Spotlight is ComingSoon’s interview series with below-the-line and/or up-and-coming talent in the world of television and film. Our aim is to shine a spotlight on the varied positions that make the entertainment you love possible rather than focusing purely on actors and directors.
ComingSoon’s Jeff Ames spoke with cinematographer Amy Bench about her work on Mama Bears and Shouting Down Midnight.
Amy Bench is a cinematographer for three films releasing this year — Mama Bears, Shouting Down Midnight, and Lover, Beloved. She specializes in shooting many social justice documentaries but also has a knack for highlighting the storytelling within narrative projects.
Jeff Ames: What led to you becoming a cinematographer?
Amy Bench: I was always very curious as a child — very observational 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 first started off as an engineer, my first job working at Eastman Kodak company. While there, I learned a great deal about imaging science, gaining a technical appreciation for how images are made. Simultaneously, I dabbled in photography and took a few art classes at The Rochester Institute of Technology, a renowned art and photo school. It was there that I fell in love with filmmaking — through learning the basics of storytelling. After 3 years at Kodak I decided to enroll at The University of Texas at Austin, where I received my MFA in Film Production, with a concentration 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 the project?
Daresha Kyi reached out in 2017 with the idea for Mama Bears, and I was completely drawn in. Given that I’m based 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 this is way before the recent, more direct attacks against queer and especially trans youth. I liked Daresha right away — she was smart, dedicated to the story, and the fact that she singled me out after seeing a short documentary I worked on (An Uncertain Future by Iliana Sosa and Chelsea Hernandez) was especially touching.
Daresha reached out about her idea for the film before she had funding, and it surprisingly took some time to raise money for the feature. In the meantime, Daresha was commissioned by the ACLU to direct a piece on Kimberly and Kai Shappley — that film is called Trans in America: Texas Strong. That film was released in 2019 and was an immediate success. Lives are still transformed by the film. And — it was the seed that opened the path to making Daresha’s longer work, Mama Bears.
For Shouting Down Midnight, I had worked on the topic in 2013, as I was at the Capitol during Wendy’s filibuster in 2013, equipped with a small Canon 5D Mark II, which had come out a few years earlier. I was one of the women that Wendy inspired into activism — in my case, using my skills as a filmmaker to contribute to the reproductive rights movement. When I heard about Gretchen Stoeltje’s film, I instantly wanted to work on it — and ultimately the footage that Kate Robinson and I filmed at the Capitol that summer became incorporated into Gretchen’s film.
What was the most challenging aspect of working on Lover, Beloved and how did you overcome that?
Any time you have one character carrying a storyline, there is an inherent challenge of keeping things visually interesting for the audience. Mike Tully did a bunch of initial work to define how to break up the scenes in terms of creating 5 distinct set pieces for the film. He and I pored over the script the week before the shoot, to define where each scene and musical number would take place. We created an additional 3-4 sets by using projection and shooting some scenes “between” sets — either off to one side, utilizing period lighting as the background, or having Suzanne in the middle of multiple sets and dollying through the space.
Another tool we used to differentiate sets that we revisited was lighting — we had a unique lighting setup each time we were in a certain space — whether it be different colored gels, a lighting cue, or both. It was actually quite freeing to have the film rooted in a theatrical space — it meant that we could have fun with lighting and projection in ways that we may not have tried had it been a more traditionally located narrative. There are definitely tools and approaches I’ll take from this film that I’ll apply to future narrative work.
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Do you have any fun, behind-the-scenes stories about the making of these projects?
After our premiere of Lover, Beloved, I learned that Suzanne Vega — who wanted the performance to be recorded on video — did not expect all the set design that went into the film. In fact — she didn’t envision a set at all, instead she expected her performance to be filmed in a black-box style, much like her original stage performance. I was a bit surprised to hear that — and thrilled that our vision of making the film more cinematic worked for her.
What were some of the things you learned from Mama Bears, Shouting Down Midnight, and Lover, Beloved that you’re excited to apply to future endeavors?
Experimenting more with colorful, unexpected lighting and movement, as well as using projection as a way to contribute lighting and interest to a scene as we did in Lover Beloved, are things I would definitely like to continue to experiment with in future projects.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you are able to talk about?
I am working on a documentary about book banning, directed by Kim A Snyder. Texas is leading the charge with more books banned than any other state. I’m also working on an LGBTQ-themed doc directed by Julie Cohen. Additionally, I have a film I directed out on the festival circuit called More Than I Remember, a story about a young Congolese girl fleeing violence, the search for her family, and finding home. It’s part of an ongoing short doc series I’m directing about people seeking refuge in more stable lands. It premiered at SXSW and just won Best Short Doc at The Cleveland International Film Festival.