evil genius magazine

On Death and Juggling: An Interview With Seattle Filmmaker/Performance Artist Greg Bennick
by Stephanie Anderson

The first thing you notice about Greg Bennick (besides his shaved head and completely magnetic charisma) is that he's always, always moving. When he's not working, traveling, or talking about working and traveling, you can practically see the wheels turning inside his clean-as-a-whistle pate as he figures out his next move. The 31-year-old Seattle resident has channeled his frenetic energy into a cacophony of projects, from performing comedy-juggling routines (which he does for a living), to singing (screaming was more often the case, actually) in the acclaimed hardcore band Trial for five years, to pursuing a master's degree in social science, to memorizing the Romero film Day of the Dead line by line and traveling to Canada to participate in vegan "eating challenges." With all the kinetic frenzy that has characterized his life, it is ironic that Greg's latest project is a documentary about death.

Evil Genius caught up with Greg just after the screening of the profoundly beautiful and moving film Flight From Death, which he co-wrote and co-produced with Los Angeles filmmaker Patrick Shen. Since this interview, Flight From Death was awarded the coveted Audience Choice prize for Best Documentary at the Beverly Hills Film Festival in May 2003, and was chosen as an official selection in both the prestigious 2003 Maui Film Festival and the Dubrovnik International Film Festival in Croatia.

So what could a former punk singer who juggles flaming torches for a living possibly have to say about death and dying? A lot, actually.

EVIL GENIUS: Flight From Death was inspired by the work of the philosopher Ernest Becker. How did you first discover Becker's work? Could you summarize his philosophy for us?
GREG BENNICK: I discovered Ernest Becker's work through my good friend John Wilson, who was a professor of mine in college. John handed me a copy of Becker's The Denial of Death and also Viktor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning at the end of my senior year, and I actually shelved both until four years later. In 1998 or so, John asked me what I had thought of the books, and when I replied that I hadn't read them, he sort of laughed and said, "You're scared of these guys." That, of course, made me mad, and I cracked open the books and started in on them.

I immediately understood why John had joked that I might have been intimidated by the books. Viktor Frankl wrote of his experiences as an inmate in both the Auschwitz and Mathausen concentration camps during World War II. He was a psychotherapist before the war and while he was in the camps, he spent his time analyzing his fellow inmates, trying to determine why it was that some people were able to survive while others lost their will to live. What he determined was that those who survived the camps often were those who had some sense of meaning or purpose in their lives. Perhaps they had a loved one they longed to see again, or perhaps they had some bit of business left unfinished that they longed to return to. Frankl talked to hundreds of people, watched hundreds more die, and used all of this information to begin to develop what he called "logotherapy," which was a means by which he could treat individuals by having them explore their sense of purpose and finding a defined structure for meaning in their lives.

Fascinating stuff, and it tied in directly to Becker's book. The Denial of Death is not an easy or forgiving book to read; it challenges the reader on a number of different levels and, for many people, has the effect of disrupting their psychological foundations. Becker followed a path defined by thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, and Otto Rank -- all of whom had tried to understand the motivations of human behavior. Becker pursued the idea that anxiety about death was at the core of why humans behave the way they do. He noted that humans are animals, but that as animals with self-consciousness, we realize that our lives are finite. Self-consciousness, as Kierkegaard had noted, is accompanied by both awe and dread: awe at being able to marvel at the wonder of life, and deeply rooted dread at the thought that all of this will come to an end eventually. Becker looked at the effect that awe and dread has on the human animal, and realized that it fuels us to do both remarkable and horrifying things as we work to establish our self and our sense of permanence in this temporary existence.

Becker suggested that the beliefs we hold and share with others let us feel that we will continue to live on a symbolic level, even as the physical self ends in death and decay. He said that we work actively to align ourselves with those who are similar to ourselves and that we concurrently work actively to diminish, absorb, or destroy those who are different, or who hold different beliefs or values because of the psychological threat they pose to our cherished worldview. Flight From Death explores these behaviors and shows the beautiful and brutal sides of working to maintain belief systems. It calls into question the very nature of belief, and it challenges the illusions we create throughout the world. It shows visually how and why human beings strive to live beyond the limits of our animalistic bodies and limited lives, and attempts to bring to light some possible ways we can diminish the negative effects of that striving. Most importantly, it shows for the first time ever on film, the results of 20 years of laboratory experiments carried on by researchers worldwide to provide empirical evidence in support of Becker's claims.

EG: Explain your role in the making of Flight From Death. What inspired you to become a part of the project?
GB: I was co-producer and co-writer for the project, sharing those duties with Patrick Shen of Los Angeles. I didn't find Flight From Death; it found me. Patrick had been working on the project by himself, along with the help of an associate producer and some production assistants. At the time, the film was called Man in Search of Immortality, and Patrick contacted me to do an interview with me for the film. We didn't know each other at the time, but Patrick wanted to find out more about the World Leaders Project (WLP), which is an initiative my professor friend Sheldon Solomon from Skidmore College in New York and I started in 2001. Our plan was to bring Becker's idea of death anxiety as central motivator for human violence to various world leaders in face-to-face meetings. Patrick called me from L.A. to chat about the WLP, and our first talk turned into an hour, followed by more similar talks over the following days and weeks. We decided to help each other. I had always been interested in film and visual media, and was really intrigued to explore new modes of communication, especially after the results I'd experienced with Trial through lyrics and music. In the span of a year, Patrick and I have gone from not knowing each other at all, to having a film, a successfully completed trip to meet with the President of Guyana, and to having a one-minute long ninja fight which we fully choreographed and now perform spontaneously in airports throughout the world while waiting for flights. Our inspiration is the Japanese ninja master Sho Kosugi, and if you don't know who he is, then you really need to learn.

EG: Ninja fights. Wow. I'm not familiar with Kosugi. My knowledge of things ninja is pretty limited, unfortunately. (laughs) Anyway ... You've been active with the Western Shoshone Defense Project, which is a activist group for the Western Shoshone Indians, for years. How does your work with the Native-American community come into play, if at all?
GB: Native issues have come up in the film during our discussions of culture and the ways in which death anxiety helps to create and maintain culture. If someone is part of a successful or powerful collective, then the concept that the person will be completely killed, symbolically or literally, quickly fades -- part of that person will live on with the survival of the collective. We wanted to make sure in discussing culture in the film that our culturally held views were not entirely dominant. Objectivity is difficult to achieve, but we worked continuously to be closer and closer to that goal. Knowing a bit about the Western Shoshone from firsthand experience helped to bring new ideas and new perspectives to the film as we selected different shots and wrote the narration.

EG: Tell me more about the World Leaders Project. How did that fit in to the film?
GB: As I mentioned earlier, the World Leaders Project is what drew Patrick and I together in the first place for our year and a half of ninja movie‚watching and death anxiety‚filmmaking. In addition to introducing us to one another, the WLP trip to Guyana in the spring of 2001 gave us the chance to see cultural arrangements, political struggles, and socio-economic situations far different from what we are familiar with in the United States, yet similar enough that we were able to draw striking parallels. Our meetings with His Excellency President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana and with the Guyanese Minister of Trade introduced us to amazing examples of cultural arrangements in conflict. Guyana is a country wracked with racial tension, poverty, and violence. While we were there, there was a full-on firearm assault on a police station three blocks from our hotel, and a murder of a local banker whom we'd met and filmed on our first day in the country. We saw a number of different groups lashing out at one another. I've always felt that it takes traveling to other places to fully be able to open one's eyes to one's surroundings at home. We found that our experiences talking to local people about racial tension, violence, and economic hardship in Guyana made us acutely aware of related situations back at home with which we had some familiarity, but that we'd not considered for the film as intensely. We included a number of shots from Guyana in the final cut of the movie.

EG: Can you share some details about Flight From Death? How long is it? What is the format? Where and when will it be released? Are you still planning on submitting it to film festivals?
GB: The film is feature length, around 90 minutes. It was shot on digital video and edited digitally on Macintosh computers, with additional footage from around the world coming from various sources. The final product will be transferred to film for screenings in theaters, and will be released on DVD and VHS in spring/summer 2003. We will be starting with a self-produced run of 1,000 copies on DVD as we secure a deal for distribution on a larger scale, and then will be expanding into the VHS format at that time. There is no current solid time frame for this, but all of the steps are currently in the works. We've submitted to about a half a dozen film festivals so far, including the Sundance Festival and its offshoot, the Slamdance Festival. Responses from those festivals and from the dozens of others we've yet to submit to will be coming in continuously over the next year. The best way to check up on the progress of the film in order to receive updates on where it will be showing and when copies will be available for purchase on DVD is to check the official website (www.flightfromdeath.com), or to visit my site (www.wordsasweapons.com), which also has information and a link to the main film site.

EG: How did Gabriel Byrne get involved with the project?
GB: Patrick and I started with a list of about 300 actors and actresses, and then narrowed it down considerably to about 40 names. When we were ready to send out proposals to potential narrators, we started with Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), who wasn't taking offers due to being in London working on a play, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel, and Val Kilmer. Gabriel's representation called us within 48 hours, and the ball started rolling immediately. We didn't even consider waiting for others to respond. We sent him a rough cut right away, which Gabriel watched and loved, a script, and then we worked out a deal with his management, and we all signed contracts. Gabriel's management are top-notch professionals, and working with them was great.

EG: What dimension does his narration add to the film?
GB: Name your favorite dimension, and Gabriel's voice adds it. His tone is incredibly warm, his inflection dramatic, his accent endearing, and his aura otherworldly, if I may wax poetic. Throughout the recording session, Patrick and I sat with Joy O'Campo (production coordinator), and we all were stoked out of our minds with the way Gabriel interpreted and read the text. We all agree that we would work with him again in a heartbeat, and we plan to in the future.

EG: What were his impressions of the film?
GB: He loved it. After we finished the recording sessions, Patrick and I opened the door to the recording booth where Gabriel had been sitting and speaking and the three of us stood and talked about the film for 20 minutes. Gabriel told us about the impact the images in the film had upon him and of his opinions on the significance of the subject matter both for him personally and for the world at large. It was a great conversation, and we were really happy that the film had impacted him in this way. Gabriel was gracious enough to allow us to film an on camera interview with him and this footage (about 25 minutes worth) will be edited into the "Behind the Scenes" featurette that will be on the eventual DVD release of the film.

EG: What are your hopes for this film?
GB: We'd love to see the film create a buzz both in the general public and in the academic world. We screened the rough cut last October in Seattle and last November in New York, and the response was tremendous. We've been invited to Central Michigan University in spring of 2003 to show the film and to lecture on the ideas behind it. This is amazing, given that the film has yet to be released. Four other schools have also expressed interest, and we are open to offers from as many more schools as are interested. We plan to tour and to show the film to as many audiences as possible and to engage people in conversation about the ideas within it.

Last week, I had a great experience that showed me the potential of the film to break down barriers between people of conflicting or various backgrounds and get at root issues. I had lunch with a sergeant in a local police department. It was quite the mismatch: the punk-rock juggler and the Christian cop. We laughed pretty hard about it. We'd met a few years back at an event and had kept in touch from time to time over the years. At lunch, the topic of the film came up, and we ended up sitting and talking for two hours about theology, the intersection of death and life, and about the reconciliation of anxiety from both a Christian and non-Christian perspective. It was a great talk that really shed light for the both of us on each other's ideas, and it left me thinking that many more similar talks throughout the world could easily be in Patrick's and my immediate future.

EG: How does Flight From Death address the current political and social climate of the world and the United States today?
GB: The film looks at politics and society as illusionary constructs that unfortunately have very real effects on the world. In fact, one of the primary questions the film asks is how we might go about creating less destructive illusions. We take a long look in the film at the terrorist attacks of September 11th, but made sure throughout the rest of the film to not date it too much by establishing a specific time and place at which the ideas within the film had to apply. We feel that the ideas in the film cross boundaries of time and of place and could just as well have applied 200 or 2,000 years ago as they do to today. Looking back a few months, in terms of the two snipers in the D.C. area, there is a large section in the film about the idea of "social death," which ties in perfectly. Social death the realization that one has not lived up to the standards set by society. While this is widespread throughout the world, sometimes people react violently to this realization, seeing no other recourse than to lash out at others in response to their own feelings of loss and failure.

EG: What do you think we need to do to address violence in our communities, and even in our own homes?
GB: We need to kill those who are violent. That would solve the problem. Just kidding! There is no set solution to the issue of violence, unfortunately, as its motivations come from wide-ranging sources. In Guyana, for example, our goal was not to offer a solution to violence, but rather to place on the table a solid reason for its possible causes. If we look at root causes, we can then begin to determine solutions. I would suggest, and Patrick would agree, that considering the effect that death anxiety has on us is a good starting point. If we, meaning culture at large, can agree that death anxiety plays a role in the way we behave, we can then do what we can to lessen its effects and to diminish the results of our reactions to it.

How did your own background and upbringing influence your personal ideas about death? How does your veganism come into play?
GB: I was raised in a Jewish family. While my immediate family was not very religious, my extended family are all ultra-strict Orthodox Jews, and their influence on my childhood through the time when I had my bar mitzvah was profound. As I entered my teenage years, I began to question Judaism and the idea of a central "god," in general. I spent a good deal of time speaking with people who were deeply connected with nature. It is from that point that I began my own personal inquiry. At the end of that inquiry, I came to a resolve that would probably have my relatives spinning in their graves and casting me out of the family. I don't believe in God. For me, the closest thing to a god is the collective life energy of the living things that inhabit this planet. That collective energy is eternal, regardless of the life and death cycles of individual beings involved in and experiencing it. Otto Rank really nailed it in the early part of the 20th century. He said that there is an irreducible life energy that exists in living things, and it is from this force or energy that we receive our potential. A seed, for example, has potential to grow into a plant. A baby has potential to grow into an adult. Rank wrote, in the case of human beings, that self-consciousness is added to this life force. This mix creates in humans a sense of will. We not only strive to be alive, but we also long to develop our potential, working to ensure that that happens in a way that is nurturing and fulfilling. Patrick and I both see living things all over as striving to be alive and to fulfill potential, and this idea came into consideration constantly throughout the process of making the film.

Veganism comes into play a bit here, too. Vegans, for those who might not be familiar with the term, do not eat, wear, or use animal products of any kind. I have been vegan for a little over a decade, and while I am not dogmatic about it when I speak with other people, I am committed to the lifestyle. I find that not wanting animals to be killed and eaten for food or clothing has made me more aware of the role that death plays in culture in one additional way. Separating myself from that a bit has allowed me to look at those aspects of our culture with a bit more scrutiny than I might have been able to had I been absorbed within it. Being vegan has also influenced the film in that Patrick and I spent tens of thousands of dollars on the project and have often been broke and hungry along the way. If I wasn't a vegan, I would have eaten him months ago.

EG: (laughs) Besides the temptation of cannibalism and meager finances, what has been your biggest challenge in making this film?
GB: Our biggest challenge by far was determining how to tell the story without coming across as overtly academic. If the final product was something which only a PhD could understand and appreciate, then we would have failed entirely to do what we set out to do: to express these intense ideas in an entertaining and engaging way for those who might not have encountered them before. I think we've succeeded in this goal.

EG: And your biggest accomplishment?
GB: Our biggest accomplishment has been to not give up when we were faced with overwhelming financial challenges or intensive deadlines. Preparing for the Seattle screening required 135 hours of work over an eight-day stretch in Los Angeles. That was not fun. One day, after four days of two to three hours of sleep a night, we woke a 9am, worked non-stop until 7:30 the next morning, and then went to sleep for an hour and a half in order to then wake up for a 9am meeting with the voiceover artist to record the film's narration for a full day. By about 3pm that day, Patrick and I had both gone completely insane and were hoping for our own deaths rather than have to stay awake for another second.

EG: What have you learned? Have your outlooks or ideas changed at all?
GB: Making Flight From Death has been a huge learning process for both Patrick and myself. Patrick has had great successes with film in the past, but this project was more ambitious than anything he'd attempted to work on before. We've learned a tremendous amount about the industry and about the process of filmmaking overall. Even more than that, and even more than the new and expanded awareness of various ninja techniques that we picked up from watching Sho Kosugi movies, I would say that the greatest lessons for me have been interpersonal. Talking with people from Egypt, from Israel, from Guyana, from Canada, from throughout the United States, and from Europe, as well, has left both Patrick and I with a sense of the human collective as a truly interconnected body of life. The cultural illusions might very well be means through which each of us maintains a sense of psychological balance with the universe, but underneath it all, we are all desiring to strive with hope and courage for the same goals, and for the same reasons.

EG: You often juggle dangerous objects, such as machetes and things that are on fire. While you were making this film, did you think about your own mortality, or that of the people you care about?
GB: Yes, constantly, and more and more as the months went on. It actually began to take its toll on both of us at one particular point. We had arranged with an international press agency to have them send us various news stories for us to review for possible inclusion in the film. We'd selected these stories from all of the events of the last 40 years, essentially, and had placed an order for literally dozens of hours of footage covering events from explicit plane crashes caught on video, to starving masses of people, to street fights and clashes throughout the world. Patrick received the tapes, and due to the fact that we were on a deadline, decided to watch them alone and all at once. I called him from Seattle near the end of that process, and he was a wreck. I flew to L.A. a few days afterwards and watched all of the tapes myself over a few days. My response was the same, but because I took time to breathe in between each tape, I had an easier time with the footage. I was doing OK for the most part until I watched a reel of footage of a double military execution in Guatemala. The two accused men were shot at close range by firing squad, fully on camera, and only one of them died instantly. The other agonized for a full minute before a military official shot him dead with a point-blank pistol shot to the head. I sat staring at the screen for 10 minutes after the screen went black at the end of the tape. The image still haunts me.

Patrick and I have become case studies for the film's ideas on the suppression of death anxiety. Suppression has been the only way to deal with some of the images and ideas in which we have immersed ourselves. The film explains that death anxiety is largely subconscious, but that it wreaks havoc on us in conscious ways as we react to it. I can very safely say that the effect on both Patrick and I has been substantial on both levels. We plan to fly to a tropical island after the film is fully completed in order to spend a month decompressing by picking mangoes from trees and laying in the sun all day long. Maybe just another denial of our eventual death, but one which I will gladly immerse myself in. (laughs) So we don't get too removed from death, I will attack Patrick with throwing stars and other ninja weapons from time to time while he is tanning, just to keep him on his toes.

EG: Name one thing you want to do before you die.
GB: Meet the members of Rush. No question about it.


[Stephanie Anderson is the founder and co-editor of Evil Genius . The only things she can juggle are jobs and men.]

BRIBERY WORKS! E-mail a question for Greg Bennick or a comment about this interview to the editors at info@evilgeniusmagazine.com, and you could win FREE Flight From Death merchandise.