Interview: Ben Cohen, director of ‘Backtrack’ at the OBA Short Film Screening

We talk to Ben Cohen about his film charting nostalgia, drugs and 90s rave culture.

90s drugs ecstasy jericho mdma OBA oxford Phoenix Picturehouse Rave Rave culture Short Film

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The screenplay, written by Mary Flanigan, tells the story of a man, Matt, who is facing his thirties with nothing more than a deskmonkey job and fading memories of acidhouse to protect him.

The best time of his life has come and gone with the fading of rave culture and he knows it.  Then, the one who got away (Siwan) falls back into his life and he decides to check back in with an old mate, Eezy, to get back a little of that 90s bliss.. 

However, as he gets swallowed into Eezy’s world, Matt soon realises that his memories of the 1990s were far more appealing than the gritty, sweaty reality he encounters. His attempted escape only causes him to become ever more trapped in Eezy’s warped time bubble, and we follow Matt as he struggles to return to reality and finally leave the 90s behind.

What was your first step in making a short film outside of Oxford, without all the University’s resources?

I actually just graduated in June and shot this when I was still in Oxford in my third year. It was only possible because last year the summer 2013 we set up the Oxford Broadcasting Association, which is a new umbrella organisation. It’s quite confusing because there’s a lot of media societies and we wanted to bring them all together under one group. We were very fortunate in getting funding from the university and funding from Thelma Holt, she and the university were both very generous. With that we bought some film equipment and also used the money to give grants to productions.

This bunch of films showing tomorrow is the first lot of OBO films. They’re made from hired equipment and money from the OBO. The screening is to make back that money, and all the money goes back into Oxford film. Having said that we raised £2000 on Kickstarter and some other money from other various sources. So while we were using the OBO for equipment we were also renting lots professional equipment, so it was slightly bigger than that. We had about 20-25 people working on the shoot; most of them were students, but there were a couple, the producer, writer, cinematographer and first assistant director, who had left Oxford in the last couple of years.

Did the lack of the extensive Oxford drama and film network of people hinder you?

The crew was mainly Oxford people, and everyone worked for free on the film. For example, the cinematographer and producers are professionals and worked for free, which was very kind of them. The actors also worked for free; one of them (David Shields) was still at Oxford, the other (James Corrigan) left a few years ago and then went to LAMDA. Again he did it for free, even though he’s now a professional actor, and giving that much time for free is a very nice thing to do.

You funded a lot of the project on kickstarter/gofundme. Did you find that this method changed the way you filmed, in that you were advertising something that hadn’t been made?

It is quite an awkward thing to do, because you’re asking your family and friends to fund you. If you’re doing a kickstarter that’s trying to raise more than say £10,000 you’re probably going to have to reach out to the wider public and have a clever idea. But for this, realistically it’s people we all knew. It’s quite amazing how people give £10, £20 it does add up and it does help.

The idea is that everyone gets a copy of the film; if you are giving £5-£10 in effect you’re buying a copy of the film and a poster. If you decide to be generous and give much more then you are just being very generous, but if you do give a little bit of money you are getting something in return. I don’t think it really changed the filming. We made a little trailer which was fun to do.

Did you find there was any difference between what the trailer set the film up to be, and then what it actually was in the end?

Yeah. The trailer is very different to what the film is like. But the 90s rave footage from YouTube actually heavily influenced the film. The flashbacks to the 90s were filmed with a 90s-era handheld camcorder. Most of the film looks very sharp like most films you see in the cinema, but some of it is like someone’s just wandering round a house party with a camcorder. In terms of what the trailer is, it doesn’t really go into the plot much and is more of a teaser in that respect.

The name ‘Backtrack’ puns on nostalgia and music. How does the film explore the relationship between the two? Is the music we hold dearest usually because of nostalgic reasons?

Quite darkly, ‘backtrack’ isn’t only about music and nostalgia, but is also what happens when heroin users inject heroin and pull a little blood out at the end. Not that our film is about heroin at all, but a lot of the film is about him going back to the 90s thinking it’s going to be great, and it actually isn’t. There’s a nasty side to it that he’d kind of forgotten about, and forgotten how much of  a dickhead his friend was. I think it’s a good name because it’s got that slightly nasty side to it.

 In terms of music, a big influence was Clive Martin, who writes for Vice and wrote this article about YouTube comments on 90s rave music. How there are so many people who at the age of thirty look back at the 90s where they took loads of E, and had the best time of their lives. They look on it with complete nostalgia, and it’s like nostalgia x10 because they were all high the whole time as well. So much of that house music in the 90s was about drugs. I think that probably does make it a very nostalgic thing, more so than being drunk at a party because you remember it more clearly and are a lot happier.

Rave culture was a very different environment, and I think the reason people liked it so much was because it was a really asexual and friendly place. It’s not like when you go clubbing from the 2000s onwards where people are drinking alcohol, trying to have fights, trying to have sex with each other. It’s quite an intimidating atmosphere that’s very hyper-sexual and hyper-aggressive. I think that’s also wrapped up in why people have that nostalgia for it, since, for better or for worse, things did change in terms of how people go out.

It’s a commonly held view that people are always obsessed with what happened 20 years ago, i.e. the 00s loved the 80s and the 10s the 90s. Do you agree? Or do you think this decade’s nostalgia for the 90s is particular?

Any older person I tell that I made a film about going back in time to the 90s is a bit confused, thinks it’s a bit absurd. Also absurd because I was born in 1992 and played no part in rave culture at all. I suppose having just left university, I’m beginning to understand the feeling of looking back at them ten years down the line and idolising them as a kind of golden age. You do realise that they really weren’t that good though. The recent obsession with the 90s is quite weird. It’s become quite a ‘cool’ thing, particularly because house music has come back in the last couple of years. I guess the film is against that in a sort of way, poking a bit of fun at it. I don’t really know why everything comes round again and again.

The OBA Short Film Screening runs from 4pm-6pm Sunday 23 November at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Jericho. Watch the trailer here