Interview with director Ben Tobin

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

I’ve always tinkered with different methods of storytelling: drawing, music, and sculpture. When I was younger I didn’t have access to a camera, so I mostly did a lot of drawing, and would act out my stories [sound effects included]. My grandfather showed me my very first movie, The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse when I was five or six, and I would say watching that movie was the thing that flipped the light switch on, and I knew that I wanted to do that mysterious magic thing I had just witnessed.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

I say this having gone to a film school in Brooklyn, Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, that it really depends on the filmmaker. I feel like I’ve grown as a filmmaker as a result of being around so many creative people in the same building, and, in the case of this film, having the mentorship of cinematographer Tom Richmond was a really life changing experience. I’m not someone who comes with industry connections, and so film school made sense to me as an idea.  I flirted with the notion for a long time, and went back and forth. I think, ultimately, film school is about making connections with other filmmakers, but these days there are so many different rabbit holes where you find your people. As long as you keep plugging away at the work, and striving to make it better, and you do what you can to connect with other creatives, you don’t necessarily need an institution. Having one helps, but it’s not the be all end all. For myself, I try and make one big leap forward on each film I do, especially if I’m not satisfied with a particular element. I also like to push myself to do something challenging with each film, something new. I’m still finding my voice as a filmmaker, and don’t feel ready to move into feature filmmaking. I see a lot of people rush to make longer and longer films when they’re starting out professionally, and, at least for me, I want to really master telling a story succinctly before I move to a bigger canvas. There’s a difference between a feature film, and just a very long movie.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

Getting started isn’t particularly hard for me. I can usually gather a good team pretty efficiently, and I don’t have trouble coming up with stories or concepts unless I really think too hard about it. I have a lot of stamina, but especially with my last project, it can wear me down. I’d say keeping the momentum and energy going to see something through to the finish is the hardest part for me. I, so far, haven’t failed to deliver when I start, but I have a longer-term documentary project that’s been going on for three years now, and the constant drum beat of that footage, and the editing work, is relentless. I’m not going to stop, but there are times I think about it. I’m also working on another children’s film involving animation, that has been delayed, and having incomplete things hanging over my head I’d say is what really drives me crazy.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

On this film especially I faced a lot of obstacles with scheduling and weather. I learned a long time ago that, when working on a small budget especially, it’s important to be flexible, and have backup plans waiting in the wings for as many elements as possible. My very first film that I made I decided to do a big splashy effects film because that’s the kind of movie I liked as a kid. Naturally, it didn’t go to plan, and it was not very good. I was very rigid about making it the way I wanted it to be in my head [which was impossible at the time]. As a result, the final product wasn’t even a fraction of the story I’d written. On this film, I really had to learn about patience. I worked on each element very carefully, and didn’t rush anything even though I was under a time crunch. I would say there was only one hour during the entire shoot where I was out of my mind and panicking. I feel like, in general, the lessons you learn from a film are always fairly unique to the project, but they add up to larger lessons along the way.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

I would say the biggest surprise was running out of time on our third day on set during the last setup of the day. We needed to leave the location, and the amount of time I had to work with the scene was very limited. I ended up having to shave out a small portion, and essentially live edit the dialogue. It was a very difficult situation, and I do still miss that chunk of scene, but ultimately no one else will know what that scene is and its effect on the story. Whenever you’re working on an indie film set, and especially a short, you are in a race against time to get the best results possible, and also not stay too long on any one setup. There are always compromises, things that need to be done differently on the day. In our case, there was a near daily threat of thunder storms after we planned out the shooting schedule. There was no way to predict the weather, but most of the film is outdoors. There was no path other than forward. Thankfully we only got rained on once, at the end of the day as we were wrapping. Naturally, if I had a bigger budget, and a larger crew I would’ve tried more things, I would’ve added more setups, and I would’ve attempted bigger special effects. I don’t think bigger is better necessarily, and this particular story was designed to be simple and clean and elegant. In my mind the story is always more expansive and more detailed and more…everything. At the end of the day, if the story isn’t solid than it being bigger won’t make a difference. There’s making compromises with reality, and then there’s making comprises with the self. I can’t not make a movie just because I’m not rich or have lots of gear or whatever. If I waited for the perfect budget, the perfect weather, and the perfect shooting conditions, I’d never make anything. I tend to frown at the notion of just picking up a camera and making something, anything…but I do think, at some point, you just have to take the leap and make the film you want to make after doing the right amount of practice and prep work. In most cases, the trials and tribulations only make the work stronger. I’ve only had one film where the universe seemed to be against me at every turn, but in general I think it’s important to tell the story you need to tell, and find the right balance between preparing and starving your project to death waiting for perfection. There’s no such thing, as much as I would want everything to be perfect, it simply doesn’t exist. It’s all about that old phrase, everything in moderation.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

I’d say the hardest artistic choice I usually make on a project is having something I really care about die, either on the edit floor or the script level, and sometimes during the shoot. It’s the whole “kill your darlings” thing. It’s painful to let something go that needs to go for story reasons, or because it’s simply beyond the scope of what you can do. With this film, for example, I had the idea of having the characters appear in the frames multiple times, visible in different rooms. Really mess with time and perception. I knew going in that it wasn’t realistic on our schedule. I put it on the list all the same, and I had to let it go almost right away. There was no way to get the essential material, and indulge in fantasy. Yes, I’d say learning to let things go is important, and it’s necessary every time, but it still hurts every time saying goodbye to those good ideas that just don’t fit in.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

I tend to work with a lot of the same people repeatedly. Martin Scorsese does this, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro…some of my biggest idols. I work new people in slowly, but surely. I take what I do seriously, and I just need to know that I can trust people. Trust is everything. I’ve been very lucky so far in that the right people have come into my life at the right time. I almost always try and build a personal connection first, and then go in and ask about working together. The other thing I do is get collaborators through friend recommendations. I tend to work with small crews simply because I don’t have the capacity to overextend myself. I haven’t made it far enough that I can really go for broke and make beyond my means. I mean everything we make is beyond our means in some respects, but it’s important to me that people get treated well, and that they are able to be fed and housed properly. I don’t want to sacrifice their comfort for my ambition. I don’t buy into the idea that you need to destroy yourself and everyone around you to make good art. You can make a movie without burning every bridge around you.I’m not going to bring on more people than I can handle just for the sake of my ego. Each person who I do work with, I end up building a relationship with, and that makes the work better. Working in a vacuum is definitely not an option. Each one of the collaborators I work with end up feeling like family, and I like knowing I’m on the same wavelength with my collaborators. So far I’ve just been very very lucky, and everyone I’ve worked with has been really great. Picking collaborators is truly one of the most important things you can do.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

Yes, and no. I think we need to consider the audience to certain point, after all we want people to watch our films. This whole relationship is a two-way street, and it only works if people come to the theater or click that vimeo link. At the same time, I don’t feel that I’m in the business of trying to please everyone. There’s such a thing as too many chefs in the kitchen. If you let audience desires and wishes enter your creative space, you’ll have millions of different ideas about how things should play out in the story, and then nothing gets done because you’re worried about this person or that person getting bored. No one is going to 100% agree on anything, and some people out there simply aren’t going to like your film, or at least not get it. Trying to please everyone is a good way to get trapped in a loop searching for perfection. We have films with broad appeal like Avengers, and Star Wars, and I love watching those films, just as much as I love watching independent films and art house films. For example, one of the reasons I really liked The Last Jedi is because Rian Johnson made such bold narrative choices. I liked having my expectations subverted. Obviously there was a backlash against the film, people who felt the opposite about those bold choices, and I admire the director for sticking to his guns, and making the choices he felt were right for the story. For me, it made for an interesting and fresh experience in a world I care about very much. I appreciate when bigger films take big risks narratively, but I see that happening less and less because everything is a franchise, and characters can’t die very easily, and consequences are limited. I think just as a general rule of thumb that we can’t let audience expectations subvert how we make the work. I make things with the intention of sharing them, and hoping that the films will connect with the biggest audience possible…I think most people want that. I’m also not going to lose sleep if someone comes up and tells me they don’t get it, or took issue with some of the decisions. That’s going to happen regardless. It’s very easy to get paralyzed by those expectations, and then the work suffers for it. It’s about finding a balance between giving something to an audience that they will enjoy, and hopefully make them think, but also not allowing our creative decisions to get shortchanged because we want widespread approval.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

So far, by and large, I haven’t been able to travel with my films when they go to festivals. Whenever I do get a chance to see them on a screen with an audience it’s always a very squeamish experience for me… like watching someone reading my diary. It’s always a treat to see the films big though. That’s what this medium is about, and I can’t easily watch stuff on a phone or laptop. I end up watching things on my laptop because I’m always on the move, but a big screen is what most films demand. The festivals I have gone to have been great experiences. My favorite so far has been the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs. The entire experience was wonderful, the selection of films incredible, and the other filmmakers were such a great group. I got to know so many people who I’m still in touch with. That festival is extra special for me because they really make an effort to keep their filmmaking alumni connected, and they keep facilitating and fostering the connectivity. I’ve never seen anything like it. There are some where it killed me I couldn’t make it, and I hope going forward to do more traveling, and meet more people. I think when a film festival is really good, and really on its game, it’s an excellent opportunity to meet other filmmakers and make new connections. These festivals also showcase work that’s often very extraordinary and hard to see elsewhere. Getting creatives together, and helping them forge new connections to help develop work is really just invaluable. It’s hard to get your work in front of audiences if you don’t have an infrastructure behind you, and these festivals represent a great chance to have an audience and a big screen in one go.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

Personally, I like to see fresh voices in cinema, and I think we should all strive to push ourselves out of our respective comfort zones. I also think that a classic story that’s well told and well-acted and well-made can be just as exciting as something that’s never been see before. Sometimes the two go hand in hand. I don’t think either path is necessarily better or worse if done well. Audiences are always looking for something new, and their appetite is insatiable, but I think a story that falls into more familiar territory can inspire just as much as a one that’s on the edge. After all, most stories boil down to the same handful of archetypes in the end. We’re all really telling the same stories in slightly different ways. It’s really all about balance for me. This is an art form that relies heavily on homage, and nodding to what came before us. When filmmakers try to be too out there, too new there’s the risk of going into ego stroking or abstraction for abstraction’s sake. Where I draw the line for myself as a filmmaker and as an audience member, is when the work feels like it’s more about the filmmaker than the film, work that’s more focused on the ego than creating a work of art.