Top image: Still, ‘Benjamin’ (2019) dir. Simon Amstell
Simon Amstell’s twenties were a decade of “absurd self-doubt and emotional disarray” – his words, not ours. Yet while many of us work tirelessly to bury our most awkward and anxious moments deep into the subconscious, the British comedian, actor, writer and now filmmaker chose to write his down, mining bits of dialogue from his own experiences – from the, “ good to the… not so good”.
These jottings soon took shape as Amstell’s debut feature film, Benjamin, a tender comedy that serves as a big-screen self-portrait of his own past relationships, ideas of masculinity and burgeoning filmmaking career. Here, those experiences are fictionalised via the film’s eponymous protagonist, a promising filmmaker struggling with intimacy and expectation ahead of his own debut film (sounds familiar, Simon). And that stress only doubles once Benjamin falls for magnetic French singer, Noah (Phénix Brossard); cue the kind of cringe-worthy flirting that’ll curl toes and warm hearts.
Recruiting friend and musician James Righton (of The Klaxons and Shock Machine) to write original music for Noah’s band and the accompanying soundtrack, we sat down with Amstell and Righton to discuss the film and separate fact from fiction.
Alex James Taylor: When I watched the film there were many moments where Benjamin would do something super awkward or stupid and I’d be like, “That reminds me too much of myself” [laughs], is it somewhat comforting that people can relate so much to Benjamin – and in turn yourself?
Simon Amstell: Yes I think so, it feels very connecting. I suppose the character suffers a bit from anxiety, loneliness and depression, and all that stuff is very disconnecting, so if you can express a bit of yourself and have other people not just understand it, but feel empathetic, you feel less lonely in the world. Its a really lovely feeling.
AJT: Because everyone always thinks they’re the worst and nobody else can relate to feelings in their head. Because bits of Benjamin’s story is based on your own experiences, are you able to look back on those moments and laugh at them now?
SA: Sometimes in horror [laughs]. He’s sort of me in my twenties I think, before I got better [laughs]. I think I laugh at the same time as thinking, “Oh you poor thing, you poor idiot.” I think what you develop is compassion for your younger self, who just did what he was able to do at the time, and also compassion for all the people around me who had to put up with me during that time [laughs].
AJT: Did your friends watch it like, “Oh yeah, that’s Simon, I’ve seen that” [laughs]?
SA: I think there was a bit of that. Also, when I’ve taken moments from my own life, it is all the worst moments, so I didn’t write, “Benjamin goes for a lovely picnic and everything is fine.” I think sometimes people get the impression that I’m being a bit over the top about my own trauma…
AJT: Sure, but it’s a film.
SA: [laughs] But it is a film, that’s very true.
“He’s sort of me in my twenties I think, before I got better [laughs].”
AJT: When you first started writing you said that you were just jotting down some experiences from past relationships. Did you begin to think of it as a film fairly quickly?
SA: Yeah I did. I’d co-written a sit-com [Grandma’s House, 2010 – 2012] and the thing I liked the least about that was having to come up with a thing that happened each week. What I thought would be more authentic, and easier actually, was to write something that starts and ends in one go. It turned out to not be that easy [laughs] because film requires so much to happen and you really need to see the character go from one place to another.
AJT: In the film, Benjamin struggles to adjust his need for affection and closeness from his work to his personal life. Have either of you struggled with this in your own lives and work, and what do you think is a positive step in achieving that balance?
SA: I think once you get over the idea of recognition as a goal, then you can have a balanced life. If you’re lucky, your personal life and your creative life are both the things that bring you joy, so once you start working from joy, then there’s no real conflict.
James Righton: For me, my life has changed since my daughter was born. I work nine to five Monday to Friday and I’m a dad all the times outside of that. I’m lucky enough to work from home in my studio, where my daughters can come into the room, my family can come in and hang out, and it’s a lovely thing to have. At this point in my life, my personal life is literally my wife and my daughter, I rarely go out, apart from seeing Simon lately…
SA: [laughs] Is that why you always look so happy? I thought it was me.
JR: [laughs] No it’s not, it’s simply other human contact.
AJT: You’re working on your new project Shock Machine, James?
JR: Yeah, and I’ve got my own solo record coming out soon. I also do a lot of writing with up-and-coming bands at my home studio. Actually one of them asked me the other day why I do that and why I want to work with them and I literally just said, “Because it’s nice to meet other people.”
JR: But on another level, it’s also lovely to work with up-and-coming musicians because they have new ideas and they’re full of youth and excitement.
AJT: And also you’ve been there yourself.
JR: I don’t want to seem like an elder statesman dad [laughs], but yeah, I have seen a fair bit.
AJT: Simon, I saw you perform stand-up in Hackney last month and you spoke about the learning process that enabled you to start speaking about your personal experiences on stage, whereas previously you wouldn’t want to share that information. Has making this film helped too?
SA: I think from around the age of 24, the stand-up I was doing just became very personal suddenly. Then everything I’ve written for TV or film now continues in that vein, apart from Carnage , which was a film I made for the BBC that wasn’t really anything to do with my own problems, it was just something I felt…
JR: Just a vegan mockumentary [both laugh].
SA: Exactly. It was something I felt was very absurd in the culture that I thought I could make very funny and affecting. So for me, Benjamin is just an extension of everything that I’ve been doing in my stand-up for quite a while.
AJT: In your stand-up show you also spoke about experiencing ayahuasca, I wondered if the recurring monk in Benjamin’s film and the Buddhist Youtube videos he watches has that same sense of looking for answers through spirituality?
SA: For me, ayahuasca was incredibly healing but for Benjamin those monk clips he watches on Youtube aren’t quite doing the trick in the same way. But I think Benjamin… he is seeking something, he’s looking for a cure really for his loneliness and depression. Of course it turns out to not be the monk on Youtube, because if he was really committed to getting well and he thought Buddism was the answer, he would become a Buddhist.
AJT: He’s just dabbling.
SA: He dabbles, he looks on Youtube [laughs], and that’s not going to do it.
AJT: It’s what a lot of people do, it’s like going on Google when you think you’re ill rather than seeing a professional.
SA: Exactly. So Benjamin’s healing comes through this beautiful musician who arrives from Paris, who eventually breaks his defences down so that he’s able to experience some actual intimacy. That’s probably what ayahuasca did for me, amongst other things, it sort of undid all the stories I had about why it wasn’t safe to just be in a moment with another human being.
AJT: James, when did Simon get you involved in the project?
JR: Quite early on actually. We’ve been friends for years and then Simon sent me the script, I read it, loved it, and then he came round to my house and we wrote two of Noah’s band songs. The film went away for a bit and then it came back and then I had to write another song or two because we had to have them ready to film. Simon sent me his first edit, the first cut, and then from that point I just started to create a musical language for it.
AJT: How was the process of writing for Noah? Like you said earlier, you write with other bands so I guess you’re used to stepping into someone else’s shoes.
JR: Yeah, I’ve been there. I’ve been in that place where Noah is, where you want to get signed, you want a record deal, you want to be in a band. So I kind of know what that’s all about. When Simon came to me, we got in the room, Simon wrote the lyrics and we worked together on the music. We had a song in a day, we’d finish each day and have another song – it came together quite easily.
“Writing it made me realise what was wrong with me in my twenties, I was somebody who was terrified of intimacy. “
AJT: And you also worked on the musical direction of the film, what did that involve?
SA: Convincing Phénix to stop smoking [laughs].
JR: Yeah [laughs]. Just making sure it all looked and sounded right. Because I’d recorded the tracks before, I had to make sure that what you would see in the film matched the music.
SA: The band mimed but Phénix sang live.
AJT: Was he a singer already?
JR: No, he’s a drummer actually, but most drummers are singers.
AJT: He’s got a really nice voice but it’s also a bit naive and crackly, which really suits his character.
JR: I didn’t touch it at all either, it has a real charm. I suppose it’s slightly Pete Doherty, French version. It has this kind of modulation, it’s interesting. Full of character.
AJT: How long have you two been friends for?
SA: We met ten years ago or something, when you were still…
SA: [laughs] Exactly.
JR: When I was starting with the band I was almost going to go on [Never Mind the] Buzzcocks, that was it. But I said no [Simon laughs] because I was way too terrified, so my bandmate went on instead. Then I think we met at a party somewhere but we were awkward.
SA: I think the first time we really properly became friends was in New York when I was doing a stand-up residency. James was there with his wife being a father, his wife was shooting a film and I was very interested in being on the set of that film to figure out if film directing was as tricky as I imagined it to be. Is this story OK to tell?
JR: Yes I think it is.
SA: James invited me to visit the set, so I went and I heard some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard coming out of actors’ mouths and witnessed a director who seemed to be hated by the entire crew. And I thought, “I think I can do a better job than this” [all laugh]. I think I can write something better and…
JR: Actually get on with people [laughs].
AJT: It’s a good job that happened or you might not be here now.
SA: Very true. It sort of removed some of the nonsense and doubts I had in my head.
AJT: Can you tell me one of the scenes in the film that is actually plucked from an experience you had?
SR: At the peak of Benjamin’s despair, he goes to see a contemporary dance piece and feels incredibly lonely and disconnected because everyone thinks it’s this beautiful piece of art and he thinks it’s absurd. In a moment of despair in my own life many years ago, feeling terribly lonely, I went along to see this piece of contemporary dance and couldn’t believe it when it finished and nobody laughed [all laugh]. I thought, “I’m insane, these people, they understand what’s going on in the world, that this piece of contemporary dance is beautiful, and I’m an outsider idiot” [laughs]. And I used the exact same choreography from that contemporary dancer for the film. But generally, there are bits of dialogue that are taken from my own life. There’s a bit where Benjamin asks Noah, after sleeping with him, “What’s your type, what do you normally go for?” because he can’t just accept that someone beautiful has slept with him. And Noah sort of confirms his suspicions when he says, “Oh I always end up with geeks like you,” and someone said that to me once [laughs]. But generally all the feelings are real but the events aren’t so much.
AJT: In one of the scenes there’s a poster for a fictional film starring Kiera Knightley titled Siblings, you can’t quite read the tagline so I wondered what it was?
JR: Did it have one?
SA: Yes it does, hang on let me remember… the tagline was, “An inconvenient sister.”
JR: [laughs] Amazing.
SA: It was just a joke for us [laughs].
AJT: Has Benjamin helped you draw a line under that particular time of your life?
SA: Writing it made me realise what was wrong with me in my twenties, I was somebody who was terrified of intimacy. Now I’ve been in a relationship for the past seven years and, erm, we’re quite intimate with each other [laughs]. Maybe a good example of an actual change that I witnessed is, so Benjamin’s film within the film premieres at the London Film Festival and he’s an anxious mess the entire night, desperate for validation, desperate for people to say that his film is good so he can just rest. I was in the car on the way to the London Film Festival for the Benjamin premiere feeling quite nervous because amongst other things I had to do a speech and would be watching it with an audience, hoping they’d laugh at the funny bits. I sort of caught myself and thought, “You know you’ve fictionalised this moment already, and you know what happens when the person is this anxious. There’s no point in fictionalising an aspect of yourself if you’re not going to get better, so I thought, maybe just enjoy tonight. Maybe this is the premiere of the film you got to make, and it’s a good thing it’s happening.” So I really enjoyed it after that.
AJT: It must be quite meta to watch Benjamin at his premiere during your own.
SA: Yes. I was very nervous at the beginning that I’d end up saying something that he says in his [laughs].
Benjamin is released in cinemas and on digital on 15th March and the Benjamin official soundtrack is released 15th March.