Simon Amstell and James Righton open up about the making of new tender comedy-drama Benjamin...
Simon Amstell has built his reputation on his rapier wit and acerbic brand of comedy. Whether that’s his spell as presenter of irreverent pop TV series Popworld, where he put the biggest singers and band in their place for five wonderful years, or his tenure in the chair of Never Mind The Buzzcocks, where he made national headlines on a weekly basis. His disdain for ego and stardom has won him legions of fans and sold out theatres all over the country for his stand-up comedy.
But, for his next outing, he’s gone for a gentler and more considered adventure in the shape of new comedy-drama Benjamin, which Amstell has written and directed.
The film is a comedy which tells the story of Benjamin, a rising star filmmaker, who is thrown into emotional turmoil on the brink of premiering his second film, when Billie, his hard-partying publicist, introduces him to a mesmeric French musician called Noah.
Colin Morgan plays the titular character, with Phénix Brossard as Noah. Joel Fry, Jack Rowan, Jessica Raine and Anna Chancellor are in supporting roles, while the soundtrack comes from former Klaxons man James Righton.
As the film arrives in cinemas, we spoke to Amstell and Righton about how it all came together…
When did you first start working on Benjamin?
Simon: “I started writing the film over five years ago. It’s so long because it turns out it’s quite hard to write a film and quite hard to get funding for a film.”
How did the story evolve over the course of writing?
Simon: “A lot. It’s a film about a young filmmaker desperately seeking the love of an audience because he’s terrified of intimacy. He’s so defensive he can’t be vulnerable and can’t be loved. In the end, he gets broken down by this beautiful Noah character who makes him feel safe in their relationship. Of course, while I was writing it, I had no idea what it was about. I was just writing.”
James, when did you get involved?
James: “Simon sent me the script about three or four years ago. I loved it and I told him I’d love to be involved. We started working together not long after that.”
Was scoring a film something you’d always wanted to do? And was it a big challenge to make the leap from life in a band to scoring a film?
James: “It was a challenge and it wasn’t something I’d always wanted to do. It wasn’t a dream of mine. But I did it. That’s most of the way I’ve lived my life. I tend to say yes to things rather than have a grand plan about the way my life was going to go.”
Why did you decide to work together on this movie?
Simon: “We’d worked together before. I’d directed a music video for James, for his Shock Machine project. And he scored a short film for me. We had a great time doing that and I never considered anyone else. When we work together it seems to go really well. I knew we’d have to spend a lot of time together and I knew it wasn’t just the score."
"The Noah character is in a band and needed three songs. I suppose I must have thought ‘James was in a band. He must know how to write songs. And I could imagine sitting in his basement writing the songs and how much fun it could be.”
Was it fun?
James: “It was. It was just hanging out, it didn’t feel like work. He’d come over and we’d write a song.”
Simon: “It was my first film and I think if I’d sat there with somebody who’d been doing films for 20 years I would have found the experience very awkward. I wouldn’t have known what to say and I’d have worried the whole time about what I had said.”
James: “We working through our naivety and discovering things together. It was really nice.”
As a feature film director, there are a lot of moving parts to be in control of? Did you enjoy being in that role?
Simon: “I like it a lot. I really do. The best thing about stand-up is being in charge of what you say and what you do, and, in all my other jobs, I’ve managed to negotiate my way to being in charge. But, when you’re the director of a film, it’s always taken as a given that that’s your role. You’re the boss. I think it suits me.”
James: “I’ve been on a lot of film sets and Simon’s set was one of the best and most joyful. I’ve been on sets where things have felt tense and uncomfortable, control in the wrong places. Simon created a wonderful environment. It felt very relaxed and very creative.”
Did you work hard on creating that kind of atmosphere?
Simon: “I don’t think an atmosphere is something you can work at. But, that said, although I like being in charge, I’m not very prescriptive in how I direct. If you’ve asked someone to come and play with you, then you should trust them. I pretty much told you to go nuts.”
James: “You did, you were the same with Colin and Phénix too.”
Simon: “I want to see something interesting on the screen. I’m not interested in the script being read out line for line. Colin Morgan changed the ending of the film because I didn’t shout cut and he kept acting. It took me a bit of time to get my head around the fact that it happened, but I was really thrilled that something like that ended up happening.”
How did you find the casting process? Was it a long process?
Simon: “Colin Morgan was the first person that I met. He was so naturally funny and he cared so much for the character. I felt like it was too easy. He was so perfect that I didn’t trust myself to feel like that. Finding Jessica Raine, who plays Billie, was quite hard. And finding Phénix Brossard was even harder.”
Why was that?
Simon: “We kept seeing a lot of brilliant actors, but they felt too English. I didn’t know I didn’t need to be somebody French, but it works perfectly. When Phénix came in to audition with Colin, he just went for it. He took his top off where other actors had just pretended to do it. He was so natural and free. He was the person who set Benjamin free.”
How was it writing songs for a character like that? It must be odd because it’s not like you’re writing for a singer you know…
James: “It’s totally different. But it’s not like it’s something I’ve never done before. I’ve been in bands and I’ve been in Noah’s position, working on songs I hadn’t written. The only thing I had to get him to do was to stop smoking. He kept doing it right before takes!”
Did you enjoy it?
Simon: “The edit was a long one. I thought I’d never leave it. But the actual shoot was amazing. If I could just shoot and play with actors and head of departments all day, I’d love it. It’s the writing that’s hard.”
Finally, what’s next for you? Are your next projects all ready to go?
Simon: “I’m writing again, but it doesn’t make any sense at the moment. When it does, I’ll let everyone know.”
James: “I’d love to be more scores. But I’ve also got a record coming out. This is under my own name. That’ll be later this year.”
Benjamin is released into UK cinemas from tomorrow (March 15th) and will be released on DVD later this year.