New Talent: Ben Reed
Welsh director Ben Reed now lives in London but still directs films. Having directed music videos for major artists including Blur, George Ezra, and Wiley, Ben is still known for his playful inventiveness and the deadpan sense of humour which permeates all of his work. A recent addition to the Mr.Frank team, Ben sat down with the LBB team to tell us a little bit about what makes him tick.
LBB> So, tell me about your background – did you study film?
BR> I didn’t go to film school, but I studied film theory – so just watching lots of films and writing lots of essays… nothing too exciting really. Then I worked for about four years in Welsh film and television, as a runner and camera assistant. I wanted to be a focus puller for a while, there was something about being closet to the camera and the actors, and you were really in the middle of the action. It seems silly looking back now, but at the time, putting markers on the floor and measuring distances really appealed to me, this kind of perfection. But now this is like the most boring part of filmmaking to me…
LBB>Where in Wales did you grow up?
BR> I grew up in a place called Bridgend, which is between Cardiff and Swansea. There’s not a lot going on film-wise, but weirdly there was a lot of investment into studios there. I don’t really watch television, but there’s a lot of big TV stuff filmed in Wales… big fantasy productions and period dramas. Things have really exploded but at the time I was starting out there wasn’t really much there. And after a while of working in television, I realised I wanted to be a director… because there’s so much shit. I was working on some really terrible stuff, and at the weekends I’d make little animations and stuff. I didn’t really have many people to assist me, and because I had no portfolio I was a bit shy to start calling people up and say “Hey, want to work on my film?”
LBB>So how did you do it in the end? How did you make that leap?
BR> I was doing animations and things for small bands, and eventually people saw them and I got more money to do more things. At the time, there was a small community of DIY filmmakers in Cardiff, who were all doing the same thing. We were all kind of working together and working on each other’s films, and our careers were all gradually progressing, getting better commissions. And after a few years of doing that part-time while working as a runner, I managed to get signed by a company in London, and decided to focus on directing full time.
LBB>A lot of your work is very edit-focused – how do you see the relation between editing and filmmaking?
BR> I’ve always been really fixated on editing. Until about two years ago, I cut everything myself. I like that nothing costs anything when you’re editing, you’re not wasting anyone’s time except your own. So you can try things that you know are stupid, or you know are going to fail. You’re free to do whatever you want really, there’s no one there saying, “I want to go home,” or “this is costing money.”
It kind of reaches a point where you’re in full flow and suddenly you and the computer are as one, and you don’t think about eating, or you don’t think about time any more. It’s like you’re in some sort of machine, thinking and doing simultaneously in a way that not many other processes allow. I don’t really edit all night any more, and it’s only recently that I started editing again. I took about two years off editing and I’ve been working with other editors on pretty much everything I’ve made since.
LBB>Is it difficult giving up that responsibility?
BR> It is, but it depends. Like, half of my work is very precise and I’m very sure of how it’s going to go, and the other half I have no idea where it’s going to cut… and both of those approaches I enjoy editing myself. With the first, you’re being very exact, and very rhythmic in a way so that you get things totally perfect. And then the other you’re more making a series of discoveries, so they’re both rewarding to do on your own. But the thing I really liked about working with other editors was that there’ someone to share the responsibility. So if you’re just completely stuck, or if someone doesn’t work, there’s someone else there with a different vision… a different person who can say, “look, let’s stand back and why don’t we do this?” So I like that it takes some pressure off in that way, but often I would still have my hand hovering over the mouse, or be wanting to go “just one extra frame” and be really fiddly about things.
LBB>I really liked your video for The Wave Pictures, what was the process behind that?
BR> Yeah it was strange in that I shot in the same room I cut it in, so I was shooting it as I was cutting it. Basically, at the time a friend was working in a warehouse where they had loads of secondhand books – a lot of stuff that’s pre-barcode and just ends up getting thrown in the bin. So I’d gone there just so I could get some free books to read, and then I had this idea of using them in the video, since I essentially had thousands of books for free. And I just compulsively went through them, and pulled the pages out and photographed them. I’d shoot for half the day and then the rest of the day I’d spend editing, and then I’d know what I needed and go back-and-forth.
It was a fun experience, because it was scripted, but then at the same time you didn’t really know what you were going to find. I’d be like “I want to have this type of image,” but as I was shooting and editing I was also making it up as I went along.
LBB>You bring a really dry sense of humour to a lot of the films you make and some of the concepts are quite wacky – do you ever get cold feet in production and start to doubt your ideas?
BR> Usually people do the doubting for me when they don’t book the jobs…. And yeah, often on my earlier scripts, the feedback would be “this is too wacky” or whatever. I guess what I try to do is to come up with ideas that are really silly when they’re written on paper, but when you shoot them you ground them in a sense of reality. It’s difficult to bring these together in a script, because often people see a talking sandwich or whatever and just go “well this is a cartoon.” So there’s a few times where you think, “this is too silly” and quite often there is a lot of worry and stress about how something’s going to look really stupid, but I feel I have enough of a grasp of film language to understand how to cheat things, or how to make things more ‘real’.
I think I’ve become a lot more relaxed – before i wanted to make things that some people could think was really serious, and other people would think it was funny. But recently I don’t mind if something is so brazenly stupid. I don’t know… lots of people don’t find my work funny, maybe because it’s not explicit in the silliness. I’ve realised, especially with short-form things like commercials, that sometimes you really have to hammer people over the head with jokes.
LBB>With your video for Blur… it’s also a very wacky film, but there’s almost no editing. So you can tell that you must have had a very clear vision to start with.
BR> Yeah, definitely. A lot of that comes from the limitations of it. I had a lot of things, a lot of ideas that I wanted to shoot in there, so we didn’t have a lot of time for different lighting setups. I had to be quite rigorous in shooting things in this kind of ‘flat’ way, so that there’s not that many visual digressions. I guess that’s something that I’m kind of learning at the moment… to be a bit less rigorous, and a bit more free in my ideas. I think I can be quite set in my ways sometimes. I think lately I’ve learned that I need to be more flexible in some ways – I like things to feel quite complete, so that nothing feels out-of-place. Once you get top a certain point and have a certain level of self-confidence, you can start to be a bit more like “fuck it” in general.
LBB>This is quite a complex question – do you feel that you have an understanding of what makes people hypnotised, or holds their attention?
BR> I don’t know really… with the Wiley film, when we’d finished cutting it, the editor said “I think we’ve made a really strange film” and I felt that we’d made something that just looks like everything else. But when we watched it back again, the thing I really liked about it was that there’s nothing the same. It’s just like one headlong mission into new things, there’s no callbacks to old stuff, there’s no chorus where we use the same locations or the same shots. And I think that’s something I’ve always been very aware of, trying to get rid of some of that repetition, and just to throw the audience into something completely new
My work’s a big mess, really. There’s some projects which are really narrative, and some which are vaguely conceptual, and some which are just graphic. In terms of music videos, I’m definitely less interested in narratives. I find them often quite… trite, and often dishonest. I think I’m more interested in music videos as just images and abstract things now. Maybe there will be an image where the audience can go “Oh, what’s the story behind that?” rather than me telling them the story of the birth of Christ or someone going to the pub.
LBB>What do you think is the funniest film you’ve made? What makes you laugh the most?
BR> Well I never really re-watch my films, but weirdly I was pitching on a documentary this morning and I was thinking about a piece of work that i’d done that might be useful to send the client. It was a film I’d made for this band called Spector, like a 10-minute film for Channel 4. So I ended up watching it this morning to see if it would be useful - and obviously it wasn’t - but when I was watching it I really laughed, quite a lot. It’s really silly, but it makes me laugh more than anything else. And in a way it’s the most ‘free’ thing I’ve ever done, because it wasn’t tied to music in any way. It’s called When Spector met Henry Kelly.
LBB>Speaking of editing, your film Fixers has a lot going on. And I think you can tell you had a lot of fun editing that one.
BR> Yeah that film’s also a bit of a mess, really. It’s almost the same thing, where every section of the song is something different. Like at the start it’s a television commercial for someone who fixes boats, and it was like I was throwing everything in there and seeing what… I forgot about that video completely. It starts with this really cinematic, almost religious portrait of this man dying, and all of a sudden it’s got this awful commercial coming in… I had a lot of fun with that one. For me, it was a really big budget at the time, and over half the video was just shot in my bedroom, with all these cabbages and stuff. We hired this enormous studio to shoot the band, then the rest of the video was just shot in this two-metre-square room in the dark. We wasted the budget really…
LBB>So do you have other hobbies besides directing… not that directing is a hobby for you?
BR> I guess so… I do a lot of writing, I’m quite interested in writing short fiction and poetry. Recently I’ve started to get back into taking photos again, but it feels like I’m just wasting my time doing that. I get really fixated on photoshop and spend hours photoshopping things, which feels quite counter-productive when I should be trying to earn money. So it’s mostly writing and photography, which are quite closely related to filmmaking. I read a lot, I spend a lot of time reading and watching films. I’m reading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolfe, have you read it?… it’s fucking wild. I didn’t really know Virginia Woolfe, but it’s totally crazy.
LBB>When you’re making a music video, do you really overplay the song? How many times do you have to listen to the song?
BR> It’s more doing the writing, which is when I tend to listen to things the most. And sometimes it’s almost like a hundred times, trying to write something. And then after that, I feel like you don’t listen to it until you edit it, and then you realise that you’ve missed loads of bits or you’ve ignored stuff. But during the writing, it’s just endlessly on repeat, until you realise that you don’t like the song anymore. Then you think maybe you shouldn’t even bother pitching, because you don’t like this…
LBB>And lastly, what is your favourite movie?
BR> I don’t really know, it’s such an impossible question. There’s two films that are in my mind at the moment… I was writing that treatment this morning, and I wanted it to be quite freeform, and recently I’d watched this Wong Kar Wai movie called Happy Together that’s about this gay couple in Argentina. I saw it in the cinema again recently, and it’s like it was made by someone who’s just discovered a camera – it’s so incredible and beautiful and free. But the film he made before that, Chungking Express, I saw when I was about 15 and I’d never seen anything like it, it just blew my mind… someone just making up the rules of cinema. So I’ve been thinking about it a lot. but the other film that I think about all the time is this really modern film, called Centuries and Syndromes, or it might be the other way round Syndromes and a Century, by a Thai director called Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which is just the funniest, most human and beautiful film. It’s just constantly in my mind – a really naturalistic film but really hypnotic and dreamy, and also just really, really funny.
Watch Ben's showreel here - http://hellomrfrank.com/directors/ben-reed
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