In this Q&A with Wesconnect, Ben Selkow ’96 talks about making documentaries, being on time for Jeanine Basinger’s class, and his recent project in Mississippi. Ben directed and produced the Mississippi episode of Parts Unknown, an award-winning CNN series following Anthony Bourdain as he explores places around the world.
Tune in on May 18 at 9 p.m. EST to watch the Mississippi special.
WESCONNECT: How do you connect with Mississippi?
BEN SELKOW: I came onto PARTS UNKNOWN and talked with our amazing executive producer at Zero Point Zero Productions who conveyed Tony’s initial thoughts ahead of meeting with him. He had never been to Mississippi, but had three people he definitely wanted to pay a visit to when we were going to shoot there: a writer in Oxford, a revered food historian and writer, and a renown chef and restaurateur. Not surprisingly, the three folks turned out to be incredible resources to the rest of the state from Jackson and into the Delta. In some ways, the state is small and folks know each other, so as part of the extended pre-production period, I got on the phone with as many locals, proprietors, academics, and musicians as I could. Pre-interview, oral tradition, as it were, led to all kinds of great people and ideas for the show. We worked together to craft an outline of scenes, places, foods, history, themes, and music to explore once we were shooting, then headed to Mississippi to shoot.
I’ve filmed a lot in other parts of the Deep South. Mississippi was its own universe for sure. I really connected with a lot of the people there and am deeply grateful for the trust, generosity of time and spirit. They all know the history and the contemporary conditions, but the human capital expressed in the ingenuity, creativity and resilience is remarkable. I have a lot of love for the people we met with down there.
WC: What interests you most about nonfiction film/tv? How did you get into this genre?
BEN: I really had no idea about documentaries when I came to Wesleyan (though my mom and dad were featured in one in the late 1970’s when were living in Canada). I think there was always some creative tension between my dream to create escapist entertainment (full nerd disclosure: my Wesleyan admissions essay was partially on “Star Wars”), and a desire to immerse in all cultures and work towards some better social good. I was a Film and African-American Studies double-major at Wes. I had some incredible professors at Wesleyan, Jeanine Basinger of course, my mentor. But in AFAM, Jeff Kerr-Ritchie, Cynthia Horan, Ashraf Rushdy and Gayle Pemberton were very influential on me and how I should participate in the world. My senior thesis screenplay was a historical fiction piece set during the Harlem Renaissance, so I was probably slowly drifting towards documentaries and non-fiction early on.
But, I didn’t really get into non-fiction work until after working for two years as a production assistant and assistant director on studio narrative films. It is a guild system, and I was hungry to have more creative control sooner. I decided to make a documentary about street basketball. It turned into something wildly different but became my first film A SUMMER IN THE CAGE, which Sundance Channel eventually acquired. Since then, it’s been all non-fiction (with some work in commercial, digital and branded work). I’ve had so many incredible experiences. Always hope to keep working and have more adventures.
WC: How did your time at Wes influence your life today? Any favorite memories?
BEN: Wesleyan was incredibly influential in my life. I really loved it there. My wife, who also went to Wes, jokes that she was shocked we didn’t name our daughter Wesleyana. My world was so deeply widened at Wesleyan. I met my best friends, was challenged and inspired by my professors and classmates. It was so refreshing to be in a culture where passion and independence intellectually was so deeply respected. Almost all of my friends went onto to some self-designed, entrepreneurial plan in life. Jeanine Basinger got us prepared for the rigors of the film world in several ways. She taught us that 5 minutes early is late in the film world. She’d lock you out of her class, if you weren’t early. Good life lesson for a film set. And for PARTS UNKNOWN, Tony comes from the restaurant business where there is never an excuse to not show up or be on time. He’s always early.
Image: c/o of Ben Selkow
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