“It sounds incredibly pretentious and silly in some ways,” writer/director/star Benjamin Dickinson told me during the press day for his new sci-fi-tinged indie drama Creative Control. “But we kind of developed these Bresson-like mantras while making the movie, and the one we kept coming back to over and over again was ‘It’s a Woody Allen movie directed by Stanley Kubrick.’”
The film — which premiered at SXSW in 2015, debuts in theaters on March 11 and will also eventually stream on Amazon Prime — is about David (Dickinson), a neurotic 30-something ad-exec tasked with hawking pairs of augmented reality glasses for a startup called Augmenta. When he field tests a pair himself, the technology impedes on his waning relationship with his yoga teacher girlfriend Juliette (Nora Zehetner). When he creates a digital avatar to simulate his fantasy to sleep with his best friend’s girlfriend Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), both the technology and his own emotions turn against him.
Think of it like a wittier and more comedically dry version of Spike Jonze’s Her, except completely grounded in the increasingly absurd world of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The black-and-white sleekness recalls the aesthetics of an Apple store, filtered through films like Manhattan or Annie Hall.
But for Dickinson, this near-future story came from a personal crisis. “I made Creative Control out of a sense of frustration in relationships and career,” he said, “but also frustrations with how technology seemed to be fucking with both of those things.”
It’s a conundrum that he sees many people (not just him) deal with, as technology proliferates at blinding speed — so much so that it begins to insert itself into resolutely human situations.
“Technology actually seems to be constructing our emotional life to a certain degree,” he said. “Now all of this telepresence is really magnifying that problem.” Maybe it’s no surprise then that the kernel idea for the not-so-cautionary tale came from a single image Dickinson had: “I started with the scene where Wim [the best friend, played by Dan Gill] and Sophie are having sex in the loft and he takes a photo of it.”
He initially developed the movie as a straightforward relationship drama, but the theme of technological intrusion gradually rose to the surface, typified in the final film by the Augmenta glasses. “They were in the initial outline but it was more of a flourish,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was deep into the writing process that I started making that the engine of the plot.”
Dickinson eventually wrote an entire user’s guide for Augmenta as if they were a real product. His guide featured diagrams and tech specs with passages explaining how its lenses were advanced retinal projectors and more. But they’re by design the least important part of the movie, an approach Dickinson attributes to the way technology is dealt with in his favorite movie, Kubrick’’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“I always think of the scene where the astronauts are on the transport to check out the monolith in the moonbase, and they’re just in the back eating bologna sandwiches and being like, ‘Pretty good sandwich, huh?’” Dickinson said. “In the meantime, there’s this amazing moonscape moving behind them, and it’s so great because that’s exactly what it’ll be like: What’s amazing today is banal tomorrow.”
Besides Allen and Kubrick, he said his biggest influence while making the movie was the work of certain genre writers. “I’ve gotten more information from reading AR sci-fi, of which there is plenty,” he said, name dropping Virtual Light by William Gibson and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, just to name a few.
As for any real life inspiration for Augmenta, Dickinson said he stayed deliberately uninformed.
“I’ve still never used Google Glass, I don’t believe the Samsung one existed when I started writing, and I think I’ve put on an Oculus once,” he said, though since the film premiered he made a VR short film called Waves featuring Reggie Watts, who also co-stars in Creative Control.
He has a Twitter page, but to Dickinson, it’s sort of a joke: “I’m not that good at it and I don’t really understand it,” he said. “I’m like an old man.” He also deleted his Facebook page while writing the movie. “Some people have a good relationship with it, but if you’ve ever been through a breakup those memories are all there,” he said. “I guess some people can handle it, but I’m too sensitive and obsessive. I’m a neurotic person.”
But he was forced to cope after watching the rise of social media and wearable tech through the lens of Creative Control. “What I’ve gradually done over the years is set up boundaries,” he said. For instance, he specified he doesn’t allow devices in his bedroom and tries not to have serious conversations via texting or on social media. “Just like you have to do with human relationships, the phone and I have to be in a balanced relationship,” he said.
It’s that basic dilemma that he wanted to explore in Creative Control, though bit by bit, the scales begin to tip for David as he becomes more desperate and loses that balance. But Dickinson was quick to explain the movie isn’t supposed to be a full-on attack on future tech.
“Being against technology would kind of like being against oxygen,” he said. “If technology serves our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs then I’m for it. If it exploits those needs and ignores some of those needs, then I’m against it.”
Figuring out what happens next and how we deal with it will follow Dickinson into his next project, a movie he hopes to begin shooting this year about a main character who lacks a memory chip that nearly every other person on the planet has implanted in their brain. Dickinson called it “a love story.”
After that, Dickinson isn’t certain, but he is certain that he’ll still tell the stories he wants to tell even if bigger opportunities come calling for an indie director like him.
“If you make a movie like Creative Control that has like some CG in it and stuff, people do want to meet you,” he said. “I’ve had some of those meetings in Hollywood, but I don’t know how I would direct something I didn’t write.” When pressed about it, he reiterated with more self-deprecating humor: “I think there are better choices than me.”