Joshua Benson is a filmmaker, that’s what brought him to our attention – namely his new film, The Pilgrim. However, he’s also a musician, a writer, and a photographer, which we learned when we got the chance to talk to him about the film. Check out the full interview below and check out The Pilgrim on VOD now.
Released earlier this week, The Pilgrim, is your debut feature. Let’s start right there. How has this week been, what has the reception been like, and is it cool to see your first feature film getting praise in a variety of outlets?
To be honest, I’m not quite sure on the reception because I was off in northern Montana filming a new documentary, tentatively titled It’s a Good Day to Be Indigenous. I figured the best way to celebrate the release was to be out in the field hammering away on the next thing. That being said, from what I’ve heard, the response has been mostly positive and I’m happy about that. Good to see it out in the world.
So before I ask more about the film, let me backtrack. Who is Joshua Benson? Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
I’m an independent filmmaker, photographer, writer, and musician.
Ok, so back to the film. You have done a variety of shorts as both writer and director, what is different about doing a feature, besides just the length?
There’s more of the film that you have to keep in your head when shooting. It’s natural that when you’re in the day-to-day of production, your perspective can become myopic – there are always many small things that require your attention – and while you can get away with that to a degree on a short, I think it has larger consequences with a feature. Things can go wayward in a hurry if you’re not able to step back and keep the proper perspective.
You notes this project was steeped in a Baldwin essay. Can you talk more about that as an inspiration, maybe who he is fit those of us not aware, and how the story you’re telling here story came to be?
Reading plays a very big role in filmmaking for me. I tend to take a thematic approach to my work as opposed to one that relies heavily on story, and books are helpful in that regard. To that end, I try to use quotes or lines to serve as anchors and the Baldwin quote – “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them” – seemed to fit the bill for this movie. Baldwin himself is a fascinating author, someone who moved between different forms of writing throughout his life, and whose work is well worth exploring. If Beale Street Could Talk, the Barry Jenkins film from a few years ago, was an adaptation of a Baldwin novel.
The cast of the film is extremely talented with some real veterans. How did the casting work and was there anyone you specifically went after or had in mind when you started getting this group together?
Casting started with Jeff. The Pilgrim marks the fourth film that I’ve done with him, but despite the history, he was actually a little reluctant to sign on at first. He thought that we should try and go for a name, a strategy that I’m sure stemmed from his logic as a producer (he served as a producer on the film); but I was persistent in dismissing that idea and ultimately he relented. As an actor, he’s second to none. He paints around the edges and gives a level of nuance to his characters that I enjoy watching and working with. Once he was locked in, it became a mixture of previous collaborators – Rebekah Stein – and new folks – Rachel Colwell, Julie Oliver-Touchstone, and Lou Llobell – to bring it on home. I tend to work quickly and having people who already know the shorthand helps get the train moving while providing those new faces some guidance if they need it.
As you prepare for your follow up projects and move into what’s next, what lessons will you take with you from The Pilgrim?
Take more risks.
Before we wrap, how can the readers stay on top of what you’re up to after they dig into this one?
The best place to stay on top of things is the Copeland Pictures website, copelandpictures.com. Also, while I am no great lover of social media, with the release of the film, I finally relented and had a friend ante up on an Instagram profile for CP, @copelandpictures. We’ve been giving it some attention, so I would say that would be the next best place.
Any final thoughts for young filmmakers trying to get into the business or transition from shorts to features?
On the transition from short to feature, I can share a quick anecdote: About a year before we started making The Pilgrim, I made a short called Queen Luck. On the last day of filming, we had a scene that should have been easy to film – a short conversation with sparse dialog between two ex-lovers – but as we got into it, it quickly went downhill: the shots felt stilted, the direction was off, and it felt very forced. There’s one of two ways you can go in that moment and instead of doubling down on my plan, I chose to change it all up. I had the male actor change costume and head off on a walk to take on board a new angle for his character, while I reviewed the scene with some of the crew. In the end, we sussed out that, in the overall edit, the scene could play in two shots. That’s how we did it and it ended up working out. Some time after, I was thinking about the shoot and realized that I was finally starting to think like a filmmaker and that perhaps I was ready to take on a feature (I had done several shorts by this point). It takes time, understanding filmmaking and figuring out what your groove is, and it’s okay to go at your own pace. Challenging yourself is a must, but be realistic in your aims and as your grow, the moments where you move forward and are ready for the next step will reveal themselves to you. You just have to keep the faith.