Stimulation Addiction :: An interview with BODEGA’s Ben Hozie about his new film PVT Chat

New York’s Ben Hozie has become best known in recent years as the singer/guitarist of BODEGA, a band fusing darkly hilarious critiques of online culture and late-stage capitalism with an equally sharp post-punk urgency. It may be less common knowledge that he has carried on a parallel practice as a filmmaker with Pretorius Pictures, releasing a series of shorts and features before completing his latest erotically charged project: PVT Chat. In our current times of isolation, its themes of stimulation addiction and emotions processed through computer screens feels especially prescient.

PVT Chat follows the blossoming relationship between online gambler Jack (Peter Vack) and cam girl dominatrix Scarlet (Julia Fox, in her first acting role before being cast in Uncut Gems). Fans of the Safdie brothers will also be excited to see Buddy Duress from their films Heaven Knows What and Good Time, stealing several scenes in PVT Chat with his slippery charms. In less progressive hands, this story could have portrayed Scarlet as someone who should be judged or shamed. Instead she displays full agency, enjoyment, and control over her life in a way the film’s other misfits are unable to achieve. There is an occasionally cruel strain of selfishness on display within its low-buzzing hum of desperation, but in the end characters develop new forms of connection as both glass screens and internal walls are broken down.

Anyone keeping tabs on the Brooklyn music scene will be pleased to hear PVT Chat‘s experimental score by Parquet Courts’ Austin Brown, who also produced the BODEGA album Endless Scroll. He contributes yearning tone floats with subtle shards of guitar feedback and the John Carpenter-inspired synth piece that appears in the trailer, which you can see for the first time below (warning: very NSFW). Read on for an email correspondence with Hozie about the film’s themes, production, and behind the scenes Buddy Duress stories. words / j locke

Aquarium Drunkard: I know you primarily as a musician, so can you tell me a bit about your background as a filmmaker?

Ben Hozie: I’ve been making DIY films for almost as long as I’ve been writing songs in rock groups. So far the music has connected with more people but I intend to do both for as long as I can. I shot my first feature Annunciation when I was 22 on 16mm w/ experimental filmmaker Simon Liu. At that time I thought we made this really significant work that would skyrocket us into international film notoriety so it was quite humbling when we got rejected from almost every film festival in the world.

I love personal cinema too much to be discouraged so I put my head down and made a few shorts and another feature called The Lion’s Den a few years later on DV cam for about ten thousand dollars. That one was also rejected from all the film festivals so here I am again with another new film. PVT Chat was shot and edited around the last seven or eight BODEGA tours. I’m hoping that one day I will make a film that people really respond to which will dignify and force people to revisit the rest of my movies.

AD: What are your first two films Annunciation and The Lion’s Den about?

Ben Hozie: Annunciation is a modern ‘adaptation’ of the Mérode Altarpiece Triptych (the early northern Renaissance painting) that is composed of three narratives (one for each panel of the painting) : a director of advertisements who falls for his intern, a young tourist struggling to overcome impotence, and an actress portraying the Virgin Mary who decides to become a surrogate mother. The filming coincided with Occupy Wall Street so we filmed scenes at Zuccotti Park and allowed Occupy to shape the timbre of the film.

The Lion’s Den is a comedy of errors farce about a group of radicals in a commune in Staten Island who attempt to kidnap the CEO of a giant corporation but instead get the wrong guy. While the group is figuring out what to do with their captive businessman, members of the commune attempt to ‘revolution the bedroom’ by exchanging sexual partners. The Den was an attempt at theatrical cinema : my two models were the essayistic political films of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin and The Rules of the Game.

Both of those films were aggressively anti-naturalistic (in different ways) and at the time I thought of them as conscious rebukes to the mumblecore film movement. In 2017 something happened and I fell in love with a number of mumble and mumble-adjacent films. I was particularly impressed with how said films were able to achieve abstraction via documentary (that combination is perhaps the essence of cinema) so I decided to make a film of my own leaning slightly towards that world (PVT Chat).

NOTE: both films are streaming for free on the Pretorius Pictures Vimeo page.

AD: What inspired you to write the story of PVT Chat? Do you know people who have turned online gambling and online sex work into main sources of income?

Ben Hozie: I’ve known a few sex workers (as well as online gamblers) but I was initially drawn to that world because it seemed to really crystallize something essential about this historical moment where most emotion is processed through computer screens. I don’t see the cam or online gambling worlds as that different from social media: they are just different forms of stimulation addiction. This is the same theme that the BODEGA LP Endless Scroll was about.

AD: How do you feels about these kinds of relationships formed through screens now that we’re forced to do them in a pandemic?

Ben Hozie: I don’t think all relationships formed through screens are superficial or harmful. In the movie Jack (Peter Vack) and Scarlet (Julia Fox) become quite close through their cam chats — they become closer than any of the other characters in the film are to each other. Internet culture has its pluses and minuses.

AD: How were you able to cast Peter Vack, Buddy Durress, and Julia Fox? I understand this was her acting first role before making Uncut Gems.

Ben Hozie: I met Peter on a short that I was AD-ing a few years ago (directed by PVT Chat’s producer Oliver David). We’ve since become very close friends. I loved Peter’s performance in his movie Assholes — it was full of this naive boyish enthusiasm that made me realize he could be Jack. Peter is very handsome and charming too. It was important to me that Jack not become an incel-type character. He is obsessed with cam girls for other reasons than social inadequacy.

I was a big fan of Buddy’s from and later met him through his old agent and was able to track him down in Queens at his mom’s place. I met Julia because I heard she was getting into acting and had also spent some time as a dominatrix when she was younger. She got cast in Uncut Gems shortly after we started shooting PVT. We started before their production but finished way after (I was shooting scenes almost a year after our initial shoot). 

AD: Do you have any funny on set stories about Buddy?

Ben Hozie: Me, Peter, Buddy, and Kevin Moccia (who plays Will) got quite into blackjack during the production. We would always play hands online at my apartment in between set-ups. We had some good runs not unlike those in the movie (which were all improvised and real). A few weeks later Buddy called me and asked me if he could stake me some cash to double for him playing cards (which is literally the plot of the movie). I told him I didn’t feel confident enough to pull that off! Buddy is a great talker (one of the many reasons he is a great actor). He’s very fun to talk on the phone to. Unfortunately he went back to jail during the filming of PVT. I’m not sure if he’s out yet or not…I hope so.

Me and Peter shot some incognito b-roll at a real casino (which was later cut from the film) but he won us 3.6k off one hand (red 21) at roulette (which we were hoping would be a scene in which he lost….)!!!  You can see the footage here

AD: One thing I really like about this story is that Scarlet is portrayed as enjoying her work and having full agency instead of the movie shaming her. In fact, everyone else comes across worse. Was that an important part of it for you?

Ben Hozie: Yes. It was important for me that the movie did not depict cam girls as victims (certainly many are but not all of them). I also wanted to bring film eroticism into the 21st century which is why it was important to include scenes of a woman achieving pleasure just for the sake of her own pleasure. People seem reluctant to admit that some sex workers chose their line of work because they enjoy and excel at it.

I also wanted to film masturbation and fantasy in a way I’ve never seen at the cinema: raw, honest, and un-glamorous. Sex in cinema is often just cheap titillation or a quick stopgap in between plot. I wanted to film sexuality in a way that reveals something about its everyday-ness. That couldn’t have been achieved without Julia or Peter’s cinematic courage. It was also extremely important for me to film erect full frontal male nudity as that’s something rarely ever depicted in cinema.

AD: Can you tell me about Austin Brown from Parquet Courts’ score? Did he have a specific vision for how the film should sound?

Ben Hozie: I like to think of music in my films as samples. I like films that are relatively score-less (except diegetic music) but which include quick bursts of musical punctuation. I already was using quite a bit of Beethoven in the movie but wanted something contemporary to play against this. Austin has played a not insignificant role in my recent musical life (he produced my band’s Endless Scroll LP) so he was a natural choice to do the score.

After some initial experimentation before the tone of the film was discovered I remember telling Austin I mostly wanted two things : 1) some pieces in the world of the Parquet Courts EP Monastic Living: guitar feedback and contemplative harmonics and 2) something yearning and romantic similar to his song “Steady on my Mind” from their Human Performance LP. He’s a great guitar player and arranger and was able to come up with some excellent material (he also makes a cameo in the movie playing guitar as a street busker). He also composed some of the diegetic pieces in the movie and surprised me with a great little John Carpenter-esque synth piece which is now also in the trailer.

AD: What are your upcoming plans to get the movie out there?

Ben Hozie: It’s hard to say since it seems most film festivals are cancelled for the remainder of the year. I’m eager for audiences to see it. We will have to wait and see. 

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