Creator Spotlight - Dane Benko
STSC member and video editor/video maker Dane Benko (aka DB)
Dane Benko (aka DB) is a filmmaker and glitch artist raised in Tijeras, New Mexico and living in NYC. He works as a video editor while developing experimental video projects and writing narrative screenplays. He is a member of FilmShop, an filmmaker collective, and the Soaring Twenties Social Club, an artists network. His newsletter is called Indulging a Second Look.
When you were a teenager, what did you want to become when you grew up?
You know, I actually tell this story a lot because it was a pretty decisive moment when I was a teenager.
I had wanted to be an author my whole life and considered filmmaking to be lazier storytelling: "Reading lets you use your imagination! Movies can never get into a character's head the way books do!" At the time the pinnacle of cinema for me was Jurassic Park and you couldn't possibly expect much better (for the record: Jurassic Park is still an amazing movie. It just isn't representative of all the possibilities film can do).
Anyway, one time my mother and I finished watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Mom said to me, "You know, I'd like to collect all the Coen Brothers' movies. They are so good."
I didn't know what made a movie a Coen Brothers movie, but my teenage mind did grok that this was an easy birthday / Christmas present list to maintain at least for a little while. I went on my 56k Internet connection and looked up "Coen Brothers filmography." And there I found this website (now defunct, RIP) called AmbidextrousPics.com, where these two guys who wanted to be filmmakers wrote reviews of their favorite filmmakers, tiered like the Greek myths: Titans, Gods, Demi-Gods, Heroes, etc. The website had an old school discussion forum and everything. And the two Ambidextrous Guys, Matt and Scott, had written a review of every single Coen Brother movie.
So there was my gift list for my mother. But also I recognized some other names on that list: Steven Spielberg of course. George Lucas. But who is this Neil Jordan person? Or what about this guy David Lynch? Out of sheer curiosity I read through much of the website, and found the description of some of the films to be very, very compelling.
I jotted down a list of movies I wanted to see and went to Mountain Video, an old-school independent video rental store that resided up North 14 in the Sandia Mountains outside Albuquerque. Mountain Video was owned and operated by this woman named Sarah who knew me from when I was a little kid who refused to rent anything other than The Land Before Time, to now the 16 year old who could drive myself and out of sheer curiosity ask her for some "weird movies, not sure if you've heard of them?"
And Sarah's eyes lit up, she said, "I've been waiting for you to ask about some of these. I know a few you'll like."
Off my list she picked out Fight Club and Lost Highway. Then she added at her own recommendation Requiem for a Dream. "Tell me what you think about them!"
This was a wintery Saturday day. As I drove home, I hit some ice on the road up to my private drive and skidded into the ditch on the side. No damage to the car or anything, no problem. But when I got out to push the truck out of the ditch, I slipped and bruised my knee.
So I get home and I'm grumpy. Knee hurts, cold weather. It's early in the day but I decide I'm going to watch one of these movies now. Normally I would wait 'til later. I start with Sarah's recommendation. I watch Requiem for a Dream.
Now. For those who haven't seen it, it's this intense and very viscerally disturbing story of drug addicts in Coney Island, stylized with unnerving effects and bedded by anxiety-driven string orchestrations by the Kronos Quartet. And not to give too much away, but through the duration of the movie, this one druggy played by Jared Leto gets an infection on his arm from all his needle injections. And that infection grows over his arm during the length of the movie more or less in tandem to the spreading, richly blackening bruise on my own knee.
By the time the movie was over, I was sick to my stomach, barely able to breathe, afraid my leg was going to fall off, and generally just not okay. I needed something to come down off the, uh, high that I got from this drug movie.
I looked at my other options. Lost Highway has Bill Pullman in it -- that's the guy from Spaceballs and Independence Day! A fluffy, kindly guy whose characters always have a wry grin and soft spoken demeanor. No way Lost Highway could be as intense as the fucked up fever dream I just watched, right?
"I'm in your house."
"That's crazy man."
Fuzzy wuzzy kind hearted Bill fucking Pullman calls his house. Creepy fucker face guy answers FROM THE PHONE WHILE ALSO IN FRONT OF HIM.
"What are you doing in my house?"
"You invited me. I'm not in the business of going where I'm not invited."
Blitzed out, Requiem-hungover DB was not ready for Lost Highway. By the end I stopped perceiving movies and thought I was just flying through nightmares.
Lost Highway ended, and I thought to myself, "Look. You've been scorched twice. This third movie... maybe not a good idea." But here's the thing. Bill Pullman surprised me, but no way Brad Pitt would be in something weird, right? Also the difference with Fight Club is that some of my friends had seen it and recommended it to me. My friends wouldn't be so cheerful about these other two flicks. This was just a standard action movie, right?
WRONG. I mean it was all fun and games for like the first 75% of the movie. I even got pretty relaxed. But then, you know, the rest happened, and in retrospect Fight Club is no Requiem or Lost Highway but it sure was a cherry on that weirdness sundae.
Ohhh noooo this guy again!
And that was that. "Where is My Mind?" played over the credits, my mind was legitimately fried and fragmented, I was shaky, hadn't eaten, could barely walk on my bad knee, and I stumbled my ass down to the kitchen where Mom was preparing food, when she asked, "Sooo... how were the movies?"
"They were really weird and disturbing. I'm feeling really sick."
"I'll bet" she said, "they sounded awful from what I could hear."
"Yeah," I said, "They were pretty messed up. Anyway, I think I want to become a filmmaker."
Mom sighed. "Yeah," she said, "you'll probably be a pretty good one."
Do you prefer writing by keyboard, do you prefer pen and paper, or do you have another favorite method?
There's a constellation of script writing softwares out there and I used to love CeltX before it became a web app. I'm really not fond of anything cloud or web based.
I should suck it up and buy the industry standard stuff like Final Draft, but I'm weirdly cheap about stuff like that in a way that does a disservice to my overall capabilities. Here's reminder #29589 that I should do that.
However I have a template that I downloaded that works in Pages and I haven't gotten pinged on formatting issues yet.
But more to the spirit of this question, the choice between analog vs. digital writing are very much embedded in what I'm trying to write. If it's a script, an email, a Substack post, stuff that I truly expect to send out there, I can't write it on paper. It won't ever leave that paper. If I'm journalling, taking notes, tinkering ideas or words, I can't do it on a device or computer. There's not enough tools to draw lines and scratch out and change cadence, size, tilt, scrawl of letters and stuff.
The only thing that goes between analog and digital is something new, that's been working for me lately. I used to jot down little story ideas or to-do list of projects on notes apps on my cellphone. The result of this was the notes would get buried and I'd never see them again, ever. My brain just never went to those notes looking for inspiration.
Then I read a post from Frank Theodat at The Pulp Fictioneer that covered a pulp writer going through the process of one of his short stories. I don't remember the name of the writer, but he mentioned getting assigned a story idea from a magazine and then going to his box of index cards where he keeps his own story ideas to fill out the story he was assigned.
The thing is, I had just finished the first rough draft of a feature script I'm working on, The Puppeteer & the Apprentices, about a persistent girl who apprentices herself to a cynical puppeteer and tries to convince him magic really exists in the world. It's an idea that I had for a while but never had all the details for. Well, as I was writing it, other fragmentary movie ideas I had suddenly came back around and found a home. All of these little "What if a movie had this?" or "What if a character did that?" that I sometimes mused on but never developed became useful ingredients in this movie.
And I'd like to systematize that better. So I've been carrying around a notebook of index cards, jotting ideas down that come to me, and putting them in this little box on my desk.
The STSC Symposium: Work short story that I submitted was an experiment in flipping through those notecards and seeing if things could fit together.
Another way I used notecards was polling a group of people at FilmShop and STSC on "List five images you think of when you think of paranoia" for the purpose of creating an experimental short film I'm working on called Stroke
Dream. I didn't know exactly how I was going to use those notecards to generate images for the film, but since then the whole AI/Dall-E thing has exploded and hey, people gave me text prompts for images, so it fits right?
I have a feeling notecards are going to be an essential tool in my workflow from now on.
One last comment on digital vs. analog: I both tried to learn film photography when I was in middle school, and took courses in celluloid film production in college. I can assert with strong confidence that I am a digital filmmaker. I like being able to iterate and duplicate and process and reprocess things rapidly. Plastic arts make all of those things too time consuming, too expensive, or even just not physically possible. I do a lot of glitch art and glitch art inspired work that really comes down manipulating and breaking how digital images are read or formatted on a computer, so whereas there are analog variants of that (burning or acid-washing or baking film stock, for instance, or painting directly on the emulsion, so forth), my brain just knows how to fuck with digital and electronic stuff better than plastic and chemistry stuff. Completely different mindset really. I actually made a thesis film, Magnetized Eye, that was a sober admission to my analog film professor that tape and SD cards were my tools, not so much her filmstock and trade. (I got an A).
What were your first films like? Where can we see them?
So the funny thing is that I have a ton of first films. I've made so much content and it's only recently that I feel like I've had anything to show for it.
My very first stuff was, of course, running around in the mountains with my friends making dopey horror flicks on a Hi8 camera. We had a whole series of them: Busy Mummy, which was about an outbreak of paper-plate faced zombies; Busy Zombie, which was about a vampire attack on a camp for children with disabilities; Busy Vampire, which was about a chain of surreal suicides. Those are all gone. The computers, tapes, VHSs, and everything we printed them on are dead, discarded, or destroyed.
Then I made a few shorts in college that I mostly showcased locally. A couple of them still survive. In this area I found it was easier to respond to contests or things like the 48 Hour Project to incentivize me to make something. I even made a few things on 16mm and the cannisters are not stored well, so by now probably succumbed to vinegar syndrome.
Then I started working professionally and had a lot of narrative shorts that never got quite completed the way I liked. One was a real tragedy: I directed and edited a science fiction short for the Roswell International Sci Fi & Fantasy Festival Shootout, and that was the short film that taught me the difference between volume and levels. See, because I mixed the audio so it sounded great -- on the monitors in the editing bay, that were turned up very loud. I mixed the entire audio too low so when it showcased at the festival screening, you couldn't really hear it. Never made that mistake again.
For years after that I found it easier to make films custom for events and showcases. I've made a variety of shorts for FilmShop's end-of-season events, some for direct call for submissions, and even one for a friend's birthday party.
It's actually only over the last two years I've had two honest to goodness individually packaged "this is my short film" productions that I've done things like submit to film festivals and shill to other people when it's available to see. One is an experimental film called Sometimes a Figure Grabs Me by the Wrist
While I Sleepand the other is a narrative horror I wrote and co-produced called In the Bowels of the Building, which is supposed to be part of an anthology horror feature entitled The BLDG: 5 Stories of Horror.
So, technically I've made dozens of films, but have two first ones after over a decade of making them.
What's one thing about being an filmmaker that most people don't understand?
Often these days I read an article in some place like, say, The New York Times that says, "George Randomguy is a filmmaker residing in Brooklyn" and genuinely do not know what the article means by that. Did George say he was a filmmaker? Did the reporter follow-up to know what sort of films George made? Does that mean he actually works in the motion picture and television production industry, and in which capacity, or does he do video production, or has he produced a few short videos that he's put on YouTube or Vimeo, or is he an artist who employed video or film in some way in one of his works, or shows in a gallery, or does the dude literally just make TikTok / Reels videos? It's hard to tell anymore.
There's two directions we could take this. Embrace the populism of the digital age and let anyone who calls themselves a filmmaker identify with it regardless of what they make, or try to gatekeep and uphold strict standards of what we expect a person who calls themself a filmmaker to make, using rules to frame what a film is as a fine art.
I'm unhappy with both approaches and almost at a loss of what really to do with the question. I got my start when there were legitimate debates in the motion picture industry over whether digital cinema would ever, ever, ever be able to match the clarity and resolution of film cameras. Now basically Christopher Nolan has his IMAX cameras and the rest of us watch 8k stuff 75% made in-computer. When I was trying to figure out how to get into filmmaking, YouTube was new and seemed to be a platform for filmmakers -- I literally thought it had something to do with U2. At that point in time, it was relatively easy to embrace stuff like Robert Rodriguez's assertion in Rebel without a Crew that if you wake up dreaming of images, that's enough to call yourself a filmmaker, or Luis Buñuel's statement about film not gaining its true artistic potential until it was as cheap to produce as pen and paper.
Quotes like those mattered a lot to me when I was getting a start to basically give me the permission to take the risk of becoming a filmmaker. They were inspirational. I think they're necessary for people who are curious about the medium of motion pictures and related media and storytelling and need the little nudge to know that there are options and they can make movies if they set their mind to it. But when viewed from the media landscape, even at my most permissive I have a hard time really mentally framing each individual Instagram post with motion as a 'short film', you know what I mean? To be clear, if someone deadeye said "I'm a filmmaker" and pointed to their Instagram videos as the films they make, I wouldn't be in a mind to disagree or dissuade them. But also many people post lifetimes' worth of video content online who would never conceive of calling themselves a filmmaker, and I also wouldn't push them to say they were.
As a 'filmmaker' I have made educational and training videos; documentaries; corporate and institutional vids; live, recorded, and pretape television; digital miniseries; digital ongoing series; interactive media; review and essay videos; and my own abstract, experimental, narrative, and fine art videos. Currently when I'm looking for a job, I say I'm a video editor. When I talk about my career, I say I work in media production. I don't always feel comfortable calling myself a filmmaker.
The generic idea of a filmmaker is a writer/director, and yes, I've done that. But that's such a small part of my career, that has largely not resulted in commercially viable products, that also I'm not competing against other specialist writer/directors to make major narrative commercial motion pictures. I have movies I want to make, I'm not necessarily in the business to be hired to write and direct movies. There are people I know who are hustling for specifically that career and I'd like them to get those opportunities.
So what do most people not understand about being a filmmaker? That there's this thing called the motion picture and television industry, that employs millions of people, many of whom do not work in the creative side of making the commercial product you view, who are variously called filmmakers depending on their role in the production of those products; that that industry is many different industries, for instance the Hollywood studio productions or the New York television scene, or the national 'cinemas' that are considered public goods and underwritten by public grants in countries worldwide, or independent cinemas that crop up naturally out of communities big and small, or experimental cinema groups both local and international that find each other and collaborate on productions doing things most audiences wouldn't even imagine; and yet those industries are a small sliver of the overall constellation of video, television, and film content including gallery art, projection art, concert projections, interactive video, web video, social media video, industrial and corporate video, education, training, documentation, documentary, and even just straight up home video, religious films, advertising, public awareness campaigns, propaganda films, animations, before we even hit the kaleidoscopic algorithmic driven social media posts which themselves are increasingly being generated by AI engines and probably soon to high fidelity and audience taste. It's mind-boggling, really.
So I guess the upshot is that if you want to be a filmmaker, there's a lot of work?
I'd say the biggest thing I wish the general public was more aware of or at least amenable to, is experimental film. There's an entire history of non-narrative, abstract cinema that uses moving pictures to elicit a range of responses emotional, intellectual, visceral, poetic, or contemplative. These films get demeaned as unserious or wrong-intentioned by people who prescribe film must have a story to have commercial success and over-intellectual and self-serious by people who don't recognize that sometimes experimental film is whimsical, playful, and fun.
I can't convince every person to enjoy experimental cinema, but I wish more people were aware of it and appreciated it on its own terms. A world without experimental film would be like a world of novels with no poetry, lyrics with no instrumentation, figurative sculpture and painting and no abstraction. Far too constrictive of the forms and formats available to us.
Do you do any exercises or other practice to further develop your writing or filmmaking skills?
You know, I'm actually really lucky I work as a video editor because then at a base level I'm at least always doing that all the time to keep the craft up. To be honest, if I didn't work in media production I'd probably have a hard time really following up with ANY of my personal projects. I definitely had a time in my life when it was all "learn a new skill every day" "sit down and do the work" "make sure you focus on the thing until it's done" and most of that time of my life was great at charging up a few of my skills, but it overall burnt me out after a while. Not sustainable.
I'm pretty much now at a level where I only learn what I need to know within the skills I already have to do a project I want to do, and tasks or skills outside those magisteria I need to collaborate with other people. For instance, I need a website. Ten years ago I would have sit down and made one myself, just to learn how to do it. Now I can't be bothered: I need the thing, but I don't need to do it myself and don't want to leave it looking like someone who just sat down to do it themselves. So I'm looking for a website designer to do it for me.
The same is true within the filmmaking world. I want to do this thing with Stroke
Dream, where I create a sort of 3D maze to pilot a virtual camera through. I asked around and learned I can build out the setup I want in Unreal Engine, but I'm facing the issue of whether I should bother learning it, which is a non-trivial commitment that could take literal years, or just hire someone who knows how to use it and hope I can communicate exactly what I want from them... or abandon that particular idea and do a different approach I'm more familiar with.
So there's always tinkering and feeling around and I'll at least give myself the credit of sitting my ass down to write things and push projects forward, especially since the pandemic ended. But I'm kind of off the directional training and exercise approach to creative development anymore. A lot of my choices are now focused on which projects in my brainqueue I already have the capabilities to do and just executing, leaving the 10,000-hours-of-practice-to-be-an-expert or whatever type stuff to whatever's already in reach.
I guess I technically already completed the 10,000 hours on editing, photography, and experimental filmmaking. New thought of the night. Could be a plateau or the slope just feels flat because my legs are used to it by now.
Are there any actors that you'd particularly like to work with on a film?
I don't normally think of ideas for movies in terms of actors to collaborate with, but I will say that my idea for The Puppeteer & The Apprentice crystalized from vague impressions to clear imagery once I saw this picture of Elliot Page:
He has the full mood and vibe of the main character Taika, a cynical travelling artist and craftsman who feels misunderstood and ignored. Once I had a face to the character the rest of the world fell into place and I was able to write it from there. Hopefully there will be a chance once I have the script finished to cash with Page in mind.
Every now and then I get fanciful about working with a certain actor but usually don't have an idea on stories to tell with them. An out-there example is I would love to work with Whoopi Goldberg but have no stories even remotely fitting her style or character. There's more examples but basically I feel I need to focus on nailing the scripts first.
Are there any existing properties (books, graphic novels, etc.) that you would like to turn into films?
So, I always assumed I'd focus on original concept scripts until I had enough experience and resources to be able to go for adaptations, but I ended up writing my first feature script as an adaptation of some of the short stories from A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. The collection was a gift from a friend and it was a profound discovery for me. Berlin lived in New Mexico for a while and much of her descriptions of the New Mexican based stories really fit my own experiences of the feel of the landscape and the language and character of the people. I've read a lot of authors from New Mexico describing New Mexico but it was like Berlin was a realization of my inner voice.
I wrote the full first draft of the script and put together the notes and outline for the revisions, but then felt like if I were going to truly finish it, I should secure the rights to the collection first. Which was already confusing to me because, should I get the rights to the individual stories I sourced or the whole book since I use a half dozen of the stories from it? I still don't know.
A friend of mine helped reach out the publisher for about a year and a half, with the publisher saying the option was held by someone else but would be renewed in April. I kept trying to figure out what production company had the option because maybe they'd like my script? But I didn't really know how to do any of that research.
Anyway earlier this year, none other than Pedro Almadovar announced he's making that adaptation. Which, I can 100% see what he would do with that content, and it would be a great film, and it would be nothing like my movie. So I had very mixed feelings about it.
Now apparently he's dropped out. Cate Blanchett's production company holds the rights so I doubt they're interested in me. For the most part I have to shelve the script and return my focus on things I don't have to figure out the loopy, labyrinthine world of IP for. But it still leaves me questions like, if my story is different enough, is there a way to still get the rights to make a very different movie from the same source? What I need is an entertainment lawyer.
Anyway that's the story of now: focus on original IP and keep adaptations in the back pocket. For what it's worth, the very idea of making adaptations has changed how I read books sometimes. I focus more on the imagery and try to ghost direct how I'd set the scene in my head, which helps me read fiction closer than I used to.
Imagine you wake up one morning and you learn that the Internet has been destroyed? What's the first thing that you do?
My brain breaks over follow-up questions of HOW it's been destroyed, which would be extremely different contexts. For the most part anything that would be human caused, I'd probably not know what was going on and would head into work as usual. I currently work in broadcast television so despite the fact that losing the Internet would cause some major workflow issues, in the end the systems worked pre-Internet and have some of that architecture. And it would be fascinating to work in news while the world figured out what happened and reacted to the Internet disappearing... and who caused it.
If it was something like a world-wide outage from an EMP from a sun flare, well, broadcast television won't work either. And neither will the electricity in my apartment or neighborhood. So in that situation I have food, water, and sanitary supplies stocked up for in case anything goes down for about two weeks. After that is a case-by-case basis. Right now's a good time to point out that EMP resilience is a necessary grid upgrade the US and countries world wide are severely procrastinating on, especially as gas and oil generation goes by the wayside and more and more devices on the grid and the home are electrified. Just saying.
But I assume the question is more spiritual: how reliant am I on the Internet? It's hard to say. As I mentioned previously, I am a digital filmmaker, so much of digital architecture is also Internet architecture (for instance, Adobe Creative Cloud X_X ). Similar as above, does no Internet mean no computers? Then everything changes and takes a ton of time and thought to adapt. Too many opportunities and setbacks to sum up.
In my personal life however, not much changes. I read books, go on walks with my wife, have a DVD and Blu-Ray collection for movies, some old fashioned CDs and assuming computers a digital library of music. I write letters to friends and have many people to call, and even still memorize a few phone numbers. So outside the Internet, I just keep living my life.
Thanks to DB for this fascinating interview!
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