Interview: Simon Amstell talks Benjamin
James R | On 15, Mar 2019
This weekend sees the release of Benjamin, a new bittersweet comedy from Simon Amstell. His second feature film, after the mockumentary Carnage on BBC iPlayer, it tells the story of Benjamin (Colin Morgan) a rising star filmmaker, who is thrown into emotional turmoil on the brink of premiering his second film. Then, Billie, his hard partying publicist, introduces him to a mesmeric French musician called Noah (Phenix Brossard). Set among the back streets of East and North London, the film boasts original music co-written by Amstell and James Righton of the Klaxons and great performances from its cast, including Joel Fry and Anna Chancellor. (Read our review of the film here.)
With the film available in cinemas and on VOD, we caught up with Simon to chat making his difficult second movie, looking back at his 20s and Hanson:
Let’s start with the most important question. Hanson’s 1998 single, Weird, is in your film. Was it always a goal to include a Hanson song in a project?
Huh, that’s a good question. I’m not sure I’d say a life-long desire… but it seemed like the right song for that moment. In that Benjamin is… weird! [Laughs] And I suppose there’s a moment of acceptance there, while he’s dancing around in the rain on magic mushrooms.
Benjamin feels like a more conventional first film than Carnage, your debut. Did you start working on this first?
I started Benjamin about 5 years ago, so before Carnage, but it took a long time to get the script good! And also find the money to make it. And in the meantime, Carnage came about with the BBC. And so we made that instead.
Did BBC iPlayer just give you money and ask you to make a thing?
Just about. There’s a producer at the BBC called Janet Lee, who asked for something that could make some kind of impact, and she asked me if I had any ideas, and I thought about a bit of stand-up I had written years ago, performed years ago in a show called Numb, which I think is now on Netflix. And I placed myself in the future, looking back at a time when people… hang on, let me just remember the bit of stand-up. But yeah, I placed myself in the future looking back at a time when people got upset when their pets died, but when other animals died, they ate them, and I thought maybe there was a film in that. And it turned out there was! A whole bloody film!
How different was your approach to Benjamin, not least because when that started you didn’t have that guaranteed iPlayer release?
Very different. Also, in that I knew the premise of Carnage from the beginning. I knew the point was to teach – no, not to teach – the premise of that film was to… show how absurd and horrifying it is that we eat other animals and consume their personal liquids. But when I started writing Benjamin, I didn’t really know what I was writing, I just knew I was interested in figuring out what was wrong with me in my 20s, in relation to the people I’d been with, or been dumped by, and it turned out to be a film about somebody who is desperately seeking love from an audience, because he’s terrified of becoming vulnerable enough to experience intimacy.
How long did it take to find a narrative from that jumble of feelings and experiences?
I think only five years! [Laughs] It just flew by. Flew by.
You’ll be asked a lot about how similar you were to Benjamin, but how similar is he to you now?
How similar is Benjamin is to me now…? That’s a sort of twist on the question! What I keep saying is Benjamin is me before I got well. He is really lonely, anxious, depressed for most of the film. It’s only when he meets Noah… no, that’s not actually the case, he’s just mostly anxious and depressed, and in a very funny way. And now, I’m not really any of those things, certainly not to the extent that he is. And I’m really into intimacy. I can’t get enough of it! [Laughs] And all he has is this idea of himself, a BAFTA award-winning filmmaker, whose life will be destroyed if his next film doesn’t do well. And I feel a bit more grounded as a human being, who has now nurtured other things in his life, other than a career… I also don’t have a BAFTA! [Laughs]
“That tends to be why I write anything… I want to figure out why I’m not completely free of this absurd personality”
So will you make a film in another 5 years looking back at your 30s?
Yeah, I think so! I think what I’ll end up doing is constantly trying to figure out what’s going on in my life – that tends to be why I write anything, because I feel confused or alone, or I want to figure out why I’m not completely free of this absurd personality I’ve ended up with! [Laughs] So yeah, I think it’s that. I’ll keep doing that.
There’s a great scene where Benjamin has to introduce the premiere of his film. How did that go for you when you introduced this at the London Film Festival?
What was quite handy having fictionalised the whole process is it taught me how not to be in that moment. So I was really quite nervous, then I thought about how much of a mess Benjamin was and how terrible his night was, in part because he’d made a terrible film, but I just thought ‘Why don’t you enjoy this, instead of being Benjamin?’ There’s no point in fictionalising an aspect of your character, if you’re not going to let it go afterwards.
How hard was it to make Benjamin’s intentionally bad film?
Oh, that was quite easy! [Laughs] I think once I realised that a bad choice is one that hasn’t come from your own, instinctively from your own soul, then all we had to do was make Benjamin copy other filmmakers and decide that it should be shot in an aspect ratio that Xavier Dolan shot a film in and use endlessly peculiar camera angles in order that people think Benjamin is cool. That was going to turn into something if not very bad, then awkward to watch. Then what was good about all of Benjamin’s bad choices, then we could just do the opposite of what he’d done, so it made our job easier. We could make a film that was more effortless and uncontrived, so nothing gets in the way of the characters on screen. Because really, it’s a film about intimacy, so I didn’t want to spoil that intimacy with clever camera angles.
Did you plan to star in it? And at what point did you decide to trust Colin with such a personal role?
When I first started writing it, I assumed that I would at least give myself an audition to play Benjamin, but when it came to it, I had already made a couple of shorts and directed Carnage, and hadn’t been in any of them, and enjoyed directing so much that it was so fulfilling just to be there with the actors as their director rather than co-star. I thought ‘I don’t really need to act in this’, and then when I met Colin Morgan, it was such a relief to find someone who was so naturally funny and made me care for the character, and I thought nobody could do better than this guy. It was enough for me to direct. It was enough for my ego – it’s written and directed by me! I don’t need to also put my face in every moment of the film!
Benjamin describes himself as a ‘film guy’. Is that how you consider yourself now?
I think I would go with… Well, everything I do comes from stand-up comedy, so that has to be the first thing. So yeah, and then ‘Really cool filmmaker guy’. [Laughs]
And you can add songwriter too, because you co-wrote the songs for Noah’s band
Yes! I wrote the lyrics for those with James Righton, who wrote the melodies. And I suppose, having written a song for Carnage – there’s a song where a cow sings about having her milk stolen and her baby stolen, so humans can take her milk – I suppose I had a kind of confidence after writing that song that maybe I could write some songs for Noah’s band as well. But James Righton is really great and creates a really safe space, so you can suggest stuff that might not make sense initially.
I’d also been on a really intense acting course a week before we started writing the songs, where the acting teacher did everything she could to ‘get to the wound’ of each student, and just make them cry, really, for 2 days. So I felt like I’d uncovered a lot, I felt like I’d uncovered my ‘wound’. [Laughs] So that made me quite prepared to write some songs! Sorry, I don’t know if any of that made sense… But it’s there for you, if you want it.
Did you always want to make films? I recall reading you once wanted to be a magician?
Yeah, I’ve been through quite a lot of different careers! As a child, there was magic. I would’ve been a unicyclist, but my mum wouldn’t buy me a unicycle. She thought it was a bit extreme. And I was very upset with Eddie Izzard, who, when he was a street entertainer, had a unicycle, and I thought ‘If I can’t have a unicycle, I won’t make it in show business’. I could’ve been such a brilliant unicyclist… Anyway, what were we saying? [Laughs]
Did you always want to direct films?
Oh yeah, sorry. I used to go to a Saturday morning stage school, and one of the things I did when I realised I wasn’t that great at singing or dancing was I started writing short plays and sketches for the biannual variety show. And also ended up casting myself as the lead in most of them. And so, as a way of getting parts, and as a way of being funny, I suppose… I wasn’t really interested in doing dramatic monologues as a kid, they didn’t connect with me in any way. And no one ever suggested anything funny for us to do, so I just started writing funny stuff. And then, when I was about 13, my little sister was born, and a camcorder was bought to document her growing… life – is that how you say that? And I basically stole the camera and started to make puppet shows with my brother. So maybe that was the beginning of my directing career! But whatever I’ve done, I’ve always wanted to be in control – and directing is a good way to be in control of everything.
I’m writing something, but it doesn’t really make any sense yet, so I probably shouldn’t talk much about it, because i don’t what I’d say. There’s also something I can’t announce! [Laughs]
Which are you more excited about…?
… out of the thing I can’t announce and the thing I can’t explain? [Laughs] I think the thing I’m writing! Actually, they’re both quite exciting, so both.
Benjamin’s out in cinemas and on VOD on the same day. What’s you view on cinema and streaming?
That’s a good question. Nobody’s asked me that, let me think what’s the answer… I think, for somebody like me who’s spent a long time making whatever the thing is I’m making, a theatrical release makes it feel special and like something worth leaving the house for. But I’m happy also for it to be made available to people who can’t leave the house – or have no intention of leaving their house! I’m really just happy I made something and people will get to see it… But yeah, when somebody else asks that, I’ll have a better answer for them. That’s ok, right?
Finally, what was the last thing you streamed? What’s on your watchlist?
Oh, erm… I think, hang on, it’ll come to me… I watched Big Little Lies, but that was a long time ago… erm, Westworld! I watched Westworld. The HBO drama. That was pretty exciting. Was there a film I watched recently on one of those things? Oh God, I don’t know. Hang on, let me think. I did watch a whole film the other day on Netflix or something. What was it? I think that’s the problem, maybe – it’s not quite leaving the house and going somewhere. I feel like if I left the house, I’d remember what I saw! [Laughs] Maybe Big Little Lies and Westworld? And I feel like I saw a film maybe, but I can’t remember what it was. I’m sorry. Good luck with editing this.