From fast food chain employee to filmmaker

Writer-director Benjamin Bee shares his journey

9 July 2019

I think I’m meant to be talking about my film Metroland, but I want to use this article to address something else. Some of you will be sitting there feeling dejected as you’re struggling to get anything made and thinking: “How the f*ck is he a Screen International Star of Tomorrow? I could do much better! I just don’t have access to funding or go to film school”.

I’ve been where you are, and I want to share my path to where I am now and be honest about it.

I often hear filmmakers say they got into film because they were given a video camera when they were young, or someone in the family works in the business, or after private school and then English lit at Oxford. My route was a little different.

I’ve always felt like an outsider; I grew up in Newcastle as the youngest in a big family with little money. School was hell; I am severely dyslexic and was a troubled child. I finally got kicked out when I was 14 and barely avoided getting sent to a Young Offenders’ Institute. At this point I could barely even spell my own name, let alone read. If you would’ve told me back then that I would become a writer, I would have laughed while trying to nick your wallet.

Between the ages of 14 and 16 I worked long days packing batteries in a factory and washing dishes, and spent too much time in bars and clubs.

At 16, while working a job that I hated in McDonald’s, I was offered an Access to Education course at a local college. At this point I had no sense of self-worth and felt like at 16 I had already ruined my life, so I gave it a go.

Then some lovely friends and I found the college video camera and began making little unscripted films. We showed them to people – some of them complete strangers – and they loved them. Finally this high school dropout felt like he had a voice and most importantly, a purpose.

I started working in a video store and watched every single film they stocked. Films like Happiness and A Room for Romeo Brass had a profound effect on me and provided that first spark of hope.

By some miracle I went on to university, where I met Rob Watson (now a very talented producer). I wrote my first ever short script which we then turned into a film, casting the phenomenally talented Dan Mersh (which was probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life). It was the purest experience I’ve ever had as a filmmaker. No one outside the crew cared what we were doing or why we were doing it, so at no point did we have to explain ourselves.

We screened the short at graduation and I moved back to Newcastle. It did well at film festivals and was even screened on the BBC, but I had absolutely no idea about what to do with my career.

At 22 I was drinking heavily, and back working in a job that I hated. I spent the following years writing and making things to try and gain some attention from the powers that be, only to be rejected every time.

I decided to look for a way out, and an MA was suggested to me by an old tutor. I applied and was rejected by one school, accepted by another, but couldn’t raise enough money to go.

Then something strange happened: I got accepted by the London Film School. I went for an interview and was told that I was really talented. I had to wait to find out if I could get funding, and then the offer for a Skillset bursary came through, I burst into tears.

Film school is out of this world. It’s the opportunity to work with others who care about cinema as much as you do, regardless of their backgrounds. For a little while there I lost my way; I tried to write films that I thought people wanted to see rather than the stories that I wanted to tell. It sucked all the joy out of the process, and everything that I made felt really dull.

Then it occurred to me that the only thing that made my work interesting was telling honest and personal stories. My work could be cathartic and fun, but also resonate with audiences. It didn’t matter if we didn’t have the budget – like all the films I’d admired growing up, it’s the story that audiences care about.

There have been many times when I’ve wanted to quit filmmaking on account of the constant rejection, the lack of money and the toll that it can take on your mental health.

But then I ask myself: ‘What else would ever make me happy?’ Then I’d re-watch my favourite films and I know the answer. Nothing.

I once told Ted Hope about the profound effect that Happiness had on me when I was growing up and he responded by telling me “I grew up in a small rural area [back then]. 4000 people that I did not connect with. Before I found his films, I found John Waters' books and they inspired me to not hide what I loved and admired.” It occurred to me that we are inspired by other artists who in turn once felt like outsiders and found solace in others’ work.  

After film school I gravitated back to Newcastle where I met the super talented producer Maria Caruana Galizia who instantly got what it was I was trying to do on my own. We quickly became a team. It was no longer ‘I’ but ‘we’.

We applied for iShorts and the Pears Film Fund, pulled together a script in a day, and a few months later we were selected for both. We are now making two features together.

I still feel like a 14-year-old reject, but I now understand that although things are undeniably easier if you’re well-connected or wealthy, it’s possible to make your own path, with the hope that if it works out you can help support others who feel excluded from the industry.

So next time you feel like you’re not good enough, ask yourself: “If I don’t make this, who will inspire the generations to come?”

Don’t wait for permission; it’s not about getting people in power to believe in you, but finding people who you love along this journey and keeping them close. 

Oh, and to answer the question of why I was selected as a Screen International Star of Tomorrow? I have no f*cking idea! A mistake? Luck? Who knows… but as Tom Waits sings: “Luck is when opportunity meets with preparation…”

Watch Benjamin’s short film Metroland here.