In the "five minutes in the future" version of Brooklyn featured in Creative Control (2016), the commercial creative class is finding the wonders of technological advance are only increasing their anxieties, making them more isolated and insecure. Writer/director Benjamin Dickinson stars as David, a stressed, pill-happy advertising executive developing new "Augmented Reality" glasses called Augmenta. As his relationship with yoga teacher Juliette (Nora Zehetner) falters, he envies the party-centric life of his fashion photographer friend, Wim (Dan Gill), and lusts after Wim's girlfriend, Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen). David finds himself tempted to use the Augmenta glasses to conduct a half-imagined affair with Sophie's avatar.

ScreenPrism spoke to writer/director/star Dickinson about the film's Italian neo-realist influences, his take on the Brooklyn brand and how much faith we should put in tech.

A scene from Creative Control (2016), a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

ScreenPrism: You say the film is set "five minutes in the future," so the black-and-white look and classical music may seem counter-intuitive to viewers. What inspired those aesthetic choices?

Benjamin Dickinson: To me, the classical music is timeless. It's difficult to imagine what music will be like in the future, but we'll still be listening to classical music. The black-and-white has a lot of different functions. [Only] the technology appears in color — it's a way to show how attractive the technology can be in our lives. When something's in black-and-white, it already feels a little surreal or detached from reality. I had a great production designer, and obviously we made all those translucent screens and phones and everything. But the black-and-white does a lot of lifting because you have to pay a little bit more attention, and it does feel like a step away from the here and now. It could be in the past, but it could also move into the future in that way. The main reasons are aesthetic, but there's also some practical reasons for doing it that way.

SP: You've mentioned Antonioni as a big influence, as well as Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1961) and Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). Do you link Antonioni and the others to this creative-commercial Brooklyn culture?

BJ: [It's] that post-war Italian ennui thing, where people were kind of lost, not knowing what life's about and distracting themselves. It's the theme of Manhattan, too. I think Woody Allen actually sums up the theme in the film, of people confronted with the complexity of life distracting themselves with love affairs and personal drama as a way to cope. Then on top of that having a layer of technology that isn't connecting us as much as disconnecting us in spite of its promise — just like the promise of religion or communism or capitalism or fascism, whatever, failed to deliver the goods — all of these systems that we try to put in place to fundamentally change the problem of being human. But of course the problem of being human I don't think can be changed. It's something that we have to interact with. I don't think there's a solution. There are plenty of distractions. There are more distractions now than ever before.

That Antonioni world, it's post-war, but it's also post-industrial, so people have a lot of free time and a lot of time to think about what they want, and what they have and don't have, and what would make a happy life — and could life be different than it is? When you're a subsistence farmer, you have less time to think about those questions. So I see us as being a couple of generations removed from that, but it's kind of the same trajectory as what was going on in Italy in the early 60s.

Then of course in La Dolce Vita you have the emergence of celebrity culture and the advent of paparazzi. So I see a continuum there. Now it's curating your own celebrity image on the Internet. And it gives more people access to the kind of pleasures that would have been reserved for the elite in previous generations. I also saw a parallel with the kind of hedonism that you see in tech culture and in so-called "hipster" culture. (I feel like that word is finally being discontinued. It's become pretty meaningless.)

Director Benjamin Dickinson on the set of Creative Control (2016), a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

SP: Is the Brooklyn brand a heightened example of these cultural trends?

BJ: It's complicated because the branding of Brooklyn for the most part represents good things to me: the emphasis on craft, locally sourced materials, whether it's organic food grown close by... It's easy to mock, but the idea of re-using old materials to make new stuff and just having crafted care in what you're doing. And also an emphasis on experience versus social status. To me, those things are in the bedrock of the so-called Brooklyn brand, and I think those things are mostly positive. But of course what follows always is the commodification of a genuine movement. And Brooklyn is such a great place to live that it's becoming impossible to live there. Because they're building all these high-rises. It's funny for me to criticize it cause I'm, like, a first-wave gentrifier, and then it's like, "Well, I can't live here anymore!" It's a funny cycle. It would be great for everybody to have access to such high-quality food and tasteful furnishings —  that would be nice. [Laughs] That's not how capitalism is designed.

There were scenes that did not either make the final shooting script or actually were shot and cut out that were more targeted satires, more like L.A. Story (1991)-type satires of Brooklyn. There was a scene where David and Wim go to this special food truck where the women that work there serve the food topless. There were more of those jokes, but they kind of fell by the wayside because that's not really what the movie's about in the end. 

A scene from Creative Control (2016), a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

SP: You've talked about the film as an "existential satire" that points out absurdities in the world it dramatizes. But you're satirizing a community that you largely find positive. How do you go about making fun while still showing what's good?

BJ: I think it's a natural extension of just my point of view. The characters in the movie are maybe ridiculous, but they're still humans, or they're representing humans. I consider myself a humanist above all. If you love somebody, it's fair to criticize them. I actually don't see an inherent conflict there.

I don't believe in any simple morality —  when people start talking about things in black-and-white (no pun intended) moral terms, I get suspicious. You can always look at stuff from a different perspective, and that's something you can particularly do in cinema. You don't have to just have a hero who's 99% good and who has just one little flaw that's going to be worked out by the end of the movie. That's a nice fantasy, and it's nice to go see movies like that because it makes everything seem really simple. But what we're negotiating with on a day-to-day basis in our lives is something more complicated, and I guess we have to think of ourselves as being good people, but are we, really? Is that okay to admit that we're flawed and not always perfect and that we oftentimes without knowledge are participating in all kinds of heinous acts around the world?

That argument that David and Juliette have over dinner where she's bringing up [whether his Augmenta glasses are made with immoral labor practices], she's not doing it in the most tactful way, but I think her concern is valid. I think David's point that she's probably not going to do anything about it is maybe valid, too, but it's a genuine concern. Her concern is pure in that scene.

Nora Zehetner and Benjamin Dickinson in Creative Control (2016), a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

It's complex, man. I didn't make that movie to make people feel like it was simple, more to start a discussion about what kind of society we're forming. And I think that at this point technology and advertizing and capitalism is all coming into confluence in way it never has before. It does have an impact on our human relationship, and I just think we need to look at it. Just look at it.

SP: At the beginning, Juliette says to her yoga class, "Any given moment there are a million things vying for our attention, so where do we let our attention fall?" Does the movie offer ideas about how to direct our attention amidst so many distractions, or is there no answer for this question?

BJ: I don't think there's a solution, but there's a way. I'm glad that you picked up that line. One of my other favorite lines in the movie is when Juliette brings Govindus home, and she starts mauling him, and he says, "Hey. Hey, there's two people here." As simple as that is, I think that's the way. We have to learn how to communicate with each other.

By the way, communicating with each other wasn't easy before technology — that's been an issue for humans for a very long time. We have to keep trying. Just because it's easier to look at pornography than it is to connect with someone else, I don't think it's better. Because we're mammals. We're still flesh and blood. We need human contact; we need physical contact; we need eye contact. We need to energetically connect with each other. We need to feel each other's vibration. As long as we're in these flesh bags, we're going to need that stuff. I think that needs to be re-upped, and we need to preserve it and protect it. And let technology do what it's good at, which is many, many things, but not let it replace — it can't replace, but not get lulled into thinking it can replace the fundamental day-to-day necessity of community and intimacy.