Interview: Benjamin Crotty
Domestic life on Fort Buchanan follows few strictures, least of all “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In Benjamin Crotty’s queer take on military melodrama, it’s all about the girl talk. The wayward army wives who populate a fictionalized U.S. Army base in Fort Buchanan inhabit a place that’s more pastoral artist colony than high-security compound. There’s no visible infrastructure, save for a cluster of high-design cabins, and Crotty conjures a fluid landscape governed not by military law, but by the laws of desire. The wives—both men and women—are given to sexual switch-hitting, leading to scenes that are by turns slapstick and surreal. The one exception is Roger (Andy Gillet), who remains fixed on husband Frank (David Baiot), an officer whose emotional detachment is compounded by his station far away in Djibouti.
If Roger’s travails give the film its emotional thrust, it’s Crotty’s unique cinematic vision, combining animated flights of fancy with 16mm realism, that continually dislodges viewer expectation. That, for instance, all the wives are French bohemians, or that Roger registers as barely older than the daughter he shares with Frank, are part of the film’s idiosyncratic logic and atmospheric pleasures. As Fort Buchanan unfolds across four seasons, its narrative structure becomes increasingly slippery and digressive. In the spring section, a comic scene with Mati Diop’s character seducing somebody else’s husband suddenly leads to a bacchanal group adventure in Djibouti and Andy’s reunion with Frank. But while there’s plenty of fantasy on display, the context remains very real. Times are tough, even for the U.S. government, and Fort Buchanan is under threat of closure.
Fort Buchanan’s hazy fusion of gender politics and wartime antics, and its mixture of TV-inspired melodrama and art-house aesthetics, together capture a distinctly 21st-century landscape in which the boundaries between high and low and between “here” and “there” have all but dissolved. The War on Terror, it seems, has become distinguishable from domestic disputes and romantic folly. Crotty, who was born in Spokane, Washington, and is based in Paris, maintains a foot in both cultures. His remix sensibility was evident in his first film, Visionary Iraq (08), made in collaboration with filmmaker Gabriel Abrantes, which followed a pair of incestuous teens as they enlist in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Crotty sees the two films as companion pieces, of a sort. If his earlier effort took aim at explosive teen idealism and the unholy marriage of war and global capitalism, Fort Buchanan, set a decade and a half later, is a more reflective work that finds its focus in the rituals and travails of the long-term relationship.
FILM COMMENT spoke with the director a month before his film’s North American premiere in New Directors / New Films on March 25 and 29. Fort Buchanan begins its theatrical run at Film Society of Lincoln Center on Friday, February 5.
The real Fort Buchanan is located in Puerto Rico. How much did it influence the fictional version in your film?
The action in my film is situated in France, but it’s true that the name is taken from the U.S. army base in Puerto Rico. My little brother used to work at the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C., and when he was working there, I got really interested in their consultable database. What you quickly realize is that almost everything in the U.S. National Archives is Army-related. I’d say 70 percent of the moving-image documents are from the Army. It’s really where we invested our national wealth! Anyway, at some point I found footage of people playing golf at Fort Buchanan. I was curious about this base because it looked a hell of a lot like a country club. It seemed like the kind of base you might end up at the end of a well-managed career in the army. So, I like this connotation, this mixing of military and leisure concerns. Fort Buchanan was also the name of an old fort in Arizona that only functioned for a few years in the 1850s and ’60s, and I like the frontier ring the name somehow retains. Lastly, I like the name because it is very difficult for French people to pronounce. They say: For Booshannon? I like how aggressively American the name itself is for a French-language film.
Could you talk about how the film evolved?
When I was a kid, I was in a theater troupe, and we toured around to elementary schools. I remember when we performed at schools on the Air Force base. I was really fascinated with the place. There were gates and checkpoints and separate stores. None of my family was career military. My father was in Vietnam, and I have two brothers who were in the Army Reserves. But we never lived on a military base. In Spokane, there’s also a high degree of individualism in the town’s architecture. So the uniformity of the architecture on the military bases was also something that struck me. I grew up in the Eighties during the Cold War. The army base rang a lot of bells in terms of how socialism had been described to me. I was intrigued by this place that registered as a mix of something definitively American—the military base—and an image (as I had understood it at the time) of Communism. So, from a young age, I was interested in this idea of community.
I also saw this TV show called Army Wives. It was on for a really long time, during the entire War on Terror era. It’s a scripted, hour-long drama on Lifetime. It’s pretty well done. But what’s so weird about it is that it’s like Sex and the City with, from time to time, something really dark and serious. Awful events will happen. The show was sort of shameless in its use of topical events, but the focus really remained on their romantic problems.
Despite the military backdrop, the focus is on domesticity.
Yes, it’s also my interest in the domestic side of life on this huge military complex. With Army Wives, I thought, okay, this is the cultural production of the War on Terror. The circle is complete. I was also thinking about Martha Rosler’s collages. She makes these extremely violent juxtapositions of images of domesticity and war, like, a napalmed Vietnamese child in a suburban living room. What was so uncanny about Army Wives was how smooth everything was. It was basically like the collages, except it was no problem.
The influence of American TV on Fort Buchanan is particularly unique. I understand that the dialogue was in part generated from appropriated TV scripts. Can you talk about the writing process?
I wrote the story for the film first. I had ideas for the characters, and I knew I wanted a seasonal structure to the film. I downloaded [transcripts of] different shows, which you can find online for close captioning. I would do keyword searches in the transcripts. For instance, I would keyword search “regret” or “death.” [Laughs] In the autumn part of Fort Buchanan, [the characters] speak a lot about regret. What interested me in TV dialogue is actually pretty broad—the efficiency of writing, the “authorless” quality of it (in terms of using writing teams), and the weird normative world it creates. When I watch American TV, I’m often shocked or interested by the way things are phrased. For a French person watching Fort Buchanan, they perceive the dialogue as simply an “American” way of speaking.
You described the eclectic architecture in your hometown of Spokane. Built structures also play an important role in Fort Buchanan. The military housing we see is in fact a series of wood cabins that combine high-design and low-tech aesthetics. They look as if they might be found in an alternate version of an Ikea catalogue.
All the built structures in the film were created by Matali Crasset. She’s a French designer and a disciple of Philippe Starck, and she’s quite famous in France. She made the wood cabins and we used an actual eco-hotel she designed in Tunisia as the set for Camp Griffith, the fictional base in Djibouti. They all existed before the film. I was looking for sets and happened to meet this French guy who runs an art space in the woods. He was collaborating with Matali on these cabin structures, and I just asked to use them in the film. The proportions of them are very strange. They’re really small, which makes them very difficult to shoot in. Some are not even finished, so our set designer put walls on one of them.
Different characters come into focus as the seasons change. Roger’s romantic travails shift from foreground the background. In that sense, the film presents a decentered narrative. How did you develop your ideas about portraying a group dynamic?
I wanted to make a group film. I think that when you see the film now, the changes in seasons feel fluid. But when I was writing the film, I was really focused on this seasonal block structure. I was thinking about nature films and how they will follow a group of animals through different seasons that might migrate to a new place. I was thinking about the film in this way. I wanted to emphasize the group and how they interact together, rather than focus on a single protagonist. In the winter portion that begins the film, Roger (Andy Gillet) is the protagonist, but he’s more in the background during the spring portion, where everyone is just looking for action. I was interested in characters sharing motivation, rather than individual psychology.
The seasonal structure also lends itself to episodic storytelling. I wondered if it occurred to you to make a television show rather than a film.
Yes. The film was actually financed as separate episodes. France 2 TV was involved. They pre-bought the summer portion, and later purchased the spring and fall. So, it will be showing on French TV. I was really happy about it. It’s the equivalent of being on ABC in America. I’m pretty curious what the reaction will be.
But Fort Buchanan doesn’t share a TV aesthetic.
To me, the film’s visuals and aesthetic are very French. I felt this was important, especially with the dialogue coming from the TV world. We shot on film, though I’m not particularly wedded to 16mm. My cinematographer trained at La Fémis and we use a lot of fixed shots. We shot for about 15 days total, so it was pretty intense. We had four days to shoot in Tunisia for the Djibouti section of the film.
You’ve assembled a great group of young French actors to play the wives and husbands. There’s something interesting about seeing how the different acting styles cohere into a group portrait. How did you go about casting the film?
The winter portion was shot in February 2012. We really had no money at all, and we weren’t able to shoot again for a really long time. I knew a lot of the cast already and had a good idea about what I could and couldn’t do with them. To begin with, I’d seen Andy Gillet in Eric Rohmer’s final film, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, which I liked a lot. In that film, Andy’s a jeune premier, a really beautiful young man. Now, he’s just a little bit older, and something else is starting to happen. In Fort Buchanan, there’s a weird acceleration of his age. Everyone treats him like he’s super over-the-hill, which I like because he’s obviously not. Roger’s character is quite tragic and viewers have to feel something for him, and so it was important that Andy was empathetic. Pauline Jacquard and Iliana Zabeth, who plays Roger’s daughter Roxy, were both in Bertrand Bonello’s film House of Tolerance. My producer, Judith Lou Lévy, also acted in that film. I went to Le Fresnoy with Mati Diop and we’ve been friends ever since.
Roger’s husband, Frank, is played by David Baiot. He’s a French soap opera actor, and probably the most famous person in the cast. For French audiences, it’s quite funny to see the marriage of a Rohmer protagonist and an actor from what is essentially the French Days of Our Lives. We had a Tunisian co-producer from Godolphin Films who helped us cast for that part of the film. We were shooting in Nefta, close to the Algerian border, and we found people there. It was a little bit dicey shooting there because of the film’s gay content, but everything went fine.
The film is full of unpredictable narrative and tonal shifts. One of the main forces guiding this unpredictability seems to be desire, and the characters’ attempts, both comic and tragic, to pursue their sexual or romantic objects.
Every character has his or her own matrix of desire. Some are more sophisticated than others. In the spring portion, three women go after Roxy’s character [Roger and Frank’s daughter]. It’s more because she’s there and they happen to live in a remote place in the woods. They can’t go to a club to meet people. Justine, Mati Diop’s character, goes after Guillaume, who repeatedly tries to tell her he’s gay. But it’s as though the people in the film can only respond to actions. Justine keeps pursuing him. There are parts of the film that are about this shared motivation, and parts that are more focused on the individual. The summer section is much more focused on Roger and Frank’s romantic drama. I wanted the last portion of the film, the autumn portion, to be something of a baroque construction. There are flashbacks and much more music. We also leave Fort Buchanan for the first time and see a supermarket. So, it’s both more real and more fantasy.
There’s a lot of comedy in the film. You’ve created a world where irony and sincerity seem to coexist peaceably.
I would say the film is more observational than ironic. This relates to the animal films I was talking about. Roger’s character can be quite funny at times, but I feel that the viewer’s relationship to him is fundamentally empathetic. I really admire Mati’s performance in the film. With Roger, we have some understanding of what he’s about. But Mati’s character is more opaque. I wrote this scene where she just goes insane on this guy, and wrote it from the perspective of the guy. I remember on the first day of shooting that scene, it was 4 a.m., and there were 30 people standing around her. In French, we’d call it un grand moment de solitude. I was so impressed with the way she brings incredible life to this character in a way that’s both funny and dignified.
In the spring portion, I really wanted to push the sex farce aspect, but it’s more about a comic vocabulary than about being funny. For example, there’s this toxic farm product that explodes. I always thought it wasn’t funny, and there was a moment during the edit when I removed it. But without that scene, the whole spring section becomes very tragic. Even if it’s not funny, it lets the viewer know that it’s a world where these things can happen. I feel this way about most of the physical comedy in the film. When Mati’s character is playing football with the guy and she falls into this puddle that turns out to be mysteriously deep, it’s as if nature’s conspiring to get these people together. She has to go back to his place to dry her clothes. She’s not capable of making it happen, so it’s as if nature steps in.
In the film, Fort Buchanan is under threat of closure by the U.S. military. There were many real base closures following the economic downturn of 2008, and you include an actual report from French news. At first, I thought the report might be satirical, because it’s quite absurd.
I’d written a news piece that was very close to it, but then we found the report. For French people, the newscaster is a bit like seeing Dan Rather, and so its inclusion in Fort Buchanan brings a degree of weird domestic familiarity for French spectators. He graciously allowed us to use that clip. It’s a bit like the Walt Whitman poem that’s quoted at the end of the film. It’s about men and technology and what we leave behind. I particularly like the language in that news report because they say, after the base closures, “there will be fewer soldiers and more technology!” It’s such a brute résumé of an epoch.