Bringing stories to life – interview with Jonathan Benefiel

August 3rd, 2022

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Jonathan Benefiel, an actor turned executive producer with a passion for empathy-focused projects. In this interview he talks about the business of visual storytelling, what a producer is, building a reputation in the business, the challenges he sees for the movie exhibition business, and how the industry is evolving.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Jonathan: I’m 59 years old and am originally from Brooklyn, NY. My family moved to Staten Island in 1970 and I still live there to this day. I started in this industry at the age of 23, which was a bit late. I wasn’t a happy camper back then. I felt that I needed to find my path and my passion, to feel like I had a purpose other than simply existing just to survive and pay bills. I felt like I needed to find my purpose.

So I had a conversation with my mom at the time and she suggested that I take an acting class. Coming from her, that was very shocking [laughs]. She always talked to me about going to college, having a career and making a living that way, so the last thing I expected her to suggest was for me to take an acting class. But on her advice, I did it. I took a cold reading class with a woman named Sally Johnson in Manhattan, and that’s how it all started for me. Once I started taking classes, I fell in love with it, and I never looked back.

Moving forward in my career, I found that I wasn’t really getting anywhere. I had the agent, I had the headshots, all of the tools that they tell you you need in order to succeed as an actor, but still I was finding that things were not moving in the direction that I wanted it to go. So I moved to Los Angeles in 2006 at the ripe old age of 43 [laughs], but it turned out I was really just doing the same thing I was doing in New York. Nothing had really changed, though I did meet my future wife there, so that was something.

After a while, I started to wonder if there was a different approach that I could use to succeed in the business. So I decided that instead of counting on my agent to get me parts, I took things into my own hands. I asked myself what I could do to further my career where I wouldn’t have to depend on anybody else. A buddy of mine that I’ve known since 1989, Eric Seltzer, had always wanted to play Lennie in “Of Mice And Men”, and he always pictured me playing George opposite him. So I decided to do a short film that I could self-produce, something like “Of Mice And Men” but bring it into the 21st century.

I had an idea to do a story about two brothers that are sort of mafia type guys, not murderers or anything like that, but they work for a boss as the muscle. So I started toying with that idea and we put together a short film called “Protecting Tony” which got 32 awards and another 5 nominations on the festival circuit. And from that exposure we got a sales agent to come on board, and that sales agent ended up getting us on DirecTV’s short channel, as well as Amazon Prime and several other Internet platforms. That was my first short film, and I got a pretty big bang for my buck. The success of that project inspired me to keep going down that path.

When you find something that works, you want to stick with it, and so that’s what I did. Then the documentary “John Leguizamo’s Road to Broadway” came my way through an Indiegogo campaign, and for a certain level of investment they were offering an executive producer credit. Once I realized what the project was about, which was the Latin community’s contribution to our country, and the fact that that important history and contribution was never taught in any schools, at least none that I went to, I instantly felt it was a project I needed to help promote and invest in. So I jumped right in, and that was my first foray into something that had gained more wide spread commercial success than anything I had done previously. It aired on PBS’s “Great Performances” and ended up winning an Imagen award. So that was another opportunity that moved my career forward.

While all this was going on, I was cultivating my Facebook contacts. One day a producer by the name of Cary Anderson friend requested me. I checked him out on IMDB and I saw that we were doing similar kinds of projects, so we connected and would chat on occasion. One day he approached me and asked if I’d be interested in being a co-executive producer on “The Trial of the Chicago 7”. Once I realized what the storyline was about — that Aaron Sorkin wrote it and was attached to direct — as well as the A-list cast along with Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Pictures behind it, it was a no-brainer.

A lot of what was taking place in the ’60s during that tumultuous period was playing out in our current politics, and I felt that this was a very urgent story to tell since it seemed our democracy was on the precipice of failing. In fact, I still feel that way. So I thought this was an important story to tell. The only thing that was left to do was basically beg my wife [laughs] to spend a ridiculous amount of money to support the film, and, after much pleading, she finally agreed and the rest is history.

About a year later, Cary Anderson contacted me about “As They Made Us” which is a story of dysfunctional family dynamics, and how adult children of abusive parents have difficulty dealing with intimate relationships later in life, which is something I could personally relate to, having grown up with some dysfunction in my family as well. So, I immediately felt that this was a story that a lot of people could connect with, and at least know that they’re not alone, and that there are other people out there who have similar issues who don’t come from perfect families, as well. And I thought that was an important message to get out there.

So once I started adding socially relevant projects to my IMDB resume, other producers and writers out there, who had socially relevant projects and were looking for an executive producer, started to take notice. And that created a kind of positive feedback loop where these projects just kept coming and coming. So it’s been a real blessing for me and has been the key to finding success in a very challenging business. And now I’m finally getting to make my own film titled “The Mob Kid”.

It’s a soul switch film that can best be described as “Freaky Friday” meets “The Sopranos” between a hard-nosed rough-and-tumble gangster and his sensitive, bullied son. Of course, the bullied son is written after my own childhood experiences. The beating heart of the film boils down to — what is the definition of a man, and what does a truly self-empowered man look like? Is it the tough guy that only knows how to get what he wants in a Type-A, bullying kind of way? Or is it a man who leads with empathy, integrity and creativity?

The screenplay was inspired by my stepfather’s passing, in 1973, when I was 10 years old. He was a lounge singer, and he had this album that he had recorded a few years prior to his passing. When he died, those 12 songs on the album was all I had left of him. Fast forward to 1989. I was doing extra work on the set of “Goodfellas” at the Copacabana in New York City. I remember Jerry Vale coming out on stage and lip syncing “Pretend You Don’t See Her”. Later, during a break, I went over and introduced myself to Mr. Vale because my father always mentioned that he knew him. I hoped that Mr. Scorsese might notice us chatting and want to join in on the conversation at which point I would tell him about my stepdad’s music and how great it would be for the movie soundtrack, but I chickened out [laughs]. I didn’t want to get kicked off set, but the thought stayed with me and, years later, became the inspiration for the screenplay.

That’s pretty much it. That’s how I did it so far.

Kirill: You mentioned success a few times, and you talk about bringing stories that are important to you and important to society. But then there’s also the financial aspect of it, that some of these stories might be expensive to make, and perhaps don’t have a guaranteed financial success at the end of it. How do you find the balance between the stories that are important to you but also stories that are not going to bankrupt you?

Jonathan: Well that’s where you have to start — by defining what success means to you. By most people’s standards, that definition is based on how much money you have in the bank. But I don’t see it that way. From my perspective, if you focus on doing those things that you’re passionate about, the money will eventually come. So, for me, first and foremost, success is doing what you love, excelling at it, and having that be your main goal in life. If your main objective is only making money, you’re probably in the wrong business. Because, truth be told, most films that get made don’t make money. So, for me, it’s important to look at things in the aggregate. Say you make ten films. Eight of them might not make much money, but two of them might do quite well. The idea is to just focus on telling great stories. If I read a script and the hair on the back of my head tingles, and if I can see the film in my mind’s eye as an audience goer, that informs my decision as to whether or not I should get involved. For me, great storytelling can change people’s hearts and minds to be more accepting of those who don’t necessarily look like them, think like them, or love like them. If you can succeed at doing that, I believe you’ll always have a career.

Simon Helberg and Dianna Agron in “As They Made Us”. Courtesy of Quiver Distribution.

Kirill: Looking back 30-40 years and looking at how it is now, do you think that this field of visual storytelling is a little bit more open nowadays in terms of affordability of equipment and the variety of distribution channels, or is it still all about the difficulty of finding that great story?

Jonathan: I think it’s much more affordable to make a film now than at any time in the past. Everything is shot on digital now, after all. That said, this is still a very difficult business, in general. It’s not like opening up, say, a restaurant where you know exactly what you need, from a bar to glasses to the kitchen appliances to the refrigeration, etc. And when you get all of those things in place, you open up your doors, and if the food is good, you have a decent chance of doing well. The movie business is entirely different. It’s so difficult to know, strictly from a business perspective, what’s going to be successful and what isn’t. That is why I rely mostly on my intuition, and let my intuition always guide me.

If a story is worth telling, the pathway to having that story coming out will reveal itself. It just finds a way of coming together. I’m also a firm believer that birds of a feather flock together. Like-minded people just have a way of finding each other. When you have a story that other artists and creatives can understand and get behind and really “feel”, you might be able to get major stars to work for scale because they have such a passion for that story. Things just seem to have a way of working out when the “right” project goes to the “right” person, and that starts drawing other like-minded collaborators into the mix, and their love of the art supersedes their love of a pay day.

Kirill: It feels like the movie business is dominated by the big blockbusters that try to remove as much “risk”, if you will, from it and not antagonize anybody by taking a stance on any hot social or political issues, and then there’s a lot of much smaller films that are not afraid to take a harder social stance.

Jonathan: That’s a fair statement. I would assume there are those in Hollywood that intentionally steer clear of political or socially relevant films because they don’t want to alienate half of their audience — especially in a world that has, unfortunately, become increasingly polarized. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a good example of that type of film, where one might assume that the so-called red states would probably not appreciate a movie like that as much as the blue states would, yet the movie did very well despite those assumptions — which only goes to prove my theory — that a great story will always find a way to shine.

Then you have those that will make movies very safely, because they don’t want to offend anybody. There’s a tremendous amount of sensitivity around social issues now, which is completely understandable. Yet, unfortunately, creativity is being hurt somewhat by that, to a certain degree. There are just certain movies and TV shows that were extremely popular just a few years ago that no one would dare make today.

This current pendulum swing of extreme political correctness we’re all going through is the direct result of those of us in society who feel marginalized, powerless, and abused. So we’re going through a societal correction period of sorts, similar to an economic correction — where things have to come crashing down in order to come back healthier afterward. Hopefully, at some point, we’ll get to a place of healing. And that healing will bring about equilibrium as things eventually settle into a new normal.

Kirill: Do you want to be telling stories for today, or do you want those stories also to resonate in 40-50 years time when your grandkids are watching them?

Jonathan: If you’re telling a good story, it will resonate throughout time. “The Godfather” is a perfect example of that. That movie holds up today as much as it did 50 years ago. It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking.

A great story is timeless. As long as people can connect to it in on a human level, there’s no reason why you can’t tell a story that can stand the test of time. Sure, I would love to make movies like that. That’s the dream, isn’t it?

Then again, you can tell a story that may be completely acceptable and appropriate for this time but may not be considered appropriate 50 years from now. For example, you couldn’t make a movie like “Airplane” today. Forget it, no one would ever greenlight that in 2022. So there’s that.

In any case, I just stick to the tried and true. If the story is great and it’s something that I can relate to as a human being on this planet, I think other people will. And that’s really what guides my decision making at the end of the day.

Kirill: Do you look at what professional critics say of your work? Do you browse social media to get the reactions of the viewers?

Jonathan: I would be disingenuous if I said no. Everyone wants to have their work appreciated. You want that reaffirmation that lets you know that your work is appreciated. That said, do I let a negative review throw me? No. I also realize that not everyone is going to like everything you do, just like not everyone is going to like you. Some people may meet me and say, “Oh my god, what a great guy, I’d love to work with him, he’s funny, he’s charming” and other people might meet me and say negative things. Everyone likes to throw labels on each other, and I think that’s a shame. Politically speaking, I have some conservative values and some liberal values, and I think that makes me a well-rounded person. But in the polarized world we live in, people have a hard time with that because they want to know what team you’re on. You can’t say you like the Yankees and the Mets, the Giants and the Cowboys. Some people see that as weakness. You have to pick one team and stick with it or they won’t respect you. I mostly take it with a grain of salt. But obviously it’s wonderful to have positive feedback and reaffirmation that you’re on the right path.

Kirill: I remember when I was growing up, we had three TV channels and one movie theater close by, so everybody was pretty much watching the same things. And today you have a bazillion streaming networks, and tons of indie productions, and so many scripted episodic shows. There are so many opportunities for all these stories, but also maybe a bit more difficulty for any particular one to find that wide audience. Does it bother you that audiences are more narrow now?

Jonathan: It doesn’t bother me. In the technology era we live in, everything’s becoming more personalized. As such, entertainment is also becoming more personalized. There are certain subject matters and genres that some people will just not gravitate towards and that’s okay. The important thing is to try and have enough content to satisfy as many people as possible. And that presents an opportunity for filmmakers.

It creates a space for more creative voices we might not otherwise know about, as opposed to the big studio system of yesteryear. You really don’t want the CEO of a conglomerate making all the decisions as to what stories are worth telling and what stories aren’t.

If you tell a great story, it catches on. People talk about it, people write about it, and that story will get play. The cream will rise to the top if the story is good enough. So I don’t see personalization as a negative at all.

Kirill: Do you ever get jealous of the money that is available for stories from those big conglomerates?

Jonathan: No, I don’t. Because that money always comes with conditions. One of which is creative control. And for most independent filmmakers, that’s a deal breaker. So, for me, it’s better to get behind your own project and handle it the way you see fit.

Kirill: Probably you have a lot of ideas for a lot of stories. Do you struggle sometimes choosing which one to work on next?

Jonathan: I haven’t really experienced that problem yet. For me the biggest struggle up until this point has been building up enough recognizable credits for people to take me seriously as a producer. Once you’re able to achieve that, getting other projects made becomes a lot easier. I’m not saying it becomes easy. It’s never easy, but it does become somewhat easier. The doors that were once closed to you are now, at least, part way open. You’ll have the ability to get certain industry people on the phone to talk to you. You’ll be able to send a major industry person an email and they’ll actually respond to you. For me, struggling to choose which project I want to work on next is a good problem to have.

Kirill: Looking from the outside in, if you asked me what does a producer do, I would say that person gets the movie done. Do you struggle describing what it is that you do to people outside the industry?

Jonathan: I used to struggle with that. I never knew how to articulate what a producer actually does. I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do. And it wasn’t until I made my short film, “Protecting Tony”, that I got an idea of what producing actually is.

And how you described it is entirely accurate. It’s really whatever it takes to get the movie made, whatever it takes [emphasizes]. In my opinion, the difference between successful producers and those that struggle is that those who struggle have self-limiting thoughts about what they think they can achieve and what they can’t. When you finally get to a place where you’re able to rid yourself of those limitations and say to yourself, “I am going to do whatever it takes, whatever it takes”, that’s when the magic happens.

There’s a great miniseries called “The Offer” on Paramount+ that I highly recommend. If you want to know what producers do, take a look at that miniseries and you’ll have your answer. Miles Teller plays Al Ruddy, who does a phenomenal job by the way. Al Ruddy had to deal with every obstacle you could possibly imagine to get “The Godfather” made — including having to deal with the mafia — who were, pardon the pun, dead set against the film being made. Fortunately, not every movie is that challenging [laughs], but it really does give you a taste of what it’s like to be a producer.

Like I said, the difference between a successful producer and a producer who struggles is a successful producer finds a way to get it done. Trying to get it done and getting it done are two different things. You could spin your wheels for 20 hours a day for months and not get anywhere. And believe me, I’ve done that more than I care to admit. But an effective producer knows how to use their time efficiently. They’re able to think outside the box and use all of their resources, whether they be financial contacts, or fellow producers and directors they met along the way, in order to move their projects along.

You have to understand it’s a very social business. As such, you have to meet as many people as you can. Don’t be afraid to talk to people and tell them who you are and what you’re about and keep that contact list of people handy, because I guarantee you, you’re going to need to reach out to most, if not all of those people at some point. It’s all about building relationships. I used social media, almost exclusively, to build my network of contacts, and that’s worked out very well for me.

Kirill: What is the distinction between executive producer, producer, and associate producer? Is it about the “value” that they bring to the production in terms of getting it done, money or connections?

Jonathan: All of the above. The level of credit you receive usually depends on the production company and their own set of values. For example, you can bring in a million dollars to a particular project, and all they’ll offer you is an associate producer credit. Then there are those that will gladly give you an Executive Producer credit for a hundred thousand. So it really is all dependent on the production company and the people you’re dealing with.

Kirill: Going back to what you mentioned that people should get into the industry for the right reason, and if they’re in it for the money, that’s probably not going to go well. What do you think makes for a successful long career in this industry?

Jonathan: That’s a tough one. Ask me that question in 20 years and I’ll have a better answer for you. I’ve only really started this producing journey five years ago, so I really don’t know the answer to that question.

All I could say from this vantage point is to follow your intuition. So many people second-guess themselves and they allow that fearful voice to get in their way. I have fear too, don’t get me wrong. I have my demons, but I’ve learned, both as an actor and a producer, not to allow my fear to prevent my progress. For example, I used to be afraid of flying. I wouldn’t get on a plane for many years and, one day, I just said to myself this is ridiculous. I have things to do — places to see. I can’t just drive everywhere [laughs] so I’m going to have to get on a plane at some point. So I did. And my fear gradually disappeared.

Same goes for acting. As an actor, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable in front of complete strangers. Occasionally, you have to connect with a dark aspect of your psyche that you may not feel comfortable revealing because you’re too busy judging yourself. And that’s just another aspect of fear. So a major part of the actor’s journey is learning to let go of that judgment and fear in order to connect with whatever material is given you and still give a great performance.

A funny thing happens when you begin letting go of your fear. You begin to trust your intuition more. At this point in my career, I’m mostly guided by my intuition, and I’ve learned to trust it completely.

I let that be my guide in all of my decisions. I never worry about the money aspect of it. I truly believe that when you trust your intuition, the money will come. If you let money be your main focus, you’re really missing the mark. After all, you can never have enough money, if money is your sole focus in life.

At some point you have to say, “What are my values?” Are my values based on gathering more and more crap? Or are my values based on helping raise consciousness of my fellow human beings and create stories that can open their hearts and minds in a way they might not have opened otherwise? It’s such an easy choice for me. In my opinion, that is the definition of success. It’s not just a nice thing to say in an interview. I mean every word of it.

Kirill: Certainly my impression that I get from these interviews is that if people try to get into this for glamour or money, it’s going to be a very disappointing journey.

Jonathan: Sure, because it’s not glamorous. That’s the illusion. When people see the red carpet events, and everyone all decked out in their best designer suits and dresses, it all looks so glamorous. But that’s the Hollywood illusion — to portray itself as this fantasy world that everybody should dream of living in. The truth is that, in many ways, the film business is just as nuts and bolts as any other business.

At the end of the day, you need all your crew members and departments to show up and bring their specific talents to bear, to make the talent and the film look as good as it possibly can. Without them, you don’t have a film. All of that glamorous stuff is pretty much marketing.

Simon Helberg, Candice Bergen, Dustin Hoffman, Mayim Bialik and Dianna Agron on set of “As They Made Us”. Courtesy of Quiver Distribution.

Kirill: Do you feel that productions are slowly coming back to the pace they used to have pre-Covid, or do you think there will be long term changes because of this pandemic?

Jonathan: Let’s put it this way. I think it is getting back to normal, but that doesn’t personally give me much comfort. It’s been said that we may be done with Covid, but Covid isn’t done with us. And for every person that goes unvaccinated, as well as those who don’t believe in wearing masks in public places, all that’s doing is helping this virus continue to spread and potentially mutate into a much more deadly variant that can more ably evade vaccine protection.

So if Covid is still running rampant by the time I start shooting “The Mob Kid”, I intend to continue following strict Covid protocols whether they’re mandatory or not. I’d rather err on the side of caution, if not for myself, then for the people that work with me. I just want to be able to sleep at night and not feel like I’m further contributing to spreading disease and illness. But that’s just me. I can only speak for myself.

Kirill: There was a period of time in 2020-21 where I thought that the movie exhibition business would be destroyed by the pandemic. Are you happy to see this communal experience getting back to the big numbers that some of the recent blockbusters are showing?

Jonathan: I see two questions in that one. Of course, I’m very happy to hear that movie theaters are doing well again. That said — do I see movie theaters surviving in the long term? On that question, I’m less enthusiastic. Unless they do something that creates a much higher-level experience that you can’t get at home. Nowadays, you can get a pretty decent 4K widescreen television and surround sound system set up for much cheaper than you could, say, 10 years ago. And that trend isn’t going to end anytime soon.

As someone who loves movies and is, or at least was, an avid film-goer, the thought of having to go to a theater and risk catching Covid, or sitting in front of somebody who’s on their cell phone talking and not being able to hear the dialogue on the screen, or having to run to the bathroom and having to say “Excuse me” to 10 people in the aisle as well as missing five minutes of the movie, stresses me out.
There’s something to be said about the convenience of just being home and hitting pause to do your business then simply pick up where you left off.

As I said, the only way I can see movie theaters existing, going forward, is if they’re able provide a level of experience you just can’t get at home. I don’t know what that new business model looks like, but if they can find ways to innovate, they’ll be able to survive. But I don’t think it’s ever going to completely go back to the way it was before. The upside and downside of technology is that it can cause major business disruptions. For the consumer, those disruptions are mostly beneficial. However, for long-standing businesses, those disruptions can put you out of business if you can’t find a way to continually innovate. So you have to have the ability to see those disruptions coming, well in advance, in order to prepare. And that’s becoming increasingly difficult with the rapidly, ever-changing, pace of technology.

I felt this way years ago with respect to the music industry when Napster first dropped. High-speed internet wasn’t a thing yet and it would take you like six hours to download one song so I, personally, didn’t have the patience for it. But I knew right then and there that Tower Records and other big and small retail music sellers would eventually go out of business. I also suspected the same thing would eventually happen to video stores, as well. All that needed to take place was for internet speeds to increase and that would be the demise of those brick and mortar businesses. And, at the time, everyone said I was crazy, but, as we all now know, it turned out to be true.

Netflix, obviously saw the writing on the wall and were able to adapt their business model because of their ability to forward-think. Unfortunately, a lot of businesses were unable to do that, and I see the same thing happening with movie theaters.

Kirill: Do you ever think what you would be doing if you were born 400 years ago before the age of these moving images?

Jonathan: I’m sure I’d be doing something creative — whether it be doing theater or a just a simple farmer, I’d probably find a way to experiment with different herbs and cook amazing gourmet dishes. That’s something I love to do in my spare time. I used to work in the restaurant business, and cooking is a passion of mine. I don’t know if restaurants existed 400 years ago. I would assume they may have in one form or another. So either cooking or acting would most likely be my vocation.

Kirill: Do you think we’ll ever run out of stories to tell?

Jonathan: No, I don’t. There are so many things that connect us as human beings. Maya Angelou once said, “We are more alike, than unalike”, and I believe that to my core. But at the same time, we all have our own unique stories to tell.

And as long as that’s true, I don’t think humanity will ever run out of stories. In fact, I think humanity’s greatest story is just now beginning to unfold. How we get through these troubling times dealing with climate change, our political polarization, the coming advancements in technology and space exploration? There’s so much more of the human story yet to be told. Being the ultimate optimist, I look forward to telling some of them.

And here I’d like to thank Jonathan Benefiel for taking the time to talk with me about the production side of this business, as well as Maddy Myer for making this interview happen. If you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.