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Victoria Film Festival 2014 Interview – DOWN RIVER director Benjamin Ratner

DOWN RIVER - At Victoria Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

“DOWN RIVER is an edgy, yet heartfelt comedic drama about 3 young women; a singer, a painter, and an actress, and their deep bond with the charismatic and caring older woman they reply on for guidance and inspiration.” Director Benjamin Ratner on his film DOWN RIVER which screens at the Victoria Film Festival.

Is this your first movie in the Victoria Film Festival, and are you coming to Victoria for the screening?

I screened my first feature as a director, MOVING MALCOLM, in Victoria back in 2004. I have been in many films in the Victoria fest since then as an actor. And yes, I’ll be there for the screening of DOWN RIVER!

Tell me a bit about your background and what led you into the motion picture business.

When I was a kid I felt loved, but I never quite felt safe. I was a worrier. Creating art is a way to create the illusion of control over the circumstances of our lives. As an introvert with a need to “stand out”, I started out an amateur boxer as a huge fan of Muhammad Ali, whom I got to meet in 2008. I wrote and drew, became a musician and songwriter, played in a band that opened for big time acts from Bryan Adams to DOA, and eventually tried stand up comedy. It all lead to acting classes, then to making my own films. My acting teacher, Ivana Chubbuck (author of THE POWER OF THE ACTOR) got me started as a teacher and that has been a huge part of my life, something I am very proud to be able to share. The most important thing for me is tapping into the truth of what it is to be human. When that happens, even for an instant, I feel like all is well with the world.

How did this whole movie come together from your perspective?

Everyone knew Babz Chula, the beloved Vancouver-based actor, teacher, and singer. Our community had raised a great deal of money to help pay for her non-traditional cancer treatments, and although she far outlived her prognosis, in the end the cancer got her. We tried to save her, and we couldn’t. The truth is, it appears, love can’t conquer all. It can make death a less lonely and terrifying experience, but it can’t stop it. Babz taught me and so many of us so much. She was always there. Then she wasn’t. So I decided to make a movie inspired by her, and by how she helped me and so many other actors, artists, and musicians find our way.  It came together fast.  I wrote parts specifically for the actors I wanted to play them, and Babz' widower, Larry Lynn, was the only choice for cinematographer.  Larry knew a guy named Jack Ong who wanted to get into producing, I showed him the script, he loved it, and he put up the dough.  We brought in an excellent young producer named James Brown I had worked with before, and we shot the film in 16 days for under $100,000.  A year later, at our premiere, we won Most Popular Canadian Film at The Vancouver International Film Festival.  I still miss Babz, of course, we all do, but making this film and sharing it with the world helped us all find closure, and celebrate the good times we had with her.[br] 

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Time. The clock starts ticking and ticks louder and louder as you near the finish line, but the truth is there is no finish line. It ticks when you go to bed, it ticks when you sleep, it ticks when you get up… it never stops. It’s still ticking now! This is not a business for people who can’t handle pressure. It ticks when you write, when you prepare, when you shoot, when you edit and do the rest of the post production, it ticks when you release, when you promote, when you write answers to questions like this… tick tick tick! You gotta keep breathing and get used to the tick. The ticking has to become your friend, your soundtrack, the drummer you march to.

What was your single favourite moment or rewarding experience out of the entire production?

Just being surrounded by many of my favourite people everyday, people I trusted, people who trusted me, doing what we love to do… tapping into the truth together. We knew we were doing something very special with this film. Something rare.

What keeps you going while making a movie? How much coffee?

Sure, coffee helps, but the only thing that really keeps me going is an innate compulsion to tell a story. An obsessive need to attempt to contain the chaos of existence into 90 minutes.

I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.

Larry Lynn was the only man for the job. He’s got about 40 years of experience and I knew every frame mattered to him as much as it mattered to me. Maybe even more. We shot on the RED camera, and it worked out very well for us. I was more than satisfied with the look of the footage and the post process. I’m not particularly technically minded, or articulate in that arena, so enough said on that subject. I will say we go the film “in the can” for under $60,000 and it looks like we spent at least a million.

After the film screens in Victoria, what is the future release plan for the movie? Anywhere you WANT the movie to be shown but haven't done so yet?

We are working with a small but passionate domestic distributor, IndieCan, and we release at the Fifth Avenue Cinema in Vancouver on March 14th Arrangements for a theatrical release in Toronto are underway. We do our US premiere at The San Jose International Film Festival in March as well. This film is just getting started in terms of getting out into the world, so we intend to hit as many countries and continents as we can at festivals then sell the film to TV and pay per view worldwide.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking or texting during a screening of your film in a cinema?

I would try to sit behind them and kick their seat. Gently at first, and then with increasing force.

There are a lot filmmakers, especially up-and-comers, reading our site. I was curious if you had any advice to aspiring filmmakers?

Don’t wait too long to make your film. Do the absolute best you can, and keep trying to do better every time. In the words of John Steinbeck, one of my favourite authors, “Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have seen at a film festival?

I saw a movie called MY LIFE IS IN TURNAROUND at the Vancouver International Film Festival back in the early '90s. It wasn’t a “great” film. But it was “a really good little film”. It was funny and it had heart and it was written and directed by, and starring two regular guys I had never seem before. They decided their lives mattered enough to make a movie based on their personal experiences of trying to find love and make art. I remember seeing that film and thinking, “I want do that.” And I did.

This is one of the many films playing at this year’s Victoria Film Festival. For showtimes and further information visit

Be sure to follow instant happenings of the festival and updates on my Twitter @jasonwhyte!

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 02/12/14 05:23:55
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