Have you ever shared an assumption about something – anything – and realized you’d been embarrassingly, frighteningly wrong? Was this assumption rooted in firm facts, or rather in your own insecurities? Part of the fun of watching this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “The First Men,” is the luxury of being the innocent fly on the wall of a slow-moving trainwreck riding high on false beliefs.
Based on the short story by Pushcart Prize-winning author Stacey Richter (read it here!), filmmaker Ben Kegan’s “The First Men” slowly builds pressure around its main character, Miss Roberts. When we meet her, she is on a shopping expedition courtesy of her long-suffering mother, who is starting to get tired of her thankless mooching. We eventually discover that Miss Roberts is really the minion of a teenage drug dealer, to whom she owes a lot of money. Only through the miracle of film can you observe a person gracelessly sprint to the doorstep of their demise within 12 minutes, and that is exactly why we’re excited to share “The First Men” with y’all.
We asked Ben a few questions about “The First Men” that had us wondering…
Vimeo: “The First Men” by Stacey Richter is a very crude and funny story – arguably darker than your film. What about this short piece inspired you to make it into a movie?
Ben Kegan: I came across Stacey’s story in a collection of Pushcart-winning short stories. I’m an avid short fiction reader, and in this case, I was specifically looking for something I might be able to adapt into a film. So I was going through a lot collections and just sort of seeing what stuck with me. And then I read The First Men and I just couldn’t get it out of my head. It truly haunted me in the best possible way. And I think it’s close to a perfect short story.It reminded me a lot of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” which is also one of my favorite stories. The juxtaposition of the everyday uncanny suburban mall setting with the darkness of the subject matter, and way the story and characters sort of spiral to their darkest conclusions… it all came together in a way that made this feel right for me.
And it’s a very cinematic story. The way the mall is written about, and then how the tone shifts when Rebecca is taken outside, and how Stacey writes about nature and trash with equal poise and beauty. I just knew it would be a delight to try to capture that visually. I think that when we read, we are all sort of directing our own adaptations in our mind. We populate the text with images, cast characters, pull from our own experiences, and emphasize certain details over others. What’s so fun about directing, and what I specifically loved about adapting this work, was that it was a chance to take what was in my head as I was reading the story and put that on the screen. The world and characters are so rich and complex, and that’s what I want to work with as a director.
One of the most mature moments in this film comes when Miss Roberts’ mother calls her “an ungrateful c***,” but in the story the relationship between the main character and her mother is considerably more hostile and fraught. How and why did you decide to draw the line between Richter’s piece and the video, story, and maturity-wise?
That’s a huge turning point in the film. That moment, when Miss Robert’s mother leaves her is in the story, but it actually happens right at the very beginning in the short story. I think it’s such an important moment because it’s Rebecca’s mother calling out her behavior, drawing her own line, and Rebecca is faced with a choice. She could go after her mother, maybe apologize, but instead, she chooses to ignore what her mom is telling her, she’s sort of in denial about her own behavior and instead doubles down on telling herself that her mother is the one who is out of line.
In the short story, they are pretty nasty to each other. One thing that was important to me in the film was to also look and say ok if they’re nasty to each other, there is also a reason they spend time together, they have a complex almost co-dependent relationship. And I wanted to make sure we felt some moments that pulled them together, like when her mom tries on the dress.
We actually filmed a couple more short scenes where they go at it a bit more, but I ended up cutting them out, as they ended taking energy away from the main story, and their relationship in a strange way. In the story, she’s shoplifting and also has an eating disorder. . .but that ended up being too much in the film. Not in terms of like how dark or mature the subject matter was, it just didn’t translate to film in the right way, it threw a little bit too much weight on the throttle too quickly. And a lot of this film is managing how quickly things spiral away from Rebecca. Because in writing you can sort of drop a sentence in, and intentionally, not draw too much attention to it, and use the past in a different way then you can in film. Especially in this case where the short story is all in Rebecca’s voice, from her perspective. That first person lets her say things and simultaneously ignore them. So with the film we also had to play a bit with the throttle of Rebecca’s denial. So in terms of drawing the line, it really came down to the story, what was best for the story in the big picture. In some cases, it was about simplifying subtext, and in other cases it was about elaborating.
The only scenes that do not involve Miss Roberts are the beginning shots of a quiet day at a mundane, suburban mall which suggests that its setting carries its own metaphor in this story. What was your personal interpretation of the role of the mall in “The First Men?”
That’s a good question. And a hard one for me to answer. There’s something about the opening and ending shots that I think mirror each other in a strange way. I guess part of it is looking at what humans have decided to build. What are the places we occupy? What are the structures we create and what will our ruins be? How does what we build reveal what we value? A mall is like a self-enclosed ecosystem built for consumption. It’s a city built around shopping. And I think the interesting thing, is not just that oh, we like to buy things, but what is it we are looking for when we shop? What are we really trying to purchase, to obtain?
How did you find a mall that would suit the film that you were trying to make? Do you think this particular location added to the mood you were aiming for?
Oh yeah. The mall was very important. We really wanted a mall that looked like a traditional mall, classic food court and all. This was for a few reasons. First, because Rebecca keeps bumping into her student, Seymour…when it’s this enclosed mall that just makes more sense.
But more importantly, we wanted it to feel like this self-enclosed man-made world. Because the first half of the film is infused with that sort of materialism. And that way, when they end up outside, in the field and forest, amongst the ruins at the end, it’s like a breath of fresh air despite the ominous intentions. Nature has taken over. We wanted that sharp contrast.
So in terms of finding the right mall, it involved a lot of looking. Because actually, that kind of classic mall that we grew up with is much more difficult to find these days. A lot of those malls have closed, or been converted into more outdoor shopping plaza type places. So we wanted to find a place that felt like the mall you went to as a teenager. Anytown USA sort of feel.
Note: “The First Men” was filmed at The Galleria at Crystal Run in Middletown, NY.
How did you ensure that people visiting the Galleria wouldn’t look suspiciously at the camera?
That was due to our awesome production team, ADs, and PAs. We used a combination of our own crew, official extras, and then asking people in the mall if they wanted to be in the film. So our crew would ask people if they wanted to be in the film, and then place them in the scene, walking past, or up the escalator, or what have you, and ask them not look to at the camera. They’d be excited the first time, and then be like, wait how many takes do you need. We were also sneaky and had our amazing PAs and ADs hidden behind pillars etc, asking people to wait when we were going for a take. I think most of the crew is in the film as an extra shopping at some point too. So it was a combination of several strategies.
You’ve said in a past interview about this film that it has a lot to do with power and relationships. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
Sure. Who has power in each scene is always changing, and often very quickly. In the scenes between Seymour and Rebecca it can even shift line by line at times. There’s a dueling subtext between them where Seymour is confronting Miss Roberts for failing to take him seriously, for dismissing him. And as they move further and further from a student – teacher context Miss Roberts becomes more and more vulnerable and exposed, until she’s really only clinging on to her role as a teacher as a last resort.
Where did you find that sick van with the mountain lion painting on it?
It’s the best. We called a picture car rental company and asked if they had any vintage looking vans, and they were like we do have one, but unfortunately there’s a giant mountain lion painted on the side, is that a problem? And I was like, no, that will work just fine.
The soundtrack features very minimal music, at times just a long tone-like note (at 1:12 and 2:20, for instance) and an eerie singular voice. When Miss Roberts is escorted to the abandoned building by Seymour, there is a short Native American chant (10:57). Why did you choose this music for the short, and what mood were you going for?
All of the score and music was done by the composer Julian Cassia. He’s amazing, and I have worked with him on basically everything I made throughout film school, and even some stuff before. He literally can do anything. For one film he did an original bluegrass score and played all the instruments, and then he did this… just to give you a sense of his scope and range. We work very closely together, and I consider our collaboration to be similar to the process of working with a cinematographer in terms of how much music and sound can shape a film. With “The First Men,” I came in with a few reference tracks and a general idea of going in a more surreal direction. The soundtrack from Punch Drunk Love was a reference. And then he sent me a message and was like I’ve been thinking some throat singing might be really cool. I was skeptical at first, but then he put it in and it worked so well! Just felt right.
I’m currently finishing up post on a feature-length doc, and developing a feature version of “The First Men.”
Is there anything else we haven’t addressed that you’d like to add about the film?
Just hope everyone enjoys the film! We all worked really hard on it. The actors are so great and the entire crew and team was fantastic. I’m really excited and grateful to be able to share it. Thank you, Vimeo! XOXO
Thank you for sharing with us, Ben!
If you’d like to see more films our curation team was totally stoked on, check out our past Staff Pick Premieres over on this page.
If you’re interested in premiering your short film as a Staff Pick Premiere, please check out www.vimeo.com/submit for more information.