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Up-and-comers are a dime a dozen in Hollywood; for every successful director, there are countless hopefuls waiting for their opportunity to shoot a scene, much less an entire film. But Ben Wagner has done both: his directorial debut, Southbounders, made the rounds at film festivals for more than two years, and he has since put together a number of other projects, most recently a short film entitled 6:00 in which a dirty cop fends off a phalanx of gang members in one glorious, unbroken shot.
Cinematical recently sat down with Wagner to discuss his burgeoning filmmaking career, which you can further explore on his website. In addition to talking about the practical and creative elements that prodded him to start with an intimate character study and move on to more visceral fare, Wagner explored his own approach to directing and storytelling, and offered a few glimpses what – and importantly, how – fans will see his work as it expands further into the mainstream.
Cinematical: Just to get started, can you talk about what prompted you to pick the story of Southbounders as your debut?
Ben Wagner: I moved out to LA trying to be a writer, trying to get my career going as a director, and directed a couple of small shorts. But it became clear rather rapidly that I wasn't going to be able to launch myself as a director unless I directing something. So I looked at the bookshelf of scripts that I had, and between my explosive action movies and sci-fi and all of these crazy things, there was only one script that I'd ever written that was intimate and small enough that I knew I'd be able to produce with a microbudget. It was a script I had written about my experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I decided to make a twist on the story and make it a story about a young woman, mainly because I was trying to think of the one person you would least expect to see in these situations. I took a sort of prototype of a college sorority girl, I mean, she's not really one, but sort of a spoiled city slicker, and put her in that environment. So that was the genesis of the story, and then we went out and shot it in the woods in 16 days in the summer and then an additional week in the fall. We shot it for 20 grand, and that's how the film came together.
Cinematical: Given the logistical challenges you faced, what did you feel was important to do during the shooting process to make sure that the movie looks unhurried?
Wagner: We made a concerted effort using this handheld aesthetic of improvising a lot, but not so much with the performances. The performances, we rehearsed pretty solidly, so it was almost as if we were rehearsing a play. They had an idea of the blocking, but as we were shooting, I had a list in my pocket of the locations we had to cover. My [director of photography] was so frustrated with me, but we would just walk down a trail and we would come to a clearing, and the sun would be right, and we'd say, okay, we're going to do this scene right now. And without a shot list or blocking, I think that kind of forced us to be very loose, and to allow the intimacy of the characters' relationship to drive the scenes. It creates this kind of unsettledness, but you can't cut fast; the story has to breathe, especially when you have these sort of quiet, intimate moments with these characters. You don't need a lot of cutting in that, you need to let these characters kind of be.
Cinematical: There's an early scene in the film where she experiences a sort of oblique flashback to something that happened that may have prompted her to take this journey. What was it important to include that, but not explain or clarify it any more than you do in the film?
Wagner: When I wrote the script, we shot a really graphic and extremely provocative rape sequence, and there was a lot more of that going on subtextually throughout the story. I thought that was important, to build that into the story, but when you see the rest of the film, it's not a violent, bleak, dark story, and the end result doesn't necessarily resolve that kind of drama. So even though I thought it was important that the character go through that experience to drive her journey, I didn't want to burden the story with it, so we ended up pulling back dramatically on it.
Cinematical: How careful and how planned are you during the creative process? Do you find everything is pretty thoroughly plotted in the script, or do you prefer to just have a basic blueprint and figure things out once you're on set or in the editing room?
Wagner: I think when you're telling a story, it's a great fallacy that directors are the end-all be-all. The fact of the matter is that a director is one piece in a greater system and it's a collaborative process, and as writer and director, I had a bit more say, but it was a collaboration. When the film was finished, I ended up having to conform the script to the finished product for rights clearances and stuff, and it actually ws pretty dead-on in terms of the final product. The dialogue, there were a few choice lines that were improvised, but for the most part it was there. And as a director, I think what's most important is having that focused vision in terms of "these are the steps we're going to take and this is how we're going to get there," and making sure that everyone else is on the same page. But you certainly don't want to close down creativity, and part of that was the process of what we went through, which is, I don't know – maybe it was different in the days of film, but in the days of video, there's no reason to rehearse. I mean, you rehearse if an actor needs it to feel comfortable, but your rehearsal is being out there and shooting it, because if you have video, you can do 20 takes. If you don't get it, you can go back and do it again, so you want to make sure the actors are familiar with what you want to do with the characters and who they are, but ultimately, you've got to let them fill it out.
Cinematical: What's next for you?
Wagner: I'm excited to be in a couple of months wrapping up a graphic novel version of my script, Baja, which is the story of a young couple on a romantic road trip down the Baja peninsula who are harassed by someone driving a bronco. They run out of gas, and then we discover something about these characters that will completely turn every convention about this stalker story on its ear in a way that you would not see coming. Basically the whole point is that you spend 20 minutes buying into this conventional story, and because of that you're going to learn something completely different about these characters. That's a great sort of story we're developing, and we're hoping to shoot that this summer, but I also am wrapping up a short film which I hope will be showing at a theater near you. But I have to tell you, you have to hear it in 5.1 stereo, so make sure you see it in that environment if you see it at all.
Cinematical: Is that 6:00?
Wagner: Yeah, and it's called [Six Minutes] because it's a six-minute, continuous action sequence using one camera following a dirty cop fighting off a street gang trying to get away, and then she makes the decision to come back and confront the kingpin of the gang.
Cinematical: Is it actually a continuous shot, or is it a cheat?
Wagner: No cheats. That was something the cinematographer and I had some conversations about, because he was like, "it would be so nice if we could have her pass through this wall or something so we can have a cut point," and I said no, if we do this, we're going all of the way. There was no reason to do it if we weren't going to execute it properly. So it's one take, one shot, and when the footage is out there, I defy anyone to go in there frame by frame, because you're not going to find it. It was supposed to be an action scene and it was supposed to be fun, but ultimately it has to be driven by story, and it has to have character, so I'm not going to say it's great art, but there's a little bit more going on than a technical action sequence.
Cinematical: What to you is the point of making short films? Superficially they seem like a preamble to a filmmaker creating a feature-length film, but do they serve other purposes?
Wagner: The cynic in me used to say the same thing, which is what's the point? The answer is that I had this idea in September, we shot it in November, and if I was really focused on it, it would have been done in December. The fact of the matter is that they're quick, they're easy, they're cheap, and most of all, this was fun. I wanted to do it more than anything else, and I think independent cinema is in a miserable position right now in terms of the way distribution is constricting. But the liberation in that is if you don't have to make your film for a theater, it doesn't have to be 75 minutes or longer; you can make your film the length it needs to be done. What you were saying about a short being a preamble to a feature version of it, I think that's a stupid [idea], because I think if you're making a short, you should be telling it because that story should only be told in a five to 20 minute period. I don't think you should be making something as a prelude to a bigger experience. But I do think there's a growing need for product in any length [because] it's a story that needs to be told, and I think that is the opportunity that we have in terms of digital [photography] and all of these things. But it's funny you say that, because as someone who has directed a feature, why should I go back and do a short film? The answer is, I need a lot of money to make a feature, but I didn't need any money to go and shoot a short, and it was fun.