One man’s journey through minefields, spaceports and tundra to unexpectedly become a director.
Not many directors win a Gold Lion in Cannes for their first film. That fact alone makes RSA Films director Ben Scott something quite remarkable, not to mention the raft of other accolades his film for Red Bull has picked up this year. But not many directors have the background like his either. Having travelled to the most extreme parts of the planet as a production designer and worked on some pretty iconic, high-end film productions, he had a pretty solid foundation in filmmaking before he helmed his first shoot.
It’s not hard to see where Ben got his creative bent. His mother was a seamstress while his father ran the prop department at the Royal Opera House. His mum taught him to knit – a skill he still uses occasionally – and his childhood was generally filled with people around him making things for the purposes of entertainment, mainly designers bringing models of things they were going to build for the stage. Ben didn’t need much convincing to follow in his father’s footsteps. “The idea someone would pay me to make models sounded fun,” he says. “I was single-mindedly interested in production design from very early on.”
Ben took up his pencil as a youngster, working as a designer at the National Youth Theatre before taking the classic route of a foundation course at the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St Martins). But he soon turned his back on the stage.
He loved working in theatre, but film needed great production design more, he decided. “I thought that film wasn’t theatrical enough,” he remembers. “I was actively trying to design more theatrical productions. After the heyday of Fellini and all those theatrical films it became very realistic and true to life. It was just replicating and reproduction.” Ben made it his mission to create heightened cinematic environments.
The National Film School ran a post-graduate course that attracted him. The problem was he didn’t have an undergraduate degree. Not wanting to waste time, he pretended he did have one and just used his experience working in the West End for the National Youth Theatre as his “theatre design degree” portfolio. Amazingly they bought it and Ben ended up entering the film world with an MA but no BA.
Ben’s first job out of university was as an art director and assistant to renowned production designer John Beard – the perfect apprenticeship to teach him the nuts and bolts of doing the job properly.
“As a student you design on paper and can be wildly creative,” he says. “There’s no reality check of a budget.” Suddenly working to one was a big lesson. “A lot of people can design amazing things. It’s much more of a skill to design stuff to a budget and a specific brief that can actually be built in the time.” That’s what his time with John Beard taught him. And he got good at it.
It gave him the chance to play in the biggest league possible, too, working on commercials like the Paul Weiland-directed electricity flotation ads – a six-week shoot taking up most stages at Shepperton. “That was a big eye-opener to me as to what could be done,” he says.
But when Ben struck out on his own as a freelance art director was when he started to have his biggest adventure. He worked on a big TV series for the BBC about the life of controversial British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, shot in South Africa over nine months. “I thought it would be great fun to spend the extra three months driving home, to make it a round year,” he says, casually.
Cape Town to London is a fair old road rip, as it turns out. And it wasn’t quite the fun sightseeing tour he’d prepared for. Travelling up the east coast of Africa was the more direct route, but the more politically unstable in the mid 90s.
With the benefit of hindsight, driving through war-torn Sudan solo might not have been the most sensible choice. He got stuck in a minefield at one point. “That’s when I realised I probably wasn’t as adventurous as I thought I was,” he says. “The reality of picking your way through bits of metal, poking at the sand, was a very sobering experience.” He backtracked safely and ended up taking a different route.
Apart from nearly going blind as a side effect from anti-malarial drug Lariam, he got home basically unscathed. Everyone said he was crazy to spend three months not working – the greatest fear among freelancers – but his ill-advised trip ended up working for him. “There was a story going around of this crazy art director who’d just driven all the way across Africa on his own.” It wasn’t long before his phone rang. The production designer on the other end was Gavin Bocquet, who was working on Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. He wanted to send Ben back to the Sahara to build the sets for Tattooine – the legendary home planet of Luke and Anakin Skywalker.
We’ll let you imagine how many milliseconds it took him to decide to take this opportunity – building a spaceport for one of the most iconic franchises in film history. Well worth spending another three months in the desert for. “All the stuff in Tattooine was very well referenced, so it was like a dream going out there,” he remembers. “My first drawing was one of the water condensers – those big iconic things sticking out in the desert with arms coming out of it. Then you get there and you’re building all this stuff you’ve grown up with.”
Apart from the 58-degree burning heat, it was a joy. And it cemented Ben’s niche as a globetrotting art director. Soon he was shipped off to the Thai jungle to build a set for The Beach. He even ended up in the arctic soon, designing a film called Far North, directed by Asif Kapadia.
“I think the arctic is the most extreme place I’ve worked,” he says. “We were shooting in Svalbard, an island virtually at the top of the world.” On one of the recces he asked their fixer how many people were further north than them, expecting a number of villages. He counted people on his fingers and didn’t get to ten.
On the way out there, the captain of their boat needed sleep, so Ben was told to steer. Oh, and stay on the look out for icebergs. In -40-degree cold, the polar bears were particularly hungry, so the shoot needed armed guards at all times.
All the time Ben fell more in love with his job. “It’s pretty unique,” he says. “You get to travel around and do different things. You have to have a discipline to be very concentrated and quiet at a drawing board with a pencil – there’s that very technical side of it – then you’re out battling sandstorms and icebergs at the other end of the same job.”
Eventually he progressed to become a production designer in his own right, working on TV dramas and movies, trying his best to bring his theatrical ideals to them.
With the arrival of children, his lifestyle had to change. Spending months thousands of miles away from London didn’t seem an attractive option, so he shifted his efforts towards advertising. He fitted well into his new environment. “The average film is four or five months,” he says. “In that time in commercials you’ll build three or four times the number of sets. So it’s much more intense and creative. And the sets you’re building are often quite out there. You could be doing a spaceship one day and a bedsit the next. Then back to the jungle, and you haven’t actually left the studio.”
Ben got absorbed in these creative challenges. Building the world’s biggest zoetrope for Sony, Braviadrome was a highlight – a production design-led idea that he could really own. It was on that set that he had his first inkling about becoming a director, persuading the client to let him direct one of the internet-only ancillary films around the main TV spot. He found his intimate knowledge of the set allowed him to shoot things a director normally wouldn’t think of. He’d never considered directing, surprisingly. “When you’re younger everyone wants to be a director,” he says, “but I never did. I just wanted to design. But being given the camera on that Sony job was a real eye-opener.”
For several years he forgot about any ideas of directing, but eventually stumbled into it again, working on another design-heavy job for Red Bull – their phenomenal Kaleidoscope film showcasing the talents of BMX ace Kriss Kyle. Red Bull came to Ben with the idea of building a moving graphic environment to surround his riding. Ben, no extreme sports expert, was blown away by Kriss. “He’s a master. It’s almost balletic, the way he rides,” he says.
Ben came up with a concept around optical illusions and pitched the idea for a course to the client. It went so well that mid-pitch he thought “now is my chance.” He told them he wanted to direct it. They instantly agreed and moved onto some other detail about the course. “I left the meeting wondering if they really said yes,” he says.
With so many of the shots requiring complete understanding of the set, Ben directing was a natural move. Soon he was represented by RSA Films, who he’d worked with many times before with a different hat on and four months later he was standing on a massive set with a huge crane behind him thinking “what have I done?”
His directorial debut went remarkably smoothly. Having been on set since the age of 19 he was at home in that environment. And his knowledge of the design shines through in the film, which co-stars the intricate set design alongside Kriss and his bike.
As soon as they called “wrap”, Ben entered the unknown. “Editing, the offline and online process, the grading, the sound – all of that is a foreign land to me,” he says. “That’s where my learning process really started.”
He must have learnt pretty quickly though, because the film was a roaring success, winning at the Creative Circle, D&AD, the AICP Show and even picking up a Gold Lion in Cannes this year.
Ben has since gone on to direct another design-heavy film for CBBC, making use of every inch of the set – a key philosophy he’s taken from his background. “Building a set, everyone complains that it’s never seen,” he says. “You build this amazing stuff and it’s all shot in the corner. On the BBC film we shot everything that was there. It’s planning so you put the money where it counts most.”
He’s still designing, and feels his directing career is still in its early days. He wants to branch out in the near future. “So far my style is a very visual one,” he concedes, “so the next big hurdle for me is storytelling. Something I’ve got to do now is get some people talking in front of the camera.” He’s bullish, though. “There’s a rich history of designers that have become directors [his boss Ridley Scott, for a start]. There’s obviously a sensibility there that lends itself to looking at things slightly differently.”