Broke

Filmmaker Interview with Benham Jones

by Amy Gillman

 

Ernie seems like a protagonist audiences are both annoyed by and can sympathize with. Was that your intention? What are you hoping audiences learn from or about Ernie?

We definitely hope that Ernie creates divided feelings in the audience. The New York real-estate agent is such a classic study in conflict, a necessary means-to-an-end that no one is excited to deal with, kind of like the dentist. What makes him more interesting than just a hustler or nuisance, though, is how the consumer will ultimately render him or her invisible. And that is pretty amazing to me. How you can have this almost evangelical character, ranting and raving in front of you, trying to make a sale, and you can look right through them and pretend they aren’t even really a person. I don’t think this movie is really at a level where it can “teach” people things, but I hope a viewer will walk away feeling like they should pay a little more attention, because every New Yorker has a story. When we were writing the film, my partner Eric and I would often remind ourselves that these characters–primarily Ernie and Ivan–are almost “too human” to survive. And I think that vulnerability makes people uncomfortable too.
Your choice to leave out the voices on the other end of Ernie’s phone calls was both powerful and interesting. What influenced this decision?
In that instance, necessity was the mother of invention. Most of the exteriors with Ernie solo were shot on our last day and we did not have appropriate sound-equipment to capture the calls in a way we might have liked. In the final edit though, we decided to mix in the voice of Ernie’s sister, which is the only “other-side” the audience hears. I’ll leave it up to the viewer to decided whether or not that validates or invalidates the three other phone-calls as representative of reality or Ernie’s imagination. Aesthetically, I also just like the extra-dimension that recording through a phone provides. It makes the world bigger, with some static.
Who are your favorite directors and what do you like to incorporate from their work into your own?
 I am in awe of anyone who can finish a movie. I have a few particular directors that I love, but out of respect for them, I have not tried to steal from their work yet. Maybe once I get a better handle on the whole process.
In your opinion, what qualities make a film “great?”
A great film should stick with you. Aside from sound and image though, I’m not really sure how to define “qualities”. For something small like “Broke”, I’m hoping that it catches a viewer enough to wonder about the characters beyond just what is seen on screen.
How does where you live influence how and what you make?
New York is full of hustlers, people that, were they living elsewhere, might be committed to an asylum. I love that. Queens is especially inspiring. When I started playing music after arriving in New York in the mid-2000s, a lot of my comrades were squatting in a house near Queensboro Plaza. It just feels a little less monitored then the rest of the boroughs.
How did you discovered members of your team for “Broke” and what made for a successful collaboration?
Casting and crew-building was fairly organic during pre-production. My co-writer Eric was living with me at the time, trying to make a living as a real estate agent but we ended up doing this instead. My DP/editor/partner-in-crime Aaron Peer was hungry for a new project. Bill Hennessy is a local Astorian we met through a friend, and I don’t think we could’ve been blessed with a better on-set sound engineer. For the cast, I pulled from the community of actors, musicians, and artists I’ve been in touch with in New York. I played for many years with Keith Zarriello (Ernie) in a band and knew that he had the natural, possessed charisma we needed, and Hank Lin (Ivan) was an old friend from high-school that I reconnected with by happenstance before writing began. We kept the scale fairly small (production budget was only about $900) and I think that helped unite the whole team around the project. Having a combination of musicians and actors on set is something I will definitely do again. They both bring a different energy and type of professionalism, and you can end up with a very dynamic film depending on how you push each in particular scenes.

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