It was no surprise to me that Eugene Bennett got his start as a photographer. As I explored his website, it was obvious to me that he is someone who is incredibly skilled at capturing people as they truly are; each of his photos, stills, and videos are expertly crafted to make his subject look beautiful, of course, but there is also an authenticity to each image that makes it so much more engaging. “I started back in 2012, I just picked up a camera. I was doing a lot of travel–cruises, things like that–so I was doing a lot of travel photography. That just kind of shifted to people wanting me to do photography for them. I started doing portraits and things like that.” Eventually, he pivoted into film.
In addition to being a filmmaker and photographer, Eugene is an entrepreneur. He founded his company, Shaded Media, in 2012. At the time, it was a photography studio. It wasn’t until 2019 that he began to throw himself into filmmaking. “I ventured into video around 2019, when I wrote and produced my first short with zero knowledge of filmmaking. It was just, hey, let me cast my friends and let’s just do this. Once you see a completed project, you’re able to see what you can improve on.” And he worked hard to improve. “We go into 2020, the world shuts down for Covid. During lockdown, the whole time I’m taking master classes, online classes, to learn the craft a little bit more.” He tells me that seeing his first completed short made him want to take his craft seriously. Shaded Media still does photography, but he tells me that film presents an exciting new challenge for him. “I felt like I had gotten to a point with photography where it lacked a challenge. I was just chasing that new challenge. So I started pursuing video–and again, with my first short, I had zero knowledge of filmmaking–but before I did filmmaking, I did weddings, I did music videos, just standard videography stuff to kind of ease me into filmmaking, and again, that was me looking for a challenge.” That’s a theme that came up several times throughout our conversation; it seems like he is always leveling up his skills.
I asked him for his best advice for people who want to learn about filmmaking and improve their craft. “Education is so key. People are coming to you because you’re the expert, so you have to know the ins and outs. You don’t have to know everything, you have to always be willing to learn, but be knowledgeable enough before you start taking bookings. People are going to ask your opinion and they’re going to respect your opinion, because, again, you’re the expert.” He tells me his most important advice is to work hard to learn the basics; Youtube is a great resource for that. “There was lots of trial and error, lots of learning. I didn’t go to film school, so a lot of this was just me figuring stuff out. I tried to learn from others, from people I respected that had experience in the craft.” He also cautioned that you shouldn’t rush into buying a bunch of gear just because it’s recommended to you. “The truth is, you really don’t need a cinema camera to produce good content. That was one of the misconceptions I had, that you need a specific piece of equipment to create good content.” He laughs for a moment. “This is coming from someone who spent a ton of money on a bunch of gear and then realized I didn’t need it. I’m trying to save people that problem.”
As a filmmaker, he works on a wide range of projects. “There’s just something about documentaries that I really do adore. I guess it’s because it’s a real story. During the interview process you’re really just digging into something, you’re watching them react in real time. I think there’s something special about that, about catching people in their element.” It makes perfect sense to me that someone who began their career as a photographer would be drawn to documentary filmmaking. That’s definitely not all he does, though. “A very close second would have to be scripted narratives. There’s something about watching something on paper come to life and following it through from pre to post.” He’s working on a horror anthology at the moment. Horror is a topic that always gets me excited; Eugene and I geeked out about horror movies for a while. His favorite horror film is Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Jordan Peele’s more recent work is an influence for him; so are Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan. That comes through in the beautifully composed, cinematic work he has on his website.
I asked him about his journey as a business owner. “In 2020, before Covid hit, I had literally just quit my job to go full entrepreneur, right before lockdown happened. You can imagine how scary that was. That was the kick that made me say okay, you really have to take this seriously, because the world is shut down so now you really have to figure this out and make sure it’s going to do what you need it to do for you.” He made it through Covid, and has a word of advice to folks who want to start their own business; “you just have to know that there will be ebbs and flows. It’s never all high, and it’s never all low. There are different periods where things are up and down. You have to figure out what works for you, what you can do in those moments to kind of balance it out. It probably took me about two years to figure that out.” This can look like stashing money away for a rainy day, or preparing mentally for slower times.
He also had advice for maintaining creativity for someone who is making art their day job. “You’ll get hired for different projects, and all of them won’t be things you’re completely passionate about. I wasn’t getting hired for scripted narrative stuff at first. Once I started creating these micro shorts and self-funding my own films, then the writers and producers came to me because I had a proof of concept. You want to be able to show people what you can do, or more or less show people what you’d like to get hired for.” I think that’s so key; showing people exactly what you want to be doing, so that they can find you for a project that may be a good fit. That being said, not every project that comes your way will be right for you. “The last thing you want to do–and I know it’s hard, especially if you’re an entrepreneur–is to take every booking that comes your way. If something doesn’t fit, you can say no. That’s one thing I had to learn, that you don’t have to say yes to everything that comes into your inbox. It can lead to burnout, it can lead to you not really loving what you do anymore, it can make the passion go away. I think there’s a balance between taking bookings and turning some down.” I asked him how he maintains his creativity as a business owner. “A good way that I keep the creativity up is I refer back to the micro shorts that I did. They allow you to flex that creativity that you have, and in the end you’ll get clients who see that and want you to do that with their project.” Being a creative entrepreneur seems to come down to finding the balance; between passion and getting paid, between your own projects and those of your clients. I think the tip about creating a portfolio that helps clients understand the space you want to be working in is key. If you love documentaries, create a micro documentary you can add to your website. If you want to work in horror, make a horror micro-short that you can share. Create your own niche, and after a while, those bookings will come your way.
I asked him if he submits to film festivals. He has–and he’s been successful at them–but that’s not what he does now. “I’ve submitted to film festivals occasionally, but as of the last year I’ve taken a liking to screenings a little bit more. […] My most recent short that I did earlier this year, we screened at the Independent Picture House, sold out screening, great crowd, there’s just something about being there with the people who came to see you and your work.” Between the internet and private screenings, there are so many ways to get your work in front of people. “Those [festival] fees add up quick,” he says. It’s true; as much as I love film festivals, they can be expensive, especially if you have to travel to attend them. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a good option, but it’s good to have a reminder that there are many ways to get your work in front of your audience. You can host a screening, like Eugene, or you can upload your film to Youtube, Vimeo, or even your website.
My conversation with Eugene left me thinking about filmmaking in a new way. His insights are exciting; there’s a path to becoming a filmmaker where you can build a creative, flexible life for yourself, where you can be an entrepreneur and make a living, and where you can do things on your terms, always leveling up your skills and taking your craft seriously. Thank you so much to Eugene for taking the time to talk with me.