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Director proves truth stranger than fiction

By Daily Bruin Staff

March 3, 1996 9:00 pm

Director proves truth stranger than fiction

Reality-inspired film departs from American entertainment
values

By Jeffrey Shore

Daily Bruin Contributor

In the entertainment industry, where humility is not always
perceived as a virtue, British director Benjamin Ross is something
of a rarity. While involved in a deep discussion about his new
film, "The Young Poisoner’s Handbook," the Oxford graduate suddenly
pauses.

"Not that my opinions (on the film) are important anymore," says
Ross. "I think that other people’s opinions are more important
now."

It’s hard not to have a strong opinion about Ross’ film. A
disturbing, uniquely dark and surprisingly hilarious movie about a
real-life young poisoner who targeted members of his family and
friends over a "career" that spanned two decades, "The Young
Poisoner’s Handbook" is, by Ross’ own description, a "nightmarish"
tale.

With the exception of one critically acclaimed short film,
"Poisoner" marks the director’s first foray into the world of
commercial filmmaking. However, the 31-year-old has been thinking
about it for a long time. Almost as determined as his young
anti-hero in "Poisoner," Ross decided that he wanted a career in
filmmaking at an early age.

"I was terribly young (when I decided to go into film) – about
10 or 11," remembers Ross. "I never thought seriously about doing
anything else."

Inspired by the classic American cinema of the 1970s – like
"Taxi Driver," "The Godfather" and "The Conversation" – Ross came
to America in the late-1980s looking to find the creative cultural
community that spawned these films. He didn’t find it.

"That doesn’t exist anymore," says Ross. "It’s much more
television, MTV-oriented. The Americans that I’d fallen in love
with didn’t exist (anymore), if they ever did."

But Ross’ time in America was hardly a loss. In fact, being in
New York gave him inspiration – to go back to England.

"One of the things I discovered by being in America was that I
wanted to go back to England and make pictures there," says Ross.
"In fact, one of the things you have to do when you start making
films is think very seriously about what your subject matter is,
and it probably should be something you know about."

While audiences, overwhelmed by the intensity of the subject
matter, might miss it, for Ross "Poisoner" is really about
England.

"It emotionally connects with my experience of growing up in
England," says Ross. "(It’s the) truth, not in a literal sense,
about modern England, but truth in the spirit."

Much of capturing the truth of England lies is Ross’ exquisitely
detailed set design.

"It can be about the wallpaper that the average middle class
home had, what the teacups were like or what the pictures on the
wall were like," said Ross. "It’s really like an ambivalent picture
of where I grew up."

For those used to the often anti-intellectual world of
Hollywood, conversing with Ross is almost as strange and exciting
as his film. An incredibly literate man, Ross is as apt to compare
his work to Sartre as to Scorcese.

"It’s been done before," says Ross when told that his film,
which views tragic horrors through the eyes of the murderer, is
unique. "It’s been done enough in literature. ‘Taxi Driver’ is a
very good example of a film which essentially takes place in one
man’s hand. It also may be from the tradition of Doestoevsky, or
Camus … you know, ‘L’Etranger’ (‘The Stranger’) and things like
that."

But Ross still deserves a good amount of credit for the
originality.

"It’s rarely been done in such an extreme way," says Ross. "I
don’t think that appalling things have been inhabited so closely
and with such little sense of distance."

Yet this isn’t just another decision of cinematic style for the
director.

"When you make the decision not to do that and to let the mad
person to tell his own story, you are saying something about what
narrative needs to be today," says Ross, "about how things need to
be experienced. You are saying something about the extreme nature
of the world if you take that kind of stance."

There are a number of issues Ross finds extreme. Without
sounding alarmist or antagonistic, Ross is clearly determined that
England continue to cultivate and maintain its own culture and way
of story telling.

"The really good stuff is stuff that doesn’t import American
entertainment values or American storytelling forms," says Ross.
"It’s very daring – somebody with something original to say trying
to find a new way of saying it. It’s either looking back to old
forms, like novels or opera, or looking forward to some kind of new
form."

Determined to continue making films in his native England – and
convinced that he can continue to get funding to do so – Ross’ next
film sounds no less offbeat than "Poisoner."

"My next film’s based in England," he says. "It’s set in 18th-
century London, and it’s sort of an operatic gangster film. Who
knows what the f–k it is – it’ll emerge, and it’ll take on it’s
own life."

Benjamin Ross directs "The Young Poisoner’s Handbook."… Ross
is clearly determined that England continue to cultivate and
maintain its own culture.

From left to right: Hugh O’Conor, Roger Lloyd Pack and Charlotte
Coleman star in "The Young Poisoner’s Tale."

Comments to [email protected]

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