Writer-director Benjamin Dickinson is back, following his deft and minimalist 2012 debut “First Winter,” with another near-future tale about a group of Brooklynites that he again stars in. That’s where the similarities end. As Indiewire’s Eric Kohn stated in his Grade A review for the filmmaker’s sophomore feature, “Compared to the meandering pace and minimalist setting of Dickinson’s debut, ‘Creative Control’ amounts to a major step forward.”
In “Creative Control,” Dickinson stars as a serious-minded inventor who creates an ambitious pair of “Augmented Reality” glasses, which he ultimately uses to create an avatar of his best friend’s girlfriend. Naturally, his technologically-enhanced fantasy turns against him.
Indiewire caught up with Dickinson to discuss the genesis of the project and his take on what’s wrong with the majority of narratives being told in film today.
I’m going to kick this off with a pretty unimaginative question, but this film kind of begs it: what made you dream up this project in the first place?
Usually when I think of a movie, I just start with one image, I don’t know how that happens, but I get one image and then I expand it into a movie. Even for short films or even music videos. So the first image I had for this movie was the scene that happens right at the beginning where two characters are having sex, and for lack of better terms, doing doggy-style, and then he picks up this phone in the middle of the act and takes a picture of it. That was the first image I had. When the image came to me I thought it was just a funny thing; and also a little dark and dirty. There was this idea of self-reflectivity that we have in the digital era – a heightened sense of self-awareness. Somehow technology can magnify some of that narcissistic tendency that we have.
Basically I started thinking, wouldn’t it be interesting to do like an early ’60s Antonioni-type movie in Williamsburg. The characters in his movies have everything they need, but they have dissatisfaction so they distract themselves. Certain movies kind of attack it from different points of view.
The augmented reality thing started out as kind of like a B-plot. The movie’s personal too. I was trying to work out my own feelings about the advertising industry and just difficult stuff related to being in a long-term relationship in New York City.
This marks such a huge leap for you, when taking into consideration the narrow scope of your debut. Did you make “Creative Control” with the intention to surprise people and show what you’re capable of?
I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of curating my career or anything. I learned a lot from making the first film. I made that first film for no money. When I started writing “Creative Control” I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I wanted to make something that was a little more playful and brought out that part of my personality. After “First Winter” I was just feeling a little bit more confident and a little bit more willing to experiment.
I wrote the outline for “Creative Control” in like a week, and then I brought Micah [Bloomberg, the co-writer] on board, he read it. Micah’s written a lot of plays that concern the advertising industry. He’s really interested in advertising as kind of a portal into the inherent hypocrisy of human beings. He was a great collaborator in terms of bringing that world to life. But even though I have worked in commercials, Micah has more of a sense of how that works, like in a nuts and bolts way, the culture of it.
You’ve directed your fair share of commercials for big corporate companies like Ford and Puma. I found myself siding with your girlfriend in the film, even though her lofty non-corporate ideals are a bit abstract to say the least. Your script is critical of that world in which you actually work in order to make a living. Did it worry you that Ford and co. might view this film and think differently of you?
I have a lot of ambivalence about advertising, and then I’m also an independent filmmaker and I have to pay rent in New York City. So regardless of how I may feel about it, I have to do it. I don’t think I’m great at it. I think a lot of the skill of directing commercials is not being a director per se, but being a more of a diplomat — which is interesting too. There’s the agency, there’s the client and then your vision, and everybody has a different agenda that’s related to their own personal needs… and sometimes fears and sometimes hang-ups.
I’ve had a good experience working with Ford, they’re really nice people. And I think the people that I’ve gotten to work with at that company probably wouldn’t be surprised when they saw my movie. Within reason, we’ve talked about some of the trappings of that industry. There’s so much advertising going on all the time. The way that we’re sold ideas or beliefs or concepts… it’s a concern. The line between what is advertising and what is art is becoming less and less clear. And I don’t know, maybe art is selling something, selling an idea, but to me the value in art, if you’re looking for the fundamental thing that drives it, is the quest for beauty or the quest for truth — or an exploration of beauty. Great art is always aspiring toward truth or beauty and then products, like advertising products, at the end of the day it’s about money. Money’s not bad, but it’s not the highest ideal of what humans are capable of.
Were you ever worried during the pre-production phase that you wouldn’t be able to realize your vision given the budgetary constraints you had? The visual effects are seamless, but you couldn’t have known how everything would come together going into this.
I had so many worries, Nigel. I didn’t know if I could be the lead actor… there was a whole bunch of things I didn’t know. I just had to kind of jump into it because I had a vision. I have a fair amount of comfort with directing visual effects, just from dong a lot of music videos, so I was confident that I could manage that process. I knew that if I found the right collaborators that we could make it really great. I was very worried at a certain point that we weren’t going to find those people. And the company that did it is a company called Mathematic, based in Paris. I couldn’t have done it without them. The level of stuff that they did was just beyond my expectations.
I did have a plan in my back pocket — most of those scenes with the avatar, I actually shot with the actress in the shot, even the ones where she’s completely digital. I did have a lo-fi backup plan, but I’m glad we didn’t have to go down that road. There was a point at which I was like, “Am I just going to hire a bunch of freelance after-effects guys and do it that way?” I’m glad we didn’t have to do it that way because I don’t think we’d have the same quality.
I see a lot of the same narratives being told in film today, but “Creative Control” plays like a wholly original creation. It’s a breath of fresh air. How do you feel about the current film landscape?
I want to answer this question thoughtfully. Let me start here: I love films because you can tell a story and you can also get someone really interested in a specific moment of time, which is not necessarily about the story. You can also get someone to think differently about a scenario that is familiar. What I notice in a lot of films — not just indie films but films in general — that I sometimes grow tired of, is that the camera and the director are always on the same side as the characters in the movie. Even if those characters are morally questionable, or flawed, you basically have everything — there’s not a lot of tension for me because the filmmaker is always advocating for the character’s perspective. What you can do in cinema that’s exciting is you can kind of not be sure about the characters in the movie. You can take a step back; you can look at their behavior. You don’t always have to be advocating for the characters with the camera. That, to me, is more like a conversation. There’s tension, because sometimes the character and the film are moving in different directions. That creates comedy; that creates tension.
You don’t have to shoot an indie film like a documentary to make something feel real. Is that really what people’s experiences of life are like? That’s not really how life is. Sometimes things are in big wide shot, sometimes you don’t feel very close to yourself, let alone other people. At least, I don’t. There’s so much you can do with the way you stage a scene, and lenses, camera movement and blocking; there are so many different ways that we can look at reality. And you don’t need a huge budget to think a little differently.
I feel like I’m used to seeing in indie films a lot of movies about a particular individual rising above a difficult circumstance, whether it’s a dysfunctional family or social pressures. I guess I’m not convinced… I don’t know what a hero is. I think people can be amazingly strong and amazingly courageous and resilient, and those same people can also be cowardly and confused and scared and selfish and narrow-minded — all of those things can be in one person.
I feel like in Hollywood you have the superhero movie, and then in the indie world you have the American individual overcoming hard knocks. And either way, I hope I’m not sounding offensive because obviously people need inspiration, but I wonder if that narrative is serving us, in general, because I think it doesn’t look at the systems that we put in place and the power structures we put in place. It’s not looking at the beliefs that we have. We have almost a religion of capitalism, a religion of consumerism, and I don’t know if we’re looking at the arrangements we’re making as a society if the focus is always on individuals rising above. It seems like a false narrative because most people get beaten down and don’t rise above. Why is that happening? Why do so many people struggle with addiction and depression? And why do so many people find it so difficult to get by?
I just think there are other ways to slice it and I don’t know if telling the story of the one individual rising above over and over is…I don’t know. It’s occasionally interesting but…I hope I don’t regret everything I just said there. [Laughs]