It's Sunday morning, a day of rest. And while many are still snoozing in bed or dozing off at church, local filmmaker/hardware-store associate Jeremy Benson, three actors, a small film crew, and co-producer Chelsea Vancanneyt are hard at work on Benson's third film, If Time Stood Still.
They're shooting a scene at the Millington Cafe, a quaint little greasy spoon just north of Memphis. In the scene, two college-aged guys, played by Mark Williams (also the film's producer) and Dan Poor, run into each other at the cafe and end up in a serious discussion. One guy (played by Williams) has been up all night drinking, and the other (Poor) has been up all night freaking out because his girlfriend's pregnant. Poor's character spills his guts in a 10-minute dialogue with Williams' character. That's the end of the scene.
And, as it turns out, the end of the information. Benson wants the plot to remain secret until the film's release, which is currently slated for early 2004. Shooting began this winter, and Benson's hoping to be done by June. And, so far, all he'll say about the plot is "don't take for granted what you're living in now because it might not always be there."
Once the camera equipment is set up and the actors are positioned at a far corner table in the cafe's extraordinarily tiny nonsmoking section, they do a quick read-through of the scene. A girl playing the waitress makes sure she has an apron, a full coffeepot, and cups. Williams takes his mark, while Poor is already seated.
"Cafe scene 96, take one," announces Poor into the camera. The action begins as Benson sits back and watches with a critical eye.
Benson is no stranger to the local independent film scene. He already has two films under his belt: Friday's Menu and Nothing But Flowers. Friday's Menu, his debut work, is a comic tale of two guys trying to find something to do in Memphis on a Friday night, while Nothing But Flowers is a more serious sequel, in which the returning characters are suddenly faced with real-life problems. One character deals with a broken heart, while the other is faced with the stress of moving away from everything he's ever known.
Both films feature slice-of-life scenes that serve as a sort of social commentary on the lives of Memphis 20-somethings. One scene in Friday's Menu shows two girls sitting on a couch talking about sex while eating bratwurst. As the sausages enter their mouths, the camera zooms in and the motion is slowed down. Another scene shows the main characters, Ricky and J.P., driving around the city discussing possible plans for the rest of their night. These low-action conversational scenes, often laced with dirty jokes and sexual innuendo, portray the day-to-day boredom commonly faced by the youth of the Mid-South. Imagine Harmony Korine's Kids meets Kevin Smith's Clerks, only with a Southern twist.
Whether it's intentional or not, his characters generally maintain their natural accents and most of his leading ladies tend to be more on the full-figured side. These small details give his films a refreshingly realistic quality.
"We made that first film, Friday's Menu, in 1999, and we had no idea what we were doing. We just kinda threw some stuff together and somehow that got us permission from a local production company to use their equipment for work on another one. That's when we started Nothing But Flowers. The one we're working on now is actually from the first script I ever wrote. We just figured it was time to go back and make it," says Benson.
Besides one film-appreciation class at then State Tech, Benson has had no formal training. In his college days, he met local martial artist/sometime filmmaker Harry Dach, who took Benson under his wing after reading some of his short stories. Dach felt Benson's stories were screenplay material and suggested that he convert them. It was this turn of events that opened Benson's eyes to a talent he feels he's had since childhood.
"Even when I was little, I used to draw out Ghostbuster movies on notebooks, so I guess there's always been an interest," he says.
When giving direction, he tries to maintain a sense of fairness by allowing other crew members to comment. After the third take of the If Time Stood Still cafe scene, Benson kneels down at the table where the actors are sitting and tells Williams he was sounding a little fake. Then, just to make sure he's being democratic, he turns and asks everyone else what they think. The sound guy replies, "It's not very natural."
After a few more takes -- nine to be exact -- Benson finally seems happy with the final product. The sound guy suggests taking some audio from the noisy cafe, and a cameraman shoots some footage of Williams walking through the door. Then Benson calls out, "Wrap it up." Poor and the girl playing the waitress get up and stretch, and the crew begins to load up their equipment. It's about 1 p.m. It took roughly three hours to shoot what will amount to about 10 minutes of video.
It's tedious work, but it's what Benson lives for. "I would love to be able to make films for a living," he says. "Working at a hardware store is not what I want to do for the rest of my life."