“An Auteur Film with Pseudo-Anonymous Dialogue”: Benjamin Crotty on Fort Buchanan
A truly original oddity, Benjamin Crotty’s Fort Buchanan melds disparate tropes of American television, queer cinema, and French arthouse to comic and dazzling effect. Buchanan unfolds at the titular army base, where husbands and wives lay in waiting for their men overseas, though the wives tend to occupy their time by attempting to seduce the gay husbands, or the temperamental daughter of the film’s most lovelorn protagonist, Roger (Andy Gillet). If something is askew in the characters’ roving dialogue, that’s because the script is entirely adapted from American TV shows, an off-kilter choice that finds a counterpart in Crotty’s cinematic language, in which seasonal set changes are ushered in with seamlessly animated helicopters, extreme close-ups function as establishing shots, and the notion of “crossing the line” is cast into the wind.
Shot in the Alsace region of France and Djibouti, Buchanan presents a motley ensemble of both characters and ideas that seem at once vaguely familiar and entirely fresh in Crotty’s alternate universe of sublimated gender constructs. Filmmaker spoke to Crotty about being an American in a French industry, financing the film as shorts, modern auteurism and more. After screening at Locarno and Rotterdam, Fort Buchanan makes its North American premiere tomorrow at New Directors/New Films.
Filmmaker: You originally shot the winter section of the film as a standalone short. Was that meant to be a proof of concept for funding? Do you have to do that in France?
Benjamin Crotty: I made two shorts in Europe, one in Portugal and one in Angola. I had never made a film with French money, so I contacted the producer of Fort Buchanan, who’s a little bit younger than me. I was interested in working with someone from my generation, because I wanted a simple power dynamic, not a complicated one. We were working on another short project that was difficult to finance, you know, it’s harder for me to get money because I’m American, and she was very young. It was a weird project with CGI, and there were too many elements that made it difficult. We shot the winter portion of Fort Buchanan mostly out of frustration for the amount of time it was taking to finance this other project. It was literally made for no money: 1,000 Euros, including the cost of film.
Filmmaker: So no one was paid.
Crotty: No one was paid. We shot for a day and a half. It was so cold, the camera froze and the film kept getting stuck. We only had 50 minutes of film, so it was a little bit of a miracle we could edit it at all. I had an idea for the whole feature, I wrote the Winter portion very quickly, and had an idea for the rest of the structure. But the short got into Locarno, which is prestigious for French people. I don’t know if it is for Americans.
Filmmaker: I think so. They place a big emphasis on showcasing American independent films.
Crotty: But so that allowed for the rest of the film to be financed.
Filmmaker: And you had the script ready by then?
Crotty: Yeah. The writing process was mainly involved with dialogue from American TV shows. I wrote the story and would do keyword searches for the moods of scenes and pull lines from these shows. Every word is actually from American TV.
Filmmaker: Which shows?
Crotty: I can’t say – my producer won’t let me talk about it. [Laughs.] But it’s a big mix, lots of dramas.
Filmmaker: To me, there’s a definite deadpan American sense of humor throughout the film, despite the fact that it’s in French. Were you consciously thinking about mixing these elements?
Crotty: A couple things motivated it. I was kind of interested in what place auteur cinema has in the contemporary world. I’m not sure it exists so much as it did in the 60s in Europe anymore, especially with younger filmmakers. So I was interested in trying to construct an auteur film out of groups of writers, with pseudo-anonymous dialogue. I find TV dialogue to be super efficient, in an almost Hemingway-esque way. When the boxer tells Roger that his first husband beat him, and he swore to himself that he would never get hit again – it’s just so efficient. He doesn’t say anything about the husband; all you know is that he got hit and it’s never going to happen again. In some respects, that dialogue is banalized on American TV because it’s everywhere, but when it goes back into French, it gives it this innate weirdness.
Filmmaker: Is the phrasing sort of stilted when you translate it?
Crotty: Yes. French people tell me it’s like watching subtitles being spoken. In French, there are certain things you would never say. Like the scene when Roger tells Mati Diop’s character he doesn’t understand why he ever took boxing lessons, and she says, “Because deep down inside, you know you need to kick ass.” That’s something a French person would never say. So the words make sense, it’s something someone could say, but it’s not something they would.
Filmmaker: Was that challenging for the actors? If you’re speaking a dialogue that feels alien, does that factor into the performance?
Crotty: One danger of the film was that people would have too much of a mannered performance style. That was definitely something we worked on, because I wanted to have natural performances despite the unnatural aspects of the film. It was just a question of people respecting their characters, and accepting them.
Filmmaker: Fort Buchanan is actually in Puerto Rico, but you decided to transport it to France.
Crotty: My brother used to work at the National Archives in DC. They have a lot of digitized film material, and I was watching footage of Fort Buchanan one time, and it’s this bucolic, nice looking setting. It looks like a golf club. So I was curious about this mix of leisure and military. It’s also the name of a base that was in Arizona, I think, in the 50s. But I also like it because it’s a difficult title to say in French. [Laughs.] They’re like, “What? Fort Bushannon?”
Filmmaker: I watched Liberdade, your Angola-shot short, and you can tell me if I’m making gross generalizations, but both that and Fort Buchanan take a concept and almost immediately subvert your expectations for how it’s going to shake out. The way that Liberdade opens, with a holdup, you’d never expect for it to turn into a love story. With Fort Buchanan, it’s more conceptual, but when you think of army wives, you wouldn’t necessarily think of husbands in the mix, and that the husbands are the more desperate characters, while the women are almost predatorial.
Crotty: I’ve heard women say they’re happy about that.
Filmmaker: Well, it’s more that everyone’s on a level playing field, but that’s innate to a lot of queer cinema. Do you think about teasing your audiences’ expectations?
Crotty: I definitely think about that. I think my films are a dialogue with Hollywood and TV to an extent. I think many filmmakers work in an autobiographical vein, but that’s not really where I’m coming from. But what you said is true. With Liberdade, when we were making the film, we were interested in playing with almost Michael Bay aesthetics – like the big helicopter shot and the steadicam – and most of it was shot at sunset, and it begins with an action sequence, so just lots of Hollywood tropes. But then the narrative unravels into something very different.
Fort Buchanan was written in seasonal blocks, and that was how I structured it, with changes in the mood. Like the spring is very sexual, and autumn is depressing. Mixing that almost Grecian idea with TV conventions. With the character of Roxy, the daughter of Frank and Roger, it’s a common thing on American TV to have an adolescent who has a troubled relationship with her father, but there’s a play on that because she also abuses him physically.
Filmmaker: And is also the object of all the other women’s attention.
Crotty: Yeah, there’s almost an amalgamation of different characters – those elements don’t typically coexist in the same character on American TV. The desirable figure and the bad girl daughter, there was an element of mixing them.
Filmmaker: Because you are American – you don’t have French citizenship, right?
Crotty: No, I have an artist and professional green card.
Filmmaker: Are you working with government money? Do you have to fulfill quotas, then, with your crew and cast?
Crotty: Yeah, I can’t complain. I’m well aware that it’s very hard to get a movie made anywhere, and I think that France is probably one of the best places to make movies. Most of the French funding is designed to preserve French cinema, in opposition to Hollywood cinema, so they mostly want to finance films in French. It would be difficult to finance an American indie with French money. There is a complex point system for funding, but it’s not prohibitive to have an American director. I don’t really understand the complete nuances of it.
Filmmaker: And they finance shorts, too?
Crotty: Yeah, they do. Lots of them. The short form is definitely a thriving form there in a way that I don’t think it is in America. They also have really great protection of royalties, so if your short film is on TV, you receive a relatively substantial amount of money. France 2 financed a substantial part of Fort Buchanan, and ¾ of it are going to be broadcast on the channel.
Crotty: Well, because they were produced as shorts, since we already made the winter portion. Even though it was written as a whole, it was financed in portions. France 2 pre-bought the summer portion, the one that’s set in Djibouti, and then bought fall and spring once we wrapped. By that point, winter had been on the circuit and it was kind of old news.
Filmmaker: So did you shoot them seasonally?
Crotty: The shoots were spread out over a two-year period, but with only 15 shooting days. There was the winter one, then a year and a half later there was spring and summer, and then about five months later, we did autumn.
Filmmaker: When you first had the actors participate in the winter portion, they didn’t know they’d be locked into it for the next two years?
Crotty: [Laughs.] No, they did not know that.
Filmmaker: You made it work.
Crotty: The actors were wonderful and we became pretty close. I would like to think that they were happy to do it, but if they weren’t, they hid it from me.
Filmmaker: When you say you only shot for fifteen days, my first thought was how little that was, but the film is pretty concentrated. You make really effective use of the space in the Fort area through your shot variation. You’re constantly intercutting between extreme close-ups and wide shots, which almost defamiliarizes the space.
Crotty: Yeah, I have a fractured way of constructing the scenes.
Filmmaker: But it works!
Crotty: It’s funny because that’s my natural way of planning out the scenes, but the script girl on this film—
Filmmaker: ‘Script girl’ is my favorite part of every French film. Just to see it in the credits.
Crotty: I didn’t even know what it was.
Filmmaker: It’s like a script supervisor, right?
Crotty: I don’t know what it’s called in English, but on the two shorts I made, we didn’t have one. But she explained so many things to me about the decoupage. She was really cool and open-minded, but, for example, you’re not supposed to jump the ax—
Filmmaker: Cross the line?
Crotty: Yeah, but I was constantly doing it.
Filmmaker: Did your cinematographer not care?
Crotty: Well, it worked out fine, because the shot language is established pretty early on. But I worked with several different editors throughout the post process, and one of them was this very logical girl who drew an aerial diagram of all the cuts and it was like, Picasso, Cubism. [Laughs.]
Filmmaker: Did you edit the summer and spring shoots right after they were done, or did you wait till fall to do all three together?
Crotty: The two editors I worked with were really good friends, and it was interesting to work with them, because they brought such different things to the edit. But one of them did the first edit with all the sections, and then we went back and did another pass the second editor.
Filmmaker: Do you have any desire to make films in America?
Crotty: Yeah. I’m here [New York] for the whole month because I co-wrote a script with an American filmmaker, James N. Kienitz Wilkins, and I’m looking for a producer.
Filmmaker: Is it set here?
Crotty: It’s set in Texas. So I’m also going to look for Mexican producers, because I’d like to shoot around the border.
Filmmaker: You also had a short called Visionary Iraq. Where does the military fascination come from?
Crotty: Well, Visionary Iraq is about an incestuous, well-to-do brother and sister, who join the army because they want to bring democracy to Iraqis, but they find out their father has been making suspicious infrastructure deals. It looks a little bit like a New York underground film, because myself and my co-director Gabriel Abrantes played all the roles, so there’s a lot of drag and make-up going on. One of the inspirations for that film came from my little brother, who was in Iraq in the Army reserves. And he was really young, and his wife was also in the army, and they’d taken a few pictures where they were posing. They looked so young, and there was this weird performative aspect to it that I was attracted to. There was something so teen and television-like about those images.
But with Fort Buchanan, I grew up relatively close to an air force base [in Spokane], and I was intrigued by the community as a kid. Generally, as an American, I think there’s a weird interface between entertainment and protectionism, and how patriotism manifests itself in drama. I’m a little hyperaware of it because French people have a very different relationship with nationalism.
Filmmaker: So much of warfare is tedium, when you’re stationed somewhere, but it’s rarely portrayed as such. And in Fort Buchanan, there’s that parallel with the spouses.
Crotty: When I first started writing Fort Buchanan, I was doing research on the war in Iraq, and it seemed like Hollywood had a problem figuring out how to package it because it was a boring war. There was no Apocalypse Now, there was, maybe, Jarhead or Three Kings, with people wandering around. And now, they’re making American Sniper.