Benson Lee is a Korean American director well known for the popular documentary Planet B-Boy which captures various break dancers around the world in an emotional and cultural journey behind the dancing. I actually spotted it on Netflix “Browse Instantly” a little bit before the interview and was very excited! It is definitely worth renting and increases in popularity every day!
In the interview, Benson Lee talks about how he became so successful after basically teaching himself filmmaking at the University of Hawaii, and how his first short film was at Sundance! His eye for cinema is spectacular and now he is working on the film adaptation of Planet B-Boy, preparing for the original’s premiere in Seoul and many other things. When I talked to him he was getting ready to pitch the idea for the adaptation to studios in L.A.! His name should become a household one soon and one of his next projects even includes an antithesis to Sex and The City, set in Tokyo! I can’t wait to see it.
ASIANCE: It’s great to talk about Planet B-Boy- it’s success and how you feel at this moment about it. I saw it on Netflix Browse Instantly actually and it seems so popular!
Benson: Yes! Well, we’re all really happy how the film has been shown since its theatrical release to YouTube or the recent screening on MTV and of course the DVD. So we have been able to reach a lot of people which was our goal and we want to reach more people, what I am referring to mostly is the international market. We have a lot of distributors around the world for the film but want to reach countries who don’t’ have a distributor. So we definitely are making strategies about that right now.
ASIANCE: Can you give us a brief intro into your filmmaking career?
Benson: Yes, I was born in Canada and lived there till I was about nine. And then I moved to Philadelphia and basically grew up there, went to High School and then afterwards moved to New York where I attended FIT because my father is involved in the fashion business but that wasn’t really my thing, And I went to NYU where I studied business and I didn’t really at that point in my life want to be a filmmaker but I loved movies. And I had a lot of friends in film school at the time but it just didn’t seem like an option to me. And then after that I went to the University of Hawaii for a summer session and I ended up falling in love with Hawaii and decided to stay there which is where I studied liberal studies with focus on literature and music and drama. So that’s really when I wanted to become a filmmaker. But they didn’t have a film school so I pretty much studied filmmaking a lot on my own, I joined the media club and that’s where I experimented with media. To make a long story short I moved to Paris where I lived for a while, moved to London, and I really wanted to be involved in the European film community, get some experience, different cultural experience as well, and then I made my first film Miss Monday which I was very lucky to get into Sundance. That was my first leap into filmmaking and we really loved it because at Sundance we won Best Actor award and so I was really thrown into the business independently. Ever since then I’ve had stints working in commercials and working and developing my own projects. Planet B-Boy became one of those.
I was one of those kids in the 80’s who was mesmerized by dance in films like Flashdance and Beatstreet, all that. I wasn’t a B-Boy myself but I’ve always loved to dance. After it disappeared in the 80’s I never heard about it again until the late 90s when I rediscovered it online and learned there was an event in Germany called Battle of The Year for B-Boying. I was just floored by the fact that B-Boys were still around and had involved into these sort of super acrobatic dancers. It was really an interesting story because everyone knew and remembered break-dancing but didn’t know it was still around. So that was the premise of my documentary. And it also became my exploration of how culture and politics and issues influence this dance, which is the other part of what Planet B-Boy is about. So essentially in a nutshell that is how it evolved up until Planet B-Boy and right now I’m working on the feature adaptation of Planet B-Boy to make into a movie and also working on another project in Japan.
ASIANCE: Wow, that actually answered two of my next questions which were of course about the steps towards making Planet B-Boy and also your previous film Miss Monday which was at Sundance and got you recognized. That’s great!
Benson: (Laughter) That’s great!
ASIANCE: What was the actual process of filming Planet B-Boy like? It is shot in so many different places.
Benson: So Planet B-Boy was a very hard film to make because we had to do it independently and they aren’t a
s viable as feature films. So we had a limited amount of money but were able to find people who believed in the idea and we raised enough money to get on the road and go to these countries we selected to follow for the film. It was like a dream, it was so much fun. I personally love travel and being able to work and travel was like a dream to me. Going to Korea and Japan and Germany and Las Vegas to meet the top b-boys around the world was really a very cathartic experience for me because I learned so much about their lifestyle, the dance itself and how it is influenced by so many factors like environment. And it opened my eyes to the proliferation of hip-hop culture around the world and the role it played. And every stereotype of Hip-Hop for me was shattered. And of course I focused on the dance part of it but to me they are dancers, artists and really dedicated to what they love and it’s really refreshing to see that. It wasn’t easy because when I went to these other countries I didn’t speak the language and we had a very small crew with just myself, cameraman, sound man and field-producer who is basically the one who is responsible for taking us around their country. And I all sounded really kind of romantic to go to these other countries and do these interviews and capture what it is like in B-boying in different cultures. But when we got home we had 400 hours of footage in 4 different languages. And we had to literally translate every word. What’s difficult about that is the cost. Real translators charge something like 10 cents a word and when you have 400 hours that’s really impossible. But because our subjects were very young and we lived in a very global city like New York we ended up hiring a lot of interns who were really attracted to the subject matter and happened to be foreign students in New York who volunteered their time to translate all these interviews. So we were really fortunate but it took a long time and wasn’t easy. On the road it was stressful too because we were always trying to raise money and culturally and artistically it was quite a revelation for me, I’ve met some of the greatest people I’ve ever met in the film, these young b-boys and we became like family. They were very generous to me, opened up and shared their lives and allowed me to tell their story. So for that I’m forever grateful to them. The post-production of the film was really hard like I mentioned with the translating and all that and editing takes forever and involves a lot of technical variables. So I was in the editing room for a year and a half. It was really the hardest labor of love that I’ve ever experienced, this film but it was absolutely worth it in the end.
ASIANCE: Incredible! And that also answered my next question about the post-production of the film!
So then, what was it like when it premiered at Tribeca Film Festival?
Benson: Well you know, after you finish a film it’s like you have pretty much finished a war because it is so difficult to finish a film that you are happy with. But after we completed the film we were extremely happy. And the next step really is what is the audience going to think about it. And for an independent filmmaker like myself the next step is the film festival. So we were very fortunate to get into the festival and it’s important what it stands for in terms of promoting film culture in New York and especially in that area of Tribeca and also because it’s a New York film festival. It’s one of the best film festivals around it was an honor to be there they really embraced our film. On top of the screening the provided us with an outdoor screening by the World Trade Center where about 6,000 people showed up. And we put on a show to show the audience what b-boying is like today. We brought in some crews from Korea and they performed live before the film. And then when the audience saw the film, well, when there are 6,000 people watching the film that’s the closest to being a Rock and Roll singer for me, you know… and they ended up really loving the film so to us it was like an amazing victory from all the hard work we put into making the movie. When people responded to it, it was just like a love-fest, you know. But before that it is the exact opposite because it was just a few people in the monitoring room trying to come up with a story. So it was an absolute dream for us because we got to share it with an audience and this is why most filmmakers make movies. It was a really thrilling experience especially because the audience really enjoyed the film. We went on to like dozens of film festivals around the world. We showed our film in Beijing, which was a real treat because they don’t really watch a lot of documentaries out there, so we had an outdoor screening there too with the help of Tribeca Film Festival. Having a Chinese audience in China was just mind-blowing and we got to put on a little local show there and the audience watched and loved the movie. Then afterwards we had a big block party, like an old school block party! And so I was really fortunate to be able to start at Tribeca but also attend film festivals around the world at every continent except Africa. It was just an amazing experience.
ASIANCE: Do you go to Korea to visit your family often?
Benson: Yeah, I definitely have lots of family in Korea and also had an opportunity to visit Korea through the documentary. Actually it will be officially premiering in Seoul in April so I will be going back for that.
ASIANCE: Oh wow, when is that?
Benson: I don’t have the exact date for that but it will be around mid April.
ASIANCE: Can we talk more in depth about your upcoming projects, like are you working on them in America or traveling again?
Benson: Yes, I mentioned I am working on the Planet B-Boy adaptation, which is not a direct adaptation of the documentary, but it focuses on international b-boying and the main storyline is about an American crew who goes out on an international event and basically they lose. The rest of the film is about them redeeming themselves and the way they do that is sort of getting over their egos and learning how to dance as a crew. So it’s like a journey of self-discovery for this crew of b-boys. And the other project is called Tokyo Sisters, which is the Japanese antithesis of Sex and The City, which I’m writing for my producer out there. And that’s a completely different film from Planet B-Boy, on the opposite end of the spectrum. But I’m a writer and a director and I love all kinds of subjects and they are both films I am really, super passionate about making. So I am still the in the development phase of both so I’m hopefully going to be able to get a company to pick up the feature adaptation of Planet B-Boy and I hope to be in California in a moth or two to start pitching it!
ASIANCE: That’s wonderful! Is there anything you’d like to add?
Benson: The only thing I would ask is if people haven’t seen the film I welcome them to check it out, to rent it or check it out on the website PlanetbBoy.com and any fans of the films can connect to myself through Facebook or Myspace.
ASIANCE: Thanks so much.
Benson: No problem!