Indie Minded Interview: Karyn Ben Singer
Karyn Ben Singer is an indie film maker who has written and directed 2 movies. She’s currently in pre-production on her third film, Probable Robot, which she proudly describes as a fun, “sci-fi indie B-movie.” She recently took the time to talk to us about her background, what she’s up to and what could possibly be the coolest movie ever about a robot invasion.
Indie Minded: Welcome, Karyn! Tell us a little bit about yourself—your personal background and what led you to the world of indie film making.
Karyn Ben Singer: I was a child of the 80’s, so I grew up on some great television and iconic movies. I’m eleven years older than my only brother, so before he came around, I had to entertain myself at home. So, if I wasn’t watching something I always reading a stack of books from the library (which were always late, for some reason). There was just always a clear interest in storytelling and understanding the process and structure of what makes a great and effective story. I actually learned later in life that I’m on the autism spectrum and, looking back, it’s pretty apparent that those were my tools for understanding people.
Indie filmmaking came along, in my life, the year after I graduated high school. It was 1997 and I’d made some friends who were taking a screenwriting class. I wasn’t in the class, but a good friend of mine was and he invited me to meet up with them afterward. It was something like two days a week and at night, so this meant we were hanging out in a 24 hour restaurant until the early morning, probably driving the staff crazy because we always ordered the bare minimum. But we’d hang out and talk about guys like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Robert Rodriguez. The 90’s indie wave was in its third cycle, so movies like Jackie Brown and Chasing Amy were coming out and we were looking at the earlier work of these filmmakers, thinking, “Hey, we could do that.”
IM: Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to get into the film industry?
KBS: Even though I wasn’t in the screenwriting class, I decided I wanted to write my own script along with my friends, so I learned the basic structure of what a screenplay looks like and proceeded to write some bad cliches, like everyone does their first time through. But over the next couple years, I wrote more and finished a couple feature length scripts, I took some classes and I really took to the structure and the style of screenwriting. It’s very different than prose in that it’s so skeletal, and yet you have to basically make a reader envision an entire movie in their head as they read it.
I spent about ten years writing and I had an agent for a little while, but nothing was really happening. There was always the idea of shooting a movie myself in the back of my mind, and I’ve always had plenty of theater actor friends who are game to be in anything, but anything we shot was mostly just impromptu silliness. It was all fun, but nothing was cohesive.
And then I was about to turn thirty and I decided it was time to just make something happen. I pulled a little money together and my girlfriend at the time invested about a thousand dollars into what I wanted to do, I and wrote a script called Attack of the Yeti Hand. It was absolutely ridiculous B-movie camp, but it was perfect for something to micro-budget. I called up my actor friends, built a soundstage in my garage, and borrowed high end video camera. We shot the full movie in eight days and, , even though my other technical skills were lacking, due to its sheer sense of absurdity it was accepted into the Broad Humor Film Festival.
IM: What is your creative process like?
KBS: Every project is a little different. In some cases, I’ve been sitting on an idea for years. I’ve been drafting out my next script, which is the project I want to shoot after Probable Robot. It’s a slasher movie concept I’ve had for ages, but it just started to gel over the last week. So there are things like that, just constantly formulating in the back on my brain. But then there are projects like Probable Robot and Javatown (my second feature) that just kind of click in a moment and I jot down a basic premise, then draft it out and expand on it.
In all situations, though, I’m definitely linear in my process. I need to know the chain of events and I need to know what my characters want to accomplish. Characters and dialogue are always the easiest for me, so it’s the story that needs my attention and it’s where I have to really plot out what’s what.
I’ve done the index cards, the idea board, the stacks of notebooks… and really, the only thing that seems to matter is that I write down ideas when I think of them (and not tell myself I’ll remember it later, because I won’t) and then have some kind of regular schedule to get the work of the writing done.
When it comes to directing, I like to get my hands on tangible items. Constructing the actual yeti hand for my first movie was important, just so I’d have an idea of what it was like, what we’d be working with. It’s literally just a stuffed construction glove with faux fur hot glued to it, but once it was an actual, practical thing, it was a constant reminder that this was a thing we were actually doing.
IM: When I read the description of your current project and saw that you describe it as a B sci-fi movie, I automatically thought of things like “The Creature Double Feature” or “Killer Clowns from Outer Space.” So tell us about Probable Robot and is it along those lines?
KBS: Yeah, it’s definitely something in that family. I like the idea of the B-movie genre, because it’s more forgiving on the kind of budgets I’m working with.
Probable Robot is set against the backdrop of a body snatching invasion that’s happening in a small town. Or at least on the main street of a town. I say it’s the backdrop, because even though it’s this outrageous concept of robot people taking over, the true heart of the film is the relationship between Jules and Mona. There’s also a lot of commentary on retail workers and how our society treats our hourly wage earners like crap. This is a piece about championing the human spirit and why it’s important we don’t let Siri have too much control or a corporeal form because she’s already kind of sassy and I’m a little bit scared of her.
IM: The main characters in Probable Robot are a lesbian couple who have broken up, yet the movie isn’t really about the couple in the traditional LGBT cinema sense. What role does their relationship play in the movie?
KBS: Their relationship serves as the lens of reality that grounds an otherwise absurd story. I’m particularly drawn to stories that have unique settings but happen to be about everyday things. In this case, this is about how we, as people, have all kinds of hang ups about ourselves, our jobs, our goals, and sometimes it takes something much bigger than we are to grab our attention and force us to focus on what’s truly relevant and important.
As for why the relationship of choice is between two women? It’s partly because I want to reflect myself and my community in my work and also because every other major story is about a guy and a girl and the world is made up of more than that.
IM: The female point of view is something that is seriously underrepresented in the film industry. Do you think it’s important for female writers and directors to produce stories that revolve around women ala “If we don’t who will?”
KBS: Absolutely. I think that’s a great mindset for anyone who feels a lack of representation, really. It’s easy to sit around and critique other work and comment on what it’s missing, but the only way change can happen is by taking action. Also, everyone’s experience is different, so even if there are a dozen fantastic female directors out there, none of them are going to be your specific voice. That can only come from you.
I always suggest that people browse sites like IndieGogo and Kickstarter to find projects to support. There are a lot of women out there looking to launch cool projects and by elevating them we’re making it easier for the next one who comes along, because then there are actual numbers that reflect the amount of people who are interested in seeing something come to fruition. The higher those numbers, the more likely other people are to notice it and ultimately support something similar.
IM: Probable Robot will be your third indie film. As you gain experience, what are some of the most important things you’ve learned about the process?
KBS: Prepare, prepare, prepare. The more that can be done early in the process, the less I’m worrying about once it’s time for production and I can focus on my actors and the details of the moment. This includes planning shots and storyboarding, rehearsing, and making sure I have the best people handling the right tasks.
Because making my own films is something I stepped into after years and years of writing, it took me a little time to actually realize that, on top of directing, I was also producing. And I’m still amazed whenever I post a casting call and a dozens of people submit themselves for roles I’ve created.
IM: As an indie film maker you utilized crowd funding for this project through indiegogo. Is this a road that you’d take again, at least for smaller projects, and how important is it for an indie filmmaker to utilize social media?
KBS: Definitely. I’ll actually be doing another round of crowdfunding later this year, because we didn’t meet our full goal with the initial campaign. It’s a lot of work and they aren’t kidding when they say that running one of these things is a full time job. You have to constantly engaging with people, reminding them that you’re still looking to raise your money, and abandon any concern about being an annoyance. I struggle with wanting to be visible to people vs. being some kind of nagging voice on their feed. But the truth is, most folks only see a post here and there, because their feed is constantly changing and they probably didn’t see the first couple rounds of messages.
I think social media is critical for survival as an indie filmmaker, for sure. Having access to an audience who is tuned into you and what you’re doing, 24/7 is a luxury that’s still fairly new. We have to embrace it.
IM: Other than funding, what are the biggest challenges facing indie film makers today?
KBS: It’s kind of a catch twenty-two. We live in this really excellent moment where we have an array of digital tools, a lot of which are free or inexpensive, at our disposal. This means anyone with the will to make a movie happen can make a movie happen. But it also means the market is flooded with a ton of indie movies. So, I think the biggest challenge is to stand out from everyone else, to have something that’s unique. That can come from playing with story structure, like Christopher Nolan did with Memento, or format, the way the Blair Witch Project invented the found footage genre. It can also just be as simple as telling a story that shifts the average tropes and surprises an audience.
IM: What is the one movie you could watch over and over again without ever getting tired of it?
KBS: Joe vs. the Volcano. It’s the first movie Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan ever did together and, in my opinion, it’s the best one because they were just basically having a great time. For those who haven’t seen it, the premise is about this guy who works a crappy job, he’s told he has a few months to live, and he decides to make his life worth something by throwing himself into a volcano on behalf of an indigenous island people somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Meg Ryan plays three roles and it’s still early Tom Hanks, so he’s doing all his wacky schitck he was known for in the 80’s. It’s so weird and delightful and I love everything about it.
IM: Do you have any advice for people interested in getting into indie film making?
KBS: Stop talking about it and do it.
Do your research, watch every commentary on your DVDs and BluRays. It’s the cheapest film school you can attend and you’re already familiar with the movies if they’re from your own collection. Read screenplays along with movies you know really well so you can see the way everything translates from the page to the screen. You can find them online or you can order used copies of well-known scripts on Amazon. If you’re local to LA/NYC, sign up to do work as an extra so you can be on a professional set. If you’re in an area near a film school, volunteer to PA for a student film. Compare the two and decide which things you can live without as a filmmaker and what’s absolutely necessary.
But really, just stop talking about it and do it.
IM: Thanks for joining us today, Karyn!
KBS: Thank you for asking me!