No Filmmaking Challenge Can Scare Roxanne Benjamin

Working with kids? Feature-length horror on a TV schedule? The director of "There's Something Wrong with the Children" says bring them on.
Roxanne Benjamin Directs "There's Something Wrong With the Children"
Behind the scenes of "There's Something Wrong With the Children"
Sam Lothridge

In the last 10 years, “There’s Something Wrong with the Children” director Roxanne Benjamin has established herself as a vital new voice in independent horror on both the producing (the “V/H/S” anthology films) and directing (“Southbound,” “Body at Brighton Rock”) fronts, while also pursuing a parallel career as an episodic television gun-for-hire on shows like “Riverdale,” “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin,” and “Nancy Drew.” “It’s like having two different careers that just happen to overlap,” she told IndieWire of her dual life as an indie auteur and network TV journeyman. “In one you’re the architect and in the other you’re the contractor.”

Yet Benjamin has found that trying on different directorial personalities in an effort to mimic the preexisting styles of various television programs has informed her work in features. “Each show has a style and set of rules, so you’re really just putting on somebody else’s clothes for a couple of weeks and then stealing mercilessly for your own stuff.” “There’s Something Wrong with the Children” is her best film to date, a witty social satire about how both marriages and friendships are altered once children enter the picture. As usual, Benjamin honors what has been done before in the horror genre — in this case, building on what she loved about the “evil kids” in movies like “Pet Sematary,” “The Good Son,” and “In the Mouth of Madness” — while reinventing it to her own ends, creating an emotionally resonant thriller that gives the fans all the satisfactions they crave along with some that they didn’t know to expect.

“There’s Something Wrong with the Children” represents an interesting intersection between Benjamin’s feature and television worlds, in that it’s a feature produced by Blumhouse’s television division — meaning she had to execute it on a TV schedule without the infrastructure of an ongoing series. “TV is made on very short schedules, and part of what makes that possible is that they do have recurring sets, and department heads that are looking ahead three episodes,” Benjamin said. “Using a TV production model for individual stories is very challenging, because it’s trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.”

“There’s Something Wrong with the Children”Blumhouse

Adding to the challenge, on “There’s Something Wrong with the Children” Benjamin’s shooting hours were limited because she was directing a movie in which child actors were onscreen for most of the film’s running time. “They always say, ‘Don’t work with kids. Don’t work with animals. Stay away from water,'” Benjamin said. “All the things you’re not supposed to do are the things that I love about movies and my favorite part of it.” While “There’s Something Wrong with the Children” doesn’t skimp on the horrific effects, Benjamin found that her child actors were more excited than frightened. “Seeing how the sausage is made takes away any sense of fear factor. They were so excited on the days they got to be covered in blood and run around.”

Benjamin didn’t direct the child actors any differently than she did the adults, but they did create a number of logistical complications. “From the minute they’re there, absolutely everything is focused on them because you have such a small window [of time],” she said. “You have to block things very specifically so they can go away when they’re not on camera, and it becomes like Tetris, a very big puzzle of how to shoot each scene that they’re in, especially in a script that’s got 94 scenes and they’re in 89 of them and they can’t shoot after 8 p.m.” Luckily, the need to plan every shot in detail was compatible with Benjamin’s typical way of working. “I over-prep and over-shot list and over-block everything ahead of time trying to think of every possible contingency, because I have an extreme fear of failure. I try to plan for every possible avenue, and then it’s like, here’s my rule book of 20 different scenarios. If the actor wants to do this instead, here’s our plan.”

You can listen to our full discussion with Roxanne Benjamin above, or subscribe to the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast below.

As is typically her practice, Benjamin plotted out her shots using apps on her phone that could simulate the lenses she and director of photography Yaron Levy would be using on location, figuring out all of her “kid” and “non-kid” shots ahead of time for optimal efficiency on set. “I envy my filmmaker friends who just show up and are like, ‘I’m gonna feel this room out and figure it out,'” Benjamin said. “I would die. I would have a heart attack, I’d be filled with so much anxiety! Of course, sometimes your plan all falls to shit and you do have to start from scratch on set, but at least you have all of that planning in the back of your head to know that you’ve already worked out the things that won’t work.” While Benjamin enjoys the problem solving that comes with low-budget filmmaking, she longs for greater resources to really test herself as a filmmaker. “I’ve never really experienced having the time to do the creative and stylistic things I want to do,” she said, noting that it’s a common complaint among women directors who don’t get the budgets and schedules they feel they’ve earned. “If this is what we can do with what we’ve been given, imagine what we can do with more.”

“There’s Something Wrong with the Children” is currently streaming on all major PVOD platforms, and will debut on MGM+ in March. 

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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