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LAFF | Free Cruise Becomes Movie: “Wah Do Dem” Co-Director Ben Chace

LAFF | Free Cruise Becomes Movie: "Wah Do Dem" Co-Director Ben Chace

Max’s girlfriend Willow dumps him days before their departure on a Carribean cruise. Unable to find a friend to come with him to experience the all-you-can-eat-buffet crowd, he goes it alone. A hipster in a strange land, Max can’t quite adjust to being out of his element until his playful lark evolves into an unexpected odyssey. [Description courtesy of LAFF]

“Wah Do Dem” (“What They Do”)
Narrative Competition
Directed By: Sam Fleischner, Ben Chace
Producers: Sam Fleischner, Katina Hubbard, Ben Chace, Martha Lapham, Henry Kasdon
Screenwriters: Ben Chace, Sam Fleischner
Cinematographer: Sam Fleischner
Editors: Ben Chace, Sam Fleischner
Cast: Sean Bones, Norah Jones, Kevin Bewersdorf, Carl Bradshaw
U.S.A., 2009, 73 mins

[EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling International Spotlight and dramatic and documentary competition directors who have films screening at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.]

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?

Its hard to say. Obviously I’ve always loved movies, and storytelling in general. The first time I picked up a camera, in college, with the idea of making a serious film it was because I was privy to this great group of characters that I knew no one else would document (a bizarre underground rock band in New York called “German Cars vs American Homes”). Since that first documentary I’ve developed my methods of documenting interesting characters and the scenes they inhabit by learning to fuse narrative (fictional), documentary, and experimental filmmaking techniques into a more dynamic storytelling style.

How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?

I won a free Caribbean Cruise for two in a raffle a few summers ago. Sam, my co-director, had just gotten back from shooting a film in Cambodia with Bajir Cannon, and suggested we use the cruise tickets to make a film. From there we began brainstorming different storylines, and got excited about juxtaposing these three different realms which we’d both had some experience with – hipster Brooklyn, luxury cruise tourism, and street level traveling in the third world.

How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?

We knew from the beginning that our movie was a contrast of environments, and that we’d be shooting everything on location in many cases without closed sets. So all of our decision-making, from the scheduling of our shoot, to our use of natural light and handheld cameras, to directing non-actors in improv situations were realized with the knowledge that we couldn’t control many of the variables that a filmmaker usually relies on to create a scene. We had to be spontaneous and quick on our feet to make it work, and we didn’t get always get it right. But in the end, Sam and I pushed each other to keep the shoot moving, and we were able to capture some very raw scenes because of our open approach. It’s hard to pinpoint one pivotal moment because there were so many. Its amazing to me how many times that our film hung in the balance when we weren’t sure that we’d pull it off. Even after we’d wrapped our shoot in Jamaica, we still weren’t sure that we had what we needed in the can. Only after months of editing and distilling the essence of our narrative were we finally able to step back and say, yes, this is a complete story.

What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

Shooting in New York, on a Cruise Ship, and in Jamaica with over 200 extras for under 80k was an extraordinary producing challenge. Luckily Sam and I had already worked on several indie features and shorts (separately as Directors of Photography), so we had a good grasp on what was the bare minimum of crew and time needed to get each scene done. In Jamaica, our co-producers Katina Hubbard and Mark Gibbs were on the ball and kept our production moving while we were shooting. 

Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?

The craziest night of our shoot was definitely the Barbeque scene in Jamaica, after Max (the protagonist) gets left by his minibus after it breaks down. It was pouring rain and we had bussed a bunch of people from Tydixton, which was one of our main locations in the the middle of the country, to the bar were our scene was going to take place one town over. Everyone was partying and drinking (including our local producers) as we filmed the scene in the corners of the location. We had scheduled the shoot and arranged for a television to be brought to the bar, so that we could shoot live as the presidential election results came in. But no one had any idea what the reaction would be if Obama won or if we’d even be able to capture it in a real or convincing way. Luckily Sam was rolling when the first report came in, and the reaction of the assembled crowd was electric. It couldn’t have worked out any better. That scene is definitely my favorite in the film, and it comes across as the moment when Max realizes that despite all his misfortune – being stranded several times over in this foreign place with no money or easy help – he has wound up taking part in an incredible historic moment, in a way that he’ll never forget.

What other genres or stories would you like to explore?

After “Wah Do Dem” which is a completely linear narrative, shot in a fairly realistic/documentary style, I’d like to tell a story that is more dream-like and non-linear. I’m a big fan of Borges and Jim Jarmusch, and story tellers who use strange rhythms, mythology, symbolism, absurd situations etc. to express reality and captivate their audience. I’d like to try some of that.

What other projects are you looking to do?

Sam and I are talking about going back to Jamaica and making a video with Mark Gibbs who plays the street youth Juvie, at the end of Wah Do Dem. He is an amazingly talented kid, with a lot of creative energy, and we would love to make a film that took a more in depth look into the character that he created from his own life experience. I am also trying to figure out how to adapt a Borges short story and set it in modern day Cuba. I’ve got another treatment I am working on to adapt Dante’s Inferno, and set it in Brooklyn, possibly as a musical.

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