Inverting Expectations: An Interview with Guy Ben-Ner

The following interview was originally published by Artslant on April 28, 2013

Guy Ben-Ner began with an idea. He wanted to divorce a soundtrack from a film, then make a new film that accommodated the appropriated soundtrack. The idea provided a mechanism, defining the rules of a game which would yield Ben-Ner’s latest work, Soundtrack. He decided to appropriate 11 minutes of sound from Steven Spielberg’s, War of the Worlds. In Ben-Ner’s version the world is not ending exactly, rather his kitchen erupts into chaos. The sound of rain in the Spielberg movie is described by a frying egg in Ben-Ner’s, just as the Hollywood sounds of robots are explained in Soundtrack by way of an everyday blender. Ben-Ner embodies the voice of lead as his three children, ages 18, 15 and two, play their own parts in the score. His parents also make a debut appearance, as well as friends and Yaara Shehori, the mother of the two-year old child. Having enlisted this cast, Ben-Ner wrote, directed and edited the resulting film, intentionally emphasizing a disconnect between the overarching soundtrack and the visual actions that fulfill it. The effect is breathtaking — a ballet of everyday gestures in which a fried egg plays as much of a principle role as the children themselves. Consider also the lineage of this work — a piece originally written in 1938 by HG Welles, reworked for radio by Orson Welles and broadcast in 1938, to the 2005 adaptation by Spielberg, and now Ben-Ner’s translation in 2013. As with much of the artist’s work, he plucks up tales in the collective consciousness, borrowing the readymade structure of a family and grafting it onto the folk story of alien invasions and apocalypse. These structures provide an exterior framework within which Ben-Ner explores his own status as a divorced father failing to achieve a sense of order. Ben-Ner adeptly explores the relationship between global and familial worlds, between sound and image, between the impersonal and personal spheres of influence, begging the question of individual agency.

Caroline Picard: You often work from common lore stories — how did you start working that way?

Guy Ben-Ner: Early on I realized that people enter the gallery  at different times and I wanted to find ways to help people if they came in the middle of something. If you see someone is sitting on an island in a film, immediately you know what the story is. Then I thought about these stories as narratives that we know without having to read them. Robinson Crusoe  or Moby Dick — children in Freud are the same, everyone knows what the Oedipus Complex is without having read Freud. These narratives are kind of imposed on you and in a way you measure your life through them. Later, I started using narratives that my children could understand. Because I thought working with children is immoral from the get-go —

CP: Why do you say that?

GBN: Because you cannot work with them without abusing them. You understand more than they do, you are their father or director — your role always has some degree of abuse in it. And I thought how to deal with that? Eventually I decided that on some level the children have to understand the story we make. At least so they can enjoy the final product.

CP: In Soundtrack your youngest daughter is such an integral part of the film — and yet she seems like a totally unpredictable actor, she’s the least affected by the chaos.

GBN: The young one, Amalia, is playing. And if you look at the film carefully, you’ll see that she’s bribed throughout the film. I’d say I want her to get there, so I’d put her mother’s iPhone playing Amalia’s favorite movie in one place and she would run to the phone. Then it was just a matter of doing a few takes. Sometimes she’d run and I’d make her laugh and sometimes she’d run and I didn’t. Gradually I understood if I wanted her laughing or not, what kind of character do I have to be, because I can’t build her character through acting but through playing with her.

CP: Do you think that there is a big difference between playing and acting?

GBN: Yes, of course. Playing…you know I haven’t worked with the children for a long time, but I remember the phase when Elia, my oldest daughter, began acting. Embarrassment would come to the forefront of the camera and she wanted to see how it looked and how she looked would be part of the terms of filming her. At the time, my son Amir was still playing. When they play, usually I would make sets in the house and the sets would be there for months and the children lived in the sets and it became kind of like their home. So in Wild Boy, my son actually lived in these hills that were built in the house and you could tell him from time to time, OK you run from here to here. It involved not getting him into character but getting him into the whole environment. That allowed him to imagine he was there.

CP: I think the last time you worked with your children was in 2007, for Stealing Beauty. What made you start working with your children again in this instance?

GBN: There was a moment I decided that I was doing it on automatic pilot. Whatever the idea, I’m the guy who does everything with his children, so then I said OK, no. I started developing and doing things independently without them. I decided that if and when I go ask them to participate in another movie, the movie has to, in its original thing, imply a relationship between a parent and children — you know, a family theme, otherwise I would not do it. I did maybe 5 or 6 movies without them. Soundtrack just kind of necessitated it. I had the machine first.

CP: The machine?

GBN: The machine of the soundtrack. The cinematic machine in Drop the Monkey is no editing, which is something that can only be done with VHS camcorders. Here the machine was the soundtrack — it’s the opposite of dubbing or folie. I had the idea but I didn’t know what kind of movie I would make. Once War of the Worlds came up, it was about a divorced father, children coming in for the weekend, all hell breaks because he doesn’t know how to deal with them. I realized I was interested in that. It brought back working with the children.

CP: What drew you to that story?

GBN: I realized the HG Wells book doesn’t have a family cell. I was struggling to think why American movies always have to scale everything down into a family cell. And in Spielberg it’s suggested that when the children come, the father cannot cope with them; that struggle is projected onto reality as an invasion of aliens, destroying the earth. Once he becomes a good father, we defeat the aliens. What’s implied is that everything is based on family; you have to take care of your family and then everything will be OK outside. The person who made the most original use of that theme was Hitchcock, but now it’s almost like an academic demand..

I wanted to bring everything back into the kitchen. In the Hollywood movie the family unit is vomited into the streets of New Jersey; I was trying to stuff it back into the kitchen, to see the family as a reflection of the outside world. A reversed process.

CP: That makes me think of the various translations that War of the Worlds has gone through — you know, even from Orson Welles on the radio, and how radio suddenly realized it could inspire mass hysteria —

GBN: That is a really important aspect that’s not in Sound Track exactly, but is important for me throughout my work. Because you can see that art had the biggest impact when the medium was really lacking — it was just sound. So it’s almost a paradigm of how you can be affected with less, not with more.

CP: The first time I understood folie what sounds were was during Jaques Tati’s Mon Oncle. In the beginning the wife is walking down a driveway —

GBN: She’s walking and you realize that Tati’s clicking a glass [to make the sound of her feet on the pavement]. The amazing thing is that he builds her character with sound. She is annoying and fragile because of the sound he gives her. He’s one of the directors who knows how to use sound as an image. He’s one of the masters.

CP: This is going back a step, but when you’re bringing the apocalypse back into the home, it feels like you’re still negotiating an outside influence —

GBN: We were shooting into the middle of the last Israeli operation in Gaza. The things that my daughter sees on the computer are all bombings in Lebanon and Gaza — Israelis using F16s to bomb them, so you also have this outside that penetrates your family.

CP: I think you learn a lot about whatever fictional world you are in when you see how violence is treated. Like in Wylie Coyote cartoons, if the coyote falls off the cliff and then gets up again, then you know that nobody dies in that world. That’s one of the things that I found really unsettling about the Soundtrack piece, because on the one hand I recognized the soundtrack as an artificial, Hollywood production and yet whenever digital screens appeared on camera in your film they contained real news footage. It felt like a reminder that even in the somewhat slapstick world of your kitchen, violence has real consequence.

GBN: That was one of the places where the idea of combining the soundtrack with news imagery really reached a climax for me. Almost to the point where I feel it’s immoral to do it. I took the image and married it with sound and it becomes unbearable to think what I’d done because I used real bombings. In a funny way Soundtrack is primarily a story about divorce — you know that sound technicians when you read theory books about sound it’s described in terms of the “marriage” and “divorce” of sound and image — that’s how they talk about it.

CP: Do you think it’s manipulative when you use real footage?

GBN: Not necessarily. I mean, it’s art. Everything do you is manipulative.  It’s not reality. You frame things. You’re already manipulating. I don’t feel that there is something that is pure documentary just as I don’t think that pure fiction exists. I think that things are connected. You put a camera in the world and the world looks in the mirror first to see if it’s OK.

CP: But why do you say it’s immoral to incorporate the news footage?

GBN: I don’t feel right to do any manipulation with a real bombing. Once I attached sound —even to enhance how horrific it is — I manipulate something there. For me the justification is that that whole scene talks about manipulation. This is a wild stretch but just as the Israeli army is using American hyper technology to bomb, I am using the hyper technology of sound to make a movie. So there is a connection. It’s about manipulation, but still I have the feeling — I call it immoral — the feeling that I am doing something wrong. There is s six year-old girl running in the street shouting and I am attaching Spielberg’s sound to it. What’s amazing is that those places are where the viewer forgets the mechanics of the sound, because it’s shot footage and the sound seems right there, exactly there where it’s really hyper-real; that’s exactly where the manipulation is less evident. It’s quite stunning for me to see.