Interview with screenwriter Benjamin Dugdale

“[…] with old film I feel like the stakes are a little higher sometimes because you can lose [your work], but beyond all that is the discipline of being able to meter for light and time your shot and rehearse it – things that you can just re-do in digital shoots. In addition to that discipline of trusting yourself and doing it no matter what, I find there’s an actual texture to it. Like I said, comparing photography to painting, it’s just a similar medium: it’s visual, but digital filmmaking has different rewards.” – Benjamin Dugdale



Mark: On the other end of the line I have Benjamin Dugdale – welcome Benjamin, to the show.

Ben: Thanks, Mark.

Mark: Benjamin, you’re the artist in residence for this week and you are a screenwriter and filmmaker. When we first talked in January, first of all we talked about Knots & Prods – I’m wondering if you have an update on how that film and crowdfunding project worked out.

Ben: It’s going pretty good. It’s not done, of course – post-production tends to take a long time – but we’re getting it sound-mixed and everything and we’re sort of working on it at a more comfortable pace now that school’s over to just get our polished product. Every now and then I meet with Ashley Phinney, the director, and we go over how that’s going. I don’t know exactly where it’s at right now but it’s definitely looking pretty good – I think we’re all pretty proud of it.

Mark: That’s pretty cool – still on schedule. You were looking at some festivals and certainly November’s screen festival here?

Ben: Yeah, for the Silverwave Film Festival. I believe the deadline for that festival to submit is August 3rd, but for various festivals you can submit rough cuts as long as you can have your final cut [finished]. If not this year, then the next for sure.

Mark: Well filmmaking is a complicated process. I’m surprised to see a filmmaker as an artist in residence – how’s that been going for you, and what sort of things have you been doing this week?

Ben: It’s been a little strange – I wasn’t totally sure how I would approach it – but what I have been doing is editing on my computer, which isn’t a very great way to engage with the public, but I have also brought in an old projector and film, so right now what I’ve been doing is shooting on celluloid (old film film, not digitally) and I’ve been developing it at home in a tank in the shower, which is a little disruptive when you’re drawing your film and developing your film and you want to shower but you can’t. I’ve been doing all that at home and then bringing the film here to splice it all together. I’m going to project it and then digitally film the projection, and then I bring that into the computer so I’m basically doing some transfers here and working on stuff. I have just a few stories and poems and things that I’ve written just in magazines and things on the table for people to take a look at. I’m sort of in a little corner almost, a workspace, and I brought some of the props from the films as well, but it’s strange that films are so visual and take up so much space usually, but here I am basically tidied up into one table.

Mark: What is it about the old school celluloid film that you find so attractive? Obviously you do because you’re dedicating a part of your space to it, and you put in so much work for it – what is it about it that you really like?

Ben: Sometimes it’s hard to talk about it without sounding snobby, but I’ll do my best. Partly it’s that digital capture doesn’t have the same kinds of restrictions as celluloid film does. It’s like comparing painting and photography in a way, because it has different data embedded in it, different rules, and with old film I feel like the stakes are a little higher sometimes because you can lose it, but beyond all that, the discipline of being able to meter for light and time your shot and rehearse it – things that you can just re-do in digital shoots. In addition to that discipline of trusting yourself and doing it no matter what, I find there’s an actual texture to it. Like I said, comparing photography to painting, it’s just a similar medium, it’s visual, but digital filmmaking has different rewards. For me, with this stuff, when I project it, it’s only humbling because you look at this thing you made because maybe you shot it 6 months ago and you’re just building it now, and all of the sudden you see this thing that you don’t even remember coming to life because you haven’t had play-back, you haven’t had all these things from when you were a child. I think that’s how people felt when movies came out for the first time – when we started screening films in public – and a literate people got to engage with something other than spoken word. I’m a sucker for that moment of “oh, there’s a big movie thing on a screen.” I’m very drawn to that, so that’s my very long-winded answer. The other thing is that it also gives me “cred” amongst other filmmakers sometimes. Every now and then people seem to think that shooting a film is that if you learn the old way, you’re more organized and that [filmmakers don’t know anything] which is not entirely true.

Mark: Well I imagine it keeps you on your toes.

Ben: Yeah. I helped shoot a film for a friend, Jared Carney, on Saturday. We were out in a cemetery and we needed to get the camera up high to do a shot. He asked, “can you just hold the camera?” and I said “well, I can, but the old camera has a lot more weight on it than a new camera” so I’m standing on top of some poor person’s tombstone trying not to slip off holding this camera as high as I can, and having people just hold my legs so that I don’t fall off because I’m looking through a viewfinder and I’m dizzy… we got the shot, but [we were thinking] how do we possibly get away with this? Even if you were just shooting with a cellphone you could probably just hold it high and steady it no problem. Even just moving the thing around requires a bit of creativity just to get it in place and to do everything that you have to do to facilitate getting that shot, even just waiting for the clouds to move so you can get the image exposed. The film that I use has such a slow speed that I almost need direct sunlight to expose some images, so I need a lot of light. Waiting for the clouds to pass and then getting ready and shooting and just telling everyone “ok let’s do it NOW.” I think you have to be a little bit crazy to shoot on film, but I’m in that space. I’m willing to press the button to record the image and I think that’s all it takes, so you just have to be actually willing to take that risk and run the camera.

Mark: Now you did mention cutting the film itself, but then also transferring it over to manipulate it digitally – is that a concession to “well I wanna get it done eventually?”

Ben: There are resources that I could edit it analog – Struts Gallery in Sackville… I owe a lot to Kat & Tony at the Film Co-op because they taught me with my very first film camera – an old camera from the ’30’s that my father had given me – they taught me how to load the stuff. A lot of the old members of the Co-op actually worked on film for a really long time, so I think they’re excited to see people work that way, but there are resources, there are editing tables out here. I met a few folks like Carl Spencer who’s in Calgary at M Media and there’s all these things you can do with shooting film and printing it back and you can do that with machines that are analog. But I definitely want to get it done. At a certain point with the project I’m working on now, I moved a little bit into shooting it with my digital camera and with my cellphone. My main actor had, I say fled, but he moved to Toronto because he wanted to – I’m sure I drove him a little crazy – but after that my film was in a bit of a limbo because I’d shot more than a 10-minute film, and less than a feature, and it was this awkward length, so I just shot some stuff digitally to see if I could stitch it in. What I’ve got now is a little bit of a Frankenfilm. There’s colour and digital stuff every now and then, but it’s mostly film, so it’s experimental, I guess it the word I can hide behind.

Mark: That’s the film you’re working on right now?

Ben: Yeah. That’s a feature film I’m working on at this point. That’s the main purpose of my residency is to work on that particular film, yeah.

Mark: Can you talk a little bit about what that film’s about?

Ben: Yeah, of course. With the Fredericton Arts Alliance, the theme this year – I applied thinking about home and identity, and I don’t know if I mentioned this to you the last time we spoke, but I grew up in Alberta and I moved out here for school and I quite like it out here. I have a little bit of a transplanted identity. I tell everybody I’m “post-Albertan,” as in ‘beyond-Albertan.’ I love Alberta but I don’t know if I’ll end up back there. The film is a little bit about that, and especially after my lead actor ended up moving to Toronto because we’d just been shooting this random movie with no end, and just getting all these random shots – whatever we could – just sort of accumulated and so once he left I was a little bit lost as to what to do, but I’m just taking a page from Synecdoche in New York with Philip Seymour Hoffman where he’s making a movie about making a movie. Within the film there’s a character who’s got puppy eyes for every woman he meets, and then he ends up accidentally drowning. The director character in the film says “what are we going to do?” so they re-cast him, and the person who has been re-cast as the initial character has a bit of an identity crisis because they don’t know anything about who he was or what he did. In true early cinema fashion, they take a trip to the moon to explore these kinds of things. It’s pretty sprawling and I was fortunate with connection artists to have a member residency to build a moon set. Aaron Goodine helped me build these crazy mountains out of chicken wire and floral sheets and I bought a $20 piece of Styrofoam to act as the Earth, and I built a night sky using some fabric. I’ve been basically poaching all of my friends’ talents and supplies to make this crazy story about figuring out who you are, and especially for this second character, just knowing they’re a character is a little bit existential. I often roll my eyes at that stuff and yet here I am perpetuating this in cinema.

Mark: So was this a project that was kind of created in an improv[isation] style? “We’ve got the time, we’ve got the space, let’s do a scene” or was it all carefully scripted out as a matter of filling in the scenes you’d written up?

Ben: At the beginning it was definitely all improv. It was sort of “Hey, come over – I wanna throw a glass of water at your face and we’ll get it from a couple angles.” For the most part it’s a silent film because I’m just shooting film with no sound or anything, and even if I wanted to record sound with a digital recorder, the camera’s too loud. A lot of it was nonsense. We had one Winter when the snow was up to the ‘Stop’ on stop signs – the really bad snowfall. I developed this the other day – apparently an entire roll of me running around pointing at stop signs. I’m not gonna put every single thing I shot in the film, but a lot of it was quite made-up. Once Patrick Clancy, my actor, left, and after my own brief existential crisis I put a plan into motion. That was still pretty improvised. Even though I got the member residency through connection and I had to build the moon set. But the first day Aaron and I showed up we showed up with a little journal to write ideas down in and we looked at the space we would have. We just worked in the evenings and randomly figured out “let’s not do papier-mache – let’s just starch-soak floral sheets instead. Even the stuff that is planned is still relatively unplanned and because I’m not stuck – and not every filmmaker is stuck – in the realm of realism, I don’t have to have 20 people on set at a time. When I shot the moon sequence even, I had way more actors than I had handlers, so there was me with a bunch of extras on the set. I had a good time – I laughed until my stomach hurt, at least, and that’s partly because I’m a narcissist and I like my own jokes, but it was also just a very roll, sound, queue, check, you know, action. What matters is that it errs on the side of professionalism, which you need to do for a lot of work, but because my film has different stakes in the Avant-Garde territory it’s not so bad. Even when it’s at its most organized it’s still pretty disorganized.

Mark: So you, over the last several months, have been filming this when an opportunity came. Now you have all this film – I’d imagine it’s quite the challenge to transform this into the narrative. That’s got to be almost the hardest part, now, I think.

Ben: Yeah. Definitely slipping it in so that it makes enough sense, just so that people will agree to go along. So one of the tricks I can use is inter titles – when text pops up in an old silent movie – and then it cuts to something. I think if you did that in a movie today, in the middle of a shot, people would ask, “what are you doing?” but nowadays we have voice-overs, and in Seinfeld whenever you see the diner you see that ex-positional shot, so I have a lot of things that I can use to do that and public domain things I can use. For the moon I can probably steal a shot of the moon that’s free of license and just use it if I have to. So there are a lot of queues I can gently guide people with but at this point it sort of takes a little more decisiveness, which is hard, because now that I’m in the digital end of things, I have all the room to do things the way I want. I can play them backwards, move them around, upside down, I can tint the colours – there are so many things I can do and now is not the time when I need that freedom, I just need to assemble it. I think it’s finding a rhythm and finding the things that I need to do so that’s sort of exciting for me.

Mark: One of the neat things about the artists in residence in the Barracks is the fact that you’re working out in the public and people can stop by and ask you questions. Have you had a lot of opportunity to inspire some new filmmakers while you’ve been there?

Ben: Yeah, I’ve been trying. A lot of little kids are sort of baffled by the cameras, because their parents will mention that “this is how you made a movie back in the day.” I have 50 feet of film that I may or may not have wrecked developing by accident, so I have 50 feet of film just lying around that people can hold and look at. I find young people, mostly children, are much more confused by it. But lots of folks I’ve met said that they used to do stuff like this, that they used to shoot Super 8 and they used to process film in dark rooms when they were in high school or in university. What’s interesting is that a lot of people used to do it but they can’t fathom doing it now. Everybody just talks about their cellphone and what they can do with it – not in a lecturing way, but it’s hard to think of a time before everybody having a little video camera in their pocket.

Mark: It’s funny that everybody says they aren’t doing it anymore when everybody has even more access than ever before.

Ben: Yeah. I’m not sure if you heard the news but I think Kodak’s re-making Super 8 cameras now with the option to record things digitally and processing from the Super 8 cartridges. I think some people are excited by what I’m doing – I’m not sure if it’s just nostalgia or the older format, but these new Super 8 cameras are digital. You’ll have your analog thing that you can get processed and project, but you also have this safety net as a backup of the digital thing, and you have playback so you can see what you just shot. And now, to me, that’s bizarre. It takes away all the fun of “am I going to screw this up?” I think there’s definitely a market. It’s tactile. It’s the same nostalgia, you know, “I wanna wash my clothes with a washboard and a bucket.” At a certain point, the reason why we have new things is because they work better and they’re easier, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all be a little bit nostalgic about it too.

Mark: True enough. Well we’re all out of time – I wanna thank you. I’ve been talking to Benjamin Dugdale who is a filmmaker currently one of the artists in residence at the Barracks. Benjamin, is there a good place online where people can get in touch with you and follow your work?

Ben: Yeah, I have a Facebook page for my general projects: I post things about films, I’m helping out on things I’m shooting, some music, and lots of random stuff on there.

Mark: Very cool. Thanks, Benjamin, for joining me.

Ben: Thank you, Mark.


Listen to the audio podcast of Benjamin’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Benjamin Dugdale (Filmmaker)


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