Ben Barton

Ten Questions with Ben Barton

Ben Barton is a seasoned filmmaker renowned for his traditional style of filmmaking. We were lucky enough to catch up with him at a recent short film night to chat about his works, his passion for Super 8 and his connection with David Bowie.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into filmmaking.

Well I grew up on the Romney Marsh, and now live just along the coast in Folkestone. I’m married to an amazing man, 14 years together, we have an adopted son and live in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of town. I love the country life. I’ve been making films since I was about 11 – film has always been my passion. But I work as a professional writer, journalism, copywriting and poetry too. That’s my bread and butter.

Some people get insulted by the word ‘amateur’, but I don’t. That word comes from the French for ‘love’, the same as ‘amour’. It means you do something for love rather than money, and that’s exactly why I make films.

You are known for your classic style of filmmaking with your shorts such as ‘Little Red’, which we screened at a recent Hellfire Short Film Night. What is it about the old style that appeals to you?

There’s a bit of a family connection. My dad made films on Super 8 with me and my cousins in the 80s. I still have all his films. So I grew up with it.

And there’s Derek Jarman. He famously shot films on Super 8 too. He was our local celebrity where I grew up, you used to see him on the High Street or in the local bookshop. When I first started making art, and coming to terms with my own sexuality, Derek was my hero. So I guess I began my own Super 8 filmmaking to follow him. That’s how it all started.

You recently made the ‘Abducted’ short film, can you give us some information about that?

There’s this annual competition called ‘Straight 8’ where filmmakers all over the world shoot a film on one 50ft cartridge of Super 8. The winners get premiered at Cannes Film Festival. The catch is you don’t get to watch the film – you have to send it to the judges undeveloped. That means no editing, and you have to construct the soundtrack completely blind. Then the judges watch all the films, with the big boys up against little artists like me.

I didn’t make the cut this year, so no Cannes for me. But I don’t mind. I still got a great new film out of it. It’s a thriller, a first for me.

What is it like to shoot on Super 8 – what are the pros and cons?

Well the main benefit is the aesthetic – Super 8 has that nostalgic, painterly quality that you just don’t get on video. And it can’t be faked.

As for the cons, well there are plenty! The cameras I use are 45 years old so they can break. It’s incredibly expensive: around £15 per minute shooting time. So you can’t just shoot away as much as you like. Then there’s the patience required. The film gets sent off to be processed in an old-fashioned photo lab, so it can take up to a month before you get to see the results. I also edit all my films by hand on a splicer and projector, so that takes a lot of time too. Of course I could do it all digitally, but I just feel closer to the films doing it this way. It’s really hands on.

What are your thoughts on the way filmmaking is going, is there still a place in the industry for older formats such as Super 8?

Obviously digital is the major thing now, and it’s here to stay, but I think it’s important we don’t let ‘real’ film die out. Kodak are launching a new Super 8 camera this year, so that’s a step in the right direction. Personally, I can’t see why we can’t have both.

What makes a great film for you and who in the industry inspires you?

I have an eclectic taste, but have been into horror films since I was a young kid. I’m a massive genre fan, especially French and Spanish horror films. And I’ve been obsessed with Hammer Horror all my life.

But generally, I love cinema that makes you think, rather than big rollercoaster thrills. Don’t get me wrong, I like blockbuster movies too, they’re a part of the magic of cinema, but my own personal taste is more low-key. My favourite director is Derek Jarman (of course) but also Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Robert Bresson, Michael Haneke and Andrei Tarkovsky. I love nostalgic cinema.

What is your favourite part of the filmmaking process?

Editing, I think. I love seeing it all coming together. That’s the magic of filmmaking for me. I actually find shooting quite a stressful process. Sometimes it’s hard to get what’s in my head into the shots. Lots of trial and error. It’s when I’m alone and the elements all come together – titles, final edit, music – that I start to enjoy it.

What film projects are you currently working on?

I’m editing my lo-fi sci-fi film called ‘Stella Erratica’ which I shot late last year. It was a big project that involved me hiring a NASA spacesuit. I was all set to shoot in Folkestone one weekend, then I was informed by the spacesuit company that David Bowie needed one for ‘Blackstar’ over in Romania! So his production team asked if we could fly the suit over there first. Of course I said yes! For the inconvenience he paid for my suit hire – such a kind gesture. It was only 500 quid but a lot of money for me. I had no idea it would be Bowie’s final project. When he died just a few weeks later I was devastated, like millions of others. So I want to make sure I do this film right. That’s why I’m taking my time.

I also have a horror short that I’m hoping to film this Summer, plus a longer film called ‘Demigods’ that’s currently in the writing stage – set to be my longest film yet at over half an hour. I’m slowly working up to that first feature!

What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker?

To just get out there and do it! I spent too many years stuck in my own head, planning films I wanted to make, writing outlines and scripts, all just dreaming of ‘one day’ when I had the budget or time to actually make them. But now I know you have to just get off your arse and make the most of what you have.

And finally, if we want to see more of your work where do we look?

In the past, I’ve always been a bit wary of having my films online. Back when YouTube was quite new someone downloaded all my films and started selling DVDs on eBay without my permission. In anger I took them all down, and even today I don’t have much online.

But this year I set up a new Facebook page where I’m sharing short clips and selected films. It’s if anyone wants to have a look.

Another thing is that, for me, the Super 8 format just doesn’t come across the same on a computer screen or iPad. I’d much rather people came to an actual screening, at a film night or festival, and watch my films with a crowd of people. To have a drink, socialise and chat afterwards. To see them being projected, like they were intended. It’s another of those old-fashioned quirks of mine, I guess…

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