Hollywood’s put out a rash of blockbuster dystopian action thrillers like The Hunger Games and Divergent, but a small class of independent sci-fi brain busters are finding success ditching the post-apocalypse for stories set in the next few years—with the next new technology. Director/writer/star Benjamin Dickinson’s Creative Control, out today, is a keen satire on the delusion and ennui suffered by folks living with tomorrow’s immersive tech.
Advertising agent David (played by Dickinson) scores a new client, Augmenta, and begins fooling around with their product, tomorrow’s augmented reality glasses that pair the Magic Leap-like functionality with Warby Parker frames. As David grows apart from his yoga instructor girlfriend and nurses a crush on his best friend’s girlfriend Sophie, he becomes one with his Augmenta glasses—and begins building a Sophie of his own.
Creative Control debuted at SXSW 2015 and was picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studios. Dickinson sat down with Fast Company ahead of Creative Control’s wide release to chat about all the great and terrible things coming for us when we sink deeper into our technological addictions.
Fast Company: I guess the most important question I have is, are you happy with how Creative Control turned out?
Benjamin Dickinson: Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s the best work that I’ve done so far. I mean, obviously all I can see when I watch it is mistakes, but sometimes I’m able to step outside of that and evaluate. But I learn more about the movie talking about it, because when people want to discuss it, they have certain insights, or they talk about certain scenes they liked or a feeling that the movie gave them or what they’re thinking about after watching the movie. That’s when I feel like I’ve done my job, when they start coming to me and reflecting my intentions—and sometimes adding other layers. So that makes me feel like I’m connecting, which makes me feel like I did my job.
There’s a lot of that in the film, that question for purpose, in David, the character you play.
Yeah, he’s in a tough position because [laughs] he’s searching for a sense of meaning in the advertising industry . . . and that’s a quixotic quest. I don’t mean to be glib. I think probably a lot of people have a quest for meaning and purpose. I think for a lot of people, just having your basic needs met is enough. I don’t know if everybody sits around and wonders what their purpose on earth is, but I do.
There’s almost a menace to how you portray your characters living their lives. Where did that hostility to your characters come from?
I think a lot of it is self-hatred, probably. Hypocrisy bothers me, my own included, especially my own. So I’m struggling with that. I think hypocrisy is the essence of the human condition, actually, because we create gods that we can’t follow. It’s also what’s beautiful about humans. Delusion and hypocrisy are extremely good survival techniques. They have helped us survive, I’m sure. Our ancestors that were maybe too altruistic didn’t pass on their genes. So that’s at the crux of the human experience is this sort of vicious self-interested animal, and the part of us that loves poetry and art and makes sex into an art and music and enjoys good food . . . I mean, it’s complicated. I basically just recited Freud, I’m realizing. [laughs]
What personal experiences pushed you to make this film in particular?
Well, I went through a breakup that was rough. A lot of it was mediated over text messages. So that was kind of a new experience because the smartphone’s only been around for eight years, really. The extent to which we are telepresent with all our close loved ones now is established, but even four years ago that was a new experience for me. It was the first time in my life I had a breakup where technology was so involved. So there was that.
I had made a movie [First Winter], but I was working in advertising to pay the rent, and I had some frustrations with that. And I was broke again because I’d just made a movie, and I kept getting pushed farther and farther into Brooklyn—all these high-rises going up in Williamsburg . . . and so it was a confluence of frustrations, and the therapy was to exorcise it through writing the movie and making the movie. All that bound up in what I felt were my own personal failings as well. So in order to get things moving, frustration and anger were fire for that. Y’know, frustration and anger are wonderful fuel if you focus it in the right direction. It can really move things forward.
It can also burn you out.
It can, yeah. I think learning how to harness it and focus it is a skill that I’m still developing. The first step is that you have to feel something. For me, to feel anger is difficult. There’s some great line in Manhattan, which I just ripped off for this movie many, many times. Diane Keaton is breaking up with Woody Allen and she’s like, “I wish you would—I wish you’d get angry at me so we could have it out,” and Woody Allen is like, “I don’t get angry, okay? I grow a tumor instead.” I kind of relate. There’s a barrier threshold for me to experience that emotion.
But obviously, enough people have connected with the movie to come and tell you, “This is my story.” So clearly, they’re the same way—they can’t get angry. What is this cannot-get-angry, anesthetizing-with-technology/drugs lifestyle?
(Characters) David and Juliette argue, but they’re not really fighting. They’re arguing around the issue. And he can’t connect with her enough for them to have sex. Everything is being moved into this abstract space where he can be in control and he doesn’t have to risk really being vulnerable. We’re all so afraid of being judged. Part of being civilized is that we’re supposed to be grown-ups and be in control of our emotions, but we’re not. We’re children. We’re selfish children, and we’re socialized and conditioned to act like responsible adults.
I’m being a little bit cynical. What I’m trying to say is, what is this civilization project we’re working on? We seem fascinated to arrive at some other place we never get to. We’re hyper-intelligent apes who, through our imaginations, started inventing technology that’s now shaping us. We still have the same biological needs that our ancestors did basically 200,000 years ago. Homo sapiens haven’t changed that much in that amount of time. And yet, we’re augmenting our consciousness so quickly, so rapidly, even within my lifetime. The Internet’s basically been around for 20 years. And I think it’s traumatic. We don’t know if we’re doing it, if technology has its own agenda, if this is what God wants, or if there is a God. We don’t know if we have free will or if it’s an illusion . . . we’re starting to figure out something about black holes. It’s a crazy time, and technology seems to be magnifying everything. You see things moving to extremes.
The utopian vision of technology is that it’s connecting us. It only does that if we actually design it to connect us. But if you design it to be addictive, then it will only separate us, because what addiction always does is isolate the person. So whether you’re addicted to pills, like David is in the movie; addicted to pornography, basically which David is; addicted to video games; or addicted to technology, that’s isolating you from a community. Part of the reason that the experience of technology right now is moving everything to extremes is because we find ourselves in these echo chambers. So you could be on Twitter, but if you only follow extreme right-wing people on Twitter, it starts to seem like that’s the only reality. Because you’re only hearing that one voice. And in the same way that David starts to create this alternate reality for himself by creating this avatar that does whatever he wants it to, responds however he needs it to. It’s a closed system. It’s a feedback loop. The technology doesn’t have to be that, but it certainly is a pitfall.
The characters experience social problems that could happen at any time. So why set the movie tomorrow instead of . . .
Today? I think it’s fun. It’s fun to have it be slightly futuristic. And it’s just aesthetically fun. It wouldn’t be fun to just have a bunch of close-ups on smartphones. That’s just aesthetically ugly. It’s much more beautiful to see a UI that’s in the space with the character. And I think setting it slightly apart from reality makes it slightly more accessible, because you’re not comparing it too much with your life. You’re just getting absorbed into this alternate reality and then realizing that it is your life, or similar to your life.
And you did intentionally cast some ridiculous personalities like serial entertainers Reggie Watts and H. Jon Benjamin.
Yes! Yeah, they all bring some levity to it. I think humor is one of our best weapons against despair and dystopia. It is a tonic. Reggie and I did the San Francisco and L.A. press tours together, and it’s such a luxury to spend time around Reggie. His approach to life is so playful, so non-dogmatic, and so open. It’s contagious being around him. I already was friends with Reggie, and when I was writing the movie, I realized there needed to be a character who was sort of the Holy Fool of the movie. Just like the court jester who comes in and makes fun of the king. David and Juliette, being very self-serious people, I needed there to be a court jester who would come in and take them down a notch and really recontextualize their struggle. And then that would be an actual point for the audience, too. You could laugh at this world.
What about Vimeo cocreator Jake Lodwick, who creates the Augmenta AR glasses in the film?
I’ve known Jake for a decade, and I knew him when he was just starting to invent Vimeo. He was showing me a prototype for it, and I was like, “I don’t get this. What’s it for?” And he was like, “I don’t know either but it’s gonna be big!” I’ve known him for a long time, and he actually helped me develop Augmenta, the fake technology of Augmenta. We had long conversations. I actually wrote a user’s guide for it. He asked me really important questions. He asked me like, “Yeah, what would you want it to be like if you could just make up an augmented reality system?” We talked about it so much that I was like, “You should just play this guy in the movie because you’re already talking like a startup CEO.”
And Vice Media cofounder Gavin McInnes, who plays David’s boss at the Homunculus advertising agency?
Gavin was [casting director] Eve Battaglia’s idea for that role, and he’s perfect. He’s perfect in there—that kind of alpha male aspect of Williamsburg hipsterdom, that particular brand of it.
With a tenderness, though.
With a tenderness, yeah. He’s a very complex man, Gavin. You hear him say, in his role playing a right-wing pundit—I don’t know how aware you are of this, he’s become this right-wing pundit. Some of the stuff he says, it’s just unbelievable. But then in person, he’s very warm and very loving. And, uh . . . he’s a strange guy. An interesting guy. And he definitely is effective at pushing people and manipulating things in a combination of tenderness and force. And you see a lot of strong personalities like that in the tech world. So he ended up being perfect and just embodied that role. And the fact that he started Vice. Vice is a bit of a model for the Homunculus agency, just a little bit classier and fancier.
Your approach then is to just have that plain layer of satire and make everyone realize that you’re not super serious about these people.
Yeah. And yet, then there are these moments of extreme beauty. You get why David is falling down this rabbit hole because he’s constructed this really beautiful reality, which is why I wanted to do all that slow-motion stuff, to get inside of his mind. But then I try to undercut it, too. I don’t want to give away the movie again, but there will be a beautiful moment leading up, and then you cut wide and realize he’s just masturbating. You know what I mean? It has to be both. You have to understand how he feels but then also laugh at him at the same time.
But you’re also infusing satire into how the film was shot, choosing wider shots for a very specific viewer perspective.
We had a mantra—Adam Newport-Berra, the director of photography and I—that we came back to when we were making the film, which is that “we’re making a Woody Allen movie as directed by Stanley Kubrick.” That maybe sounds pretentious, but that’s because it was useful. It was a reminder that we wanted to look at these characters a little like an alien, to step back. And the distance from them would indicate a lot to the audience about, well—we’re a little skeptical of the characters. And by placing them in these environments . . . usually when you shoot an argument, it’s cutting back and forth between two close-ups. And this tells you something important. When you shoot an argument in a big wide shot, like we did, it gives you a very different feeling. It invites skepticism of what you’re watching.
What do you think about premise obsolescence? When people have VR/AR glasses like Augmenta and then go back and watch your film? Or have actual chips in their heads?
Then the movie will be a quaint artifact from that time. 2001 is my favorite movie; I watch it once a year. I try to see it in the theater. And all the weird ’60s stuff, I love that shit. It’s just fun. It’s fun to look at a retro future and see what he got right and what he got wrong. But the design of the movie is so consistently beautiful that it sustains itself. So I’ve got to stop comparing myself to Stanley Kubrick. It’s ridiculous. But I think, best-case scenario, the movie will be a little time capsule of 2016 and where you were at. Also, when you watch Manhattan, there’s no big sci-fi premise, but you kinda get a feeling of what New York was like in the ’70s in this certain circle. You can kinda taste it a little bit. Best-case scenario, it will have captured a moment in time. Worst-case scenario, it will be laughably ridiculous.