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Ben Ratner: Director/Writer of DOWN RIVER

January 30, 2014
Ben Ratner

Ben Ratner


1Q: Tell us a little about the origins of DOWN RIVER, from concept to financing.

My dear friend Babz Chula, a beloved Vancouver-based actor, teacher, and singer died of cancer and I felt devastated about losing her, so I decided to make a movie inspired by her, and by how she helped me and so many other actors, artists, and musicians find our way.  It came together fast.  I wrote parts specifically for the actors I wanted to play them, and Babz’ widower, Larry Lynn, was the only choice for cinematographer.  Larry knew a guy named Jack Ong who wanted to get into producing, I showed him the script, he loved it, and he put up the dough.  We brought in an excellent young producer named James Brown I had worked with before, and we shot the film in 16 days for under 100 grand.  A year later, at our Premiere, we won Most Popular Canadian Film at The Vancouver International Film Festival.  I still miss Babz, of course, we all do, but making this film and sharing it with the world helped us all find closure, and celebrate the good times we had with her.

2Q: DOWN RIVER has done well at previous film festivals, even winning Most Popular Canadian Film from the Vancouver International Film Festival.  Will you be less nervous now at Cinequest? Does this process ever get any easier?

I believe in this film.  I know it’s solidly crafted, beautifully acted, and truthfully told.  It’s up to the audience members to decide whether or not it’s their cup of tea. What makes me nervous is not knowing how many people are going to show up for the screenings.  (What makes me really nervous are turbulent flights on the way to the festivals.)  So, far, at various festivals, we have played to theatres with over 500 people in attendance, and theatres with under 50.  But I’ve enjoyed every screening, for different reasons.  The Q and A sessions are always very satisfying.  To know we have connected with and affected our audience in a positive way is the best reward for the hard work and makes all the schlepping around well worth it.

Babz Chula

Babz Chula

3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making DOWN RIVER?

Best experience, shooting a scene when “Aki” played by my wife, Jennifer Spence, stands in front of a mirror and puts on a sweater that had previously belonged to the character of “Pearl” (Helen Shaver).  The sweater Jen was wearing had belonged to Babz in real life.  As we shot the scene, beautiful natural sunlight was pouring into the room and me and Jen and Larry were all barely keeping it together, emotionally speaking.  In the scene it was important that “Aki” remains brave, despite her sorrow, and Jen embodied it perfectly. There was so much emotion coursing through us all, our hearts were pounding, our legs were shaking.  As she put on the sweater, the wind shifted outside, and the shadows of the trees began to wave across the background of the shot. I called cut and some serious hugging took place.  To feel such powerful emotion and know we were capturing it without forcing it, and to know it was truthful and vital to the story, that’s what it’s all about, man.

Worst experience — suffering from exhaustion a week or so after the film had wrapped, and my wife finding me wandering around the apartment directing scenes in my sleep.  I was literally “sleep-directing.”  I have never been so tired in my life.  And I have been in this business almost 25 years.  This one took a lot out of me.  But it was worth it.

4Q: Festival audiences often have to make hard decisions about what to see, and the catalog descriptions sometimes run together. In your own words, why should people see your film?

It’s very original, quite funny, rather edgy and very heart warming, with a very satisfying finish. If you like films like The Squid and The Whale, Frances Ha, Sideways and Nebraska, this film should please you greatly.  It also has great original music that you’ll be hearing for the first time. And, yeah, I know you’ve heard it before, but it’s true:  since most films these days cost many, many millions to make, come see what we were able to do for a teeny, tiny fraction of that amount.  A lot of money will buy a good looking dog, but only love will make him wag his tail, right? A good story, passion, and genuine talent are priceless. Take a chance on something new. Ain’t that what film festivals are all about? Support The Little guy! The Big Guys don’t need festivals.  They have marketing budgets and movie stars to get people into the theatres at the multiplexes.

5Q: Time to pre-plan: You just won the Best Director Oscar for DOWN RIVER.  Give us your acceptance speech.

First of all, I gotta thanks Babz.  I wouldn’t be here without her.  And thank you to my cast, including my wonderful wife Jennifer Spence, I love you. And Helen Shaver, and Colleen Rennison, and Gabrielle Miller.  And Ali, and Jay, and Brian, and Teach, and Peter, and Tom, and the rest of the actors, you were all fantastic. And thank you to our Executive Producer Jack Ong and our Producer James Brown, and Larry Lynn, of course, and Rob Wenzek my editor, and Kevin House for this great songs, and Chris Ainscough…and Lesley Diana… and Avi and Telefilm Canada…there’s so many of you who made this film happen…  Most of all… (begins to well up, tears roll down cheeks) thank you to the people of San Jose who came out in droves to support our film when we played at Cinequest. (holds Oscar above head triumphantly) This one’s for you, San Jose! (Band kicks in and I am shoved off stage by Sean Penn and Miley Cyrus.)

See DOWN RIVER at Cinequest!
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Ben Ratner on Twitter
DOWN RIVER on Twitter

Our review of DOWN RIVER.


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