Transcending Tribeca: Ben Dickinson of First Winter
Tasha Robinson recently visited 2012’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs in Manhattan from April 19-29. The majority of films screening at Tribeca are independently produced, premièring at Tribeca, and seeking the distribution deals that could bring them to theater, cable, or home video. For this series of film focus features, Tasha spoke with the filmmakers behind her absolute favorite Tribeca premières, the ones she’d most like to see picked up for major release post-Tribeca. Ben Dickinson’s feature drama First Winter had its world première on Thursday, April 19; it plays again at Tribeca Thursday, April 27 through Sunday, April 29. Details and tickets are here.
At the “Hi, I’m the filmmaker, enjoy the film” stand-up moment before the First Winter première, writer-director Ben Dickinson seemed ebullient; he said he “never thought anyone would see this film, ever,” so he was thrilled to be presenting it to a full house. But at the Q&A afterward, he and his DP and cast all seemed shy, withdrawn, and a little overwhelmed, like they’d just emerged back into civilization from the isolating, traumatic events they’d experienced onscreen. Eventually, in pieces, they explained some of the movie’s background: Dickinson and co-star Lindsay Burdge met the movie’s massively bearded star, Paul Manza, during a yoga retreat at Manza’s isolated family farmhouse in upstate New York. Over time, Dickinson conceived of First Winter, a quiet but intense indie drama in which Manza, Burdge, and other acquaintances—particularly sullen drug addict Matthew Chastain—are stranded at that farmhouse after an unknown cataclysm cuts off the outside world. Some of their group disappear with their only vehicle, and the power cuts out in the middle of winter, forcing them to rely on the firewood they cut and the water they heat in buckets in front of the fire.
First Winter initially resembles Martha Marcy May Marlene in its raw, naturalistic look at the inner workings of a commune that feels like a cult. Manza, as the yogi and spiritual advisor to the group, is sleeping with several of them, and his calm, wise exterior hides a selfishness and a disregard for his students’ well-being. Chastain’s anger and jealousy of Manza bubbles throughout the film. And once they all realize they’re running out of food (and in Chastain’s case, out of hoarded drugs), their choices become increasingly telling. Beautifully shot on 16mm, sharply acted, and cut together with a slow, patient rhythm, First Winter is at times heartbreakingly beautiful.
Dickinson, a 2003 NYU film-school grad, started his own production company after college and started producing videos and commercials, eventually working for Q-Tip, The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, and more; First Winter is his first feature. Tasha talked to him about climbing the music-video-world ladder, the controversy over killing an actual deer in the film, and why everyone in the world, himself included, is a hypocrite.
The A.V. Club: You’ve done videos for some pretty big names. How did you initially get involved in that?
Ben Dickinson: Just, over a couple years, gradually making more and more visible videos. The first video I did that was really seen by people was for The Juan Maclean, which is on DFA, James Murphy’s record label. I’d done a lot of videos for that group of people, so The Rapture saw the video I did for The Juan Maclean, and they brought me on to do all three of their videos for their second record, which were the first videos I really had a budget for, because they were on Universal at that time. Then I also did a video for James Murphy for LCD Soundsystem, and it grew from there. Then Q-Tip saw one of The Rapture videos, I think the “Woo! Alright” one, which is the one in Brooklyn with animation on it, and he really liked it, so we got to work together.
AVC: What was the Q-Tip video you did?
BD: It was for “Gettin’ Up.” I was a huge, huge A Tribe Called Quest fan in high school, so that was very surreal, that experience. The first time I met him, I couldn’t even speak. I had never had that experience before, being starstruck like that. Then the fact that I was going to be directing his video was very strange.
We actually shot the video in L.A., because he was on the Rock The Bells tour at the time, so that’s how the schedule worked out. And that was a little strange, because I am so used to working with my New York crew, and we have a certain mentality about how to work. I’m sure if I lived in L.A. and had a crew there I would have a little bit more agency, but my experience working out there, I had a little difficulty really getting the crew to dream with me. It’s a little bit more like an industry feeling, it’s very by-the-books. I’m sure I could adapt, but these kinds of one-offs I’ve done in L.A., it’s been a struggle.
AVC: When you say you couldn’t get them to “dream with you,” do you mean they were more about the hours or the money or the perks? Or they just don’t have a vision?
BD: No, no, no. They’re an incredibly talented crew out there. I think it’s that they’re by-the-books about breaks, and “We need this many crew people,” and it’s a little bit less nimble, less flexible. Whereas if you’re a New York filmmaker, even if you are doing huge-budget stuff, you have to be pretty flexible, because you’re not shooting on backlots a lot, and even if you are, they’re smaller. My experience, my background is shooting on the street, on location. So you have to be flexible. Sometimes it’s just not going to work. There’s a giant truck there—what are you doing to do? I mean, you can’t move that truck. So you have to think on the fly.
AVC: How did that play into First Winter, given that you were shooting on Paul Manza’s private property, and living there and working on your own time? You presumably didn’t have to deal with unwanted trucks, but how did flexibility come into it?
BD: There were all kinds of factors with the weather. When we started shooting, it was snow everywhere. Then it would get warm one day, and half of it would go away. That day, we’d have to shoot inside and hope it would snow again. So we were certainly at the mercy of the weather. It just throws in a sense of being in a race against time. Also, I had a very small crew, so there were times where I was acting in a scene, directing it, and recording the sound. Like, I had a sound pack hidden in my coat, and I obviously wasn’t monitoring it when I was doing that. Although I may have been wearing headphones, because I had long hair at the time. [Laughs.] It’s just stuff like that. Just being scrappy.
AVC: Are you interested in being a career actor as well as directing?
BD: That’s never something that I struggle for or have thought about. I did just act in Adam Newport-Berra’s first movie—the cinematographer who shot First Winter, he just directed his first film, and I was the lead actor in that movie because he asked me to. I like acting. If I could choose between making a living as an actor and making a living as a commercial director, I think I would probably choose being an actor. It’s a little more suited to my personality, which I think is a bit emotionally unstable. [Laughs.] Whereas being a commercial director, it’s really better to be stone-cold sober. Precise. And calm. I mean, I make my living making commercials, but it’s a struggle for me, because I feel like the way I direct actors and even the way I direct the camera is very intuitive and emotional. When I’m in a commercial situation, I have to explain why I’m going to do everything to the client and to the agency and in my treatment. Which is good practice, but it isn’t a natural fit for me, so it takes a lot of work, and I have to really concentrate and think about, “Well, how does this make sense in a completely intellectual way?” It’s a challenge.
AVC: Is there a particular commercial or even a particular music video you would most specifically point people to as indicative of your work?
BD: Well, there’s certainly been eras, even though that sounds ridiculous. The most recent music video I did was for my friend’s band, NewVillager, which we made for very little money, but I think it’s representative of my work. The LCD Soundsystem video, I feel very proud of that one. It’s for “North American Scum,” off the second record. I also did a couple videos for Chiddy Bang, more recently the video for “Truth,” which I think has a lot of me in it.
Commercial work, I think some people really can put their mark on commercial work. I don’t know if that is me. I did some stuff for Google. I recently did some stuff for Southwest Airlines that I think has nice colors in it, has nice energy. I think you could draw the parallels between that and some of my music-video work, but I don’t consider myself an auteur as a commercial director. I think I’m more of a journeyman.
AVC: Leaving the money aside, would you be looking to get out of commercials and music videos entirely and just make features, if you could?
BD: Yeah, I’d love to get paid just to make movies. I mean, music videos are fun and there’s no money in them now, so pretty much if you’re going to do it—unless you’re doing, like, Katy Perry or whatever. I’d love to do a music video every now and then, actually, for bands that I like. But yeah, I’d love to get paid just to make movies. Can you make that happen? [Laughs.]
AVC: Has anybody started talking to you about distributing First Winter based on your experience here?
BD: There’s been some interest, which is amazing, because I never really thought it would be distributed. I really want to emphasize theatrical release over maybe doing VOD for a month for a bigger number, because I’d like people to see it in the theater.
AVC: You shot the film entirely with natural light, except very early on, when the farmhouse still has electricity. Was that more an aesthetic decision or a practical one?
BD: It was because they’re living without electricity—it didn’t make sense to light it. That seemed silly. They’re living in a house as people lived through the entire history of mankind, up until the 20th century. When they built houses, people thought about where the sun was going to be, where the windows were going to be. That house was 250 years old, or something like that, and it gets amazing light. During the day, you don’t need any lights on in that house. It has windows all the way around. So it just seemed consistent to do it that way, and the light in the winter is so specific. It’s so particular. Trying to light that would have been like gilding the lily. And then the nighttime scenes, God, Barry Lyndon. Lighting with candles. That was a huge inspiration. The one thing about doing the night scenes just with candles is that it was difficult to do a big wide shot, but then anytime anyone is walking around with a candle, one candle lights their face. And we shot on Fuji 500, which is really amazing stock.
AVC: That has to have been expensive. In a digital age when you can shoot as much as you want and as many takes as you want cheaply, why go with 16mm?
BD: A couple of reasons. At that time—it sounds crazy, because it was only a year ago, the Alexa was not readily available. There was only a few in New York, and they were expensive. I’ve worked with a Red quite a bit, the Epic I like better, but I don’t love the color space, and one thing is that there’s so much snow in the movie, and white, and one thing video just doesn’t handle very well is snow. It tends to blow out. That was an aesthetic consideration. We talked about shooting on a 5D Canon, just a DSL/DSLR, a tiny little camera, but it has this rolling shutter thing that has a certain look that I don’t love. It’s very video-y. I was going for this analog feel. And I love 16. I love the way it looks, the texture, the grain. Also, the way the light interacts with it in those inside scenes, there’s a lot of veiling, and I think it’s so beautiful. It feels more like what light looks like to me, with my eyes. It’s not as clean.
AVC: You shoot a handful of extremely long unbroken takes, like the opening scene, where Paul is walking among his yoga students and you get a sense for the main personalities. There’s a lot of camera movement and physical coordination there, and no room for error. That’s got to be a lot more complicated when you’re shooting on 16mm.
BD: Honestly, the digital cameras I would want to make a movie with are almost as heavy. And big. When you’re using the Alexa or the Red, you’re still using 35mm lenses. The cameras by themselves are a little lighter. The other thing is actually having a heavier camera is sometimes better for handheld work, because there’s some weight to it, and it feels a little more human. When you get into a light handheld camera, the motion feels a little weird. But Adam’s an amazing operator in addition to being a great lighting guy. He’s a great operator and he worked really hard. He’s built a little differently than me. He’ s built to hold a 16mm camera. [Laughs.] I mean, he’s just a bigger guy.
AVC: How many times did you shoot that sequence?
BD: The opening sequence? I’m not sure, but I think there were 10 takes, which was at the high end of what I did because, as you mentioned, shooting film is expensive. We rehearsed it three or four times. If you recall, at the beginning of the shot, it seems like, “Okay, this is like a documentary type moment,” but then when Paul moves around Sam, and the camera creeps around to get Matt’s reaction, there were like 10 focus racks, and Adam was just doing it himself [manually] while he operated the camera. It was a really complicated shot, and I think it was a challenge I put on myself, to do this technically complicated shot, but I wanted it to feel effortless and just feel natural. I want them to feel like a real moment in time, in that these people are real and that you’re there.
A lot of my inspiration came from documentary filmmakers, and because I really, really wanted the film to feel almost like a documentary at the beginning, so when I started to shift things, it felt like they were real people, like it wasn’t all just being made up. I wanted to give a sense of fluidity, showing these people living in harmony and enjoying each other’s company, and how that feels so fluid, when you have that experience. When you have a group of people all living in a house together, and you almost don’t need to speak. It’s literally like as you come up the stairs, you’re like, “Oh, I need to toss a salad,” and someone has just put it on the table. There’s this feeling of synchronicity. You’re communicating with people without speaking, so that’s what I was trying to do with that shot.
I feel like the language we learn, especially in American cinema, the goal is always to keep it going, always keep the action going, never let the audience get bored, never let them start to think about what they’re seeing, keep the lights flashing to keep the illusion going. What I’m trying to do is the opposite. I want people to respond, to take a moment to think, to breathe, to respond to what they’re seeing on the screen. I don’t like boring movies. I’m not trying to be boring. And I’m not trying to make a statement by being purposefully obtuse or dull. But I think being present for a moment is exciting, and it works in a subconscious way when you watch a film that way.
AVC: Speaking of the characters feeling like real people, one of the distinctive things about the movie is that you come in with no sense of their background or their relationships, except what you pick up on the fly. Why did you choose to structure it that way?
BD: I always like a movie where you’re just dropped into the action and you’ve got to figure out and orient yourself, because I feel like it asks you to take the movie on its own terms a little bit, and there’s a sense of discovery. I wanted it to almost be like the audience showed up at this house and they don’t know anybody. Because if you go on a yoga retreat, that’s what it’s like. It’s like all these strangers.
AVC: The one difficult thing about that approach is figuring out who your antagonist, Matt, is. From the beginning, he has a feeling of disengagement and hostility, especially toward Paul. It’s unclear whether he reluctantly came with someone, or was expecting something different.
BD: I think there’s definitely some gaps in the storytelling. I think it’s difficult, too, because I know all of them, and I know Matt. Matt and Paul are friends in real life. So maybe it’s a limitation for me, to a certain extent. This is how I thought of it: Matt was struggling with drug addiction, and his friend Paul, who was a yogi, said, “Why don’t you come up to the farm?” and Matt reluctantly went. There’s a big-brother/little-brother dynamic going on, which is something I have experience with, trying to be, “Oh, your life’s screwed up. Let me be helpful to you,” but actually, you end up hurting that person more.
AVC: Very early on, the dynamic seems Biblical. You’ve got the long-haired, bearded, placid leader who’s distributing wisdom to his disciples and talking about his own future assassination, and then you’ve got Judas in the corner, glowering and lying in wait. Was that in your mind, that parallel?
BD: And then also, they eat the fruit in the bathtub, so there’s that cast-out-of-Eden thing, too. [Pause.] That was not something I deliberately thought about. I think that if you are raised in Western culture, the Christian myth is pretty present. I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, which is a very religious town in the Midwest. I was indoctrinated with a lot of that Christian mythology at a young age, so I think that sense of morality is always a little bit present in my mind. I didn’t consciously think of it.
AVC: You’ve said the movie is in part about your experience with Eastern thought. From a story perspective, it’s surprising that you have a bunch of vegetarians pursuing a spiritual lifestyle, but they only reach a spiritual apotheosis after they’ve killed an animal and eaten its flesh. Was there a message there?
BD: There’s a tension there that I was very aware of. I think taking a life is a very serious thing. We have so little contact with that in industrial society. You can just go to the corner and order a cheeseburger. There’s no sense that there was a living being connected to that flesh. I still don’t know whether I think it’s wrong or right to eat meat. I do eat meat. I was a vegetarian for years. That’s always the conversation: “righteous” and “not righteous.” To me, Eastern thought is about non-duality. It’s not about, “I’m good over here, you’re bad over there,” which I feel is so much of the discussion, constantly, all the time, about everything. So I’m interested in non-duality. If you are living in a temperate climate in the winter, unless you’ve stored up so much grain—I’m talking about in pre-industrial society, historically—part of your diet is going to be the flesh of animals, because in the wintertime, you can’t grow anything. So hunting and eating animal meat if you live in a cold place, that is just living on Earth. So looking at stuff from a non-dualistic perspective, I don’t see any conflict. In fact, it seems sane. If you were living on the equator, you could pretty easily live off of fruits and vegetables all the time, because you could grow them year-round. That would be a different situation. I think also, inherent in that action was a way for those people, the characters in the movie, to have real contact with death. To see it and to realize that was going to happen to them, too. What I really wanted to get across is that being a vegetarian doesn’t make you a good person. What makes you a good person is having love in your heart and learning how to love yourself and love other people. The other stuff is putting the cart before the horse. You know what I mean?
AVC: What do you mean by “the other stuff”?
BD: Is it possible to be enlightened? I hope so. But you can’t get there by just going through the motions, or just making rules for yourself. Because life is dynamic, it just keeps shifting. Every situation is different. In general, yeah, it’s not right to kill. We’ve established that it’s not right to kill another human, but you can imagine a scenario where that would be the only sane response. If someone was trying to kill you, if someone was trying to kill your family. So because life is dynamic, there has to be an engagement with reality right now, in order for there to be sanity. That’s what I’m trying to get across in the movie, successfully or not. I think sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes it’s a fucking mess.
AVC: There is a degree that people looking for messages in this movie could see it as a takedown of Eastern spirituality and yoga. All these characters are, to some degree, flawed or hypocritical, particularly their leader. Is there a danger of picking up that message from the film? Is it intentional?
BD: I think everyone is a hypocrite. Everyone I’ve ever met in my life. I think I’m a hypocrite. I think that is endemic to human society, because we live in this society that says, on the one hand, you have to be ambitious and successful, but on the other hand, you have to be nice and polite and don’t upset anybody, but these two things are completely in conflict. How can you be ambitious and also be selfless? Not possible. They’re in contradiction. I think that’s the situation that we’re in. We’re in a hypocritical situation. What we call love and selflessness, for the most part, is ambition. That’s something I’m looking myself in the mirror in this movie. I’m looking at my own hypocrisy, my own confusion, and I am trying to puncture something: the self-righteousness that is the hallmark of people who are so-called spiritual, living spiritual lives. But I have so much regard for Eastern thought. I see what you’re saying. My intention is to try to puncture through materialism into something that is truer and simpler. And the last shot is them meditating. Just as an image, I still feel reverence for that idea. What yoga has become, I think it’s an individual thing.
AVC: Is Matt in that last shot? It’s unclear.
BD: He’s not. Someone said to me, “It’d be great to have Matt in the corner, like, he’s there with them, but he’s still ‘Grrrrrr.’” And the reason for that is—here’s a scoop—in the original screenplay, Matt dies. You know that shot of him going out in the woods, it ends in him freezing to death willingly. What I realized when I was cutting it was, “This is artificial.” I think Matt might want to die, because he’s in a lot of pain, emotional and otherwise, but then it just didn’t feel right. It felt artificial.
AVC: There have already been a series of news stories about the fact that you killed and dressed an actual deer for the hunting sequence, out of season, and you may be facing legal charges. Are you prepared for the media narrative about the movie to be largely focused on that?
BD: I guess I’m going to have to be. It’s out of my hands at this point, but that was never my intention. What’s upsetting about it for me is that all of that spin has been written by people who haven’t seen the movie. So I think there’s a lot of assumptions based on a poorly written article about what my intentions were. I’m not prepared for it, but I guess I’m preparing myself. Like I said, I think taking a life is very serious, and actually, respect for life was what I was trying to get across. There’s been a misinterpretation. But of course, if you haven’t seen the movie, I think you would just extrapolate, you would speculate as to what that meant. So I don’t know. I think my perspective on it, I’ve already addressed a little bit with you, in terms of how we consume flesh. I was trying actually to talk about what does it mean to subsist on the flesh of animals, and that’s why it was important to me that we dress it and eat it. I think anyone who eats meat or wears leather—if you’re going to use animal products, it’s a good experience to actually do it yourself and know what it’s like. That was my message. That was what I was trying to get across. I don’t think that’s really part of the discussion. Hopefully there will be opportunity for that discussion to happen, but I guess it’s a little outside of my control.
AVC: There are a bunch of things in the film that are deliberately ambiguous, and at the post-film Q&A, someone demanded you spell those things out. You did, but you seemed hesitant. How do you respond to that desire for explanations from the filmmaker?
BD: I think people are trained to watch movies that way. I don’t know if everyone is going to the movies to be confronted with ambiguity, but some people are. I was hesitant just because I think people could have their own reactions to it, and I don’t want to narrate too much what it’s supposed to mean. I’m happy to talk about what it means to me, but part of art is, I just get this zap, like an image, and I just know that’s right, or that’s what I want to get across, but I don’t always know what it means. That series of dissolves, where Kate is in the room, and it dissolves, and the woods are behind her? That was something that came to me while I was meditating. I had this feeling of my body dissolving. And because I’ve been spending so much time out in the snowy woods, I suddenly felt like I had dissolved into the woods like that. So that’s where that came from.
AVC: What’s next? What are your plans from here?
BD: I want to make another movie. My next project, I think, is going to take place in Williamsburg, and it’s going to be more of an Italian neo-realist thing about bourgeois society, so it’s going to be about yuppies, basically. Similar themes. It’s going to be about young people that are climbing the social ladder, and the impact of technology on personal relationships, smartphones and things like that, but shot in a more Italian neo-realist style. That’s my next project. I want to try and do it this fall.