Ben Woodiwiss is the director of the feature Benny Loves Killing (UK) and the short film Look At Me Now (UK). Both films showcase strong female protaganists and play on / challenges traditional ideas of filmmaking. Ben’s projects seek to question the status quo, breaking “rules” in order to truly advance the medium. Here’s what he has got to say:
A quick introduction to yourself and your work as a filmmaker.
I’m the kind of filmmaker who likes to talk about the form of the medium as much as the content. I want people to start thinking and talking about how films are put together and to start questioning the usual way something is represented. All of my films are made within strict self-imposed parameters of what I am and aren’t allowed to do. So, for one example, Benny Loves Killing contains no second unit photography as the lead character needs to be in every single shot.
Essentially, I don’t want to make films that look like normal films, I want to make something different.
At the same time they’re very visceral films, they have a texture to them, and are set in a world that feels both very real and also dream-like at the same time.
Both films selected for this year’s festival, Look At Me Now & Benny Loves Killing feature strong female leads. How did this arise?
I’m extremely interested in representations of gender, and what women are and aren’t normally expected to do in films. I’m countering this by making a different kind of film, and focusing on different narratives.
I’d like to live in a world where female characters were allowed to be as difficult and complicated as male characters, and sadly I think there’s still a long way to go with this. The vast majority of films treat 50% of the planet as nothing more than cliches and plot devices. Women in cinema are restricted, only allowed to be the girlfriend, the wife, the best friend, etc, and they have no agency of their own: they’re puppets, not allowed free movement, and only existing to give male characters agency. The whole thing is ridiculous. What’s almost worse is when a film like Pacific Rim comes along and everyone says ‘Oh, well *there’s* a strong female character for you!’ when what they mean is ‘Here is a woman who has no agency, but hits things with sticks.’ How people buy this is beyond me.
The women I know are complicated people, not bound up with the restrictions that I see repeatedly on the screen. They have messy motivations, as we all do, and manage to do things on their own because they want to, and that’s where these female leads come from and will continue to come from.
What was it like working with Pauline Cousty to create such a powerful on-screen performance in Benny Loves Killing?
It was great, Pauline really really got what I was doing. Before filming starts I talk a lot, and one of the things I kept talking about before we shot Benny Loves Killing was how close the camera was going to be. Pauline had to walk a line where everything she did was going to be under the most detailed scrutiny, but at the same time the camera is so close everything has to be underplayed. I described it as having everything turned up to 11 inside, but trying to control it and make it look like you were only turned up to 5. And Pauline got all of this. Additionally, there was a lot of talk between us about who Benny was in moments that aren’t in the film.
This process began at the audition stage, and carried on throughout. Because Benny gives so little away in the film there was a lot of space for us to talk about what makes Benny tick, and Pauline really ran with this. She knew just when to slightly alter the character at different points in the film, and Benny Loves Killing is very much a film about these subtle shifts. There were also a lot of physical challenges for Pauline: we froze her, stopped her from washing, kept her smoking round the clock, and I think there are very few actors who can go through weeks of that and still have the focus to deliver a knockout performance.
Benny Loves Killing features a powerful and stunning inversion of the female gaze, as a filmmaker do you believe it’s important to challenge the way ‘gaze’ is constructed in film and reclaim the power of who is looking at whom?
Oh, absolutely. What filmmakers do is tell you where to look, and how long to look there for. That is the gaze. It’s the purest tool of cinema. But most of the time films are assembled according to how other films are put together: establishing shot, wide, two shot, close up, reverse, etc. Rinse and repeat. And scenes are filmed piecemeal, with this final product in mind. But this is plastic, and life is a lot more complicated than this.
films are usually examples of what we call a male gaze: they look at things, and people, in a traditionally male way. Now you can balk at that, and disagree with it with a few valid examples, but that doesn’t stop it from being generally true: cameras look at men in one way, and women in another. And that’s just the way it is.
So what we’re doing is addressing a number of different aspects of looking and the gaze, ranging from the erudite to the simple. Here’s a fun example of something you can try which exemplifies what we’re talking about: the next time you’re having a conversation with someone pay attention to where they’re looking when they talk to you. Chances are they’ll look at you for a bit, then look down or away, then back up at you, then away again, etc, because maintaining that gaze can appear confrontational. So what happens if you do maintain that confrontational gaze? That’s one example of what we’re doing with Benny Loves Killing, we’re questioning accepted ways of looking and behaving, and introducing an alternative.
For me this is extremely important stuff, as it’s only by questioning the status quo that you can advance the medium. People will criticize you for not following the rules, but the reason we’re at this position in cinema right now is because of those rule breakers, so to hell with doing what you’re supposed to.
Thank you Ben!
Benny Loves Killing (UK) and Look At Me Now will be screened at No Gloss Film Festival 2015.