Interview : Ben Ditto on his surreal short film Spectacular Reality, directing via FaceTime and staying sane in lockdown

Artist, creative director, publisher, shitposter extraordinaire. The multi-faceted, multi-talented Ben Ditto discusses his short film Spectacular Reality and much more.

Usually, my introductions here are straight-forward. Many of the directors, writers, actors and composers I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for Moviehole are described with such words before I’ve even spoken to them, and that’s not a problem. There’s far more to a director than just directing films, and actors don’t just work in front the camera – the diversity of their talents and interests reveals itself in the flow of conversation, and that’s one of the most rewarding parts of doing this.

I’ve found it far more difficult to describe Ben Ditto with just a single word. Broadly speaking, he’s a creative director, having worked closely with ground-breaking modern musical groups and artists including The 1975, Rina Sawayama, Arca and Grimes.

Arca x Vogue Talk by Ben Ditto from Concrete on Vimeo.

As art director at digital and print magazine Dazed Beauty, Ben collaborates with CGI artists and beauty icons to create futuristic, other-worldly visions of human identity – their Kylie Jenner feature is an absolute highlight.

Ditto’s publishing company, Ditto London, produces a wide variety of high-quality and gloriously niche print media, from Skinhead: An Archive (a mixed-media examination of the multi-facted skinhead subculture through the ages) to a photography book on Icelandic black metal to Grobišče: Society, Politics and Mass Graves, Ben’s own publication from 2008 concerning Yugoslavian war graves.

Skinhead: An Archive | Ditto London

His latest project is a collaboration with writers Dasha Nekrasova and Madeline Quinn. Directed by Ditto, Spectacular Reality is a superb short film blending talent scouting, corporate astroturfing and insidious, surreal elements that ooze around the edges. The project began as a commission by No Agency, a talent agency based in New York that represents Nekrasova.

“I was very familiar with Dasha. I was commissioned by No Agency to do a special project, so I said “let’s do a film”. It was in the middle of the last lockdown, and I was trying to think of how we could do something in those circumstances that actually had integrity”, Ditto explains.

It’s no real surprise that these three ended up working together on this kind of project. Alongside co-host Anna Khachiyan, Nekrasova regularly produces Red Scare, a notorious podcast loosely belonging to what some online critics have referred to as ‘the dirtbag Left’. Quinn and Nekrasova have also collaborated on their first feature film – about two roommates whose world is turned upside-down when they discover their new apartment was formally owned by Jeffrey Epstein – which recently premiered at the Berlin Film Festival under the title The Scary of Sixty-First.

“I think Madeline was probably more familiar with my work than Dasha was, but we all kind of knew each other a little bit”, Ditto tells me. “Alex at No Agency suggested seeing if Dasha and Madeline would want to write the script, and for me that was a perfect fit because we’re all in the same world, really. I really like what they do.”

His initial concept for the film was to depict a series of auditions which would come together to form a greater narrative. “You begin to realise through the narrative that these people are cyborgs, or something like that. Then the writers – very cleverly – said “why don’t we make it about fake news?”. It’s equal parts satirical and unsettling; finding the balance of tone was key for the team. 

“In the end, I think we got the balance right. Some of it’s satirical and quite obvious, and some of it’s quite multi-layered. Actually, the original desire was for it to be kind of a 2020 version of early Bret Easton Ellis stuff, which I love. The other thing is that No Agency is a New York-based modelling agency, and I wanted it to be this thing where you couldn’t tell what was people being themselves, people acting as themselves, people acting as other people – do you know what I mean?”.

Spectacular Reality | No Agency New York

Spectacular Reality is presented as if we’re audience to genuine audition tapes, and cleverly features a cast comprised of real-life models. “When you read Glamorama and American Psycho, you’re wondering, what’s real? What isn’t real? What’s just a metaphor? At the end of it, it’s making a statement about society at the time it was written. So I thought I’d like to do a 2020 sci-fi version of that.

“If the occasional person gets it, then you’ve really kind of scored. It’s not so obtuse that nobody understands it; it’s just hard to fathom. But the meaning is there for the people who really get it, and I think we manage that with this one…just about.”

I came across some behind-the-scenes footage of Spectacular Reality, finding it almost as fascinating as the short film itself. In it, Ditto’s face floats on the end of a tripod, streaming live through the iPhone attached to it. Due to the restrictive circumstances of the ongoing global pandemic, he had no choice but to direct the film via FaceTime. “I was in London and they were in New York,” he explains. “I went to a hotel, because I had these hotel credits and thought it’d be easier to concentrate. I just sat there on this hotel bed with a phone or maybe my laptop, and they had me on a tripod with a phone pointed at the crew and a monitor. 

“They showed me around and I had the hair and makeup and styling people sending me things for approval. For the project that it was, I think it actually worked out really well. If I’d been there, it may have been a different product.”

My own introduction to Ben was through his increasingly popular Instagram page, where he’s cultivated a diverse and very enthusiastic following thanks to his thought-provoking discussions of future tech, global politics and a steady stream of video and images that defies categorisation.

“With my social media presence, that’s kind of become my job,” he tells me. “It’s something I do quite naturally, and I really enjoy it. So if you asked me what I’d like to do for the next two hours, I would love to lie on my sofa and just shitpost and have weird conversations with people. I absolutely love it.”

It’s not entirely unsurprising that his original Instagram page was deactivated by their moderation team between the time we spoke and the time of publishing this article, given their increasingly puritanical approach to posts. He’s since managed to make a temporary haven for his content, but it’s hard to say whether he’ll ever get the original account back.

Ditto 2.0 – he cannot be stopped | Instagram

On that note, one of the main ideas that drew me to interviewing Ben is the dichotomy of his provocative subject matter and his approachable personality. Although he’s undoubtedly always working on some form of new creative project, he always makes time to respond to questions and comments while drawing a firm but fair line in the sand when it comes to interpersonal boundaries – something that’s increasingly more important in an age of para-social media relationships.

“In the last year I’ve really had the chance to refine that and build my audience. I treat Instagram like a radio station, basically. I have this audience of about 50,000 tuning in each week in some way”.

Being stuck in a flat craving social interaction throughout 2020 is an experience most of us can relate to, and this online community has been crucial for him in keeping cabin fever from setting in. “Having the time to do that and start a Discord channel and a Telegram group has been great. It’s felt like the world has been kept open for me, and I’m sure for a lot of other people as well”.

I was curious as to how he initially approached being in lockdown in the early months of last year, when it became increasingly clear that this was going to be a long-haul experience. “I think there seems to be two routes that people took. Me and my friend just decided we were going to have a real disciplined structure; a plan for every day. I’ve kept the house tidy, I’ve been cooking, I’ve been doing exercise regularly, blah, blah, blah. 

“And the other school of thought was just completely letting yourself go. It’s an either/or thing. There wasn’t much in-between. All the people who had a bit more of a tight-ass attitude to it are doing okay, and some friends of mine really did lose their marbles”.

That’s undoubtedly a familiar sentiment for so many of us around the world. As the pandemic has continued through the New Year, it’s been interesting to observe how we all individually and collectively cope with such bizarre circumstances. “I don’t know about you”, he continues, “but when I look back at 2020, I feel like I have literally just been in my flat for the whole year. But when I look back at what I’d actually produced, I’ve actually done fucking loads of work. It just didn’t feel like it”.

Spectacular Reality | No Agency New York

For countless millions, the gradual return to pre-COVID lifestyles will be a relief that defies description. Thanks to New Zealand’s widely effective COVID response, the entertainment industry in my country has slowly begun to wind up in places. Amazon’s Lord of the Rings television series is going full steam ahead with international cast and crew making their way down under to shoot, and this past week saw a musical lineup lead by local act Six60 play a stadium gig to a crowd of around 50,000. For those in countries like the United States and the UK, that kind of live experience is hopefully beginning to peek over the horizon.

As an artist, being able to share his work with the masses in a physical sense rather than a purely digital audience is high on his list of things to look forward to when the world becomes a little less topsy-turvy. “Let’s say I work with a band like The 1975. Normally, if we do a music video or something like that, that feels good. Then we go to a live show, and we see 30,000 people watching it on a big screen. There’s that kind of communal experience, and it’s been completely absent.

“So all of these bits of work have been launching, and yeah, it’s out on Instagram and people like it, and then…that’s it. There’s none of the sort of resonance you’d get if you directed a film and you could go with your friends and family to the cinema to watch its premiere”.

While we’re still not out of the woods yet, human creativity persists despite everything the past year has thrown at us all. It’s hard to say exactly what the media landscape will look like in a year’s time, given the rather monumental shifts in examples like Hollywood’s slow shift to streaming distribution for its latest releases. But I’m excited for the silver linings of this era; what we’ve learned from it all and how that will inform the art we create, as well as the ways we experience it. And there’s no doubt Ben Ditto will be at the forefront of that near-future zeitgeist.

SPECTACULAR REALITY can be viewed at the link below.

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