Interview with Ben S. Hyland

Multiple award winning director talks about his latest film, his early work, and how he entered the industry

Interview with Ben S. Hyland

Could you first give a brief introduction for the reader?

I'm a writer/director based in London and so far in my career I have primarily made fictional short films. I've screened films at 30+ festivals around the world.

Your latest film, Padlock, explores the often under-reported world of male domestic abuse. Where did the idea come from?

I made a film called '88' in 2015. It was part of the Colchester Film Festival 60 hour film challenge. The film came third from around 1400 registered teams. I think they had about 500 films submitted. Once the film was online I got a phone call from an actor called Valmike Rampersad. He loved the film and said he wanted to make something around the subject matter of domestic abuse against men. That conversation really started me on this road. Over the following months my writing partner (Jonathan Young) and I worked with charities and survivors of abuse to develop the script and ultimately we shot the film with Valmike in the leading role.

Including the writing process, how long did Padlock take to create?

It was a nine-month period before we started shooting. The initial research period was very time consuming, I was learning about something that I knew nothing about. It was like learning a new language. Domestic abuse against men was alien to me. This was a really big reason why I pursued the project. I like subject matters that don't get much coverage. This in itself provides an element of originality. In total from starting research to having a completed film ready for viewing I'd say it was a twelve-month period.

I've watched Padlock and found it to be an exceptionally powerful, if slightly harrowing watch. Did you find it a difficult film to create?

Yes. There was a weight of responsibility on our shoulders trying to get interactions as realistic as possible. Researching the types of abuse (of which we didn't really scratch the surface in the film) was also important. I was very privileged to have conversations with multiple survivors. I think that's where the pressure came from but it also brought the film alive. It became a piece of fiction that was directly influenced by real life experiences. Honestly the stories were harrowing. I'm glad that came across in the film. I hate to admit that the conversations left me emotionally drained. I was fighting so hard not to have it impact negatively on my own relationship. It took so much out of me. I was able to step back and realise that what I felt wasn't even a fraction of what these brave men have been through. That perspective really made me refocus on ensuring that I got the film right.

Another big part of this film was the help and support of charities like TENUK and The Mankind Initiative. They gave their time and contacts so generously. A huge thing for Jonathan and I was to ensure that the film felt like a piece of fiction in it's own right and not a charity video. I think it walks a fine line but ultimately was a success in that respect. One of the goals of the final film was that it would start a conversation that no-one appeared to be having. I'm hoping that we can achieve this as more and more people watch and engage with the film.

Can you explain the focus on the padlock, and what lay behind it?

The padlock represents the power and control in the dysfunctional and abusive relationship. That's what abuse boils down to – power. The person that has the key owns that power. It was also our intention that each character sees the padlock. There is a lot of research into the manipulation of a perpetrator that also leads of third parties seeing signs of abuse in front of their own eyes but not acting on it. There's a lot subtle references in the film that may not be obvious on first viewing. I like that we were able to really layer the film. I could go on to explain what's inside the locked cabinet but I fear it would spoil the film for those that haven't seen it.

When will the reader be able to watch Padlock?

We're just starting our film festival run. Padlock plays in Maryland International Film Festival in May and we're hoping it will snowball from that point. A successful festival run

will see it offline for another twelve months but the film's producer and I will evaluate as things develop. We want people to be able to see it. We want it to be able to help victims of abuse but we feel that a solid festival run will help when we eventually release online. We're building a community as we continue to garnish more exposure

To date you've produced 10 shorts and one feature film? How are the two mediums different, and which do you prefer?

It's funny. I made Frontman (my feature) as pretty much my second project. It was a no budget project. I was young (possibly deluded) as were my crew. We were just making it up as we went along. It was a great achievement and boy did I learn a lot in that month. The film had a small festival run but it never sold. In many ways I was naïve but it was that naivety that got the film finished. I'd say I went back to shorts and learnt the craft of storytelling and really just tried to work out why I was making films at all. It's strange hearing that I've made ten short films because I'd really say that only my last three films have been ones that I'm immensely proud of. I suppose it's like anything. The more you do something the better you get at it. I think the last few films have shown a maturity that the initial body doesn't represent but the great thing about all my films is how much I've earnt whilst making them. I think when I make another feature it will be much stronger because of that body of work behind me. So to answer your question I love both, they don't differ in approach. It still involved a huge amount of research and preproduction time. Maybe ask me again at the end of 2017 as I have a feature project picking up some pace at the moment.

What has been your favourite film to direct?

Wow that's a tough one. I'd probably have the say Padlock. I worked with some wonderful actors. I felt so prepared and completely at ease with the subject matter by the time we came to shoot. I also knew it was the most powerful piece I'd worked on to date so that was exciting. It was a positive experience, it was life affirming and I hope that it goes on to help victims of abuse.

What's next in terms of directing, do you already have plans for a new film?

I'm going to use the phrase, 'I have multiple projects in different stages of development'. I used to cringe at that but it's totally true. I'm in early talks with a charity to make a short fictional piece about domestic servitude and human trafficking. I've written a first draft of a feature film that I'm now developing further with my writing partner Jonathan. I'm also working with another writer to develop a really nice film about a young man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. There's another couple of writers that have scripts ready to go but it's really all about funding. I'd love to do them all. It's certainly tougher picking projects now. Knowing the work that goes into them to get them right. They have to be ones that I want to put my heart into and possibly leave a little bit of it behind.

Did you always want to be a director? Who inspired you, and what keeps your motivated?

Yes. I never wanted to do anything else. Possible as a child I wanted to be Hulk Hogan but I genuinely always wanted to make films and tell stories. I grew up in Nottingham and the early work of Shane Meadows really captivated me. He told small stories about normal people and of course being from Nottingham himself it definitely inspired me. I get excited with the smallest nugget of a new idea. I'm lucky because I'm an ideas guy. I always have something that I'm playing around with. What keep me motivated is asking why I'm making something? Has is been seen before? How is this new idea different? I'm not afraid to throw away an idea that I've been working on for months if something more exciting pops into my head. Striving to be original pushes me forward.

You've previously worked in marketing. Have those skills helped you with your film work?

I worked as a Marketing Manager for ten years. I think the last few years were just on autopilot. I loved the people I worked with and it was an easy job. It really allowed me time to work on films. My boss was flexible enough to give me large blocks of time away from work. I mean I made my feature film whilst I was working full time. Have I implemented skills from my old job? I think it's maybe more about life skills. Directing is a very personable job. For me it's about relationships and trust. I think you just get better at that the older you get.

What did you make of the Oscars debacle?

At first I felt terrible for La La Land. Winning an Oscar is maybe a once in a lifetime moment and to have that snatched away from them was heart breaking. Then I realised that all the articles on social media were talking about the screw up and that really took the shine away from Moonlight. It's a ground breaking film for many reasons. It's also a film that cost only $1.5 million. That in itself is astonishing and inspiring for filmmakers around the world.

Having won multiple awards yourself across numerous films, do you believe awards and ceremonies actually benefit the industry and the artist, or is there a sense of elitism to them?

It's always nice to win an award. It means someone has deemed your work worthy of praise. I don't want to generalise but we're a pretty self-conscious bunch. I mean you put one year into producing a 17-minute film and you want an audience to get something from it.

The reality is there are only a handful of awards in the industry that will open doors for you. You win an Oscar or BAFTA then you'll get a chance to make something bigger and (hopefully) better. You win Sundance or SXSW then I'm sure it'll help you get meetings to finance your next dream project. If you win a small regional festival it's still great but the likelihood is no one important will care. That's not to say a filmmaker shouldn't care. It's inspiring, it builds confidence and it shows you're doing something right. I love my collection of little regional awards. When I have moments of self doubt they remind me that my work has at least impacted some people and that can only be a positive thing.

What do you view as the biggest barrier to entry for those who want to be directors?

There is so much more content out there thanks to innovative and cheap prosumer kit that it's easy for good films to get washed over and drown never to be seen by an audience. It's just super competitive. Having said that I'm a firm believer that the cream will rise to the top. Having belief in what you're doing is important. If you don't believe in yourself then no one else will.

If you could travel back in time to 16 year old Ben, what one piece of advice would you give?

Full disclosure – my memory is poor so I'm not sure I'd recognise 16 year old Ben. I'd probably say that there'll be testing times throughout life. But things will always get better. Even on days when it feels like the sky is falling it's just a rain cloud and it'll pass. Everything is easier when you get older and gain perspective on life. Persevere and believe in yourself.

What advice would you give to a reader who wants to follow in your footsteps?

If you're starting out then just make stuff. Don't worry if you don't win a BAFTA with your first short film. Just get people you know and make films. That's the only way to learn and to improve. As you continue you'll network with new crew and actors. You'll develop strong working relationships. It's an industry based on relationships. If you're further along then just make sure you're making films that you can talk passionately about. Make sure you're making films that make YOU happy. Find your voice and be true to your vision.

Where can people find you and your work?

https://vimeo.com/benshyland

http://www.benshyland.com/

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us!

If you or someone you know has been affected or a victim of domestic abuse, there is help available. Visit ManKind Initiative or TenUK

Author

Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe..

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