Lost in the forest of his own mind, Eric must rely on the survival skills of an enigmatic nine-year-old boy to help him battle vicious withdrawals and self-deprivation to catalyze change within his family's cycle of addiction.
Strung is directed by Joseph Bezenek and Ryan H. Reid. Joseph Bezenek and Ryan Reid have been cultivating a creative relationship in storytelling from the moment they met as Freshmen, on the campus of Millikin University in the fall of 2012. Over the course of their college career, they expanded from acting into directing, producing, and writing, and discovered that the expression of art can offer a communion of both creator and viewer. Within this space, one may peer into that abyss of pain, ecstasy, shame, childhood traumas, and addictions that we all share in one way or another. Goya said, “We have Art that we may not perish from Truth.” But Bez and Reid believe that the Art doesn’t rid us of the Truth. It is a lie that helps us discover our own truths, it holds the hand of our inner child as we face those truths, and gives us strength to persevere and heal. These filmmakers have set out to use their work to heal and revitalize the child within, to reinvigorate the imagination, and dare us all to be kinder and more loving with ourselves and those around us.
Bez's filmmaking dreams began at the mere age of 6. He and has cousin Forrest Wasko had nothing but an RCA VHS Camcorder, and a desire to make people wonder.
Days after graduation as a James Millikin Scholar, Bezenek punk-rocked his way into The House of Tomorrow (2017) starring Oscar-Winner Ellen Burstyn, and in just months following, Bez made his National Television debut with the Starring role of Jim Stolpa - previously played by Neil Patrick Harris in Snowbound: The Jim and Jennifer Stolpa Story (1994) - in ABC's Season 3 Premiere of In an Instant (2015).
After working on a variety of different projects in LA, London, Minnesota, and Arizona, Bez co-starred with Scout Taylor-Compton in The Lumber Baron(2019) which was distributed by a company under Lions Gate after it beat Green Book for the Audience Award at the Twin Cities Film Festival.
After growing tired of being called in for countless thrasher film horror scrips Joseph created and founded his own creative company: "4est Films". Bezenek, with 4est Films, is now collaborating with wonderfully talented artists they have met along their journey in order to produce art for impact. There is a ton of content out there to be involved in, and Bezenek doesn't want to waste any time doing something he isn't overwhelmingly passionate about.
We spoke to Joseph and Ryan about the making of their film and their collaboration on Strung.
What draws you to filmmaking and the cinematic language? REID: The specificity of film is what draws me to it. I think originally I would’ve said that it was the beauty and scale. You can use the cinematic language to convey things on any scale of your choosing. The subtlest hand movement or the march of the vastest army — it is as immersive and as real as you make it. Which I think lead me to my answer of “specificity." During my directorial debut, STRUNG, I came to realize that every single aspect of a film is a decision. Each frame, camera angle, sound, the depth of field -- all of it is a series of decisions. And you, the director/producer get to make every single one of those decisions. How exciting is that?! An entire world is created based on each and every decision. So the more specific you get with each of those decisions, the more immersive the experience can be for the audience, and the filmmaker achieves more depth in what they can convey to the audience. BEZ: Perspective draws me and keeps me. I started making VHS movies at the age of six with my cousin Forrest Wasko, and looking back - I realize it was those formidable years that I was able to discover my truest self. Whether it was from creating, watching Star Wars, or watching our own movies - the mental and emotional perspective shift that can occur consciously or subconsciously as a result of the visual perspective cinema provides is why the language is so contagious and versatile. Within seconds we can understand the perspective of someone or something entirely unlike us - physically or emotionally. This understanding gives way for deep vulnerability and support - allowing the audience to step away from their own perspective and feel safe - giving way for the subconscious to draw these perspective shifts themselves - and keep them. Like in STRUNG - we are first brought into the dark - only to find the light - and hopefully keep it. If the light is kept, it can initiate change. I’ve always been most interested in this form of creation. Interest has only multiplied with every night I lay awake wondering why I don’t feel the way that I would like to feel. Films speak the universal language of human perspective and help me heal my wounds, and better understand other's wounds. I think that’s why I am a little nervous to watch any film at all… sometimes it’s hard to do what’s good for you.
Do you believe in film schools or does making a film teach you more than film school? REID: I earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from Millikin University, here in Illinois, and would recommend my experience to anyone. I thoroughly enjoyed and gained so much from studying and understanding acting, and therefore understanding, I believe, a lot about the world, and the people who inhabit it. I’ve never attended film school, however, so I cannot say whether or not I really believe in film school or not. I would say that everyone learns differently, and if you know that you prefer guidance before going out on your own, then go for it! And that might be at a film school, but it doesn’t have to be. They can be expensive. So maybe instead use every resource at your disposal: YouTube, fellow artists, teachers, etc. until you feel better prepared. No matter which way you decide to attempt filmmaking, it won’t be easy. But if you know in your bones that you have to do it, then pursue it relentlessly. Film school? No film school? You can make it happen either way. BEZ: As someone who has never gone to film school - I can only speak to this lightly - but I can say that I believe my collegiate study at Millikin University is a pivotal reason that I am the artist that I am. There is no doubt that an intensive study of anything is something to believe in. In fact, I still desire to go to a film school at some point in my time on earth - if possible. I know that I have much to learn. Yes, there may be film schools out there that are business forward - but this is, unfortunately, the case for many of our education systems in America. What makes cinema stand out more than the arts for you? REID: The arts have always brought me the closest I’ve ever been to magic. My first times acting in a play, or reading a marvelous book were extraordinary, but it was my first time in the cinema, when the lights went dark and I was transported to a whole new world…that felt like real magic to me. That feeling of magic that a filmmaker creates for a child is such an incredible gift, isn’t it? It engages their curiosity and sense of empathy in a developmentally impactful way. For the adult viewer, cinema tears down emotional walls and allows one to rediscover their childlike wonder - to feel pure joy, fear, hope, pride, etc. in a space that feels so real. Then combining that emotional impact with cinema’s scale, you’ve got such opportunities for emboldening minds and softening hearts across whole societies. It’s massively exciting. BEZ: The balance and symbiosis of individual artistry in combination with massive collaborative performance. As someone who has been involved in many different forms of art - I would hesitate to say that cinema stands out more than the arts - in terms of the art itself being superior or something like that - however, I would say cinema is arguably the most vivid form of expression. It is the combination of so many arts. One of my favorite ways to articulate this idea comes from the Italian thinker - Ricciotto Canuda. In the early 1900’s he named painting, music, architecture, poetry, sculpture, and dance to be the six traditional arts - but when cinema came into play he granted it the seventh art, saying cinema was a new art, "a superb conciliation of the Rhythms of Space and the Rhythms of Time - a synthesis of the ancient arts.”
Did you choose a certain directing style for making "Strung" based on the script? REID: Originally, the story for STRUNG came from our lead actor, Jeromy Darling. From a young age, Jeromy saw the power and destruction of addiction. He saw a need to heal the often vilified and neglected members of his community. He began bringing his guitar to a local rehab center. He has continued this practice, and over the years, expanded on his work with the patients at those facilities. So this story came from a place of great love for and experience with those struggling with addiction. So when Jeromy allowed Joseph and me to edit the script and bring in the skillset of Wenonah Wilms to fully convert the story into a short film script, there was already a sense of style baked into our minds. So when Joseph and I had discussions on style, there was a shorthand from having helped create the script. Stylistically, we wanted to achieve a difficult balance, mixing darkness and fear of the unknown with the beauty and whimsy of a child, while also maintaining a gritty sense of reality within a surrealistic setting: the forest of the protagonist’s mind. It was such a fun script to work with and bring to life! BEZ: Compassion. If my brave mother wouldn’t have overcome her addiction at a young age - I very well could have ended up like Eric - our protagonist in STRUNG. My mother can proudly say she has been sober for almost 30 years now so I didn't have to go through what Eric does in our movie - so in order to have a better understanding of our characters - I must first have compassion. It is in compassion that we learn to understand. When I directed my first show - it was a small cast of four beautiful souls. During the creation process - it was brought to my attention by my cast that I was not bringing enough compassion, understanding, and affirmation to the rehearsal space. They did not feel fully supported, or safe to fully trust themselves, and let go. I’m very thankful that they had the bravery to communicate. We forgave one another, and they ended up putting on an amazing show - but I could have been better for my cast. Had I supported them more in the beginning - we would have opened up more “playtime” with their characters to explore their own unique vision. That’s my job as a director- to provide the space, boundaries, and guidance for the actor to play and explore. Being an actor for many years before having the opportunity to direct, it’s easier to understand what my actors need from a director to reach places they haven’t gone before. So - when approaching STRUNG - we made sure both actors felt physically and emotionally supported at every moment. The entire 4est Films crew kept the set intimate … a sacred space to explore and express with limitless potential. How did you choose the cast and the crew of your film? REID Deciding on the cast and crew came about as naturally as the script. This was Jeromy’s story, so Jeromy should be on the screen, telling it. It was that easy. And picking Wyatt?? I mean, look at his cherubic little face! He’s such an adorable, genuinely kind and giving young man - he’s an imaginative boy with a true sense of empathy. Could a director ask for more? I even believe that his lack of formal acting was an asset. In preparing Wyatt, I was able to easily engage with his empathy and imagination without any bad acting habits or ticks getting in the way. He brought such joy to all of us on set, and such depth and curiosity to his portrayal of his character. The crew was assembled by producers Alexander C. Shields, Joseph Bezenek, myself, and most prominently Molly Worre. With help from her leadership on this production, we assembled an incredible crew of Minneapolis artists, whose work has been seen everywhere from the stages of innumerable Prince concerts to a Coen Brothers’ film. We were very thrilled and fortunate to work a stellar cast and crew.
How did you fund your film and what were some of the challenges of making this film? REID I think we are both extremely committed to our craft, but very fortunate to have been offered this opportunity early on in our careers. Creating a film, I believe absolutely is one of the most difficult art forms to achieve. So naturally, there were challenges, but because I loved doing it all so much I don’t really recall many of them. Of course most challenges had to do with budgets and timelines. I was told that when making a film, you want to create it quickly, cheaply, and with the highest quality…but you only ever get to pick two. So what took a long time, we were able to do it with great care, and stay on budget. What was superb quality and done in a flash, was usually quite expensive. I would say that staying true to the directorial vision while juggling those limitations gave us the most challenges. BEZ An angel investor believed in myself and my company: 4est Films. We have gone on a daring journey in the past two years - certainly a long story of past challenges to share another time - however - challenges we faced in STRUNG? - wow - so many - but arguably the biggest challenge we faced happened during shooting when one of our actors, Wyatt, 9 years old at the time, was overcome with emotion and unable to perform the heartbreaking scene the entire crew was set and waiting for an hour to shoot. He simply wasn’t going to do it. He couldn’t. This boy’s heart was so big, his empathy was so massive, that he couldn’t stop crying. He felt for his character… he understood... so much so that he thought he couldn’t do the scene. Thankfully, his co-star, his dad, Jeromy, was there to support him, to hold him, to grow with him, and to remind him of the courage inside. Wyatt overcame the greatest challenge of all - being human - and he ended up creating my favorite cinematic moment I have yet captured as a director.
Do you consider yourself an indie filmmaker and what would most be the most difficult thing about being an independent artist? REID: I consider myself an independent filmmaker not only because I don’t work for some large, established production studio, but also because when you make your own film from the ground up, you get feel that independence, and revel in it. You answer to yourself rather than a massive, corporate machine! I did a bit of that in LA, and I quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. I hate the feeling of constraint within an artistic space in the name of the holy dollar. Of course I want to live and thrive off my work as a filmmaker, but I can’t imagine ever putting myself in a position in which I would be forced to kowtow creatively to someone who was too afraid to say what needs to be said within a film because in their mind, money is the most important element. But then again, as an independent, you’re doing it all and funding it all yourself, which I would say is the most challenging part. It all rests, however heavily, on your shoulders. BEZ: I am an independent filmmaker and an independent artist, and the most difficult thing about it is everything about it. But I guess that’s why I love it, because for whatever reason, the most challenging path has always seemed most exciting. Though sometimes it has lead to heartbreak, shaky bridges, and even leaving the industry entirely - I can’t resist the calling as an artist. Thank God, less than two years ago - Ryan and I - didn’t resist the calling to come back to the art - otherwise, we would be taking interviews as cinema cocktail lounge owners right now - not cinema creators. Back in 2018, we were having one of the best times of our lives in London with my lovely partner Amy - meeting with the creators of some of the most elite cocktail lounges in the world - helping us fine-tune what our cinema lounge experience was going to look like when we got back to the states to execute our concept. Again - thank God - RED - a play I previously directed that starred Ryan and our acting professor, dear friend, Alex Miller - happened to be playing on the West End - starring the original Tony Award-Winning Rothko, Director, and Stage designer. In the midst of our meetings we made sure to see this show - we couldn’t wait for the cathartic and emotional experience of seeing our beloved RED. At the end of the performance, Ryan and I were in tears. Our jaws were on the floor - not for what we saw - but what we didn't see. With all due respect to those incredible creators - they ran over so many moments in the script - it was heartbreaking… We were in tears because we knew, at that moment, we would be directly denying the calling back to storytelling. Most especially now I am thankful that we let go of our “means to an end” plan of getting financially safe with the lounge “in order to” - “have the financial stability to” - create art… we knew there was no time. If we would have opened a lounge back in 2018 we might have survived the Covid-19 - we might be thriving - financially and otherwise - but right now…. in the midst of this difficult time for our planet - I am thankful Ryan and I are broke, indie filmmakers, sharing our first film with the world. Never has the human consciousness been so malleable and desperate for healing. This is a time of drastic and necessary change, and it is up to the artists to inspire the direction of that change. The most difficult thing about being an independent artist is believing in myself. I am an independent artist and filmmaker, but that is with the understanding that everyone who shares that name is in a collective symbiotic community for change.
What is the distribution plan for your film? REID We are currently seeking distribution for the film. We will see how more of the festival season shakes out, and assess our options. On a more grassroots level, we plan to take the film on small tours, and distribute it to those who could really need it: people living with addiction. We plan to accompany Jeromy into rehab centers - when it is safe to - to show the film and offer a talkback so that we may hear more stories and deepen our understanding of the disease and how we can fight addiction, along with the devastatingly apathetic or condescending view that many hold against those struggling with addiction. What is your cinematic goal in life and what would you like to achieve as a filmmaker? REID: My cinematic goal in life is to create work that I’m proud of, live comfortably off that work, and have that work make people better. And sure, I’ve thought about winning an Oscar or some other great recognition in filmmaking. But I only think that will ever come for me if I continue to engage with the world around me and highlight the voices of those who are most voiceless. To continue reimagining the avenues by which I may work with children in the arts, and I hope to continue to engage artistically with stories on adolescence, the way children are raised in Western society, the examination and redefinition of both true and toxic masculinity, and growing up with otherness, with particular focus on queerness and anti-racist narratives. BEZ: There are a couple artists out there that are my favorite thing - and what they do is my favorite thing. My admiration and opportunity for inspiration from those artists is consistent and valuable - like Matthew Mcconaughey. At one point in time he was only 8 people’s favorite thing… and then he became 9 peoples favorite thing. And those nine people will tell nine people - and then you’ll have 18 people in love. So if I can create something, or be someone that is nine peoples favorite thing - and I keep going - I keep sharing my love and my stories - everything else speaks for itself. I’m not doing this for me. That’s why I created 4est Films. 4est Films - 4U. It’s your story. Let’s make your story nine people’s favorite thing. For me, right now, this art is too collaborative to have individual goals. I know that sounds a little wacky - but I realize that my best performances in this art form came when I was sharing and collaborating with the art… so to have an individual goal seems selfish - like when actors who haven’t won an Oscar are clearly doing a role just for the Oscar - it’s obvious when you watch the film - you can see that the actor’s objective is “Oscar” - not “Get my partner to give me a hug”. I want the film where the actor wants the hug more than the Oscar. Don’t get me wrong - an Oscar is an amazing achievement - awards are meant to be celebrated - and I will celebrate for days the day I win an Oscar, but until that time, my cinematic goal is to make a film with Matthew Mcconaghey. What kind of impact would your film have in the world and who is your audience? REID: I think STRUNG will have a couple different impacts on this who get to see it. There will be many who I believe will be uplifted, reminded not to give up on themselves, and instead delve within themselves, make peace with their darkness, and work to rekindle their relationship with their inner child, that innermost, innocent survivor. My hope is to offer this film to those who struggle with addiction; they are my main focus. If we can inspire anyone to keep fighting through their addiction, to remind them that they are not defined by their past or even present decisions, and that they have a life worth living, then I believe we’d have reached our audience. BEZ: Healing. This film has the power to heal. This is the audience that is hurting - who knows what it means to be alone. Who knows what it means to feel powerless. This film is a reminder to never stop letting your inner child play. Trailer of Strung: