An Interview with Director Ben Zschunke
We conducted an interview with Ben Zschunke, a talented director/cinematographer based here in New Orleans. We have worked with Ben for a few years now and have been fortunate to not only employ him for our work, but also participate in his projects. Ben brings out the creativity in everyone around him and pushes us all to hold higher standards for ourselves and our work.
1. Please introduce yourself, where you’re from, and what you do currently.
My name is Ben Zschunke, I am a filmmaker native to Minnesota. I attended UNC School of the Arts and earned my BFA in filmmaking in 2011 with a concentration in screenwriting and cinematography. Afterwards, I moved to New Orleans to find my place in their growing film industry. Today I’m a freelance director, cinematographer, and editor who has worked on videos for GQ, Vice, A$AP Ferg, Ceelo Green, and others.
2. Over the years you’ve experienced film sets across the country. What are some of the practices and outlooks you’ve seen no matter the place? What are some of the key differences?
- Story is king. If your story stinks, your film will stink. Even B-movies have something compelling about them.
- Respect your crew. Feed them, pay them, make sure they’re getting rest, shake their hand at the end of the day. I’ve worked for a 1st AD in NC who barked orders all day and it didn’t make me work any faster than when I worked for a 1st AD from New Orleans, the key difference is I enjoyed working for the New Orleans 1st AD more. This goes along with just being a kind person in general.
- Blocking is more important than you think. Communicate the scene to your keys. If they don’t know what’s happening in the scene, no one does.
- Treat indie productions like a Hollywood production. If you can be as professional as a seasoned LA filmmaker on an indie flick, you’re just as good plus you proved you can work on a small budget. Once you get the big money, you still do the same thing, just on a bigger scale.
- Ask questions. Filmmakers love talking about their craft and you can learn a lot by asking them questions over a pint.
- As much as you love making film, it’s still a business. My producing professor told this to me once and stuck with me since.
3. There is a lot of ongoing debate about film school vs on-set experience. As a graduate of UNC School of the Arts, what were some the pros and cons of that experience? What would you recommend to people who are starting to consider getting involved in video/film production?
I remember having this debate with my roommate in college my freshman year — we could stay in school and spend a bunch of money or drop out to start working on film sets. I’d say it was smart that we stayed in film school, specifically with the opportunities that we were offered at UNC School of the Arts. We had great facilities and equipment, really this was the only reason I chose UNCSA over Columbia in Chicago. Both are great schools but we were shooting on Arri SR2, SR3, Arri Alexa, RED Epic, with Cooke prime lenses, full grip and electric packages, studio space, while under the supervision of ASC and SOC members. We learned about a standard of filmmaking that I strive to reproduce on my sets. Not to mention, now I’m part of a network of alumni. Employers in the industry generally know UNCSA grads are good workers.
Now I’m not saying that it’s the only route. I’ve seen plenty of filmmakers come from non-filmmaking backgrounds or without any higher education altogether and do great work. I’ve even learned quite a bit after college, probably more at this point.
But what people really want to know is it worth the time and money? And I always answer, yes. Not only did I learn a vast amount technical skill but it gave me a giant leap up when applying for jobs or being useful on set. I could’ve been a grip or camera assistant for years before I got to be a director/dp at this current time.
4. What’s your favorite thing to do on set? Whether an individual position, a fun practice or tradition you have, whatever. The one thing you always look forward to no matter the production.
Besides having champagne at roll 100 or doing $5 Fridays, I always enjoy watching the monitor and realizing when something is gold. My whole demeanor changes and I get excited. I think I got it from my professor John LeBlanc while watching the monitor with him.
Not only that but seeing people react to films I’ve done is always exciting too. Blood, sweat, and tears on the screen and we all finally get to enjoy it. It’s really want filmmaking is all about and it’s easy to forget.
5. What brought you to New Orleans? What is one of your favorite video production experiences here in New Orleans? Any good lessons you learned here?
I came to New Orleans on the recommendation of my college roommate and other alums. They introduced me to some who got me a couple jobs. I remember asking myself why should I stay here though, and it was because I didn’t want to live in LA or NY or Atlanta. I wanted to start a career in a city where competition was lower and help raising the bar in terms of video production. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with how people felt about rebuilding this city after Katrina. A lot of the buildings and land was still untouched when I moved here and now I’ve grown with it. I feel like a part of the city.
My favorite experience in New Orleans was probably shooting A$AP Ferg’s video. It was during Mardi Gras and I got a last minute call to meet him out at the tour bus. We went to Hollygrove and shot him in front of a house still untouched since Katrina and then the whole neighborhood came out and got in the video. Then we met Manny Fresh in Gentilly and he was in the video. It was nuts! By the time we were done shooting it was 4am but it was worth it.
6. If you had to give one piece of advice to someone just starting out here in the film industry, especially if they’re just starting out here in New Orleans, what would be your main piece of advice?
Send out inquiries. I’ve met so many people that just sent out emails to people who had similar positions on FilmNewOrleans.org and got great advice or started working right away.