Local Filmmaker in Focus: Ben Myers

Ben Myers headshot

For this issue of my Filmmaker in Focus series, I sat down for a lengthy chat with local filmmaker, Ben Myers. Ben is the Founder and Managing Director of MWS Media, a long-running video production company offering specialist services in video, sound and animation to clients all across the South of England. The company is currently based at Greenham Business Park in Newbury.

Aside from this, Ben has a wide array of award-winning film credits to his name, including the feature film, ‘Nuryan’. This won the award for Best Horror/Sci-Fi Feature Film at the London Independent Film Festival. His other feature, ‘The Sweet Shop’, which features in our discussion, also won Best Editing at the London International Film Festival. Multiple scenes from this were filmed locally at The Ibex Inn in Chaddleworth near Newbury! Read about his insightful journey and all the excitements and hardships involved with pursuing a career in the Arts and Entertainment Industries…

I think the best place to start is at the beginning. What made you want to become a part of this crazy industry?

Well, I have always been creatively minded. Over the years, I have learned how to sell and market myself and my business, but storytelling is what matters most to me. I studied at university in Southampton, as going to Uni felt like something I was supposed to do. I studied English Literature, but I did take a film module. This is where my passion for filmmaking began. I once had to deliver a 15-minute presentation about the use of eyes in cinematic storytelling. This ended up lasting two hours! This involved looking at the dramatic close-up of the T-Rex eye in Jurassic Park and also how eyes were used by Hitchcock and in Film Noir to convey emotion. I found everything about this project fascinating!

I enjoyed what you might call the typical ‘student experience’ and probably didn’t think ahead as much as I could have. The period after graduating was tough. I was trying to break into a very difficult and competitive industry that I didn’t know very much about, initially by finding work as a Runner. I was fortunate enough that my family was supportive of my chosen career path.

Avenue Campus at the University of Southampton, the hub of Southampton's filmmaking community today.

Eventually, I started a job at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury. I was responsible for managing its touring programme among various other community initiatives. I had plenty of opportunities to develop and showcase my writing here. I remember thinking how amazing it was that writing could become a paid, routine part of my day! One of my first plays, a psychological thriller called Walking with Shadows was discovered by a local publisher who’d read about it in one of our brochures. He published the play and this became studied in the national GCSE drama curriculum. It was also used as a revision tool on BBC Bitesize for about six years, I think.

I later adapted Walking with Shadows into a film. I pitched this to Film 4 and things were looking promising. Although the film was made, it didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped, so I did what any self-respecting person does and ran off to Perth in Australia. I continued working there in theatre with children and young people. I pitched another one of my projects; this was accepted and went on tour. I eventually returned to the UK and continued mentoring children and differently-abled children. There was one nice occasion when some of my former students from Australia toured the UK, so we combined groups and did some work together.

I’m glad you brought up pitching. This is an important skill that all filmmakers struggle to get their heads around. How have you found this?

In some ways, we are starting this process properly ourselves. We have a new TV show we are working to get commissioned by one of the major broadcasters. We can come back to this later. I suppose there are different types of pitching. Some are to attract the interest of fellow creatives and the other is to sell your project to investors. This can be more difficult. Some investors are genuinely curious about your project, whilst for others, it’s purely business and they expect a return on their investment. Many investors aren’t even from a media background. An investor for one of my films was a football manager!

What’s become clear to me through speaking with creatives like yourself is that there’s no fixed route to finding work in this industry. How did you navigate the transition from theatre to film? Was this challenging? 

Honestly, I’d never made a film before, nor did I have any film-related experience until I first called ‘action’ onset. It was a huge learning curve. In the early days, I would look to my DP for reassurance, even when it came to calling ‘cut’ on a take.

That said, coming from theatre did have its own advantages. I was comfortable blocking the actors as I already had years of experience choreographing actors onstage. It’s a running joke in my team that I still use stage directions onset and am concerned with what side of the screen the actors enter and exit. Everything comes with experience.

In many ways, we don’t consider ourselves to be ‘in the industry’ as such. We like to think of ourselves as people who simply enjoy making films. It’s all down to the process for me; I love being onset with my cast and crew. I think that filmmakers who create stuff just to win big at festivals are missing the point of it all.

Can you tell me now about how your company MWS Media started?

I started MWS Media with Phil, my business partner, who scored one of my first plays. It’s always been important to the pair of us to make films alongside our commercial and corporate work. We used to hide this fact from our corporate clients, before realizing that this actually made us quite unique as a video production company. But everything is storytelling, whether this is a 30-second advert or a feature film. Of course, the downside to filmmaking is that the funding often comes out of our own pockets. We also have to sacrifice months of our normal work schedule to concentrate on a film.

It takes perseverance and being ready to adapt to do what you want to do. I’m still motivated by an interaction I had with someone many years ago who also ran a video production service. They kept postponing making this feature film for almost a decade. I vowed that I’d never become like that and would always put my storytelling first. And so Phil and I started this business, at first huddled around a heater with our laptops in our original office, where our green room is today. We landed our first video project with Prior’s Court, a care centre based in Hermitage for children and young people with autism. My background in working with differently-abled children proved useful.

We have since grown a strong roster of clients. We oversee every step of the creative process in-house, from brainstorming initial ideas and storyboarding to mustering a crew and filming a project. We also record ADR, edit, and add animations. Another thing which we discussed off the air is how unnecessary waste is a big problem on film and tv sets. We have been working to move the company forward in a greener direction by minimizing our waste onset and avoiding the use of plastic bottles. Just doing our bit.

Phil (left) and Ben (right) talking the talk.

You mentioned that a willingness to adapt is a key skill for a filmmaker. The pandemic has certainly emphasized the need for having multiple skillsets and sources of income. How did you and your company overcome this uncertain period?

It was difficult. We went from having a strong financial year in 2019 to having all our projects put on hold by the pandemic. However, this gave us time to write and develop three new projects. Now that we have more experience between us, we’ve also decided to revisit my old film, Walking with Shadows, with the intention of pitching this as TV series to companies and broadcasters. We’ve already connected with some great producers and other industry professionals.

Another way we adapted to the pandemic was by organizing presenting workshops. These attracted a lot of interest and were ideal as they could be done remotely. We were reluctant to do this at first and questioned how qualified we were to offer this service. But it traces back to what we said earlier, of how there are many transferrable skills in the arts. As a director, I am used to putting an individual first and helping them grow.

Another challenge for filmmakers is securing talent. What was the process behind convincing actors like Gemma Atkinson and Matthew Lewis to appear in your film, ‘The Sweet Shop’?

It’s usually the case that you or someone you know knows them or their agent. We had Gemma Atkinson in one of the lead roles, who’d previously starred in Hollyoaks. Matthew Lewis was also fresh off the Harry Potter franchise, but you wouldn’t have said so. All of the cast were really lovely, dedicated, and a pleasure to work with. 

Again, with me, I like to get grounded in the process onset. I much prefer this to the business side of filmmaking. I’ve had lots of experience working with cast and crew across a variety of formats and have learnt to speak the lingo. In my theatre days, I even joined the other side and made myself try acting on stage. Whoever they are, big stars or lesser-known talent, actors enjoy collaborating. They are working towards the same goals as you. There is always a healthy balance of nerves involved in this process, but this is important as it shows that you care. I think that’s what was missing for me when I used to play cricket, so that’s why I decided to leave that behind.

Promotional poster for 'The Sweet Shop' (2013).

I couldn’t agree more. Have you got any other exciting projects lined up for the future?

Oh yes. One of our upcoming projects is a feature film exploring the dynamic between a mother and daughter. Again, this is where being open to collaboration and being open about your limitations are important. I’ve always had a strong female influence in my life growing up and as a result, many of the protagonists in my films have been women. That said, as a middle-aged white man I know I can’t fully hope to understand the relationship between a mother and daughter. So, it was great to work with the actors and hear their thoughts on this.

We recently held script readthroughs in our studio. I’ve always been firm on the belief that scripts, whether in film or theatre, are not meant to be read. They are meant to be spoken. Only when an actor brings a script to life with their voice do you see the story shine and understand what needs work.

From your experience, how would you describe the state of filmmaking in Berkshire? I sometimes feel this is overlooked due to the London-centric mindset many people in this industry have.

There are definitely things happening out there, but you often have to look for them. You have the new studios being set up in Winnersh. Then you have the likes of Paul Greengrass who lives in Henley. Here’s a funny anecdote for you. I was meeting a producer in a café once and they said I looked a lot like Matt Damon…

You do.

…And then at that moment, Paul Greengrass walks into the café, and this person must have thought it was a wind-up! 

We as a business are actually looking to relocate. But our locality is important to us, so we are determined to stay in Berkshire.

That is great to hear. I was once likened to Karl Pilkington with hair, so can’t say that I’m overly sympathetic. Thank you for speaking with me Ben and best of luck with all your upcoming projects! 

The Sweet Shop (2013) is available to rent and buy on Vimeo.

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