In Benjamin Dickinson’s feature directorial debut First Winter, a group of Brooklyn hipsters at a yoga retreat in upstate New York are forced to learn survival skills the hard way after an immense blackout hits, stranding them a drafty farmhouse with dwindling supplies and miles separating them from any passable roads—or, indeed, the rest of humanity. With their stock of food shrinking and temperatures dropping, buried tensions come to the fore, straining the friends’ ability to work together even though—in a world with no electricity, no way to communicate with the outside world and virtually no chance of making it back to the city alive–all they really have is each other.
Dickinson, who wrote, directed, co-edited and co-produced the film in addition to acting in it, took the time to answer some questions about his film, one of the most buzzed-about in the Tribeca Film Festival’s lineup in part because of where and when it was shot: In a farmhouse in upstate New York in the middle of winter, mirroring the conditions in which the characters are forced to live.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): Watching the film, the way the characters speak seems so natural that it left me wondering how much of the dialogue is improvised. You completed First Winter in only 23 days—how much of the script and story was hammered out before then?
Benjamin Dickinson (BD): We worked from a 20 page outline that laid out the plot. I wanted the film to feel like real life in the beginning, almost like you’re watching a Maysles brothers documentary, so in the early scenes I did my best to keep it loose and encouraged everyone [to] speak as their characters and not to be too clever with the dialogue. This is a pretty quiet movie, and a lot of times what the characters are doing or not doing is more important to me than what they are saying. Because most of the time, what we are saying is just filler.
That being said, it’s also a genre movie, and therefore there were certain points where definite information needed to come across, whether it was discussions about where the search party went, or the food supply, or the characters’ relationship to one another, etc. So those scenes were fully scripted. But even [so], it seemed like in every scene there was room for it to become more real and immediate in the moment. For example, the “stranded in a farmhouse” song that Jaffe [Zinn] and I sing by the fire: We just made that up while we were shooting the scene.
MM: You raised over $14,000 for First Winter through Kickstarter back in early 2011. How much did the film’s budget end up being? Is crowdfunding a feature something you’d like to do again?
BD: It was a portion of the budget, certainly not all of it, but a portion. Crowdfunding is an awesome tool, because you know the support is coming from people who are fans of your work (or just love you), rather than someone who is making an investment in the usual sense. There’s not a sense of pressure or obligation to deliver anything but whatever you’re inspired to make. That said, my next project will probably need to reach beyond the capabilities of what I can raise on Kickstarter.
MM: What was the genesis of First Winter? Was shooting in a remote house in the middle of winter—with the cast and crew living there as well—part of the project from the get-go, or was that decided upon later?
BD: It’s difficult to separate the idea from the process. It sort of all came to me as a whole package. This story, made this way. Like, let’s do this for real, otherwise it won’t work.
MM: Most of your work up to this point has been with commercials and music videos. Are there any lessons you learned from those projects that helped when tackling your first feature?
BD: Well, making music videos on the streets of Brooklyn in the early days also taught me how to work fast in extreme conditions. But more importantly, both music videos and commercials taught me to think about storytelling from a visual perspective. The uses of lenses, lighting and rhythm evoke feelings that dialogue and plot can’t.
As I said, this is a very quiet movie, and it’s about people on the frontier of a new dimension of their consciousness, which means once they’re in the thick of it, they’re not doing a lot of editorializing and self-reflection, they’re fucking in it. That’s always interesting in a movie, to see someone dealing with something right now, at a particular moment in time, and you capture that. I feel that the accepted American narrative form is really a philosophy of life; sure, it has its basics in the classics, but it’s also steeped in all kinds of subtle manifest destiny-type morality, patriarchy, racism, consumerist propaganda, etc., and yet it is somehow accepted as inalienable fact, as if all of those distortions were part of the actual foundation of storytelling itself, like going all the way back to Africa. But that’s absurd. I’ve heard a bird in a tree, a homeless man on the C train, a small child, tell me a better, truer story than I’ve seen in most Hollywood movies. So I’m interested in using the language of genre and narrative form as an entry point, a way to orient the audience, but then I go about subverting it. Because I want to see real, complex, dynamic people up on the screen, and I want the movie to feel like life feels to me, which is really complex! Not something that makes you feel like you’re in control and you understand it all and you’re the king of reality. More like a feeling of being out of control, and not totally understanding, and the exhilaration and amazement and rapture of that.
MM: Is there anything you’d like to add?
First Winter is having its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, going on now; its first screening takes place Thursday, February 19th. For more information on the film, visit firstwintermovie.com.