Like most good stories, the one behind the long journey to bring Creative Control to the big screen starts with a breakup. But for writer/director/star Benjamin Dickinson, inspiration arrived not so much in the separation as the solace he sought in digital devices.
“I found myself lying in bed, switching back and forth between different apps, just trying to be somewhere else,” Dickinson explains. “I was flirting with a bunch of other girls through text messages to make myself less lonely, but that was really sad. It was tapping into some part of my brain that feels a connection while just amplifying the obsession.”
The Brooklyn-based filmmaker, who built a brand directing music videos for the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Q-Tip and the Rapture, began laying the groundwork for his first feature in May 2012. His real-life smartphone dependency gave rise to a tale of technologically fueled addiction and obsession—though the smartphone ultimately proved stifling as a storytelling device.
The answer arrived in the form of an emerging technology: augmented reality (AR), a sort of halfway point on the road to virtual reality that overlays images, sounds and data on top of the real world. The technology, exemplified by platforms like Google Glass and the Microsoft Hololens, seamlessly mixes the actual with the virtual, providing the perfect platform with which to construct the fuzzy realities that underlie the film’s twisted plot.
“It was a way to cinematically dramatize the conversation and the frustration I was already having with my smartphone,” says Dickinson. “I realized that making a film about smartphones would not be very visually interesting, but making a film about a face computer that’s integrated with your reality was very cinematic.”
In the film, Dickinson plays David, a hotshot ad executive tasked with building a campaign around Augmenta, an AR platform built into a fairly standard looking pair of spectacles. “Augmenta is not Main Street,” David proclaims in a cringingly realistic pitch to the company’s developers, “it’s Bedford Avenue.” The reference to the main drag of Brooklyn’s archetypical hipster neighborhood underlies the perennial desire for technology companies to embrace creative forces.
So naturally, both Dickinson and his onscreen counterpart did what Brooklyn tech companies do when they need a little creative guidance: They called Reggie Watts.
“I knew there needed to be some kind of tech guru,” explains Dickinson. “Once I realized Reggie needed to be in it, things started to make sense.” During the writing process, the enigmatic comedian was brought on to play the role he was born to play: Reggie Watts. (If you’re not familiar, just take a minute to view his TED Talk, which has him inventing languages, speaking in various accents and rapping all in the first few minutes.) In the film, the musician/comedian is tasked with designing creative applications for the new technology, a role he ultimately also played in helping design an AR interface for the big screen.
“Oftentimes interfaces are created by engineers,” says Watts. “Engineers are super smart, awesome people, but you really need to field-test things, and you need to not over-engineer something so you can’t go back and change and adapt to what you’ve learned. What makes technology successful is for creative people to feel like they want to use it.”
Watts was provided a rough outline, but because “he either cannot or refused to memorize lines,” Dickinson says with a laugh, the musician was ultimately allowed to play around, helping to develop some of the film’s tone during shooting. “Reggie’s approach to life is play,” explains Dickinson. “He’s very playful. I tend to be very cerebral about stuff. It’s great to be around someone who encourages me to play and discover, as opposed to analyzing and categorizing and enshrining.”
“When we would film the scenes, he would just give me a description, we’d roll, and I’d go for it,” Watts adds. “He’d make some adjustments here and there, but mostly we’d just go for it. That’s the fun, trusting that process.”
For his part, Watts serves both as a creative force and comic relief from what is, at its core, a near-future cautionary tale about our technological obsessions. But ultimately, the film is more focused on the control than the creative—about the dark places technology can take us if we allow it.
“I wanted to specifically make a film about being on the threshold of a new technology,” says Dickinson. “That was deliberate. I wasn’t interested in seeing a world where everyone was wearing augmented reality. We’re at a point where we need to start making some really important decisions. Because we are on a threshold.”
Watts, meanwhile, is cautiously optimistic about the power of technology. “I think human beings want to connect in meaningful ways,” he explains. “I think we’re becoming oversaturated with things that don’t mean anything. Or responding to things because of a weird culturally built-in crisis response to every notification. Now here’s a technology that seeks to digitally instill the prioritization of connecting with people in a real way. It doesn’t replace it. It should just be an enhancement.”
Creative Control is out now in limited release.