A Conversation With… Ben Younger
Younger and Wiser
Writer and director Ben Younger has taken a long road to get to his latest film, Bleed for This. Along the way, he’s had a political career, worked with Meryl Streep and learned how to race motorcycles and fly airplanes. But most of all, he's learned what is really important to him.
Michael Mundy: Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Ben Younger: I grew up in New York, Flatbush. My mom went to Jersey, so I split my time between Jersey and Flatbush. My dad stayed in Brooklyn.
MM: I read that you’re a writer first, and then a successful director. But you were also in politics. How was that?
BY: I was a political science major, I was very excited by, it’s funny to say it now, but I was very excited by the documents that this country was founded on. Going to Yeshiva… the idea is to learn a profession and keep your head down. Being from the next generation of Holocaust survivors, there’s not a lot of emphasis on chasing your dreams, it’s just about learning a profession, that really was it. So political science was a good middle ground. It felt like it was a legitimate course of study.
MM: What year did you graduate with your political science degree?
BY: Hmm… I don’t know. It would have been ‘92?
MM: Okay, so Clinton was in office. What were your thoughts on Clinton at that time? I was excited because it was the first guy I voted for that won.
BY: You remember voting for Clinton?
MM: Yes, and being excited that he won.
BY: Yeah, I was excited. Clinton was great, we had a surplus. I mean, we screwed up on Rwanda but we got Bosnia, right? I thought we were stepping into the right conflicts, generally, and we were doing good for the world. At least, that’s how it felt to me as a twenty-something-year-old. I realized I was going to go into that world, and then all these balloons burst. My father died when I was nineteen and my professor, Alan Hevesi, who was a city controller took me under his wing. I was at Queen’s College and there was this great program where he would take political science majors and put them in a state assemblyperson or senator’s office as an intern––like a legislative’s aid––for a whole semester. So people in my class spread out around New York, but because my dad had passed and I wanted to be near my family, Alan said you can be my legislative aid for this session. It was great, I got to spend all this time with a pretty strong male figure who helped me get through the loss of my dad. He was great to me.
MM: And what was his district?
BY: It was the twenty-eighth assembly district. It was Forest Hill’s Regal Park Middle Village. I became the youngest campaign manager in New York City history because I ran the campaign for Melinda Katz who ran for his vacated assembly seat. And that campaign went south. The opponent went negative in his campaign and made some allegations about my candidate’s extramarital involvement with Alan, which was not based in fact and the whole thing just got so dark and terrible.
MM: Sounds like you punted from the politics.
BY: Yeah, it totally ruined my taste for it.
MM: So how old were you when you left politics? Was that when you started the Boiler Room?
BY: I was twenty-two. That was a couple of years later. So I quit the controller’s office with a job to go work on a movie that fell through the day I was packing up my stuff. I remember it was Friday. I got a call that the movie had fallen through. I was like, what do you mean? I quit my job today! So a guy named Will Arno called me. He knew what I had given up, so he brought me on to Kill a Priest–a music video by the Wu-Tang Clan. And that was my first job in the business. I didn’t know shit.
MM: Why a grip?
BY: It was because I wanted to work with my hands. One of the other things about the upbringing I had is that there was no value put on the physical. There was no value on anything tactile. It was purely intellectual pursuits. But that’s been my whole life, just trying to cultivate that side of myself. That’s why I’m up here, and that’s why I race bikes and fly planes and cook. All these things are tactile.
MM: I can relate to that but I’m curious about your take on it. When you touch things, what happens?
BY: Well it’s physical for one. The feedback is instantaneous as opposed to the kind of pursuits that we were taught to go after. Which also were very rewarding, but they weren’t immediate. Look, I chose to be a writer so there’s a part of that that I enjoy very much but it’s not immediate and I wanted that immediacy. And that’s what you get from putting your hands on something—from cooking a meal or being a grip, and just the manual labor of moving sandbags around, there was something that was very satisfying about that.
MM: Let’s back up even further. You’re in politics. What makes you look towards film?
BY: I always loved movies. But again, the same way there was no emphasis on physical, there was no emphasis on artistic pursuits growing up. Which is funny, because if you look at Jewish contributions over time in the arts, it’s staggering.
MM:: It’s huge, almost lopsided.
BY: Yeah, Orthodox Judaism is very different from Secular Judaism. We may have the same lineage, but it’s really different when you add that religious aspect to it. I love movies, but because there wasn’t an emphasis on the arts, you never make a connection between the movies that you love and the idea that someone makes them. But then every time I visited my dad, that’s all we would do. We would watch movies.
MM: Let's get back to your writing. Did you keep a journal?
BY: Yeah, I kept a journal forever. I have them all. Haven’t cracked one, but one of these days. It’s still a little early for that. Don’t want to get too nostalgic, especially now I feel like I’m just on the verge of getting into a more industrious part of my professional life. I want to work now, so I’m not eager to look back right now. But yeah, I remember writing my first script when I was twenty, twenty-one. It was about an Orthodox Jewish bowler called Lanes of Glory: The Martin Danzer Story. I wrote it with this guy named John Cops. He was my roommate’s older brother, and he liked movies too.
MM: You haven’t shot it?
BY: No, I was gripping for a while and one winter it got slow, so I interviewed at a real boiler room thinking I was just going to get a job, and then that’s that.
MM: So that story is true?
BY: I never worked there, but yeah, it’s true. I sat through that Ben Affleck scene in real life, where that guy just talks at you, tells you you’re going to be a millionaire. I saw all these bright-eyed kids in the room. And growing up in Brooklyn, it was so obvious it was a scam, but these kids were eating it up. I remember just thinking, are you fucking kidding me?
MM: So you leave there thinking this is a great story, I’m going to write this.
BY: Yeah, you know, that didn’t take any foresight. If you were in that room, you would’ve been like, okay, this is it. It was so obvious that there was a story there, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
MM: How long did it take you to write it?
BY: Six months.
MM: I remember reading that Ben Affleck was so impressed by the writing that he decided to do it, which is a huge compliment.
BY: Yeah, he’s the reason the movie got made. I mean, New Line, who ended up making the movie, offered me an incredible sum of money to sell the script and walk away. But I realized I wanted to direct. I’d been gripping and I worked on some sets early on as a production assistant. I remember thinking, that’s the job I want. So I thought, it’s worth it, let’s hold out. But that’s nice to hear. I never read anything that Ben said that.
MM: Apparently he didn’t want to see any scripts for a period, and someone said just take a look at this, read it, and he was sold on the writing alone.
BY: When he signed on, the rest of the cast tumbled in and then, we came back to New Line, and at that point, they felt like, even with me as an unknown, with this cast, with these producers, with this script, how bad could he blow it?
MM: That’s awesome. It’s like, here’s the keys to the store, go have some fun.
BY: I remember I’d only got $10,000 for the script. That’s how I made the choice not to sell because I asked my agent at the time what I’d get if I directed it. She said the minimum you would make is $155,000, and I thought, that’s the lottery, that’s so much money. I couldn’t believe it. So I was like, I don’t care if I’m not going to make it on the script side. And if you want to tie it back to my upbringing, I remember going to lunch with my grandfather. I took a photo of the check and showed him the photo at lunch. I thought he’s finally going to have to give me the credit. Because when I told him I was quitting the controller’s office, he said it was narishkeit, which means nonsense in Yiddish. So I showed him this check and he studied it and studied it and then he looks up and he goes, ‘Did it clear?’ He wasn’t kidding.
MM: So you did the Boiler Room, and that was great. What happened to you in your life at that point? Did your life change?
BY: Massively. I was in New York City and I just made a movie with Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel. The cast was deep. I mean, if you look back those were some heavy hitters. Nicky Katt, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Everett Scott, Jamie Kennedy, Scott Caan, Ron Rifkin. We didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t know anything at the time, except that I was making my movie. So yeah, it came out of that. The movie wasn’t a huge box office hit, but it had a cult following.
MM: Maybe it was a New York thing, but people certainly were talking about it. So, you wrote that, and then did you go right into your next script?
BY: No, I was running around New York. For the first time in my life, I had access. I told you, I was growing up in Brooklyn and we didn’t go into the city much. It was this other world we didn’t have access to, even though it was right across the river. Suddenly, access. So my brother’s in Boiler Room. He and I were just going out every night, and just having fun.
MM: So you’re tearing up New York.
BY: Tearing up New York, I bought an M3. I was so happy about that car.
MM: When did you get back down to work?
BY: That’s the thing, it took me five years. I just couldn’t believe that I got there. It felt like, I’m good, I did it. I was all over the place. I should’ve gotten right back to work, but I didn’t.
MM: It wasn’t your main ambition. So what was your main ambition?
BY: To not die.
MM: Okay, that’s important.
BY: So every day was a huge win. And now I had some money and a car. I wasn’t thinking long-term at all. I was truly living in the moment.
MM: I find that important. You know, the rest of the world does want you to plan long term, but there’s so much to be missed when you do that.
BY: That’s true, but I went too far maybe, and then had to correct. But I think that’s normal too, right? I never did drugs, so it was never about that. It was about the cars, the women, and the freedom, running around. Even that, three years of that––some part of me must have known that this isn’t sustainable. So I bought this house here upstate. At twenty-nine. I don’t know how I had the wherewithal to buy a house, but it’s the only smart thing I did with my money. I mean, that car is long gone, and a bunch of other stupid shit that I bought. But the house lives on.
MM: Did you start writing Prime up here? How did you get Meryl Streep?
BY: I finished it up here in 2004. I remember, I must have been up here because I remember where I was standing when I talked to this agent. I had left the agent I had and I went to CIA and I remember saying to Karen Sage, who was my then agent, you want to sign me? Just get me Meryl Streep and I’ll sign with you. It was that Brooklyn kid again, man.
MM: That took some balls.
BY: Yeah, but you don’t think of it as balls. You’re like, this is how you buy a rug, and this is how you get Meryl Streep in your movie. You bargain. It’s a New York sensibility, and its funny because when I do tell people that, I realize that’s not how the rest of the world does it. She got Meryl Streep, so I signed with her. And again, that just fortified the idea that I can do this, I can do anything. Because when I finally took my leisurely five years to get the script done, as soon as it was finished––oh yeah, Meryl Streep is doing my movie. I still didn’t have the appropriate amount of gratitude for the work I was doing. It finally caught up with me after Prime.
MM: You’re just realizing the depth of it.
BY: That’s probably a better way to describe it.
MM: You know, it takes a while in the creative world to realize that what you’re doing is work. It took me the longest period before I realized I actually have a job. I started shooting pictures and had success at an early age. By the time I was twenty-six, I had a big contract. I was seven years into it and I still didn’t really realize I had a job. I just took pictures, went to parties, had fun and got paid.
BY: Yeah, but there’s also something to the idea of not admitting how badly you want something that protects you from the possible failure. So like, things were going well. I made Prime, and I still didn’t have to stick my neck out. I guess what I’m saying is, to really get to the top of your field, to really do the best that you’re able to do, you have to admit how much you love something, and thereby, by admitting how much you love something, if you fail, you’re going to be heartbroken. You have to make yourself vulnerable to the loss of something that you love to love it completely.
BY: You’re a parent, so you get that.
MM: Yeah, something I don’t want to think about but I think about it every day. I do get that.
BY: Because you can’t control it, and so you’re able to fully love your children because you understand that you could theoretically lose them.
MM: That would be the end of everything.
BY: Right, and that’s why you’re able to fully love them because you have to accept that vulnerability, that’s part of the deal. And I think that I kept myself from doing that, which protected myself, on one side, and on the other, it kept me from doing my best work. There was a part of me that was like, yeah, I can do this, I could be a chef, could be a bush pilot in Alaska, and yeah I could do those things, but it meant I wasn’t doing this thing to the level I could do it. And I’m finally past that.