October 6, 2023
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America's Next Top Immigrant with Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez

Daniela Bailes
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Making your first feature film is a dream come true. It’s also the challenge of a lifetime. 

Producing a successful film requires translating your creative vision not only to the audience, but first to your actors, crew, and financiers. 

Ideally, you want to create a calling card to the industry and world. To gain some insight on the journey of writing, producing, and directing a debut feature film, we reached out to Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez who recently wrapped post-production on his satirical dark comedy, America’s Next Top Immigrant

Full disclosure: The author of this article was a producer on the film.

Introducing Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez

Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez is no stranger to the industry. Before writing and directing America’s Next Top Immigrant, Ben was a creative executive at 3PAS Studios. But sitting on that side of the table led to an epiphany.

Last Top Immigrant with Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez - Wrapbook - Ben
Writer, director, and producer of America's Next Top Immigrant, Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez. SOURCE: Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez
“I was on the exec side of things when I saw it was more smoke and mirrors. I realized the only difference between myself and filmmakers was that filmmakers do it. There’s this feeling, and maybe other filmmakers feel this, too, that I just needed to do it.” 

After realizing that actually making films was the only difference between himself and the filmmakers he worked with, the former exec quit his day job and committed himself to pursuing his own stories. 

This meant reshaping his life to revolve around filmmaking. Ben drove for Uber and Lyft all weekend his first year, doing whatever it took to make extra money while still having time for movies.

How he made it happen 

This brings us to a key question with independent features: What came first, the budget or the financing?

“It really started with the creative process. I always knew I wanted to do a feature. I felt ready, so I co-created this program with Blackmagic Collective as I needed the communal support. It was a bunch of filmmakers making their first features together. At that point for all of us, it was just figuring out the logistics.”

Blackmagic Collective provided a space for the filmmakers to share their ideas, challenges, and resources, and to learn from each other's successes and failures. The filmmakers also benefited from the camaraderie and support. This helped them to stay motivated and focused on their goals.

“Regarding the budget, I don’t think there’s anything I can’t figure out how to shoot. Maybe the creative integrity won’t always stick if you don’t have enough in the budget. But I honestly believe there’s a version of Oppenheimer or Inception that could be made with a much lower budget. And maybe that version won't win an Academy Award, but it can still be creatively fulfilling.”

It can be easy to feel discouraged when you don't have the same budget as a big Hollywood tentpole movie. But it’s important to remember that creativity is not limited by budget. 

“As a former development exec I have to say, the money people throw at stuff that’s completely unnecessary, it’s insanity.”

Throwing money at a problem often works. But successful filmmakers are always finding ways to be creative with their resources. As Ben said, it’s important to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions. Remember: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. 

Where it all started 

Ben didn’t quit his job as an exec and immediately make his first feature. His journey started with applying for mentorship opportunities that would expand his filmmaking skill set.  

This culminated in Ben participating in the 2020 Sundance Institute Feature Film Development Track as a Program Fellow, a Ryan Murphy HALF Initiative Directing Mentee, and a Blackmagic Collective Breakthrough Initiative Fellow. He’s also an alumnus of Film Independent's Project Involve

While juggling ongoing fellowship commitments, Ben continued directing and producing original short films. 

Learning by making shorts  

Stoned Breakups is a series Ben created inspired by Comedy Central’s Drunk History. In it, sober comedians act out a stoned person’s recollection of a traumatic break-up story. Needless to say, hilarity ensues.

“I don’t think we always get exactly what we want out of our projects, but we do get what we need. I don’t think the feature would be as good if I hadn’t done Stoned Breakups. We had to cycle through a new cast of fifteen to twenty actors every three days. Learning how to do that on the fly was important.” 

Stoned Breakups also imparted lessons about on-set collaboration Ben was able to carry over to his feature work. 

“What I learned on Stoned Breakups really was to listen. As a director, I always go in with a plan. But that plan, in my mind, is really a backup plan. 
It’s there if I’m having a disconnect with an actor or a department head. That way there’s a Plan B and we still get a great film. But nine times out of ten I feel like the result is better if I just say, ‘Show me what you got.’ Then we build off that together.” 

Directors who get the best performances and work from their team are good listeners. They allow the experts in each department to do their best work, which elevates the material. 

However, it's also important to have a backup plan in case things go wrong. By staying flexible and open to feedback, directors can create better sets and films.

“I love actors. What actors do, it’s so vulnerable. I’ll be watching the monitor completely engrossed. They’ll make me forget for a moment that I'm directing.” 

Stoned Breakups premiered its most recent season at the 2022 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF). The series' brand of silliness, satire, and dark comedy fit Rodriguez’s directing style like a glove. The tone of which led to him developing his first feature movie. 

Developing America’s Next Top Immigrant

Ben originally conceived America’s Next Top Immigrant as a satirical take on US immigration policy through the lens of a ridiculously cutthroat reality show. 

Taking inspiration from Tyra Banks' infamous reality show, America’s Next Top Model, Ben decided to write the initial draft of his script.

Several drafts and a full table-read later, he decided to start putting his team together. 

Ben’s experience making ambitious shorts like Stoned Breakups, numerous fellowships, and support from his fellow filmmakers in Blackmagic Collective paved the way for a fairly smooth production. The shoot was nine days total with 55 actors involved.  

Going the fully independent route, Ben had to wear many hats. These included production duties, set design, and even editing the first four rough cuts of the film. 

As the film began to take shape in the editing bay, Ben started to think about what the audience response might be. And while he deeply believed in the concept, he knew any film that took comedic risks about the darker aspects of US immigration policy was courting controversy. 

Don’t be afraid to take risks

Amazing debut features are generally the ones that don’t play it safe. But making a film is an exercise in vulnerability. In many ways, it bares your soul to the audience. And that can be daunting. 

“We’ve realized we may get certain critiques for calling out America’s immigration system.  
I don’t think the film goes nearly as far as some of the gory violence and sexual assault that I currently see in other projects. But it does make me wonder, if that is what’s deemed acceptable, who is anyone to inform me on what my standards should be?”

Stories that can be seen as controversial can instead become enlightening when they focus on personal experience. This is because personal experience is inherently relatable. It allows us to see the world through the eyes of another person, and to understand their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. 

“My Dad is from Mexico and formerly undocumented. My Mom is from Israel; her father was a Holocaust refugee. Their lives had concerns like murder and genocide. So when there’s a darker segment in the fictional world of the movie, like the ICE Raid Challenge, what matters to me is that my Dad laughs. Actually, he pitched the idea to me!”

But Ben’s father wasn’t the only one pitching him ideas for the script. As it turns out, the creative process started to become a family affair.  

“My abuela had important stories as well, of things she had experienced when coming to the States. We wound up giving her a ‘Story By’ credit in the film.”

Festival programmers and film distributors seek out original and thought-provoking stories that evoke a range of emotions from audiences, from laughter to fear to reflection. 

While your vision for your first feature may be rooted in the classic haunted house movie, put your own unique spin on it. Don't be afraid to use personal experiences, take risks, and stand out.

Final filmmaking thoughts 

Ben left us with a few final thoughts on filmmaking: 

“When I was celebrating picture lock with one of our EP’s, there was this moment where I was like – I think I only made this movie so I could hang out with you guys. I just love being with friends, and collaborating on set.
My ultimate vision is collaboration. I love working with people who are more patient, creative, thoughtful, and empathetic than me to shape the work.” 

Ultimately, filmmaking can be a unique reflection of the creative process when it allows the audience to feel the sense of camaraderie and joy shared by the people working together.

You can keep following Ben and the film’s journey by checking out @antithemovie on Instagram.  

Wrapping up

Making a first feature isn’t easy, but Wrapbook articles such as Managing Your Team: Best Practices for Production can help make your first production go smoothly. 

Additionally, check out Wrapbook’s Production Incentives Center as well as the Best Filmmaking Grants for People of Color to really get the ball rolling. Who knows, around this same time next year, you could be in a theater watching your own movie.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Daniela Bailes

Daniela Bailes is a working film and television writer whose work travels across genres. A proud alumnus of the Yale Writer’s Conference in New Haven, she was mentored by literary luminaries before being selected for the National Hispanic Media Coalition TV Writer’s Program, a feature writer on the Latinx Black List, and as a participant in the Sundance Episodic Lab. Her most recent work was staffing on the upcoming Paramount science-fiction series, The Shift, also selling a feature script to A+E Networks.

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