Behind the Camera with Benjamin Rutkowski, Director of ‘Glory Days’
Behind every great director is a great cinematographer. Since graduating from NYU’s MFA program, Glory Days director Benjamin Rutkowski has spent his up-and-coming career shooting films like the Sundance and SXSW short Actresses and Fits and Starts, a soon-to-be-released feature starring Wyatt Cenac, Greta Lee, Maria Dizzia, and Alex Karpovsky. He talked to Film School Shorts about Glory Days and his work as a cameraman.
Glory Days is such a personal film, which I’m sure influenced the way it was shot. As a cinematographer, are you able to connect on that same kind of level with another filmmaker’s work?
Glory Days is mainly personal in the retelling of the time a man drunkenly made me box his nephew in the woods on New Year’s and my dad pulled me out of the fight. I also shot the film at my parent’s house in Upstate New York, and a few blocks from the apartment where I grew up in New York. But the characters are fictional. I think most filmmakers get more interesting when they go back to their roots in some way. I guess I’m thinking about the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, the Safdie Brothers’ Daddy Long Legs, and Woody Allen’s Radio Days.
Is there anything you learned while directing Glory Days that you apply as a cinematographer, not just when it comes to shooting, but when it comes to your relationships with cast and crew members?
I remember being very aware during Glory Days that when I’m directing, I need to stop thinking about the cinematography . And this is something I apply to my job as a cinematographer. Yes, the vision belongs to the director, but the director shouldn’t worry about where the lights are being put. I let go of my obsession with cinematography when I was making Glory Days, let my DP do his thing, and I’m glad I did.
As a cinematographer, it’s my obligation to gain the complete trust of a director, so that even if he or she is a DP themselves (or particularly visually oriented), they can trust me to deliver no matter how involved in the technicalities they want to be.
How is shooting for a feature-length film like Fits and Starts different than shooting a short, if it is at all? What was it like working with your former producer, as well as with well-known actors like Wyatt Cenac, Maria Dizzia, and Alex Karpovsky?
I can’t speak to directing a feature, but shooting features and gaffing features (which is much of my non-DP work) is a completely different operation than shooting shorts. I haven’t had the luxury of shooting a feature with a large enough budget to not be backed into corners, so I’d say the main thing is just making your days and keeping the momentum. I work with director Laura Terruso [a fellow NYU graduate and producer on Glory Days] quite a bit, and I was proud to shoot her first feature Fits and Starts (mine too). Hopefully everyone will be seeing it very soon. Wyatt Cenac is a dream.
The documentary series you worked on, First Step for Derek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune, features a lot of verite footage. Are those techniques different from fiction filmmaking? (Some of the scenes in Glory Days totally have a verite feel.)
Much of what I’ve shot recently is technically documentary. Whether it’s the mini-doc series from the Players’ Tribune that you mentioned, or branded content, or docu-style commercials, verite is something I deal with a lot. I’m glad Glory Days looks verite because that’s definitely the look we were going for with 16mm handheld, but it was pretty meticulously shot-listed.
Do you see yourself writing and directing again in the future?