Tuesday, 16 August 2016

INTERVIEW - DAN BENAMOR Writer/Director/Producer - PART 1

Today's post is an interview with Dan Benamor. 

Dan is a screenwriter that recently exploded onto the scene with his screenplay Onward, Through The Night. 

Onward, was selected as a Tracking Board Recommended script.

For anyone reading this that doesn't know what Tracking Board is - you need to check them out now.

Tracking Board Recommend is the highest accolade any burgeoning screenwriter can get. 

As far as fast tracking careers goes TBR is better than the Nicholl Fellowship. 

Dan is a worthy recipient of that accolade. 

He is also the writer of a highly polished thriller 'Initiation' out now on VOD on iTunes - and various other VOD platforms. 

Here's a link to the film on US iTunes. 

Here's a link to the film on Canadian iTunes

Here's a link to buy the film on youtube

Here's a link to the trailer for Initiation on youtube.

You should be able to find it on Amazon, Xbox, Sony PlayStation, Google Play, YouTube (for rental/purchase), and VUDU plus on most cable VOD providers.

Today I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking with Dan about his path from Baltimore to Los Angeles and his rise as a writer. 

DtS: Let's rewind, take it from the start, where are you from? 

DB: I'm from Baltimore. I always liked writing as a kid. I was going to be a novelist. Actually, when I just went home this weekend, my mom pulled out all this stuff I had written, I had eight of these children's books I was reading the I was young, and I had written mini books of my own, so I was writing while I was a little kid, and then I decided it was an unrealistic occupation 

DtS: At what age did you realise writing was not economically viable as a career?

DB: Middle school, twelve or thirteen. 

DtS: So you were already thinking about careers at that stage?

DB: Yeah, I grew up an old man. I'm still waiting for body to catch up to my mental age. (laughs) So basically what happened, I was going to be a psychotherapist, I was really into it, I have a degree in psychology, and I realised I was not going to be happy as a psychotherapist.

Once I got more into studying it, I realised, I'm too emotionally alive, it would be hard for me to disassociate and have the distance you need to be a good psychotherapist. 

So, I saw this movie that, man, I always feel bad referencing it, because the guy that wrote it also wrote Nightcrawler which is an awesome film.

DtS: Dan Gilroy.

DB: Yeah, so I know that guy's a good writer, but there's this movie called Two For the Money, and I saw that at a movie theatre and I was like, there's no way that I can't come up with something that's better than this.

I think that sort of thing happens to all writers. But then you go through and you find out that the original script was probably good. 

DtS: Did you ever see the first script for Yes Man? The first script was great, then the film turned out really badly. Nothing like the original script. 

DB: I figured out how that can happen through my career. And we'll get there -- but what happened was I started writing screenplays, I bought a book called Screen Writing for Dummies, and I just started writing screenplays. 

And I just kept writing them and I got onto a site called Trigger-street which taught me a lot about screen writing. At that stage I was still full on studying psychology, screenwriting was just something on the side. 

DtS: What pushed you over the edge into film?

DB: I was reading script magazine and they had a scholarship to Vancouver film school. So I sent off a sample of my writing and I got a partial scholarship about 5 thousand bucks or something and it was like a one year program, so I ended up going up to film school, that really was the choice that sent me on this path. 

While I was there I think I did about six or seven short films, as a writer, and then I directed a feature film right out of film school, with no money, just with film school buddies and stuff, and then I moved to LA and it snow balled from there.

DtS: Were you surrounded by cinephiles growing up?

DB: No. No one around me was into film that much. You know, Maryland doesn't really have a big film culture, I grew up in Baltimore which is very blue collar. 

DtS: My understanding of Baltimore comes from The Wire.

DB: There's like three blocks in Baltimore where the story of The Wire takes place. 

DtS: How was moving away from Baltimore up to Vancouver, did that culture your desire to make films or did it freak you out? 

DB: My experience was great, I was surrounded by people who loved film. For me it was an extreme comfort level, we're all speaking the same language. That only made it more fun for me and more exciting.

DtS: The transition from Baltimore to LA. When did that happen?

DB: I made my first movie Betrayed, right after film school, then my visa expired in Canada so I came back to America. And I spent six months editing the movie, I would sneak into my university's lab and edit in there because they had Final Cut, then when the movie was done, there was nothing keeping me in Baltimore.

DtS: You won a gold Remi for that film at the Houston World Fest, right?

DB: Yeah.

DtS: Congrats on that, first one out the gate. What was the budget on that?

DB: In all seriousness, it was like, $4400 USD.  

DtS: How'd you get your talent?

DB: Vancouver has a thriving scene. They film a lot of stuff in Vancouver. And also I was affiliated with the film school. So, through just asking around, we ended up doing a couple of days of casting and we found actors. 

DtS: Were they all unknowns at the time? Or were there many people that had much experience?

DB: They were all unknown, but they had all worked, they were experienced actors, they weren't names or anything. 

DtS: Did you make any short films before you stepped up to a feature?

DB: I did like six of them. Anytime anyone would ask me for help with a short film, I was like, no problem, I'll write it. I also ended up directing three shorts also. 

DtS: I kinda hate short films in general. How do you feel about short films?

DB: The thing is, now it's so easy to make a feature. You hear people talking, like, they made a 20 minute short and they spent ten grand on it, I just say, take that ten grand go make a feature.

It takes a little more to stretch the dollar, but, there's nothing stopping you from doing it, I mean, anyone can go make a feature today. 

DtS: How much did you learn from making your first feature?

DB: Loads. But it's a continuing education. That's one of the reasons I'm so happy I worked as a development executive. I got to see so many scripts written then filmed.

Every single time you do it, you learn something new. It's so different from the page versus when it's on the screen. We, as writers love writing dialogue, but we can over write it 'cause it's fun to do and easy, but when you put it up on screen everything is so obvious, so when you over write it's really clear what you're doing. 

That's the biggest thing I've learned from seeing things I've worked on be made. We have a tendency as writers to show off, with dialogue and different kind of things, but that stuff is blindingly obvious when you film it. 

The people we write for is not the audience, in a weird way, when you get into the process of making the movie everything changes. 

The initial script that we write is really for the reader. And that reader is whatever, a producer, agent, manager, and they're extremely savvy about it. So ever more so, any of that stuff, if you over write it, these readers are going to pick it up immediately. 

DtS: How did your first movie play at festivals?

DB: Great. So we made that film for $4400, but I didn't know, through my own ignorance, you have to get something called errors and omissions insurance. 

We had a distributor interested in distributing it, but they needed this insurance which was going to cost almost the entire budget of the film again. 

And I just didn't have the money. It played at World Fest Houston. I went there with some of my cast and my producer and that was cool, it made it a worthwhile thing. 

The main thing I took from it, if I was going to do another low budget feature, and I'd say this to anyone out there thinking of doing a low budget feature, I'd spend a little more time raising money and try to do it for, you know, 20 grand, or something then you have a little more flex. 

DtS: Did you find it easy to wrangle that film at such a low budget? 

DB: I was lucky. I did it under the umbrella of having just graduated film school. The majority of the people who worked on my movie knew me from a previous project we had worked on. 

DtS: Were you the only one in your school with a feature script ready to roll?

DB: No, there were others. But I think it was my gung-ho attitude that got people onboard. Looking back, truthfully if I had to do it again today, I don't think I could do it. I had a ton of help and a big cast and crew with me, but I was just a possessed person, I refused to give up once I had started. 

Well leave the interview there for this post.We're halfway through.

In the next post I talk with Dan about his success with managers, signing with an agency, assignment writing, and his feature film Initiation.

For now - let's look at the TAKE AWAY.

There's two main points I want to highlight from this part of the interview.

LEARNING BY DOING.

Dan talks about how much he learnt from being a development executive. He found it incredibly helpful being on the development side of things and seeing a screenplay go through re-write after re-write, until it finally got made into a film.

Seeing the difference between what was written on the page and how that played on the screen is a really important lesson to learn.

We can get tied up in writing, and forget that ultimately what we're writing isn't writing at all. We're really writing a blue print for a visual film. 

As writers we need to step back and acknowledge that, then learn how to best write for the final medium, not the written form. 

MAKE A FILM

Attending film school was a great boost for Dan's writing and his career. Making a feature film right out of the gate, a low budget feature is a great way to learn.

We, as writers, need to remember that writing is only part of the film making process. The more you, as a writer, understand about each and every aspect of that process, the better equipped you are to write the blue print for a successful film.

You don't need a million dollars to make a feature film. Now days, making a feature film becomes more and more accessible.

If you can get $10k together you can make a feature. It won't be the greatest film ever made, but you shouldn't look at it like that. You should look at that 10k as an investment in your career. It's probably the best 10k you can spend. 

Also, when you have a produced feature credit to your name, people start to take you more seriously. Even if that film only plays at film festivals and doesn't secure distribution. 

It shows that you're serious about the craft. There are literally tens of thousands of writers vying for only hundreds of writing assignments. The more you can do to help yourself stand out the better. And one of the best ways to do that is to make a low budget feature.

Check out Dan's feature film Initiation.

Here's a link to the film on US iTunes. 

Here's a link to the film on Canadian iTunes

Here's a link to the trailer for Initiation on youtube.

You should be able to find it on Amazon, Xbox, Sony PlayStation, Google Play, YouTube (for rental/purchase), and VUDU plus on most cable VOD providers.

More from the interview with Dan coming soon.

Oh, also, interesting side note and why you should pay attention to what Dan has to say - he is a long time reader for the Austin Screenplay Festival.

Austin Screenplay Festival is one of the top tier screenplay fests in America. In fact, in the world. It ranks up there with the Nicholl Fellowship and The Page Awards.