In 2006, Jamie Benning decided to cut together a documentary about The Empire Strikes Back in order to teach himself how to use his computer’s editing software. He searched everywhere for material: dusty magazines, VHS recordings of old Star Wars promos, Q&As recorded at conventions, and the darkest corners of Internet forums. The result was Building Empire, a feature-length compendium of behind-the-scenes footage, cast and crew interviews, production art, and never-before-aired deleted scenes. Seven years later, Benning has become the Internet’s resident archivist for the blockbusters that define Hollywood. He has since completed four more “filmumentaries” — Returning to Jedi, Star Wars Begins, Raiding the Lost Ark and his most recent effort, Inside Jaws. Vulture spoke to Benning on the laborious task of cutting a filmumentary, what his greatest discoveries have been since embarking on the series, and why the stories behind the camera can be just as compelling as the ones we know and love.
What inspired you to first attempt one of these?
I was slightly disillusioned by the DVD extras on the original Star Wars trilogy release. I thought to myself, There’s so much material out there, it’s just a matter of someone collating it together and presenting it in a way that’s entertaining. I always got a buzz out of seeing those familiar scenes that we all know very well from a different angle — “making of” footage. I thought if you put those into context, along the film’s timeline, it’ll create a new way of watching the movie. Unravel before your eyes. You see the movie being made in real time. I quite like the idea of putting something different where people will be expecting that same thing to happen. We’ve all watched Star Wars or Jaws. We know what will happen after that line or that musical cue. By putting something different there, people will sit up and take notice — more than a talking heads documentary.
Did you come at this as a fan or as a documentary filmmaker?
I’ve always been interested in documentaries. With films such as Star Wars or Jaws or Raiders, the story behind the camera can be as interesting as the story in front. For me, it was about revealing that other story that was just out of sight. I’ve always been a big Star Wars fan. I was born in ‘76, and by the time Empire came out, it was one of the first movies I saw as a kid. Then Return of the Jedi kicked off with the toys, the T-shirts, and everything else. I work in media — live, outside broadcasts, doing Formula 1 motor racing. So I’ve got editing skills, but in a live environment. But I’ve always been interested in movies. I had a little foray into the film world working for a company that supplied editing machines, but it looked like a ladder I couldn’t climb. I was already married and had kids. So this was something I could do at my own speed. After releasing the first one, I realized how many people were out there who enjoyed the same thing that I did.
A casual fan may know the audio and visual material in your documentaries exists, but finding it sounds like a gargantuan undertaking. How do you go about collecting the pieces?
Well, there’s a hell of a lot of research going into these things. I do spend a lot of time trawling through stuff. What you often find is the same actors telling the same stories in the same way. They’ve practiced over the years. But for me it’s about mining through that and finding the gems that people might not have heard. Things that wouldn’t necessarily be included in an “official” documentary. I’ve tried to find things that are a little risqué.
One great thing about these films is that there’s a huge community of fans. With the birth of Facebook, Twitter, and other forums, there are people out there willing to share information. One will say, “I’ve got this documentary from Germany that was only shown in Germany on a movie program and it’s got shots in it that you won’t see anywhere else.” Then I’ll say, “I’ve got something from England that was probably not shown in Germany — let’s swap that.” You trade with people. Film fanatics are a very giving community. A guy I worked with on the recent Jaws one, Jim Beller, wrote a book called Tales From Martha’s Vineyard with Matt Taylor and runs JawsCollector.com. He just said, “Here’s a bunch of stuff,” and he was always on Skype with me answering questions. So this most recent one has been more collaborative, whereas the Star Wars ones I was on my own.
Have you stumbled upon material that felt particularly rare?
For Star Wars Begins, I have a deleted scene that’s never been released officially by LucasFilm. Star Wars Begins remains the only place where you can see the original Jabba the Hutt scene. Portions were released, but I’ve managed to find snippets from all over the place. I found the last twenty seconds of it from a guy who lived in Canada. He happened to put a VHS in back in 1997 and record this thing that was going under the credits of a movie show. It was a matter of going through that and trying to remove things. It’s a real puzzle.
Have you been able to conduct your own interviews for inclusion in the films?
I did for the first time with Raiding the Ark. I spoke to a guy who did the sound editing [Richard L. Anderson] and won the Oscar for it. I spoke to one of the actors, Wolf Kahler; he was one of the Nazis and he lives in North London. A guy who contacted me online said to me, “By the way, I know Sean Young.” She was Rachel in Blade Runner and she was up for the part of Marion Ravenwood. So he phoned her up, recorded the interview, and she was willing to participate. There are great gifts like that that people can give you. For Jaws, I spoke to a guy called Kevin Pike who started out as a laborer on Jaws and ended up being the guy who built the DeLorean for Back to the Future. His story is fantastic. He chanced upon the Jaws crew and asked if he could work for them. Doing the interviews with lesser-known people fascinates me. There’s a woman called Rita Schmidt who ended up being in a relationship with a guy who was a prop master in Jaws and ended up getting in the film herself. She had all of these stories about Richard Dreyfuss asking her on a date, talking about how Dreyfuss got bored and played cards in the local knitting shop with all the old ladies.
It sounds like at some point, your “filmumentary” project evolved into you making “films.” Are you telling stories in these documentaries?
Every time I do one of these, I want to do something a little extra. This time I did a few more interviews and implemented flashier graphics and animations. Since I did Star Wars Begins, the third one I did, it felt like I was crafting a narrative. There are stories out there that said, “We got along, we did really well.” And then there will be stories about, “I didn’t get along with Harrison Ford and the robots were a pain in the ass and we had to keep stuffing film in because George Lucas would fall asleep” — things that wouldn’t be in anything official. With Jaws, I wanted to highlight that the film wasn’t just about the three main actors. It was about all of these different people. It was an absolute nightmare for Spielberg with the shark not working, but we’ve all heard those stories. What we haven’t heard is what happened further back.
On average, how long do you spend working on one filmumentary?
The Empire, Jedi, Raiders, and Jaws ones took me about fifteen months each. The original Star Wars one I did took me four years. But I did have kids, moved house twice, I’m a freelance TV editor, so that took off — life got in the way. So it takes about fifteen or sixteen months. But I could still be doing Jaws now. There’s a point where you have to say, “That’s good enough.” Release it into the world.
Have you unearthed material after the fact that you wish could be in the films?
Absolutely. After I put Star Wars Begins out there, I was listening to BBC radio in the car and there was an interview with Denis Lawson who played Wedge the X-Wing pilot. He’s Ewan McGregor’s uncle and the one that told him not to be in the Star Wars films because they would ruin his life. He gave this interview and said every single day he receives fan mail about his three lines. I’ve never heard him speak before. It would have been absolute gold.
The films remind me of Rashomon. Hazy memories create discrepancies, certain interviews and production art complicate well-known stories. Is there a revelation that stands out?
The one that stands out with Jaws is the line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” It’s always been on the official Jaws documentary that came out on the Laserdisc. It’s been on the DVD and Blu-ray since. It was always said that it was improvised on set by Roy Scheider. But as Carl Gottlieb, the screenwriter, says in an interview we found, recorded at a JawsFest convention from years ago, he found an interview in a local Martha’s Vineyard magazine, where Roy Scheider says it was in the script, that Carl wrote that. Now Carl Gottlieb has had to revise his whole view on whether he wrote it or not. The problem with Jaws is that they were writing the next day’s lines the day before. It grew very organically because there were so many problems.
Steven Spielberg is notorious for not recording commentaries because he thinks it ruins the illusion of filmmaking. Do you think the filmumentaries run the risk of having that effect? The Internet has a knack for overanalyzing — do you see the movies fueling that obsession?
This is why I’ll never hear from Steven Spielberg. [Laughs.] I’ve done two of his first commentaries. I think as someone who has watched this film hundreds of times in the process of making this, I can still watch the film as a film, without thinking of the elements I put into it.
I’ve always liked “making of” documentaries like Lost in La Mancha, Hearts of Darkness, the short one on The Shining — ones before the big marketing machine arrived where “making of” was to show off the movie they were making. My intention was to bring it back down to that level. There’s a lot of overanalysis online. But the thing I don’t like that’s become a culture is movie news that spoils things for people. I actually stopped watching trailers because I go to a film and know what’s going to happen. Because of their age, now is the time for something like this to happen with these films. We’ve experienced them enough. Jaws has had three or four documentaries made about it, but I think there are still stories to tell. But with Star Wars, I don’t like mapping out spaceships or pinning down Midichlorians. Stuff that brings it into reality.
In some ways, that’s what Room 237 did for The Shining in a format similar to the filmumentary.
That was crazy, that film. I enjoyed it, but it made me livid at the same time. The envelope was pushed a little too far. I find it interesting when people come to a film with their preconceived ideas and find things that answer those questions. Did he fake the moon landings? He must have because Danny’s wearing an Apollo sweater. I found it funny, but I was rolling my eyes. Whether [the filmumentaries] are boring or common sense, I like to think they build a story from what’s actually there.
Have you encountered legal issues with putting the films online? It seems miraculous that none of the videos have been pulled for copyright infringement.
No. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s luck. If the day came where they said “cease and desist,” it’d be the end of that. People ask me daily, “I’ll buy this from you on DVD.” But I’ll never, ever charge any money for it. I lose money making these. I buy books, I buy magazines, I troll eBay, but I’ve never made a single penny. And I never will. These are love letters to my favorite movies. But if you think about it, the entire film of Star Wars is on YouTube in twenty parts, and that’s still sitting there. These films are so ubiquitous, there isn’t a danger in presenting them in another way.
Would you ever try to legitimize the format? Work with a studio so that you could release the films officially?
What I like is that the films kind of act like an online CV. People can come see what this guy in Britain has done. I put a tweet out there, “Dear Universal, please let me do an official one Back to the Future.” And I’ve had two people contact me on private saying, “I’ve just told this to my contact at Universal and hopefully they’ll be in touch soon.” So who knows. They might see it and go, “Hey, what has this son of a bitch done with Jaws.” I could be talking to you from a prison cell next time.
What films do you hope to “filmumentarize” down the road? Do you see the style working for films outside the Spielberg and Lucas blockbusters?
These films represent a time when a blockbuster was visceral, when it had something tangible to it, physical objects that people had to interact with. Instead of sitting in front of blue screen and it being more theater based. I like that they went to Finse in Norway in Empires Strikes Back to get snow scenes or the forests in California to get the Ewok scenes. Someone asked me if I would make one for Jurassic Park. It’s not a film I particularly love, but it was a turning point for the special effects industry, where digital effects and practical effects sat side-by-side. It was a transition point between the two and they didn’t quite know how it would work with the graphics and they didn’t know quite what to leave behind with the physical. I’ve always thought about Back to the Future, The Shining, 2001, Blade Runner, that kind of stuff. What interests me is that B-roll footage that we didn’t get to see at the time. Like the two weeks they shot with Eric Stoltz on Back to the Future and recast his character with Michael J. Fox. Or hearing about off-set moments between two actors and then you get to see them in a shot together.
The advantage of doing it with films that are 30-plus years old is that they continue to have a life with this format. Hundreds of people have contacted me saying, “I just watched the Jaws filmumentary and I just realized how much I love Jaws and I just bought it on Blu-ray.” People say that when they watched the Star Wars one, they were disillusioned by Star Wars and it brought them back to those feelings they had as kids.