Alejandro: I wonder when this started, when did this passion begin and I immediately called up the mark and he shared a story with me that when you guys where in third grade, that you’d watch horror movies
Alejandro: In third grade, in your house and mark said that he would pee his pants
Alejandro: You loved them!
Ben: It’s crazy to think back in just like a parenting standpoint, because our parents are fantastic and responsible, but for whatever reason they’d let me watch these crazy horror movies, you know, and I think I’m well-adjusted instead of being psychotic, it feels so far in the past whether there were literally like the VHS covers that were on the wall and there’d be one copy of each tape (laughs) and someone else in the town wanted to watch the movie and had to wait for it to be returned. And I don’t know why at first maybe it was the covers of the tapes or what not, something about horror movies that I just intrigued by and made me watch it once and I was hooked and I remember…
Alejandro: Do you remember what your first horror movie was or not?
Ben: I think strangely, I don’t know if this is right, but the first one that I remember was “The Blob” or the remake of “The Blob”
Alejandro: Wait, the Blob? Like B-L-O-B?
Ben: It is a terrible movie, it’s like a guy in a gelatinous globe that would attack people (laughs) and it was really not a good movie and as soon as it was on the TV and I started watching it I because I remembered it from before I thought “I can’t believe this is what got me so excited about this”.
Alejandro: I was gonna say, was it the same after you saw it again or not?
Ben: No no, it never holds up (laughs). I think my mom also sort of likes these movies, we watched “The nIght of the living dead” together and I think I just always loved, I lived Halloween, going out and dressing up with friends and getting candy and then coming back and staying up late that night till whenever we were allowed to stay up and do horror movie marathons and I think that’s where I build passion there. I watched a lot of movies, it wasn’t just horror movies I watched, all sorts but yeah, I remember in like 4th or 5th grade there was a new student who would … he was Turkish, I believe and his parents where immigrants and they didn’t know exactly what to do when they had a birthday party, because they where gonna do a slumber party and asked my mom for movie recommendations and I think she recommended like “Return of the living dead” and everyone like totally freaked out XX (2: 42) to my mom like, why did you choose that movie?
Ben: Yeah I always loved movies in high school, we had this thing called “senior option”
Alejandro: All right, yeah
Ben: You could work at the police station, for a month or two you had to do something outside of school for school credit and a friend of mine, we did like a movie review website and did sort of a focus on if we had to put together like a terrible fake episode of a show doing movie reviews…
Alejandro: So you created a … was it a website that you created? or what was it?
Ben: We did a website which definitely doesn’t exist, it was on some server provided by high school but, this was like the greatest con of all time because we got to watch movies and write about them as school credit.
Alejandro: That’s genius
Ben: Yeah, it was pretty creative to not actually have to do any work.
Alejandro: So, who did you work with on this project?
Ben: Matt Zimbeti
Alejandro: Are you in contact with a lot of your buddies from Scarsdale?
Ben: Everybody pretty much, because with emails it’s become so easy to stay in touch
Alejandro: Right, yeah, that’s true. So I’m envisioning you sitting on your asses, watching movies and then just taking notes. Did you take something fro that experience? (laughs)
Ben: Our advisor was this guy Bill, who was a film editor, who had worked on Mr.3000 and I’m sure of knowing others that I’m forgetting, but that was cool because he had insight into like, the filmmaking process, cause you don’t really understand what editing and post-production process and he just introduced us to some movies like bicycle thief and some other foreign films that weren’t necessarily on our radar. But other than that there was not like an academic process, it was literally like “Hey this movie looks cool, let’s watch it and then we’ll write up the review on the site, I don’t remember what our method was, I think it was numbers, I think it was grades, I forget what our metric was.
Alejandro: Did you… cause you had to give a presentation right?
Ben: Presentation went horribly, because it was one of these things, you know like, you could sort of fake it long enough, that you’re doing real work so the actual presentation when everyone sees like, what’s going on behind the curtains and the fact that you’re just watching movies (laughs). We had the website and like, this doesn’t look like a ton of work, so why don’t you guys put together like a fake episode as if you were doing a TV show
Alejandro: What did you do in 7th grade, there was speech class, did you do anything related to movies or no?
Ben: No, I never did.
Alejandro: Because I think you had to show something, was it like a talent or what was that?
Ben: there was like a bunch of different things, you had to present something you could to well, you…
Alejandro: OMG you could choose comedy
Ben: Yeah you could choose anything, I think I chose, this is also like a total disaster, I remember I was like, peer-pressured to like mess around and pretend I knew how to rap, so I did a rap and I did like a Dr. Seuss rhyme out of rhythm. Again it was the pattern of getting away with something and then the moment comes and you actually have to present and it doesn’t go well, but yeah.
Alejandro: So you did a senior option’s movie review, then you graduated, you went to Stanford,
Alejandro: and in Stanford, you studied Film and also, what was it? Creative writing?
Ben: Yeah, English with a focus on creative writing, yeah, Stanford is obviously a great school and a great place and you go there and it’s like, I’m going to do computer science and I want to do Earth Studies and all these things that they’re known for, but I guess I wasn’t that good in them so… and I just started this film studies program, my graduating class was the first graduating year for that program and it was much more of a focus on film theory, film analysis, then film production, you know, NYU, USC, other schools like that had a real kind of hands-on approach, you study film but you also are hands-on making films as far as having equipment around and senior thesis and all that, this was much more reading about different film theory, reading about the history of cinema and obviously I was someone who’s always enjoyed that, so it was pretty easy … less challenging than computer science.
Alejandro: What was every class? So was the class you watch a movie and then you break it down afterwards? What did that involve?
Ben: It depends, there were different kinds of focuses, in English mayor you would have a class that was “Russian Lit” and there’s modern American literature, it would be broken down in that respect and usually there’d be a text with a specific film theory that you would read and then you would a watch a movie that would be streaming once or twice a week in the auditorium where you would watch the fil and then the class would be discussing films and a specific film theory or in the context of whatever historical moment you’re ..
Alejandro: Humm that’s pretty cool.
Ben: and then you write a paper on it, so you write your interpretation of the films through thinking about it in the context of whatever the philosophy that we’ve been reading about
Alejandro: I think I took the wrong mayor, I made a mistake (laughs)
Alejandro: What happened after Stanford?
Ben: I lived in San Francisco for 2 years, I made the not very creative decision of interviewing at Google. I was just doing what it was expected and did that whole process and did like 7 interviews back to back and didn’t get the job, which I would say it was fortunate, but I didn’t have a job there, a lot of friends from college were living there and that’s what I wanted to do, so I started doing some freelance writing, I’ve always been into writing and that doesn’t pay very well.
Alejandro: Did you grow out your hair at this time? Cause that’s what I’m picturing.. I’m picturing like ling hear and beard
Ben: I’ve always had trouble growing beard, so if I did it was like patchy and gross and it gets a weird form if it gets very long, so I didn’t like that, I can’t do like the flowing…
Alejandro: Yeah, that’s what I pictured.
Ben: I did some freelance writing that paid 70 – 100 dollars an assignment and it wasn’t prolific by any means …
Alejandro: was that through Upwork? Upwork wasn’t even around? or those freelance networks? What was it like back then, was it like, picking up a phone?
Ben: It was like Craigslist, like “Who is looking for someone to do some copy editing” and whatever, you’d reach out
Alejandro: That’s not as crazy though in Craigslist as if you’re looking to sell something that you’re gonna meet like a mass murderer, yours is at least like, what bad can happen right? If you’re a psyco you might just, write something really bad.
Ben: Yeah, it wasn’t dangerous, but I obviously had to get a job to pay my rent and I actually had a friend from Scarsdale who worked at a company that was a litigation support service company which basically I don’t think a lot of people hear about or know what that means, it’s not super exciting but it’s basically going to various lawyers, paralegals, legal secretaries and sign the services which is basically during the trial point of discovery when each side and share certain documents for the case, it has to be organized. So if they had to be put in a specific order or had to be labelled, all that. So I got a job there, really through the help of my friend and did that for like a year and a half, first working in the back room to project management, making sure everything is going well and then transitioning to sales, which was a great learning experience, I am a horrendous salesperson, I enjoyed doing that, it was a lot of walking around from law firm to law firm in San Francisco which, again it’s pretty nice.
Alejandro: So, you’re going to law firms and you would pitch to them that you were the best are organizing
Ben: It’s like “we can photocopy better than anyone”
Alejandro: And then the other person …
Ben: I mean it was great, my friend who was there was great at it, because there is a level of just like you need to connect with the person of the front desk and make them like you, so he would always bring like fresh baked warm cookies to fluster goodwill and yeah, the selling point was either your prices where lower, which ours weren’t because it’s tough to have a good growing business with undercutting everyone’s prices, that you were nice and fun to deal with and that you basically didn’t screw up. I don’t want to mean the business is simple tasks but at times did simple tasks, but it could get quite complicated if it was like digital discovery and having to go to people’s organizing…
Alejandro: So it was 100% service, and “We’ll organize it and will bring you fresh cookies, every day, warm fresh cookies”
Ben: It has to be warm, very important. Yeah, that was it, so I did that for a bit and it has actually grown tremendously, they’re like doing great, but at a certain point you stop and say, what am I actually passioned about? What do I wanna do with my life…
Alejandro: That was a year and a half?
Ben: Hum a year and a half was right when I left San Francisco, so I think …I think I probably had that job for like a year, I’d spent some summers interning in LA in the film industry and enjoyed it but as a New Yorker either is always that like LA is terrible, so I decided to move back to New York
Alejandro: Even though you liked L.A. or no…
Ben: I liked L.A.
Alejandro: You experienced it with an NY lens, it wasn’t as fun
Ben: Exactly, when I was in L.A I had a blast but it felt like, for whatever reason like going back to New York being with my family, because my family is still living there, being my your friends from college and school
Ben: When I was there was looking at what to do and my dad and my grandfather are in real state, so I was talking about maybe going that direction and I started interviewing in a bunch of places and got a job as a Project Manager for a real state company, a construction company, and that is what I started thinking, like, I do a year or two in that, learn about that and then probably join the family business and I was like a week or two from starting that job and I had that feeling of, am I gonna actually enjoy doing this? and around that time, serendipity, another friend who worked at Cinetic let me know that there was a job open there, so I went interviewed for it
Alejandro: To be clear, Cinetic is a film financing and distribution company that specializes in realizing independent films, ok go on.
Ben: I went, I am not gonna say casual because I was focused but I had sort of nothing to lose, because I had this other job and then I just sort of went for it ended up getting it right away and decided that this was actually where my passion was and I had a misdirection. So I started there, worked there for a couple of years
Alejandro: And that was the selling of international rights? That’s where it began?
Ben: I started up as someone’s assistant, which was the head of the financing and consulting division of the company and a couple of months in he left to work for a film financing and media company, so I was sort of left there without a boss and then I got a new boss who was head of international sales, it was a brand new division of a company, these divisions usually have employees because there was in nesting stages it was just the two of us which was a great learning experience just kind of being thrown against the water and figuring it out, so we did that for a bit and I want to say, a year in to that, she left to be the head of international, so I was the only one, so I had multiple bosses leaving and I was the only one in that division besides the partners of the company who that was not really their background, they were smart guys who knew what they were doing but didn’t have the time to focus on every moment of every day, so I became the head of international and I was going to sell markets, building the relationship and that was super exciting.
Alejandro : So what was does the movie making the process look like?
Ben: So, you start with the scripts and then you typically go for the director, so we’ll get a script as far as we can to the point that we think that directors will be interested and then you go out and you submit the script to the agencies or for directors directly if you have a relationship and usually it take s a few different ones to read it, you got some passes because it’s such a personal art form and each movie depending o a scale that is going to take at least and a half of someone’s life or if not more, so its a real commitment, so people really want to make sure that the story is meaningful, that they care about the message of it or if it’s a bigger movie and they’re getting paid, that it could be a business decision as well. Then you get a director on board and then you turn to cast, so casting directors form packages from market standpoint whether you’re gonna easy times selling the film around the world or depending if you’re a financed producer or if you’re gonna have a hard time getting capital and actually be able to make your movie (0:22) go after bigger name actors, alone in the US right now if you’ve worked in movies that have succeeded, it’s not necessarily because they have bigger stars in it, it’s just because the movies are really great, so international marketplace is still very driven by those names, so having an A-list movie star means you could have a bigger budget than if you just put someone that would be great for the part but isn’t necessarily someone who is known as being in front of the poster. So once you have tasks, and it really depends on the project, how long it takes, we’ve done some movies where this process takes 2 or 3 months then you’re off to the races, others where we’ve waited, you know, two or three years to get to the right combination of director and actors on board in order to make it. So when the Matemathician Game that we did, came together, I’m thinking 4 – 5 months, once we had controlled the scrips and brought on a director, brought on cast and we were off to the races and then we did another movie that came out this year that is called Gold, which was a great script we optioned around the same time we got the invitation in, but it took 2 years to be ready to go.
Alejandro: At this stage, at the same time you have to figure out how it’s gonna get financed?
Ben: Yeah, it really depends on the scale of the project, if we’re talking purely independent filmmaking and not talking about a studio, some of those people will develop a big idea, bring on a director, bring in a cast and try to flip it to one of the studios because you’re not going to be able to independently make like 100-million dollar movie, but there’s a fairly low percentage of business to be in because xx(03:24 – 03:33) based on xx(03:33). So what it really is, is give a smaller film, that’s a great script, sometimes the point to go with this when you have a filmmaker you’re excited about, go to raise money from financiers or high network individuals typically people go to the financiers and the actual industry vs just friends or family members for money but if it a smaller film you can do the latter.
Alejandro: What does an independent film, a smaller one, usually costs? Obviously that all depends on what the storyline and where you are and all those things, but when you say go and fundraiser, are you looking for 10 million, 20 million, 50, 100? Or usually, you can get a lot more done nowadays with less at a higher production.
Ben: Yeah, I think you can do more for less now which is great from technology standpoint, there are platforms where you can actually get your material out there whether it be something on the higher end like Netflix or Amazon or Vimeo, various platforms that if you’re not xx(0:53) having a true theatrical release there’s a lot of opportunities right now
Alejandro: Have they changed the game with Netflix?
Ben: Totally, I mean, I think our business model has changed, we’re still clinging on how we’ve always done things because it’s how we know how to make movies but we made 2 movies, one we’ve already released and one to be released by Netflix, psychologically you just kinda have to realize that the movie may not have a theatrical way in a what and why that is something more traditional, but at the same time is going to be released in a lot more countries and a lot more people are actually seeing your film, so, it’s exciting for me in that sense. But I think if most people talk about film budgets, you don’t see any lower than like 750.000 dollars when you’re going lower than that it’s typically kinda a very small scale, very intimate projects that often people put together with friends and family money…
Alejandro: Like “Blair witch project”
Alejandro: Or did that cost a lot? Maybe that cost a lot
Ben: I think that was like 100 grand, I think it got the highest return on a film ever, from box office to production budget
Alejandro: They did a great job making you feel like that actually happened, at least with me, I don’t know, they freaked me out. I thought “Oh wow someone found the tape of some crazy assholes walking”
Ben: That was like probably the internet, I guess not exactly but it was during the time where you could market something and trick people still, now it’s kind of impossible because people know immediately when something is real or not.
Alejandro: By the way, I didn’t see it
Ben: You never saw it?
Alejandro: I only saw one scene and I think it was probably the scariest scene of the whole movie, where they only show through the light, the person staring at the corner of a room OMG, I think I saw that and I shit my pants, I saw that I shit my pants and I left, and I was like “Ok, I’m bit watching”, so obviously you saw it
Ben: I saw it, yeah, I haven’t seen it in years bu t
Alejandro: Well you’re a horror connoisseur. I stopped watching horror by the time I think I was 15 years old I kinda ask myself, like “why, why do you do this to yourself”
Ben: Weirdly as I’ve gotten older I am getting more scared by horror movies, and it would usually be the opposite really I was kind of dead in the typical jump scares but now they actually get to me again
Alejandro: I think you fear to get a heart attack, cause we’re getting older man (laughs) there’s actual chance of you having a heart attack.
Alejandro: Did you meet your partner Teddy Shwarzzman at Cinetic?
Ben: Teddy worked at the financing and consulting division when my original boss left, he and another person in that division became co-heads of that division and for like a week or two I was on a near desk helping out but also helping out the international sales. It was impossible, so quickly started determining where their greater need was which was on the international sales side, so that’s where my focus went but yeah, we built a relationship there, became friends, had very similar taste creatively and we had the same style being totally laid back but also wanting to be really focused and have a good work ethic and he’d been there for a couple of years and had always had the resources as far as capital and in a very admirable way wanted to learn more about the business, build relationships in the space before launching a production and financing company and I was leaving there for certain reasons, he was reaching a point where he was ready to launch this company and I just sort of made sense when we were having drinks one night just to kinda be a part of his mission fo Black Wood that became Black Bear
Alejandro: Do you remember the first time as a producer that you were just put in the hot seat and it was a lot bigger and different that you had gone through before?
Ben: We shot a movie called “Gold” with Matthew Mcconaughey that was too big
Alejandro: Great movie
Ben: The movie is based on a true story, so it was in Indonesia, but we could’t shoot there because of censorship and just infrastruchture so we decided to shoot in the jungles of Thailand and we just had to do our version of Indonesia and we found this incredible river and this incredible jungle and it was this big epic , kinda of apocalypse now vision obviously and sure enough, our second day of filming we had this incredible set with all of this mining tanks that production design team had made an amazing job creating, we noticed, well, it was raining a little rain which was good because in the script there was a lot of rain and that’s something you deal with in monsoon season in the jungle and someone noticed that the river was like, starting to rise a little bit and it was right next to our set, so we marked off where it was and at the end of the day and this tape can’t be seen anywhere and we were like “ it is not supposed to rain that much overnight, we’ll be ok”, next day we show up no set and sure enough the river has risen literally 25 feet and all we can see of our set is the very very top of these tents and we were going out in these canoes on water that is over everything that everyone built for 6 or 7 weeks, so that was sort of insane.
Alejandro: Was there actual equipment for filming all of that there?
Ben: Once we realized what was happening we got most of it out, there were like a couple of pieces of machinery that, because the ground was so wet and muddy we couldn’t get out, otherwise… the real loss was the set.
Alejandro: What did you end up doing then? What was the next step?
Ben: We took 2 days off to gather ourselves to come up with a good plan which was sort of move up everything where we could shoot, we found a different location obviously, this was like a once in every 25-years level flood and because of where that was positioned and it was downhill alongside this river, basically, even though it didn’t rain, so terribly right were we where the rain caused the river to rise an rush down and wipe out our set. The sadder part was that there were like local people whose houses were ruined
Ben: It was like an emergency. So we moved up as much as we could and with the schedule that could be shot creatively in the elements, we found a different part of the jungle to go to on a different part of Thailand and then we basically got our production design team working on creating a similar set in another location that turned out to be beautiful, that had enough elements from the previous set that we didn’t have to throw away everything that we shot
Alejandro: Still within Thailand?
Ben: Yeah, so when people watch the movie they have no idea that you’re actually seeing two different locations, but it wound up, things were a little more rushed in times that we would’ve liked in terms of creation, but it’s what you have to do, you have to be flexible and to figure out a way to make up the time to stay on schedule.
Alejandro: How did your day look? Where do you allocate a lot of your time to?
Ben: I think our philosphy is always be focused on our projects first, there are a lot of people, we spena d alot of time doing meetings and just trying to sort of create opportunities by meeting people and sitting down with other producers, agents, writers because it’s such a relationship driven business, which is something you have to do and should do and it’s super helpful but we’ve always wanted to focus on actually making the movies that we have on our sleve, so we, first and foremost everyday are thinking about those tasks related to this projects whether it be working on a scrip that’s not wuite there, getting notes back to the writer, figuring out best ways to take a script that doesn’t have a director and prosition it properly with the agency and try to get a director on board, you know, if we have a director figure out how we’re gong to tot to cast, if we have cast, where we are in terms of production, making sure we have the right locations, the right budget, the right schedulle and build a crew and really lead to actually getting that going. And then, you know actually we’re in production, if I’m the one who is on set for it that’s 98% of your focus I really don’t shoot responsibility in the people involved in that project and also from the time allocation standpoint you really have to focus on every day been there for that. We give the director as much distance as he or she would like until they’re ready to show something and then when we reach that phase for some undetermined period of time, hopefully as little as possible, we’re in the editing room with them just trying to kinda help get it all the way there, to the best version of the film. And one of the scenarios that happen time to time it’s reading scripts, it’s reading books, its reading articles, it’s coming up with development ideas, it’s doing outreach to try to find out what that next project is gonna hit the market, so all of these things often are kinda blended to the same day, there’s not necessary hierarchy, ok this is my focus for the day or doing all of those things kind of at the same time, sometimes with the exception of if your in that edit room or on set. But yeah, I think it’s nice that it’s a job that each day brings something different in a very genuine way.
Alejandro: If you were speaking with a young person who wants to be a producer and let’s say, someone that just is heading towards college, wants to be a producer, what’s some advice you can share?
Ben: Well its funny, I’ve always been, I’m not passive but I’ve always been someone who, I wasn’t like, even though our conversation tracks back my passion for film from a very young age, I wasn’t like, I’m gonna be a director, I’m not one of those people who like, looked up in the sky an saw a plain and was like “I’m gonna be a pilot” (haha)
Alejandro: Things kinda began falling to place with you
Ben: And like followed a passion because I was genuinely interested in it and it let somewhere, but I’m not like “this is my 5 year plan” kinda guy, but I think from a producer’s standpoint, if you’re in college, it sounds stupid, but it’s like, watch a lot of movies, read a lot of books, read a lot of scripts, practically reading scripts is super helpful from a producer’s standpoint but you’re dealing with creative people and it should be genuine and sincere and be driven by the fact that you’re actually interested but it’s also really helpful from the career standpoint having these conversations where you can connect with a film that you both love or some sort of literary bases for an idea or a story that you can connect on and I think the more you think about the world in terms of storytelling and looking it through that visual lens, the better equipped you’ll be someday, and then as far as to getting into the industry and the field, I think there are a couple of different ways to do it, there’s no right way but I think a lesson in my path is just working hard, be that person that everyone knows is hardworking and trustful …
Alejandro: And can get things done
Ben: I think there’s an embrace of the hustle specifically when people think about Hollywood and this industry but I think people often just want to be around and working with people who they know they can trust and have a good team and good ethics and can hustle but don’t do it at the expense of being reliable and in it for the right reasons
Alejandro: Is there a really cool medium, you had mentioned about reading books and, it’s there something on the web that you tend to go to a lot that gives you access to a lot of different stories that you’ve enjoyed, and anyone that’s a huge fan of storytelling they should give it a shot and check it out?
Ben: My answer to this would’ve been a no-brainer a few months ago, but I’d have to check, cause last time I’ve looked this website had not been updated for a while and I don’t know if there is a reason for that but, longform.org is an incredible resource for these amazing stories is like long-form journalism and they have just curated a fantastic series of articles that get updated, where getting updated every day from all sorts of publications. From my perspective, they are a just great resource but part of my job is to find stories to then adapt to features or tv series and that is a great one.