SXSW: 'Creative Control' Sells Audiences on 'Mad Men' of the Future

Creative Control Still - H 2015
Courtesy of SXSW

Creative Control Still - H 2015

From writer-director-star Benjamin Dickinson, the buzzy sci-fi film follows an ad exec from Brooklyn.

The heat returned to Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival this year, with several major Hollywood premieres — Trainwreck, Spy and a surprise screening of Furious 7 — scoring big with audiences. But the fest has re-established its street cred on the indie side of things too.

Among a handful of breakout titles in competition, none has garnered more buzz than Benjamin Dickinson's Creative Control. Set in near-future New York and shot in timeless black and white, the film follows David (played by Dickinson), an anxious advertising exec tasked with building a campaign around a new form of wearable technology called Augmenta. (Think a more useful, less dorky version of Google Glass.)

At the office, David gets scant support from his colleagues, a rogues' gallery of distracted and dyspeptic Brooklynites, played by real-world borough notables such as Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, Vimeo inventor Jake Lodwick and rapper Heems.

Meanwhile, at home — the kind of glass-walled urban fishbowl that screams "I've made it" — David is having relationship troubles with his yoga-teacher girlfriend (Nora Zehetner). Frustrated, he becomes sexually fixated on the girlfriend of best friend Wim (Dan Gill), a womanizing fashion photographer straight out of a Federico Fellini film.

Luckily — or not so luckily, it turns out — Augmenta specs allow you to create fairly convincing 3D avatars of just about anyone, and it isn't long before David is steaming up those nifty VR glasses.

Creative Control, which earned Dickinson a jury award for visual excellence, is the second feature from the 33-year-old filmmaker. An NYU film school grad, he honed his craft working on TV spots for Puma and Ford and music videos for the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Reggie Watts, the latter of whom also plays a significant role in Control.

Dickinson's well-received first film, a kind of hipster Lord of the Flies called First Winter (2012), served as his calling card as he began to secure funding for the technically ambitious Creative Control. As a "proof of concept," he shot several key scenes and showed them to everyone he knew. "I begged," he admits.

By the time financing had finally come together, Dickinson had already written eight drafts of the screenplay with his co-writer, Micah Bloomberg. "I memorized the scene order," Dickinson says. "I would literally lie in bed and play the entire movie in my head, the exact way I wanted it to look."

After the shoot had wrapped, Dickinson turned to Kickstarter for a final $30,000 to fund the film's 100-plus visual effects. The result is a movie that looks much more expensive than its limited budget would suggest, though Dickinson won't reveal the final cost. "The number that's on IMDb is incorrect," he says of the $1 million listed on the site. "It's actually much, much less."

Slight, bearded and handsome, Dickinson resembles a hybrid of Justified star Jeremy Davies and a young Steve Jobs a perfect mix to play the moody creative type at the film's center. But it wasn't supposed to be him. Dickinson had offered the part to several well-known actors. "What I heard was 'I don't get the script.' I heard 'I graciously decline,' " he says.

Finally, he got a yes from one very recognizable name but instantly grew "uncomfortable" from their initial meetings. "I could just see the disaster coming, where I'm kind of hamstrung or have handcuffs on," he says. "There was no way I was going to be able to do my job if this actor was going to tell me how to run my set."

He had better luck auditioning stage actors, but none was physically right for the part. With time running out, it was Dickinson's mother who suggested he play David himself. With the support of his agent, ICM's Christina Bazdekis, Dickinson took on the role — a risky move, he concedes.

"I have no experience being that guy in my life. I just kind of made up a way to be. I think I was just imitating Don Draper to be honest with you," he explains, adding that he binge-watched Mad Men while writing the script, "so I'm sure it got in there."

If aping Jon Hamm was what it took, it worked, as the film, anchored by Dickinson's performance, has drawn strong reviews, earning comparisons to another high-tech cautionary tale: Spike Jonze's Her.

Looking back at his time in Austin, Dickinson says he loved "geeking out" with fellow movie lovers but that he's still growing accustomed to greeting new fans who approach him on the street.

"I really am not used to this," Dickinson says. "I'm adjusting slowly."