Behind the Camera with Benjamin Rutkowski, Director of ‘Glory Days’

| January 3, 2017

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.

Benjamin Rutkowski on the 'Glory Days' set.

Benjamin Rutkowski on the ‘Glory Days’ set.

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.

Shooting the film's party scene.

Shooting the film’s party scene.

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.

Actress Paige Elizabeth Smith.

Actress Paige Elizabeth Smith.

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?

I would love to write and direct again in the future. But writing is hard (for me at least) to commit to doing with other work on your plate, and at the moment, shooting is definitely my way of studying up on directing for the future.
Many of my DP-turned-director influences shot for years and years before directing episodes of the shows they essentially developed the look and style of (I’m thinking of Chris Manley of Mad Men and Michael Slovis of Breaking Bad). So, yes I really hope I’m directing in the future way down the line, but for now, I’m happy shooting!
Watch Glory Days below!

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