In early 2010 I was living in Los Angeles and was scheduled to edit a Chrysler commercial for the Portland, Oregon-based advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy.
When the team arrived at my office at Rock Paper Scissors, they were a man down, as the art director, Jimm Lasser, had remained in New York. He was shooting the burial of his cousin’s pet monkey.
When Jimm joined us in Los Angeles two days later, he described the story of his cousin, Allen Hirsch, who had nursed a baby monkey back to health while on honeymoon in Venezuela, smuggled the monkey back to New York and spent the next 13 years living as a wild artist in SoHo with the capuchin monkey ever on his shoulders. The monkey’s name was Benjamin, and they were niche celebrities of the neighborhood.
The story was ludicrous enough, but made even more bizarre by the revelation that, after Benjamin’s passing, Allen had kept his body in a small freezer in his art studio for over three months. Allen, an established artist, used the body as a model while he sought a suitable way to release his grief: creating a sculpture of his beloved Benjamin. When Jimm showed us previews of what he had shot, there was an inherent oddness to the situation. As sad as the tale was, it was somehow funny when observed in small doses. Needless to say, I was intrigued and keen to watch everything he had shot.
We completed the Chrysler commercial and all parties moved on to their next projects. Whilst en route to Boston for another commercial, I noticed that I had a copy of Jimm’s footage on my spare drive, as we had loaded it from his camera so he could have a copy and then forgotten to erase it. I spent the flight watching the material and was instantly hooked. When viewed as snippets, the initially hilarious moments now played out as tragic in context.
As a commercial editor, I am often tasked with conveying a message in the most efficient way possible. Here, I saw my first hint that removing the necessity of brevity would affect the story I could tell. Admittedly, I did feel somewhat intrusive watching this footage. These were very personal revelations of a man in mourning, and intimate moments captured by a member of Allen’s family. But, as an editor of commercials, whose job it is to help sell products, I savored the indulgence of focusing purely on emotion and story.
I cut together a sort of introduction piece with the funeral and interview footage and sent it to Jimm. He and I had worked together prior to the Chrysler spot, and I was well aware of his accomplishments as an ad man. He had been responsible for some of the better commercials out there and conducted himself with a level of intelligence and discernment I found invigorating.
Jimm was also—and I say this in the best way possible—rather disagreeable; which is to say, he and I disagreed a lot. This brought to our work, however, a healthy debate that led to more robust creative decisions. I’ve often felt that the strongest creative comes from disagreement, and our relationship often embodied that.
It was of great relief to me that he received the news of my snooping rather well. I had not exactly used the footage in the way he had intended, but I think he was glad to see something put together. Shortly thereafter, he brought on his musical collaborator, Alison Ables, to help give our project the appropriate tone.
Allen saw the 10-minute piece on the funeral we’d made, and this opened the floodgates to him providing us his entire archive of home videos, paintings, news clippings and more. New stories emerged. Jimm interviewed various friends and family members who had interacted with Benjamin. The drama that played out in these stories made for a much more compelling film than a man who had a pet in his apartment. However, from an editing standpoint, the introduction of new material made the structure of the film ever-changing. Long Live Benjamin is a somewhat stream of consciousness—very similar to how Allen Hirsch tells his extraordinary stories.
Over the next five years, in and around our advertising roles and personal lives, we worked on shaping the story. We would often cite various references to help guide our storytelling techniques, which uncovered a shared love for the format of radio shows such as This American Life and Radiolab. These served as the key inspiration during the early stages of making the movie.
Unlike advertising, where the creative serves the client, the film we were growing could be as scrappy as we liked, and we embraced the scrapbook-style visual that also served as a nod to Hirsch’s work in various mediums. I learned a new pacing to my edit style, which I thought of as “breathing deeper” than usual. I could allow each shot to linger, rather than needing to compress a whole story into 30 or 60 seconds. I generally thrive within the restrictions placed on producing a commercial, be it schedule, budget, running time or client demands. All of these are hoops that one learns to jump through. The editing is often the easy part. With this project, however, there were no limitations: There was no budget, we were our own clients, and our ship date was eternal.
Practically speaking, one of the biggest differences between making an ad and making this movie was the time spent doing it. Usually, I play host to a room of people, a team with whom I collaborate to make something many people will see. This comes from an idea paid for by a large corporation, and many very talented people come together to see it brought to life. It is my job to see it through its final, and often most delicate, stages. There are clients to please, but my job is to make sure it is executed in the most tasteful way possible.
Long Live Benjamin, in contrast, was an intimate experience. I cut almost entirely on my laptop, keeping a copy of the media in my backpack for over five years. Any vacation I took with my family, Benjamin came with us. My late nights were spent re-living the trials and tribulations of raising a monkey in New York. Jimm and I both lived in New York at the same time for three years, which certainly helped move things along. Otherwise we’d send notes and Quicktimes, or new interviews, and then get back to it whenever our schedules lined up. Truly, it never occurred to me that anyone besides Jimm and I would see this thing.
Then I showed it to my colleague and mentor Angus Wall (editor of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network) and Linda Carlson, the founders of Rock Paper Scissors. (We also have an entertainment division that has produced the Oscar-nominated Winter On Fire, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang and 30 for 30: First Pitch.) They, along with RPS Entertainment executive producer Jason Sterman, suggested that there was a life for Benjamin beyond the laptop, which, in turn, led to a conversation with The New York Times’ Op-Docs. It was The New York Times’ Op-Docs who suggested releasing it in episodic form.
Having this release structure, after years of marching to our own beat, helped instill a discipline to our storytelling that the film greatly benefited from. Jimm and I both found the format more appealing once we had a moment to consider it. Telling the story in episodes brought it closer to a video podcast in style, and the need for each chapter to have a purpose helped guide the viewer. With the fresh eyes of my two co-editors, Alyssa Oh and Neil Meiklejohn, we quickly figured out what was needed and what had to go.
Of course, the irony isn’t lost on me that as an advertising editor, my first feature would ultimately transform into shorter segments. But I am also aware that the short helpings, unfolding over time, are great for those of us who love a complex narrative but hardly ever have time to sit down and watch a full-length film. In Op-Docs wisdom, they understood the importance of conveying Long Live Benjamin in a way to reach a larger audience. It is a one-of-a-kind story, but one that speaks to the universal desire to feel connected and loved.
One of the coolest aspects of making commercials is that, generally speaking, you tend to be on to the next one quite often. This keeps things fresh and varied. With this project, much like Allen’s statue of Benjamin, I found myself struggling to let go and accept its completion.
Thankfully, my backpack is now one hard drive lighter. MM
Long Live Benjamin is available to watch here, courtesy of The New York Times Op-Docs.
Director and editor Biff Butler is the son of Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler and spent his youth immersed in music, both his father’s and his own. Releasing albums and touring, Butler began an unconventional journey that would ultimately lead him to become an award-winning editor, earning AICE and Clio awards, an Emmy and the Cannes Gold Lion. Butler directed the massive Kobe Bryant farewell to China spot for Nike, and high-profile spots for NBA and Nestlé via Elastic. Long Live Benjamin is Butler’s first documentary feature.