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Arma Benoit of Group 129: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

Photo credits: Lola Scott

JUST START. I guess for a long time I was waiting on a formal invitation. But my career as a director didn’t start until I just went and shot my short and a few music videos. And I have a lot of experience. I wasn’t some fresh-faced ingenue. And yet, somehow, that experience didn’t translate into my getting directing work. It did, of course, and continues to, serve me very well as a director. It just didn’t open the doors I thought it would. My short film did that.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Arma Benoit.

Arma Benoit is a director and producer who has been working in film since the late 90’s. She came up doing music videos with some of the most iconic Atlanta artists-Outkast, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & T.I. to name a few. She settled into support positions on films and television shows while she raised her young children, working all 8 seasons of The Vampire Diaries, before moving to Step Up-Highwater, Black Lightning, Greenleaf and Genius: Aretha, among others.

Her first released short as director, “Amaia,” was well received and won several festivals and placed in several others. Just as momentum from the short began to build, Covid hit and brought the film world to a screeching halt.

Yet, for Arma, opportunities to direct professionally suddenly presented themselves, in the form of music videos. And thus, she was brought full circle, back to a familiar and happy place.

She hopes to move back into narrative this year with another short, and hopefully some opportunities for episodic as well, before moving to her ultimate goal: features.

It’s an exciting time for her, and we sat down to talk more about her journey and what she’s learned so far, and what she hopes to learn (“everything!” she’d say.)

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I traveled a lot as a kid because of my dad’s job-I lived in France as a child. Lived all over the Southeast US. I remember sometimes feeling jealous of the kids who had lived in the same town their whole lives. But now, I can see how important to my storytelling that travel really was. And also, it definitely demands a certain flexibility, sort of constantly merging into new groups. A lot like film sets.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was 8 I remember asking my mom how they made movies and tv shows. And she said “I really have no idea, but I know it’s a job. Writing the story, then coming up with the sets and the costumes and directing the actors.” And it was like somebody had slapped me across my face. A job?! Like being a doctor or a teacher?! And that was it. I haven’t ever considered another job, really ever, other than storyteller.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

Oh my gosh, I produced music videos in Atlanta, Georgia in the late 90’s/early 2000’s (laughs) so I saw all kinds of crazy stuff. We shot Lil Jon and The Eastside Boyz “Get Low” at (strip club) The Body Tap, and it was closed for most of the day. But when we weren’t done when they were ready to open their doors, that got crazy. The end of long film shoot coupled with a working strip club-crazy is perhaps too mild a word. (laughs)

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

There’s too many after all this time. The best ones involve celebrities, and it’s bad form to share those stories. Let’s just say, after working with everyone for eight years on The Vampire Diaries-eight years is an ETERNITY in the film business-well after all that time, I saw some pretty hilarious and wild stuff. Let’s leave it at that. (laughs)

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My friend (music producer and artist) Ashilee Roberts has influenced my life as a filmmaker in so many ways. We have (and are) coming up on parallel paths. She scored my short film and it was a first for both of us. Now, we are both working full-time in our fields and it’s still “pinch me” some days. Anyway, our lives are so intertwined, whether she’s scoring films I’m doing or I’m directing a music video for her or one of her artists, literally a week doesn’t pass where we’re not doing something creative together. All good things seem to stem from Ashilee.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Separate yourself from the results.” It’s so easy to hang all our hopes on the results. But we didn’t become artists because we desire results beyond the art itself. That’s society placing these notions in our head. Finishing a song should bring you great joy. Completing a music video should make me happy and the editor happy, and the colorist, and the DP, and the wardrobe stylist and of course, the artist. And yet, so many conversations are about how many views, how many likes, how much revenue. I know it’s a business, but as creatives, we have to find a way to make creation the goal. I have found if I focus on the art itself and only that, it always turns out as it should. Once people start doing things like using focus groups, or caring too much about the analytics, it starts to ruin the art.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Coming from Atlanta, we’ve been diverse since before it was “a thing.” I was fortunate enough to come up under some great directors, who happened to not be white. Hype Williams, Benny Boom, Billie Woodruff, Rob Hardy, Fat Cats, Lenny Bass to name a few. And I worked for black-owned and often also female-owned production companies. It wasn’t until I started doing television that everything got really white. When I started on Greenleaf, it was like coming home. I thought, “Here is everyone!” So many crew people I knew from before. It’s funny how easy it is to have a diverse film crew in Atlanta. In fact, if you don’t have a diverse crew, it feels purposeful and wrong-at least in the A.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am beside myself with excitement for my latest video to release. We recreated 5 iconic music videos from the 1980’s, only we replaced the white male lead with our artist, Oomy Obsidiãn. It’s supposed to come out on the 4th of June and I can’t wait. After that, I’m finishing up a few more videos and then updating my reel. I am really ready to move back into narrative. There’s so much episodic work here right now, I feel confident I can get that going.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

Cruelty-free productions. I’m not bragging, I’m stating a fact: I’ve never directed a job where at least one person hasn’t come up to me to say how much fun they had and how nice it was to be on a set where everyone is encouraging of each other.

When I was directing “Match the Motion” (music video for Cherae Leri) we were at the end of a very long day. One of the dancers had her parents with her, and they came up to me and thanked me. Apparently they had just done a job where the director was horrible to the dancers. They were impressed by how focused we all were on the work but also how we were always kind to each other. It was the nicest compliment I could have received.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. JUST START. I guess for a long time I was waiting on a formal invitation. But my career as a director didn’t start until I just went and shot my short and a few music videos. And I have a lot of experience. I wasn’t some fresh-faced ingenue. And yet, somehow, that experience didn’t translate into my getting directing work. It did, of course, and continues to, serve me very well as a director. It just didn’t open the doors I thought it would. My short film did that.
  2. FIX IT IN PREP. People love to joke “fix it in post” on set, but that usually means something wasn’t properly planned. The more you plan, the smoother the shoot days go. Plus, it helps you anticipate obstacles & challenges.
  3. ONLY YOU CAN FILL YOUR SPOT. There’s a lot of paranoia and discouragement between creatives, and it never made sense to me. Nobody can tell MY stories; they’re mine. Nobody can fill MY spot; it’s mine. The stories can go untold, and the spot can go unfilled,-if I don’t do the work-but no one can replace me.
  4. BE ABLE TO ANSWER “WHY.” I need to always be able to say “why” I am making my current project. There’s a reason I want to tell that story. So, when deciding which projects you want to do, figure out the “why” and you’ll see quickly whether it’s a good decision or not.
  5. KEEP GROWING. There’s a fine balance between tried and true and new and improved. Some things from 75 years ago are still a good idea today. And some technology that just came out allows us to do things they could never have dreamed of back then. Studying both new and past techniques, technology, philosophies, all of that matters; all of that adds to your toolkit as a director. Never stop evolving.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

The story. Everything revolves around that. I don’t mean the plot, I mean the story. What is it about? Because that is the part that drives me to tell that story. Otherwise it’s just an interesting or amusing tale to tell at a cocktail party. So for me, the wardrobe, the set design, the affectations of a character, the color correction, the music, all of it serves to tell the story. I shouldn’t say it before I’ve been signed to a major agency (laughs) but I could care less about the financiers. That’s the beginning of the ruin of every good idea.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It’s not my own unique idea, but it has been at the center of my goal from day one: to transform how the film business creates and pays. Too many people are missing their children’s lives because of 18 hour days. And the lure of pay (and great union benefits!) makes it impossible to resist. I’d like to see us work 8 hour days 5 days a week and just take longer to produce a film or an episode. That and change the pay so that everyone benefits from a project’s success. But even beyond that, adjust the beginning pay tiers, so that one person isn’t making literally thousands of dollars more a week than the next in line. Especially because everyone knows that the lowest paid film workers are the ones that work the longest and most grueling hours.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Yeah sure, Peter Roth, call me. (laughs) Honestly, anyone that is interested in collaborating, let’s talk. To me, that’s the most beautiful aspect of film: all those people collaborating with a singular goal-to create that specific piece of artwork. It’s lovely, if you really think about it.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Our Group 129 website, Instagram page and YouTube page are the best ways to keep up with our projects.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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