SXSW: Creative Control Writer, Director and Star Benjamin Dickinson


Creative Control Benjamin Dickinson

The recipient of a Special Jury award for Visual Excellence at this year’s SXSW, writer, director and star Benjamin Dickinson’s Creative Control paints a disturbingly familiar near-future Brooklyn, effortlessly blending imagined technology into a narrative that explores some of the base levels of human nature. While the look of the film is certainly worthy of accolades, the philosophical discussions that come out of Creative Control are where the film really shines. sat down with Dickinson in Austin to chat about some of the big ideas packed into his science fiction standout and you can check out the full discussion below! 

CS: There’s a lot of films, both at the festival and beyond, that are focusing on the rapid rise of technology. There’s almost a parallel to some of the films we’re seeing now and the films that were born of atomic fear in the 1950s.

Benjamin Dickinson: I think that’s right. You should hurry up and coin a term! Then people will say, “That term was ascribed to so and so, but really it was Silas!” Like [Raymond] Kurzweil with the term singularity. But yeah, for whatever reason, it’s in the air. There’s a convergence point between technology and our daily lives and it’s growing so rapidly. Here’s something that blows my mind when I think about it: The first iPhone came out in 2007. That’s eight years ago. It has completely changed the way the world works. I mean, we had flip phones, which were kind of janky. It’s coming so fast. I think it’s that thing of Moore’s Law about technology moving so fast. I mean, technically Moore’s Law is about the size of the computer chip,  but we have technology exponentially increasing and for people, we’re just mammals. We evolve over a much longer time period. It takes millions of years. For our social mores to change, that takes even longer than it takes technology, even though it is happening faster now. I think it’s the conflict of being mammals and being on a very different schedule than technology. I think there’s anxiety there.

CS: Crafting a believable near future on film is always a difficult task and I think that “Creative Control” really manages to pull it off. Was that something that required a lot of planning in advance?

Dickinson: The black and white helps with that, at least with the budget I was working with. It helps it feel a little surreal, especially with the high-key black and white. There’s something in that that you just feel as soon as you start watching it, be it “8 1/2” or “Stardust Memories.” But then we also did a lot of thinking about the production design. I was working with John Ferguson, who is just a fine artist. He’s a philosopher. I tend to work with people that I can geek out about the philosophy of the work that we’re doing. I never thought about it before, but it’s almost like playing an RPG. “We made a rule before! This has to be plexiglass!” It gets really nerdy. John and I made a kind of dogma for the production design and followed that. Then I did the same thing for the effects. I actually wrote a user’s guide to Augmenta as if it was a real product. That was how I decided to think hard about how it works. I did that first, so I had a document that was an actual user’s guide. I wrote it as if it was the future. It had parts that read, “Previous headsets were limited in these ways, but this headset if fully integrated.” I got into stuff that you’ll never perceive in the movie. I got into the retinal projection system.

CS: So maybe there’ll be a very involved viral website?

Dickinson: Oh, yeah. If we find a distributor for this movie, I’m hoping to do fake Augmenta videos for the campaign.

CS: There’s a very neat area in viral marketing where fiction and reality sometimes get to crossover. That, in many ways, is in keeping with the ideas of the film and how we can create our own realities.

Dickinson: Oh yeah. We create reality with our imaginations. Actually, Reggie [Watts] says that in the movie. They probably think it’s a joke, but he does say it at some point. Consciousness is the fundamental element of reality, not matter. Which is a fun way to think sometimes, because we really do sometimes take what’s in our imaginations and manifest it. We make it real. Even though David doesn’t actually have an affair with Sophie, it basically has the same effect. Nothing ever happened, but Wim still reacts like it did. Our fantasies can become reality, for better or worse.

CS: Which is a message that gets even more fascinating coming out of a fictional narrative.

Dickinson: If you start to think about it, it’s like two mirrors facing one another. You’ll go insane. Another good example is that, next week, Reggie and I are working on a VR short film together. It’s really weird that that’s what we do in “Creative Control.” Hopefully this one will have a better outcome. But yeah, you imagine something and you make it into a film, bringing it to life. I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

CS: I’ve talked to filmmakers in the past who go out of their way to avoid the term science fiction. Do you consider “Creative Control” part of the sci-fi genre?

Dickinson: Yeah. Some someone on The Verge, Emily Yoshida, coined a phrase that I thought was fitting. She called it “contemporary spec fic.” We may just start using “Black Mirror” as a shorthand for contemporary spec fic.

CS: One of the films that I think “Creative Control” makes a nice companion piece to is Spike Jonze’s “Her.” It has a similarly futuristic near-present, but goes after a completely set different set of human emotions.

Dickinson: It’s very kind of you to compare me to Spike Jonze! (laughs) I think he has a much more fluffier vision. He must be a much happier person than I am. I’ve got more of a reptile brain thing going on, channeled through all this sort of self importance, which is the essence of hypocrisy. I feel like my world view is more in line with someone like Stanley Kubrick, who people accused of being cold and alien. I don’t see it that way. I think he finds the whole human comedy tragedy very interesting and very funny, but also very sad.

CS: There’s an element to the black and white, too, that helps the audience be a bit more objective to the characters.

Dickinson: I think so, too. I want to make other films, too. They’re not all going to be social satires. It’s just that the way I hear people talk about technology a lot of the time, it seems so silly. I think we need to take a little more responsibility for how we treat each other. Technology is not going to solve any of those problems. It’s going to exacerbate them. It’s interesting that you bring up “Her,” too. I want to point out that that’s about artificial intelligence and that’s about someone having a genuine relationship with a higher form of intelligence. They have a genuine relationship. It’s almost like he’s having a relationship with a God. When she really starts to rapidly expand her consciousness out into the universe. “Her” is really more about man’s relationship with God, in a weird way. Not necessarily the Christian God, but a form of true higher intelligence. There comes a point where it’s just beyond our mammal capacity. I think that’s a really beautiful thing he did. My movie is about a man not really having a relationship to anything other than himself and having an artificial relationship to technology that recreates and replicates a real relationship. That’s why I’m concerned about technology. An Instagram like might feel like a friend saying, “Hey, I love you. Great job.” But it’s not the same. It’s not the same as being touched by somebody else. It’s not the same as looking into someone’s eyes. Masturbating to virtual porn is not the same as making love to somebody else. Wether or not we like it — and I know I keep coming back to this — we are mammals. Our bodies have need of touch and physical contact. Until we’re brains in jars, I think there’s going to be a lot of confusion and suffering. I don’t know, I’m not a politician.

CS: Do you think there is any true human connection, though, to social media?

Dickinson: (Long, long pause) I don’t know. I just don’t know. I don’t do Facebook. I used to do it and I had to delete it. I went through a breakup and Facebook is the worst when you’re going through a tough breakup. I was going to deactivate my Facebook account and, when you do that, it says, “Your friends will miss you!” and it shows you pictures of your friends. One of these friends was someone who I didn’t know very well and was not very pleased with. I realized that Facebook knew that this person was causing an emotional response to me. It doesn’t realize that it’s a painful one. Somehow, the matrix knows that there’s an emotional response there but, because it’s a computer, it can’t feel human feelings. It can’t care. It just knows to evoke a reaction. At that point, I thought, “I’m f–ing deleting this. I don’t feel comfortable with this computer seeing my life and not understanding that I’m a person.” I just wasn’t comfortable with it.

CS: There were a lot of complaints on Facebook last year when, at Christmas time, Facebook put together little personalized videos for all its users, showing the major events of the year. People wound up seeing a lot of negative things like funerals.

Dickinson: Because the computer doesn’t understand. [In robot voice] “There were lots of people there.” But then, we should probably deal with our fear of death, too. That would help.

CS: Of course. There’s also the argument that these events did happen and, if we can’t stand a computer reminding us, we clearly have some issues tied to the event itself.

Dickinson: Right! That’s another interesting thing. What’s great about technology is that it’s not biased. It’s not racist and it’s not homophobic. All of these artificial constructs of good and evil that we’ve created, it doesn’t understand. It’s neutral. That’s what we like about it. We want it to be neutral because we’re not. We have biases and we have likes and dislikes. Then again, if humans become too neutral, that’s kind of creepy, too. I don’t know what the solution is, but I’m fascinated by the experience of being a human squeezed between these two epoch. I’m certain that kids who are 18 right now probably find my particular anxieties quaint. They’ll probably watch “Creative Control” and go, “I don’t know what the big deal is. Sure, I have a couple of virtual girlfriends, but I also have my real girlfriend.” They might be more fluid about it. I kind of feel like an old man. It’s happening so fast. If you read interviews with Antonioni from when he was making “Zabriskie Point,” he talks about how he can’t believe how free, honest and relaxed the hippies were. “I wish I could get away from this Catholic guilt about sex. The hippies seem to have it all figured out.” Of course, they didn’t really have it figure out.

CS: Then so much of social media becomes about portraying yourself as you want other people to see you.

Dickinson: Right.

CS: Can you go a little more in-depth about the special effects of “Creative Control”? Was that a process that had to begin long in advance of shooting? Were they actually done in black and white from the get go?

Dickinson: Great question and we can totally geek out about this. The movie was always going to be in black and white. What was a little unique about the post process was that, for them to do the heavy design, they needed to have it in black and white. Basically, I had to do an initial color grade on the footage six months ago. Usually, you would wait until the very last minute to do the grade, drop in your effects shots and replace the grade. You’d send it to the effects company and they’d re-render. On this, though, because there were so many layers, they had to know what the white point was and they had to build color into the effects to play in black and white. There is color in the effects, but it’s very subtle. I guess that’s not very interesting. (laughs) We had to actually kind of invent the work flow a little bit.

CS: Did you shoot anything in advance to test some of these more intricate shots?

Dickinson: Not really, no. I just kind of had it in my brain. We did some very rudimentary tests, but I didn’t have the effects company on board when we started. One thing about making an independent film is that you kind of gather as you go along. The iron was hot and we had to strike. I kind of knew that we wouldn’t be able to hire an effects company until we had a cut. It would have to be someone going on faith. I did have this guy Ethan Keller, who is an amazing designer and who did a bunch of pre-vis. So in terms of the basic design, we did have that. All the way that the Augmenta is controlled and things like that all comes from me and Ethan and a couple other people I know who are into future technology. Jake Lodwick, who is in the movie, invented Vimeo. He’s the guy who plays Gabe in the movie, with the mohawk. We talked a lot about it. He was sending me research and, obviously, he thinks about augmented reality a lot. We were talking about how you’d probably always want to have a surface. Typing in the air in “Minority Report” doesn’t really make sense. We wanted it to feel functional. Even though we’d talk about technology in grand terms, we use it for pretty mundane things. “I’m hungry” or “I need a ride” or “I need to call my girlfriend.” We wanted to just make it really functional in the way it’s used. Jake also came up with the name Augmenta.

CS: What’s next for you?

Dickinson: A series of naps! I have to make some money. Boring life stuff. I’ve been working on this movie for two years and working on it full time for a year and a half. I mean, I’m going to make another movie. I just need to reset. I’m trying to get a TV show together, which will be a little bit lighter than this movie, I think. The next movie is harder sci-fi in a way. It takes place in a time where everyone basically has chips in their brains. We’re going to go all the way there.

CS: Are you a sci-fi nerd at heart?

Dickinson: You know, I didn’t even realize how much there is. I think part of it is that I lived in New York for 15 years. I was very intent in my 20s on making music videos for cool bands and trying to get my writing going. This has almost been a return to my true nerd essence, which is really wonderful. My dad was here for the premiere and it just came back in a flood that, when I got to a certain age, my dad gave me “The Foundation” and “Slaughterhouse Five.” It was sci-fi that he liked. Ray Bradbury. Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama.” I just remembered suddenly that I was the nerdiest sci-fi guy at 13 years old. I love that stuff. It’s my favorite stuff.