“I remember we did a casting session with a bunch of weirdoes,” muses Ben Dickinson, trying to establish the exact provenance of his friendship and collaboration with the wild-haired polymath Reggie Watts.
Watts, now the band leader for “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” but long a staple of the Brooklyn creative community with a finger in every pie – film, comedy, music – recalls that it was Jake Lodwick, the co-founder of Vimeo who first put him in touch with Dickinson when he needed a music video for his first stand-up special, but beyond on that things are a little fuzzy since the two have gone on to work on so many other projects together, the experiences have blended together. Their latest, “Creative Control” somehow fits in a reflection on everything they’ve done, both in the past and future(!), into a larger consideration of the intersection between art and commerce and ultimately simulation and reality as Dickinson, putting on his own multi-hyphenate hat, stars as an ad exec who gets in over his head when he tries on a new pair of augmented reality glasses for work and finds trouble as he discovers the power he enjoys in the virtual world doesn’t actually extend to his real life, particularly with a long-time girlfriend to consider (Nora Zehetner).
For the filmmaker who last oversaw the unraveling of a small band of yoga enthusiasts in the face of a potential apocalypse in 2012’s “First Winter,” “Creative Control” marks a second opportunity to examine how people’s behavior changes when a seismic societal shift is afoot, but to do so with a considerable sense of humor. Populating the film with a number of Williamsburg’s most influential and innovative such as Watts and Lodwick, as well as Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes and Das Racist rapper Himanshu “Heems” Suri, your sense of the line between reality and fiction may dissolve along with the characters as they fumble around with the new technology that may alter their perception but does nothing for their self-awareness. It’s not a stretch to think certain things in the film were inspired from Dickinson’s own experiences as a successful commercial and music video director, but whereas his ad exec in the film is constantly obsessed with how things look, the man behind the camera is far more invested in how they feel, bringing a sharp wit to bear on the complicated emotions that arise when something artificial can inspire tangible reaction.
Shortly before the film hits theaters, Dickinson and Watts spoke about making a film about virtual reality, then utilizing it for a short (the Sundance New Frontier selection “Waves”), figuring out the film’s distinctive near-future look and all the footage that needed to be shot to fill the many screens within a screen and the difference between Los Angeles and New York as creative communities.
Reggie, were you actually at the ground level of “Creative Control”?
Reggie Watts: I mean, -ish. [looking at Ben] You were probably well on your way to making it and then asked me about it.
Ben Dickinson: I hadn’t raised any of the money. Around the third draft of the script, I was like, “Oh, I want put Reggie in this,” so I wrote him in. I hadn’t raised money yet, so when I was sending around a packet [to investors], you were definitely in that.
Reggie Watts: Nice.
Your mutual friend Jake Lodwick is actually in the film, as it would seem most of Brooklyn’s creative class. Did you always know you’d populate the film with people who were part of the world you were sending up to some degree?
Ben Dickinson: I always knew that was the milieu I was making the movie about, but actually casting Jake Lodwick and Gavin McInnes evolved later.
Was it tricky to find a visual language for this, given how many different kinds of footage would ultimately be in one shot of the film with all the different screens that exist?
Ben Dickinson: Sure, but it’s just logistical planning. If you are looking at something recorded on the glass, it’s a Go-Pro. That’s what we used so it could be mounted on someone’s head. But Adam [Newport-Berra], the cinematographer, and I created a dogma for the movie before we started shooting it just to give us something to reference because it is overwhelming. Then we would break our own rules when we needed to. One of the things we really tried to do, which viewers may notice, is a lot of the shots are single masters. We wanted to do that to really make it feel like it was happening in real time. Then of course, sometimes you just need another character’s reaction and [see] what they are doing, so we weren’t too precious about it. There are also some scenes that are straight up coverage, so we would start with what we wanted it to feel like overall, and then make adjustments based on what’s practical. It’s not that esoteric. You know what you want it to feel like, then you just keep trying to come back to that feeling.
Since Reggie is known for improvising, was that accounted for in the shooting style?
Reggie Watts: I was very constricted and uncomfortable. [laughs] No, not at all. I was intrigued to see how do I play myself in the future. Actually, it was in the future, but it wasn’t really a version of myself…
Ben Dickinson: It’s a parallel dimension.
Reggie Watts: Yeah, it’s a parallel reality. It was me doing a slightly heightened version of myself without thinking about it too much. The criteria of what was supposed to happen in the scenes really allowed me to know immediately what I’m supposed to do. With adjustments from Ben and things like that, it all comes into focus and it was fun to figure out, “What am I?”
And it would seem Ben is playing a version of himself as well, working for an ad firm. Was it interesting having the connection to reality, but distanced from it?
Ben Dickinson: Yeah, it’s interesting to exaggerate or play with your own tendencies as a way to see yourself and also get out of yourself. I exaggerated a lot of my bad qualities to make David more dramatic. I’m actually very conflict averse. I could never have an argument like David and Juliette have. I would just shut down and keep it all inside. In a way, playing David was a way for me to act out things that I would never allow myself to do, a way to see what it would be like to be very comfortable being not only argumentative, but a dick. I’m not a drug addict, but I understand [as someone who] has a lot of anxiety and sometimes I’m just like, “Man, I should just fucking get some Xanax…if I could just take a pill and not deal with this…” That’s the reason I don’t get a prescription for it, because I can just see the trajectory.
So it’s like a dark acting out process and it was therapeutic. Freud says, “Every dream is a wish fulfillment,” which is a really strange statement when you think about it because a lot of times we have nightmares. Our dreams are full of horrible, scary things, and I think what he means by that is that our conscience is so complex and so dark in many ways. It has so many layers of evolution that we need to explore some of that darkness, obsession and extreme emotion and because we have to live in society together, we can’t act on those things. It comes out in our dreams and in our art, so it’s going to come out in augmented reality and virtual reality. For better and for worse.
After making “Creative Control,” you actually teamed on a virtual reality project together. Did you know you’d be doing that while making “Creative Control” or was it art imitating life?
Ben Dickinson: No, it was weird.
Reggie Watts: Very weird.
Ben Dickinson: That was one of those things where synchronicity is really leveling up because we got that opportunity right as [“Creative Control”] was premiering in South by Southwest, so it was literally us collaborating on a VR project hired by someone to do it, just like it was happening in the movie and they hadn’t even seen the movie, so that started to feel a little bit like, “Are we living in a simulation?”
Reggie, you’ve moved out to Los Angeles since making this. Is being a creative person out here different than being in Brooklyn?
Reggie Watts: L.A. is heavily built on the entertainment industry, so I call L.A. a simulation town whereas, New York is more of a grind to survive — I’m a shark [there]. I can’t stop moving otherwise I’m not going to be able to pay my rent. There are so many things happening, so many industries converging in one place and there are definitely hubs like Brooklyn where there are a lot of creative people, a lot of weirdos, a lot of aesthetic people. But In L. A., everyone creates their own bubble of reality. You can just drive through a neighborhood and see this person’s idea of a perfect thing. It’s very different out here. I’m trying to modulate to figure out how to continue to be productive out here. At the same time, I have many more tools immediately available to me than I would have necessarily had in Brooklyn.
Ben Dickinson: In New York, there’s a lot more people telling you, “You ain’t shit,” all the time.
Reggie Watts: Yeah, that’s true. It’s like, “Yeah, nice try buddy.” Whereas here it’s like, “What are you working on? What’s your project?”
Ben Dickinson: Yeah. “What are you working on? You’re a god!”
Reggie Watts: “Oh my God, you are a god!” You are just like, “I … thank you. I don’t know.”
“Creative Control” opens on March 11th in Los Angeles at the Landmark, New York at the Sunshine Cinema, and in Austin at the Violet Crown Cinema before expanding. A full list of theaters and dates is here.