Q and A with Filmmaker Benjamin Noah
N.L. filmmaker, Benjamin Noah has just released the trailer for his new film New Woman, starring Rhiannon Morgan and Stephen Oates.
The film is a gothic-romance taking place just prior to the great St. John’s fire of 1892. The landscape of Newfoundland is also a lead actor in the film, though it’s a more foreboding and wild landscape than you’ve ever seen in a tourism commercial.
We asked Benjamin a couple questions about his career, his film, and his relationship between this place and the work he creates.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, where you grew up, how you got interested in film? Have you studied film, formally, done workshops with NIFCO?
I was born in Happy-Valley Goose Bay and grew up in Grand Falls-Windsor. I spent my twenties traveling and living throughout the world. St. John’s has been my home base. My interest in film started very young and I’ve basically been studying movies my whole life. I did a couple weeks of film class at NIFCO back in 2012 and then started volunteering. Eventually I started working in the industry, doing workshops, taking masterclasses. My thoughts on filmmaking evolved from a peak interest as a child to consuming my life 24-7 now as a man. I watched and listened very intently once I made it onto movie sets and I absorbed a great deal of information on how the machine worked. I’m still learning and absorbing at work and at home. I work on anything I find to be an interesting project and I’ll forever be a student of the craft. I just never went to school.
Your films take concepts not usually associated with NL film – gothic horror, aliens – and yet the stories are clearly embedded in a (gorgeously shot) NL landscape.
I’m in love with the land here. It has an uncommon feel to it, wholly unique. There is no place like NL. The landscape will always be a character in whatever film I make. And what a character it is! There is something gloriously epic about this island. It adds incredible production value if you are willing to spend long days out in the cold to get the shots right. Newfoundland is a broad canvas and I want to make ambitious brush strokes, so it’s a good fit.
As for concepts not usually associated with Newfoundland, I guess I just approach what I want to direct if it will push me to new places and challenge me. Tough to be original in 2019. Movies have been here for over a century. It’s all been done. Gothic horror and aliens (it’s actually a humanoid in “Sundays” for all the sci-fi aficionados out there.) are not subjects I would have thought I’d incorporate in my first two flicks, but I’m tackling other genres now. I do like for art to transport me, and the same goes for the creation process. As for the shots, I storyboard everything with lenses in mind and location scout it all before I shoot. And I also have a phenomenal director of photography in Troy Maher and we work very well together. On many occasions things will change on the day and we create shots on the spot. It is important to think quickly when your methodical preparation goes to hell due to all the many factors at play. So we stay fluid and embrace it together. Low brow humour helps.
Speaking of gorgeously shot, can you talk a bit about your film-making vision? Sundays for example has no dialogue; the story is told entirely in visuals. Which look sumptuous and crisp – how did you achieve that?
I’m interested in telling stories through imagery more than spelling it out with dialogue. Film is a visual medium. If I wanted to do dialogue-heavy stories I would direct plays (I hope to one day). Good dialogue is fantastic when it is well-written. But for me, it’s the great scenes in my favourite movies between the dialogue that are burned into my psyche. They give an audience a window into the character’s souls. A lot of bland movies (to me) will just explain the plot through conversation, without any flare. But movies really strike a chord and speak to me through their presentation of images coupled with sound. The sonic presentation of a scene and the color palette of the setting can tell you a hell of a lot about the characters and/or story. (Luckily, I have a musical genius in composer Adam Foran and a true artist in my production designer Hilary Thomson.) This is true for the props, camera movements, lenses, lighting, the character’s wardrobe, their mannerisms, etc. They’re all non-dialogue elements to tell your story. Or you can just spell it out in dialogue, which I find somewhat boring. That being said, I do worship a lot of dialogue-heavy films. 12 Angry Men, Glengarry Glen Ross, etc. (But Lumet & Kaufman are also doing great things with the camera in 12 Angry Men on top of all that dialogue.) So for me at this moment, I want to explore a highly visual type of style with minimal dialogue. It, in turn, makes that dialogue much more effective.
Every little nuance is being registered by an audience (who are smarter than anyone realizes) and they are compiling all of this non-dialogue information in their brains. And in turn, they develop certain reactions, opinions and feelings towards a piece. They’re absorbing all this data from the image and sound which triggers precise emotions based on how their minds digest it as a whole. No two people will react exactly the same.I love getting a reaction to my work without words. So, without continuing down that rabbit hole and writing a novel, I guess what it comes down to is I am making movies that I would want to see.
When will you release New Woman? Can you tell us something about the cast?
I’ll be applying to film festivals in the coming months and it’s up to the festivals as to where exactly this film will premiere. In terms of the cast, I would love to speak about them. Rhiannon Morgan is a full-on leading lady in my eyes. The camera loves her.
You can’t teach that. Plus, she is a pure delight to work with, extremely patient, professional and absolutely dedicated. She’s a real director’s actor. What more could I ask for? She is wonderful and about to be recognized in a big way. Her performance in this film is a little miracle. And Oates! What a lad! This guy has a such a strong presence on screen. And again, he is also an absolutely dedicated professional of the highest order. Great actor. Great deliveries. Plus, he gets every obscure movie reference I throw at him. I love them both and I’ll be hiring them again. Maybe I already have?
Who are your influences?
I have a great many influences. Stanley Kubrick is my idol, not only in the quality and diversity of his projects, but also with regards to how he was able to pull off a quiet life with his family while making massive movies. I really enjoy the work of Mann, Scorsese, Lean, etc. Great directors. There are many writers I look up to: Tolkien, Hunter S. Thompson, Phillip K. Dick, etc. Their work humbles you. And I use Alexander The Great and T.E. Lawrence as examples of how to utilize your time on this earth efficiently. When you look at guys like that and what they did at such a young age, it gets to be depressing analyzing your own life. “But I just made a historical film, and it was really hard in this economy.” No one gives a shit. Will your work live on past your death? Will you make a difference? There’s a question to ask. I’m just hoping that one day I can make something that will last. So I’m aiming high, and I’ve failed many times. But you don’t see what you are made of in success, you find out in failure. And there is no great success without failure. Plus, it helps to adore the medium and love the craft. I do other things in my life and have eclectic interests, but I don’t want to do anything as much as I want to direct. Everything I am interested in and care about on this Earth can be incorporated into my work through various genres. It’s a beautiful thing.