Film

Interview: Ben Lawrence

26 September 2018

As director Ben Lawrence approaches me in the lobby of this Melbourne hotel, I instantly recognise his gait and mannerisms from the film. He gently reaches out his hand to shake mine, as if embarrassed to be taking up our time to discuss his film. Ben’s vibe is not dissimilar from Louis Theroux. Never assuming. He looks you directly in the eye with an interest in what you actually have to say. Characteristics which make for fantastic documentaries.

“I don’t like hotels. They’re a bit lifeless aren’t they?” I follow Ben to the elevator.

In the elevator. Ben’s curious about my recording device. I hand it over to him.

“I bet this thing has heard a few cool stories.” He smiles as he speaks into the turned-off mic.

Ben’s directorial debut Ghosthunter follows Jason King, a security worker from Western Sydney. Jason looks scary, but Ben uncovers his soft and wounded heart as the narrative progresses. Ben’s empathy is, I think, key to the film’s success and powerful climatic ending. Jason searches for Ghosts in people’s houses free of charge. However, it soon becomes apparent that the real ghosts Jason is searching for are those of his own past. The story takes a twist as documentation reveals Jason a victim of child abuse at the hands of his father, childhood family-friends contact Jason, as well as the police. All in search of Jason’s father. Piece by piece the filmmaker and Jason construct a narrative of trauma which ripples throughout the consciousness of the entire piece.

We sit down in Ben’s hotel room. I place my recording device on a coffee table which I’m hasn’t moved since 1977. Ben stares out the window to a view of the MCG back dropped by a blue sky.

“I think this place used to be a Hilton.”

Ben’s father is also a film director. Ray Lawrence. He directed Australian classics such as Lantana and Jindabyne. I sit down and hit start on my recording device as Ben enters mid-flow on conversation.

“I kind of followed Dad into the arts. It’s never been competitive, but rather he’s always lent a guiding hand,” Ben tells me mid-sip of his water bottle.

I prompt Ben on the relationship with his own father, and whether that relationship affected the making of Ghosthunter. In particular how his own relationship might have altered how he portrayed Jason’s search for his father.

“Jason and I have lived very different lives. In many ways, I was blessed not have had the experiences Jason has had. The film wasn’t so much about fathers. But how we deal with grief in overcoming the ghosts of our past.”

Ben’s ability to gently uncover gruesome stories while maintaining a sensitivity in his telling of a story, is remarkable. With a background in directing commercials, the way Ghosthunter is exquisitely pulled off in Ben’s directorial debut renders the viewer almost in disbelief. The impact of the subject matter could have very easily been lost if not for Ben’s genius stumbling upon this gem of a story.

“I saw an article about a guy who searches for Ghosts in a local paper. I had no idea that would be an article which would lead me down the seven-year project which it did.”

Having won awards a film festivals around the world, watching the documentary, the emotional impact on the filmmaker is obvious. I wonder if it was worth the outcome.

“If given the chance tomorrow. I would chase a similar story. But this really was a needle in a hay-stack.”

Throughout filming, Ben had to balance relations with police, psychologist, and Jason himself to ensure that the film could actually come into fruition after seven years of arduous filming. I ask Ben why he felt the need to produce such a piece.

“In the end, I hope we showed that art can alleviate trauma. Through providing a narrative. Art gave Jason’s life a coherence to his owns sense of self that might never have found amongst chaos.”

Finally, as my recorder begins to run out of battery. I ask Ben if he ever thought of pulling the plug. Even though he stumbled on this incredible story, whether he ever thought amongst the police investigation, the psychologist’s urging him to cease filming, and the impact filming might have had on Jason’s life.

“Jason will tell you this as well. There were moments where we considered ending production. But in the end, this story was too important not to be told.”

Ghosthunter is released with SBS and Madman in 2019. Digital release 21 November.

To listen to the podcast of this interview search “The Ferg Neal Show” on any podcast app.


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