Writer/Director Benjamin Dickinson on Making his Social Satire Set in the World of Augmented Reality, Creative Control
Opening in theaters today from Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures is Creative Control, Benjamin Dickinson’s wickedly intelligent social satire set in a near-future advertising world enamored with the latest thing: augmented reality. The New York-based writer/director’s second feature, following 2012’s lo-fi apocalyptic drama, First Winter, Creative Control is an impressive leap forward. Realized on a modest budget, the film won a special jury award at last year’s SXSW for “visual excellence,” and, indeed, Dickinson and his collaborators incisively riff on the very plausible possibilities of augmented reality rigs like Google Glass and Magic Leap to imagine a world where avatars, visual symbols and, of course, real people simultaneously vie for our focus, attention and love.
Dickinson himself plays David, a jaded ad man increasingly disinterested in his beautiful, yoga-instructor girlfriend (an excellent Nora Zehetner, well remembered from Rian Johnson’s Brick). When his company scores a campaign for Augmenta, a Glass-like augmented reality device, David starts spending more time with its world layered on top of his. Of course, his immediate after-hours impulse is to make pornography — specifically, a lifelike avatar of Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), a work friend he’s crushing on.
In Dickinson’s film, the screens that govern our lives are not simply electronic ones. With cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra’s coolly formal black-and-white compositions, this astute film both gets off on the seductive surfaces of our technology-enabled modern life while also critiquing them. Unlike many of the Singularity proponents, Dickinson doesn’t imagine that new tech will lead to new morals or any kind of utopia. Rather, it’ll be owned by some mega corporation and will regenerate, in newfangled forms, the same desires and impulses that already dominate and distract us.
I spoke with Dickinson last year at SXSW about the social implications of augmented reality, his path as a filmmaker, and how he managed to direct and act such a formally precise film at the same time.
Filmmaker: Let’s start by talking about augmented reality. Augmented reality has been in science fiction films for a while, but now there is augmented reality in the real world, and it’s drifting down to the consumer level. What have been your own experiences with augmented reality?
Dickinson: I’ve never tried Google Glass or any of the kind of technologies that exist, but, I did a lot of research about them. I really don’t know whether it’s going to catch on — whether as a society, we’ll kind of reject it. It’ll be interesting to see. I mean, my phone is kind of like an externalized second brain, and the amount of time that I’m on it and looking at it, the amount of relationships I maintain or business I conduct over my phone — I have carpal tunnel syndrome sometimes. I have pain in my body from using [my phone]. And even though that concerns me, I can’t seem to stop [using] it. So, I am trying to come into a balanced relationship with technology. I don’t think I can reject it as long as I want to be a member of society. I don’t know if I’m answering your question.
Filmmaker: Yes, you are.
Dickinson: I knew I wanted to touch on some of this technological ubiquity in the movie, but, visually, people looking at their phones is never [cinematically] interesting. Glasses seemed like a nice way to make [this technology] visual. Once all of this stuff is kind of floating in front of us, that’s pretty interesting.
Filmmaker: Did you think about Google Glass and its reception, or lack of reception, when making the film? Because I presume you were making it around the time that Glass was having its launch.
Dickinson: I started writing this in 2012, and we went into production in Fall, 2013. At that point, Glass was out there, and I think I started hearing [the term] “glasshole.” You know, when I was in college in New York City, kids were starting to have cell phones for the first time, and I resisted. And it was uncommon then to see people walking down the street talking on the phone. It was kind of like, an outlying thing. I used to find it offensive when people would be having loud private conversations in public. I used to do this sort of performance art thing in college. I would get a banana, or I would make a phone out of a piece of cardboard, and I would walk down the street yelling, screaming into it. But then, a couple of years later, everyone’s talking on the phone on the street! So, I just think it’s one of those things where the first people seem like assholes, and then it becomes socially acceptable. One thing that’s different with Google Glass is that there’s a lot of anxiety about surveillance and privacy. But younger kids seem to have less anxiety about that. So I think the mores are just going to turn over as everyone ages. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.
Filmmaker: The political implications of all of this I feel are in the movie.
Dickinson: Yeah, they are.
Filmmaker: I was talking to someone who disagrees, however, someone who wished the film was more explicitly political and that it called out Big Data and the surveillance state.
Dickinson: I was trying to do it. Sometimes I worry it’s too subtle, because to me, that stuff’s in there. But I’m not making a polemic. I’m not a politician. But, in terms of influences, Antonioni’s films were always political. Those three films that I’ve been referencing as being inspirations —
Filmmaker: Which were those?
Dickinson: La Notte, L’Eclisse, and L’Avventura.They all have a political bent. And Red Desert is very political. Zabriskie Point is maybe the most political. The Passenger is extremely political. Woody Allen’s films are really psychological, they eschew the political. And those two, [Antonioni and Allen], are both big influences on this movie. But, Kubrick’s films are always psychological and political at the same time, and they’re often funny. Dr. Strangelove is very political, and it’s also an amazing comedy. I’m not comparing myself to these people, but that’s what I was trying to do, something that was psychological and political. Maybe some people would want me to state my political point of view more clearly in the film, but I don’t know if that would’ve served the film as a whole.
Filmmaker: Antonioni is a favorite among a lot of young filmmakers, but sometimes I think people who are overtly inspired by him come off as being stiff or out of date or retro. I never thought that while watching your film. Thinking about the Antonioni reference now, I’m realizing that when you take his wide shot, long-take style and then overlay all this augmented reality imagery on top of it, it becomes something else.
Dickinson: Yeah, it’s true.
Filmmaker: You couldn’t have done this kind of effects work if the film was shot with a lot of close-ups.
Dickinson: No. And I wanted to see the environment, you know? That’s why I think the film isn’t totally psychological — because I’m trying to give it context. And the film is skeptical of the characters at certain times. That’s what I’d take from Antonioni. But, you know, the driving engine of the movie isn’t a reference to another movie, it’s my own experience of my life from my own point of view. And I’m also influenced by Dostoevsky, you know what I mean?
Filmmaker: Tell me about shooting in black and white, which was obviously a —
Dickinson: A bold commercial choice! Yeah. You know, if you’re raising the money yourself and writing yourself and doing everything yourself, just why not do it exactly the way you want to do, you know? It’s silly to try to be commercia, if you’re making it all happen anyway.
Filmmaker: At what point did you make that decision?
Dickinson: It was pretty early on.
Filmmaker: Is it going to be black and white all the way down the line?
Dickinson: I think John Sloss wants me to make a color version now.
Filmmaker: That’s the standard thing to do.
Dickinson: But I’m not going to do it. It would be cost prohibitive at this point because the effects are baked in. But, also, I did not hedge my bets [during the shooting]. We did shoot it in color because we shot on the Alexa, and that actually helped with the grading process. But I knew [it was going to be] black and white anamorphic from the get go. We lit it for black and white. The stuff that’s all natural light looks great in color, but some of this stuff at night, we did really hard keys, and you can get away with that in black and white, and it looks great. But if you put it in color, it’s like there’s a light there. So, I couldn’t just make a color version of this movie and have it connect. And, I don’t know, that’s too much work. You’ve got to just make a decision and go with it. You know that phenomenon of filmmakers going back and doing the director’s cuts of their movies? I think Ridley Scott was the first person to do it, really, with Blade Runner, and he did make a better film than the studio version. But then, when all the other guys started going back, like Coppola redoing Apocalypse Now — it’s just like, “Dude, move the fuck on.” The first one was pretty perfect, you know?
Filmmaker: Tell me about working with the company Mathematic in Paris on the effects.
Dickinson: I had worked with them on some French commercials. They’re not only the best effects house in France, but maybe in Europe right now, in terms of taste. They did this Megaforce video for an artist called Is Tropical, a video that was just a teenage boy masturbating, but they have all of these sort of animated manga characters in this naturalistic setting. It is funny but harrowing video, and I saw it and was like, “These guys have to do the effects.” And I have a French investor, who is connected to them as well. I was struggling so hard to find an effects company to do it for the money that we had, which was very little. We raised the money on Kickstarter and we had a little bit squirreled away, but the quotes we were getting were equal to the whole budget of the film. It was very discouraging. But Mathematic, they just got what I was trying to do. And maybe the film has more of a European sensibility that in some ways they felt comfortable with. And they just believed in me, which is what you need when you’re making an independent film. I mean, you can try to convince people to believe in you, but when it comes to doing 100 effects shots, they gotta really believe because it’s so much work. They did an amazing job.
Filmmaker: Did they do the UI designs?
Dickinson: They did. I did work with the designer Ethan Keller on a pre-vis. Before we shot the movie, we had a 20-page deck. Ethan really likes design and UI stuff, and I worked with him to come up with a pre-vis idea, which was important because some of it worked into the production design.
Filmmaker: How much did that UI design have to be like a real UI design for an actual augmented reality product?
Dickinson: 100 percent. We designed it like we were making a real UI, we just didn’t do the coding. It was fun to brainstorm. It was like, “What would be ergonomic, what would be convenient?” We used the hexagon, which seemed like an interesting way to group things because it fits together so nicely. You can break it apart. It doesn’t waste any space, and it’s not a square. So once we figured out the hexagon was the building block, it kind of took off from there.
Filmmaker: Your film has a real critical take on the advertising industry. How much experience do you have in that world?
Dickinson: Yeah, I do work in commercials to make a living.
Filmmaker: Are you signed to an agency?
Dickinson: Well, Ghost Robot produces them. They’re the people who produced this movie. But, Ghost Robot’s really a creative agency in the sense they just support me doing whatever I want, but they get me commercial work because I need to pay the rent. You know, my experience in commercials in general has been positive. But I do notice that when you have these big corporations with the kind of bureaucracies that exist that you have people who are living in an environment of paranoia and fear. And that makes people ugly, you know? It’s where the system needs to be reimagined. So, obviously, the Fallinex scene, it’s a great set piece and a joke. But that woman playing the client, if you were to get inside of her head, which you wouldn’t want to do, she’s a paranoid person who is afraid of the people above her, the people around her, the people who are trying to get her fired or take her position. It’s dehumanizing. Of course, I exaggerated it for the movie. But I think it’s difficult when you have a situation where money’s the bottom line.
Filmmaker: What do you identify as your particular skill set for commercials. What do people go to you for?
Dickinson: I seem to be doing mostly comedy, interestingly enough. I haven’t done any big cinematic commercials, even though I think I could do them. You know, in the commercial world, you really get pigeonholed, like you’re this kinda guy. So I guess I’m like, the comedy dialogue guy.
Filmmaker: Phil Morrison, who directed Junebug, that’s a little bit his thing too.
Dickinson: Phil is an amazing commercial director and an amazing filmmaker, but I wish he would make more films.
Filmmaker: I wish he would make more films, too.
Dickinson: Golden handcuffs, they used to call it, the commercial world.
Filmmaker: Were there different iterations, did you have different budget levels with this movie?
Dickinson: You mean did I price it out at different levels?
Dickinson: Craig Shilowich, the producer, was involved from an early stage. I think he made a budget after the second draft and we kind of knew [what it would cost]. We made it for the least amount of money possible. That was always our mentality. I couldn’t have made the movie I wanted to at the level of First Winter. It would’ve been impossible. We basically had a number that was like, “This is the bare minimum we need to start shooting.”
Filmmaker: The film has a high degree of polish and precision to it. There’s nothing sloppy about the film language.
Dickinson: Thank you. Craig did a couple of things that were brilliant. He insisted on five-day weeks, which is almost unheard of in indie movies. He got me 25 days, which was amazing. Some of this was made possible by shooting it in New York City, where everyone’s a local, by the way. He scheduled the steadicam so that it was affordable. And then, Adam and I just did a lot of preproduction work, and we also had a dogma that served us in a sense. If you know that you’re not going to do a lot of coverage, first of all, that means that the actors can give everything they’ve got in every take because they’re not saving it for the close-up or the medium shot. It means that you really can be precise with the camera work, because you can take the time. And so, we just did it old-fashioned style. I came onto the set, blocked the scene, and Adam watched. Adam and I would go to our shot list. We had made a 100-page PDF with video and photos and photoboards. We would look at it and be like, “This is what we’re going to do. But now that we’re in the location, I think actually, we need to make an adjustment.” He would put the lens on a stick. I would walk through the blocking with a stand-in. The other actors, they rest, they prepare. We work through the camera moves with the stand-ins. By the time the actor gets back, the camera move is already great. I’ve already watched it on the monitor. I would go in front of the lens and then the actors and I would work it out. I was kinda able to direct the actors through acting with them. By about take six, we started to get good shit, you know? And that’s where the precision came from — it was just good pre-pro, basically. And because I was in control and no one was demanding that I had coverage, I just didn’t do it, [Laughs] except when I needed it.
Filmmaker: The PDF had video in it — what kind of videos?
Dickinson: Oh, we just had clips from movies that we liked. There were some clips from Antonioni, some clips from Fellini in there that we put on a server and just had online, yeah. It was good to have references. And we had our own video, too. When we were scouting the locations, we would just walk through what we thought the shot would be. It was great to show to the gaffer and the grips.
Filmmaker: So being in the film wasn’t that difficult?
Dickinson: Oh, that was crazy. I mean, I don’t think I’ll do that again. [Laughs] Yeah, it was insane. It’s difficult to move back and forth between the analytical mode and the emotional mode that you need to be in as an actor so many times during a day. There was no time for me to watch every take, but I would do three or four and be like, “Okay, I think I got it.” I’d go watch the monitor, and basically evaluate my own performance and then try to correct it. It was weird. It’s very schizophrenic.
Filmmaker: Why did you do it?
Dickinson: Why did I do it? I didn’t find anyone who was better, and I looked. I offered the movie to some legit Hollywood actors, who said no. I talked to some other ones who had too many demands. And then I saw maybe 100 New York theater actors, and I just was like, “I think I can just do this.” I mean, if I could have gotten Dustin Hoffman from 1969, I would have.
Filmmaker: Do you do yoga?
Dickinson: I do. Yeah. I love the practice.
Filmmaker: I’ve never done yoga. The yoga scene, with the master at the end is pretty great. For the first time, watching that scene, I thought, “Oh, I get what yoga is.”
Dickinson: “The focus of the attention.” I’m glad that came through. You bring up the yoga thing — it’s like, it is possible to love something and satirize it at the same time.
Filmmaker: For our audience of young filmmakers, first-time filmmakers, what would you say are the decisions you made early on that paid off in terms of you have arrived at now?
Dickinson: I just live my life, man. I mean, not like I’ve arrived, you know? I just didn’t kill myself. [Laughs] I figured out a way, for the last decade, since I got out of college, to make enough money to live, and I’ve tried to love a few people with varying degrees of success. And, you know, I’ve wanted to make movies since I was 12, 13 years old, so I just didn’t give up. That’s the most important thing. I guess I would say [to others], it depends on what kind of person you are. Some people want job security, and that’s the most important thing. So if you want to be in the film industry, but you want job security, don’t be like me. If the most important thing to you is to express something that you need to get out, just do it. Figure out what resources you have. First Winter was never a movie – I wasn’t gestating that movie for years. I was like, “It’s time to make a movie.” I got a farmhouse. There’s three feet of snow on the ground, let’s make a movie.”
(Editor’s note: portions of this piece’s introduction originally appeared in the Spring, ’15 print edition of Filmmaker.)