Interview with Tom Benz - Oct 26, 2006
Rob took the Brokeback Truck to meet with and interview Tom Benz, the Production Manager of Brokeback Mountain. Brock Justinick of Tac Mobility kindly introduced Rob to Tom. Brock is a long time fan of the movie & has worked with Tom Benz in support of his film projects.
Tom worked with the movie’s producers, locations department, and of course Director Ang Lee, in the selection of Southern Alberta for the principal filming of the movie. In this role, he was "the first in and last out".
Tom is a seasoned film professional with over 20 years of experience, and refers to himself as a “logistical engineer”. He worked front and centre with the crew and the producers from before the cameras rolled, until long after the last crew member had been “wrapped out”.
This provided him with some unique insight and stories from the cast, crew, and everyone involved in the creation of Brokeback Mountain.
Thankyou to everyone who sent in questions here directly, or to The Brokeback Forum, a 5,000 member newsgroup. (see Daily Sheet article, Nov 2, 2006)
Tom, Brock, Rob Tom
We met for the interview at the Phoenix Grill, in S Calgary, the same restaurant where the the private screening party was held for the Brokeback Mountain Crew 1 year ago. Tom is shown here taking a call from the current movie he's working on, while we talked.
Rob: What aspect of securing the filming locations did you feel was the most challenging, most scenic, most important and most memorable for the audience...in your opinion?
Tom: The whole show revolved upon finding the right mountain setting even though the sheep weren't in all of the movie....the sheep shots were the "money" shots and that's how we had to co-ordinate our strategies around Brokeback Mountain itself. In terms of which scenes were memorable for the audience, I think any of the scenes between Heath Ledger & Jake Gyllenhaal that showed their true merit as actors, as performers...those are by far the most memorable...it's a film about people....as wonderful as the locations were, those were the most memorable. Dealing with the sheep had it's own special challenge because domestic sheep carry a dormant virus which is lethal to wild sheep....to actually make this film work with this restriction was extremely difficult, but luckily the mountain that we settled on literally was the closest peak to Calgary & the logistics fell our way with pretty well the only option to pull the film off in the Canadian Rockies. I would consider Moose Mountain the most scenic.
Rob: How long before anyone else arrived to start work on the film did you have to be there....and how long afterward?
Tom: The film was shot from May to the beginning of August...my time was February to the end of September.
Rob: Were you the person in charge of seeking out permission and passage to all of the location areas....and if so, which area was the hardest to acquire?
Tom: Initially I would make the strategies...in an orderly fashion, there would be crew hired inevitably....the work was delegated. I was responsible for the work of every crew member, which in theory would mean that I should be able to do it all, but obviously manpower alone & people who have expertise in a specialisation...I trust them & collaborate with them. Moose Mountain was the hardest to acquire because of the wildlife concerns with the sheep.
Rob: Where there any places they considered filming they were not granted access to and had to change their mind?
Tom: Yes, the ideal mountain peaks from Ang Lee's scouting were closer to Waterton & some almost as far north as Jasper...all of those areas we could not sequester our domestic sheep from wild sheep therefore all of those areas were refused...& rightly so, by Alberta Wildlife. The thing about Moose Mountain is that it's a mountain that literally stands on it's own so therefore there is a break in wildlife traffic & the wild sheep never go to this little "pimple" outside of the Rockies called Moose Mountain.
Rob: When you are securing a location, area, building etc. for filming, how much information do you volunteer about the film? Is each situation unique and individual, or is there some set formulation of what you tell the people involved in "loaning" their property?
Tom: In a general sense, there's no point hiding anything...let's face it....the people will likely see the film & it does no one any good....the film industry is always about return business no matter how you look at it...it does nobody any good to have the public's opinion of the integrity of the film business sour. That being said, it's not uncommon to give potential hosts a copy of the script & from that point of view, not all people are interested in reading the script, to be honest with you....they have a passing interest in the film industry. There's rarely a time...I can't think of a time in my career where one has had to be covert with the content or the motivation of why you would like to use that location...right from the start, the high road is the best road.
Rob: Is payment for use a factor or are most people approached happy to have the notoriety of having their property immortalized in film?
Tom: Oh, payment is a factor....I think everyone is different why they would allow a stranger into their home, or on their property. Sometimes subject of the film is a priority, sometimes it's money, sometimes it's exposure to an experience where the people feel they're not likely to find another opportunity so they definitely want to exploit the one that's knocked on their front door. Every situation is different & oddly enough, money is not the primary factor as a motion picture coming onto your property is an intrusion...doesn't matter how well organized it is....it is an intrusion on your life & that usually is the first factor....whether the people can accept this kind of intrusion.
Rob: Do you appear anywhere in the movie?
Tom: No, I joke about a fictitious "witness protection program". I find the one time that I did agree to commit to a cameo, it kept me away from my work....I can't be photographed & be answering the phone at the same time. (laughing)
Rob: At this moment there is a production crew scouting locations in Moosejaw and Regina for a film called Ferris Wheel in which Charlize Theron will have a leading role. She has been spotted at football games and concerts in these cities, presumably to get a feel for the area, it's weather and the surroundings. Did Heath, Jake or any other the other actors in Brokeback do this? That would have been neat...Heath and Jake sitings would have created a stir! Did any of this happen?
Tom: Absolutely.....Heath & Jake enjoyed the city....they got out. I think Charlize Theron, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Hopkins & all of the stars that have been on the prairies they have a good time because the public in this part of the continent respect privacy, gives them the distance, doesn't have the same demands that an LA public would have if they saw them walking down the streets of Los Angeles. They exploit that, they enjoy new elbow room, new freedom of public privacy if you will, that they can walk on the street & I think Calgary is probably the biggest little city they can do that in.
Rob: What other projects have you worked on...any for television or strictly the motion picture industry?
Tom: In 20 years of production managing I've probably done 45 films, was the Production Manager on the Lonesome Dove television series for 2 years, was part of the production managing team & Locations Manager on Cool Runnings, Viper, was on a period picture called The Claim, some television for the Hallmark Channel. One of the few films I've produced was a mini-series about Mark Twain. I've done a lot of television earlier on & I tend to find that feature film producers find me now.
Rob: How long have you been involved and is this the first work you've done in Canada?
Tom: I am an Albertan...I've done all of my work on the Canadian Prairies...the first film I worked on was 1976.
Rob: Cut scenes....There were several scenes shot for BBM that were edited out of the final print. Would it be possible to get a very detailed listing of these omitted scenes including the characters involved and how the missing scenes related to the plot?
Tom: I'm so far removed now, from the strategies of Brokeback, I wouldn't know about the marketing or packaging. I know for the longest time on eBay, you could buy the script that we shot. And then I suppose the detail that would be in that script would be you'd look at the movie and you'd go "wow, that's scene isn't in there" ...because essentially we filmed the script & then edit the story, not the script...you find the story within what you've photographed, so you shoot the script & you edit the story.
Rob: Will these "lost" scenes be made available someday?
Tom: Again, I'm away from that part of things. In general, I see a wonderful DVD features market come up....it's not just the movie, it's all the other features...suddenly deleted scenes have a value, where they stayed on the cutting room floor before these features came out.
Rob: For example: Ennis brings his children to the market and leaves them with Alma. He declares that he must leave immediately to work at the ranch that night (the heifers are calving). We, in the audience, are left to assume that Ennis is telling a boldface lie. Or is he?
Tom: I remember, it was in Carstairs, the grocery store......If I remember the context, he is trying to go out & see Jack....it was an excuse to go out & see Jack.
Rob: It appears that there is a deleted scene preceding this one showing Jack and Ennis together and making plans. I think the film would have been clearer if this cut scene had been included.
Tom: That's an opinion & I think what is always interesting is how a Director wants to make the audience work for the story. When I hear comments like this "it would have been clearer", I must say, many Directors would go "good, I'm making them work for it" rather than be disappointed that it was hard to get. The easier a film is to figure out, the less successful it is. No one is challenged by, nobody wants to see it again.
Rob: What was so special about Alberta as opposed to Wyoming, for the filming?
Tom: When I was phoned by Kevin Hyman who is one of the Chief Executive Officers of Focus, who I met in 1999 on another film & I was so surprised, because it sounded like he knew me from just last week...the familiarity. Ang Lee had never filmed a film that was not in the location that the story was written in. That was, no pun intended, "Ang's angst" as we called it. Kevin was very clear to me from the very first phone call in December before the February that I started that a key part of this was to make Ang comfortable that he was not going to be shooting in Wyoming. The studio already could read the logistics & the costs of this film & Wyoming as a state doesn't have as many people as Calgary does as a city. The services that come with that, including hotels, cars, airports, simply to start a film, much less host the crew, have the equipment houses, all of those things. Literally every last element would have had to be brought into Wyoming & my belief is it would have cost millions more to shoot there. This is an independent feature...there is a ceiling to what level money will invest on a work of art. When one goes to make a King Kong for 200 million dollars it is a different kind of gamble with a different kind of audience to see if you can fill the theatre. That gamble, incidentally, for a 200 million dollar investment with King Kong & a 15 - 17 million dollar with Brokeback Mountain, netted the same profit. So it's a different risk & a different motivation on the money to make a film like Brokeback Mountain. Absolutely.....Brokeback Mountain was motivated by the literature. A good short story, obvious with the Academy Award, that was done into a very fine screen play.
Rob: More about what was so special about Alberta. Was it people, places, facilities, or all of these? What "sealed the deal" to have it filmed there?
Tom: What sealed the deal was having Ang Lee in my car for 3 days, introducing him to the potential of Alberta. Then we put him in a plane & sent him to Wyoming so that he could see physically if he had the same thing. As an industry, he had far more opportunity in Calgary. He very definitely feels that he filmed it in the right place.
Rob: How did you get started in the Film industry?
Tom: I got together with a group of 3 friends & we made a film club in grade 11, in high school, in Edmonton. Everybody had their agenda....somebody wanted to be the director, somebody wanted to be the cameraman, somebody wanted to be the actor. I've always realized I didn't have an agenda but I had a lot of fun supporting everyone's vision of art & I realized at that time that there very obviously was a place for people like that in the film industry. One thing lead to another & the desire of that kind of adventure never left so I pursued it. I went to S.A.I.T. (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) in Calgary & never left Calgary after that.
Rob: Were any scenes they set up that didn't get in the movie, that you wished had made it into the final cut?
Tom: I would certainly say "no" to that. As a logistical engineer, when I read a script, even though I love in my own mind to be quite a creative person, even the worst scripts I've read, have turned out to be far better than my imagination & I have a total respect for the profession of a director on how they truly are a "storyteller". In the end, I as a audience, not just an industry player, accept the director's version of the story & never look backwards on how I might have told the story better....I know I couldn't have & so for me it's extremely easy to accept the directors final choice on the complete work of art that he puts forward to the audience.
Rob: Did you or others you know feel some of the impact of the film during filming or after release in the way the viewers did?
Tom: The film entered pop culture & had a huge impact on all movie audiences even those who didn't go see it. It entered prime time TV even just yesterday Brokeback Mountain came up on the Jay Leno show almost a year after it's release. Did we know what were making at the time? No. Did it feel special compared to all the rest of the projects? Yes. Did we know why? The only thing we attributed it to, was the quality of the collaboration of the people. Through all the films I've done, I see that that quality is generated from the top down. The producing & directing entities on this show....I have never been involved with a more sophisticated bunch, or a bunch that was more comfortable in their own skin & not pretentious & took advantage of every opportunity to get the best out of people, instead of worrying about controlling the project & that is an extremely difficult atmosphere to achieve in film production. There is way too much pressure, way too many factors of unknown to always have that atmosphere & to achieve this atmosphere & then see the accolades that followed in the year to come after production was finished & on to it's release. One can't help thinking that that magic was there with the people before the accolades.
Rob: For you, it's a job, plain and simple, but I wonder if it touched you, in some way, or if you get how it has affected us?
Tom: I absolutely do get it & it's not just a job. The shirt I wear most often is from my Mark Twain producing & it's a quote by Mark Twain that says: "Work & play essentially are just a version of the same thing". If people could enjoy their work like I do, they wouldn't call it work.
Rob: Was it difficult convincing Ang Lee and the producers of the movie to film in Alberta instead on Wyoming? Was it any one thing in particular?
Tom: The producers no, Ang, yes. Not so much difficult, as if Ang wasn't convinced the project wouldn't have come, unless he was forced to financially. In other words, the producers would have had to lie down in front of his truck to say "we don't have the money to go to Wyoming, we have to do this picture in Alberta". That would be the only way Ang Lee's wishes, should they have been to film in Wyoming, would have been over ruled.
Rob: Was the experience of working on Brokeback Mountain different than other movies that you have done, and if so, in what ways?
Tom: First of all, every movie is different, so one can't say why Brokeback Mountain was different from the other movies. Every movie is different, every movie has a different fingerprint of human nature, people, politics & reasons to make a film. The reasons to make King Kong were far different than making Brokeback Mountain. In my experience the reasons for making a televisions like Lonesome Dove are far different than making a television series like Viper. Nothing can compare between 2 projects, good, bad, or ugly....they're all different.
Rob: I've heard that Ang Lee became a devoted Calgary Flames fan, and wherever possible attended and watched the games. Is this true?
Tom: It is. He went to playoff games as a guest of the owners. If anyone has a very good hockey script (laughing), he probably would read it. He did become a fan & mentions to me that hockey was a "wonderful violent ballet". When I asked him with his lack of experience in hockey why he thought he would be a good man to direct a hockey film, he answered "well in fact not having knowledge of hockey for a director would be better because they would be far more sensitive to things that Wayne Gretzsky would not be even if he was a Spielberg." So he looks forward to actually making a hockey film.
Rob: Was there a point in the filming of the movie where based on what you were seeing, you just knew that this was going to be such a critically acclaimed movie? If so, what was it that gave you that feeling?
Tom: That feeling came far before we rolled the first frame through the camera. You could recognize that you were in the midst of a very sophisticated, collaborative professionally motivated group of people. You knew something was going to happen. So that feeling was long before we started filming it and certainly no experience of the actual filming would have lead us to that, it's the people involved.
Rob: When the filming was over, was Ang Lee happy that he had chosen Alberta to film Brokeback Mountain?
Tom: He was ecstatic & has said so many times.
Rob: What is your favourite or most memorable experience from the movie?
Tom: There are too many to separate one...in fact the one experience is the sum of all those little ones....it is impossible to take one & highlight it.
Rob: In order for you to prepare a set or location, what kind(s) of instructions did you receive? From whom?
Tom: The instructions to me on a location would be "in general" as we start to apply our design to a location, more & more details come out. As more details come out, more crew is hired & delegated to deal with each & every one of those details.
Rob: Were there sets or settings that had to be changed? Which ones, how? Why?
Tom: I'm not sure of the meaning behind "changed". We had to adapt things because of weather...in the movie there is the scene where Ennis takes his family to the fair, the fireworks are there. Ordinarily we would have been able to film that in one night....we had to stop filming & pickup because of severe thunder & hail storms, so our schedule had to accommodate the weather.
Rob: Perhaps the person who put forth this question meant that a scene was setup a certain way & then had to be changed.
Tom: No, that didn't happen & probably the biggest reason it didn't happen is.....I have never seen a Director more prepared than Ang Lee, to do anything.
Rob: What specific instructions did you receive from Ang Lee? Were there particular sets or locations he wanted modified?
Tom: Ang would see a location......he would give his vision to Locations Manager, Production Designer & Director of Photography.....they would collaborate & come up with an overall presentation. Ang was an incredible communicator so their first draft, if you will, was exceptional because of the exceptional instruction that those creative people would have gotten. At that point, if Ang changed something, for instance some of the pictures of the house you showed me about the house that was demolished on the Glenmore Trail. He might say, "boy, a different wallpaper would look good, here", or "maybe instead of white, we could darken this room a little bit". He might come up with ideas like that.....there were no sets that he came to where he wanted a complete change of ideas.....he often, but not always would compliment what was there with a little bit more icing on the cake. That's usually how it went.
Rob: Do you have any pre-production or production photographs of filming locations?
Tom: I generally don't take any pictures myself....I don't know where there are any, but I know if I looked at my crew list & started phoning around, there'd be a lot of pictures.
Rob: Do you have a schedule or calendar that shows the order of filming?
Tom: I will check, but if I kept all that paperwork, I'd have to live in the garage, because the house would be full. (laughing)
Rob: Were there creative debates / disagreements among the production team during the filming? What types of creative issues arose?
Tom: The real beauty of Ang Lee is that he not only could imagine what he wanted, he could convey his imagination to people. The question I was asked once when I described there was 4 towns in the opening sequence, the comment came back to me, "that must be tough working for a guy like Ang". In fact, it was a lot easier because he knew what he wanted & for any crew to follow a Director, it's a lot easier if they know what he wants....it doesn't matter what he wants.....it's "does he know what he wants?" Since Ang Lee knew what he wanted & since he could communicate those things, there was never any creative difference. Creative difference usually comes about because people don't understand what the other person is saying. The Production Designer & the Director of Photographer are there to make the Director's image. It is not the Production Designer's or the Director of Photography's image to define.....that is the Director's job. And if the Director can be as fine as Ang Lee in being able to communicate that, there are not only no artistic differences to discuss, but you efficiently get down to the business at hand & come on time & on budget because the Director knows what he wants to do. And that's another thing that separates Ang Lee.....he didn't make Brokeback by accident.....or "capture the moment"....he knew what he wanted & went out there & got it. There are many ways to direct....Ang Lee's way, although the best, is the hardest.
Rob: Were scenes re-shot? Which ones and why?
Tom: Certain shots were re-shot. The majority of them were because of a scratch on the negative....we work in very trying environmental conditions...a piece of dust gets in.....you have the dailies come back to you within 1 or 2 days time. The lab immediately phones you upon developing the film going "you've got trouble on scene 1, shot 8". We look at it....if we can't salvage it, we re-shoot it. There were never any scenes re-shot because of a question of performance, or a question of "did the elements arrive & were they photographed properly?" It usually was a technical developing problem that would cause us to re-shoot a shot.
Rob: What scenes were the most fun?
Tom: Most fun....would have been......the more people that were in a scene, the more fun it is. When you have a lot of extras, probably one of those most rewarding things is that people are coming to get a front row seat on how a film is made. They are usually very gracious & appreciative & add to a very sunny atmosphere that hopefully the film set has already got....not all of them do, but this one did. The more people that have a positive exposure to an industry that they know nothing about, even though they may have 3 television sets in their house, the more fun it was. They probably know more about deep sea fishing or drilling for oil in the Arctic, than they do about making the film, so it's always fun to watch people have fun learning.
Rob: Which scenes were the most frustrating?
Tom: On this movie, a scene that gets frustrating is one that takes too long to shoot & I say that because the worst thing about the film business is you are constantly working when you are exhausted. The more exhausted you are, the less you enjoy yourself, the more you are apt to make mistakes & the more mistakes you make, the likeliness of you being frustrated, happens. To size up a scene logistically & say "boy this is going to be frustrating".....when you do a really complex scene & it works, it's far more rewarding than it was frustrating & it happened. Probably the other side of that coin is somehow a scene that should have been so easy to do....you just can't get it right because it rains on you, the actor is late, the flat tire happens, something happens & it should have been so easy to shoot. The frustration comes when you can't meet your expectations.
Rob: Do you have any specific examples?
Tom: Not on Brokeback Mountain....the stars were aligned, the sun was shining on us from start to finish....the leadership on that show exploited every positive opportunity & avoided every negative pitfall. They knew their stuff...we were in the company of the best of this world's filmmakers.
Rob: Which scenes were hardest?
Tom: That's a tough one to answer, because I look at things a little differently. Things are hard when I don't enjoy myself. I enjoyed myself from start to finish.
Rob: What happen to the trailers, mainly in the last scene?
Tom: They would have all been rented & returned to their original owners.
Rob: The Brokeback Mountain Collector's Edition is due out in January 2007. Do you know what the bonus material will be?
Tom: I'm sorry, I don't have any knowledge of that.
Rob: Do you have any other information or experiences to relate?
Tom: I think what Brokeback Mountain did.....we have quite an interesting record of Academy Award nominated & winning pictures here....Brokeback Mountain a few years after Legends of the Fall which was a few years after The Unforgiven, has cemented, in any doubter's mind within the industry around the world that Calgary is a "go to" place...it is a centre that stands on it's own. Although Brokeback Mountain didn't create that image.....it's certainly brought it home. One thing that the Alberta film industry reflects very well...whenever we get nominated or win a cinematography award....it plays well because that's an award that truly belongs to the location, as much as it belongs to the Director of Photography.
Rob: Were you at the Academy Awards?
Tom: No, not at the Academy, but I was invited to the Director's Guild Awards in Los Angeles.....I was invited by Focus & Ang to join them. It was very interesting for me as a professional, compared to the Academy Awards because the audience were 2,500 of my piers, Clint Eastwood getting a Lifetime Achievement Award, to have Steven Spielberg give me a standing ovation was very surreal & humbling. The films nominated for best picture were "Brokeback Mountain", "Capote", Spielberg's "Munich" , and George Clooney's, "Good Night, Good Luck", "Crash"....which is the film produced by YARI Film Group .... I ended up working Resurrecting the Champ for them, here in Calgary just this year. I met Ron Howard....he gave me my plaque....I was stumbling for words....I said "it's certainly an honour to meet you"...he looks at me & goes "the honour is mine". Again, more than humbling & very surreal to be called up on the stage with Ang.
Brock: You said in all of your 20 years of filmmaking, it's the only time you'd seen it, was Michael Hausman's (Executive Producer of Brokeback Mountain) insistence of holding the Master's Class for the film school.
Tom: Yes, he's a huge part of the dynamics of this creative team. Michael Hausman teaches at Columbia University...very interested in film production classes. Within minutes of his arrival in Calgary, he was planning lectures for film faculties within schools in Calgary. He had 2 very high level afternoon seminars....one of watching films, & one of meeting the "brain trust" from Brokeback Mountain. He invited one & all....to me it was a special thrill being on the panel with them, as I was in the same room that I showed my student films for grading, as a young man....again, another surreal situation. His approach, even to this day, to prioritize teaching, not just his profession as a Producer, was intoxicating, not just wonderful. It drew one & all into a sense of understanding of who these people really were. They gave far more to Calgary, without asking for anything, than any group of professionals I've ever run into.
Brock: I've heard you refer to yourself as a "logistical engineer". The logistical engineering around film production is probably the most intense I've ever seen anywhere.
Tom: You have to take science, money & people to make a work of art that inevitably makes money. To have one portion of your mind in the technical areas & another in the art areas & constantly be dealing with human factors to get people to collaborate these complex ideas...that's my job. My job is to co-ordinate their ideas, not so much to pick my way of making the film.
Rob: How many people did you have working for you?
Tom: On Brokeback Mountain, it would be in the 200 range. Sometimes I have films with 500 time sheets on my desk in a week, for a weekly payroll of 1 million dollars.
Rob: Many people feel Brokeback Mountain is destined to become a classic.
Tom: Absolutely, it will become a classic. I could put it in terms of Oliver Stone making the 911 film. The commentary came out that people aren't ready to watch this film yet, but they sure as heck were ready to make it. Sooner or later, the appeal of being able to watch such an emotional movie will rise & I believe more & more people will watch Brokeback Mountain. Perhaps in some corners, people were not ready to watch this film, but everywhere they were ready to make it. One of the real reasons Ang Lee made this film was because everybody told him this film could not be produced....it was an unproduceable film.....that sealed the deal for him. That's why he made the film.
Rob: What do you mean unproduceable?
Tom: They said that there was no way anyone could make a film from this story that people would watch, could enter mainstream filmmaking, that the audience couldn't accept it & that there was no way to make it acceptable. That challenge confirmed Ang Lee was going to do the story. So once again, people were ready to make the film & over the years to come, more & more people will be ready to watch it & that really will be the true test of an enduring classic.
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