Far Out Meets: Benjamin Lussier, the director of 'Pool'

At Far Out Magazine we believe in cinema’s ability to heal.

At a time when millions of people continue to adapt their daily lives amid strict social distancing measures and cinemas around the world continue to keep their doors closed, we want to shine a light on filmmakers on a personal level. Turning our attention to the work created by independent artists, we have launched our new weekly series ‘The Far Out Film Club’. The project will focus on one filmmaker during each episode and will premiere on both Far Out Magazine’s Facebook page and YouTube channel every Wednesday.

As we enter series two, the Far Out Film club welcomes Benjamin Lussier, the director of Pool, a film that follows the story of Willem, a young man from Norway, on the dawn of an existential quest. “Willem’s character was loosely inspired by a friend of mine in high school who suffered from selective mutism,” Lussier told Far out. “He’d write his thoughts on paper. In the last year of high school, he started talking to his close friends a little bit. He was even self-conscious about laughing (visibly). He wanted to appear neutral at all times, but he had a twisted sense of humour. It made him kind of magnetic. It was hard to get to the core of who he was, but I also found that defence mechanism relatable.”

The film, which feels almost fitting with the current climate, sees Willem’s suffering of selective mutism mirror a pandemic world. With social anxiety at an all-time high, and millions forced into isolation for well over a year, the contemplative journey through uncertainty offers a fascinating look at the human mind.

“We’re all stuck at home because of the pandemic. Storytelling has become more important than ever,” Lussier added. “It’s the glue that binds us all together. Empathy is a muscle you get to flex with cinema. It’s an insight into the human condition and our struggles, but also our dreams and our subconscious. It’s everything as far as I’m concerned.”

Here, as part of the Far Out Film Club, we are premiering a screening of Benjamin Lussie’s short film which is available through our Facebook and YouTube channels.

You can read a full interview with Benjamin Lussie below and, at 20:00 GMT, watch the premiere of his film.

This week, #FarOutFilmClub​ welcomes Benjamin Lussier and ‘Pool’. It follows the story of Willem, a young man from Norway, on the dawn of an existential quest

Posted by Far Out Magazine on Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Benjamin Lussier Interview:

Far Out: Given the current circumstances, and the struggles that the film industry is facing, how difficult is it to be an independent director right now?

Lussier: “It’s getting harder. We made POOL five years ago on such a tight budget: little donations here and there and my own money. I wouldn’t be able to replicate that in 2021. Everything’s more expensive. Everyone is getting squeezed and are less inclined to do favours, understandably. We’re all a bit more in ‘survival mode’, but thank God there are grants in Canada and Quebec. I feel very lucky in that sense, and I try not to dwell on the hardships too much. It’s the life I chose. If making films is what you need, all you can do is go for it, regardless of how hard it is.”

Similarly, on a personal level as both a film viewer and creator, how important is cinema as a form of release at the moment?

“We’re all stuck at home because of the pandemic. Storytelling has become more important than ever. It’s the glue that binds us all together. Empathy is a muscle you get to flex with cinema. It’s an insight into the human condition and our struggles, but also our dreams and our subconscious. It’s everything as far as I’m concerned. I also have friends who can’t sit still for two minutes, who aren’t into films or TV… I find that fascinating, but I don’t know how they do it.”

We’re focusing on your project ‘POOL’. Could you explain where this idea came from?

“Willem’s character was loosely inspired by a friend of mine in high school who suffered from selective mutism. He’d write his thoughts on paper. In the last year of high school, he started talking to his close friends a little bit. He was even self-conscious about laughing (visibly). He wanted to appear neutral at all times, but he had a twisted sense of humour. It made him kind of magnetic. It was hard to get to the core of who he was, but I also found that defence mechanism relatable.”

Given what is a sensitive topic, detail, if you could, how the scenario of this project was formed, how did you develop your ideas and did the end product match your initial expectations?

“I got into the film industry by directing commercials and music videos, not as a screenwriter. On paper, the script was very minimalistic. It’s a visual trip. I was very lucky that the people around me had faith. The finished product surpassed my expectations in many regards because I was surrounded by amazing and generous collaborators. We had no money. To this day, I still can’t believe we pulled that off with a budget of $12,000. 

“We did have constraints, but we always found a way to make it work for the film. I think the limitations we had made the film better in the end. I mean, it’s never quite the way you imagine, but you also imagine the worst possible scenario. Where the film ultimately landed is a bit of a miracle.”

Obviously, the budget was a major talking point, but did you encounter any unexpected difficulties in its creation?

“I can recall two incidents. The scene where Willem swims in the rooftop pool was shot in Montreal in October, and the water heater broke the night before. The water was freezing cold. Poor Thomas (who plays Willem) was shaking uncontrollably. I felt so bad for him.

“The best boy also accidentally knocked over a buffet in a mansion (Willem’s home) filled with vintage hand-made plates and saucers from the UK. We spend seven months on eBay looking for replacements, one item at a time.”

Despite mastering the art of eBay, what, in your opinion, is the most important quality of a film director?

“A mix of drive and naiveté. Every project is eventually going to find a way to break your heart, some way or another. You have to be like Charlie Brown. In the end, Lucy’s always gonna pull the football away from you at the last minute, but you have to believe this time will be different. I don’t mean that in a grim way, though. There’s tremendous beauty in Charlie Brown’s world views.”

Having spoken to a number of filmmakers throughout the Far Out Film Club series, the topic of originality is one that we try to discuss openly. We’ve reached a point in cinema, much like that of the music industry, when the phrase “we’ve seen it all before” becomes a topical debate.

How do you stay original? How do you find ways to produce something unique in a market that has so many creatives? Or is being unique even that important?

“I’m not sure wanting to be ‘unique’ is that important. I respect the craft. Some of my favourite films have a very simple premise. It’s all about vision and execution. There are as many visions as there are people. Repetition and clichés usually stem from a lack of research or vulnerability, in my opinion. We’ll have originality as long as there are passionate artists out there.

“On a personal level, I don’t worry about that too much. The stuff I come up with is often too weird to connect with people. The challenge for me lies in trying to flesh it out in a way that’s digestible. I need structure more than anything.”

On the subject of originality, who are some of your major cinematic influences?

“I love David Lynch’s approach to cinema and his creative process. I’ve been a huge fan of Alfonso Cuarón for a long time. I even wrote to him when I was a teenager, and he replied! I was ecstatic and been a die-hard fan ever since. 

“I love Ang Lee, David Fincher, Scorsese, Spielberg, Edgar Wright. Cinema is a way to communicate with people. I have a soft spot for filmmakers who have a broad appeal, but still love and respect the craft on a deep level. Sean Baker and Eliza Hittman are some of the most exciting new filmmakers out there for me.”

Given your inspiration, could you run us through your process? What distinctive themes are you looking to create, if any?

“A good story should try to highlight a question that’s at the core of the human condition, something we’re all collectively trying to figure out. Film almost becomes a form of companionship. I try to approach it from that angle. Being part of the LGBTQ community also compels me to tell stories that bring empathy and nuance to my community. The underlying theme is universal and timeless, though: it’s love vs psychological rigidity.

“Willem in Pool is someone who’s becoming more psychologically flexible, but he’s still materialistic and somewhat sexist. At the end of the film, we’re not even sure if he’s on the right path! It’s extremely ambiguous… and that’s fine for this film. It’s all about shedding light on a question, not necessarily providing an answer, in my opinion. If I were to remake it, I’d probably pose the question differently.”

How have you developed your own distinct aesthetic within your work? Is it a conscious decision?

“I think it’s unconscious… or it should be. Otherwise, it can come off as too ‘showy’. It has to be genuine. You echo the things you’ve seen before that speak to you, and create your own collage of techniques and develop your own approach to filmmaking. I was always attracted to films that feel like you’re dreaming. It feels closer to my experience. There’s something extremely peculiar and intangible about reality. With quantum physics, that’s become a scientific fact. This experience we’re having should be taken with a grain of salt. I just want to add a bit more salt.”

Generally speaking, what attracts you to a certain subject or field?

“Kindness and the places where it’s hiding. It creates characters that are compelling to watch. If we’re talking about plot, I’m also attracted to science and the way it’s changing us: the culmination of our intellect and the things it has revealed about us and the world.”

Moving on to the subject of independent cinema, I’m keen to know your thoughts on its current standing. How important is independent film today, what does it mean to you?

“Superhero franchises and reboots make me extremely sad. Even with talented screenwriters behind it, it’s still killing cinema. There’s a whole generation of young people out there, and that’s all they know. Studios chasing profit as all cost has turned into an attack on originality. They’re rebooting the Matrix in an era where the original Matrix would never get made. That’s what’s happening in the mainstream. 

“The chasm between established studios and independent production houses is becoming bigger and bigger. Smaller theatres are closing. The pandemic is not helping. Filmmakers like Ari Aster have turned to the horror genre because that’s the only genre that gets green-lit in Hollywood for indies. I feel like quality stories are moving to TV, but it’s not the same format. It’s a different beast entirely. The pace of a film allows it to explore an idea in a way that’s a lot more contemplative. It’s becoming harder to make these types of films now, but there will always be a market for them, I think. It’s just getting smaller. We’ll have to stretch that budget more and more, but it’s our duty to sustain our art form and share its appeal to the public. 

I look at streaming services and the impact companies such as Netflix are enjoying in the world of mainstream cinema, do you think this platform could provide an alternative route for independent filmmakers and shorts?

“It could! But part of the appeal of movie theatres is that picking a film is a commitment. Maybe the film isn’t structured in a conventional way… what if you’re not sucked in after the first 30 minutes, but there’s a payoff waiting for you? In a theatre, it has to be truly atrocious and unredeemable for most people to walk out. 

“When you’re at home, and it’s not doing it for you today, you just pick something else. I’ve done it. I feel like independent cinema will become less independent if it moves to streaming services only. If you’re not one of the big names out there, your film will have to fit the mould more or less. Short films are less of a commitment though; maybe they’ll be impacted less.”

Finally, do you have any ideas in terms of which sphere of cinema you may be exploring next?

“I’m exploring TV and film simultaneously at the moment, trying to hone my skills as a screenwriter as well. I find the whole process fascinating. I think the genre I’d like to explore next is probably a suspense/mystery. 

“You need a good hook if you want to get noticed/funded. I want to make that happen.

“I also have an experimental short in the making, and we just got a grant for it so I’m super excited about that too!”

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