Over the past several months I’ve enjoyed becoming networked with several Christians who are involved in the filmmaking industry, and who have what I consider to be a healthy and balanced view on living your faith out while attempting to create film art for the glory of God.
One of the filmmakers I’ve gotten the pleasure of meeting (virtually, anyway) is Doc Benson, a man who wears many, many hats: producer, newscaster, station manager, voice artist, feature film actor, pastor, church consultant, and restart specialist. Doc has been involved in media and ministry since 1990, and has recently written, produced, acted in, and directed his first feature-length film, Seven Deadly Words.
One very interesting thing that Doc has done is started an effort to distribute a copy of Seven Deadly Words to every church in America. This is an amazingly generous undertaking, with potential far reaching impact. If you would like to learn more about this effort, you can find out more by visiting the website, www.givingchurcheshope.org.
I’m pleased and honored to have Doc Benson be a part of the third interview in my Thimblerig’s Interviews series.
Please Introduce yourself.
Hi, I’m Doc Benson… Director, Writer, and Producer and all around nice guy.
How did you get involved in filmmaking?
While working on my doctorate, I took a break from ministry and became a producer and on-air talent for a CBS news affiliate. I eventually became a TV station manager in a small community in New England. I had the opportunity to work on documentaries and in “Disappearances” with Kris Kristofferson. That experience solidified my desire to enter the field of film production. Eventually I studied under Dov Simmons (the same teacher of Quentin Tarantino and Will Smith among others). From all this, I crafted the script and production that eventually became the award-winning feature, Seven Deadly Words.
Who have been some of your most profound creative influences as an artist?
Well….Let me think a minute. I’d have to say that I draw on several sources for inspiration. First and foremost I’d have to say Frank Capra. Some directors like to tell stories about unapproachable people … people of the 1%. Capra, with films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was best able to capture the irrepressible optimism and daily courage of ordinary men and women.
I am also a big fan of classic radio programs. The ability to capture an audience and transport them into another time and place merely with the spoken word. Sure, the maxim is “show it, don’t say it”, but if the word pictures you create are not on par with the images you paint, you will lose your audience. Script and story matters.
By the way, I have to agree with Orson Welles when he stated that Buster Keaton’s The General is “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.”
Please give a synopsis of your film, “Seven Deadly Words”, and tell us a bit of the history of the film.
Inspired by actual events, this docudrama follows the community and the congregation of Egypt Valley Church as they try to overcome the Seven Deadly Words: ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’ The church is out of funds and out of touch with the community. New pastor Evan Bennett sets out to change things for the better with the help of some folks in and out of the church. But there’s a problem… The Haman Family has been running things a long time, and they don’t like change. When their control and ministry comes under scrutiny, the Hamans decide to fight back. Evan and his family soon learn how far one family is willing to go to preserve the status quo.
For almost two decades I served as a pastor, church planter, and restart consultant. I have seen both the good and bad about churches going through change. I’ve even lived through some “horror stories” of my own. I thought I would combine some of those ideas, stories, and debates, and put them together into a film that could tell the story of one church, going through needed change. Folks may be shocked at some of the things that happen, but I am sorry to say that much of the film is inspired by actual events. In the end, however, it is a story about overcoming the conflict surrounding change, and growing in a direction that is Christ centered and ministry focused.
Script development began back in 2011. We assembled the cast and crew in early 2012, and began principal photography on June 9th of 2012. The premiere was held near the end of 2013, with distribution starting in the summer of 2014. We’ve been blessed to have won a number of awards for the project. It was even screened in Cannes during this year’s festival.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project? What surprises did you experience along the way?
Funding was the biggest challenge. We set up an LLC and secured members to invest in the project. Being that it was my first film, we were in uncharted waters. It took some time to find investors with the vision and courage to recognize the potential in the film. Selecting a location was also paramount. We partnered with Connersville, Indiana, a community that was supportive to the extent that the provided resources for us at no cost and even let us use the city and local business names in the movie. This was a win-win in that we were able to reduce art costs and production expenses, and they gained a promotional boost with every showing of the movie. I strongly believe that these types of partnerships help to boost production value in lower budget films while reducing actual spending.
Production wasn’t as big a challenge as you would think. I had very detailed call sheets, shot lists, and script notes. Good planning made the days run fairly smoothly. Because of our preparations in advance, we often finished with filming by mid afternoon each day. I didn’t want it to feel like an indie set, but more like a SAG set. The professionalism on set gave the cast and crew time to rehearse, relax, and socialize in the evenings. We still finished the entire film, securing all shots we needed plus some, in the 18 days scheduled (six days shooting and one for rest per week). I believe that well rested actors and crew can give a much better performance in fewer takes than a crew working 16 to 18 hours a day on a mismanaged set.
Surprise? I guess I’d have to say the reaction from mainstream festivals. We have received more awards and recognition from secular festivals than faith-based festivals. Maybe it’s because our story exposes areas in church life that need improvement. Folks who have never stepped foot in a church tell us that they can relate to the conflict over the seven deadly words. Some have even told us war stories of personal experiences. To me, that’s high praise.
What are your thoughts on the state of filmmaking in the Christian community now, and your predictions for where it might go in the future?
We are trapped in a moment in time where church audiences and the Christian-industrial complex tend to prefer movies that don’t take risks. Movies with milquetoast stories and construction make millions, while films that break new creative boundaries barely scrape by. I call these “Godsploitation” films, after the “Blackspoitation” movies of the 1970’s. They are formulaic for a target market with come to Jesus moments and car salesman subtlety.
Godsploitation films continue to be made because they have a ready audience, and investors like ready audiences. It’s a catch 22. We need investors to take chances on redemptive films in new genres, but we also need believers to accept and promote these new movies. Some producers are starting to break out of this mold, but we have a ways to go before we see a wide swath of redemptive films covering multiple genres.
“Faith-based” films are typically also family friendly, but the Bible is often not family friendly. How would you advise Christian artists as they think about portraying the grittier sides of life?
Yeah. If you made an accurate movie about parts of the Old Testament, it would be boycotted by many churches!
Life isn’t clean. Good guys aren’t perfect. Bad guys aren’t twisting a moustache and wearing a cape. We don’t exist in a Pollyanna world. If you want to make characters that are overcomers in Christ, you need to give them something to overcome. Give them challenges, problems, realism, grit… especially if your target audience includes Pre-Christians.
But that doesn’t mean you have to show EVERYTHING in order to make your point. Take horror films: Hitchcock’s Psycho did more to scare me by showing syrup in a drain than any blood soaked slasher film of today ever will. Or how about just before the fight scene between Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. Borgnine sees a photo of Sinatra’s sister, and whispers something in the ear of Montgomery Clift . You don’t hear what it was, but it was bad enough to cause Sinatra to grab a chair and start swinging. Maybe it’s the radio fan in me, but if Christians want to make realistic films without gratuitous violence or over the top language, take a cue from the masters of the golden age…imply. Your audience’s imagination will do the rest.
Along those same lines, do you think it’s possible for Christian filmmakers to make R-rated films? If so, how would imagine that would look, and what would be the risks?
I think that the movie My Son gave us a window into what an R-rated movie with a solid redemptive message could look like. Unlike many in the church, I felt that the movie probably deserved an R rating for drug use and violence, but that didn’t mean it was a bad movie. On the contrary. Keep in mind that the MPAA rating system is subjective at best and biased at worst. There are many mainstream films that receive ratings lower than deserved.
But really, who cares? Hollywood may release more R rated films, but over and over, studies have shown that PG and PG-13 movies make more money. Remember, you need investors, and investors like proven profitability.
Don’t tell me you couldn’t make that R rated film a PG-13 with just a few tweaks. Drop some of the language. The overuse of profanity is a crutch that weak writers use to create fake tension. Suggest some of the sex instead of just showing it. It will take more creativity, but will be more profitable in the long run and less apt to be shunned by the church community.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers, especially those who are approaching filmmaking as a calling or a ministry?
First, expect to be disappointed. There are going to be many hours of frustration, many dead end roads, and many moments of disillusionment. If you think that the faith-based film industry is paved with golden intentions and receptive hearts think again. There are egos, agendas, and self-centered prima donnas here too. They get away with it by disguising their pomposity in a shroud of spiritual language and religiosity. It will be very frustrating, but don’t let it rob you of your zeal and purpose. Keep the faith.
If you want to make a million dollar feature, show them you can make a successful $200,000 feature. If you want to make that, show them you can make a $60,000 film. To make that, make a great $20,000 movie and so on. Work your way up the path of budget and creativity. Don’t try to start too big, nor should you remain stuck in ultra-low budget purgatory. And for heaven’s sakes, no more shorts!
The other thing I would recommend is figure out what film-making job you are good at, and learn as much about that role as possible. Right now most redemptive films are made using the “Lone Ranger” model…One guy or gal is the director, producer, dp, grip, chief cook, etc. That’s not how the industry at large works. A quality production brings together a diverse staff of talented individuals uniquely gifted in their task. I myself have worn a number of hats, but have focused on directing as my calling.
Collaborative efforts will require bigger budgets, which will require greater investment, which will require better stories and quality to attract investors. Therefore, as we move to collaboration, we will see better movies. Maybe instead of you and four other people each making an okay 10 grand film, you could work together to make an amazing 50 grand feature or web pilot? Leave your egos at the foot of the cross, please.
Can you tell us what you have planned for any future projects?
Ever since Seven Deadly Words and winning those three best director awards, I have been asked to direct for other producers. I look forward to those directing opportunities and others that may come along. In the mean time I have another film in development entitled The Publication, which will include actors from SDW as well as talented folks like Lee Perkins from Foxcatcher and Nancy Stafford from Matlock. We are still gathering investment on this one.
I also have other scripts that I would love to direct and partner with a production company or church to make. If a church was interested in becoming a producer of redemptive film, I would come in, help train your people, assist with the production planning, and then direct the film.
The other thing happening is a campaign called Giving Churches Hope. There was so much positive feedback about our last movie and the value it had for church audiences, we are working with several church organizations and non-profits in an effort to give a copy of “Seven Deadly Words” to every church in America. Folks can learn more at the campaign website GivingChurchesHope.org or by contacting me directly via DocBenson.org .
Again, a big thank you to Doc Benson for taking part in this interview, and for giving so much great information for those of us interested in helping Christians excel in filmmaking and other artistic endeavors.
More about Doc…
Doc Benson’s article, The Little Red Hen for Filmmakers
Find out more information about Doc Benson: DocBenson.org
Giving Churches Hope website: Giving Churches Hope
Doc Benson on Twitter and Facebook: @CuldeeDoc & /EricDocBenson
Seven Deadly Words on Facebook: /SevenDeadlyWords
Past Thimblerig interviews…
Thimblerig’s Interview of Michael B. Allen & Will Bakke, makers of Believe Me
Thimblerig’s Interview with Author and Filmmaker Bill Myers
Stay tuned to the Thimblerig’s Ark blog for more interviews with artists doing interesting non-conformist work in the name of Christ, and come join the Sacred Arts Revolution conversation over at Facebook!