Benjamin Bond’s directorial debut, the recently released independent film The Drifters stars Jonathan Ajayi and Lucie Bourdeu as two migrants in London who drop everything to run away together around the south coast of Devon. I talked with Benjamin to discuss the film and his experiences.
So, this was your first time directing a feature film. How did you find the experience?
It was my first time directing a feature and I’ve directed commercials in the past quite a lot. So technically I was ready to shoot the film. But I guess in terms of the process itself, I learned a great deal about what it means to make something at ninety minutes and the difference in terms of pacing and the amount of preparation and thought that needs to go into that.
The experience itself was joyful. It was great. I had been told beforehand that I wouldn’t enjoy it, that I would probably enjoy the preparation and the editing but that the shooting would be hell. I didn’t have that experience. I was blessed with a lovely crew, great actors, and so that took some of the heat off me as a first-time director because I knew at least the performances of my two leads were going to be positive and good. They proved they’re both very gifted actors and so that was helpful.
But it was a short shoot. It was four weeks and we were very lucky with the weather, which made a big difference. I knew from my days of shooting commercials that days of rain when you don’t want it can affect everything. So, with things like that you ride your luck of it. But we were lucky, and it was a good experience. I think the difficulties and the main challenges were that we didn’t have a lot of time versus a lot of locations. And also, money is always a big problem: finding it, spending it, finding more. So, time and money are always the big issues, and that probably won’t change going forward. But it was a really positive experience.
What would you say was your favourite part of shooting The Drifters?
Well, I shot the film in my hometown, in Teignmouth where I grew up, on the beach. A sunny day with great actors and the sand between your toes and the sea in the background and you’re factoring it all and you’re intimately connected with that place, it was very personal in those terms. And getting up in the morning and thinking, ‘I’m making a film. I’m genuinely making this film’ Which is no mean feat. It’s a struggle just to get to the point where you’re making it. So, I think I was very grateful for that. I was very privileged, and I was determined to enjoy it as much as possible given the other constraints in terms of time and money and stress that you have in making a film.
That’s interesting because the Teignmouth scenes are just so beautifully shot. Seeing as that’s your hometown, is that what drew you to shooting there?
The credit for that largely has to go to Ben Moulden, the director of photography, who I’ve worked with a lot in the past. He’s also based in the southwest and we had talked for a couple of years before starting shooting and said that we wanted to work with natural light and not over-light the film because it largely takes place in daylight, which was very deliberate because I wanted to make something that felt sunny and positive. Although knowing that we had no weather insurance and little time, it was a very big gamble as to whether we would have the sun or not. But we rolled the dice on that and we had around four weeks of unbroken sunshine because we shot in the brilliant summer of 2018 then spent a year or so editing. And he was able to use that natural light, to great effect. And that to me is probably my favourite part of the film.
In terms of Teignmouth, I wanted to make a film that was British and felt British but also had European echoes in it, to see if you could make the British coast feel like the Mediterranean. Because often that’s been my experience of it. On a sunny day, it’s a very gorgeous landscape to be in but often it’s represented as being a bit bleak. And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to show it as bleak because that’s not my experience. My experience is it’s amazing and beautiful.’ And given that I was going to be shooting my first film, I thought one of the ways to maximise the production value with a low budget was to shoot somewhere you know because I knew all the really amazing-looking places.
Obviously, not all of Teignmouth looks like that, it’s a working port town. But I knew from forty years of going backwards and forth and shooting it a lot with my camera where the best landscapes and places to shoot were that could give it that magical feel.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you came up with the idea for the film ten years ago. How would you say the idea has changed between then and when you started shooting?
Good question. I think that the idea didn’t change as much as the world did. When I started thinking about it, stories of migration and freedom of movement were not as prominent in the press as they are now. It was happening, it just wasn’t as widely reported on. I think what’s happened since is that everything has become a lot more accelerated and escalated, and the issues have become a lot more polarised. We’re much more divided now than we were when I first started writing the film.
The film deals with archetypes. The two main characters are archetypes. An archetypical French woman and an archetypical African migrant, except of course there’s no such thing as an archetypical French woman or an archetypical African migrant. Whilst we set up those two kinds of almost cliches right at the beginning, the idea of the film is to then strip away and reveal different aspects of their identities to make them feel more three-dimensional. And that’s why they try on lots of different clothes because it reveals different parts of themselves and different identities. And I think that now that is a much more contentious choice than it would have been ten years ago. But I’ll stand by it because I think that they’re not simply regular characters. They’re constructed, and the film is very self-aware about that. And so is the audience hopefully.
Although it does seem to have gone over the head of a couple of critics, but that’s okay, I’ll defend their right to be offended by the film till I die. I’m not sure they would defend my right to make the film. So, we kind of find ourselves in a different culture now which is very polarised with Brexit and cancel culture and actually that’s really fed into the dialogue and rhythms of the film, so that’s what’s changed. I didn’t really change the ideas or writing around that and I’m quite pleased with the way that it’s centred on the zeitgeist currently, for better or for worse depending on your point of view.
Fanny and Koffee have this very Bonnie and Clyde type of relationship in the film. What would you like for audiences to take away from that relationship?
That identity is fluid and complicated and that we are all human beings (not to sound trite). But they are very different characters with very different backgrounds and a very different set of problems. And without any spoilers, the film is really about whether those are surmountable and if not, why not? It’s also about a fling, young love, and a bit of a f*** you to society and notions of people labelling you. So, you just kind of do what you want for a bit but that can’t last, and it doesn’t last. And I suppose it’s a bittersweet film, and when you leave the film that’s the question that I want to raise. Why do these two human beings have different sets of criteria which they have to surmount in order to be together or even just to get on in life?
I think one of the things that people may or may not find in the film is that there’s a lot of talking to the camera, there are moments where the film almost speaks directly to the audience, and part of me has always thought that the film is Fanny’s recollection of what happened. It’s her fantasy idea of this memory of a weekend with this guy she once knew. And that explains some of the ideas and some of the edits in the film. So, it might be interesting for people to watch it with that idea in mind. Although, I’m not trying to be proscriptive really, because it makes perfect sense if it’s all happening currently as well. That’s something we did deliberately.
You mentioned trying to give it a European feel. I noticed there were a lot of references to Godard, Tarantino, and literature. What were you trying to accomplish with those?
Well, there are a lot of references to a lot of different things in it. It’s intertextual because I wanted to see if you could make a film in a similar way to how they’ve been made in the sixties Nouvelle Vague. Of course, a lot of those tropes and narratives are tired now and have been done and absorbed into narrative cinema. Film language has changed and been repeated, so whilst there are Nouvelle Vague elements in there, there are lots of other intertextual references as well, many that are kind of literary as opposed to filmic.
It was influenced largely by, as you rightly say, Godard, Bertolucci, Antonioni, and especially films like Red Desert, Pierrot le Fou, Breathless, and early Godard works. But also, a lot of the colour choices that we made were influenced by Powell and Pressburger films such as A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. There are loads of different influences within the images. We reference Sunset Boulevard, there’s a Tarantino moment in there, there’s a Lolita-Stanley Kubrick moment in there. And on the literary side, the film begins with a quote from the poet Rumi, then it goes into poetry from Rimbaud which is repeated throughout the movie, and there’s Treasure Island. There is a tonne of easter eggs and different influences in the film depending on what angle you come at it from.
I think people have obviously picked up on the Nouvelle Vague element largely because of Fanny’s character because she’s French. One critic said, ‘She was too French’, which I found hilarious because Fanny is a French person and Lucie who plays her is a French actress, how could she be too French? She is French. Again, there’s that idea of playing with text and archetypes and then deconstructing them and trying to do and say something different in the film. I think that’s quite divisive and some people will think that it’s just a pastiche or a homage. And I think other people have found it to be quite a fresh take on ideas, tropes, and visuals that are not seen as often now as they have been previously. So that’s a long answer to the question, but I think yes, Nouvelle Vague has influenced it, but it is by no means the only influence.
Which filmmakers would you say have had the biggest influence on you as a director?
I have a very eclectic approach. I’m a bit like a magpie. I love all sorts of filmmakers from the Coen brothers and Martin Scorsese through to Tarantino through to a lot of filmmakers from years gone by. Everybody from Truffaut through to Antonioni, but Powell and Pressburger are my favourite filmmakers. I feel that their work in the early forties and fifties was so interesting because Michael Powell is British and Emeric Pressburger is Hungarian and they have that combination of European and British sensibilities that makes for something quite magical but also something quite strange and difficult to pin down.
I’m just trying to find my own path and this my first attempt at that. My second film, which is going to shoot later this year I hope (COVID depending), is very different, it’s a period piece and will have a very different style. I love the idea of trying different styles on for size and trying to reinvent them or push them beyond a certain boundary, which is risky, it won’t always be successful.
You’re also a co-founder of Starcross Entertainment. What would you say were your aims in co-founding that production company?
To own and exploit our own intellectual property. I think that having a production company that creates ideas and is able to produce them and write them is very valuable in today’s landscape where you see a lot of the middlemen being cut out because they can’t do those things, all they can do is broker a deal. Whilst that is a very valuable skill and will still be needed, I think there’s now a direct line between filmmakers and platforms and broadcasters. If you want to be more in control of your material it represents a great opportunity to own the means of production. I think that’s really useful for filmmakers and is something they haven’t been able to do in the past as successfully as they can now.
In terms of a kind of vision, we want to make international stories that are English language-based. We’re very interested in stories set in the middle east and beyond the UK that can maybe reflect on our current situation. We have a very broad slate. We’re making quite a lot of television because one of the great excitements is that TV has become so cinematic, so we have some really great projects. But it’s really about ownership and control. And I think that’s important.
I ran, with one of my partners at Starcross, an advertising company for about ten years, so we have some experience of running companies. I think what’s interesting about now is that companies can be much smaller, much nimbler. Dematerialised I think is the word, which essentially means that you don’t have a central hub, an office, and that’s a very attractive way of working, for us. Not for everybody but it works for us. So, I’m excited about all of those elements. It’s a very young company. We’ve only had it for a couple of years, so it will be interesting to see how it fares. But it’s great for me because I can put my own productions through it.
THE DRIFTERS is released in virtual cinemas from 2 April and on demand 5 April 2021 www.thedriftersmovie.com
Apple TV https://apple.co/39fXeBg