Tommy Oliver

Filmmaker Spotlight: Ben Caird

Ben CairdHalfway PosterHalfway Location Still

By Chelsea Fung

Born and raised in England half American and half English filmmaker Ben Caird imports his own style of storytelling from the United Kingdom to Los Angeles in his upcoming film Halfway starring Quinton Aaron. Ben also talks with us about Halfway inspiration, the cultural differences between his hometown and his new homestead and we’re not just talking tea vs coffee.

Where did you get your start?

My family is very artistic.  That definitely helped me in my pursuit of a life in the arts.  My start in filmmaking came from shooting music videos for heavy metal bands in the UK.  Though I knew nothing about metal, that all coming from my partner’s close relationships in the industry, it gave us the opportunity to experiment with visual styles with the total freedom that comes from trusting collaborations.  Though I always looked completely out of place at gigs and video recordings, arms and body clean of tattoos, there was a feeling of mutual exhaustion, respect and excitement when we’d finished a take.  This marrying of effort and passion in front of and behind the camera was what drove me further into wanting to tell narrative stories in film.

To cross over at an industry level, I worked as a PA at a development company and then on film productions before taking the general consensus from those in positions above that if I wanted to be a director I should attend a film school.  My three years at The London Film School gave me the opportunity to establish a style which, for me, is the most important thing for a director.  Each mistake made on a film during the course felt catastrophic at the time.  But what film school gives you is the opportunity to make that myriad of mistakes in order to not repeat them.  On every piece of work I make new mistakes, but getting the first few thousand out of the way is important.

Tell me about your first film:

I produced my first film last summer in the UK, a dark love story entitled Long Forgotten Fields, which saw returning collaborations from many LFS alumni.  As well as directing, I regularly work as a 1st AD in Los Angeles.  Because of my accent, I don’t really have to shout, a lot of the cast and crew enchanted with the idea of a James Bond accent running the set.  That usually wears off after a few hours, though as everyone uses me to try out their British accent, which more often than not are woefully poor!

Filmmaking is a career that used to be the sole reason for my earliest waking days.  That has changed since I moved to Los Angeles and regularly rise at 4am to watch my beloved Arsenal make or break my week in the English Premier League.

Tell me about your move from the UK to the US:

What are some of the differences working in the UK vs working in LA? Was it a bit of a culture shock coming to Los Angeles?

I can’t claim to be an authority on this, there are of course many filmmakers more qualified than I in this respect, but I have noticed differences in working in the UK and the US.  My observations also come from being half British and half American, my mother being from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My mother would always talk about the wrongful assumption of there being only a few cultural differences between the two countries.  To her there were many, and we’re not talking just about tea and coffee.

“England and America are two countries divided by a common language”. This is never truer than on a film set.  I may as well have been on a Bollywood set with the number of blank stares I got from cast and crew alike on day one of my first Los Angeles 1st AD gig.

However, I can’t think that there are specific reasons why one is better than the other. In the UK we do have far fewer opportunities to work on the content as the industry is that much smaller than the US. However, we do have government subsidized support such as the British Film Institute and the Creative Agencies, which we don’t have in the US, so there are tradeoffs either side of the pond.

We are after all talking about an industry that, given our common history, culture and language is next to impossible to look at as being solely British or American. UK sound stages host US TV shows and films as often as US studios produce almost entirely British productions.

An American friend once told me why he thought the UK was so perfect for the huge productions that are regularly set there.  In his eyes, there was something magical about the history of Britain and that the Harry Potter, Narnia or Middle Earth stories could never be set in America.  Given that the authors were inspired by specific British locations, it’s hard to detach them from the country.  However, it did make me think about how Britain is viewed as a setting in storytelling.

In relation to Halfway, though almost all of our cast and crew are American, my producer, Jonny Paterson, is a Scot whom I met here in Los Angeles.  Educated at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but with his Edinburgh based production company, JP International Productions, he too has his finger in European and US productions.  Brits and Yanks have created a real synergy in the film industry and it’s certainly useful for me being able to draw on both sides of my cultural heritage for this.

Though I am half American, moving here in 2012 was the first time I’d ever lived in the States.  Loving London as I do, I thought I was going to hate Los Angeles for every difference.  However, Los Angeles has much more culture, history and natural beauty than I ever imagined.  Culture shock aversion comes in the way of hearing British accents every single day as well as the ease at which I can watch football (yeah that’s right, the game where players kick the ball with their feet) on TV.

Right now you’re in production for your film ‘Halfway’ what has that been like?

Halfway is the story of a recently released convict, Byron, who faces the conflict of enduring ties to his old criminal world while struggling to adapt to life on probation as the only black man in a conservative white farm town. With this film we hope to highlight the critical problem in the prison system, specifically, the high recidivism (reincarceration for similar offenses) rate in America, especially in young black men. Halfway seeks to comment on both the problem and solution, research indicating job opportunity playing a tremendous role.

Why did you feel compelled to tell a story about Byron and his predicament?

Although I was born and raised in London, UK, my mother is from Wisconsin, so as a child I would spend summers in the States seeing family.  With fond memories of playing on my family’s Wisconsin dairy farm, I always felt like an outsider through my inability, even as a child, to do the things my farm-raised cousin could.

As an adult revisiting the farm I found the chores performed incredibly hypnotic and calming to watch.  Farms are a place of tremendous upheaval and mechanical power, but also of baseness, of simplistic physical duty.

Farms are so little understood by the urban dweller, of which our society is becoming increasingly dominated by.  By, in essence, sending my protagonist to a farm to cleanse him, I want to show an American Dream story of social movement and the rejection of his past transgresses through physical hard work in this new and alien environment.

The outsider element at the core of the film is race.  I find perception and discrimination due to race fascinating.  Clearly the United States still has a problem with race relations in many parts of the country, and whilst I cannot try and tackle everything in this film, I certainly wish to pose some important social questions.  On top of this is the key theme of recidivism.

Statistics show that in 2008 1 in 100 Americans was behind bars and between 1973 - 2009 the nation’s prison population grew by 705%. Among state prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 about two-thirds (67.8%) were arrested for a new crime within 3 years, and three-quarters (76.6%) were re-arrested within 5 years. It’s crystal clear to see there is a serious systematic failure within the prison system, where a lack of opportunity for those who have transgressed in their past seems to guarantee a lasting future behind bars. Halfway seeks to explore the harsh truth about decisions that need to be made when someone is given a second chance, in a new and unfamiliar surroundings.

Who is part of your team for Halfway?

My producer, Jonny Paterson and I knew we wanted Quinton Aaron to play the lead from early on in our development of the project together.  One of our EP’s, Tommy Oliver (who made history this summer when he become the youngest ever African American producer of a studio movie on The Perfect Guy for Sony) had worked with Quinton on another film of his, 1982.  We sat down together and it was quickly very apparent that Quinton wanted to play the role as much as we wanted him to.  With a story and message that struck a strong a chord with Q, Jonny invited him to be an EP on the film with a view to allowing him to represent the project to his network in a more formal capacity.  With his experience and passion he gave us something to really build on.  We’re currently casting around Quinton with our fantastic casting director Matthew Lessall (CSA).

Something that my producer and I recognized as fundamentally important from early on was to surround ourselves with people more experienced than us. That has led to us building a very solid behind-the-scenes team including EPs Tommy Oliver and Jonathan Baker and Matthew as well who has almost 100 projects behind him.

At the start of the year we chose a date in the fall that made sense to start shooting and we just drew a production timeline around that.  Coming from making shorts for no money and producing a feature last summer in the UK for much less than we’re making this, I have a good grasp of what I need as a director to deliver my style.  Though we’re a small production, I believe we know how to display our value as best as possible on screen.  Well, we’ll find out very soon in fact.

In Halfway we think we have a story that people can really get behind from both a casual perspective coupled with a strong narrative platform.  I’ve been truly honored to have so many great people want to be involved in the project I don’t take anyone’s keenest for granted.  As I director I simply hope to be able to make this film and then be allowed to make another one day.  Though it’s difficult to ever feel content with anything as there’s always something else to be getting on with, the whole process so far has been a dream come true and I hope to be able to repay everyone’s trust in me by delivering this story as best I can.