Mark Benjamin has spent the last thirty years building his reputation as a director and cinematographer through his work in film and television. As one of our AbelCine Documentary Grant judges, we asked him to talk a little bit more about his career, including some of the inspiration behind projects such as the Peabody Award-winning series Brick City that he created with filmmaker Marc Levin.
You’ve had a long career working in the documentary field – what originally attracted you to it?
MB: I was a combat cameraman in the 1973 War in the Sinai Desert for NBC. Forty years of non-fiction filmmaking has left me seeing the world through a viewfinder. Worse things could happen to you. Bill Moyers sent me to Watts in 1980 and I have been making films about urban violence for decades, all about the ‘war at home’ in America.
Are there any particular documentary films or filmmakers that influenced you?
MB: A German-Jewish filmmaker/cameraman named Rolf Kneller. He killed some Nazis in a concentration camp during WW2 and walked out the front gate, all the way to Palestine. He was my mentor in Jerusalem in the early ’70s. I filmed David Ben Gurion on one of my first assignments.
Surely Bill Moyers inspired me over decades of working with him. Al Levin, Moyer’s first producer was my main man. Albert & David Maysles, Barbara Kopple – there are too many to name.
Brick City won a 2010 Peabody Award – what originally inspired you to work on this project?
MB: I wanted to do a documentary about ‘de-ganging’ with some Blood gang members I knew from Newark. They had a program of OG bangers who were trying to get some young kids off the gang road. No one wanted to buy the concept – then I got Cory Booker to be in the series and the rest is history.
You followed a number of different subjects during Brick City’s run – what was the most challenging part of trying to get all these stories told?
MB: My Brick City TV partner Marc Levin is from NJ and is a very strong force of nature. Together, we fear nothing: challenges are what drive us. We are both on the same political wavelength. We want to heal the world. It’s not just about entertainment for us; we want to say something profound.
What do you do differently in the doc space than, let’s say, a narrative project or commercial – with regards to your approach to the project, your preparation, your shooting style?
MB: Our approach is to be organic and follow the footage, not an outline. Casting is everything for us. We have a nose for character selection. We say, overshoot – and then overshoot more. Edit longer than planned with the top editors you can find. Cameramen and editors make it rain for producers like me. Shooters like James Adolphus, Daniel Levin, Tony Hardmon and editors Jenner Furst, Pagan Harleman, and Jimmy Lester are our core team.
Do you think the new technology in our industry has affected documentaries? And on the other side, are there any new challenges that arise?
MB: Brick City TV has three Canon C300s. With these cameras, our motion capture efforts could not be better served. The C300 is the size of a grapefruit and makes killer images. I have owned twenty different moving picture cameras and this is the best yet for my non-fiction world, by far.
The only challenge is to wake up every day and try to continue telling real stories about the human condition. And always attempting to tell it in a heartfelt way.
The project you’re currently working on is Chicagoland, in which you’ve teamed up once again with Marc Levin. What drew you to this project?
MB: Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn, who we did the Sundance Channel’s Brick City 11-hour series with, brought us to CNN and we got the eight-hour series Chicagoland. Rahm Emanuel is so different from Cory Booker, but the same rules apply. Access is everything.
Also, Brick City TV is doing Jersey Strong, a docu-series consisting of ten half-hours for Pivot Network, the new cable channel from Participant Media.
What drew you to participating in the AbelCine 2013 Documentary Grant?
MB: With 40 years behind the camera, I have plenty to share. I want to be remembered as a teacher and an activist. I will never forget when Bill Moyers took us young turks over to Fred Friendly’s apartment on the West side. Fred was Edward R. Morrow’s producer back in the day and he told us, “Keep using those cameras to go after the dragons.” I’ll never forget that night, and I will always be supporting documentary film; it is an honor to be a judge for this AbelCine Documentary Grant.