This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 144: Writer / Director Ben Cresciman Talks About His New Thriller, Sun Choke.
Ashley: Welcome to episode #144 of the “Selling Your Screenplay Podcast.” I’m Ashley Scott Meyers Screenwriter and blogger over at – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I’m interviewing Ben Cresciman, he’s a director/screenwriter, who shot his second feature film. A mystery thriller called, “Sun Choke.” Ben started out as me and my guests have. By just going out and shooting his own micro-budget feature film. And then things slowly snowballed from there. So, stay tuned for that.
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So, a quick few words about what I’m working on this week? Once again, the main thing I’m trying to push forward is, “The Pinch.” We are in post-production, “The Pinch” is my crime action thriller, feature film script, feature film, now. That I’ve been talking about for the last few months. We are in post-production, doing editing. I did get the official website for the film launched last week. You can check that out, if you get a chance. It’s a pretty simple sight, we have lots of stills from scenes of the film, actual camera shots, of what you will actually see with the film. I’ll also have a lot of behind the scenes videos and pictures. Some of you may have already seen the videos I did. I pushed those out as we were shooting. But all those are contained. We have a teaser-trailer, and as I said, lots of production stills and lots of behind the scenes images. So, if you’re curious to just kind of get a look at the film?
Definitely check that out. The website URL is – www.thepinchfilm.com I will link to it in the show notes. But again, that’s – www.thepinchfilm.com.
I’ve got an Email list you will see, if you go to the website, it tries to get you to join,
“The Pinch” Email list. I’m going to be sending out dates to that list, specifically on
“The Pinch.” I won’t necessarily be sending out anything, any “Selling Your Screenplay” stuff through that list. That will be really devoted to “The Pinch.” Then as I go forward with other films probably, the other films I am working on. But not so much, it won’t revolve around the “Selling Your Screenplay” stuff that will be obviously on the Selling Your Screenplay site.
In terms of my own screenwriting? I polished up the first act of the low-budget romantic comedy. It’s about 24 pages, the first act. A very low-budget really just a. I think there is just three speaking roles in these first 24 pages. Really just 2 or 3 locations. I’m presenting that to my writers group tomorrow night. So, hopefully I’ll get some good notes on it. And I can finish up the polish before I start something new. So, that’s what I am working on.
Now, let’s get into the main segment.
Today, I’m interviewing Writer/Director Ben Cresciman, 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: Thanks so much for having me.
Ashley: So, to start out, maybe you can give us a quick overview of your background? Kind of how you got into the entertainment industry? And maybe even before that? Did you go to film school? Were you one of these sort of young kids running around with your parent’s video recorder, making movies? Kind of how did you get started in the business and that? And take us all the way up to directing and writing and directing the first feature, “Negative Space.”
Ben: Cool, yeah. I definitely was that kid, who had the video camera for sure. Yeah, we had a VHS recorder. You remember that one? Like the mini-tape that sits inside the bigger tape, that you put inside the VCR?
Ashley: Yep, yep, I remember.
Ben: Yeah, we had that. And, so yeah, I was running around making movies with my friends. It was a stop motion GI Joe kinda thing, film, that was a big one. And yeah, I’m out here in L.A. So, you know, there’s a proximity, a kind of inherit to the entertainment industry. Also my uncle, who was a production designer. Not like, you know, the worlds most wildly successful production designer there. He Coordinated movies, lots of occupational, he it was the first film he wrote for Sea World Films. And so I always kind of had it in the background that my family was definitely atoned to getting into film. As you know, my uncle’s case. And my mother, she wrote her TV a little bit before I was born. And a book when she could pick-up a job, a valuable career in film sounds great, you know. Save yourself the trouble. But, obviously it went wrong? So she had me. And soon after that, I majored in film, at college. And sort of got my start, kinda figuring out what my, what interested me. And you know, I’ve always been a film fan.
And when it came to what a film was going to look like? You know, it started there. But then I went to college, and then after that I spent some energy with here. Working as a manager, I was an editor. It didn’t work for a while. And eventually moved on from that. And started directing movies. And wound up directing a couple of movies. Very small, and an independent, you know, $1000.00 I invested and some friends from college. We wrote a pilot that was always something from the creature from the river. I didn’t exactly have that knowledge. From Navajo to Easter Island from like returned from that.
And in 2010, I feel like I need to, some guy happened. And we were going to go to film school, or I’d make a movie. And so, I tried to get in a program. It in screenwriting, and no other school. Which is probably not like the best. I knew I didn’t want to leave L.A. And frankly, I wasn’t all that interested in traveling all the way across town to UCLA. So, left with no other choice. And I got put on the wait list. And in sort of a moment of okay, well, that’s probably not going to happen, better make a film. And that was sort of, we knew that was the beginning of “Negative Space.” That was April of 2011. And we decided that one way or the other. I needed to make a film successful. I had just sort of become a fan. And so, I talked to him. Okay, after talking to him, I had to put some money together. And I know that I had a house that I had to use and some friends who were really going to help me out. On the fronts of producing. And acting in it, and so, I went off and did that. And we raised $2000.00 off Kick-Starter. And then ended up with a little more, and we made a tiny little film. Up in a house, and walk in. And then a week after we wrapped up production. I was accepted into UCLA. And so, in sort of a last minute like, are you in or out? I was sort of all in. And in a sense, it put the film making on pause. Because I had to fulfill grad-school though. And we edited “Negative Space” in my first year of school. I mean, that’s sort of the long short of it I guess?
Ashley: Okay, and so, you mentioned that in college, you majored in film. Was there a specific, you know, was there something specific within that major? Like did you get, and then you mentioned you were editing skateboard videos while doing this? Did you learn to edit in college? Did you just learn that on your own? What exactly did you learn in film? Was it just film theory? Was it production, was it screenwriting?
Ben: Well, it was sort of like, you bought, you know, part of it. It was a very small college. Very, very, influential in digital work. I also, when it comes to film. I was not a super focused hard rep. Which in some way is, you know, was a little exciting because you can do as big as you want with your name. For those who do not bat an eye lash. So, yeah, editing, I taught myself to edit, on “Final Draft.” I also helped out with a mix of things, and experienced friends. And you know, that was in college. And certain ones kinda big fundamentals of scriptwriting. That was in college. And it did, kind of learning. And again, what about the films that I loved. Do I want that kind of internalized. And against the world, I and that’s where the voice started to grow. Give me, it didn’t involve, it was to come yet. So, yeah.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, let’s talk briefly about the Kick-Starter, you mentioned? You raised about $10,000.00. And that was early on in the Kick-Starter, you know, as a starting. How did you go about even raising that much money? Was it just, you know, friends and family. Did you have a publicist, how did you kind of get enough, you know, people coming to your page, even to raise it, $10,000.00.
Ben: Oh, yeah, friends and family. It was really very gradual. You know, we really had anything going for us. One big advantage came in the form of, you know, someone in the process of like, connected with Roger films. To the United States films they financed. And they generous movie, that and back in 2001. They offered to attention or whatever equipment that I needed to make the film. Until we knew, we had some kind of expenses covered. So, enjoyed that, you know, whatever you need? Whatever, in terms of cash you need on hand, just to get through while you get through a lot of the shoot. You know, looks like extremely, you know, to get the project started. $10,000.00 is what we thought, more ended up like $20,000.00. And so, we went through, it wasn’t an easy process. That was, you know, a miracle, thanking every day. You’re checking the page. But, we made it. And you know, with a little time to spare, a little extra money. And so, it was the, I mean, I was real fortunate. I have one of the best gratifying films.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, tell me, what happened once you got, “Negative Space” done. Did you submit it to film festivals? Did you eventually find a distributor for it?
Ben: A, next came, yes and no. You mentioned film festivals. It did not get into any film festivals. That was an issue of what I know now. About the film festival world. Is that it’s a really, really, competitive field. Especially for the longer festivals and top tier festivals. It’s odds were astronomically against you. And so, I think it’s good, with a different festival strategy. It might have seemed more of a light of day. But, I think we’re, if it hadn’t been distributed it would have been, what am I going to do to sell these? The joke kind of has been, the world. And now we can kind of shift our focus a little bit.
Ashley: I see, perfect, perfect. So, let’s move into “Sun Choke” maybe to start out, you can give us quick pitch or a log-line for the film.
Ben: Sure, it’s a, I always call them this. How do you really reduce it into. Eventually, it’s a psychological film where we’re focused on a young woman and her caretaker and her life long man, who are together in sort of an isolated house at the top of Beverly Hills California. And it’s shot there. A strange relationship that with the odd, and sometimes, insidious health and wellness. Recommend, that the man, kind of suggests, I mean, character drain to. And then of course what happens when one of the characters goes out and happy, happy.
Ashley: So, where did this idea come from?
Ben: Well, you know, it started with characters really. Just these two women living in this house. I mean, one was the caretaker and one was in the world. And she will provide more and more twists that these people are, and how lonely and the components. And you know, I found these two lonely people and some discovering that loneliness is driving them to be a terrifying thing. And that was fascinating. And so we got kind of into that and the relations. Let it not be said, go forth into the world.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. And did you know some people like this? Or did you notice someone with a caregiver. Like what was sort of the genesis of this?
Ben: Well, I mean, yes and no. I mean, I, I’ve been in therapy for certain years of my life for things. I think there’s that kind of caregiver relationship I’m familiar with. And certainly I need say growing up here, as it were. I don’t know, they were, they had parents who were rich and constantly traveling for work or for pleasure, and work. In large part, in the end, you know. They were kind of left to their own devices. And we got produced this really interesting that kind of world.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, let’s talk about your writing process, for a minute. And we can kind of maybe be specific with “Sun Choke.” But, maybe if “Sun Choke” is different than how you have written other scripts? Maybe we can kind of talk about that as well. But just, how much time do you spend preparing to write. How much time do you spend in kind of outlining stage, verses the actual preparing for Final Draft to writing the script.
‘Ben: Most of it, time is spent outlining, maybe pacing around my house. The writing process itself is pretty quick. Because for me, it is important to go sit down at the computer. With an idea what I am trying to write. Because there is nothing more intimidating than that blinking curser, you know? So for me, yeah, I like pretty much everything outlined. And spend a lot of time writing in a notebook. And then when I feel, ready, I’ll sit down at the computer and enevitable realize, go back to the notebooks for a bit. Then I’ll come back and maybe I’ll do that a couple of times within. But, by the time I sit down I am able. It comes, and it comes, sometimes in weeks. By the time the first draft was done. And then after a couple of months of sorts with the idea, and thinking about it. And that’s fairly typical of the way I write. And it’s important for me to know that I am prepared and know that I am not going to run into any blind alleys that I don’t have to. That’s part of the process, to be sure. But, at a certain point, there are some things that you can do to be better prepared, you know, I guess? To listen, really, really requires that preparation.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. And so, a day of writing for you, what does that look like? You’re talking about the outline stage, where you’re pacing around your house. Just writing in a notebook. How many hours a day will you do that when you’re in that mode. And same thing would actually writing into final draft. How many hours a day do you spend actually writing on that?
Ben: Um, you know, there’s not generally, there’s not really a set number. And a lot of the times I’ll go until I’m gassed out. You know, some days that’s 5 hours, some days that’s 16 hours. You know, the outline process is a lot easier for sort of blend into my life. Because, like I said, I’m pacing, walking my dog, writing while exercising. You know, all of those, I’m writing at all those times. And giving, you know, getting through all of that. And then you’re getting to the writing stage. And then you just sort of sit down and do it. I think, mostly, it’s more about doing it until I, until I’m gassed out. I want to put it down, as much as I can on any given day. I will beat myself up, you know, I feel like I have put in enough. But ultimately, you know, it’s about what kind of energy I have. But, once I sit down at my computer, that’s when I’ll, I will kind of force myself, and once I’m beginning to feel gassed out, I’ll turn the screen off, you know. It’s rough, the first draft for me, it’s about getting it out. It’s not going to be great, it’s not going to be, you know, the perfect version that you have in your head, it’s a document to work from. And so, that first draft for me as well, is about charging ahead. You know get it out there so I can set it up and get it out to the locals.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. Now you mentioned that this story sort of started as a character study. And I wonder how you approach screenplay structure. If you are starting out with just characters. At what point do you start to structure this out? You know, with a beginning, middle, and an end?
Ben: Well, I sort of like talking and showing, you know, let me, do you ever? I said, there was a lot of outlining along a lot of spending, I just spent a lot of time with them. A long before, you ever did the first act. You know, we bring in the second act, essentially we bring in the roles and tie and finding this young woman kind of human on her. In that sort of in her stalker-ish way. But you know, we, it was important for me to stay with them. And in the house, just the two of them. Along with they ought or they could. So, I could know who they were. And how they did literally everything that they did. And so, when just about kind of went into the story of their lives. Until it started pitching, until she got out of the house. Until she found this woman. And this sort of intruder. And wanted her life back from hers. The structure starts to come together. Because, you’re starting to see, okay, her mistakes are becoming clear. The consequence is becoming clear. And the train, is heavily station. And so, yeah, I think the structure kind of came out of the characters, and their experiences.
Ashley: Now, looking at a film like this. And I have a lot of you know, sort of genre film makers come on the Podcast. And I’m always curious, you know, this is kind of a mystery, suspense, thriller. And I can see how it would, a distributor might be interested in potentially getting behind this film. Because it has this element. As a writer, how do you approach that? Was this something you were aware of going into this process? Hey, I need to write this sort of suspense thriller. Because that’s what will sell? Or was this just an idea you had, and it just worked out to be something that somebody would want or find and ultimately sell.
Ben: Well, I painted more of the later. I mean, for me. when I was at USC. That I discovered about myself was? That, writing genre films is where I need, and where I do my best on, and have the most fun. It’s like every genre doesn’t pick-up whether it’s a horror film, or crime film, or adventure movie, SyFy, There’s a different tool kit you need. Like there’s a different set of segue points, and devices that you can use. And so, I knew going in that I knew I wanted to look at the horror tool kit. And see what of that I could utilize to kind of bring this character spinning into a different place with just simply the characters. But it was never going to be simply a horror film either. So, yeah, I think that finding out that finding the opportunities that this film afforded me. Made it too irresistible. Not really give a go for Choke.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, let’s talk about kind of your re-writing process for just a minute here. How do you know when a script is finished and ready to show people. And then the next question is what does that look like for you getting notes, and who do you send it to?
Ben: Well, it’s like you said, at the point where I don’t completely hate it? I tend to be hard on myself, as many writers are. And I’m always looking at whether its finished looking? You know, like finished trouble. Or if a script of mine, there’s always mistakes. And so, once I’m not so much, as a draft. That’s when I’ll say to myself, “Okay, let’s get it out there. Let’s get some props.” You know, see the first little bit. Because you know, at some point, you’re going to tell yourself, alright, I’m going to show people. You can just never show people. You know, you don’t want to get into that pattern.
And as far as, you know, I show early work, to my editor. Who’s cut both of my films. And I’ve shown some at college. And I’ve show some to here, early one of my producers at home. Generally, she sees stuff before my managers, these stuff. True, I try to keep pre-showing to a minimum. It’s because it can get crowded, and confusing. But, its definitely important to take that moment to step back, stop looking on it, and focus your extremity on other people’s reactions.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. Okay. So, once you’re done with this script. Or maybe you’re even are already had some kind of deal set up. Maybe you can talk just a little bit about that? What was the next step, once you wrote this script, you had a draft you liked. Did you start taking it out to producers. Kind of, how did you get, bridge that gap between having a script and actually having production funds to shoot it?
Ben: Well, it essentially kind of put it to myself, and everybody around me. That I was going to be approach on Choke. And I approached sales, which is, I was going to be funded up by Pixar, for whatever I was going to get? I would, you know, and I would release, at least minimal, you know, share means, you know. And everything we could do to keep it small, we did. And I was convinced that was, like there was no doubt in my mind, I was going to make a movie. And so, I had the first draft. And I sent it to my producer, and wanted to be involved. And so, we started talking about, you know, how we might do this at a little low-budget level. And what it would pay frame. You know, what kind of concessions do we need/make. What kind of you know, crazy deals could we strike with people? And all the while I’m looking at scripts, and it came together. Making it was a huge part of the process. That is, we still needed investors to actually benefit that. You might say, the guy Rogers, he. They ultimately said to me, “Look, we don’t think. We think control of the script with you cannot be too good to make $30,000.00.” We should start looking at ways to make it. One the one hand, absolutely. On the other hand, like I could probably get $30,000.00 in shape up front. I was, you know, you guys. But definitely we did a consensus on it. There were a lot of problems in it. That’s where they were going to take away a ticket offer. Hopefully, they put up the funding. A little bit of that, outside of develop that, but they were looking sheer to get behind the project. And that’s what they did.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, maybe you can even back-up a little bit there. How did you, what’s the name of the company again?
Ben: Roger First.
Ashley: And how did you get the relationship with them? How did you build that relationship?
Ben: Remarkably, that’s why I was making, luckily it was one of my first time lead actresses. Her, manager, was manager of a firm. And then, we were all having dinner one night. And this actress, some, we were working on some of this weird kind of, you know, make a movie for nothing thing was. Then she actually started telling about it. And they were interested in what we were working on. And they suggested maybe they could help us out some? With financing or something? And that’s what wound up happening. They helped out with camera gear. Coordinating and helping out with crew and a lot of that. But when it came time to shoot it. I just said, this is what I did. A program, a stock pile of materials I had been working on.
And you know, I think, talking because of her. She knew we wanted to make another film together. And some-how came to be. We picked the right topic at the right time. Not too expensive, but enough said, that everybody was happy. Everybody showed up, and in the end, they laid another challenge for us. That we were ready to take on.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. Okay, so how can people see “Sun Choke?” Do you know what the release date schedule is going to be like?
Ben: Yeah, the show is comes out here in L.A. to August 5th 2016. It will be in Advanced Theater, and everybody come see it. Also available on ITunes and any other cable view, and select, the other, so, very defined and yeah, check it out.
Ashley: Perfect, perfect. And so, what’s the best way, and I always like to end it, the interviews by asking the guests, if they use any of the social media platforms. And if people just want to follow along and kind of keep up with what you’re doing? What’s the best way for people to follow along with you?
Ben: Oh, yeah, my, I’m on Twitter, at djcrescentscfresciman and you can find me on Twitter and InstaGram. Both @SunChokefilm.
Ashley: Perfect, I will round that stuff up and I will put it in the show notes. Ben, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today. An interesting interview, and I wish you the best of luck with it, this film.
Ben: Thank you.
Ashley: Thank you so much, we’ll talk with ya later.
Ben: Yeah, have a great day.
Ashley: You too, bye.
Ashley: I want to mention 2 things I’m doing here at “Selling Your Screenplay” to help screenwriters find producers who are looking for new material. First I’ve created a monthly newsletter that will be sent directly to producers. Every member of SYS Select can submit on log-line per newsletter, per month. I went and Emailed my whole large database of producers and asked them if they would like to receive this monthly newsletter of pitches. So far, I have well over 350 producers who have signed-up to receive it. These producers are hungry for new material and happy to read scripts from new writers. So, if you want to participate in this pitch newsletter, and get your script into the hands of lots of producers sign-up at – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/select, again, that’s www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/select.
And secondly, I’ve partnered with one of the premier paid screenwriting leads sites. 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 I’ve been getting 10-12 new high quality paid leads per week. These are producers and production companies who are actively looking to buy material. Or are looking to hire a screenwriter for a specific project. If you sign-up for SYS Select, you’ll get these leads Emailed directly to you several times per week. These leads run the gambit from production companies looking for a specific type of spec. script. To producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas. Producers are looking for shorts, features, TV and website series pilot. It’s a huge aray of different types of projects. That these producers are looking for. And these leads are exclusive to our partner and SYS Select members. So, you won’t find them anywhere else. To sign-up just go to – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/select.
And also, recently I set-up a success stories page, for people who have had successes through the various SYS Select Services. So, if you want to check out some of the other people who have tried our services are saying? Just go to – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success.
So now, just to wrap things up. I want to touch on a few things from today’s interview with Ben. I talk about this a lot on the Podcast. And it’s just, it always amazes me. Ben I think is a prime example of just listening to his story about how he went out, made a super-low-budget film. And that then ultimately snowballed into this, you know, an entire budget feature film. And it’s just a function of Ben went out there and put something, put himself out there, put his work out there, made something happen. And that kinda just snowballed. I’ve been amazed that how many great people I’ve met through making my own film, “The Pinch.” I list all the, a lot of the cast and crew, who are new people that I met. But, also I’ve had a few people on this Podcast. A few of the film makers that I have interviewed on the Podcast. They actually went back and listened to the episode that they were on? And I’m talking about “The Pinch.” In virtually every episode. So, they heard that, and a few of those people actually contacted me, saying, “Hey, tell me more about your film? Hey maybe I can help you with the production? Maybe I can help you finding distribution.” So, you know, just again, putting myself out there has helped me meet new people. I’ve also had a few producers whom I’ve worked with over the years. These are producers that like my writing. They’ve optioned something, or maybe just read something that they’ve liked. You know, I’ve been in touch with some of those people. And mentioned to them that I am working on this feature film. And it’s just the old saying that, hustle is contagious. You know, these people that already kind of know me a little bit. Like my writing and that. Now, they are starting to Email me. So, tell me more about your film? Oh, when you get it done, let me know, I have some contacts in distribution. So, all of these people could potentially help me find distribution for my film. Obviously, but, in addition, I’ve just gotten to know them a little bit better. And you never know what can happen down the road? This business is so much about who you know. And networking and meeting new people. And it’s such a collaborative business. That these contacts are precisely why you want to, that’s the value in it. In getting, in building your career. Is getting to know these people and getting to work with these people. And as I said, just getting my movie out there. Is getting, is helping me getting to know some of these people. And some of these people I knew before. As I said, there’s like some of these producers I knew before. But to them I was just the writer that read my material that couldn’t do anything with it. They’ll, that was kind of it? And now, I’m starting to get to know them a little bit better. They’re a little bit more impressed with me as a Writer/Producer than they were when just as a writer. And as I said, just never know where these connections are gonna lead. But, ultimately, that’s where you, how you’re going to make your break. And that’s how you are going to move up in the industry, is by getting to know lots of people. They’ll hopefully help you a little further along in their careers? And they can help you along and then visa-versa.
And you know, maybe you’ll be able to turn the tables and you’ll be able to help them with their careers. But it’s all just a matter of getting material out there. Whether it be script, shorts, whether it be feature films? Getting stuff out there and putting yourself out there. And putting the material out there.
Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.