Moving Forward with Director Ben Briand

Moving Forward with Director Ben Briand

The power of immersive storytelling to create change is a valued commodity. It's something that Director Ben Briand and TBWA Paris employed fastidiously in a new campaign for France's Inter-LGBT organisation, at a time when empathy for the marginalised is more important than ever. 

The video – a surreal and powerful assessment of the LGBT experience – employs a first-person narrative to put the viewer in the shoes of the other. It's an ambitious and technical piece of filmmaking, so we spoke to Briand to figure out how they made it happen. 

Hey Ben! Firstly, can you give us a little insight into your background and career? 

I come from a Fine Arts background. I never went to traditional film school, and over the last however-many-years since university have worked between commercial projects and long-form narrative projects like TV and feature film.

Is there a unifying thread that all your work adheres to? 

I'm really interested in the idea of identity and memory in my personal projects, which tends to find its way into the commercial jobs too. Something like the LGBT project didn't have an enourmous budget, but a lot of people got involved as it was a really potent opportunity to achieve empathy. A lot of my work does touch on that, and the human experience in a warm, or less detached way.

Director Ben Briand

I like the idea of taking what you’ve learnt from selling a product and using it to sell a better future… 

Exactly. I'd come off the back of a commercial in Europe, then the LGBT project came along and we were able to bring a lot of the crew with us. Some of the work I do is more pop-culture focused, but there's a level of excitement to get back into more meaningful work too.

Let’s go to the beginning of this project. How did you come to be involved? 

I had just finished a commercial project for Schweppes when the brief came through my French representatives, Moonwalk Films. My relationship with them is fantastic in that they pursue solid commercial endeavours, but we have a history of getting involved in projects that are more meaningful or have a longer resonance in the cultural lexicon. I met with the agency (TBWA Paris) who had an idea of what this could be, but there were a lot of discussions had about achieving that as effectively as possible.  

It was really important to both myself and my producer to be able to tell the LGBT experience first hand, and put the viewer in the shoes of that person so as to create empathy. We wanted the viewer to be able to say 'yeah I've experienced that in a small way' or 'oh right, I see how I could have done that, or been that way towards someone else.' In the larger sense, we used this metaphor that life can be like a battlefield, a tricky experience, to cut through.

Was the film always intended to be such a gritty assessment of the LGBT experience? 

We didn't want to shy away from the brutal realities of it. In France, and in Paris particularly, there are hundreds of thousands of people who go out into the streets to march against LGBT rights. They riot. There's violence in the streets. It's very intense. It's something we see in a small way in Australia but there, people are extremely active in the oppression of these rights.

What was the research process like to develop the story? 

The client had developed the essential concepts of the experience – for example, what it's like to confront your parents and tell them that this is who you are, and the way that reaction can take place. There were a lot of stories of people who had been alienated from their families, of people going for jobs or opportunities and really feeling that marginalisation – again, in the more conservative French environment it's quite prevalent. 

In terms of production, some of the shots looked tricky. There’s a lot of movement in tight sets, and it’s all told from a first person perspective… 

There is a lot of POV (point of view) content out in the world, which more often than not is just a Go-Pro strapped to someone's head. (The content) might be a fisheye look, it might be cheap, it doesn't always intersect with a cinematic feel – which is what I wanted this to be. I wanted this to clearly have first person narration and guidance, with cinematic quality. 

Everyone agreed this was the right thing to do, but it did cause a lot of headaches. They were sort of saying 'oh, are you sure you don't just want to strap a Go-Pro to someone's head'? (laughs), but by the time you started getting into bigger cameras with anamorphic lenses,  you really need specialist operators. We investigated a few different approaches – bigger film cameras, medium sized cameras and some small ones. And it ended up being a combination of them all. 

You can't really set out to say 'I'm going to make the most meaningful piece I've ever done. You just assess that you feel like it's a worthwhile project that has something to say. Then you dive in.

Ben Briand

There are a lot of lens changes throughout the piece. You can see it in the very first scene with the kids in the classroom where the eye is roaming around – looking at the students in front of them, looking towards the door, looking towards the teacher – I used longer lenses in certain points which suggest human perception. Quite often when you're sitting still, your focus and your eye can move between things that are immediately in front of you, or your attention drifts right to the back of the room and it feels like that's what you really zero in on. We had an incredible specialist camera operator with a MoVI Rig – he was on rollerblades, he would do backflips onto grass, he was carrying kids in some scenes with the camera, so you could tilt down and see the feet of the subject, then tilt back up again. Each shot was produced in a really specific and problem-solving way.

Is it natural for you to use so many lenses in a film this short? 

It was more about trying to find the lens that reflected the human experience of moving through a room. If you go too wide – and this is why I don't like Fish Eye – it doesn't feel like a human perspective. If you go too long, that feels like it's reserved only for poignant moments when your focus has only zoomed in on a particular item or person. It was trying to find that balance. 

Everyone was sort of saying 'are you sure you don't just want to strap a Go-Pro to someone's head'?

Ben Briand

The production designer I collaborated with has worked with Michel Gondry quite a bit. That was great because what I wanted to bring to the film, and this is more on the design side, is a dream-like sense of the locations. All the transitions that take place are done in-camera. For example, the protagonist goes out a door to a classroom, where the floor is full of sand. As he turns around, the door slams shut, where suddenly it's night time and you're in a dormitory. That was all done physically: we shot in a desert-like location, picked up the door frame, carried it to the next location, put it down, and lined up the shot again. There was a very organic feel to it, and I wanted like a slippage in the reality. 

One thing that was really important in the production design was that the camera always needed to be moving forward. It never goes backwards, so there is this perpetual motion to the whole film. It comes back to the tagline, that no matter what happens to the LGBT community, we'll just keep moving forward. Keep moving forward, keep moving forward, keep moving forward. That was a big metaphor for the camera.

There is also this abundance of surreal motifs throughout the film…

There's a really strong feeling that this is like a military training camp. Soldiers often have to crawl through the mud, underneath bars or low hanging items to simulate what it might be like in the war. So we thought 'what if we take this but have them crawling under the living room table but it's still mud, or an obstacle course where you're climbing over people who are rioting against your rights'. It ended up becoming very symbolic, which helped create the sense of oddness.

What’s your favourite part of the film? 

To be honest, it's the reactions people get when watching it. I should say that I like one scene more than another, but it's the culmination of everything together that works really nicely, and the response to it has been very emotional. That's the biggest part, and the payoff because when you're in production you've got a sense of what you want that you can't quite articulate. But when everything starts to come together, and you finish it, and you show it, you get this reaction and you go 'good'. That's what I was thinking I was working towards and how I hoped it would be received.

Is there anything you learnt from the production that any director could use to enact social good? 

There are many techniques you can employ to create meaningful projects that people respond to. I was really happy with this process and what it had achieved. Without wanting to repeat myself, I did take on another story which was not told necessarily in a linear format like the LGBT piece, but it was the journey of someone's life who had fought against the odds to achieve their dreams, then the technique changed and broke off at the end. Our technology is becoming more sophisticated with every project, so I'm always happy to at least try and take things to another level. 

You can't really set out to say 'I'm going to make the most meaningful piece I've ever done. You just assess that you feel like it's a worthwhile project and it has something to say. Then you dive in.

The film was released back in June, but since then we’ve had a few LGBT aggressions around the world including our ongoing debate on Marriage Equality in Australia. Was the intent always to be so globally resonant? 

The film was always assigned to be about LGBT rights, but in a larger sense it is about human rights, and that message is transferable: to the situation in the States, to what's going on here in Australia... that doesn't really change regardless of where you see it.  Audiences are smart enough to realise the message cuts through. 

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