Benjamin: An Interview with Simon Amstell

15th March 2019

In the follow up to his BBC mockumentary Carnage, an enlightening prediction of a future in which everyone is vegan, Simon Amstell follows it up with his first theatrical release, Benjamin. A romantic comedy of sorts, starring The Fall’s Colin Morgan, playing a budding filmmaker whose careers is in tatters, but an unexpected love affair with a young musician Noah (Phenix Brossard) forces him to rethink everything he holds true.

This semi-autobiographical offering captures Amstell’s sensibilities perfectly. Ironic humour is peppered throughout: clever, acerbic, with a dash of self-deprecation and a resonating awkwardness. There is a Woody Allen feel to the whole thing, with its dialogue-actor driven narrative as well as Benjamin’s high levels of neuroticism and incessant talking. Amstell excels with Benajmin, a bittersweet highly entertaining tale that gives a biting often ludicrous commentary of the superficiality of London's creative industries as well as an in-depth emotional character study of someone who suffers the symptom of modern life, an unability to connect to others.

We had the chance to have a chat with Amstell last week to tell us more about his film.

Can you tell us the idea behind the film? You've stated in interviews that the story is semi-autobiographical 

Well its definitively semi-autobiographical but it’s important to say that most of the events in the film didn’t occur in my actual life. But all the feelings and emotions of the central character is feeling, they are my emotions. I tend to not trust anything that I haven’t felt myself. I don’t like writing about something that feels like a guess of human emotional behaviour. I want to feel that I’ve lived it, so then its true. I feel that if it’s not true, it won’t connect with the audience and they won’t get anything out of it. I wrote Benjamin, in a way to figure out what was wrong with me in my 20s.

So, there is a lot of you in Benjamin?

Maybe, some parts of him. I think that after writing it and maybe it was during or after the edit, can’t remember exactly, at some point, I figured out what the story was about. It was about a young man who is desperate for the love of an audience, because he is terrified of experiencing intimacy.

The film is really about a guy called Benjamin, a young filmmaker, who up to now has done quite well into making people believe he is special, and we meet him at a point in his career that’s it’s about to blow up…. in a bad way… his life spirals at the moment he meets a beautiful young man, Noah (Phénix Brossard) who slowly and patiently reveals to him, that none of the things he thought were important, are actually important. And he would be free if he didn’t have the need to appear special…

Was there a generational difference with Benjamin and Noah? 

I’m not sure the age gap is that big, not more than seven years. I guess you are referring to that scene where Benjamin sees Noah singing and asks his friend Stephen (Joel Fry) how old he might be and Stephen tells him not dwell on it… (laughs)… I think Benjamin is probably early thirties and Noah is finishing uni. So maybe not that much different… Perhaps you are picking up on the anxiety about what he does and tries to make it perfect and Noah is a younger more instinctive free performer.

You depict the worst outcome for a filmmaker as his film fails miserably, was that some sort of exorcising your demons?

Not sure it was a conscious attempt. I knew I had this character who was obsessed with how he appeared to others, much more about to how his life was going and his career taking a nosedive would magnify his problems more… Does that make sense?

Yes. The status of film was a reflection of the current state of his life?

Yeah. I knew the main thing that would make his life spiral would be failure. He was kind of alright when his image of himself was the same as what others had of him. But when that image jarred with the external evidence then he was really screwed.

When you see Benjamin’s film being reviewed negatively by Mark Kermode, that scene hit a nerve. When I review films, I try to (often unsuccessfully) not to discard a film so easily and remember that a lot of work gone into making it. 

It can be quite devastating, to be honest. Although it depends what kind of writer or performer you are. If you put your entire heart into something, which I tend to do. Even if most of the reviews are positive, you tend do… or I used to… try to figure out what happened with that one negative review. Or when I did stand-up, I had to teach myself not to focus on the one person who wasn’t laughing in a room with a thousand people. It would usually be a man, with his arms crossed, reminding me of my father. I used to find it difficult to not go and try to impress him specifically.

So, you would take that personally?

That’s the thing, I did figure out in the end that it’s not personal. That generally people are just not into it or they are somewhere else in their heads or millions of other reasons. As a performer sometimes you have to realize that all you are doing is providing a night out for people. It might be incredibly deep for me what I say on stage or what I put in the film, like it’s all really personal, revealing and healing for me…. But for a lot of people, it’s just them seeking for something to do after dinner.

The characters in the film for the most part, exhibit quite tricky personalities.

Yes, they are all deeply flawed. For me, at least, I feel like I can’t write about someone who is simply pleasant. Benjamin has a problem. His personality is his problem, if he stops talking for a moment it would leave him vulnerable enough to let someone in. He is terrified of intimacy, of being loved. Its unfamiliar to him, it wouldn’t make any sense to him. All he has done in his life is make stuff. There is a moment where Noah, having asked to go back to Benjamin’s apartment and tries to kiss him, Benjamin interrupts the kiss and asks Noah if he wants to see some of the film, that his made and they do. It’s as if Benjamin feels that he doesn’t deserve to be kissed without earning it.

As for other characters, well there is the PR woman (Adrienne played by Michèle Belgrand) … well… she is just like a lot of people in PR. Incredibly shallow, who lie quite happily without much remorse.

There is also Anna Chancellor’s character…

In the beginning she is very maternal, trying to make Benjamin feel safe. But then it's revealed that Benjamin is one of many directors she can do that for. And then Benjamin is delusional still seeking her comforting but of course her patience run out.

You perfectly capture the whole living in London, creative career and the superficiality of it all.

The key part of Benjamin’s journey is that people like the publicist and the pretentious actor (Harry played by Jack Rowan) are not really his friends. All that was pretentiousness and shallow bullshit that he couldnt see. But then there is this anxious comedian, Stephen that he connects with on a much deeper level and a beautiful musician (Noah) who is going to save him from his ego self.

The film is more like a character analysis than a romantic comedy?

When I first start writing the script it was a way of figuring out what was wrong with me in my 20s. And then it became sort of a love story, with a romantic tone that I wasn’t expecting, I think it’s that in the end. I thought later about changing the title in the title, to Benjamin and Noah, but ultimately it is Benjamin’s journey. It has incredibly romantic and touching  moments as well as funny ones.

It feels like there are no constrains of time of how many days or weeks pass… Is that an accurate assumption?

Well you might be right, but that might be a flaw… [laughs]… I always take out anything that feels like too much information. I like the audience to be doing some of the work or I worry that they will fall asleep. I like when you come to a scene which makes you guess what happened before you arrived. Maybe that’s what you are picking up? Also, I suppose with the actors, when you cast really good actors, they are able to give you a sense of what’s going on.

You mentioned in interviews, you found it hard to get initial funding. What do you attribute that to? The subject matter?

Films are just very expensive to make and it’s a risk for the other person who is giving you the money. Although I directed a film called Carnage for the BBC.

I loved that film.

Thank you. Well following Carnage this was going to be my first theatrical film. So, in their eyes I may have not proved myself yet. But eventually, once I got the money, thankfully I was trusted completely to make the thing that I wanted to make. I had a lot of freedom. Once we had the money, everything fell into place. It just took a while for it to come.

A lot of people know you are a presenter and stand-up. You’ve been writing for TV since 2005. Is the transition to film and directing, something that happened organically?

I suppose I started writing things that were longer. I think that’s what happened. I feel like in some way I’ve been directing lots of stuff, but unofficially for a long time.  It’s quite handy now it being an official thing. There is no negotiation. I don’t have to convince anyone that I am in charge… I am in charge. I suppose being in stand-up you are in charge of the whole thing, the script, your performance.

So yes, I would say it was a fairly organic transition to directing films. If you do stand-up you kind of have a rhythm, a sense for what’s funny and I also feel that my stand-up was so personal and truthful, I think I developed an ear for what’s true. If you are directing actors, you need to be there to listen and capture something from them that is authentic. And also, to have an ear when it isn’t.

After watching Carnage, it majorly inspired me to becoming more vegan. Do you get a lot people since Carnage tell you it influenced their lives? 

I hear a bit of that but also hear people saying they really loved it after eating the leg of a chicken. I feel like it did something… my ego would have wanted to make everyone become vegan.

Well, it worked on me.

I like hearing that. I guess because we made it funny. What made me vegan… Before I was vegan mainly with lapses, it was when I saw a documentary titled Earthlings, which upset me into veganism. And I thought not everyone is going to want to watch that documentary and I didn’t want Carnage to inflict that trauma the same way. So I thought of getting the message across with humour and making it more digestible. The key to Carnage was compassion not just to the animals but tohumans who made such a terrible mistake in the past by eating meat. We found an angle that wasn't too divisive and was also kind to everyone involved.

Benjamin – in cinemas and on digital 15th March 2019.

Read our review here.

Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.

Follow Candid Magazine on Instagram here. 

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