Behind the Scenes with the Benson Brothers

Portrush's fraternal film-makers return with Photograph, but they're happy to stay behind the camera. Click Play Video for a sneak preview

At the Belfast premiere of their short film Photograph, Portrush film-makers Wayne and Steven Benson are nowhere to be seen. 

The film is in the running for Best International Short Film at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, but nobody knows where the Benson twins are.

They aren’t at the Baby Grand’s second-floor bar where the film’s cast, crew and guests are chatting, nor are they having their pictures taken next to the Photograph promotional posters. Before watching a film about voyeurism and surveillance, it’s easy to suspect that you’re being watched.

Only after the credits for Photograph flash across the screen do the Benson brothers enter the Baby Grand’s auditorium, greeting applause with raised hands.

Dressed in uniform black suits and ties they jovially thank actors, funders and supporters, their cheeks glowing like red LEDs before the blank canvas of the theatre screen.

Alexandra Ford in the Benson brothers' 'Photograph'. Image (c) Derek Simpson‘Our MySpace picture is two Simpsons characters instead of our faces,’ says Steven. 

And although they dress like Reservoir Dogs characters, the Benson brothers don't seem likely to make any Tarantino-style cameos in their own films any time soon.

‘We’re very shy,’ says Wayne. ‘This is the first time in two years we’ve been photographed.’

With three principal characters, Photograph is a mini-thriller that follows security guard Tom Barbusse as he uses surveillance footage to blackmail people he judges to be immoral.

Barbusse sees himself on camera, however, when a mysterious recording of his latest exchange arrives on his desk.

With more cameras and recording taking place in shops, online, on streets, buses and bridges, issues of surveillance and privacy are at the forefront of the public's mind. 

The Bensons want Photograph to bring ideas of voyeurism and potential abuses into the light.

‘I think a lot of surveillance cameras are a good thing,’ says Wayne, identifiable today because he's wearing glasses. ‘But people can abuse them.’

‘Remember we read in the back of the newspaper, the story about blackmail,’ prompts Steven. ‘You showed it to me. The blackmail.’

Wayne doesn’t remember, but Steven reminds him. ‘We read a story a few weeks ago – almost identical to Photograph. It was about a woman having an affair who had been taped by a security guard and was being blackmailed.

‘This was months after we wrote this thing, but we definitely think there’s people like Tom Barbusse out there.’ 

In the world of cinema, ideas of watching and being watched are common fodder for writers, directors and actors. Films like Austrian director Michael Haneke's Hidden and Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo brought the ideas to a worldwide audience.

The Benson brothers were, of course, aware of these films but they didn’t inform the script; Photograph was in gestation before either movie hit the screen. And unlike individual directors Haneke or Romanek, the Bensons have the added distinction of being the younger brothers in a famous line of fraternal film-makers.

‘There’s the Hughes brothers,’ says Wayne, ‘and the Farrelly brothers.'

Paul Moody and Steven Benson shooting 'Photograph'. Image (c) Derek Simpson‘The Polish Brothers,’ adds Steven, ‘and of course the Coen brothers. People mention that a lot. Which we hate. We did hate it, until they won the Oscar.’

‘Now we love it,' says Wayne. 'But their films - not our cup of tea.’

‘Not our cup of tea,’ says Steven. ‘It’s almost sacrilegious to say, but Coen films have a lot of... flaws. I think they use comedy too much.

No Country For Old Men is the best we’ve seen of their stuff. But that’s based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. They adapted the screenplay very faithfully.'

Their story is filmed using a mixture of MiniDV footage and shots made using mobile telephones, with the brothers employing the camera-handling talents of Paul Moody.

Developed, shot and produced with a crew of only four – the Bensons, Moody, and soundtrack expertise from Bo Sheppard  – the noir-ish Photograph is a mysterious piece, rooted in brooding, dramatic performances from Patrick Jenkins and Alexandra Ford. 

The film began production in October 2007 and was completed in the same month. Shot on locations including Coleraine, Portrush and Magherafelt, the film’s tense, inconclusive ending causes raised eyebrows in the audience.

‘We’re never going to give them an easy ride,’ says Steven, explaining that all the brothers’ films end on uncertain notes, allowing the audience’s imaginations to take over.

‘We like the audience to participate,’ he says. ‘There’ll probably be a big backlash but so many films neatly take the audience along. If they’re paying money, let them earn it.

‘Every short film is an experiment. Everything we do is an experiment in that each time we’re learning as we go along.

‘We never look back at a short film and think "oh we’d change this, change that". We look at the mistakes – and every short film has them, none are perfect – and we say, "this is what we try and fix next time".

‘Maybe by doing that we screw something else up, but that’s how the process works. Every film-maker should say the same thing. If they don’t, they’re in trouble. They should retire now.’

Patrick Jenkins (right) shooting 'Photograph' on location. Image (c) Derek Simpson www.portfolioplus.comPhotograph follows the Benson brothers’ short 0.0270270, featuring James Nesbitt and Claire Connor. The brothers’ short Chocolate Kiss was selected for the Edinburgh Festival Videotheque in 2003.

While their films slowly spread around the world, and while international productions use Northern Irish locations but not actors – the brothers confirm a commitment to working with Northern Ireland’s people and places.

The brothers are critical of films like Shrooms, which use locations in Ireland but not local actors. ‘I don’t think that was a good thing to do,' says Steven. 'Because we are blessed with some of the best acting talent.' 

‘We believe heavily in using Northern Irish talent,’ adds Wayne. ‘Photograph uses Paddy and Ally and Andrew – damn good actors. Maybe they’re not used enough in feature films.'

‘We’re using Northern Irish actors in a feature we’re planning,’ says Steven. ‘Why anyone shooting a film here would look elsewhere for actors is beyond me.’

‘Following on from that,’ says Steven, ‘We’ve got locations in Northern Ireland that you don’t see on film, hidden places – especially where we’re from. We have the actors and the funding seems to be here. So are we.’

When asked if, working from Northern Ireland, they believe they can connect with a universal audience, Steven and Wayne Benson reply with a unified ‘Yes’.

They don't appear much in the public eye - and are even less likely to appear in front of the camera - but the Benson brothers are happily learning and working away behind the scenes of Northern Ireland's film business. And apparently, they’re here to stay.

Kiran Acharya