Badass Interview: BenDavid Grabinski On ENORMOUS And Fantastic Fest’s Wide Reach
photo by Tim Daniel
BenDavid Grabinski is the writer and director of the Fantastic Fest short Cost of Living and winner of our 2012 Fantastic Fest bumper contest. He's a great writer and filmmaker and also a good friend, so I was very happy to interview him for his new pilot, Machinima's Enormous, based on the comic by Tim Daniel and Mehdi Cheggour. Read my review of the Enormous pilot, released today, here!
And if you haven't yet, watch the episode. It's nine and a half minutes of excitement, so take a break from your work drudgery and do something more fun and better for you than smoking a cigarette:
Read my interview with BenDavid below:
Enormous kicks off very much in medias res, and you did a great job dispensing a lot of information very quickly. How much of a concern was that for you?
I don't know if concern is the right word, but it was definitely a priority. It was a really interesting challenge because there's a world that people don't know about it, and there's monsters, and a virus, and these kids, and there's a lot of information. But I didn't want to do any exposition. So it was an interesting challenge; the entire thing was an interesting challenge. But you have to try to introduce these characters and let people know why hopefully they might have a reason to like them - even the ones who will get killed in a surprise way later.
And to me it was really about trying to do everything as economically as possible, but also fighting against that urge of making it ADD. I mean, it moves a little bit quicker than I almost would like, but at the same time that can be a good thing. It's a personal preference issue. But that's the weird thing about making a pilot: you don't want to feel like people are just learning things. You want to feel like it's entertaining them.
In directing a pilot, you’re establishing characters that will endure for the length of a series. How involved were you with the casting for these actors?
Casting, we had to do it very quickly, but it was done in the most professional manner possible. My casting director Matthew Lessall is so great, and he was onboard as I got hired, and, you know, I was Googling him and I said, "Oh, he did Trick 'r Treat. I'll be fine." [laughs] Yeah, so when you sit down with a guy who has a Trick 'r Treat poster in his office, you feel like you're in good hands.
We saw dozens of people, or hundreds, for every part, except the marauders, who I cast personally. But you know, every part: Ellen, Thomas, Miller, Caroline - basically all of them, we saw so many people, and a lot of really good people. And I was just really happy with how it came together because we found a really good mix of people who were completely different. There were some people who had never acted before, ever in their life, and other people who have a hundred credits. You know, I have a child actor, I have a model-turned-actor, and I have Erica Gimpel, who was in the original Fame, and she was on Veronica Mars as Wallace's mom. She's been in a million things. And it was fun because every scene was a big ensemble, and you have to direct all these actors simultaneously, and everyone is different and everyone has different needs.
Billy Miller's done two thousand episodes of soaps, so he has more experience acting than almost anyone in the entire world. And the funny thing was that after he did a take I gave him some notes and some suggestions, and then we did another take, and he said, "Usually after a take, they say 'Great, let's move on,'" because they're doing a soap opera and they don't have time. It's just "Is it in focus? Okay, let's move on." And instead we did multiple takes so we could explore each moment with him, and I think he both really enjoyed it, and was amused. [laughs] It was a different process.
But that was the thing that was really fun, being able to find people who were great for each part, and at the same time know - who are the people that you'll want to see a lot more of? Because the function of a pilot is sort of saying, "Hey, here are these people! I hope you'll like them. They'll be back."
The word “enormous” is in the title, but the show is meant for a computer screen. The pilot definitely has a sense of vastness to it. How did you go about creating this giant world and these giant monsters with the sort of budgetary and time constraints involved in making a web series?
That was the thing. You know, I came on a little bit into November and it had to be done by the end of January, and there are a million hurdles that you have to jump over just to make it, let alone make it have some level of quality or cinema to it. I had really, really ridiculous goals in terms of how to pull that off. You know, you have your first meeting and you think you're going to come in and be this tough guy, like "Look. It needs to be this thing and this thing," but everyone was really supportive of the idea of trying to make it as cinematic as possible. I mean, they said that's why they hired me, but I don't know what that means because I only made one short. [laughs]
But I basically said, "I knew what I wanted, I knew what I wanted it to look like, and I just needed to find people who were equally as obsessive and talented and excited to be onboard." And as always, the crew is only as good as your cast, so you just have to find the right people and communicate.
And it's fun because my DP who shot Cost of Living, Morgan [Susser], is basically my right-hand man. We just work so well together, it's ridiculous. It never could have been made if I hadn't worked with him, because we have a shorthand. I remember [laughs] - I probably shouldn't say this, but I think it's funny. We were on a scout, and a person who will not be named - none of the important, lovely producers or anything - but this person, any time a decision was about to be made, would say, "Oh, you shouldn't do that, it's just a web series." [laughs] I think Morgan was so upset that someone would say that.
So I felt like my job was to make a billion decisions, and then be done. So any time time something had to be done, I tried to make the smart, creative decision that helped the story and was really cinematic, and then just move on to the next decision. And yeah, directing is just a series of decisions anyway, but in this case, everyone who was working on it, the whole crew, wanted to make something just as good - and sometimes, really, making something that's cool and doesn't feel cheap just comes down to people really caring and getting a lot of people who really do care. It sounds simplistic, but if your standards are decent, and you really want to make something good, and you're surrounded by people who want to make something good, usually you'll end up with something that's not terrible.
Web series are becoming so prevalent. How does it feel to be a part of this changing landscape?
Yeah, that was really interesting, because everything I do, as a screenwriter or director, is 99.9% movies. That's just really where my head is at, that's my business, that's the people I interact with, that's just sort of my day-to-day. And getting involved with this was really interesting because it's the exact same thing and it's not. Your job is always the same, it's to make the best thing possible in the parameters that you have.
Actually, what this is kind of similar to is the structure of an Adult Swim series, or something like Adventure Time, where you have ten-minute episodes and they build to a thing. But I tried not to think about it in terms of where it was going to go, which is funny because it looks amazing projected onto a big screen, but nobody's going to see it that way. [laughs] But for some reason I kind of feel like, if you just approach something as making the best thing possible, but you stay cognizant of the medium, that's the best way to handle it. Because there are some web series that are really great, and there are some people who have made some great stuff, but I'm trying not to use anything like that as a reference point visually or for the narrative of it.
Have you had much contact with Tim Daniel and Mehdi Cheggour? Have they seen the pilot?
The two people who were - and no offense to anyone else working on this - but the two people who were the most interesting and fun to work with were Ceren [Lee], who played Ellen, and Tim Daniel, the comic creator, because they're both a little unorthodox. Tim, and not to toot my own horn because it sounds really stupid, but when I got hired, he was told that I was the director, and he's one of like five people who has seen and really loved Cost of Living. And he was really excited that I came onboard. And he emailed me about it, and it became an endless email chain between the two of us, and he was on set for every second of it, and he's just like the nicest guy in the world. He was very, very supportive of me doing my own thing that was at the same time complementary to the book.
And the reason I'm bringing this up at the same time as Ceren, who played Ellen, is that they're both the most gung-ho people, the most supportive people about what I was trying to accomplish. And they were helpful in completely different ways. If your lead actress is really excited to be there, really supportive of your vision and will run off and shoot some random second-unit stuff at any moment and then come back and do regular dialogue, it really makes your job easier. And Tim made my job easier too, because he was so supportive, he had a ton of knowledge of what he would do, but he never pushed anything on me in terms of story or character, and it just made my job a lot easier.
And he's happy with how the pilot turned out?
He likes it more than I do! There's no one who likes the pilot more than Tim Daniel. [laughs] There will never be anyone who likes it more than him. He's watched it ten times, he's played it for his kids and sent me like a hundred emails. So that was nice! I have no control over who likes this, but he was just over the moon.
Talk about working with Machinima. What sort of freedom did you have, considering this is one piece of a larger, series-long puzzle?
The thing that was really helpful about it is that the people involved came to me, so they already sort of felt like I would do a good job, and I felt like once I really got into it, they appreciated that I was swinging for the fences, ignoring whether or not I succeeded. They were really supportive. I can't think of a relationship I've had - you know, I've worked on a dozen scripts, I've worked on a lot of things as a director - I can't think of another time I've been in a relationship that was this supportive. There were tiny discussions here and there, but they were very hands-off, which I think, I assume or hope it's because they liked what I was doing - or maybe that's just how they are with everybody! But I felt like they were happy with the work that I was doing so they were just there to help, which is good. Maybe if I'd done a really bad job, the relationship would have been different. [laughs] But it was a very amicable working parameter.
And BenDavid, can you tell us what's next for you?
There are a couple of really big movies that I'm starting on as a writer and couple of really cool things I'm working on as a director that unfortunately I can't talk about. But I'm extremely grateful for the opportunities that I have right now, and I'm just trying to focus on making the best stuff possible and taking advantage of those opportunities.
And there are some Fantastic Fest tie-ins to Enormous, right?
There's a lot of really fun overlap from Fantastic Fest on this by accident. What happened was that there are some people I usually work with, that I worked with on Cost of Living, and when I got this job they were all booked on big movies and TV shows. And so I started putting together a team, and there were some people who ended up getting taken directly from Fantastic Fest.
And I found out that one of the key people involved in bringing me onto the project was based on them liking my bumper, which, as you know, there's no lighting or budget or anything, it's just this five dollar DIY thing. But they were really amused by it. And then what happened was that I needed a title designer, and a composer and an editor, and my friend Charles de Lauzirika had this movie Crave that was at Fantastic Fest, this really cool, weird, twisted little crime movie, and the titles were amazing, and they won some awards, and the score was amazing. And I just asked, "Can I steal your guys?" and he said yes, so he put me in contact with them. And then I became friends with Josh Ethier when Almost Human played Fantastic Fest, and he lives here in L.A. so we've been hanging out socially. And I needed an editor, and we had to cut over Christmas, so I asked him, "Are you in town for the holidays?" and he said yes, and I asked, "Do you want to cut a pilot?" and he said "Sure." And it was a really great relationship.
I hope my career has a lot of random, weird Fantastic Fest influences because that's where the first thing I made premiered, so I feel like it's probably appropriate.