Resident Video 8: We Were Monsters and Detectives

Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to short films from emerging artists. This month, we bring you Al Benoit’s We Were Monsters and Detectives.

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We Were Monsters and Detectives, this month’s Resident Video, is a film that owes less to the constructions of contemporary drama and more to the kind of imagery that’s most prominent in visual art and poetry. Writer and director Al Benoit crafts the story without heavy dialogue or exposition, often choosing to forgo the confines of the traditional scene for the openness of a free-flowing sequence of images instead. The sense of abstraction forces the viewer to create their own feelings and reactions to each frame, rather than relying on a clear-cut trail to follow.

The film tells the story of two teenage girls, Melanie and Sophia, as they navigate through a seemingly forgotten and empty town one summer. There’s a growing rift between the two best friends as adolescence continues and their individual paths begin to diverge from one another. There’s no big plot afoot here, rather the film works with the kind of small moments that you remember years after they’ve happened, maybe unsure of their context or meaning, but still vividly able to remember how it all felt at the time.

We Were Monsters and Detectives has screened at several festivals, from the Praire State Film Festival here in Chicago to the Kanyakumari International Film Festival in India.

In the interview below, we talk to director Al Benoit about the film.

We Were Monsters and Detectives is full of the motifs you seem to play with a lot in your work — nature, nostalgia, a focus on female characters — even as a younger filmmaker you have a very strong sense of your own style and form. Both as a filmmaker and on a personal level, what draws you to these subjects, and what makes you keep coming back to them?

My first class I took in film school (Columbia College Chicago) I had a teacher named Jennifer Peepas that I got very close with over the weeks in her class. One day after class we were talking and she mentioned the fact that most student filmmakers she has had through the years always have male protagonists in their film. So, she challenged me to make a film with a female protagonist. After writing the script and making the film I found that I really took to writing female roles. I enjoyed it more than anything I had done before. I felt closer to the work, to the characters, to the overall story. After that I began to pursue it, going more in depth. Now I’ve been trying to perfect it, which won’t happen since I am never fully happy with anything I make. Like most artists.

I’m chasing something, plain and simple. An answer I don’t have. The answer to why I don’t ever feel at home anymore, no matter where I live or travel to. The answer to why I feel as though I miss something, but cannot for the life of me pinpoint what exactly I’m missing. I also think it has something to do with loving someone who will never love you in return. So, you project that love on things that remind you of them. It could be anything, in this case, for me, it’s nature and nostalgia. That sounds strange saying it, but I believe it to be true.

Bottomline, the only thing I ever really look at in movies is the actors. Obviously there are great movies with great production design and that kind of stuff, but… it probably comes from my first movie, where I realized early on that I didn’t have any money and I was telling a small story, but what I did have was great, up and coming actors, which ended up being the most important thing you could have. I remember talking with one of my producers on ‘Girl’s Blood’ about needing money to do special effects, and he said, “We’ve got the best special effects there is, we’ve got good actors!” And he was right. A nice two- shot with two actors performing great dialogue, that’s a staple of the movies of the ’30s that I love the most.

I love ’30s films, and I’m always trying to emulate that. Sometimes you can’t – sometimes you try to get things in one shot and you realize you’re forcing the staging, and you have to own up to the fact that it’s not working. You always have to keep an eye on it to make sure that your visual ideas aren’t affectations, and that you’re not just adhering to some kind of dogma. But when you can make that kind of thing work naturally, it’s just the best.

One quality of Monsters that struck me is the sense of isolation. We see these young kids, but there are no parents around. We might hear about the guy who works at the gas station, but we don’t see cars, roads, buildings in use — society at large is absent. What places, or rather man-made places we do see, are old, run down, empty, all in some way desolate. But Melanie and Sophia often move about them with a sense of play and wonder, like it’s all a large, unsupervised playground. Why build this kind of world, and why give it such a focus that it’s almost a character in the story?

Melanie (the protagonist) was very close to her father, but very estranged from her mother, so I wanted to incorporate that into the film. The fact that either her mother is never around, or Melanie never likes to be home, because then she would have to interact with her mother, which pains her. Which reminds her of her father and the fact that he is gone. I also wanted to play into the fact that when you’re young, you sort of distance yourself from your parents. You want to do your own thing. Explore the world, try and find

answers, decide where you want to be in this world. Often times young people don’t even think about their parents while out with friends, it never crosses their mind. So, I wanted to take all of that and incorporate it into the visuals, by the fact that we never see any parents.

The desperation for companionship is a function of geography: The girls are growing up in an economically depressed community, a place that feels post-apocalyptic, designed to foster loneliness and desperation.

It’s the sort of place where little boys casually abuse chained dogs out of boredom, and kids mete out street justice because their parents are alcoholic, neglectful or simply absent. If there’s anything worse than enduring a place like this, it must be enduring it alone. Which is why the relationship of Sophie is so important to Melanie. I hope that makes sense.

The film plays against a lot of narrative film conventions, often disjointing the images we see from the words we hear. It feels very freeform and very comfortable lingering in the tiny moments just as much as the big ones. Was this sense of loose pace and structuring inherent from the film’s original conception and script? Or did it take off more on the shoot and/or in the editing process?

It changed less in editing than you would think, because there was a good amount of rewriting going on while we were shooting – and we were editing more as we were shooting than we ever have before, because the piece was so highly complicated. Cady Perez, the editor, was there the whole time assembling scenes so that what was working and what wasn’t working really came into focus. We made key choices about the shape of the movie while we were in production, so that by the time we got to post the major building blocks were really in place and it was just about figuring out how much voice-over is too much, getting the music in there, picking takes, asking when is a good time to get ahead of the audience, when’s a good time to let them catch up — the regular old-fashioned choices you make in the editing room. On this one too, there were times where we were very emotional while watching cuts and then we’d show it to friends and there’d be crickets, so you have to take that stuff out. But the way we did it, reshaping the movie as we went with Cady so heavily involved during shooting…I didn’t really stop to think about it until now. It’s really strange.

A few years out of college and having since moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, your output as a filmmaker has seemed to only increase. Not just with narrative film work, but also with fashion and wedding films too. How do these different forms affect you as a filmmaker, and how do they shape where you go next creatively and in your career?

I like to think I make films and videos for all the people that have voices, but no medium to tell their story. For a long time I lived like a bum, hardly making any money (losing money usually), because I was spending every last dollar on getting my scripts made.

But, the paradox is, with each passing film, I find myself inching out of the shadows, finding my voice, clawing towards my goal that I set for myself with storytelling and filmmaking; to make pictures that creep up on audiences. To make something so potent and so haunting that they prove hard to ignore. To call out the world.

I was raised in the heartland, surrounded by corn and abandon locations in Illinois. I always felt like my hometown was some depressing playground with the open fields, the rundown buildings, and foreclosed homes, so that sort of came through in some of work. Ever since leaving the town I grew up in I have basically felt as though I’ve been rattling loose. I was living in Chicago, but loved to shoot out west or in secluded locations. I was always writing and finding ways to raise a respectable budget for my scripts, where I would lead a film crew across the state of California, or through the woods, while supplementing

my income by working various freelance jobs. Usually PA’ing on big studio films, or shooting promos for companies.

My biggest fear is to become like so many people from generation; grounded, groomed, so perfectly content. They never dream of giving up everything for their art or something they believe in. They’re not mad or passionate the way artists from the past used to be. They like authority. They have plenty of money. They seem so unafraid and so un-angry. It makes them very nice people. It doesn’t make for great art though, in my opinion. I ask them all the time: ‘Aren’t you mad at anything?’ They look at me like I’m off my rocker.”

That’s why some people have said I’ve taken a sort of outsider approach to “making it.” But, I have never understood what that really means, “making it.” Have I been successful, I don’t know?” I think the films I have had the pleasure to make have been both imperfect and successful in showing the parts of life that we don’t often see on screen. To me, it’s a case of: is the scene successful? Is the shot successful?”

Every time I finish a film I worry that it might be my last time. But, that is what motivates me to work so hard. That is why I love filmmaking and storytelling. I don’t own much, but any day that I get to work in some sort of field of filmmaking is a good day. The funny thing is, if you’re from the town I grew up in and you get out of that town and build a life full of interesting people, then you’re successful already. The rest has just been a bonus for me.

To learn more about Al Benoit and see more of his films, take a look around his website.

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