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The Blogmaster 2000 Interview: Filmmaker Ben Kent

(This is the first of a planned series of interviews of people in creative industries that we admire and of whom we think highly. This inaugural interview is with Ben Kent, a British Filmmaker and Academy Award winner that we first met and became friends with when he submitted his short film “Punch Drunk” to our annual agency event, The Gangrene Comedy Film Festival.) 

BLOGMASTER 2000: Mr. Ben Kent – filmmaker, programmer, funny person, and genuinely good guy. How are you doing and thanks for being my inaugural interview here on Blogmaster2000.

My main hope with this series of interviews, as we discussed briefly when I reached out to you about participating, is to connect with people I genuinely admire and try to dig in a little bit to get a better idea of what drives them (you) and how you got here from there. So, if you are ready, here we go…

What was your dream job as a kid? How is this different from where you are now?

BEN KENT: It’s weird, I can’t remember having a consistent dream job as a kid. Tragically, I’ve always struggled to separate real life from films, at least on a subconscious level, so I tended to change what I wanted to do depending on the latest blockbuster. For example, post Top Gun, I wanted to be a fighter pilot – and not in the RAF, but in the USAF!

BLOGMASTER 2000: I totally get where you are coming from, I was kinda that way too – but I was more influenced initially by D&D (I wanted to be a Ranger) and then MTV (I figured if I was Alan Hunter I could get Martha Quinn to fall in love with me). There has been a lot of discussion in the past down these lines, especially with regard to violence in video games – how do you think the internalization of pop culture and tastes has impacted the mass media generation as compared to the industrial generation?

BEN KENT: For one thing I think life expectations have been skewed by what we see in the media (and I’m including my own here!). People expect the perfect relationships they watch in romantic comedies, the lavish lifestyles in Hollywood dramas (why can’t I be Vincent Chase? (Okay, I would totally settle for Johnny Drama)), and good looking female system administrators like they have in 24. On top of that people are flooded with reality TV stars with little or no talent and just want to be famous.

It’s a tricky one, because it’s great to aspire, but is real life becoming more and more substandard? Would we all just be happier if we threw away our phones and became monks?

I don’t think the influence of violent video games is the epidemic some might like to portray – if you go out and kill someone after playing a game, you were probably fairly disturbed anyway. That said, I’m sure games do influence people – and not necessarily the violent ones – it’s probably much less of a leap for a normal sane person to take a corner too quickly after playing a lot of Gran Turismo (done it) than it is for them to go out and murder someone after playing Manhunt. If we see people trying to cast fireballs in the street after playing too much Skyrim, then we need to worry.

BLOGMASTER 2000: I would totally be a Monk, as long as I didn’t have to shave my head and walk around in a scratchy robe and sandals all the time not speaking.

Who were your idols as a kid? How are they different from who you admire now?

BEN KENT: Similarly, I’m not sure I had many real life idols as a kid. Maybe the odd soccer player, but generally they tended to be characters in films. I definitely wanted to be like Indiana Jones and John McClane. Hmm – this is like therapy – it’s explaining a lot.

As an adult, I have at least taken to admiring real people. Steven Spielberg and Larry David for the amazing work they’ve brought to us. On a different level, I also find the MMA fighter Randy Couture deeply inspiring for his amazing work ethic and will power to keep achieving and competing at an age where most have fallen by the wayside (not for his performance in The Expendables).

BLOGMASTER 2000: Couture is a beast, isn’t he!? Holy cow that guy doesn’t have any “quit “ in him. I find it interesting that you mentioned Spielberg and David together since I see them as such polar opposite types of opposites. Larry David, based on what I know of him, doesn’t seem to know what the word “compromise” means, while Spielberg, who I worshipped as teen, doesn’t seem to know how to end a movie without a bit of treacle to let the audience know that everything will be okay. What is a bit weird, now that you mention that, is that I see a bit of both of them in your work – you definitely have an eye for emotional and well paced imagery and composition with characters that are chasing their dreams, but you also have a certain self deprecating cynicism to your characters that wouldn’t be out of place in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Do you see that too, or am I reading something that isn’t there?

BEN KENT: I don’t know – if it is there, it’s subconscious. But I don’t think their styles are necessarily mutually exclusive – isn’t what you’re describing to some extent a difference dictated by the format? We don’t really expect our characters to go on an emotional journey in a half hour sitcom, whereas we might lack closure if there isn’t one in a two hour movie. Plus, if Larry (the character) ever learnt his lesson there’d be no more series of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and that would be tragic.

It may be trite, but in most genres I prefer the ‘Hollywood’ ending to films – I feel completely cheated watching a romantic comedy where the couple don’t get together at the end. Likewise, I don’t think we’d be more satisfied if ET got his brains blown out by an overzealous Fed before getting on his spaceship.

BLOGMASTER 2000: I prefer the couple to get together at the end of Romances too, except in Garden State. It’s as if Zach Braff’s character learned nothing! He just switched off one mind-numbing drug for another (the other being Natalie Portman…).

I really can’t disagree with you since film is only partially art, the majority of it is a product driven business, and if there is anything I have learned is that Business can only be about business – the soul comes through the people involved in the business. How do you approach this kind of contradiction inherent in the industry – the split between serving the art and serving the fiscal demands of the medium?

BEN KENT: It’s funny, I’ve had a bit of a Seinfeld marathon the last few days and just watched the episode where George storms out of their pitch meeting citing ‘artistic integrity’. At which point Jerry points out that he’s not artistic and has no integrity. And I think that sums me up.

Joking aside, I’m lucky that the sort of movies I most enjoy and want to make tend to be fairly commercial. Truth be told I’d rather have made There’s Something About Mary than The Tree Of Life. Of course there’s still a need for artistic integrity within that arena and it still irks me that terrible scripts get produced because the studios know they’ll still make money, or that directors with a dependable record of making bad films still get the job because they’re a known entity (or a quantifiable risk). But I guess there’s no point wasting time grumbling – I could be out there making my first bad feature to get on that gravy train! (It’s going to be good, I promise).

BLOGMASTER 2000: What has been your favorite most rewarding personal project (this can go back as far as you want) and why?

BEN KENT: As far as films, I feel we’ve been improving as we go, so objectively each new one is to some level my favourite. However I do have a soft spot for Legend’s Dawn as it was done with such a short turnaround (I think two or three weeks from conception to completion).

BLOGMASTER 2000: Man, I love Legend’s Dawn – when you suggested that to us for inclusion in the Gangrene Film Festival, I was ecstatic. And it went over wonderfully at the show, too. What some people don’t realize, I think, is that those really short shorts are sometimes the hardest to pull off. I notice, quite often, that a lot of short comedy filmmakers don’t know where their joke is and they take too much time setting up, don’t understand pacing and then just spend too much time explaining the premise, which, to me, is like death in a short film. But Legend’s Dawn had a perfectly timed set-up, it delivered its punch and then got out quick. It was perfect. How much time did you spend on figuring all of that out or did you just go with your instinct?

BEN KENT: To be honest, that one was mostly instinct. It was conceived for a competition run by Orange (one of our cell phone providers) and the only rules were it had to be 60 seconds and have the theme of ‘unity’. Once the concept of a play on the ‘Braveheart’ rousing speech popped in to my head, the rest came fairly quickly. I think I spent the most time making the fabric tunics and the egg sandwiches!

BLOGMASTER 2000: What has been your favorite most rewarding professional project (something you worked on for someone else and not originated by you or your immediate circle of collaborators) and why?

BEN KENT: Well, I guess it’d have to be working on Furnace for The Foundry, for which I received a 2007 Academy Award for science And technology.

BLOGMASTER 2000: Yeah, I can see why that would stand out. So, and I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable, but could you take a few moments and kind of bullet point out the highlights of your career up through your stint at the Foundry and to today?

BEN KENT: So…

I studied engineering at Cambridge. I had a lot of fun, but I have to admit to not making best use of the time there. For example, my next door neighbour in my first year was John Oliver (now a regular on The Daily Show). He followed the great comedy tradition of joining the Footlights group (a path trodden by John Cleese, Hugh Laurie and many notable others). I went out partying. Oops.

After a brief stint working for Motorola I joined The Foundry. I knew I wanted to do something in movies, and it was the obvious half way house with my engineering background. Back then there were ten of us in a burgeoning VFX software company; as I left we were up to around 150 and the leading provider of 2D compositing software to the high end film industry. So I feel I can take some pride in that! Nowadays our software is used on pretty much all Hollywood features.

We started off doing chintzy type effects called Tinder. My first ones were a lightning and an old film effect (both of which are actually in Punch Drunk). I guess highlight number one at The Foundry was the first time I saw one of those on TV.

We then moved on to a product called Furnace, which we won the Academy award for. It was a set of tools to fix up film work, including wire removal (i.e. a quick way to remove the wires that actors may be hanging off), retiming (AKA ‘bullet time’ in The Matrix). That was when things really started to take off for us. It tended to be harder to pick out when each effect was actually used in a film, as if it was working, you shouldn’t see anything, however we knew it was used on major features like Lord Of The Rings.

Then the company really blew up – we acquired Nuke, which as I mentioned is the premier 2D compositing software now used in the VFX industry.

Meanwhile…

My friend Joel Wilenius and I started to write sitcom. Our first sitcom was well received by one of the best independent comedy production companies in the UK, and although they didn’t end up making it, it gave us the impetus to carry on.

We wrote a short film with the aim of giving it to a guy Joel knew to make. However, once written, Joel pointed out that it was too rude for his friend’s taste. At which point I just thought ‘I’ll make it, how hard can it be?’. Turns out it was quite hard.

At that point we wrote a new script and along with producer Russell Dobkin, we submitted it to the local council for funding… and lo and behold… we got funding, first time! Not a huge amount, but it was the start we needed – I’m truly thankful to them for that opportunity. So we made our first film, Best Laid Plans.

Next up was Legend’s Dawn, which made the London finals for the Orange 60 Second Film Competition (and being as most of the entries were from London, that was quite an achievement). As such it was one of five films screened on the BBC.

Then came Punch Drunk, which I’m still really proud of. This film provided a lot of highlights – including an awesome trip to the Gangrene Film Festival! It also got me in the door for most of the UK’s top comedy production companies, which inspired me to write my first feature, romantic comedy Breaking Down Is Hard To Do (which definitely ends with some treacle).

Most recently we made horror comedy short Love Bug, which premiered at Fright Fest – the UK’s largest horror festival. And that’s when I decided to make the plunge and give this filmmaking thing a go full time.

BLOGMASTER 2000: You submitted Punch Drunk to Gangrene and we all instantly liked it. On my part I really appreciated your commitment to the premise. Most people would try to show that they were above the joke, but the best comedy to me is when the creators are all in. What was your inspiration for that?

BEN KENT: Punch And Judy shows held a very prominent position in children’s entertainment over here when I was growing up. I guess at some point as an adult I just took an objective look at the show and thought ‘hold on, what exactly were we watching?’ Now I’m not jumping on some politically correct bandwagon as I think the shows are so tongue in cheek that nobody’s really using them as a moral compass, but I can definitely see the irony in a children’s show where the hero is a law-evading wife beater. So I just wondered what would happen if you put Mr. Punch in real life situations. From there it pretty much wrote itself.

I definitely took inspiration from The Muppets too (another large part of my childhood – I can’t wait to see the new film). I love the way the human cast interact with the puppets as if it’s utterly normal.

BLOGMASTER 2000: Love Bug was great as well, and again, you went all in. Zombie(ish) comedy, I think, is hard to pull off, because again, the filmmakers sometimes feel like they have to show that they are in on the joke. Shaun of the Dead was so great because it was a real movie first, and a Zombie comedy second. As you write and create do you think through these kinds of things or, as you said earlier, are you more instinctual?

BEN KENT: I guess that was largely instinctual as well – although the final film probably came out different to what was on paper (or in my head). During the casting process we pretty much switched which of the two male leads was the out and out comedic one. I don’t know if that means that my instinct was wrong on paper or just that we found the perfect cast to play it the other way round. Either way, those developments and/or revelations are the bits of the collaborative process I really love.

BLOGMASTER 2000: So, good and bad, how was your experience as our first overseas guest Filmmaker at our Annual Short Comedy Film Festival – The Gangrene Film Festival?

BEN KENT: Honestly, I loved it. For one, you guys treated us brilliantly (climbing was a highlight), and unfortunately, not all film festivals do. On top of that, you guys put on a hell of a show! I only wish I got to see Mini Kiss the year after.

BLOGMASTER 2000: The Mini Kiss guys were so cool, it was definitely fun hanging with them. Last year we had a Sasquatch Band that put on an 80’s Arena Rock type of show to kick it off. It was pretty wonderful. We definitely missed you and hope you can come out again sometime. Once you come out to Gangrene we think of you as family.

BEN KENT: Thanks to all the Gangrene crew – I hope I’ll be back sooner rather than later!

BLOGMASTER 2000: What really gets that creative engine pumping  (music, film, game)?

BEN KENT: Sometimes I’m listening to a song and just can’t help but come up with a scene to play alongside it.

BLOGMASTER 2000: Wes Anderson apparently creates his soundtrack as he writes and I would argue that as good as his movies are, they would not be nearly as good without the patented Anderson tonal qualities that come with the music that he uses. Does writing to a particular sound or track really influence your work tonally? Do you mind sharing an example?

BEN KENT: So many great directors (and I’m not counting myself amongst them!) seem to have an amazing ear for music. Be it Scorsese, Kubrick or Wes Anderson. It’s part of the package.

It tends to be difficult (or even dangerous) to let yourself be too influenced by particular tracks when you’re working at a low budget, as if you intend to play be the copyright rules, chances are you can’t actually afford to use them. One example where I think it came out pretty well was the prison montage in Punch Drunk. I did the whole thing as a pre-viz beforehand and cut it to an Ice Cube track. Luckily we managed to find a fantastic royalty free track to use in its place.

BLOGMASTER 2000: Without creating too much of a sense of whiplash in our readers by this next segue, isn’t the sudden proliferation of royalty free, decent quality stock photos, video and music pretty wonderful? On the Agency side of our business in which we do a lot of corporate videos, we constantly deal with companies just don’t know what things cost or understand the effort that is involved in putting together a good production. But even when we have a very limited budget, we try our hardest to deliver a high quality professional looking end product and stock assets have been huge in helping us there. But there is some concern that royalty free (much like Crowd Sourcing) endangers our lively hood while simultaneously keeping us competitive. What are your thoughts on this?

BEN KENT: I’m not sure this applies to royalty free music, but I definitely think the democratization of high end equipment is a double edged sword. It’s great that people can produce a high quality product using a DSLR for a fraction of the cost it would have cost a decade ago. I’m sure many great filmmakers, crew and actors will get a break that may never have had the opportunity otherwise. The downside is the more flooded the marketplace, the harder it is to stand out from the crowd.

Perhaps of more concern is that large corporations seem to have cottoned on to this as an opportunity to get adverts made without paying people properly. There are sites around that aggregate ‘advert competitions’ for a number of global brands – basically, filmmakers submit their self funded adverts for a chance to win a prize that’s a fraction of the cost of a having the advert made professionally. Maybe I’m being overly cynical – most likely the winning filmmaker will be someone who would never normally have been given the opportunity to make an advert and can then go on to make a career of it. But then there’s someone already established who won’t get work because the corporations have found a risk free way to get someone to do their work for cheap. Hmm…

BLOGMASTER 2000: What do you see as the single most formative moment that has created the you that exists today?

BEN KENT: It’s far from my favourite moment, however when I was nineteen I had my first panic attack after a big night out and a dalliance with some illicit substances. If only someone had mentioned that drugs weren’t good for you…  As is often the case, the first panic attack was followed by many more and for a while became quite a big bane in my life. It was a huge turn around as beforehand I was one of those people immune to nerves – I was that irritating person who could give presentations off the cuff, go to interviews without thinking twice – however all of a sudden the world had taken on a new, and not so pretty dimension. In some ways it’s merely an added layer to who I am – the person underneath is still roughly the same as beforehand – but as single moments go, it was a big one.

BLOGMASTER 2000: We have all heard the stories about Steve Jobs and Jack Nicholson, and etc and how they insisted that after experimenting they had risen to a new plane or whatever. I myself have never done drugs – I have smelled pot from a distance, but I can’t say for sure if it is a smell that I would recognize easily. Do you think the use of illicit substances was a positive or a negative? It sounds more like you consider it a negative that made everything a little more difficult.

BEN KENT: I would have to say definitely negative. There are good things, sure. I mean if it wasn’t fun, nobody would do it, right? But personally speaking the negatives far outweigh the positives.

BLOGMASTER 2000: What do you see was the turning point in your professional life that has gotten you to where you are now?

BEN KENT: About 5 years ago, my friend saw a BBC advert for new sitcoms so we decided we should write one. As soon as we started it was so obvious to me that telling stories was what I wanted to do – and what I always had wanted to do. It seems ridiculous in retrospect that it had never occurred to me!

BLOGMASTER 2000: So, just to clarify for my benefit – you saw an advertisement soliciting new sitcoms or promoting new sitcoms, and if the former, how cool is the U.K.? Did you do some pitches or decide to build up a reel first? And what was that first one that you wrote?

BEN KENT: I think it was an advert, although I can’t be sure. As the BBC is public funded it tends to be obliged to do things like that. I believe they have a mandate to read all work submitted – which is great. By the same token, your work is likely to be read by an intern with no guarantee of taste.

We just plunged in and wrote a whole sitcom episode, along with treatments for the rest of the series. It had various names over its lifetime – I think we settled on Same Old, Same Old. The setup was thoroughly unoriginal (hence the ironic title). This was actually a choice, as we came to the conclusion that most sitcoms with a heavily contrived theme tend to be limited to a very short lifespan. Many of the greats tended to essentially boil down to ‘a group of friends and the hilarious antics they get up to’ (e.g. Seinfeld, or… Friends). Turns out this was a bad choice and flawed thinking. First response we got boiled down to ‘this is great, but it doesn’t have a hook to sell it to the network, write us some more’! I suppose once you’re an established comedian, then you have the scope to just write what you want. Still, I quite like the writing in it.

BLOGMASTER 2000: Well, if you ever need someone to help brainstorm show ideas and pitch, I am just an Intercontinental Trans-Atlantic flight away. Just so you know…

Without purposely trying to stroke your ego too much, I really believe you have a bright future. You’re smart, talented, know how to make things happen, and you understand how business works. I firmly believe that that covers about 95% of the mix, the rest is luck, but luck can be created.

What’s on the docket next?

BEN KENT: We’re a couple of drafts into the script for a feature horror-comedy called Love Sick about a group of people struggling to survive when they get besieged at a speed dating event during the outbreak of a viral epidemic. It’s kind of a follow up to our last short Love Bug.

One Comment

  1. avatar Aldo Camolez
    Posted February 15, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I read this a couple of weeks ago and only now noticed I haven’t commented on it. I really liked this. It’s not that often we hear and learn from others that are doing great things out there.

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