Benjamin Crotty makes his North American debut with Fort Buchanan, a tragicomic portrait of a man stranded at a remote military post while his husband carries out a mission in Djibouti. The film screens on Wednesday, March 25 and Sunday, March 29 at the 44th New Directors/New Films, which continues through March 29.
Benjamin Crotty, France/Tunisia, 2014, 65m
Description: The feature debut of American-born, Paris-based writer-director Benjamin Crotty marks the arrival of something rare in contemporary cinema: a wholly original sensibility. Expanding his 2012 short of the same name, Crotty chronicles the tragicomic plight of frail, lonely Roger, stranded at a remote military post in the woods while his husband carries out a mission in Djibouti. Over four seasons, Roger (Andy Gillet, the androgynous star of Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon) seeks comfort and companionship from the army wives in the leisurely yet sexually frustrated community, while trying to keep a lid on his volatile adopted daughter, Roxy. Shot in richly textured 16mm, Crotty’s queer soap opera playfully estranges and deranges any number of narrative conventions, finding surprising wells of emotion amid the carnal comedy. North American Premiere
Responses from Benjamin Crotty:
On finding his voice as a filmmaker:
The first real film I made was with Gabriel Abrantes. It was 2008 and we’d both been in an art school in northern France called Le Fresnoy for a year. During this time, we started working on this idea of a story about a pseudo incestuous adopted sister/biological child brother duo, two idealistic youths from a well-to-do family. Together, the brother and sister enlist to fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom, believing they will help bring democracy to the Iraqi people. But, it turns out their father, a fat-cat industrialist, is making money off of the war. Their teen idealism has been instrumentalized not for the good of the people but for their dad’s financial gain—money, incidentally, that their mom spends on contemporary art and avant-garde home decor. We ended up making this story as a film the following summer, shooting inside a closed gallery in Porto, Portugal. Gabriel and I did everything on this movie: costumes, sets, makeup, filming, acting all roles, editing. This film is called Visionary Iraq.
On finding this story:
Fort Buchanan is set kind of on the periphery of the military, mostly concerning the romantic and sexual situations of people living on the fictitious titular base. I’m from Spokane, Washington, and when I was a kid growing up there I was in this traveling theater troupe, “The Box ’n’ Hat Players.” We would tour around to elementary schools in the area doing these scripted musical revues. I have a very precise memory of the school on the Air Force base just outside Spokane we would visit. It was a very particular ambiance. There were gates and fences to get in. On the base they had their own store, hospital, everything—even their own architecture, an identical home model deployed throughout the base. This was during the Cold War, and I remember I was struck by how this environment seemed close to descriptions I’d heard of communist socialism—one store, one school, one type of house, all government issue—and yet, it was a super-American place. It was the army, after all. So I was intrigued by that location and that type of community from a pretty young age.
Then, more recently, I had been watching this Lifetime TV show, Army Wives, which is basically a soap opera set among army spouses. I got interested in both the subject of that show—which often juxtaposes kind of sexy plots à la Sex and City with grave political situations (foreign conflict, bombings, insane veterans with guns going on rampages)—but also the language of the show. I was interested in how efficient the writing on it was, some really Hemingway-esque stuff was going on. It was very pared down. It would happen that I was curious to whom a specific line I really liked could be attributed. But, actually, the show is written by groups, like a lot of TV. So, I got quite interested in this kind of TV language, that seems really powerful, somehow perfect and yet generated pseudo anonymously. So, I was interested in constructing an “auteur” film from this kind of floating, anti-auteur dialogue.
On working with actors:
The cast members of Fort Buchanan came with pretty different acting styles, which I wanted to preserve. I wanted to make sure everyone’s acting style was respectful of everyone else’s. There were film actors, soap opera actors, non-actors, and kids involved.
The person who I worked the most in-depth with was Andy Gillet, who plays Roger. This was a delicate role to develop because Roger is kind of pathetic. He really goes through the ringer in the film (getting beat up, falling down stairs, getting a really bad makeover and haircut, being abandoned by his spouse), but I still wanted Roger to be a kind of dignified man, a bit reserved. So it was important Andy play the role rather earnestly.
David Baiot, who plays Frank, Roger’s husband, is a lead on a major French soap opera called Plus Belle la Vie. This show is on every day so David is very comfortable and at ease in front of the camera. I really like this quality of tranquil autonomy he has, everything seems quite effortless. This autonomy is perfect for the Frank character because we should feel how little need he has for Roger.
For the girls, Pauline Jacquard and Iliana Zabeth as well as the producer Judith Lou Lévy all acted in the Bertrand Bonello film House of Pleasures. And Mati Diop is a director and actress, notably in the Claire Denis film 35 Shots of Rum. So these girls are all quite accomplished actresses that I felt lucky to work with. Nancy Lane is the mother of a friend of mine. She has a quite pronounced accent and I like having this American woman kind of just hanging around all the time. It feels a bit like she is standing in for me.
Guillaume Palin, who plays the personal trainer/farmer is a dairy farmer. Working with him was very interesting because the shoot was spread out over two years (15 shooting days). By the end, Guillaume was kind of performing his initial naïveté, as he had become very savvy in front of the camera by this time.</p>
On the production’s biggest challenges:
We had some big problems with nature at certain moments. The first part of the film, the winter portion, was shot in February. It was a very cold period in France and we had really no money at the time. We shot on 16mm with five rolls of film and we had a day and a half. So a 16mm camera is, as you know, a machine with cogs. As it was well below zero, the animal fat that serves as grease to lubricate the camera kept freezing. This meant the film would constantly get stuck and the camera would jam. The director of photography had to keep cradling the camera in his arms in between takes like a swaddling baby and many takes would jam after only a few seconds. This sounds a bit funny in retrospect, but it compromised many of our shots and it’s lucky we were able to edit coherently this first part of the film. The cold also exploded most of the lights we were using.
At the other climate extreme, when we were shooting in Tunisia, which stands in for Djibouti in the film, we were on the border of the desert. We had quite a severe dust storm during this long party sequence that we shot all night, the last night there. It was a bit chaotic with the wind and sand, and during this time, for some reason, we also decided to try to place a light in the pool. This shorted out the electricity in the hotel we were shooting at. These nature and electricity difficulties were actually a real motif of the film since we were often shooting in the woods with generators, mixing electricity and water.
What’s funny when you watch the film is I think the spectator has an impression of lazy comfort, all these people loafing around in a kind of sexy way, when actually it was rather intense physically speaking.
On what’s next:
I’m co-writing an English-language feature with James N. Kienitz Wilkins right now. It’s a love story that turns into an action film set along the U.S./Mexico border. One of the main characters is a CGI black bear. We have finished a first draft of the script and are looking for an American producer. Back in France, I am in the very early stages of writing a new French-language feature. Looks like a sci-fi love triangle set in outer space/on other planets at this point. Also in France, I will make a short film this year with the artist Bertrand Dezoteux. I’m also interested in directing things other people wrote and writing things for other people to direct too, so hopefully some of that [will happen] in the future.
Bonus: Benjamin Crotty talks about working with actors in this New Directors/New Films video interview.