Executive producer Jonathan Benefiel chatted with Giles Alderson about how he started out as an actor, why he quit filmmaking, how he came back as a producer, and more.
Jonathan started out as an actor. He’d moved to Los Angeles because his New York-based agent had decided to open an agency in LA and asked if Jonathan wanted to be repped out there.
‘I packed up my Honda Civic and drove across country. I bought a condo and had a lot of responsibilities that I didn’t have when I was living at home.
I was getting frustrated that I wasn’t getting the auditions and it just wasn’t happening for me. But I met the girl that became my wife. She had three daughters from a previous marriage. So I figured I’m going to just become the family man for a while. And then I started to miss acting.’
Making Short Films
‘I always equate (acting) to the restaurant business. You could either be a waiter and focus on just that, which is what a lot of actors tend to do, but then everything is at the behest of the manager – will they like you? Will they hire you? Will the chef like you? Will the owner like you?
But what I started to realise is that if I could learn more about the business and look at myself as being in the entertainment business, rather than just focusing on acting, that would open up more opportunities for me.’
While learning more about the business, he tried his hand at making his own shorts. He decided, with a friend, to make his short loosely based on Of Mice and Men.
‘The film went on to win 32 awards at festivals and five nominations. So that was the beginning of it. And putting together that film is what really got me interested in producing.
Creating your own opportunity is key. Don’t wait around for other people to give you an opportunity. That’s what I did going forward.’
Using Social Media to His Advantage
Jonathan credits social networking, and in particular Facebook, as the key to his success.
‘Most people get hung up with how do I get started? What’s the best move that’s going to give me the most bang for my buck? And what I would say is just start. Just do anything, just start taking steps forward, because as you move, suddenly people will start to gravitate toward you that are at the same level that you’re at.’
He started by building a network of people on Facebook. People were friend requesting him and before he accepted, he’d check them out on IMDb.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
‘This guy, Cary Anderson, was one of those examples. He’d friend requested me. I checked him out and thought this guy’s interesting.
He had a contact, Anne Clements, who’s a producer, who’s really good at finding people to invest in films. And so we became friends, and he was like, I know you’re working on The Mob Kid, but I’ve got this great project The Trial of the Chicago 7. Dreamwork is behind it. Steven Spielberg. And Aaron Sorkin is writing and directing. That was all I needed to hear.
I had to take my creative hat off and put my producer hat on.
And so once I started to see it in terms of what’s the best move forward I begged my wife to invest in this film. Having read the script and getting the background on the story, I realised that this story needed to be told.’
The difference between a Producer and an Executive Producer
‘Technically, the difference is the executive producer is the one that comes in either with the financing themselves. Or they find other people’s money.’
He said that once he finds a project that he really believes in, or a story that needs to be told – ‘something that is going to raise the consciousness of society, I put my all into it and that really does help me to sell when I’m trying to pitch to get other people’s money.
I find it rewarding being able to play a part in supporting that film getting it made. I have less experience in the day to day producing nuts and bolts side of stuff.’
As They Made Us
Jonathan got involved with As They Made Us in the same way that he got involved with Chicago 7. Cary Anderson had mentioned that Anne Clements was involved in producing the film.
‘Dustin Hoffman is starring in it. Mayim Bialik is the writer/ director and also starring Simon Helberg, the legendary Candice Bergen and Dianna Agron. It’s a story about family dysfunction, which is something I have unfortunately intimate knowledge of.
But what’s great about this film is I think that it has universal appeal, people from all over the world can relate to this story in some way or another. It’s about raising consciousness. It’s all about creating empathy and having this communal experience through film.’
What He Would Change About His Experience
‘If I had it to do it all over again, and I know this sounds cliche, but I would not change a thing.
I believe that life challenges us. It’s designed to make us better people. And some people become better people, some people don’t. I don’t regret anything that I’ve been through – some very painful moments in my life – but finding a way to rise above it and using one’s creativity as an asset is the ticket.
And that’s why I got into acting because it allowed me to express myself in a way that I couldn’t growing up.
It’s the pain, the triumph, it’s all of life’s experiences that help one’s creative voice when doing anything.’
His Advice to Future Filmmakers
Just don’t give up.
‘Keep going and have faith that it will happen. If you’re going to get into this business, you have to realise that if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. In order for you to stand out, it takes more than talent. It takes drive. It takes believing in yourself.
Just put yourself out there. Meet as many people, take phone numbers, introduce yourself, start developing a network, because it’s such a small industry.
You never know who you’re going to meet today that’s going help you to tomorrow.’
For more advice, tips and tricks from Jonathan Benefiel, listen here.