“Either way, you were connected. By your desires. By your defiance. By the simple, complicated fact of who you were.” – David Levithan
It seems like men are always searching for the answer to the question “What is it to be a man?” In ‘About A Boy’ indie film maker Ben McDonnell partners up with the talented Nana Ghana to explore just that. Using his own life as a visual narrative, Ben sets up to share his own answer to this age-old question. For him, it is all about adhering to one’s own principles. In his case, it is embracing the concept “to be and let be.” ‘About A Boy’ is striking narrative that explores what it means to be a man in the modern world, and showcases the fact that, under it all, we all are just human beings.
About A Boy, Ben McDonnell
Justin Howard – What is a man? Define that word for me.
Ben McDonnell – I think that is part of the film, that everyone has a different interpretation of that. There is the society thing that we get sucked into that “A man goes to work, provides for their family, doesn’t cry. Does this and does that.” I am from the Midwest, where there is a huge stigma attached to how a man has to be. I have never really fit that mold. I hate football, that is a ‘manly’ thing you have to like. To me, watching people chase a ball around is the biggest waste of brain energy. That is a big part of this thing, especially growing up with a dad with whom I have very different opinions on what being a man is supposed to be. I think every one has a different interpretation of what being a man is and everyone should be able to express that.
Justin Howard – You just mentioned that as a kid you have a difference of opinion with your dad as to what a man was meant to be. Tell me what being a man meant to you as a kid.
Ben McDonnell – I just thought a man was a person who took on leadership and stood up for what they wanted and believed in. It doesn’t really matter if you are a man or a woman. Everyone should stand up for what they believe in. I have always been very emotional and soft-hearted. I have empathy for people. Even people who aren’t my family. I don’t think crying makes one any less a man. Or being able to open up and talk about your feelings. To able to express how something is affecting you, doesn’t make you any less of a man. I have always done that. I consider myself a man.
Justin Howard – People always talk about that transition from boyhood to being a man. In your own experience what is the difference between being a boy and being a man?
Ben McDonnell – When you are a boy… Well, I was a Mama’s boy. I didn’t get along with my dad. When I was a ‘Mama’s boy,’ she was my protector. Whenever anything was wrong, I was like “Mom, you have to take care of this. Mom, you have to fix this.” That transition is all about when you start caring of yourself, when you become more self-aware. You call the shots. When you become an adult there is a weird phase, because when you turn 18, you are technically an adult. All the sudden it hits you, you are living by yourself. You aren’t in school anymore. Suddenly you don’t have to be in class at 6am. You don’t have a traditional job, suddenly you have control over how you are going to spend your day. I think for me that was when it took place. My mom was no longer deciding what sport I am going to play, where I am going to go today. I had control of that. It hits you and you are just like “Wow…” You realize that you can do whatever you want to, and no one is going to stop you.
Justin Howard – You awaken to the fact that your life is your own responsibility.
Ben McDonnell – Yeah, then you get bills and you are like “Shit! I hate bills!”
Justin Howard – Is there still a little bit of the boy in you?
Ben McDonnell – I think so. When I feel really bad, when things are going really wrong, I would call my mom. Say something tragic was going to happen like I couldn’t pay my bills, and I was going to end up on the streets, any really bad thing. I would be like “MOM!” I think that is my gut reaction.
Justin Howard – You have that part of yourself, where you are vulnerable. I like that.
Ben McDonnell – It is almost like a security blanket.
Justin Howard – We all have that. I think it is something core to being a human.
Ben McDonnell – It is funny. I just got this new puppy. When you watch this puppy grow up, the first week he is too scared to jump down the stairs. Then suddenly he can take on the stairs, no questions asked. He will run up and down the stairs with no worries. But if he hears a loud noise, he starts to look around for me. So it is kind of like being a puppy in that sense. I can take on certain problems in the world. But then there are the big ones, where you are just like “Mom, help!”
Justin Howard – You still need that voice of wisdom, concern and love.
Ben McDonnell – Yeah!
Justin Howard – What was the moment you awoke to the fact that you were a ‘man?’
Ben McDonnell – I think it took me a few times to wake up to that fact. There were a few times I should have manned up… The biggest thing about being an adult, is that when you mess up that you have to own it. You apologize, you don’t just sweep it under the rug and move on. Yes, it would have to be that moment of admitting fault and being ok with that. That is a huge part of it. When you get to a point, you mess up and you make mistakes. Where you own it, and learn from it.
Justin Howard – So the accepting of responsibility is a big thing for you?
Ben McDonnell – Yes.
Justin Howard – Is there a situation in your life, that you want to share where you messed up but you chose to own up to it? A moment where you are brave enough to admit your mistake and comfortable enough to deal with the results of that mistake in a honest way.
Ben McDonnell – Oh, boy… When you are younger you take things for granted. Even friends, you just think they will come and go. I had a best friend, to whom one time I said something. I didn’t meant in a mean way, but it ended up putting her in tears. It hit me how something so simple can truly effect people. In that moment I realized I just made someone cry. I felt so bad. Here is my best friend and I pushed them to tears. I didn’t mean that way and I didn’t want to hurt that person. You really have to realize how powerful your words can be. As you grow up sometimes you say jokes, mean jokes. When someone you care for is the butt of the joke, it isn’t always so funny. I have become very conscious of what I say. Now 90% of the jokes I say are aimed at myself.
Justin Howard – That sounds like a bit of hard-earned wisdom. You mentioned that you don’t get along with your father. How has he influenced your concept of manhood for good or bad?
Ben McDonnell – Well, he is my step-dad, not my biological father. He is very old school. He owns his own company, he is a Republican, and he believes in hard physical labor. In his eyes, a man is person who goes outside and works in the sun. He is the type of person who can fire someone without thinking twice. He doesn’t care if it is the week before Christmas, or if they have a family. Business is business. We all have this notion of parents, that they are to teach you what to do and how to be. Except in his case, he taught how I don’t want to be. I have learned a lot from him. He put it in a different perceptive. I watched him and found out exactly what I don’t want to be.
Justin Howard – Thanks for being honest. It can be hard for people to admit that the people that raised them, taught them how not to be. It is just important to know what you will not do, as to what you will do.
Ben McDonnell – He taught me as much as any parent, just in another way.
Justin Howard – What male figures where role models for you on your quest to manhood? What male figures where you aware of, and used as examples of ‘how to be’ a man? How did they influence you?
Ben McDonnell – I didn’t have… You know your father is meant to be the one you pattern yourself upon. I got lost in movies. I would watch movies and television shows. Even growing up watching Disney Channel. It may sound silly, but they always had this ‘functioning’ family. The happy mom and dad, the boy and girl child. They are all just happy-go-lucky. I lost myself in entertainment because I didn’t have a super strong male influence in my life. I kinda had to learn as I went along.
Justin Howard – Do you remember one character that touched you, and helped you to realize that was the kind a of man you wanted to be?
Ben McDonnell – I don’t think I ever watched television, thinking that was what I wanted to be. It was always with the eye towards what I wanted.
Justin Howard – Do you recall one show in particular?
Ben McDonnell – Yes, it was the OC. It was Sandy Cohen. I was obsessed with that show.
Justin Howard – What about that character influenced you? Drew you to him?
Ben McDonnell – When I watched the show, it was always because I wanted a dad like that. He was always there for the kids, always supportive. He smoothed things over, he took care of things. He was always supportive while being a parent.
Justin Howard – The film ‘About A Boy’ revolves around the concept of what it means to be a man… Why choose to do a film about it?
Ben McDonnell – I just got sick of the stigma that a man has to be a certain way. Coming from a small town, I moved to California, where back home they all thought I was crazy. They had all these things I ‘had to do’, I had to go to school. I did go to school. But I hate to settle. I really don’t like to be told what to do anyway. I am the type of person that if you tell me what to do, I will do the opposite, just because you told me to do it. That isn’t the best quality to have in the world. Which is why I have always worked for myself. I have always done creative work, I don’t want to have a boss. That isn’t to say that i am disrespectful, I just always want to be treated as an equal. I think in school and in jobs, someone is always above you. I hate being ‘talked down to’ and I hate being talked to like I am an idiot. Like I said, I don’t care who you are, what you have done. I don’t care if you are the president of the country, or of Apple. Or if you live on the streets or work at Walmart. I think everyone is equal.
Justin Howard – How did your mom influence you becoming a man?
Ben McDonnell – She has always let me be whoever I wanted to be. The best thing is, no matter what I said I wanted to be, my mom supported me. If I said “I wanted to go to the moon,” she would be like “How can I help?” When I told her I wanted to move to LA and become an actor, she was “Ok, let’s do this.” She is always my security blanket because she backed me on that. We have been through our rough period as every teenager has with their mother. But we got through it. Now our relationship is probably at the best place it has ever been. Ever today if I tell her I want to make a movie, she is like ok! She never second guesses it. She just pushes me towards my goal. She just always let me be myself.
Justin Howard – I think because she let you follow your own path, she allowed you to come to a place of acceptance about who you are. Sounds like she instilled in you the value of letting people be, and allowing them freedom to discover who they truly are.
Ben McDonnell – Yeah, for sure she played a huge role. She let me do it in my own time and in my own way. Which was great.
Justin Howard – What is the message you wish the audience to get out of watching this film?
Ben McDonnell – You have to let every person be who they are and express themselves the way they want to. Just because a person does something a certain way, doesn’t mean they are any less. You never really know what that person is going through at that moment. You don’t know what is really going on in their head unless you ask. If you ask then great. Assuming things is one of the most dangerous things you can do. I shot my own documentary, and I just premiered at the Twin Cities film festival. It was about all different kinds of people and their own unique stories. I know it is cliched to say “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But you really shouldn’t. You just don’t know what they have gone through and what is going on internally for them.
Justin Howard – In the film’s dialogue, you mention being more then just a man. You talk about being a rebel, an artist. Can you tell me what that means to you?
Ben McDonnell – A lot of people like to label individuals as ‘Oh, you’re artsy” or “Oh, you’re that.” Yeah, I guess I am all that. I am a rebel because I do what I want. Rebel, in the way I do what I want because I refuse to be told I can’t do something. Being creative is being vulnerable. Because you have to put yourself out there. It is putting “You” out there, not someone else. It is literally what is coming out of you. The whole thing about being judged. I just think people should do whatever they want to do.
Justin Howard – As part of the visual narrative of the film, you have a gun on the table before you. Then further in the film, we see someone pointing a gun at your head. What was the message behind this imagery? Which is so powerful, especially in a post-Orlando world where gun violence seems to be becoming part of the normal cycle of everyday life.
Ben McDonnell – That was based on a personal experience of mine, where I got held at gun point for being different and for expressing myself the way I wanted to. So that was a huge turning point in my life, because it was one of the scariest moments in my life. That is when you realized someone else does have the power to take your life, your creativity, your power simply because they don’t believe in what you are saying. It is a scary thing. It is also part of that ‘manly’ thing. Men love to have power and to try to scare you.
Justin Howard – So this imagery was a confessional of sorts, you visually telling the world what happened to you on such a deep, inner level. In a sense the violation you experienced and the act of you reclaiming that power.
Ben McDonnell – Definitely. In that moment you lost all your power. You literally have no power. You are at the mercy of that person because you don’t want to be killed. You can’t defend yourself at that moment, because you just want to survive. You just shut up and do what ever it is they want. Afterwards, it was like this is what happened, but look at where I am now. I have taken my power back and I am ‘OK’ now.
Justin Howard – Can I ask how you dealt with episode?
Ben McDonnell – Without going into to many details I wrote my attacker a letter where I said “I don’t want anything from you. I just want to let you know I forgive you.” Once I wrote and sent that letter, a great weight was lifted off my shoulders about the whole thing.
Justin Howard – That was a very ritualistic thing for you to do. A very powerful thing for you to do. That claiming back of your own power, yet being able to vulnerable with someone who clearly has violated you.
Ben McDonnell – As soon as I sent it, it was immediate relief. It was crazy. People talk about writing and sending letters. But to really send one, was totally a relief and I was able to move on from it.
Justin Howard – Talking about being vulnerable… Why start and finish the film being naked? Are you visually dealing with the themes of life, death and rebirth?
Ben McDonnell – It was a rebirth of things that happened. It doesn’t matter if you are the most beautiful person in the world, being naked brings forth the insecurities we all have. It is one of the most vulnerable physical acts you can do. Because you are literally physically naked. It was vulnerable even to film it. I was in room full of crew, it wasn’t like I was by myself. It was a big step for me. I remember I posted a screen shot on Facebook of the behind the scenes and people freaked out. People literally were sending me messages about how dare I post it on Facebook where kids can see it. Clearly nothing was showing on picture.
Justin Howard – I mean you aren’t even showing a butt cheek for heavens sake!
Ben McDonnell – Yes, I wasn’t showing anything but clearly I was naked. People were all over me for it. Like I said, Midwest, small town. I wasn’t surprised about how they came after me on how could post I this. What they don’t understand is that I wasn’t just posting pictures of me now for the fun of it. There is so much more to it.
Justin Howard – It is art. The thing about being naked, be it on film or in a photograph, is that you are literally in a place without pretense. You are the totality of your being. When you are nude, there is no armor. When you bare that to the world, it is a very powerful yet vulnerable thing to do.
Ben McDonnell – I think being vulnerable is how you grow. If you stay comfortable all the time, you are never going to change, you are never going to grow. You have to do things that scare you, that put yourself out there.
Justin Howard – Let’s talk about the modern man… What does that look like for you?
Ben McDonnell – The modern man is all about confidence. I have friends who work on a farm and in an oil refinery. They are covered in grease. Then I have friends who are professional drag queens. Whatever they do to be themselves, however they rock it, then great. That is the modern man to me. I don’t think there has to be any stigma or stereotype you have to follow. You can be a guy who drinks beers and watches football, or a metrosexual who likes to look amazing. Who ever you are, rock it!
Justin Howard – About the dialogue in the film. It has a very lyrical quality to it. Where did the dialogue come from?
Ben McDonnell – The script was a collaboration between Nana and myself. We sat down and thought of what kind of story we wanted to tell. We wrote it together. We played with the idea of doing the dialogue as a poem, or having no dialogue, just visuals. We had a rough sketch of what we wanted, then Nana worked her magic on it. Then she sent it over to me and I just thought it was perfect.
Justin Howard – “Nana is magic,” I am so going to steal that quote.
Ben McDonnell – Yeah, Nana is magic. I don’t know how she does it.
Justin Howard – She is simply Nana, that is a mystery onto itself. Last question for you, what is a truth you have learned but never shared.
Ben McDonnell – A truth I have learned but never shared… That I am good enough.