Screenwriter/Producer/Director Joe Benedetto shares insights into the industry, stepping out of your comfort zone, and his newest projects, The Jersey 4 and Tale of the Wet Dog.
“Based on a true story of institutional racism and systemic corruption. It was a huge challenge for me as a screenwriter to do this story justice. It will film in New York and New Jersey.”
If he didn’t have me at “systemic corruption,” he reeled me in with “huge challenge.”
Taking risks and stepping outside of our comfort zones leads to dynamic storytelling. So, let’s dive in and start from the beginning of Joe’s storytelling career.
Interview edited for content and clarity.
Joe Benedetto: I grew up in Brooklyn. When I was 16 years old, I took a trip the summer before my senior year of high school. I went out to Eugene, Oregon for my cousin's wedding. He had moved there to go to law school and stayed. I'd never been on a vacation without my parents, and at this point, had no idea what I wanted to be in life or what I wanted to do for a living.
When I landed in Eugene, Oregon—a place very, very different from where I grew up and very, very different from anything I'd ever seen before—I was on the ground for maybe 5 to 10 minutes, driving through the town, when I had this epiphany –
Jeanne V. Bowerman: The inciting incident.
Benedetto: Exactly, the inciting incident. That is totally true. At that point, I suddenly knew I was a screenwriter. It was like a floodgate opened up. I could have never imagined that this was possible, that this existed. People where I came from were not supposed to dream about writing movies or having anything to do with the movie business, because it just seemed so far-fetched.
I wrote this screenplay in my head during the two weeks I was there. It ended up being my first script that I wrote. As soon as I got back to Brooklyn, a couple weeks later, I physically wrote the script on a typewriter. It was called Unlimited Potential, and it was about a minor league baseball player who had these tremendous expectations put upon him at the age of 19. I ended up making the movie at age 20. I wrote, produced, and directed it. Shot it on film—on Super 16mm. This was four years later, after I wrote the script.
It ended up being a less-than-stellar film, but it was my film school. I didn't go to film school. I didn't have to take out student loans to go to film school. Instead, I made this ultra-low budget feature film. It was only made possible because at the time, DuArt Film Laboratories in Manhattan would lend out this Super 16mm camera package—all the lenses, all the filters, magazines, everything. All you had to do was insure it. It was the same camera Lizzie Borden used on Working Girls, and the same camera that Spike Lee used on She's Gotta Have It.
Jeanne: Oh, cool!
Benedetto: [The camera] got stolen a couple years after we used it and that ended that.
In any event, I would say the Unlimited Potential experience is a cautionary tale, because I fell flat on my face in terms of the end result, the end game. The film never got distributed. I don't even put it on my IMDb page. Maybe someday I will. I've kind of redeemed myself in my own mind since then. The best part was I got my big failure out of the way very early in life. I failed big, and I came to that movie with a lot of expectations. I thought the cachet of being a 20-year-old writing, producing, directing and starring in a movie was going to be enough to carry it over the finish line. I guess at that age, we all have egos that are out of control.
Jeanne: The most humbling and best lessons in life are our failures.
Benedetto: I was humbled a great deal. It was a great experience making the film. The learning experience of being on a film set, learning how to direct a film, learning how to direct actors, all the aspects of production, to be honest, I don't think I could have gotten as much out of it if I was in a classroom for four years.
Jeanne: I agree.
Benedetto: I'm not discounting someone going to film school. If that's for you, then by all means, do it. All of our experiences should be unique, and my experience was not to go to film school, but was to make that film. It actually became a calling card. Even though it didn't get distributed and it wasn't very good, I would kind of put a disclaimer on it. I would send it to agents and studio executives, "Hey, I had never made a film before. I had no money doing this." And they're like, "Sure, we understand." And they'd look at it and say, "Oh, nice first effort. If you have anything else, let us know."
That opened doors for me. I ended up being signed by Gersh and was represented by them for a couple of years, which led to my first script being optioned.
Jeanne: Were you signed to them because of this film or did you have other scripts, too?
Benedetto: I sent them a newspaper article about the movie and said, “Please take a look at the film." Which led them to say, "Okay, do you have anything else?" I got signed off of a new script I’d written called LONG LOST, which was a thriller laced with comedy, which has since been long lost (laughs). I honestly don't know what happened to it.
Jeanne: I'm a big believer that there are as many paths to break in as there are writers and filmmakers. No path is ever the same. Your path is fantastic. The balls it takes at 20, you know? Crazy.
Let’s get into how you went from writing comedies to writing The Jersey 4. To be clear, this is not a movie about Frankie Valli. It doesn't seem like a natural project to be presented to a white comedy writer. Tell us a little bit about the project itself and how it came to be that you were the writer for it.
Benedetto: Essentially, with The Jersey 4, I was told in 2017 that Danny Reyes had this story, which I had heard of growing up in New York back in 1998. I agreed to meet with Danny. This story was highly explosive, and it needed to be told, because, unfortunately, the themes of his experience are still timely today, 20 years later. I insisted that I was the person to help tell his story. It was a departure for me, because I had never written a script based on a real-life event.
Jeanne: Let's talk about that event, for those who aren’t familiar.
Benedetto: In 1998, four college-age young men of color were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike on their way to a basketball camp in North Carolina. Four kids who were good students from good families, never been in trouble with the law. They were driving along—no drugs in the car, no weapons in the car, they were not speeding—when they were pulled over by two New Jersey State Troopers. While the troopers got out of the car and were questioning them, the van that the four young men were in accidentally backed up at about 2 MPH. It lightly bumped the front of the police cruiser, which they [the police officers] were not in at the time.
To say the least, these officers had a very unreasonable and inhumane reaction to it by taking out their guns and firing 13 shots into the car.
"No matter what genre you’re writing and what genre of films you’re making, at the end of the day, you have to attack the senses of the audience." - Joe Benedetto
Benedetto: Three of the four men were shot, including Danny, who was almost killed. He still has a bullet in him to this day. The initial reports to the media were coming out from the police camp, stating they pulled over drug dealers, claiming this was a justified stop-and-search that escalated into a shooting because the police officers felt they were somehow in danger.
Of course, none of which turned out to be true. Not only were those two troopers exposed for committing a criminal act, but it also turned out the entire New Jersey State Police Force—when I say that, I don't mean every single New Jersey State Trooper, they were not ... but the culture was ... going back to their academy days—were taught to racial profile and to pull over people of color. They had to assume anyone of color must be either carrying drugs or a weapon in the car, and therefore, it's okay to pull them over. They were falsifying records, falsifying speeding tickets. All of this ended up being exposed.
Jeanne: I tell you, this is exactly like Slavery by Another Name. The project that I adapted. Same thing. It's so amazing to me that this was 1998. You know? Okay. Sorry. Go ahead.
Benedetto: No, no, no. That's okay. So, the case drew national attention, and it ended up bringing Johnnie Cochran, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld on board, the lawyers who defended O. J. Simpson four years earlier. But the protagonist in this story is a Staten Island storefront lawyer named David Ironman, who certainly had never tackled a case that was anything close to this in magnitude.
Jeanne: I'm just curious, is David Ironman white? By the way, great name. You couldn't even make up a name like that.
Benedetto: He is. He's a white attorney who had never been thrust into the spotlight. Danny's basketball coach happened to know Ironman casually, and asked him for help. Ironman came on board, using some very clever and tactful methods to unravel the entire systemic corruption that was in place.
It truly is a David versus Goliath in the sense that the four young men are the victims. They were brutalized, not just by two police officers, but by an entire system. But when Ironman comes onto the scene and takes up their cause, he's taking on the entire system. He became the perfect fit because of that; this sort of blue-collar grinder. His work ethic was unparalleled.
Jeanne: When you wrote that first draft, had you interviewed Ironman yet?
Benedetto: I had the [first] draft done without ever having spoken to Ironman. After, I had the honor of speaking with him for many, many hours. He gave me access to all sorts of records that were part of the case. He told me a lot of anecdotal stories not necessarily brought out in the public record that were quite eye-opening. During our conversations, I was seeing new scenes in my head. He's telling me things I didn't know about—things the victims didn't even know about. My rewriting process became much easier after I spoke to him. I would go back to him many times to help fill in the blanks and clarify things. Whether you're a screenwriter or a novelist, it doesn't matter, writing is really rewriting. That’s an old cliché that's true.
Jeanne: Was he the protagonist in your first draft?
Benedetto: No, as a matter of fact. He was not. The first draft was basically ... I hate to say it, but was protagonist-free in some sense. It always was about the core story of the four young men, but there wasn’t a movie-star role, which we know we needed to get the movie financed. When you make a movie based on actual events, there's a delicate balance between art and commerce. You want to create something that's entertaining and engaging on a commercial level, but you want to also stay true to the subject matter that inspired it all in the first place.
In this instance, I needed to be conscious every step of the way that, although it was of paramount importance to tell the story of these four young men—because that's why I took the gig—I also needed to be conscious of the fact that this is a business about making money. To quote the line from the Godfather, "After all, we're not Communists." So, you have to be aware that it's great to have a cause, but we need to get this movie made. That's just a cold, hard fact of business.
Jeanne: Did you write it on spec?
Benedetto: No. I got development money upfront to write the initial draft. As we went along, we discussed the idea of attaching a director, and we ended up bringing Emmy-nominated director Matthew Penn on board. He's the son of the legendary Arthur Penn. Matthew not only directed hundreds of hours of television, he also used to be a producer on Law & Order for many, many seasons. The amount of respect he gave me as a writer was very important to me. It kept my confidence level where it needed to be. Making a movie is a collaborative process, and you're going to be bringing people on board along the way. You want to make sure everybody is on the same page, and that they trust you in what you're doing and don't expect to come in and completely throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.
We had many discussions about how the Ironman character needed to be more at the forefront in order to make this not just a catalyst to tell the story in a better and more efficient manner, but also in a more entertaining manner.
Jeanne: Were you concerned about being a white writer telling a story of these four African-American men and being able to relate to their life experience?
Benedetto: That did enter my mind. But when I did the rewrite and spoke to Ironman, I got to see the story through the eyes of somebody who, as a white lawyer, has not lived life through the eyes of someone of color. I was always mindful a lot of people could say, "Well, you're not a man of color. How could you possibly relate to what these guys went through?" I can't. But, that's where you kind of have to flip the switch and relate to the human condition, the empathy in all of us. You look at people that have been wronged and you admit, "I don't know what those four young men went through, what any person of color goes through, perhaps every day." But through Ironman, it became like he was an extension, or I was the extension maybe of his character; seeing the story from that perspective.
Jeanne: Making a story relatable to all of humanity is what we do. Did you have any surprises during the rewrites?
Benedetto: The surprising thing about this script is there's humor in it. I know that's hard to believe when we have a subject matter of the ugliest, most blatant form of racism, and two police officers who committed these criminal acts, have no redeeming qualities. But, Ironman is not just a character. He's a character. So, I thought about movies like Network, and Dog Day Afternoon, and Do the Right Thing.
Jeanne: Dog Day Afternoon is one of my favorite films.
Benedetto: Me too. It's in my top-five of all-time. And all those movies are edgy and with serious subject matters and, obviously, Do the Right Thing is similar in the sense that it was about racism. But those movies had a lot of humor. The idea that you take a situation that's serious, and in some instances life-threatening, but the characters themselves, in the most tense situations, are somehow funny. I mean, it's sometimes an uneasy laughter. But it's there. It added a new layer of appeal to it and made it even more multi-dimensional.
Jeanne: And it tapped into your comedy skills, too.
Benedetto: It did. So, when I wrote a scene of a lawyer telling his investigator to go undercover and do something to get the goods on the bad guys, the audience is going to be in their corner. But if he does it and he's funny, unintentionally funny, then those scenes become gold. That's what this script is. And whomever ultimately plays Ironman, which we'll know in a couple of months, is going to obviously make it their own, and that becomes kind of a different challenge for an actor and for the director. Just like the Ironman character was my way into the rewriting process, I think he's going to be the audience's way into the movie, where you see it through the POV of that character and empathize and feel the pain that you're witnessing from what took place.
Jeanne: I love your process of getting the true story on the page in the first draft and not having to have everything figured out before you sat down at the start. Because, with true stories, you can easily get caught up in the research. It’s important to get the story out, and then figure out, "How do I make this a movie?"
Benedetto: Exactly. Exactly. As storytellers, it's our duty to frame history or the times that we live in. When you're dealing with a true story, obviously, that becomes the first goal.
I always made sure I kept my eyes on the road. I didn't want to veer off the path. This was not an easy script to write. It's not an easy script to read. And it's not going to be an easy movie to watch in some respects. The Turnpike shooting scene, which is about 15 pages, is brutal. I hesitate to make this comparison, because we're not at that level yet until this movie is actually finished, but the analogy I make for the shooting scene is the D-Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan.
We have 10 days allotted to film the Turnpike shooting scene itself. That's how meticulous and gut-wrenching it will be. Some of the scenes with the police officers and some of the things they say were not easy to write and not easy to hear. I want those two state troopers who committed heinous criminal acts to be presented as human beings because I want to make sure people understand and say, "Human beings still do this in America in 1998, in 2018." I didn't want the cops to be caricatures or people so far out there that an audience would be like, "Oh, well, there aren’t actually real people like that." Obviously, 99.9999% of the police officers in this country are great, and thank God for them. These just happened to be two bad apples that fell from a corrupt tree. But they were human beings capable of doing some very evil things.
Jeanne: There’s going to be a lot of emotion in that theatre.
Benedetto: No matter what genre you’re writing and what genre of films you’re making, at the end of the day, you have to attack the senses of the audience. If you're making a comedy, you've got to go for their funny bone. If you're making a musical, you've got to want them to walk out of that theater singing those songs for days. And in this case, you want them to be angered and sickened and realize that though we have come a long way in this country, there's still a long way to go. It’s inexcusable that things like this can still happen.
Jeanne: Agreed. Just to crawl into your writing room, what’s your normal process like?
Benedetto: I usually have a very similar process on every script. On TheJersey 4, it was different. For example, I just finished writing a script called Love City. I, again, did not write this on spec. It's a development deal from an idea I pitched. It's set on St. John, in the United States Virgin Islands, which is known as Love City, because it inspires romance and a lot of people go down there to get married. This story is about Hurricane Irma hitting the island last year and the destruction it caused. Climate change is a big theme with this script. There’s an intriguing juxtaposition within this story. But it's very entertaining and, yes, funny. I did much more in terms of prep, in terms of outlining it —doing the whole index card outlining thing that everyone does. I do that most of the time.
Jeanne: Have you had any writing partnerships?
Benedetto: Yes, Sarah Q is a movie that's in the can. We wrapped production in February of this year. It'll be out in 2019. Sarah Q was brought to me by director John Gallagher, a veteran indie director. He called me up one day and he said, "Joe, I have this idea to do a movie about a small-town girl who moves to New York to attend an acting conservatory.” So, he brought me on board to be his co-writer, and he let me run with the first draft, particularly the second act. He said, "Anything goes. No rules."
Jeanne: That’s a dream partnership! Where did you take the idea?
Benedetto: It became a very freewheeling run-and-gun writing process for both of us, as opposed to mapping everything out, and that held true during the re-writing process. The goal was to inject humor by having our protagonist get involved in some misadventures in the city and balance that with the dark drama and corruption of the conservatory. Again, that makes for an interesting dynamic because you cannot box this film into one genre. Burt Young and Sally Kirkland, both Academy Award nominees, are in the film.
Jeanne: Wow! What’s it like to work with such legends?
Benedetto: It's very humbling to be able to write dialogue that Burt Young is saying—he was in Chinatown and nominated for an Oscar for the first Rocky movie, which won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. He's also worked with Sam Peckinpah and was in The Pope of Greenwich Village. Films that I have admired immensely since I was a kid. It was a great honor; a little bit surreal.
Jeanne: Do you have any other directing opportunities coming up?
Benedetto: The next movie I'll direct is Tale of the Wet Dog, which is a character-driven ensemble comedy. The gifted actress Samantha Robinson is in the cast. She played the title character in The Love Witch, and has a role in the upcoming Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I’m very excited to direct Tale of the Wet Dog this winter in New York. It’s wall-to-wall laughs. There’s a proactive female character who takes a male character who is completely down on his luck and homeless, and she turns his life around. More casting additions to be announced soon. My production company Trajectory Films is producing. We also co-produced Sarah Q.
Jeanne: How long have you had a production company? Was it something you always envisioned, as a writer, to branch out into the business side of things?
Benedetto: I started Trajectory Films when I wrote and directed the high-concept comedy, A Guy Named Rick. That film got a DVD and VOD release in 2013. How the idea for the film came about is a funny story that I share on the DVD’s bonus extras interview. For years I would send scripts to people, comedies, and people would say, "Oh, it's very funny, but the stakes aren't high enough." And I thought, in a comedy, how high can the stakes be? So, I thought, okay, it's a romantic comedy. If the guy doesn't fall in love, the world literally ends. I played God in the film, who's fed up with human beings as a whole, and he wants to just turn the lights off on Earth and end the world. He decides to play a little game by taking this commitment-phobic lady's man, and he has to fall in love by a certain deadline. So, we have a ticking clock deadline. And he has to fall in love, or the world will end.
Benedetto: Writing and filmmaking are a business. I decided recently to explore horror films. It’s not in my wheelhouse as a writer. At Trajectory Films, we've started a specialty genre division called Fester Films. We're up and running to produce thrillers and horror films—not slasher films, not bloody with guys wielding chainsaws and chasing coeds through the woods. We want to do more films like Rosemary's Baby, Get Out, or A Quiet Place.
Jeanne: Will you do all the writing?
Benedetto: No. With Fester Films, we’ll mostly produce films that are not written by me. We already have a couple of very solid scripts, and will announce the first titles soon.
Jeanne: You’re casting a lot of nets. Very smart.
Benedetto: A long time ago, a very prominent manager/producer read a script of mine and told me that, "Writers aren't made. They're born. What you do, we can't teach to people." So, I took that as, "Wow, that's pretty heavy stuff." And maybe she says that to everyone. I don't know. But she said it to me.
Jeanne: But pretend she doesn't.
Benedetto: Yes, pretend she doesn't. So, I decided to carry that with me and know that not everyone can write a screenplay. I don't perform surgery. I don't try to fix the transmission on a Buick. I don't paint houses. I don't believe anyone can just come in and write a good screenplay.
Newer writers should hear more about the business side of writing. We have to consider ourselves entrepreneurs and have your hands in a lot of different things. Find your voice and let others hear that voice. But as you move along, very early on in that journey, you have to kind of reach out and say, "You know what? If I could find a script from someone else and hitch my wagon to it and be a producer and get a producer credit on that movie, great." Because it will create a lot of different opportunities down the road.
Jeanne: Hence, Trajectory Films.
Benedetto: Correct. Even though we didn’t get a theatrical release with A Guy Named Rick, the DVD and VOD release enabled the film to be seen all over the world, and was a great way to launch the company. I’ve gotten emails from people, including a guy at the University of Mumbai who was writing a thesis using my film because of the end of the world, religious, spiritual aspects to it. The next film I wrote, directed and produced under the Trajectory banner was the 23-minute film noir Hide the Sausage, which has also been fortunate to have been seen all over the world, as well.
Jeanne: As a guy with many hyphenates, what business advice would you give screenwriters?
Benedetto: Of course, you want to be able to do this to pay your bills and make it your living. I think one of the ways you can kind of accentuate that is to try to have your hands in different things. As I said, including producing films for other writers and directors, as well as directing your own calling-card film—whether a short or a feature. You have to keep yourself in the game.
Jeanne: Hopefully someone will read this and decide to step out of their comfort zone and shoot one of their own shorts, or dive into producing. This industry is an endless hustle of balancing art with business. It’s about survival.
Benedetto: You got it. Early in my career, the entertainment lawyer, Arthur J. Klein—who represented Al Pacino, and Sidney Lumet, and Norman Jewison, and Spike Lee at the time—saw my first film and decided it was good enough for him to represent me. He told me one thing I'll never forget. "You can never have too many irons in the fire." He was referring to this business as a writer/director, as a filmmaker, even as a producer. You don't want to throw everything but the kitchen sink at people and dilute who you are, but you do want to push yourself and try everything you can to succeed. This is the toughest business in the world, and the odds of making it are almost impossible—but it's not impossible.
Jeanne: You need to be an expert at juggling and tenacity.
Benedetto: You might have 10 scripts on your hard drive not getting any heat, but you know what? It might be that 11th script that does. Don’t give up. And sometimes what happens is, then when that 11th script gets out there and people like it, then you go back and realize that script that was rejected five years ago by everybody, suddenly looks a lot better to people.
Jeanne: One thing I always say to people is to always be prepared to answer the question, "What else have you got?" Maybe that one thing that's your passion project can't get made until you get something else made.
Benedetto: In this business, if you put all your eggs into one basket, that better be one hell of a basket, because you're really putting your life, your livelihood on one thing. I think you have to diversify, and sometimes that means failing or doing something that might not be in your wheelhouse. If you fall flat on your face, which everyone does at some point, you have to be able to have things in the pipeline. And I don't mean just one other project. I mean you have to be three or four projects deep.
Jeanne: And also try to figure out how to juggle your day job while you do it.
Jeanne: Knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time and talk with that 16-year-old kid who was getting off that plane in Oregon, what advice would you give him?
Benedetto: Take that ego and flush it down the toilet.
Benedetto: Seriously. I think my expectations were too high with Unlimited Potential. The project was way too ambitious for that budget and my experience level. But if I had not made that film, life would be different today. So, I would not want to trade that experience. The big mistake I made on that movie, just from a producing standpoint, was I had no other producers. It was just me. If you have somebody who could handle all that stuff, you can focus on directing and being in front of the camera. And I was in every scene in that movie, with no acting training.
Jeanne: If you had to choose between writing or directing, what would you choose?
Benedetto: I would say I was born a writer, but I don't think I was born a director, nor do I think anyone is. I had to sharpen my directing skills along the way, and now, my directing skills are starting to catch up to my writing skills. They're not there yet, but it's getting closer. If writers have it in them to want to direct, then they should try it. If they don't, that's okay. There are a lot of people in this world who made a lot of money as screenwriters who've never directed a movie. I’d rather not choose between the two right now.
Jeanne: So that brings me back to your new venture into the Fester Films—are you going to be directing?
Benedetto: No, no. I'm just going to be a producer. Most of the projects will likely be writer/director vehicles where we're working with screenwriters who have directed their own scripts in the past, either as acclaimed short films or feature films.
Jeanne: Acting in the producer role, would you personally be giving that writer notes?
Benedetto: It depends. It'll be on a case-by-case, project-by-project basis. If it warrants, then I’ll give notes if I think it makes for a better film. God knows I have enough experience as a writer getting bombarded by notes from producers. (Laughs)