Looking and Thinking: An Interview with Ben Woodiwiss

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Look/think films
It’s August back in 1999 and I’m in upstate New York, Poughkeepsie to be exact. I’m on the set of Troma’s Citizen Toxie, but not for much longer. It’s Black Tuesday. Around 12 members of the crew are leaving today, and I’m one of them. We’ve all had enough of this: no food, no sleep, no pay. I’m glad to see the back of this whole operation. I came all the way out here from Philadelphia, and I’m worth more than this. But there’s a guy here who came further, all the way from London, England. He’s staying. I make sure I find him, tell him we’ve got a free seat in the car, but he shrugs. He says he can handle it.

Jump forward 13 years, and now I’m doing an interview with the guy. It’s weird how things work out.

The man in question is Ben Woodiwiss, and he’s back in the UK now, and making his own films, with his own company, Look/Think Films, which I’ve managed to become a part of. What helped convince me join the team was seeing the first series of shorts Look/Think Films made; a trilogy of avant-garde pieces about cinema, aesthetics and gender called Kvinnefrisen. These confrontational, but beautiful films made it clear that while Look/Think had an agenda, they were interested in exploring, rather than preaching it, and doing so in a way that just looks damn good.

Since then I’ve worked my way onto the set of Benny Loves Killing, Look/Think’s first feature. Unlike the Troma days, the atmosphere on set was collaborative and open, something that surprised the hell out of me given the minimalist nature of the production.

Ben: “Yeah, well you remember what it was like. You’d work yourself into the ground, and then no one would say ‘thank you’ or anything. I really didn’t want to do things that way. So on a Look/Think shoot everyone is equal, everyone is important, and all opinions get listened to. When you ask people to come along and give you their time, the least you can do is appreciate them as people, not just as people performing a task for you. So, yeah, everyone is included.”

This kind of vibe is unusual to say the least for a low-budget film like this, but all the more so given the subject matter of Benny Loves Killing. Benny is a young woman trying to make her own horror film, but her drug addiction, parental issues and homelessness work against her, and this certainly doesn’t get us to warm to her. I asked Ben about the meta-horror aspect of the whole production.

Ben: ”Horror is a genuinely fascinating and progressive genre. Unlike a lot of other more established genres, horror allows you to put a woman at the centre of the narrative and it doesn’t strike anyone as strange. You do that with an action movie and it becomes a talking piece about the entire project. But horror’s different. So being that we’d just done this trilogy of films about gender, it felt like a good place to start with our first feature film. On top of that, horror is a genre that encourages decoding, much more so than others, and there’s a lot in this film that’s open to decoding, should people be interested. Of course, there’s also a straight narrative to follow.”

Look/think films
Perhaps because of these layers the film has a strange relationship to both cinematic lineage and untidy realism. The cinematography, by the highly talented Markus Ljungberg, is claustrophobic and unsettling, but certain images very subtly evoke classic horror film iconography.

Ben: “Yeah, that’s the idea. After Kvinnefrisen I felt uncomfortable with the idea of making a film that wasn’t aware it was being a film. Like… ‘oh, here’s a story that just happened to unfold in front of your eyes.’ I don’t know why, but that just wasn’t something I could do. I needed to do something that knew it was a film and talked about that. So yeah, there’s the text of the story, and under that there’s this possibility to see that Benny is talking about itself. Too often I think films get made based on how other films are, and how other films work and look. It’s more interesting to me to interrogate this relationship, rather than replicate it.”

These insights build into a manifesto for a new kind of filmmaking, one that does not mimic existing, commercial-based practices and is open to an improvisatory approach that lets the performers and crew lead the creative process. It shouldn’t be surprising – but it is – that this approach can generate aesthetically rewarding, highly polished and insightful content.

Ben: “I’ll try to be clear on this: basically, we don’t strangle the creative process by sticking to an immobile plan. You’ll see a lot of people approach film with a concrete plan, and then there’s no deviation, regardless of whether the plan fits the location, or mood or whatever. So we keep this flexible. If we get to a location and it allows us to do something we hadn’t intended to do, then we’ll do it. If a shot is planned to happen in one place, but then we realise that it’d be more interesting in another, then we do that.”

At the invitation of Firehouse Films, Look/Think Films recently took part, along with several other independent filmmakers, in a challenge to make a short film in a month, from conception to screening. Their contribution, Anja and Vivian, is a touching story about music, memory and family. Next, they plan to put together a film about a model, ambiguous with her lot in life, and I convinced Ben to let me in on some of the details.

Ben: “Anja & Vivian was a very collaborative project, and I think a lot of people are going to see it as a very enjoyable film, although this is something you can never be sure of. But now I’m thinking quite a lot about starting things moving on the next Look/Think project, Watch Me All The Time. I don’t really want to say too much about it, but… It’s a slightly new direction. There’ll be aspects of Benny in there, but also aspects of Kvinnefrisen and it feels good to return to a morally questionable project, as demented as that might sound. Watch Me All The Time is a different kind of film: something which is straight-forward and kind of recognisable, but also radically unusual. Something which wants to discuss the fact that you are sitting there, in the dark, watching people. Most films don’t mention the fact that you’re quietly watching people, but that’s something I want to talk about at the moment.”

Find out more about Look/Think Films here.

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