Thursday, June 13, 2019

TwoOhSix Interviews - Ben Kasulke Director of Banana Split for SIFF 2019

One of the first movies I watched for the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival was the super fun coming of age comedy Banana Split which was directed by Ben Kasulke who had worked for years in the Seattle area film industry before moving to California. Having an opportunity to sit down with Ben to discuss the new movie was a real treat as you can tell he has a real passion for film making and a ton of knowledge about his craft.

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Banana Split directed by Ben Kasulke

Marc Morin: Hi Ben, welcome back to Seattle.

Ben Kasulke: Thanks man, it's really good to be here. It's been a really nice homecoming.

From what I understand, you are not originally from Seattle but you did live here for a while and have been a big part of the local film community.

Yeah, I consider Seattle sort of like my artistic home. I became an adult here, I have collaborated on films here, and I lived in the area for seventeen years, mostly in Seattle but also in Olympia and now I live in Los Angeles. Before that, I was from upstate New York, I was born in Syracuse and lived in the Adirondack mountains which is a pretty remote area not far from Montreal.

I had a chance to watch Banana Split and loved it. Can you tell me about how you and Hannah Marks, who co wrote and stars in the movie, first got together to make this film?

Yeah, Hannah and I met when we were both part of the Sundance Institute feature film labs and we were there, it's been about eight or nine years now, we were both working on a film that eventually became The Diary of a Teenage Girl. During our time there, we just kind of hit it off. She started out there as an actress but eventually she started writing her own stuff and eventually co wrote and co directed a movie with Joey Power called After Everything.

Once that came out, they were so busy and were kind of under the gun to get Banana Split made so she had sent me the script and asked me for some feedback which I thought meant she just wanted script notes and maybe just some ideas about the comedy. When I wrote her back, I told her I loved it and I thought it was really good, the comedy was really strong, and the jokes were really good.

She got back and asked me if I wanted to direct it because there was no way she would be able to finish the movie she was on and also make this movie herself. She knew she needed to be in Banana Split and because it's about high school kids, she knew she only had a little bit of time before she was not going to be viable as a high school aged girl.

It really felt like Hannah was perfect for that role and that she must have put a lot of her own history in to the story. How much of a collaborative process was it for you and Hannah since you were coming in to direct her in a story that she wrote?

Hannah and Joey both, on a screenplay level, had mined a lot of the material from their own lives. There was a version of this scenario that actually happened to Hannah and there's a kernel of truth behind all of it and then Joey brought in his perspective as well. What was nice was that we were coming from such a specific origin point as far as the texture and the tone and what this movie was really about which was coming into a certain age and growing up and what people were sort of dealing with emotionally in the plot of the movie.

Coming from that point can be a little scary because maybe there's not a lot of wiggle room but that really wasn't the case so, to Hannah and Joey's credit, they were both very open to ideas for the script and, once we started shooting, they were open to moving a scene a little further down the line or can we expand the end of this scene a little bit. There was an earlier version of the script where the film, because of what it is, it has to get a little bit dark before she's forced to grow up, and that portion of the film originally went a little bit darker. I was concerned that, because this is a comedy, we were going to dig too deep and not be able to climb out of it.

Liana Liberato and Hannah Marks in Banana Split

For a screen writing team that was so personally invested, they were really open to those types of ideas. On set it was very collaborative. Hannah, as an actress, has this amazing ability to be fully committed to a scene and fully prepared for the day's work with all the emotional ups and downs which was good because we were shooting a lot of material every day. She had to track all of these things that an actress has to do and all the things an actress has to prepare for but she worked really hard and she's very professional.

In the middle of this maelstrom of trying to emotionally stay truthful to the character, she also has this ability to elevate her perspective to almost a third person. I think great film makers can do this and she was really open to looking at a scene and maybe saying, we need to add a couple more lines of dialog. She was really open to that kind of stuff and Joey was open to that kind of stuff so I felt very lucky for such personal and emotional material that they were willing to work with me like that.

What are some ways that you adapt to budget limitations to make the story the best it can be?

I think it's a larger question than that because some of the best collaborators I've ever had, the people who I look up to as mentors, people like Lynn Shelton and Guy Maddin, they embrace this process with an openness to what the universe is going to throw your way. I sort of side with that. You start off with an intention and you just keep your eyes open for what the world's going to throw at you. There's going to be coincidences and there's going to be a perfect location and there's going to be things that happen along the way that you are either open to and embrace it and add to your creative tool kit or you can try to fight it which is like trying to swim into a tsunami. It's not going to happen.

For me, when it comes to budget and time constraints, that's every movie ever made and especially in the world I grew up in as a cinematographer, like shooting Hump Day in ten days, you gotta do some things specifically, you've got to go with certain ideas and you just have to let go of a lot of them. I think, if you do it right, it helps the film, it's not a hurdle, I think it's more of a creative problem. You look at it like, we're not going to get that shot on the freeway any more so now we can look at creating something new. That option's not there so now we can look at every other option.

Hannah Marks and Liana Liberato in Banana Split

For example, in the film there's a scene where April and Clara go on a hike and then immediately go and get a banana split which only came about because, when we were in Syracuse, we found this ice cream parlor that had a lot of the colors that we were working with in the movie and it was just perfect. I got in there and I was like well we can't not use this place so I said let's have them share a banana split and next thing you know, that's the title of the movie.

If I hadn't been open to that, if I had only had a list of locations from the script and we were only looking for those things, we never would have found that. We never would have found something that works as a metaphor and kind of a dirty joke that ends up being the title of the movie. I think you have to be open to those things otherwise they slip by you. It's sort of a life tactic. I'd rather keep my eyes open and be like, "oh that's interesting" instead of "oh I don't want anything to do with X-Y-Z" and just live in a bubble.

You've worked with a lot of different directors like local film makers Lynn Shelton and Megan Griffiths. How much do you draw from those experiences to then go and direct your own movie?

You know there's all kinds of different occupations you can have in the film industry, but what's nice about being a cinematographer is, if you play your cards right and do the Tetris of your schedule, you can work with a lot of different people on a lot of different projects. The majority of film making time is spent preparing while the actual shooting, while intense, is not that long. While a director might be able to do one movie a year, a cinematographer can do a lot more so what's nice is every time you dive into a collaboration is like this master class, as long as you're open to it.

I'm not the kind of cinematographer who puts up a couple lights and sits back and watches things happen, I'm more prone to be talking to camera operators and actors and directors. As far as working with local film makers like Lynn Shelton and Megan Griffiths in particular, the big lessons to be learned from them are how they are really about empathy towards performers and creating a safe space for actors and that sort of circles into the rest of the crew. Megan always uses this term "Crewtopia" to describe her sets which is really about creating a world where it's like going to summer camp with your friends.

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Ben Kasulke and Lynn Shelton on the set of Your Sister's Sister

Of course it's hard work but you look at each other and are like "I can't believe we're getting paid for this." It's really nice and it's a larger life choice but it's a good one. Those are the types of things that can be cultivated by having the right approach to directing you know you don't have to berate everyone into creating your vision, you can surround yourself with people that are smarter and better and more talented so that everyone can rise to the occasion.

Lynn and Megan are really good at surrounding themselves with great people and that's a great lesson to take away. On top of that, really working with the machinery of film making to sort of incubate performance. A film set's not really conducive to an actor feeling or being able to be vulnerable and to lay a bunch of stuff out on the table and not feel judged.

What's nice about working with Lynn, especially on the last few films I did with her, was the sense of quiet. The time when you shoot it's sort of empty and there's not a lot of people just standing around. Everyone is working really hard, but when it's time to bring in the actors to play and work, it's really sweet. Just that approach to pulling the machinery back and just let the people interact with people, that's what Lynn and Megan are really good at. That's what I would take as lessons from them.

As you've been at other film festivals screening the movie, have there been any questions that you have found to be surprising?

Yeah, there was one that came up here last night, it was more a comment than a question. It was very sweet but it was a hard comment for this audience member to deliver. She said "Watching this movie I was very surprised that you're not a woman." That's sort of a variation on a question that comes up a lot and, you know, it was really, truly flattering because the biggest struggle I had creatively in making the film was to try not to, you know like, I'm a 41 year old white guy and I'm not the guy on paper who should make this work.

I just wanted to do my homework to make it work and to treat the characters well. It's really a film about empathizing with that angsty, tough time when you're young and coming of age and also, on top of that, watching a generation that's a little different than what mine was like dealing with break ups on social media, not really being able to turn off your ex, and having to hide a lie while living in public on the internet. It was just really nice to hear.

Ben Kasulke director of Banana Split

What do you have planned for the film moving forward?

Right now I'm just sort of blanketing every film festival and we've had a pretty good run so far, I think this is festival number seven. For professional reasons I just want to keep it going so we can get a little more attention and maybe some more offers from potential distributors. On a personal level, I just want to travel to places I want to see. Coming to Seattle's a no brainer and I was able to go to Krakow, Poland for a festival that I really love there and they've been really supportive over the years. Really, I'm just using the film as a selfish tool to see the world! (laughter)

Do you have a preference for how the film could potentially be distributed?

The film maker guy who grew up watching movies in the cinema side of me would never let go of the idea of a multi city release so people could go see it. There's also part of me that knows, while I made the film for anyone who might be interested, I really think there are some ideas that are more for the millennial generation and a lot of them watch movies at home on VOD and on streaming services. I just want it to be easy for people to see but I'd be lying if I said I don't want to see it in tons of theaters at once with really beautiful projection so yeah. Two part answer but as long as people can see it and we get a chance to sort of add to the conversation.

Thank you for talking with me today and good luck with the film.

Thank you so much! review of Banana Split.

Banana Split is an official selection of the 2019 Seattle International Film festival.

To see more reviews, interviews and festival coverage please go to:

TwoOhSix at SIFF 2019

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