Interview: Ben Rollo

Ben Rollo

We talked about the indie movie Joanna Makes a Friend, about a horror-loving girl who builds herself a robot, a while back (you can still pledge money to help build the robot, by the way). Today, writer Ben Rollo discusses the project, his writing and spec-fic.

IFP: Welcome to Innsmouth. Could you tell me what Joanna Makes a Friend is about and how you came up with the idea for it?

BR: The film’s about a little girl named Joanna who reads a lot of HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, and doesn’t really make friends easily. The other kids are kind of put off by her sometimes-peculiar behaviour and won’t let her play any games with them at recess. So, she spends a lot of time sketching horrible things happening to the other kids in her sketchbook and moping around her house, driving her dad up the wall. He tells her to go make a friend and she does, out of old VCR parts in the garage. She names her robot ‘Edgar Allen Poe-bot’, or EAP for short, and he’s a big hit at school. Basically, he’s Joanna’s ticket into the spotlight. But she’s not really an in-the-spotlight kind of person and eventually, EAP decides he likes being popular better than he likes being friends with her.

I came up with the idea for JMAF ages ago. Probably almost ten years ago. It was part of this idea I had for a book I wanted to put together called ‘The Ominous Bus’, which was supposed to be a series of poems and short little stories done in a children’s lit style but not actually for children. There was a story about a kid who got out of doing things by faking his death, one about a kid whose little brother was this kind of eldritch horror. There was even an alphabet poem about this guy who killed people who came to his door, like encyclopaedia salesmen and Mormons. Anyways, the only story that really seemed to resonate with people when I showed it to them was Joanna and it always seemed like a shame that it didn’t get used for anything. So, when Jeremy asked me for an idea for a film, I converted it into a screenplay and that was that.

IFP: So, how did you meet Jeremy Lutter and team up to try and make the film a reality?

BR: Jeremy and I have been friends since high school; we actually got stuck in the same orientation group on the very first day of grade 8. He’s always been making films of one kind or another, ever since high school, and we’ve collaborated on and off for the last few years. For the most part, Jer funds his own projects, but for JMAF, he really wanted to go all out. So, we entered it in a few competitions, where it usually got runner up, due to the difficulty involved in finding a school to shoot at in Vancouver, coupled with working with kids. Also, we basically needed to build a working robot. For some reason, the people handing out funding get a little worried when you tell them you’re going to do that. Anyways, we entered the Whistler Film Festival’s MPPIA Award contest, almost as an afterthought – we were trying to get into an NFB funding/training program with it at the same time – and Jer knocked it out of the park with his presentation. We won and the prize has been a huge boost. We can actually pay people to do things for us, like go find actors and locations, stuff that we’d ordinarily make Jeremy do. Thanks to that, we managed to get Kevin McDonald* of The Kids in the Hall on board, as well as actually find people who will design and build us a robot! Amazing! I’m hoping that Jeremy won’t discover that this was all secretly a ploy to have him build me a robot friend. We’ve also set up a site on IndieGoGo, so that people can donate towards the robot-building part of the project.

IFP: How did you begin scriptwriting?

BR: It’s sort of funny, to me anyways, but ever since elementary school, I’d loved working on, I dunno, world-building stuff, coming up with characters and worlds and then the appropriate lore to go with them. I still have the file for one of my first on my computer, which is a good seventy-odd pages of just notes and background details. That was basically what I did with my spare time when I was a kid. And during high school, Jeremy, myself and a few friends shot a couple of films together that were sort of jokey English projects. Most of them only barely adhering to the guidelines for said projects. We had one called ‘Going Bananas 2’ which was basically about this collection of Canadian and American authors (people like Rudy Wiebe and Saul Bellows) banding together to fight a scheme by Niccolo Machiavelli to take over the world by killing off writers and making people read less. It’s kind of telling that the script, when it came to the scene where the authors actually divulge information about themselves – the stuff that the project was actually supposed to be about – just has a note that says, “Improvise something.” We were very committed to the accuracy of the piece. That being said, I had a pretty killer Rudy Wiebe costume. Despite all of that, I went straight into the Biology department at UVic after high school, didn’t even give writing a second thought. It wasn’t until years later that I ended up taking a first-year writing workshop as an elective and I kind of had my “Aha!” moment. Although I guess you could call it more of a “Duh!” moment, because it really should’ve been obvious to me all along.

IFP: You mentioned Poe and Lovecraft. How were you introduced to Lovecraft?

BR: He was one of those guys who was mentioned as an influence on a bunch of people I was reading at the time, when I was in first year, I think. So, I picked up a book of his, and all it took was a reading of “The Dunwich Horror” and I was hooked.

IFP: Do you have a favourite Lovecraftian story?

BR: I’ve always really liked “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Strange High House in the Mist”. “The Rats in the Walls” is just a great horror story, with a great build-up to one of Lovecraft’s usual narrator/protagonist-driven-to-madness endings, and High House…I’m not really sure why I like it. Maybe because it seemed like a bit of a departure from Lovecraft’s usual claustrophobic horror. It’s almost not a horror story at all (although the ending is kind of creepy); there’s this expansiveness to the mystery and a feeling like the protagonist is moving towards a discovery that is more fantastic, more ethereal than the kind of discoveries his characters usually made. Maybe I like it because it’s a lot less grim than his other stuff?

IFP: Speaking of grim, we are a horror site. Do you have a favourite horror movie?

BR: Hands down, the scariest movie I’ve ever seen was Kairo, this Japanese movie about the spirits of the dead spilling out of the afterlife into the world of the living. There’s this one scene in particular with the ghost of this girl walking down a hallway that actually almost made me run out of the room. There’s something about the way she moves that just makes the brain go, “There is something seriously wrong here.” Also, as far as horror movies go, it’s right up there with George A. Romero’s zombies movies for the apocalyptic lengths it takes its premise. As for favourite, I dunno. I’ve always had a soft spot for Dawn of the Dead (the old one) and recently, The Host jumped to the top of my list, because it’s awesome how many genres they mash together in that movie and still manage to make it work.

IFP: And your favourite robot, android, computer, or other fictional artificial creature?

BR: I’ve always liked Mike the supercomputer, in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

IFP: If you could be a Lovecraftian creature or character, who would you be and why?

BR: I think I might choose Randolph Carter, from “The Silver Key”. Being able to visit worlds located in dreams resonates on a certain level with me and the concept of the psyche as a landscape with a mappable terrain is a very appealing one, I think. As someone who spent a lot of time as a kid daydreaming about other worlds and places, I really like the idea that one might be able to actually visit those places within dreams. But maybe Carter is sort of a cheat answer, because he’s also one of the few Lovecraft characters who isn’t driven to madness or killed in some gruesome manner at the end of the story. And as much as I enjoy madness…I just don’t feel it’s the right lifestyle choice for me at this juncture. I don’t know. Is that a boring answer? There’s always Chulhu….

Bio: Raised by robots as a part of a Canadian government-funded project to see if machines could be taught to feel love, he believed himself to be a vending machine until the tender age of 13. Unfortunately, the robots failed to imprint on him and the project was abandoned. Released back into the wild, he eventually found his way to the University of Victoria’s Writing department, where he stayed quite comfortably until 2010, when he was informed that, through no fault of his own, he had accidentally managed to graduate.

Since then, he’s spent his time between projects scouring the seven seas (and on one particularly drunken weekend, a parking lot in Des Moines) for the wily Kraken, age-old foe of all puny land dwellers and their meddlesome, easily-torn-asunder ships. The book of his seafaring experiences, Ten Arms of Terror and Only a Half Jug of Whiskey to See Me Through – written so the novice Kraken-hunter might not make the same mistakes he did, obsessively, over and over again in a fashion that systematically destroys everyone and everything he or she ever held dear – will be destroyed immediately upon completion for the good of all mankind, thus allowing for work to begin on other, less maddening projects.

*Fred Ewanuick has been recast in this role (Dan For Mayor, Corner Gas)

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IFPInterview: Ben Rollo