An Interview with Benjamin Wiessner
Benjamin Wiessner is a producer. His credits include Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Beast Beast, and The Grief of Others. I spoke with Benjamin about his career as a producer, collaborating with Jim Cummings, and his best piece of advice for people pursuing a career in the industry.
Did you always want to pursue a career in the film industry?
No, it was very much a kind of happy accident. I went to Emerson College which has a good film programme, but I went for poetry. I was living with some friends from college in New York afterwards and I had always been in production as a job. I was driving truck for wedding expos and stuff like that, from the time I was 18 and always willing to drive a truck. It was a good way to get $200 a day, so I was doing a lot of that with my roommates as well. We’d just sit there talking about these different projects and I started helping write those projects. When those short films really started to get noticed online, like Notes on Biology (2011), got almost one million views in a couple of weeks. Suddenly they realised that they hadn’t really taken meetings, but I had started a publishing press and had that experience and experience in profits already so I was ready and able to step in and start taking care of the business end of things. I was already involved with the creative process and found out I had been working in film for years when I was just driving truck and didn’t realise I was working in film. Suddenly I was a filmmaker.
So you got into producing through your interest in the business side of things?
Yes, how to make creativity possible. That’s what we were doing with book publishing. It’s great to have the idea that you’re a writer, but how can we make it possible that we can publish people and actually sell their books. That kind of hands on marketing. That stuff was already a part of my mind-set.
What would you say is the biggest challenge moving from producing independent short films to feature length films?
I think the biggest challenge is realising you are allowed to and that there’s not some other thing you need to do first, or somebody who is going to come and turn you into a feature filmmaker. I think that’s an important part of the process. I remember our first time running the Short to Feature Lab, one of the directors was talking to us and she hadn’t directed another short film and she hadn’t directed anything, but she so clearly saw what the movie was and what it needed to be. We were talking to her and just trying to let her know that she could direct. It was during that conversation she finally made that decision and now she has this terrific film that’s about to hit festivals this winter. It’s so much more precise and beautiful than anybody could have made that story because it’s hers. All she needed was a couple of people to convince her that she was somebody who could make a feature film.
You frequently collaborate with Jim Cummings. How did this come about?
Jim and I have been working together for the last decade. He and I have done three or four features producing together, before he started directing. We used to run sort of a company. If you look up Ornana (like Orange and Banana combined) you’ll see a bunch of short films that he and I have produced together, with Danny Madden who had Beast Beast at Sundance this year. He and I were working on these hand drawn animations as producers. We were trying to figure out how to get films out there and do all that type of stuff. Then on that trajectory outwards of 2014, we produced three features that year together. That was a really great opportunity to see a kind of around the scale of a low-budget indie film, what that looks like, how to get it done and what it looks like if you have $250,000. We still get royalty checks for a $40,000 horror that we did called 13 Cameras. That was really just a great experience working with a bunch of our friends. Here is what you can do if you’re making a film in nine days. Whereas The Grief of Others that went to Cannes from that group of films was a much different beast. That was the first time I had shot on film and that kind of thing. You’re just learning all of these lessons on the fly. That was a really big year for us, just in terms of realising how many different ways you can build a film, while still putting out something that was still really top calibre.
What are the differences when you are working with a big budget film?
There’s a lot more people obviously. I think a lot of days we were like 50 or 55 people on set of Snow Hollow. Our crew was like 18 to 22 on Thunder Road. Things just move a lot slower when you have that many folks. Everybody needs to get into the space to do their job. Certainly you can pop up two cranes and be shooting out overnight in the mountains and stuff like that. That would have been really dangerous to try and do with the crew we had on Thunder Road. All of that support made us able to pull off some really crazy stuff. So that was one of the really wonderful parts.
I think the other part was just being able to bring in a different calibre of actor as well, where we weren’t just casting locally. Even though we brought along so many of our close collaborators from over the years, it was still amazing to get to work with people like Robert Forster, Jimmy Tatro, and Riki Lindhome and have that ability that you don’t have when doing a $190,000 film in Texas.
I believe that was actually Robert Forster’s last feature film?
Yeah, he was so much fun! When we were talking to him trying to make the deal, apparently he had shot up there years and years ago and he said as long as we put him in this Best Western which is a super cheap and mediocre hotel, but it is the only hotel within an hour and a half. You’d go to pick him up from the hotel at 6.30 or 7 in the morning and he’s talking to like 12 people. I don’t think anybody knew he was an actor, just thought he’s this charming man.
Are big budget films more demanding as a producer?
It’s weird. It takes a very different part of you. When you’re doing a low budget film like Thunder Road you have to find all of these solutions and none of them are going to be solved by money really. There is a lot of creative problem solving and you are really hands on. That’s something I love as well, how intrinsically involved you are with every single department and every piece of the film. With a larger budget and that was still true somewhat of Snow Hollow, but definitely to a lesser extent. When we’ve worked with even bigger budgets you just get pushed further and further from the crew and that hands on experience. At that point you’re kind of more running a company that is making the film.
Is there anything you’ve been working on currently?
We’ve got four films that will come out next year. We have Beast Beast that was in Sundance this year, and that will be coming out soon in the UK. We’re still figuring out exactly when, but either February or March next year. Then Jim’s third feature, The Beta Test is in the final stages of post-production right now. So we’ll have that ready for the winter festivals. We are at the same stage with Disfluency, Jim and I have been a part of that film’s evolution. Then we have See you Then, which is another wonderful low budget film. Then our first really solid budget film, Werewolves Within, which is like a murder mystery that we did right before lockdown. Our last day of filming was March 9th this year.
I suppose lockdown has made the role of producer more difficult with postponing productions…
Yeah, basically it pushed so much of our 2020 into 2021, but we already had 2021 films so we are now trying to figure out when we get back how we put these together. We are anxious to get going. Really stressing how important it is to wait for the right moment. We have one film that’s completely green-lit, with a studio that will pay for all the coronavirus stuff on a separate budget. We wouldn’t have to worry, but I still don’t feel comfortable going into that right now, until there is something like a vaccine or at least that is starting to be on the way. I can imagine how to make a set safe, but I can’t imagine what to do with my art department who need to go to 75 stores. When you have a film that has this big creative vision, how do you keep the art department safe?
Do you have any advice for any pursuing a career in producing?
For people who are trying to get into producing, I think a lot of it is figuring out how to meet folks, I don’t mean in a networking sort of way, but really developing these relationships with creators. I think it’s really important. One of the things that we do is to make sure we do a commercial or music video with them first, so that by the time we are getting to the feature we know how they work and what their priorities are and how they want to spend time on set. You have all of those ideas. Build those relationships and your knowledge base of the creators that you want to work with because you are going to be a much better producer and much more likely to be brought onto the next project with that person if you have a real understanding of what they need and how they work. The other part of it is just making sure that you are going to the things where people can find you. You are going to film festivals, you are going to special screenings, so that you start to be somebody that people will consider.