Originally published in ACE Magazine.
Ben Rivers is one of Britain’s leading filmmakers, broaching the ground between narrative and documentary film. He has been making short films since 2003 but he has recently risen in popularity at the release of his first feature length film, Two Years At Sea in 2011. Rivers is famed, not just for creating haunting visuals but also for using a classical method of editing and often recording his films onto 16mm with a trusty Bolex camera. These films, whether 5 minute shorts or 90 minute expanses show a keen eye for composition, a subtle rebellion against the modern methods of filmmaking and an idiosyncratic, highly personal exploration of life through the lens of magic realism in the most Marquez/Murakami of ways. I caught up with the filmmaker before and after a screening of Two Years At Sea at FACT.
So if you could just introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your practice?
Well my name’s Ben Rivers and I’m an artist generally making films which I’ve been doing for quite a long time now with some fits and starts. I used to be involved with a bunch of friends in running a cinema in Brighton and I feel like I started making films seriously around 2003. My filmmaking is hard for me to pin it down to a what and why. I’m interested in cinema in all of its guises. Some of my influences are quite surprising to some people like trash movies, narrative films as well as experimental cinema, so yeah I kind of like to mix things up.
There’s video art, art house cinema, experimental cinema and a lot of other pigeonholing of creative films that seems to be more about the geography of where they’re screened more than anything else. Comparing say House (2005) to Two Years At Sea, there seems very little difference in cinematic aspects; more their length and where they’re screened.
I guess most of the time I’m not really thinking about where I’m going to show it. That tends to come later apart from a few films actually like House that I thought of as an installation. Most of the time I’m making the films and only thinking about that, about what this thing is going to be and then when it’s finished I start thinking about how it’s going to be shown, in a gallery, in a cinema. How those different ways of showing things, even without changing the work, can change the way an audience comes to a film. I find it really fascinating that the same person could watch the same film in really different places and feel something really different because you go to those places with different expectations and understandings of how you’re going to watch and interpret something, so yeah it’s why I like to move between the gallery world and the world of cinema but the space I find the most exciting in the end is the cinema. I like that captive audience where you have a beginning and an end and you’re in a dark room sitting next to strangers, so it’s a collective but at the same time really individual immersion.
Do you think, with Two Years At Sea being your first feature length film, there’ll be less of the experimentation with say gallery spaces and more focussing on that traditional hour and half cinema where people go in, pay, have the beginning and the end and leave or will you keep experimenting with installations and shorts?
Oh no, I have every intention of making shorter work. I’ve made three short films since Two Years At Sea, so it’s clear to me that it’s still an important space. Length for me is determined by form and content and what I’m trying to do with that particular film. I don’t see a hierarchy in length, in terms of making as well. Some of the shorter films took longer to make than Two Years At Sea. It’s always surprising when film festivals refer to it as my first film. That’s kind of strange as I’ve been doing it for a while now. (Laughs)
Have you encountered any reluctance to short film with the different marketing aspects to it?
I feel like there are a million short films festivals around the world and people will watch them. I have mixed feelings about the idea of short films and that there’s also a tendency among filmmakers that they’re a stepping stone. I’ve never felt that way, which is why I’m still making them. I think that’s more for filmmakers that are totally immersed in the film world. It’s different for people like me; people who come from an art background and show in galleries. The lengthening is also not about the paying audience which is another nice thing about the gallery screenings.
People often ask you about the line between fiction and documentary. Could you talk a little about this in your films?
It’s something that I’m interested in. This line between the actual and the construction of filmmaking. To me it’s all a fiction and a very subjective, personal one. That’s what is interesting to me. Ways of world making; these instances, actual people, actual places. They’re catalysts for something which is not a representation; it’s something that only belongs on the screen. That’s what is exciting for me. It’s making something new.
It’s reminiscent of Werner Herzog in the way that his films were fictional, but like in Fitzcarraldo (1982) where he really did drag the boat over the hill.
Oh yes! (Laughs)
What else influences you then?
It would be impossible to relate everything. I guess my earliest introduction into film and how great it was and how immersive and visceral an experience it could was through horror movies. I watched a lot between the age of 9 and 10. They were pretty key years of watching horror from Universal, especially the two Frankenstein films and The Old Dark House (1932) by James Whale which are massively important to me. Through to Jacques Tourneur and then coming through to my childhood around that time when people like John Carpenter and Sam Raimi were about. Me and my friends were skipping school to stay in and watch a lot of movies from that period. I grew up in a village in Somerset and we had this video shop in the basement of a Methodist church which was great. Run by a guy in a big sheepskin coat. I think most of the videos were pirate and he had no problem in giving us really bad films for kids.
Are we talking Video Nasties here?
Yeah these were Video Nasties. We watched The Evil Dead (1981) on a really crappy VHS copy and it was terrifying. It was probably more terrifying because it was a third generation copy and it was handed to us like this really rare product.
Like the dark, evil book in the film?
(Laughs) Exactly like in the film! And that definitely got me interested in the power of movies. I was thinking I would make special effects and prosthetics for horror movies but then I was introduced to other films and filmmakers. Woody Allen was the first filmmaker where I watched a series of his films and realised there’s a single person driving them. So it was the first instance thinking that although these were made by groups of people that I hadn’t paid any attention to in the credits, even with Carpenter and Raimi, that didn’t mean anything at the time but Woody Allen’s films made me realise that there is a job as somebody who makes these films and is the driving force behind them. So I started to investigate that.
It’s funny that you mentioned The Old Dark House by James Whale as, when I was watching House, it reminded me of that film until the very last scene where it reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky with his use of levitation in The Mirror.
I think one of the reasons I ended up involved in showing films at art school and the Cinematheque was because I wanted to bombard my brain with as much stuff as possible. I don’t want to be referential. I’m really against direct references and I’m not thinking about it at all when I make my films but I know they’re subconsciously in there and you can play around with those things but I don’t want people to think I’m deliberately referring. I do however like the idea that House is a cross between James Whale and Andrei Tarkovsky (laughs). That’s really good!
Interview by Adam Scovell.