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WA writer-turned-global-director Ben Young on making it in the film industry

06/09/21. By Luisa Mitchell. 10 min read.

Illustration of Ben Young by Curtin graduate Ophelia Roberts (BA Graphic Design and Illustration, 2018).

Ben Young (BA Screen Arts, 2003) is many things: a Perth-born local, a film student who started out making music videos for his mates, and now a rising star who became a success story overnight after years struggling in the industry.

In one of those strange coincidences of the universe, I had met Ben a decade earlier on the sets of Australian kid’s television series’ Trapped and Castaway as an 11-year-old child actor. Ben was a young man testing his directing on the Screenwest-funded shows. Now a Curtin Screen Arts graduate myself, sitting down to interview the acclaimed director feels like coming full-circle.

The West Australian filmmaker was happy to fill me in on his journey, how his internationally acclaimed feature film Hounds of Love changed his life, upcoming projects and what it takes to ‘make it’ in film… whatever that means.

Ben’s music videos started to garner national attention and praise during his time at Curtin, years which he attributes as providing the leaping pad needed to launch himself into the Perth filmmaking stratosphere.

Ben Young directed the music video for John Butler Trio’s ‘Only One’.

“Curtin gave me my start,” Ben says. “They opened the door and I’ve been working with people to this day that I studied with.”

When I spoke with him, Ben had just come from lunch with Louise Bertoncini, a post-producer on Hounds of Love and an old friend from uni. Similarly, Ben still works with his friend Zak Hilditch, another Curtin graduate, who directed the sci-fi apocalyptic thriller These Final Hours and the Netflix-acquired horror drama 1922.

Curtin graduates-turned-filmmakers, featuring Zak Hilditch, Alison James, and Grant Sputore.

Having returned to Australia from Serbia in 2018 after filming his own sci-fi thriller Extinction, Ben has been happy to be back in his home state after years working interstate and internationally. He’s adamant that aspiring filmmakers don’t have to travel to Sydney or the eastern states (as is often the advice) to climb the ladder to success.

“I think it is a really bad idea, to be perfectly honest. The most successful people who I studied with have stayed in Western Australia. It’s a smaller place and so everyone seems to band together a little bit more, plus there’s less competition but the same amount of grants. I think that if you run away without the experience, you’re likely to get lost.”

He explains that he gained some local recognition in WA first before using these achievements as his “passport to bigger cities and bigger markets.” Making the small indie feature Hounds of Love had been a passion project of Ben’s for years. Shot around the Perth suburbs, it centres on the story of a young teenage girl, Vicki Maloney, who is abducted from a suburban street by a murderous couple.

‘Hounds of Love’ trailer.

The film showcases Ben’s directorial style, which he describes as being cold in some instances, but mostly “slow, considered and character-driven.” The psychological thriller received rave reviews, cited by Rotten Tomatoes as “smartly constructed and powerfully acted.”

“I like to keep the camera back and I don’t like a lot of edits and cuts,” says Ben. “I only do a cut when I absolutely have to.”

For any editors working in the suites with Ben, it’s standard that if they want to make a cut, they must justify it to him.

“How is that moving the story forward?” Ben demands, as if we’re standing there in the editing booths right now.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, that Ben wasn’t being taken as seriously as he is now. Hounds of Love truly was his big break and the film that changed his life and career overnight.

When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Ben recalls being refused entry to the festival tent on the first day because no one knew him or believed he was one of the directors… “or at least, a director worth knowing,” Ben says with a laugh.

But after the film screened and received numerous positive reviews from recognised Hollywood publications, he claims his experience entering that same tent the next day was completely changed.

“I was mobbed by everybody,” he says. “I woke up to 96 missed calls on my phone the next morning. Every agent in Hollywood was calling me up and I started getting movie scripts from all over the world. So, it literally took me 15 years to become an overnight success. Suddenly, I was riding a tidal wave that I didn’t know how to control. It’s absolutely terrifying going from being an unknown to being that in demand.”

WA-based director Ben Young.

While the sudden attention was no doubt validating in some ways, Ben says that those who seek only red carpets, fame and money through filmmaking will never be successful. It is those who love making art for the sake of art who will find success.

“I have made so much stuff that sucked over the years and got highly criticised—I even got kind of bullied for it—and it didn’t matter to me because I wasn’t trying to be successful, I was just trying to be Ben Young. And I was always going to be a filmmaker, whether I found success or not.”

Ben believes everyone’s first feature script or project is likely to fail, but that this is a good thing, as it provides necessary lessons to make the next story even better. In fact, his best advice for other writers and filmmakers is to “hurry up and fail! Embrace failure. And do any little thing you can to make films. No one’s going to give success to you. You must take it and earn it…

“Oh, and stick around for the networking drinks afterwards,” he adds with a knowing smile.

After his overnight leap to worldwide acclaim with Hounds of Love, Ben jumped immediately onto a very different project: directing the $20 million-budget sci-fi action flick, Extinction.

Although making this Hollywood production was a great learning curve, Ben says directing the film was like working on a 2-hour television commercial, and that he wasn’t allowed the same creative freedom he had with his first film. He believes the film suffered as a result.

It’s no surprise that Ben’s current goal is to find a balance between receiving the funding and “big shiny toys” that come with Hollywood productions and being given the freedom to tell stories that are still creatively and essentially “Ben Young.”

In the meantime, there’s been no shortage of work. Ben has directed two episodes of the US-Australian drama TV series Clickbait, which premiered on Netflix in August and rose to the number one trending TV show in its first week of release. The show explores the dangerous impulses fuelled by social media and false online personas.

‘Clickbait’ trailer.

He is also currently in post-production for an episode of Season 2 of Amazon’s The Wilds, which centres around a group of teenage girls stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash but are unaware they are the subjects of a social experiment. In September, he begins production on an unnamed indie feature film, which will be shot in the United States.

When I ask Ben whether he thinks he has “made it” in the film industry, he chews around the words with slight distaste.

“If by ‘making it’ you mean reaching a point where I get paid to do what I love every day, which is making films, then yes, I suppose I have ‘made it’. But one thing I really do believe firmly is that I’m completely talentless. I just work harder than everybody else. If you walk 10 kilometres every day, eventually you’re going to get to your destination.”

This article has been repurposed for Curtin Commons and was originally published in Grok Magazine.

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Ben Young received his degree at Curtin in Screen Arts and has gone on to direct award-winning films. Find out how you can support future Humanities students like Ben through the Academic Excellence Fund today.

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