Benjamin Dickinson Talks Reality, Control and Empathy

creative control
Benjamin Dickinson in “Creative Control.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Washington Square News recently got the privilege to sit down with filmmaker Benjamin Dickinson, an alumni of NYU’s Tisch School of Drama’s film program. Dickinson’s latest film, “Creative Control,” hit theaters March 11. “Control” follows the life of David (played by Dickinson himself), an advertising executive who’s just been given a pair of augmented reality glasses, and who finds that the more he uses them, the more lines between his augmented reality and true reality blur. Editor Hailey Nuthals chatted with Dickinson about his film and his thoughts on what’s going on with technology of late.

WSN: In your interview with Variety, you say you “don’t know what a hero is.” David’s clearly not meant as any sort of hero –

Benjamin Dickinson: No, he’s an asshole.

WSN: What sort of narrative did you have in mind when creating his character – did you set out to make him an asshole?

BD: Yeah. I guess I think everybody believes that they’re a good person, and I think that’s one of the biggest problems with the world. Because if everyone’s a good person, then why is there war? And it’s also a charming thing about humans, in a way. And I think everybody feels that they are just slightly more special than everybody else. Everybody feels that way. And that’s a great survival instinct, there’s a reason that we’re that way. But the problem is that we’re at the point now where there’s so many people on the earth, and we’re consuming so many resources, that we can’t continue to live in a fantasy land where we’re the hero, and everything that we do is justified because from the point of view of our particular narrative, it’s good. This is basically Marxism, what I’m describing, and yet in our society what’s worshipped is the individual, to such an extent that I think we’re in a crisis point in terms of where we get our sense of meaning from. And I think it’s psychologically damaging for people, but I think it’s bad for the world as a whole because we’re consuming such a majority of the world’s resources to continue this ego fantasy dream.

So when we go to the movies and we see a character who’s pretty much all good except for this one flaw or problem that they’re working out, and then at the end they get everything that they want, and live happily every after… I mean, that’s a nice break from reality, but the fact is that we’re all participating in all kinds of heinous things, without even knowing it, just by having cell phones. So like, Juliette’s argument at dinner about the coltan mines… the way she presents it is not very… she doesn’t present it in a way that can be heard, but I think it’s a completely valid concern. So I think when I make a movie about an anti-hero, I guess what I’m trying to do is get you to empathize with him, and then realize that that is part of all of us. And then once you can accept that that’s part of you, then you can become conscious of it and start to maybe make different choices. Or just have more compassion for people who you think are bad people. Because everybody thinks they’re a good person. Everybody’s trying. Maybe some people don’t, but my experience is that most people do.

So I think it’s a more interesting narrative device to see if you can get people to empathize with someone who’s not so great. And I don’t know if I was successful, but I think enough people are responding to the movie that they can at least go for the ride. They can see that David’s an asshole, but they can see the ways in which, if they were in his position, they might behave similarly. So that was my intention. And I think everybody in the movie are kind of self-centered assholes. And I think that’s actually how most of us are. Unless, I think, the Dalai Lama, maybe. And I’ve met some saints and angels in my time. The popular villain in America right now is Donald Trump, but Donald Trump is nice to his family, and he’s kind to the people around him. And he’s full of love – he wouldn’t have such an attraction if people didn’t feel a connection to him.

I’m trying to make it too simple, too black and white. But I think if we started to look at ourselves with a bit more skepticism, and not take it too far into self-hatred, then it would expand our understanding of other people, and it would make us more compassionate.

 WSN: Do you buy into the notion that we’re, as a culture, becoming increasingly distraction-riddled and anxious?

BD: Well, yes. And maybe kids being born right now will walk into this world of multi-tasking and their brains will just form differently and they’ll be able to do it. So maybe the answer is just us all dying, and the next generation being more adept. But I think there’s some other stuff going on. I don’t know that the way we’re designing technology right now is maximizing human potential. I think the devices themselves are designed to be addictive. Not the devices, but the software. There’s addiction built into it, because addiction equals dollars. Like, it’s great that cigarettes are addictive – for the tobacco company. It’s bad for the person smoking it. It’s great that cocaine is addictive – for coke dealers. Right? But bad for the coke users. In the same way, it’s great that the apps are addictive for the person who makes the apps and sells ads. So people are too hard on themselves when they’re like “I’m addicted to technology.” It’s like, yeah. It’s being designed that way. It’s being designed by very smart people to be addictive.

So it’s not endemic to technology itself. Nobody’s addicted to plowing a field. That’s just – a tractor is a great piece of technology that allows you to grow more food. But those tractors are also used by giant food corporations to grow food that’s terrible for us with a bunch of pesticides. The tool of technology is neutral. It’s just that we use it to be selfish assholes, and corporations especially. It’s built in, it’s endemic to capitalism, because when you have a public company, the responsibility of that board and that CEO is to make money for their shareholders, and every year they’re supposed to make more and more money; that’s the system of capitalism. And if they don’t do that, they’re going to get f*cking fired. So like, if those are the values that we all agree on, guess who’s going to suffer? The little people, the vulnerable people, the people who are consumers are going to suffer. And that’s how we set it up. So it’s not a surprise.

The technology is being used as an addictive thing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. And some of it is an animal tendency to be addicted, but there has to be some responsibility on the people who are on the other end who are creating this stuff. And I don’t think that making cocaine illegal is helping, and I don’t think that outlawing certain apps is going to help. You can’t do that; you can’t move backwards in that direction. But I’ll tell you what; there’s a reason that people are responding in this very disturbing way to Donald Trump’s new nationalism. Because people are getting pushed to the side and they’re being disenfranchised and they’re not being taken care of. They know something’s up, and if you’re not educated and someone comes along and says “the reason that you’re fucked up is this very simple thing,” of course you’re going to jump onto that bandwagon.

I feel like I’m losing track of what I’m trying to say here. But on the technology thing, if we could design… if our values were humanistic, fundamentally, we could design technology to not be addictive, to draw out the best qualities in us. We could – someone could write a software app for your phone that would maximize your creativity, that would encourage you to draw new connections. That could be done. So let’s do that. Let’s not put so much emphasis on profit. But I don’t know if that’s going to change, and I’m frustrated. And that’s why I made this movie, because I’m frustrated.

WSN: It’s especially hard, when you think about the fact that our economic system is built around the notion that the economy is only healthy when it’s growing.

BD: Right, yeah. So here’s the thing: think about that. So in capitalism, if you’re supposed to grow every year, like… grow into what? There’s only so much land. I don’t understand what the end game of capitalism is. If everybody owns a house in the world, then there would be no credit for mortgage companies. My point is that capitalism only functions if there’s a lot of people on the bottom. It’s necessary. So if that’s what we want, and we all agree about that… But the trick, is that everyone thinks they’re special, so they’re not going to be the one on the bottom. But guess what? Chances are, they are. Boom. And everybody needs to wake up and realize that they’re not going to be the ones that “win” capitalism, because there’s a really small slot, you know what I mean?

WSN: Yeah, there’s no upward mobility.

BD: Yeah! And capitalism is amazing and demonstrates the tendencies towards inequality. I don’t know this happened, but one of my favorite books is “A Brief History of Time,” and I don’t know if Stephen Hawking says in that book or in another one, but he’s like, in the future, when we outsource basically all of our labor to robots, that could mean that there could be this massive increase in the standard of living for everybody. And then he’s like, but if we look at what’s happened so far, what’ll happen most likely is that there will be increasing inequality. So, yeah. What kind of world do you want to live in? And I guess what I’m trying to do with this movie is show that these people who are living desirous lives, that they’re kind of living in an advertisement. That’s why I decided to shoot it in black and white and make it so beautiful, and the environments are all beautiful and their clothes are great, and the reason I decided to do that was to sort of make an advertisement where everyone living in the advertisement, unlike when you’re actually living in an advertisement, are miserable. That’s the point of the movie, in a nutshell. But I wanted to make it funny, too. I hope it’s a little bit funny. But it’s like even if everybody could live in a glass box in the sky in an incredible suit with a great job, like, that’s not even cool. What’s cool is hanging out with your friends and eating good food and having good sex, and being a fucking monkey. That’s what’s cool about being human! And making stuff, and playing games, and making art and dancing! All that shit that’s been awesome about being human forever. That’s still what’s awesome. So let’s do that!

But you know, I’m addicted to technology, so I’m not watching this from above. I’m in the mess of it. I’m struggling to have a more meaningful, deeper life. But I’m going on this tour, promoting this movie, and I get sucked into the trap. Like, imagine for me right now, it’s like social media on cocaine. It’s not just me posting selfies and getting feedback. It’s people talking about and tweeting and giving reviews of my movie. It’s just amping up this addiction in the self, and I’m trying to go through this experience really consciously, and not be David. I mean, I made the movie so I don’t have to be David. You know what I mean? I made it so I can get that demon outside of myself, and look at it and have compassion for it, but to be like, “I don’t want to be him.” And that’s the point of the movie: don’t be David. Don’t do it! Don’t be David, don’t be an asshole. You know? Figure out how to talk to your girlfriend, have good relationships, don’t be a liar, and don’t make your whole world in technology. Don’t do that. Don’t be him!

 WSN: Using Reggie Watts as himself in the film was such an effective move – his character was absolutely incredible in its construction. Did you write the role for him specifically, knowing you wanted to work with him, or was it more of a character that he came into from outside and worked into his own shape?

BD: I wrote the role for him. You know, when you write for Reggie, it’s kind of just placeholders, because he’s going to show up and do whatever he wants. So in the script I wrote lines, but I was like “it’s going to be kind of something like this.” And yeah, Reggie’s a friend of mine, we’ve worked together before, so I asked him, and he said “yeah.” I think you need him in the film. Otherwise it would be too depressing.

WSN: How would you recommend NYU film students now take the best advantage of the program? What about the film program at NYU did you find the most useful, in terms of preparing you to enter the film industry?

BD: Well, I went to undergrad as a film student. I imagine the program is much different than when I was there, because we still shot on film. I don’t think they shoot any film anymore. I think in today’s climate… I think students should be making as many films as they can, all the time. You learn more by doing it than sitting in a classroom. I think in some ways, film school is too structured. Students are competing too much, before they should be. I think students should take risks. I find that in film school, maybe people respond to something that’s clever, but if you’re trying to actually be a filmmaker or director or writer, the personal stuff, the stuff that comes from a personal place, is going to have more of a resonance ultimately. And I’m not talking about making a coming-of-age story, there’s too many of those. Developing your voice is the most important thing. Because there’s plenty of people out there who can regurgitate what’s been done before, but having a unique voice will be what sustains you as a filmmaker. So to develop that unique voice, become a good person. Not a good person, a well-rounded person. What I mean by that is like, read literature, take science classes, learn about physics, be a good friend. Talk to your friends. Try to be a good son or daughter. Work on empathy. The other stuff, the technical stuff will come with experience. Yeah, I would say to film students that you’re in film school, but don’t forget to work on your soul. Figure out how to love other people, figure out how to love yourself. Have fun. Figure out what turns you on. Go dancing. Travel. Become an interesting person. That would be my advice. Become an interesting person, and then make films.

“Creative Control” is in theaters now.

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