Independent film making is its own art form in many ways. This includes counter parts involved such as the writers, directors, producers, crew members, visual team, and actors/actresses. It’s not about the money and the big budget that will sky rocket you to celebrity stardom, but more about doing what you love and building a memorable craft. Ben Cresciman is an independent film maker that does it all and has a great outlook on making these films special. Ben is the writer and director in his newest film, Sun Choke, which won an award at the Knoxville Horror Film Fest in 2015. Ben crafted a unique cinematic experience that drives the audience into a trance with beautifully crafted scenes that use the camera work and lighting to it’s full potential on top of a dark story. Sun Choke is a film that takes you into the mind of Janie who is recovering from a psychotic breakdown and the relationships she has with her nanny, Irma and soon to be friend, Savanna.
It was my pleasure to sit down with Ben today to pick his brain on creating Sun Choke, his film-making process, and the tool kit he implements when making a character driven film.
Cinephellas (CP): Hello Ben, how are you today?
Ben Cresciman (BC): Doing good Logan, how are you?
(CP): Excellent! I just checked out a screening of Sun Choke and what a twisted psychological ride!
(BC): Thank you for watching my movie and it was a fun time creating and shooting the film!
(CP): As a writer for this film, how did you come up with the story?
(BC): It started off as a story between these two woman that lived in this house together and the more I learned about their lives, the more I understood how dark and twisted it really was. At a certain point, I needed to prepare myself to follow them wherever they go, and ran with it from there!
(CP): What was the timeline of getting the script completed to the actual filming and production?
(BC): Well it was actually pretty quick and I started writing Sun Choke in May, the first draft was completed in June, then I started showing the script to my producers at Lodger films that worked on my previous film. And they were interested and ultimately decided to make the movie. By the time we started shooting the film, it was seven months from writing the script down to filming, which is remarkably fast for a film.
(CP): You wrote and directed Sun Choke, was there a large amount of pressure on you, and how did it you overcome it?
(BC): There’s definitely a lot of pressure in making a film, but for me as the writer and director, they are closely related and impeccable. Writing is a solitary exercise where directing is a collaborative process and allows me to be with people. Dealing with the pressure is a form of excitement and what you are doing in that moment. What task am I trying to get completed if it’s in pre-production, a location scout, casting, or getting a better take of that particular scene. In a broader sense, as a writer/director, I completed the film and the rest was history.
(CP): I always wondered that because I have come from a writing background, written a few movie scripts, but have never had the chance to get behind the camera to direct and feel the weight of the entire movie on my shoulders.
(BC): Well it’s never easy, but I think in this era of films where you can choose any movie you want and from the writing standpoint, the best way to utilize your material is to dive right in, and try to direct some of it yourself. I think that is going to happen much faster than going around with your movie script and getting a director and studio on-board with your story. That has been a big part of my work thus far and I am going to do this anyway I possibly can, and if I can get help with the film than that’s great, but I am going to do it anyway. That’s an essential part of independent film making these days. In some ways, it’s increasingly difficult to make a movie, but other ways it’s really easy to make your own movie. There’s a lot to be said as an advocate of independent film making.
(CP): Sun Choke is beautiful and the cinematography is visually stunning. Who was the cinematographer and what was the process incorporating that into the film?
(BC): His name is Matthew Rudenberg and is a genius as you have seen. We have never worked together but when we sat down to break down the script and figure out what the visual vocabulary we wanted to use such as the color palette, what style of camera work, and early on, he knew what style of film I was going for. He was able to bring out the beauty in the characters that I didn’t see in the script and that’s what is great about directing and collaborating with other people. You will always get something better in the way of working with cinematographers and other crew members. There are only a select few that can make a great film all on their own. Matthew was so engaged in the process and really excited about the material and had a few tricks up his sleeve to get the shots that I would never think of. On top of that, he is also an excellent director of photography, who is ahead of the camera department, he is a great person to work with. He put together an excellent team of gaffers and assistant camera people that were phenomenal and supported him really well and I knew from a visual standpoint, Sun Choke was going to turn out better than I had ever imagined. We always had a plan at the beginning of the day, but Matthew was always thinking and ahead of the game. As the director in this film, I am split in many different directions, so that collaboration is the most essential kind.
CP): As a director, I wasn’t sure if you picked the color palette to define the tone of the film, and the visual team goes off of your overall idea, or how that worked?
(BC): Well I knew we were going to be using a lot of bright lights to get the southern California vibe, but I didn’t know what the possibilities were within that. There are different color palettes that you can use, choose from, and work with, but the camera team really focused in on that and created the unified look of the film. It kept the film soaring from start to finish.
(CP): This film is a psychological thriller but has that aesthetic of many classic horror films, which includes the acting, camera work, and score. Was that intentional early on in the film making process or did it develop over time?
(BC): From the beginning, it’s a character setting that’s wrapped inside of a horror film. I wanted to look at those tropes and tools. That’s what’s fascinating to me with genres and genre film-making, such as a horror film and the toolkit you have to work with. A bank robbery film, you have that tool kit. So once you pick up those tools and figure out what you can do with them, there are more ways to put the characters into a conflict and more difficult experiences. Ultimately in film, it’s conflict and character that drives the story and the emotional identification.
(CP): You have the legendary scream queen Barbara Crampton in this film starring as Irma, how did you get her on board?
(BC): When we were casting the script and floating around, Barbara Crampton’s manager got a hold of it, and she reached out to us. We were jumping at the idea of bringing her on-board and casting her as Irma. Then were was another process of talking to her about the script and getting things figured out. Barbara really keyed into what I wanted her to key in about of the character and the ambiguity involved. Her methods and motives presented an interesting challenge for her, but she took it and ran with it. Watching her work and as a fan of films, whether it’s an intense scene or a quiet emotional moment with Sarah Hagan, it’s really remarkable to watch actors that are in command of their craft, do their thing. Barbara was an amazing addition to the team and has been very supportive of the project from the beginning up until now.
(CP): The main actresses in the film Sarah Hagan, Barbara Crampton, and Sara Malukul Lane brought incredible performances to this film. Did they form a cohesive relationship while filming Sun Choke?
(BC): Oh yeah, for such a dark film you would be surprised on how well these actresses got a long while filming Sun Choke. That’s common with film sets, despite the material, there’s a good vibe going around. Everyone got along on this film and they are three amazing and incredible women that are really easy to get along with. When you have that, you’re off to great start at that point. For the first two weeks of the shoot, we were going to this house that felt more like an office and I think that helped everyone form this cohesive bond. Sarah Hagan and Barbara Crampton worked so much together and helped their off-screen relationship. The same with Sara Lane and the house really helped everyone get comfortable from the get go. Despite the material, it was a cohesive group that were really engaged and excited to dive into the material.
(CP): Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?
(JS): Nothing I can get into specifically, but I am working on a thriller that is different compared to Sun Choke’s cerebral feel. Like I said about the genre tool kits earlier, it’s the same approach and character driven film that is dark and intense, but using a different tool kit!
Special thanks to Ben Cresciman for taking the time to sit down with Cinephellas. We’re really excited about Sun Choke as well as all of his upcoming projects! Sun Choke was released on Friday, August 5th.