You won’t be seeing Zephyr Benson directing the latest installment of “Transformers” any time soon. And that’s a good thing. The 22 year old writer/director/actor, whose debut film “Straight Outta Tompkins” is set for release March 6 (click here for the review), exudes passion and confidence when he talks about filmmaking and his journey to see this movie get made. But it seems that underneath it all, he has a simple philosophy when it comes to his storytelling, going all the way back to when he figured out what he wanted to do with his life.
“It’s really all about the art and the story,” he said.
“Straight Outta Tompkins” tells the story of a teenager, played by Benson, who falls under the spell of a drug dealer in hoping to make some easy money. What follows is his descent into addiction and a drugged out haze of chasing scores, violence, and the hopes for a surrogate family which lets him down.
Forgoing a Career in Basketball
As the son of the multi-talented actor/filmmaker/musician Robby Benson (who also served as one of the executive producers on “Tompkins,” along with David Rudd) and singer/actress Karla DeVito, it might have been a foregone conclusion that Benson would have ended up working in the film industry. But it seems that even though he was exposed to the business starting at such a young age (as he says, “I’ve grown up on sets”), he could have cared less.
That, and he was crazy about basketball.
“Up until I was about 13, all I wanted to do was play basketball. I was also like five foot one,” he said, laughing. “All I wanted to do was play basketball and everyone would ask me, they’d be like, ‘You going to act like your dad one day, you going to direct like your dad?’ It just sent me in the opposite direction.”
And while he may have wanted to go in the opposite direction until he was in his teens, it was being on set with his father again which started him on his own path—even if the inspiration came from a different person.
“The first time I was really, fully involved with a set was when I was about 15, I think,” Benson said. “My dad brought me onto a very small movie he was directing for a friend (“Billy: The Early Years” – ed.), and Armie Hammer was on it. Armie Hammer, he took me under his wing, and that is when filmmaking became everything to me. And it became the only thing that I wanted to do. I was really young and immediately after I wrote this screenplay that I will never show anyone because I’m embarrassed by it but it got me started, and that’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
His drive to become a storyteller and his real world filmmaking education led him to NYU when he was 18, but he quickly lost interest. Filmmaking was everything to him—but going about it in a conventional way was not. Benson dropped out after a semester (“I was there for three months but I probably went to class a good two weeks,” he said, laughing). His experiences of growing up in New York and then his brief time at NYU may have led him to something even more important than getting a filmmaking degree. It allowed him to meet the people who inspired “Straight Outta Tompkins.”
In the movie, Benson plays Gene, a prep school kid who is on the verge of getting a free ride to college for his academics and his baseball ability. And while he smokes weed, and deals a little on the side as well, on the surface it seems like it’s all harmless. It’s not until he meets the charismatic dealer Cruz (impressively played by Aaron Costa Ganis) that he gets seduced into this lifestyle which sees his life spiral out of control. Gene begins using hard drugs, watches the stakes of his drug deals grow bigger, and becomes a willing (and sometimes unwilling, as the case may be) participant in the violence surrounding this world.
And while there are characters who are based on real people, like Bobby and Sam (played by Mike Steinmetz and Jon McCormick, respectively), Benson noted that he wanted to use the character of Cruz to represent heroin and the hold it has over people—at first he’s sweet and inviting, but once he gets his hooks into you, that’s it.
“People can look at the movie and take whatever they want away,” he said. “But for me, Cruz is heroin.”
“Tompkins” comes from a very real place, and very real people that Benson knows and things he experienced. He gives a few anecdotes about people that he hung out with but doesn’t want to give too much away, which is understandable; and when asked when he knew he was going to make a movie about this world, he said it was immediate.
“I knew from day one when I met these kids,” he said. “To be honest, I met these kids and they took me under their wing. And it was like I was their little brother and I tried everything after them–they’d already been through the ringer. Nothing was taboo with these kids. And it was literally the first day I met them that I knew I had to write a story about them.”
There’s a scene in “Tompkins” where Gene is in a room with Cruz and he starts to understand the breadth and the depth of his drug operation. And this wasn’t very far off from Benson’s own experience.
“Eventually, they grew as I grew with them,” he said. When they’d come over, I was used to seeing a couple pounds of weed here and there and then one day, you know it’s like there’s a quarter million dollars on the table—and the oldest guy in the room is 24!”
One of the things that “Tompkins” touches on is the way the drug trade operates, seemingly parallel with the straight world. While the world worries about the boogey man—the ominous black drug dealers who are supposedly ruining society—you may want to take a closer look at that innocuous looking white kid in the prep school uniform wearing the tie.
“So I walked through Washington Square Park and I’d see black kids getting searched, and on me, I’ve got an eight ball, I’ve got a bundle, I’ve got a fucking ounce of weed, I’ve got a bunch of pills, and I’d just walk straight past them,” Benson said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, fuck, look at this world. Look at what’s going on right now.’ And even, yeah, New York is way sweeter and more beautiful than it used to be but it’s changing and hiding. That evil is still out there. It’s just hiding now. It’s in those apartments. It’s in those hallways.”
Those hallways. That’s part of what gives “Straight Outta Tompkins” its atmosphere. The $160,000 budget that Benson and his crew had to work with goes hand in hand with the locations in the movie. For the average person who has spent time in New York, those tight, claustrophobic hallways that open into tight, claustrophobic rooms speak to a city they’re used to seeing. And since most movies about the drug trade go the “King of New York” route, Benson wanted to shed a little light on the world that he was in touch with.
“That’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to show the side of New York that never gets seen,” Benson said. “You watch these movies and everything is the same view of 42nd street or whatever, these high rises. I wanted to show that way of living, where you’re…it’s literally like being a mouse trapped in a cage. And you’re being fed the cocaine — and the heroin — like Gene was. You’re trapped. You’re trapped in New York. I love that city. It’s my favorite city but you’re trapped.”
Like a Clock
The task of acting in your own film while also directing it may seem like a daunting task. Throw in the micro budget and a shooting schedule of about 20 days (“Not on one day do we have time for overtime,” he said of the time crunch they were under), and there’s plenty of room for trouble. But as an actor’s director, and the person responsible for the script, Benson was always available and encouraged a positive vibe on the set.
“To be honest, and we cast this film very quickly, we cast it within two weeks, but when we cast it, I made sure that every actor that I knew they were playing each character, it would all just work together,” he said. “Almost like a clock. Every part would come together. And so on set, we’d run it, and we’d go through it, and I’d give a little bit of direction, and sometimes I’d feel a little bit of direction but I might not say anything. It’s also being an actor too…you can put direction out there, but you can only give so much before someone closes up. It was a very comfortable set for actors.”
It’s no secret that an indie set can be quite an intimate affair. And “Tompkins” was no different, as people often pull double duty or pitch in where they can. Benson pointed out the contributions of his two executive producers: David Rudd and his father, Robby Benson.
Of Rudd, Benson said, “We also had David Rudd, who is a producer and a veteran DP, who a couple times… [he pointed out] just tiny little rookie mistakes, like switching sides, and it would take time to set up lights…little tiny things that would take up hours, and literally it made this movie…it wouldn’t be a movie right now. We wouldn’t have a film.”
Having his father, a veteran director (among the other things he’s done in the business) on set much of the time allowed the younger Benson to focus on his performance when he was straddling the line as director and actor.
“And if you get it right, and you get those moments, and he knows,” Benson said of his father. “So having him on set–and you do a close up on me and no one’s looking out for me–and he’s over in the corner giving me a nod, [saying], ‘You got it.’ And then it’s, ‘We’re onto the next.’ And he was right.”
On the technical side, to achieve the look of “Tompkins,” Benson and cinematographer Brandon Roots used the Canon Cinema EOS C300 (with the following lenses: CN-E 14.5-60mm and CN-E 30-105mm). This influenced the project in two major ways: Canon provided the cameras, thus eliminating the expense from the budget (hugely important to any indie filmmaker), and the minimal lighting and the locations called for flexibility.
“It shoots so well in low light,” Benson said.” And it’s a beautiful camera. And we are so thankful for Canon. Because we couldn’t have shot the movie without that. Locations were killing us, paying people, everything was killing us, and the money I was getting paid, I was just throwing that back in the movie…everything had to be on the books, everything had to be done right, and it was very cool to have to do it that way. Because on the other small student films that I acted on or whatever, it’s just never done that way.”
Wearing Your Soul on Your Sleeve
As Benson continues his career–which also includes his desire to act, including in other filmmakers’ projects as well–he sees the dichotomy of the business where art and commerce collide. He knows it’s an industry, but the ironic part is that the commerce part depends upon artistic people. And he’s just a little leery of the people who seem to have no idea where that line is.
“So I try to avoid those people and make films with people who actually get it,” he said. “But it’s hard, you know, and you can play this industry like a game or you can take the artistic approach. And if you take the artistic approach, have fun wearing your soul on your sleeve and have fun having sleepless nights and have fun replaying what you could have done differently on set, and it’s hard. It’s hard to find a middle ground. I’m trying hard, but we’ll see.”
Even though he’s only in his early twenties, Benson has already learned more than the average filmmaker. It began by watching his father’s career as he grew up, and now that he’s made his first film and is already working on his next script, he looks at the balance that somebody has to strike when working in the industry.
“And it’s so crazy and it’s such a great business,” he said. “And that’s why, especially growing up with my dad, because my dad is such an artist, I’ve watched him…basically I’ve just seen how this industry can kick you in the fucking balls when you take it personally. And that’s just the way it is. And how can’t you take art personally, you know?”