See One NYC Director's Bleakly Funny Take on Lockdown Loneliness

How Ben Callner is (barely) getting by

"But then, there's part of me that goes, you'd be insane not to go insane."

Like most people during the pandemic, Ben Callner has been struggling to keep it together. A commercial director based in NYC, he's had to deal with all the regular stresses of the crisis—plus, the extraordinary ones that come with his wife being an ER doctor working on the front lines.

Which leaves Ben at home to ... pine for her, stress about the poor WiFi signal, and come up with unconventional treatments (to say the least) for advertising projects. The black-and-white, four-minute film comically captures the kind of quiet, melancholy panic lying just below the surface for many people facing work and family pressures during the crisis. And hopefully, to see—and hopefully chuckle at—the absurdity of it.

See the film here:

We've covered Callner's work before—he directed the very entertaining short film Adman last year, which cleverly told a love story through a series of fake ads. We caught up with Callner over email to ask him more about Apartment 8 ½.

When did you first think about doing a quarantine film?

The production company that reps me in Germany (Czar) sent out a friendly home video challenge. The idea was to make something centered around the Milton Berle quote, "If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door." But as much as I wanted to make something, I couldn't focus. Living in New York City, with a wife who is an ER doctor, I found myself constantly worried. 

I was also busy answering phone calls, texts, and Zooms from concerned friends, family and colleagues. So, the amount of phone-call-talk in the film was surprisingly accurate … along with the incredibly slow internet.

The final "nudge" came when I rewatched Pan's Labyrinth (at an incredibly slow pace … à la slow internet). The chalk scene in that film is a door literally being "built." I couldn't ignore that.

Did you just want to capture this moment in time? 

Yes, definitely part of it. But I think I wanted to remind people (and myself) that despite all of the fear, sadness, ugliness and tension going on right now, we're not alone in this and that it's OK (and probably necessary) to laugh … and draw penises.

Can you describe the style of the film?

I think a lot of people, especially those sheltering in cities and apartments, can relate to feeling like a prisoner right now … which is why escaping through a chalk door might make more sense than it should. But it also made sense to see a guy not only losing his mind but also losing himself within his environment ... like his apartment is taking over.

So, in terms of composition, I switched between handheld "selfie" shots (the internal neurosis) and more oppressive shots of the apartment consuming him, where a guy might get lost by walls, furniture, bathroom tiles, etc. Allowing the apartment to literally dictate shots, I placed the camera on my couch, coffee table, on the coffee pot handle, toilet, bathroom floor, in the microwave, etc. The hope was to create something visually interesting (and funny) but also properly "disconnected."

That's also why I chose black and white. For me, black-and-white film is perfectly disconnected from reality and time. But more appropriately, right now, New York City feels kind of stripped of its color, urgency, disconnected, idling ... all gray tones. The "New York minute" seems slower than a regular minute. It's crazy.

How hard was it to shoot?

Once I had an idea and direction that I thought doable (given my limitations), and once my producer/brother/sounding-board agreed to consult from afar (he's in L.A.), and once my wife even started encouraging me to film it, it was surprisingly fun and even therapeutic … save for the acting. That was pretty tough. But sadly, the acting came around as well. I say "sadly" because in the film, the guy goes insane.

Well, how insane are you actually going?

Haha! No no. I'm good. Thanks for asking. But I do wonder if the Naked Cowboy would help get people back in small shops. I can get better at drawing, and we can of course do all sorts of genitals—make it relatable for everyone, you know? And it doesn't have to be boots, either … could be sneakers. Sneakers are better. Should I call Nike? I'm gonna call Mrs. Nike.

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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