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News . Feature Stories . Good training, kismet lead to feature film job

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August 25, 2016

Good training, kismet lead to feature film job

CIA alum Rodriguez edited 'Dog Eat Dog'

Good training, kismet lead to feature film job

Ben Rodriguez worked with Animation students during his Cleveland visit last year. Photo by Robert Muller.

By Clint O’Connor

The creative machinery of the feature film business requires years of dues-paying on small, obscure projects with unknowns.

Wrong.

Ben Rodriguez Jr. ’05 chose a different route. Or it chose him. For his first feature film, his talents as an editor landed him in the company of a big time director (Paul Schrader), marquee stars (Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe), and a movie, the gritty crime drama “Dog Eat Dog,” that had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Not bad for a kid from Middleburg Heights, who majored in TIME (more on that later) at CIA.

“I was kind of pinching myself,” says Rodriguez, “thinking, ‘How did this happen?’ ”

Here’s how.

Rodriguez, who lives in West Orange, N.J., with his wife Jacki, has been working as an editor, primarily on commercials, at Lost Planet Editorial in New York City since 2011. Lost Planet is run by Hank Corwin, a renowned film editor who has worked with directors like Oliver Stone and Terrence Malick. He was nominated for an Oscar last year for “The Big Short.”

Corwin’s Hollywood contacts have lured other star editors to Lost Planet, including Jay Rabinowitz (“8 Mile,” “The Tree of Life”). Last year, Rabinowitz received an email from Schrader, who he had collaborated with on “Affliction” in 1997.

The writer of “Taxi Driver” and director of 20 feature films was seeking a young, innovative editor. “Jay forwarded me the email and we set up a meeting with Paul,” says Rodriguez. “He said he was looking for somebody who wasn’t keen on sticking to the rules of film editing.”

They met at a diner in New York last September.

“We hit it off really well. Then I asked Paul where he was shooting the movie, and he said, Cleveland. I was like, ‘Oh [expletive]! That’s my home! That’s where I’m from.’ Then he said he was going to be using these students from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and I said, ‘Oh my god! That’s my school!’ ”

Schrader had worked with CIA President Grafton Nunes in the 1980s on such films as “American Gigolo” and “Light of Day.” He worked with several CIA students on “pre-vis” — storyboarding scenes using animation — to map out action sequences.

The film was shot in Greater Cleveland last fall. “In addition to me, the director of photography, the production designer and the costume designer were all young,” says Rodriguez. “For most of us, it was our first feature film. It’s a great testament to Paul to boldly take a chance on young talent.”

“Dog Eat Dog,” which follows three ex-cons and a bungled kidnapping, will have its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. A U.S. release date has yet to be announced.

For Rodriguez, the experience of shooting in his hometown was a double-blast. “Coming back to Cleveland was great, and then going back to CIA and working with the students was also great. And ironic and kind of weird.”

Back when CIA’s bachelor of fine arts program was a five-year commitment, Rodriquez majored in TIME: Technology and Integrated Media Environment. It incorporated 2D and 3D animation, web design and digital filmmaking. A movie buff, he gravitated toward shooting videos and editing them into short films using the then fairly new Final Cut Pro on a Mac. He credits several CIA teachers for inspiring him, including Barry Underwood, Jesse Epstein, Kasumi and Chuck Tucker.

TIME is no longer a major, but some of the curriculum was folded into other programs, including Game Design, Animation and Sculpture + Expanded Media.

After graduating in 2005, Rodriguez had yet to find his artistic way and was working at a Rent-A-Center when he received a most propitious phone call from CIA’s Lane Cooper, associate professor of painting.

“She said TIME was looking for a technical assistant. Would I be interested?”

During his year as a TA, Cooper told him what he really needed to do next: apply to film school.

“I said, ‘Whatever. You’re crazy. I’ll never get into film school,’ ” he recalls. “But she said, ‘No. You can do it. I believe in you.’ She talked me into it.”

In 2007, Rodriguez headed off to the prestigious film school at New York University. “Lane is most of the reason for where I am today,” he says.

“It’s all him,” counters Cooper, who had been a supporter of Rodriguez since his freshman year and served on his BFA committee. “I was struck by his cinematography, and his ability to edit and put it all together in a way that was really compelling. It didn’t take a genius to see his talent.”

She jokes that she would like one payback, however. “I told him when he wins an Academy Award someday, he has to give me a shout-out. When he’s giving his speech, he’s got to add, ‘and Lane Cooper!’ ”

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