Palm Springs-based filmmaker Cruz Moore will be premiering his first documentary, Look Closer: The Rise and Fall of Robert Benfer, on April 2 as part of the 2019 American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, CA. Moore’s film centers on Internet clay animator Robert Benfer’s career, from his rise to viral fame with his successful Klay World web series to his attempts at covering a scam involving selling nonexistent DVD box sets to his fanbase—cheating them out of thousands of dollars. Borrowing Tape caught up with Moore to discuss the documentary, his connection with the subject matter, and what inspires him as a young director.
What inspired you to make the documentary in the first place?
I had been a fan of Robert’s work from 2005-2013. His website, Knox’s Korner, was absolutely foundational when it came to showing me that you could make films completely on your own with so very little. But when he scammed me and hundreds of his fans out of thousands of dollars, it was a huge moment of disillusionment.
For five years we all had to settle for the fact that Robert did not care about our situation, we were not going to get our money back, and we were certainly not going to get an explanation or an apology. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew that something had to be done. So I decided to make a film that would chronicle Robert’s career from the beginning to where it is now, the effect he had on young filmmakers, and give insight into his scam. It was a story that I felt needed to be told.
What was the process like when you started to make the film?
Preparation began by typing out everything I knew about Robert and his history from over a decade of following his work. After that, I delved into Web Archive pages and old forum posts to look for side information and credible sources. I contacted every person I could find online that were either fans of Robert’s or had been scammed by him and asked them to submit their opinions on his work. The email chain in the film comes directly from the correspondence that myself and 49 of his fans had when we were first scammed, spanning over five years. Those emails have never been made public until now.
How personal was the subject matter of the documentary to you?
It was extremely personal. I and many other teenagers at the time became inspired by Robert to make our own films regardless of our limitations. With Robert being a teenager himself who you could easily communicate with via his blog or email, it felt like a tangible source of relatability and creativity. When he released his first feature film, Klay World: Off the Table in 2005, I mailed him 25 dollars and a fan letter in the hope that something would be sent in return. My excitement echoed down the street when I opened the mailbox to find a yellow package addressed to me in his handwriting, something I have to this day. Over the years, every DVD I ordered from him were all delivered as expected. I had every confidence that he would deliver the box set as well but to no avail. The fact that he continued to sell fake merchandise to his unsuspecting fans for years and ignored everyone who contacted him asking for an explanation is disheartening. He squandered our trust.
What was the most challenging part of making the film?
The most challenging part had to be the writing process. When you have something visualized in your mind you want to immediately project it on screen rather than typing it out. The waiting process can be very anxious. It was also challenging having to schedule my actors to record their dialogue, but every one of them put their full support and effort into the project and the film would not have succeeded without their help.
What are you hoping audiences get out of the film?
For audiences who are aware of Robert’s work, I hope that the film gives them a definitive look at his career that reminds them why they enjoyed his films in the first place. Just as well, I hope that this gives a voice to everyone who has ever been scammed by Robert and gives insight to anyone who was unaware of his fraudulent actions. For audiences who have never heard of Robert Benfer, I hope that the film’s niche story of independent online success gives them a window into a world they never knew existed and how that world came crumbling down for one filmmaker and those who believed in him.
What was your favorite part of making this film?
My favorite part was receiving the video and audio testimonials from the fans I contacted. Their personal stories on how Robert’s films inspired them to make their own and their opinions of him as a creator were incredible to hear. As soon as I edited them together and laid the music over their voices I knew I had something special. Their contributions helped craft a climax that truly showed the creative power Robert had given to his fans and how so many people still hold onto that influence, for better or for worse.
What are some of your film influences?
For online influences, I’ve looked to filmmakers like Christopher Bingham who has shown a great talent for displaying passage of time and disillusionment with how the internet has affected indie filmmakers. He also contributed to the documentary series “Heroes of Animation” which focuses on indie animators who gained online fame, such as David Firth and Jonathan Picking. Major filmmakers that are creative influences have been South Korean directors Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. They have inspired me with movies featuring morally grey stories that are unlike anything I have seen before.
If you could work with anyone in the industry, who would it be and why?
I don’t know if he’ll return to filmmaking or television anytime soon, but working with David Lynch would be an amazing opportunity. His unique perspectives on storytelling, production design, and perceptions of reality are very influential. Watching him create is like a personal film school. Guillermo Del Toro would also be incredible to work with if only to just sit and have afternoon tea with.
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers who want to make their first film?
My best advice would be to work on your film every day in any way you can. Whether you write a script page, make a call list, or edit a scene, you have to push yourself to keep production going otherwise you can easily fall behind. As long as you’re making progress, your film will eventually be made. Also, superstitious as it sounds, talk about your film as little as possible when making it. As soon as I tell someone what I’m doing or show them a work in progress, I start to lose interest in it. It gives you an immediate gratification that wouldn’t be there if you had kept it secret. As tempting as it may be to show your progress, it can have a negative effect if you’re not careful.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future in terms of your directing?
For the future, I hope that people will continue to discover and enjoy my work as I continue to make films. I’m always working on something new and I’m always looking to collaborate with the rare talent I find in my small town. As long as I’m creating, I’m happy.