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SYS Podcast Episode 374: With Writer-Director Ben Hozie (transcript)

This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 374: With Writer-Director Ben Hozie.


Ashley: Welcome to Episode #374 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I am interviewing Ben Hozie who just wrote and directed a film called Private Chat about a guy who becomes obsessed with a cam girl. He’s a New York filmmaker and also a musician in a band called Bodega. He talks a little bit about that as well, and how that played into his filmmaking career. And today he’s on to tell us about his new film and how he got it produced. So stay tuned for that interview. SYS’s Six-Figure Screenplay contest is open for submissions. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest.

The regular deadline is May 31st, after that, it goes up by $10. So just two more months until the regular deadline ends. If your script is ready, definitely submit before the final deadline as you will save some money. We’re looking for low budget shorts and features. I’m defining low budget as less than six figures. In other words, less than $1 million. We’ve got lots of industry judges reading scripts in the later rounds. We’re giving away thousands in cash and prizes. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, or perhaps enter, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or Facebook.

These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast, and then just look for Episode Number #374. We are continually building out the SYS screenplay library. It is a free resource where we just post professional produced screenplays. We’ve got literally hundreds, if not thousands of screenplays in that library.

Now, again, they’re all in PDF format. They are all free just to download and we’ve been adding, we’re constantly adding to that. I just wanna thank a few people who have recently sent in scripts. We’ve got those scripts now added to the library. So definitely check out the screenplay library. If you’re looking just to download some scripts, check out some professional produced scripts and it’s just www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/library. So I wanna thank Juan Risa, he sent in this screenplay for Coco, Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume Two, Up and Ratatouille. Thank you Alison Mick, who sent us the screenplay for Get Out. Thank you to Ryan Phillips, who sent in Disorderlies, Beverly Hills Cop, Friday Creed, Girls Trip, House Party, and Coming to America.

Sean Huashinhoff sent in The Dark Night, a big thank you to you. Debbie Max, sent in the screenplay for Green Book. So a big, big thank you to her as well. Again, thank you to everybody who sent in these scripts. This script library isn’t something that I actively pursue often. I kinda set it up and then I just kind of announced it on the podcast. So please go check it out, www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/library. And if there’s any scripts that you have in your own personal library that you don’t see listed there, just email them, man, just info@sellingyourscreenplay.com, and then we can just share them with everybody else. I occasionally get requests from scripts as well.

So if you’re looking for something you can send in a request and I can announce it on the podcast. If I can’t find it, maybe somebody will have it. Maybe we can find some way of just getting more scripts into the script library. Again, www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/library is a great free resource if you’re just looking to download some screenplays that have been produced. If you want my free guide- How to Sell A Screenplay In Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free. You just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks, along with a bunch of bonus lessons, I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide.

I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter and how to find agents, managers, and producers who are looking for material. Really it’s everything you need to sell your screenplay, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer, director, and musician. Ben Hozie. Here is the interview.

Ashley: Welcome Ben to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.

Ben: Hey! I’m glad to be here. How are you doing?

Ashley: Good, good. So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?

Ben: Well, I was born in the Midwest and then went to, I kinda grew up in South Carolina, but I’ve been in New York City for like 12 years. I’ve always been a musician as well as a filmmaker, I guess, for as long as I wanted to do. So my life is kind of going back and forth between those two things. For those who don’t know, I have a rock group called Bodega. That’s kinda my day job. Yeah. Then before Bodega kinda took off, I worked as a film editor.

Ashley: I got you. So let’s talk a little bit about your film career. You have a number of shorts and documentaries and features on your IMDb page. Your first short, The Flight of the Bumblebee, maybe just quickly, how did you put that film together and get it produced?

Ben: Well, I just edited that. My friend Alison directed that, I was just the editor for that. The first film I seriously made is this feature called Annunciation and I shot it in 2011. Didn’t come out until 2014. It took me like really, three years to kinda figure it out. But that was all self-financed, a super cheap movie. I shot it on Super 16 at the time though, which might not seem like such a cheap, medium, but, you know, that was the only cost of the movie. Everybody worked for free. All the actors worked for free and over three or four years just through working day jobs was able to buy the 16 stock and develop it. But that movie is very kind of experimental and didn’t make any, you know, wasn’t able to sell or anything. So I just put it up for free on Vimeo.

Ashley: Yeah, and what are some of the lessons you can take away from Annunciation? What’s some of the things you learned?

Ben: God, I mean, I learned everything. I always tell people the best way to learn how to make a film, don’t go to film school, just make a film. The amount of money you spend on your tuition, you could just make a film. It isn’t until you’re actually talking to actors, it isn’t until you’re actually looking through a lens, to know anything about movies. It’s like anything, you have to learn by doing. I mean, before making that movie, this might sound kinda hilarious, but I didn’t even know how films employ different setups. You know, there’s an after shot and then there’s the shot reverse shot and a close-up and all that.

I thought so naively that… you know, I studied film theory in university, so I know so much about the history of movies, but I kind of had assumed that, almost what I would call the Hitchcock style that you put the lens in front of the actor then say their line and you’re really storyboarding, that’s the one shot you want. Then you move the camera over to the next shot that you’re gonna cut through, and you have the actor say their line in that shot, which is how movies seem when you watch them, right? But of course, anybody who makes movies knows, you shoot both shots overlapping the dialogue from the whole scene playing out, and then you cut back and forth. You know what I mean? I mean, so actually when I made Annunciation, I did not do that.

Partially because I was shooting on 16 millimeter film stock. So I, you know, it’s not like digitally, you run out of film quickly. So part of the reason there’s like a stilted energy to that movie, is because it’s like, say your one line in this shot, say your one line in this shot. That’s almost how all the dialogue in the movie is, which works for the movie because it’s an abstract… I was thinking of [inaudible 00:07:53], Antonioni. Those are the big influences. So it’s not meant to be natural with big acting anyway. So it works for that movie, but it’s kind of a hilarious, backwards way of working. One thing that movie has gone for is it has incredible montage.

Every shot was really, really thought out and storyboarded beforehand and it has every angle on shot. You know, there’s something very beautiful about it. But yeah, you’d be like, wow, this is just a very, not economical way to cover a scene, but…

Ashley: Yeah. Why did you choose 16 millimeter? You just wanted that aesthetic?

Ben: Yes. The movie itself is about, it’s about sort of holiness in the day-to-day, if I can say it like that. Annunciation, I’m rifting on the annunciation scene in Christianity where God sent light to Mary’s womb and supposedly a child was born, right? So I was thinking of it as almost a cinematic metaphor where light is projected onto the screen and this thing that is man-like, but is not man, namely the image on the screen, it’s kinda like Jesus or something like that. It was very… so to me, I was like, okay, we need to introduce the magic of just chemical reproduction, hitting… like lights striking a piece of celluloid.

I may not be the first person to have made that connection, but at the time I thought I was, I was like, “Wow, this is such a beautiful idea.” That’s the kinda movie you make when you’re 21 years old. Actually, I think I was 22 at the time. But that’s not a commercial idea. You know what I mean?

Ashley: Yeah, for sure. I’m curious, one of the big things, and I get so many screenwriters that wanna go out and make their movie. Obviously, when you made Annunciation, you had no idea what you were doing. How do you get the courage to be the leader of these people? How do you convince these actors to follow you when you know you don’t really know what you’re doing? How do you have that confidence to bring them along? How did you have the courage yourself just to get out of bed and say, I’m gonna go do this thing?

Ben: Well I don’t know. I had an abundance of self-esteem at that age, way more than I have now. I thought I knew everything, which is hilarious. When I made that movie, I’m like, surely this movie will play at Con, there’ll be a criterion edition, I’m gonna start an incredible career. It looked like quite a shock to me that like really nobody likes the movie and it didn’t really play to anybody. I had to get my come up and be like, “Oh wait, maybe I don’t know everything.” But for those that aren’t, you know, don’t have the gift and the curse of ridiculous high opinion over their inadequacies or whatever, you just do it. You just wake up and do it. You don’t have any other choice. Yeah.

Ashley: Yeah. Sound advice for sure. So let’s dig into PVT Chat, starring Julia Fox. That’s your latest feature film. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is that film all about?

Ben: So Private Chat, that’s how I say it, although I like that you’re saying, PVT, is a movie about a guy who becomes obsessed with a cam girl. He thinks that she lives in San Francisco. That’s what she’s telling him. He lives in New York, but then one day he sees her on the street. He tries to catch up to her, he doesn’t quite reach her, but then he… the next time they talk online, he’s like, “Hey, I saw you in New York.” So it becomes a little bit of a noir mystery, but actually the characters develop a genuine romance. It may or may not be genuine, but something very real happens between both of them.

And as you can guess, any of the screenwriters listening, they’re gonna meet up in real life and drama is gonna ensue. So it’s by far the most genre-based kinda piece I’ve made so far.

Ashley: Where did this idea come from? What was sort of the genesis for this story?

Ben: Well, it started from me… my earlier films are so very kind of head-in-the-clouds. I wanted ideas, as you can probably gather from Annunciation, I wanted to make something that faces the reality of my generation. I was like, what do I think is the most pressing issue of our time? What’s something worth studying? I was like, well, obviously it’s how, you’re changing consciousness. So, you know, I don’t want it to be a theoretical movie though like my earlier work, I want it to be a more naturalistic drama. So I thought about, okay, what’s the world I wanna set? Where do I wanna take people? I thought, okay, well, let’s tell the story of a guy who is an internet gambler and is really into cam girls, then I’ll use that as the metaphor.

There’s something great about cam girls. They’re not only extremely cinematic. The idea that you pay, essentially, an actor or an actress to perform for you for a certain amount of money. You even feed them dialogue. It’s basically the same thing as directing. You say, “Hey, I want you to wear this. Don’t wear this. Look at the lens. And in fact, tell me these lines,” like, “Hey, you’re pathetic,” that, “I’m gonna put my cigarette out in your mouth.” That’s dialogue that you’re giving them and then they perform it. You’re the director. I thought it was like a fascinating metaphor and kind of like a nice modern twist on the classic story of the Femme Fatale, the woman who will destroy you and drain your wallet and break your heart. And you know all this going into it, but you just cannot resist. That story is never not gonna be relevant, right?

Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So let’s talk about your writing process a little bit. Where do you typically write and when do you typically write? Are you home office, do you go to Starbucks? Do you write in the day, do you write in the morning, are you a nighttime person? What does your writing schedule look like?

Ben: I find that you have to force it. I’m not one of those, like wait around for inspiration kinda people. So I say, okay… like, I’m working on a different script right now and how I’ve been doing that is I block off certain days. I’m like, all right. So I’m gonna give myself two weeks to write a draft and basically I just put myself under the gun and kinda when I wake up, I’m like, “You’re not allowed to do anything else until you reach your 10-page quota.” And it’s just gonna be complete crap, but I like to do it right when I get up. I like to blast Beethoven into my headphones and then go out to coffee and just start typing, letting ideas just kinda flow out.

I think it’s important for me at least to almost improvise in the creative process and then later on and turn on my analytic brain and then start applying these things to outline, really trying to see, okay, what does this material say? I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned as a screenwriter, having written the only, probably like six feature scripts, but I didn’t really realize it until recently is that the… and it might sound so [inaudible 00:14:58], but this blew my mind, this epiphany I’ve had recently. This comes from working as an editor for 10 years too, is time is really the essence of cinema, I think. The amount of time you spend on an idea serves as important.

One big mistake I made in so many of my earlier films was I would spend five or six pages on an idea that I thought was interesting, but wasn’t really interesting enough to warrant the five or six pages. And so a lot of my work now is I think, okay, if I’m gonna watch this movie, what are the five scenes that will be the crux and the core and the heart of this thing? Those are the scenes that deserve the meat and the camera days. Anybody listening to this might be like, “Yeah, obviously,” but it wasn’t obvious to me. I would have these scenes where people would talk about something that I found interesting for 10 pages, which had absolutely nothing to do with the core of what this thing wanted to be.

You just like, creativity finds itself a bit in an anarchistic mode and it goes wherever it wants and you have to, screen writing is tough because you have to whip that guy into shape. But I think it’s important to let the anarchy happen as well.

Ashley: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. And once you kind of get an outline done, how long does it take you then to open up final draft and actually start cranking out pages, you know, writing dialogue, writing scene description?

Ben: I mean, it depends. It depends. Only recently have I started with something resembling an outline. It isn’t quite like exactly scene by scene like some people do, okay, these are like, probable acts, these are like the big moments that are gonna happen. These are the character transformation moments, just all the stuff that you could fit on one page. Then I kinda like to improvise based off that one-page outline. It is only after the fact that I really liked to be brutal. Even my own work as a director, I like to, I’m more of a process filmmaker. So like for example, in Private Chat, there was an entire 30 minutes sub-plot that ended up getting cut.

It would have been a three, a two-hour movie instead of a 90-minute movie. And maybe if I was better, I could have cut that even in the screenplay process instead of just spending time and money, but I actually kind of enjoyed filming it, even though it didn’t actually come to fruition. I think it actually helped the actors too. There’s like, there’s that negative space in the movie that you can just smell whether it’s a real and really well thought out world or not. I think it’s okay to have all that stuff, like it’s cut because that work it wasn’t for not, you know what I mean? Negative space is really important in art.

Ashley: For sure. So you mentioned that you were trying to make something with this film that was a little bit more commercial, and I’m just, I’m curious your take on sort of genre requirements. How do you approach screenplay structure? Have you read Blake Snyder, Save the Cat, Sid Field Screenplay? They have sort of a very structured template.

Ben: Mm-hmm. I’ve read those, yeah.

Ashley: Yeah. I’m curious how you kind of approach that, especially given that it sounds like your other films were a little more less structured and it sounds like this one you were trying to make it a little more structured. How did you sort of approach the structure and the genre?

Ben: Yeah, I mean, I made a feature called The Lion’s Den, which was pretty much, it’s also experimental in a very different way, but it has a pretty tight structure as well. But yes well, when I started to work on Private Chat, I was thinking of noir, but one of the tricks of the movie is, not to give too much away for the people that haven’t seen it, but it starts out sort of selling itself as sort of a nihilistic noir with a guy who’s obsessed with this cam girl. And then it slips [inaudible 00:18:41] we go a little bit into her perspective, but it also changes genre, I think. It’s no longer a noir, there’s no longer any really threat of violence, and it becomes kind of, I wanted to, it to become more of a romance.

So it becomes more just about their relationship. I used the word romantic comedy because I found that a lot of the things happening in the film hilarious, but it’s nothing like what people would consider a romantic comedy in Hollywood. It’s not like Sleepless in Seattle or something. But that’s truly my sensibility is I think I make sort of comedic romantic movies. But it’s tough. The movie is going to be marketed as noir because that’s… you kinda… that’s how marketing works. You can’t complex idea, it has to be simple, right? But there’s a version of the movie that could have been made where the main character is like an incel type. You know, like a private sicko type, who’s kind of a psychopath.

I was like, we’ve seen this movie way too many times before. I’m not the kinda guy who makes those kinds of movies. So I wanted to actually flip the script and show you think this is gonna go terribly wrong and you have to play by the rules of the genre and allow things to go terribly wrong. But I also wanted it built into the story of like, you know what, an actual genuine relationship is happening here, it’s not just the catfish thing. Then there’s something kinda sweet about it. It’s not exactly like they’re gonna live happily ever after, but there is a true friendship that occurs in the movie. To go back to the screenwriting, I think, you have to figure out when does this happen?

Sometimes it’s all about intention. You have to really be bold in your choices. You know, one of the mistakes I made when I was younger was I was like, “Well, it’s gonna be this, and it’s also gonna be this, and it’s also kinda gonna be this. It’s art. It doesn’t have to mean one thing.” Which is all good and fine, but that just means you’re not a good director. Because being a good director or being a good writer or being a good artist at all means you take a point of view on a situation. If you’re a painter, you say, “Okay, well, this is how I see this object right now for this one canvas,” or something. You have to take a strong point of view.

So anytime you’re writing a scene, you have to say, what is this scene actually doing? What is it doing tonally? It doesn’t have to be something that’s pedantic as like, what is it doing for the plot or something like that. You don’t have to get too academic about it, but you have to know, what is this scene supposed to make people feel? What does it smell like? What’s the tone? I think tone is really the hardest thing to film, if I can be honest, and it’s hard to get it right in a screenplay. And because art [inaudible 00:21:18] we want a little bit of the [inaudible 00:21:21], that’s what makes it art, but you have, the tone can’t be ambiguous.

You have to know what that room feels like. You have to know what those characters are thinking. If you don’t, you just… if you don’t have a point of view, you’re just faking it, you know?

Ashley: Yeah, yeah. For sure. How can people see PVT Chat? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?

Ben: Yes, it’s going to be out on, you know, all the usual VOD kinda things in the first week in February, depending on where you are in the world, it’ll either be, I think the 5th, the 9th or the 12th. So after that, it’ll be out there, it’ll be just a Google away. You don’t have to pay the rental fee, which won’t be too high. Eventually it might be on certain streaming services, but to start, we’re just having it be just kind of like a rental thing.

Ashley: Got you. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I will round up for the show notes.

Ben: Sure, yeah. I would say follow me on Twitter BODEGA BEN is my name on there, or just @BenHozie. I have a blog for my filmmaking musings. The company that I make my own personal films under is called Pretorius Pictures. Do you remember in the Bride of Frankenstein, there was Professor Pretorius? So if you just Google Pretorius Pictures, either my Tumblr or Vimeo will come up and you can see my first two features, I put them up for free. And if you wanna read about my thoughts on more cinematic musings you can check out the blog or see some other shorts that I, that we’ve made. There are other people that are associated with Pretorius as well.

Ashley: Got you. Well, Ben, I really appreciate you coming on the show and talking with me. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.

Ben: Hey, thank you. Good luck with the pod.

Ashley: Yeah. Thank you, man. Take it easy.

Tim: Yep.

Ashley: Perfect. Bye.

I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a logline, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre, and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. There have been a number of success stories come out of this service, you can find out about all the SYS Select successes by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. Also on SYS podcast Episode #222, I talk with Steve Deering who was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database.

When you join SYS Select you get access to the screenplay database along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. These services include the newsletter, the monthly newsletter goes out to a list of over 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also provide screenwriting leads, we have partnered with one of the premiere paid screenwriting leads services, so I can syndicate their leads to SYS Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner, recently we’ve been getting five to 10 high quality paid leads per week. These leads run the gamut.

There’s producers looking for a specific type of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties. They are looking for shorts, features, TV and web series, pilots, all types of projects. If you sign up for SYS Select, you’ll get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also, you get access to the SYS Select forum where we will help you with your logline and query letter and answer any screenwriting related questions that you might have. We also have a number of screenwriting classes that are recorded and available in the SYS Select forum. These are all the classes that I’ve done over the years, so you’ll have access to those whenever you want once you join.

The classes cover every part of writing your screenplay from concept to outlining, to the first act, second act, third act as well as other topics like writing short films and pitching your projects in person. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, please go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com. On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing Jamison LoCascio and Adam Ambrosio, who were on the podcast before in Episode #234. Definitely check out that episode if you wanna learn more about their background. They’re just two hustlers getting out there, getting projects produced. They started out by forming their own production company and just went from there.

They started out doing just anything they could do, whether it be commercials, music, videos, weddings, anything they could do to just get their production company off the ground. They always kept an eye into doing narrative fiction films, which they’ve now completed three. Next week we’ll be talking about their latest feature film called No Fear and how they put all of that together. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.