The film, which premiers at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend, is itself a surreal experience within within the mind of Benoît. Keep A Modest Head features rare audio recordings and film footage taken in Benoît’s studio in Paris.
zeeBigBang spoke with Dawson on the making of his film and what it was like to get such intimate access to Benoît.
"I was really interested for a long time in surrealism. So I thought this would be an unbelievable meeting, just being able to meet Jean and get to know more about this movement. Interestingly enough, Jean never really spoke about the movement so much. Everything was about personal experiences that he had, all the way from when he was a child to in his 80s. It’s like he was a story-teller, who had an arsenal of stories, which happen to be from his own life. He got so much enjoyment out of other people living vicariously through him and through his stories, that I really started to realize that it [the film] was a lot less about what surrealist means and more about what he [Benoît] identifies with in his life," said Dawson.
Dawson wasn’t the first to approach Benoît to make a movie about his life. According to Dawson, Benoît and his long time friend and fellow surrealist artist, André Breton, had been asked many times by different filmmakers but they refused them all, feeling as though what these filmmakers wanted to create was banal and against the artistic nature that both of them possessed.
Dawson’s unique style of filmmaking includes the use of archival footage, meticulous set design, in-camera effects and grainy, textured filmstock to create fantastical worlds. This is what gave Benoît the confidence to go ahead with the film.
"As we got to know each other a little bit more, he [Benoît] could tell I had different interests than most people. It wasn’t until I really sat down with him and pulled some key scenes from some of my movies and showed them to him, he said, ‘Ok Deco, for you, ok,’ and he said, ‘I could tell you really have something to you that although I’m very hesitant, I feel that maybe this is the right move and you’re the right person to do it.’”
Dawson shot the majority of the film in 2004 and had the opportunity to visit Benoît in Paris the following years until his death in 2010. During these years, Dawson was able to get feedback from Benoît on the film in progress.
"I was able to change every single one of the things he had suggested I change and that really made me feel proud because I just knew that, as happy as he [Benoît] was with it [film] in that state, I could take it to a place where he could be very comfortable with it," said Dawson.
Keep A Modest Head held many firsts for Dawson. This was his first non-silent film and also Dawson’s first time time experimenting with the digital software involved in the visual effects used in the film.
"I taught myself everything that you see in that movie, about compositing and adding effects together and blending and motion tracking. That whole room with all those moving paintings, having no idea how I would actually do it. But I knew how to do it, how to make sure I shot it properly and sure enough I was right. Then 20 months of intense, day to day work, I finished it," said Dawson.
Dawson hopes to eventually turn Keep A Modest Head into a full length feature film, which he says will be, “a hybrid” between this style of film and a deeper documentary into the other aspects of Benoît’s life.
"[In Keep A Modest Head] I put Benoît up on screen pretty much as he is, as his mind is, as well get this ‘Deco Dawson interpretation’ of who Jean Benoît is and what his mind is like… I feel like at the end of the movie, it’s about impressions and I think that’s what people will come away with,” said Dawson.
Keep A Modest Head will premier at TIFF on Friday, September 7 at 7:15pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre and will continue with a last screening on Saturday, September 8 at 7:15pm.