Spotlight is a series of ComingSoon interviews with obscure and/or up-and-coming talents in the TV and film world. Our goal is to draw attention to the various positions that make the entertainment you love possible, rather than focusing solely on actors and directors.
Geoff Ames of ComingSoon spoke with cinematographer Amy Bench about her work on Mama Bears and Scream at midnight.
Amy Bench is the cinematographer for three films released this year. Mama Bears, Scream at midnightand Lover, beloved. She specializes in filming many social justice documentaries, but also has a knack for emphasizing storytelling in narrative projects.
Jeff Ames: What led you to become a cameraman?
Amy Bench: Growing up I was always very curious – very observant and wanted to record things visually. I was also quite a perfectionist, strong in math and science, and it took me a long time to give in to my artistic impulses. Filmmaking is actually my second career – I started out as an engineer, my first job was at Eastman Kodak. While there, I learned a lot about image science, gaining a technical understanding of how images are created. In parallel, I was fond of photography and took several drawing classes at the Rochester Institute of Technology, a well-known school of art and photography. It was there that I fell in love with filmmaking – after learning the basics of storytelling. After three years at Kodak, I decided to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where I received a master’s degree in film production, with a major in directing and cinematography. I haven’t looked back since!
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What was it about Mama Bears and Shouting Down Midnight that made you want to work on this project?
Daresh Zhi approached in 2017 with an idea Mama Bearsand I was totally sucked in. Given that I live in a fairly conservative state and grew up in conservative communities, I knew how important a film about Christian conservative mothers embracing their LGBTQ children could be—and that was long before the recent, more direct attacks on queer and especially trans youth. I immediately liked Daresh – smart, dedicated, and the fact that she singled me out after watching a short documentary film that I was working on (Uncertain future Iliana Sosa and Chelsea Hernandez) was especially touching.
Daresh spoke about her idea for the film before she had funding, and surprisingly it took some time to raise money for a feature film. In the meantime, the ACLU commissioned Daresh to make a film about Kimberly and Kai Sheppley – this film is called Trance in America: The Power of Texas. This movie was released in 2019 and was an immediate success. The film is still life changing. And – this was the seed that opened the way to the longer work of Daresh, Mama Bears.
Behind Scream at midnight, I worked on this topic in 2013 as I was in the Capitol during Wendy’s filibusters in 2013, having a small Canon 5D Mark II that came out a few years earlier. I was one of the women Wendy inspired to become active—in my case, using my skills as a filmmaker to contribute to the reproductive rights movement. When I heard about the Gretchen Stoltier film, I immediately wanted to work on it – and eventually the footage that Kate Robinson and I shot at the Capitol that summer became part of the Gretchen film.
What was the most difficult part of working on Lover, Beloved, and how did you handle it?
Any time you have one character carrying a storyline, there’s an inherent issue of keeping the visual interest of the audience. Mike Tully did the initial work to determine how to split the scenes in terms of creating 5 separate sets for the film. He and I worked on the script a week before filming to determine where each scene and musical number would take place. We created 3-4 more sets using projection and shooting some scenes «in between» sets – either from the side, using vintage lighting as a background, or with Suzanne in the middle of several sets and wandering around.
Another tool we used to differentiate the sets we returned to was lighting – we had a unique lighting setup every time we were in a certain space – whether it was gels of different colors, a light signal, or both. It was actually quite free to have the film rooted in the theatrical space – it meant we could have fun with lighting and projection in ways we might not have tried if it was a more traditionally positioned storytelling. There are definitely tools and approaches that I will take from this film and apply to my future narrative work.
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Do you have any funny behind-the-scenes stories about the creation of these projects?
After our premiere Lover, beloved, I learned that Suzanne Vega, who wanted the performance to be videotaped, did not expect the entire set to be included in the film. She didn’t actually envision the set at all, instead she expected her performance to be filmed in black box style just like her original stage performance. I was a little surprised to hear this and excited that our vision of making the film more cinematic worked for her.
What things have you learned from Mama Bears, Shouting Down Midnight and Lover, Beloved that you are excited to apply to your future endeavors?
Experiment more with colorful, unexpected lighting and movement, and use projection as a way to add light and interest to a scene, as we did in Loverthese are things I would definitely like to keep experimenting with in future projects.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you can talk about?
I’m working on a documentary about book bans directed by Kim Snyder. Texas leads the fight against more banned books than any other state. I’m also working on an LGBTQ-themed document directed by Julie Cohen. Also, I have a film that I made at the festival called More than I remember, a story about a young Congolese girl fleeing violence, searching for her family and finding a home. This is part of an ongoing short series of papers I am running on people seeking asylum in more stable lands. It premiered at SXSW and won the Best Short Documentation award at the Cleveland International Film Festival.