Thursday, January 28, 2016

Edd Benda on "Superior"

What was your filmmaking background before making Superior?

EDD: I like to compare the family dinner table from my childhood to a cage match of competitive story telling. In my big family, everybody wanted to have the best story from their day; embellishment came standard. While I didn't know quite yet how I wanted to make a career telling stories, I did know that I loved doing it.

Armed with a passion for story telling, I had the great fortune to attend the University of Southern California - School of Cinematic Arts as an undergrad. Over my four years at USC from 2009 to 2013, I really started to discover and hone my craft as a writer, director, and producer.

As a student I made several short films, including my senior project The Hipster Werewolf which went on to play at several festivals all over the country. After graduating from USC, I founded Beyond the Porch Productions alongside fellow USC alumnus Alex Bell. He and I have worked on several projects ranging from commercials to corporate videos, and ultimately Superior as a director/DP combo.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?

EDD: In 1971, my uncle Karl Benda and his cousin Dan "Dudza" Junttila woke up one day during the summer after they had just graduated high school with nothing to do. Naturally, they decided the best remedy for their free time was to embark on a 10-day 1,300 mile bike ride around the gargantuan Lake Superior without a smidgen of preparation.

Karl first shared this story with me over a Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, and I was immediately fascinated by the time and place where that sense of adventure and general wanton disregard for personal well-being was possible. In 2011, I started writing Superior, which became a patchwork quilt of a myriad of different stories I grew up listening to with Karl and Dudza's journey as the backbone with our film taking place in 1969.

Over three years, I wrote Superior in intense spurts of inspiration. After meticulously outlining the film while a student at USC, the biggest hurdle for me was actually taking the time to write the thing. I would occasionally write 10-20 pages in a day and then not do anything for three months.

When I finally finished the script and shared it with a few people for feedback, the random changes in tone were evident. Fortunately, I have a wonderful network or peers that provided incredible feedback to help focus the script and be ready for filming.

Did you write for specific actors or locations?

EDD: Having grown up in Michigan and spent a great deal of my childhood in the Upper Peninsula, I had very specific places in mind as I was writing the film. This was necessary not only from a creative standpoint, but also from a practical production standpoint. I knew that if we were going to make this film, it needed to be centered around locations that I already had access to, or at least a general frame of reference.

I will admit that the character of "Derek" played by Paul Stanko was written with Paul in mind. Paul is an incredibly talented actor, and he is most well known for being a hilarious improv talent and comedian. In getting to know Paul while at USC, however, I sensed an incredibly intense work ethic that he never really had an opportunity to share with the world from a dramatic standpoint. Much like "Derek," Paul had been written off as a clown, when I believed he had so much more to offer.

Given that we were working on a tight schedule in pre-production, I wanted to be sure that the friendship between our two main characters was organic, so I actually worked directly with Paul to cast his counterpart from a group of young actors with whom Paul already had a rapport. We hosted auditions in the middle of the woods in Griffith Park, and that is where we first met Thatcher Robinson who proved to be the perfect best friend and foil for Paul Stanko.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

EDD: While we are still in the marketing and distribution phase of our film, I cannot say specifics as far as our budget. That said, I am happy to share the nature of how we fundraised for our film.

Having solicited advice and support from our network of mentors in Los Angeles, it was immediately evident that if we wanted to raise the money to make Superior a reality, that money was not going to come from Hollywood. A young, first-time director is a tough sell! For that reason, we started reaching out to small business owners, friends, family, and anyone who would listen. We were offering people that may never have another chance to be a part of the film business that opportunity. We setup a business with equity investment opportunities for all of them, and we kept pounding the pavement until we had the money we needed to make the movie happen.

We are currently on the long road towards recouping our costs, and fortunately we are heading in the right direction. We have been on a festival tour all over the country, with specifically targeted cities in the state of Michigan given our connection to the state.

We are aiming for a limited theatrical release followed by VOD, and online sales alongside DVDs before eventually licensing to streaming services. As we are working on doing that domestically, we are somewhat simultaneously handling that exact same waterfall in markets all over the globe.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

EDD: We filmed the movie using an Arri Alexa with a vintage set of Canon K-35 lenses. I attribute the look of the film almost entirely to our DP Alex Bell, so I'm sure he can speak more specifically to the love/hate relationship he had with the camera we came to know and love as "Martha."

What I personally loved about the camera and lens selection was it allowed for a nostalgic, almost grainy look to the image. While being extremely sharp certainly has its place in filmmaking, I liked the old-school feel of what we were capturing.

If I can briefly put on my producer's hat, I can tell you that the main thing I hated about the Alexa was the cost, but also the risk we had to take to use one. Filming in an incredible remote region of the country meant that if anything went wrong we were a 16-hour round-trip drive away from any technical support.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

EDD: I think the smartest thing we did during production was involving the local community as much as possible. Before we even started production, I held a press conference in the town where we were filing as a basic, "Come one, come all," speech to the people of the region. We didn't want to be some kind of production tornado that came into town, filmed for a month, then simply packed up and left. We wanted the film to be a part of the place where we were filming. That relationship was a two-way street. While we were incredibly open to involving the local people - I should note that the entire cast of the film except the two leads are local non-actors - we also made it a point for our cast and crew to experience the local culture. For that reason we only filmed for 21 of the 28 days we were in the region.

The dumbest thing we did was leave Stephen "Lurch" Helstad in charge of feeding our crew. At the time, Stephen was still a college student, and while he was incredible at being our UPM, he certainly lacked the skill to not only feed himself but also feed ten other people. I'll never forget getting back to the cabin where our entire crew lived after a long day of filming only to be greeted by the smell and moist texture of what became known as "Lurch Spaghetti."

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

EDD: The main lesson I try to share as often as possible is to make sure you WRITE A GREAT SCRIPT. Everyday, I am learning just how long you have to live with the story you told.

It has been almost two years since we truly started working on Superior, and this film will remain the same for the rest of my life. There is so little to gain by rushing into production with a half-assed script. Take the time to really ask yourself if the story is worth telling, and if it is, then make sure you give it the time and energy it needs to be the best story it can possibly be.

1 comment:

Don Meyer said...

Nice interview Edd........ For those of you who have not yet seen SUPERIOR, grab a friend, neighbor or whoever and experience it. The beauty of the area alone is worth the admission!! Beyond the Porch Productions has a bright future... Edd and Alex have a remarkable talent. Can not say enough how much I enjoyed the film. Being from Michigan had a part of that. Look forward to hearing more about SUPERIOR. Get out and see it. All the best to the entire SUPERIOR cast and crew. Don.