Science-fiction premises and impressive futuristic settings are absolutely possible in independent cinema—if they’re grounded on skillful storytelling.
Slickly stylized through a seamless fusion of stunning black-and-white cinematography and cleverly designed visual effects, Benjamin Dickinson’s second feature, Creative Control, stands as an ambitious genre statement from a promising talent. Though Augmenta, the virtual interface that David, the protagonist played by Dickinson himself, uses throughout the film was crafted by a top-notch team of VFX artists, the central theme that anchors the plot is the interaction between this technology and the irrational qualities of the human mind, too often dictated by our desires to fulfill very human needs.
An advertising executive, David is charged with testing Augmenta, a set of virtual reality glasses with next-level functional and recreational capabilities. When he becomes infatuated with his best friend’s girlfriend, Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), the tool switches from a means to enhance artistic productivity to an avenue for his obsession and a much more carnal addiction. The film also features a humorous cameo from comedian Reggie Watts, with whom Dickinson collaborated on an actual VR project, Waves, which debuted this January at Sundance.
MovieMaker chatted with Dickinson about the visceral qualities he gives technology in the film, creating an interface that both brings authenticity and serves narrative, and the perils of directing yourself.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Tell me about your decision to make a film centered on new and innovative technology… in black and white.
Benjamin Dickinson (BD): I think the most important reason for that was just the idea that the technology, or the avatar, would appear in color and the world would be in black and white, and that would sort of give the audience a visceral sense of how sexy and attractive the technology is over their so-called real lives.
MM: We usually associate black-and-white cinematography with the past, which seems like an interesting contrast for the technology in display. Was it your intention to juxtapose the two?
BD: Yeah, I think the themes of the movie are pretty universal and, I think, eternal. I don’t mean to compare my film to his, but I’ve spoken a lot about Antonioni as an inspiration because of the way he portrayed post-war alienation. I think as much as we are moving forward in a lot of ways, this also represents a return… The movie is about the future but it’s also about the past.
MM: How challenging, financially and logistically, was it to create the visual effects the story required in terms of the user interface (UI)?
BD: The hardest part about it was finding a collaborator, and that collaborator ended up being the studio Mathematic. They believed in the movie and they were willing to do a lot of work for equity. We wouldn’t have been able to afford those effects if we were paying markets rates for them. But that was true in every level of the production. We had to get favors, make deals and offer equity as payment. It was just the continuation of the challenge of making and independent film in general. I’ve done enough commercials and music videos that have had special effects in them that I knew how they would be done, so it was just a question of finding a team of people willing to put in the time
MM: Had you experimented with any sort of visual reality prior to making the film? How did the particular look of the interface come about, and did you also have real-world functionality in mind?
BD: I have experimented with virtual reality now, but there is really no user interface that I know of that exists at this level, so it was just really making it up. Brainstorming with a bunch of different people to find out what would we want it to feel like. Certainly we see a fair amount of heads-up displays and UIs in movies, like in Iron Man. They tend to be very military, and we wanted to make something that felt more like the iPhone of the future, something where the UI felt a little bit more human and a little bit more artistic. We did think a lot of about the functionality of the UI: how it would see the periphery of your vision, having it be very light, and how it would animate. I think in some scenes the UI is totally legit as a functional suggestions for an augmented reality UI, and in other cases it serves the narrative and there is more information than you would actually need, just to give the audience a clue about what’s going on. Fox example when David first samples Sophie’s face on the street, we have the UI scan it and have all this stuff that you wouldn’t really need functionally, but I felt the audience needed it narratively.
MM: One of the most interesting elements about Creative Control is that, even though technology like the Augmenta glasses is created for functional and/or artistic purposes, it ends up falling prey to human desires and basic needs. The way it’s used is often driven by these animalistic urges.
BD: Yes. We all would like to imagine that we are going to become enlightened at any moment. And that would be nice, but I think it’s been demonstrated that technology has always been developed by sex and death. Technology moves forward because of the military, and it was really pornography that built the Internet, in a certain sense. I think this is observable throughout history. I think it just indicates that Freud’s point of view is correct, which is that in spite of whatever ego games, status or romance that we think life is about, on some basic level as a civilization, we are still being driven by our basic lizard brains, animal instincts, monkey needs—which are sex, shelter, food and a susceptibility for war. I feel that’s still valid, and it’s so easy to demonstrate when we see what technology is used for. I think it’s important to remember that. Technology sometimes is sold as if it’s going to somehow enlighten us or bring about a utopia, but that can’t possibly happen unless we work on ourselves as beings. Technology is only going to do what we program it to do. Technology will follow our desires because, as of now, we control it, so technology will follow wherever we go. Creative Control is also about addiction, and if we design our software to be addictive, then people will get addicted to it. Just like if you take a coca leaf and refine it into cocaine.
MM: Is it an addiction to the endless possibilities technology provides, or an addiction to the detachment from reality?
BD: I don’t know. I think people have different reasons for getting addicted to technology, pornography or drugs, but I think at the heart of it there is usually a desire to escape some kind of pain that you feel that you can’t deal with in any other way. That’s the essence of it. There is something that’s so painful that you can’t face it and you can’t be present with it, so you find a way to escape.
MM: How would you describe the writing process through which Creative Control was created? The dialogue and characters feels energetic, frantic and truly alive, even though it’s a film that deals with artificiality.
BD: Ii’s not anything too special. I co-wrote it with Micah Bloomberg and what he and I would do is we would divide up the scenes, so we’d split it half, and then we would both write our scenes and then we would switch. When we would switch we would refine each other’s dialogue. That was kind of how we worked that. Then when we had a big story problem we would get together and hammer that out, but the dialogue was mostly from us having these conversations over email and sending these scenes back and forth.
MM: What are some of difficulties of being the lead actor and directing the film simultaneously? Do you feel this gave you more creative control, no pun intended, on set?
BD: [Laughs] Yeah, it gives more control. It was very challenging to do both, as it’s just energy-draining. There is also having to switch back and forth between analyzing the scene and then feeling the scene, which are not the same skill, necessarily. You can’t always tell if you are doing a good job acting. I would have loved to have given that role to a great actor and have him interpret it and bring something new to it; it just didn’t work out that way. I didn’t find that person. I felt that I could do it, so I did [laughs]. But it was really hard.
MM: So it wasn’t an issue of control; it was because you couldn’t find the right actor?
BD: Maybe I’m just telling myself that. Maybe it was because I’m a control freak. Maybe you are right. I mean, I did offer it to other actors and they said no. That part at least is true.
MM: Tell me about the Reggie Watts role in the film. To an extent, it feels like he is the only one using this technology in an artistic manner via comedy.
BD: I wanted there to be some lightness in the movie and saw Reggie playing this cool, court jester character. I thought that lightness was necessary. Also there is that phenomenon of celebrity gurus coming in to tell you what technology is about. Reggie hasn’t really played that role, but you could see how he would, and I thought it was just funny. From my point of view, when you do make challenging art, that’s the least commercial thing possible. It will offend the sensibilities of those whose business is to sell things.
MM: Lastly, do you believe Augmenta is the next step in consumer-based technology for us? Is that where we are headed?
BD: Oh yeah. It’s coming quickly. Whether or not we all agree to adopt it is another question. The technology is there and I think a product like Augmenta will be possible in the next five years. MM
Creative Control opens in theaters March 11, 2016, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures.