‘PVT Chat’ with writer/director Ben Hozie and actor Keith Poulson

Screenshot from trailer

I got a chance to ask director and writer Ben Hozie and actor Keith Poulson some questions about their new film PVT Chat. You can catch this psycho-sexual thriller in theaters today and on VOD and Digital HD release February 9.

PVT Chat is a story about Jack, an internet gambler, who lives in New York and becomes obsessed with Scarlet, a cam girl from San Francisco. His obsession reaches a boiling point when fantasy materializes into reality and Jack spots Scarlet on a rainy street in Chinatown.

PVT Chat also stars Peter Vack (HBO Max’s Love Life), Julia Fox(Uncut Gems, Puppet), Buddy Duress (Good Time, Beware of Dog), Kevin Moccia (Unbound, Snitches), and David J. White (This Side of Heaven, Required Field).

Beth: I always like to start with the question of how did you get into this industry? What sparked your passion?

Ben: I saw Jean Luc Godard’s Weekend my sophomore year of college and was never the same. The movie felt like philosophy, poetry, painting, music, and so much more. I didn’t realize how personal and expressive filmmaking could be. I made my first serious film high on Godard’s cinema shortly after in 2011 (Annunciation).

Keith: I took kind of a strange route to get here. I was working at a video store (I Luv Video in Austin) around 2005 and my co-worker was an actor, prepping to be in a film. The director of that project would come and run lines with the co-worker. He liked the dynamic that my coworker and I had and eventually decided to put me in the movie too. That’s how I was cast in my first film. I’ve been working somewhat consistently as an actor since then. I feel really lucky that acting came to me. I don’t know that I would have had the courage or commitment to pursue it on my own. I’ve always had a passion for film and filmmaking, but it was a bit of luck that sparked the passion for acting.

Beth: Congrats on PVT Chat’s premiere this weekend! That is so exciting! How do you feel about it?

Ben: Thank you —-> I’m very very excited for people to be able to watch it around the world. It’ll be a great joy to hear and see how people react to the ending. My rock band (BODEGA) is actually finishing up the mix of our new album in the studio this weekend so I’ll be there celebrating the release of a film with the creation of song. 

Keith: I think it’s great that people can finally watch it. I do feel a bit sad that I didn’t get the opportunity to watch the film with a theater full of strangers. I think it’d be a fun one to watch with a big crowd. So that’s the only downer to all of this, but in the end I feel good and happy for everybody involved. 

Beth: Ben, what inspired this story?

Ben: I was initially drawn to the worlds of cam girls and online gambling because they both seem 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. In many ways I think the most pressing issue of our time is how consciousness is changing (for better and worse) through our relationship with new technologies. I wanted to make a modern drama about a relationship that developed over the internet; one that showed both the negative and positive aspects of online relationships.

Beth: What was the writing process for this film like?

Ben: I wrote the first draft in 2015 which was much more of a straight genre piece (modern film noir). I kept re-writing and eventually the movie morphed into something more satisfying, alive, comic, and strangely romantic. The relationship of the two main characters became less and less cynical and more sincere as I was writing. In some ways I started to think of the movie as a perverted romantic comedy. Once I met the leads the script changed again to adapt to their personalities.

Beth: Keith, what drew you to this project?

Keith: The director Ben’s energy and the opportunity to play a character dissimilar to other things I’ve done.

Beth:  Keith, you play Duke, how would you describe him?

Keith: Ambitious and selfish.  

Beth: Keith, do you think Scarlett is still playing Jack at the end or do you think she caught feelings? 

Keith: I like a happy ending (in films) so I’ll go with caught feelings. Duke probably thinks she’s setting up the stage for an even bigger con.

Beth: Ben, was it always the intent to leave it open ended? 

Ben: It’s open-ended on the level of plot (and I do enjoy hearing people’s interpretations of what they think might happen to Jack and Scarlet) but I wanted the ending to be clear on an emotional level. I wanted the audience to leave with a feeling of lightness, hope, and joy. Despite all of the wrongs that have been done in the movie – in that moment there is genuine release.

movie poster

Beth: Ben, this is a “romance about freedom, fantasy, death and friendship” can you explain this further?

Ben: This was my personal homage to Cassavetes’s Husbands. That movie has the subheading ‘A comedy about life and death and freedom’ which I love. My film feels similar to HUSBANDS in many ways. They are both about the hollowness of a certain kind of maleness and the yearning for something more authentic. 

Beth: What was the filming process like?

Ben: The filming involved a lot of improvisation both with the actors and with the camera. I allowed the actors to change some of the dialogue to suit their voice and I also experimented quite a bit with spontaneous camera movement. I was operating the camera myself so I could improvise my movements as freely as the actors could improvise – when Jack moves through his apartment I could follow him and look around and see what I wanted to see. A lot of this was done instinctually and without much premeditation. There is a moment in the film where the camera glides past Jack on the ground in a bedroom and goes through his window into the dark of the NYC night. That was done completely off the cuff in an improvised manner. I love unmotivated camera moves when you can get away with them. They tend to suggest the metaphysical in a fashion unique to cinema.

Keith: Quick and energetic, the way a lot of independent films have to be.  It felt like I had to just jump in, catch up and get spit out. A fun whirlwind of a shoot.

Beth: Ben, I don’t know a lot about cameras and how the angles help tell the story, but I noticed that the camera gets very close to the characters. Was this intentional?

Ben: Absolutely. We shot the whole movie on a very wide angle lens which distorts the image slightly and makes the eye really aware of changes in depth of field. I wanted people to feel like they can reach out and touch the objects in Jack’s room, such as his laptop, or his face.

Beth: Do you have any funny stories from set?

Keith: When I arrived to set for my first day, I showed up to the apartment location and buzzed in.  Somebody came down to let me in and immediately let me know that I had just ruined a take.  Whoops.   (It was smooth sailing after that)

Beth: Do you have other projects coming up? 

Ben: I have two scripts that I’d like to film sometime after quarantine but nothing that I can really discuss as of now. My band BODEGA will have a new LP out late summer/early fall this year. 

Keith: Nothing specific lined up right now.  I filmed a few things last year that will hopefully be shown in festivals and theaters when that sort of thing is more possible.  Another film I did “I Blame Society” is currently playing in digital theaters.  Mostly I’m just trying to stay warm and stay sane.

PVT Chat hits theaters today and on VOD and Digital HD release February 9.