By April MacIntyre
Robby Benson has cut an impressive swath in film and television, initially as an actor and then as a director on episodic television. It was the second part of his career that planted the seeds that resulted in his new roman ÃƒÂ clef about a single week in the making of a hit sitcom, Who Stole the Funny? A Novel of Hollywood.
The satirical novel portrays life on the other side of the television lens, skewering gargantuan egos and exposing power plays that are beyond absurd.
But the real heroes for Benson are the below the line crew that collaborated with him, insuring his efforts shined on film. “When I’m on a set, they represent the people I want to stand next to and who really do the work, the people I’m proud to be working with,” he says.
In Who Stole the Funny?, Benson paints a slightly exaggerated world of megalomaniacal showrunners, duplicitous agents, nattering producers and self-serving network executives all with their own agendas to retain control of a cash-cow series. The crew knows the deal; they are caught in the cross-hairs of many television show power plays.
Benson says he prefers the company of crew for a multitude of reasons, and didn’t hesitate when asked which craft he would pursue if he could.
“Perfect question, because this is still a dream of mine. I would be a camera operator. I have always used a camera. I was taught by some incredible operators. I would always ask permission to look through the lens when I was acting, and it was how I learned about lens sizes — primary in comparison to zooms. ‘Why is this filter being used?’ I was taught, when a scene was over, the director asked the operator if they got what they shot. Now, the monitors have taken some of the art away from the DP and the director,” he says.
“When I acted, I always had a relationship with the camera operator. I was learning depth of field, lenses and the light we were using. I knew when to give my C.O. signals when I moved. We took care of each other. Michael Chapman taught me how to use the wheels,” Benson says.
Lack of respect for that kind of craft has damaged the business, Benson says. “The lineage is fractured, broken. I’ll walk into a place where they are doing an interview, and there are no operators. Many jobs are taken away, and the evidence is the poor quality. No one even knows what they are talking about. Everyone is Ed Wood!” Benson says. “Great professionals behind the camera are gone, and productions are wasting money because they have to do it again. The new technology is fantastic but they’re tools to be used by craftsmen.”
In “Who Stole the Funny?” the assistant director, William, gives the director a hard time. Benson noted that in his experience, a good AD was vital to his work. “The AD is basically your best friend, and a lot of directors don’t know what the hell they’re doing. It’s the AD that gets the show though the week,” he says. “A good AD is good for the show. As a director, we’re brethren and in the same guild. I can’t tell you how many ADs I have gone to the mat for that should have been directing. I want to turn to my AD and say, ‘Let’s go to work,’ not, ‘Has anyone spoken to my set designer?’
“On sitcoms, you’ll get the ‘In-N-Out Burger’ director. Obviously, the AD has to be loyal to the production company, except when you are on the set and you have history with the AD, then you have their loyalty too. William, the AD in the book, was based on four people I put in a blender.”
Benson was to quick to list some of his favorite cinematographers he has worked with over the years. “One of my favorite people is Nick McLean Sr. We did movies together with Burt Reynolds and when I was a director on Evening Shade.”
Benson talked about hiring crew for various projects he directed. “I have had the good fortune of hiring crews for small movies or, if I am doing a pilot, I would say, ‘These are the people you will have to use.’” Benson says there were times when he crawled on hands and knees to get a shot, and protected cameramen from producers who wrongly accused them of missing shots. Recalling one hard-of-hearing camera operator who the producers wanted to fire, Benson says he told the same producers, “Well, then I quit.”
“I’m very protective of my crew,” he says.
The differences between TV and film production also came up. “The most entertaining and funny thing I could write about is the absurdity and insanity of working on a sitcom. The role of a TV director has basically been reduced to being a traffic cop. You die of exhaustion fighting the good fight or you will be fired,” he says.
“In film, there are endless compromises, but they come with discussion. The DGA has a rule that producer and writers must come to the director and discuss notes, and the director puts that into terms palatable for the actors and the crew. But in a half-hour show, producers walk right past the director,” Benson says. “You better be best buddies with the showrunner, or you won’t work. It’s sad, but there is a line in the book, it’s one of the few things in it closest to nonfiction. I literally got chewed out in a phone call because I was ‘elevating the quality of their show. It wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny, it was tragically funny.
“It got so bad in the last few years I was directing that there wasn’t even an attempt for producers to talk to directors. The producers were just walking over to camera operators,” says Benson. “Some great editors, too. They’re now bypassed because they did not know how to use Avid, then suddenly these producers bypass the editors with these Avid techs and suddenly the tech becomes the editor. So these amazing older editors are now out of work.”
Benson shared what show had the honor of delivering his worst day as a TV director. “Honestly, one show out of five would frighten a normal human being walking onto the set. The worst day was a show shot in Vancouver, Canada, back when there was so much work there, and we lost a grip to a feature and ended up using a surfer from New Zealand to be our dolly grip. That made me wonder why I ever crossed the border.”
Benson praises the creative genius of many grips and gaffers too. “Some of the most artistic things I have ever seen on set were done by a grip.” Ice Castles, the 1978 film directed by Donald Wrye, was one such example. “A grip had mounted a camera on a hockey stick, and the footage we got from it was beautiful. People who make fun of grips or gaffers, I want to take a dive at them.”
What about gear that he favored?
“I’m old-fashioned. I used Panavision PanaGold. I love their lenses, and PanaGlide, too. I think it was the precursor to Steadicam. PanaTape, and also I shot with Arriflex cameras — you can fix them anywhere. I once repaired an Arri with twigs and sticks and gaffer’s tape on location to make a shot work. That was during the second unit of Modern Love,” laughed Benson.
Who Stole The Funny? A Novel of Hollywood by Robby Benson is published by Harper Entertainment.
Written by April MacIntyre