Very Evil Dead territory.
BD: (Jokingly) It probably would have been a lot more popular if I had some zombies or monsters!
FB: There’s a lot of characterisation though. You’re very big on characters. And when you’re pushing characters you don’t need a werewolf, mate. You’re fine.
BD: I think what I’m trying to do in Creative Control, and my work going forward, is have complex characterisation inside a genre premise – that makes it accessible to a wide audience – that still does the psychological, emotional stuff.
My favourite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick and he always managed to do that. And Bergman can really do that too. But Creative Control was different because it was more traditional: I’ve got this idea, I’ve really worked on this script for a long time… so it was just a different beast. It was more deliberate throughout. But I don’t know if I could have made it without First Winter because even though it was such a small film, we got a New York Times critics pick, it got good reviews. It made investors feel like I knew what I was doing. First Winter was me experimenting with the idea of leaving all the technology behind and then Creative Control was me trying to embrace and engage with technology whilst still voicing my concerns about it, about what’s happening in our society. And also there was a lot of frustration and anger that grew out of me having to do promotional work, which can be pretty soul crushing… My anxiety about how much New York City and Brooklyn is changing and this influx of tech people and yuppies… Williamsburg, where the characters live, is unrecognisable now from when we shot the movie. I think my concern about it is what people call “gentrification”. I wish there was a better word, everything sort of becomes an entertainment and you lose some of the texture that makes the city interesting when you have these massive high-rises and technology moving in.
what I’m trying to do is have complex characterisation inside a genre premise – that makes it accessible to a wide audience – that still does the psychological, emotional stuff.
FB: In a previous interview you talked about Annie Hall, and how much you love that movie. Just the way you talk about New York, you’re clearly a big fan of it, despite its flaws.
BD: I love Annie Hall. I’ve probably seen it more than any other movie in my life, and I saw that movie for the first time when I was 14. Already at that age I was thinking about filmmaking as a lifestyle but when I saw Annie Hall, it was like “Oh, I didn’t know that you could do that!”. I had never seen anything like it. I couldn’t believe that that worked, that you could just make a movie about your varying minute relationship issues.
FB: I get the feeling that you were super confident from the accolades that you got from First Winter, that shows through the fact that on Creative Control you are writing, directing, acting… you are doing the triple threat and you’re killing it every single point.
BD: Well, that’s nice.
FB: I’m trying to get into your shed.
All of the roles are so different, and the writing, I feel, is something where you have to look forward; and the acting is very in the moment; vs the directing encompassing all of it. I just wanted to ask you what you valued the most?
BD: My favourite thing to do is direct. Because it’s social. You get to experience magic moments with a group of friends. It’s really exciting, you work so hard, there’s a lot of frustration, you have to reschedule, nothing ever works the way it’s supposed to… but when you have an army of people come together and that moment where you get the shot just right is the best feeling in the world.
Writing can be rewarding. To me, that’s the most difficult thing, because it’s so solitary and it’s never good at first. And you just have to accept that it’s not going to be good until you revise it.
And then acting is fun. To me, actors are like emotional athletes. It feels really good when you nail the performance on the fifth take, but then by the fifteenth take that gets a little bit dull for me. I don’t like to have to act angry or sad, fifteen times.
when you have an army of people come together and that moment where you get the shot just right is the best feeling in the world.
FB: What’s the process of directing yourself? How do you say to yourself “be angry” 15 times?
BD: It’s strange. It’s a little schizophrenic – because you’re switching back and forth between analytical and emotional. To give a good performance you have to be in the moment, and then to analyse performance it’s kinda difficult. I don’t know if I want to do it again, at least not in a lead role. The process was straightforward, I would do a few takes and then watch playback. I think a really great actor could have elevated the movie and that role.
FB: Can you talk to me about Aziz Ansari and why that didn’t pan out [with him in the main role]?
BD: It didn’t pan out… because he didn’t want to do it!
FB: It was a simple as he turned it down?
BD: Yeah, he just said no. At the time he was writing what became Master of None. The feedback that I got was that he didn’t understand what I was doing, which is fair enough.
FB: In the Google interview that you did with Reggie Watts, you said that the masturbating scene was, quote, “the most narcissistic moment of my life” – quote. How do you approach that character? Looking back at it, he’s not even that likeable.
FB: In fact, none of the characters are particularly.
BD: No, no they’re not.
FB: How do you jump in to that? How do you not just hate yourself as an actor by doing that?
BD: I don’t think it’s hard as an actor to play an unlikeable character, when you’re acting you take on the point of view of that character; you’re advocating for their point of view. Even if you think this guy’s kind of an asshole, in the moment you’re just performing that. I feel like in America there’s this emphasis on having likeable characters.
in Creative Control they’re living in a luxury advertisement but they’re miserable. It’s not happy inside of that fantasy world.
FB: Creative Control has this aesthetic, where it’s very shiny, but everybody inside the anthill is bitter – I love the fact that all your characters smoke cigarettes – you created this kind of false, self-hating bubble and its beautiful.
BD: My intentions were pretty specific – in Creative Control they’re living in a luxury advertisement but they’re miserable. That’s my subtle leftist political statement which is that basically the message of consumer capitalism is completely empty. It’s not happy inside of that fantasy world. That was the whole idea behind the aesthetic; to create this beautiful nightmare.
FB: On a very basic level, is that why it was black and white as well?
BD: Yeah, black and white is a big thing in luxury advertising. But also I wanted the AR technology to be in colour, over a black and white world. Also it was a way to make a movie feel like it was in the future on a small budget.
FB: Again, on a basic level, you’ve done kind of a backwards Wizard of Oz.
FB: I went through a break-up recently and currently now I find myself on all these dating apps. It’s all extraordinarily superficial, feeling a lot like the themes that you’re talking about in the film, and I just wanted to ask you about these. Are you single?
BD: So when I wrote and made the film I had never used a dating app. I feel it was still a little bit on the margins, whereas it’s become so mainstream in the last six, seven years. But I did try it for the first time last summer. I was single last summer, and I tried it out because I wanted to do some research because everyone seemed to be doing it.
FB: I believe you completely, sure.
BD: I did not find true love on an app. It seems like the app could be fun for people looking for casual sex. What I found strange about it was when you meet the person you’ve already had a pleasant text interaction, and for me there would have had to of been some sort of wit and charm over text. By the time you meet them, are they going to look like what they look like in their picture…? And let’s say you like the look of them, they like the look of you, you’ve had a nice text exchange, and you’ve even managed to have a good conversation in reality: So much pressure has already been put upon this interaction before you even were able to smell each other.
Forgive that imagery, but we are primates.
I find that there’s a reality distortion field that happens. You can be so relieved that it’s even going okay, that that could turn in to a month of dating someone that you don’t even like. Maybe for younger people, this is kinda par for the course and they don’t have as much anxiety about it, and the seams aren’t as glaring.
FB: Did you happen to see the latest Blade Runner movie? Because it’s one of those where you-did-that-before-them moments.
BD: When I watched it, those scenes in Blade Runner  did seem awfully familiar but I don’t think they stole it from me – it’s just in the collective unconscious right now. I thought it had some great ideas, but it wasn’t emotionally resonant for me. Although it was beautiful.
FB: Creative Control feels almost more poignant now, 2019 vs 2015 – and it’s got this amazing feeling of being ahead of the curve, whilst also being a movie that came out five years ago. Like, VR is in everyone’s home now. Now, it’s everyday. I just wondered, did you see the technology going that way. Did you plan for that for the film?
BD: Yeah. It actually has gone a little slower than I thought. When I was writing the film, GoogleGlass was around, and I had a sense that’s where things were going. And then Pokemon Go came out.
It’s gone a little slower than I thought. I think with 2016, with Trump getting elected and with Brexit, there was some emphasis shifted towards the crisis of social media and current technology and so there was a little bit of a shift away from a virtual reality.
I don’t think BLADE RUNNER 2049 stole it from me – it’s just in the collective unconscious right now.
FB: If you had to compare Creative Control to an existing piece of technology what it would be and why?
So willing to talk to me throughout, this particular question has him stumped. Benjamin takes a long think, unsure, then looks to the books at the side of his room.
BD: …I would compare Creative Control to a book on alternate realities.
FB: I’m ready for you to reveal today’s letter and why we’re going to learn about it.
BD: I seem like I was on Sesame Street just now?
FB: Just a little bit.
“Creative Control” can be purchased and watched through Amazon Prime. Anything else Benjamin Dickinson you can be sure that we will be covering it here on FinalBoss.
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Jon Holmes is a writer based in the UK. Alongside his work writing for film, he is a multi-accoladed filmmaker in his own right, and also performs. He can be followed on Youtube at Hans HS and on Twitter on @jonnyjonjon1