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Chance: An Interview with Amber Benson
© Kenn McCracken
September 18, 2002

What has the power to draw rabid fans to Birmingham in September, fans from everywhere from Virginia to Denmark? No, not the Talladega 500—that’s in October. Here’s a hint: Memorabilia related to the event draws insane amounts of money on Ebay. Another: It’s got a lot in common (at least on the visual front) with TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

If you need more clues, then you might as well be told that the event in question is Chance, the directorial debut of Amber Benson. Amber is probably best known for her near three-year stint on Buffy as Tara, but she has been acting professionally since 1993, making her feature film debut as Ella in King of the Hill at the age of 16. Most interestingly, though, Chance will bow in the same city where its writer and director was born and raised: Birmingham, specifically at the 2002 Sidewalk Film Festival.

"We're truly honored that Amber is allowing us to run the film at Sidewalk, even more so that it will be the film's World Premiere," says Erik Jambor, the man in charge of the successful (and still growing) Sidewalk Film Festival. "The film is a fantastic debut for Amber as a writer / director, from the sharp writing to the strength of the performances."

Chance is the story of a young woman looking for love and happiness in the 21st century, and in all the wrong places to boot. It’s the story of a search for meaning, for the perfect romance, and for self. And yes, that sounds clichéd, but all movies do when you boil them down to two sentences or less.

Amber’s description is a little clearer. "In the end, I think that Chance became sort of my take on relationships," she says. "It's so hard to be an independent woman. You want to assert yourself and have control over how the relationship works on one had, but you also want to be loved and supported unconditionally as a feminine being. So there's this strange dichotomy happening in your head and you end up making weird, sometimes wrong decisions, just because you're so confused inside." Ah, the power of love. . . .

The film itself was not a typical Hollywood venture, with endless founts of money being thrown at the production. Instead, Amber added the producer’s cap to her already stacked millinery, which included director, writer, and actor. "I knew that because I was relatively young, an actor and a woman, no one was ever going to hand me a bunch of cash and say, ‘Here, make a movie. We trust you.’ If this was really something I wanted to do, then I was just gonna have to do it myself." She funded the film herself, which allowed her total control over the end result but also set her back an imaginable small fortune. With the help of the Internet and a large base of devoted fans, Amber recouped the investment by selling pieces of the movie—props, scripts, and the like—as well as accepting donations.

Besides providing a legion of people willing to pitch in financially to help her make her movie, Amber’s status as a star helped in other ways—casting, for one. "James Marsters is a friend of mine from working on Buffy. I kept meeting Christine Estabrook, who plays my mother in the film, at WB parties. I knew from the very first time I met her that, gut level, she was an extraordinary talent. And she is. She really kept the whole crew in stitches.

"I met a lot of cool people through Buffy. Andy Hallett and Tressa di Figlia (Nicolas ‘Xander’ Brendon's wife) were super-talented and they were so sweet to join the craziness. I rounded out the rest of the cast with friends who I knew were strong and talented. I was just really lucky securing such a talented troop of actors in the end.

"The smartest thing a director can do is to hire talented actors—not just people who look the part, but people who can act anything. Invariably, I find that I'd much rather watch someone who is interesting on screen than someone who is just aesthetically pleasing to the eye."

Something that gets lost too easily in moviemaking is the writing, the script—the skeleton that will go on to ultimately support (or fail to support) the end product. Overlooked too often in this case is that Amber provided that as well, making Chance her baby from start to finish (she is also responsible for the final step in the process, the editing). While many actors should be forced violently away from word processors, Chance has a foundation backed by experience: Amber co-wrote (with writer Christopher Golden) several issues of Dark Horse’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off/special editions. In fact, she says that if she weren’t an actress, she’d like to be a writer. "I guess what I'd really like to try my hand at is writing a novel. I just hope that I have the patience to get through one. I'm an avid reader and horribly critical of prose writing, especially my own, so we'll see if I can get it together without throwing it in the dustbin."

If it seems to you that there’s nothing this twenty-five-year-old can’t do, you’re close to right. Besides all of her aforementioned talents and experience, Amber got her start in Birmingham as a dancer and actress, taking the stage for the Alabama Ballet Company, Town & Gown Theatre, Birmingham Children’s Theatre, and Summerfest. It was at an early age that she knew what she wanted to do, and she’s pursued it ever since, from her hometown to Los Angeles with a stop in Orlando, Florida, on the way. But one thing still eludes her: the visual arts. One thing that doesn’t, as in every decent Southern family: sibling rivalry. "My sister is a genius when it comes to photography and painting. In fact, we peppered the set of Chance with my sister's work. I'm so jealous that all I can do is draw stick figures."

It’s almost hard to sympathize, honestly, given all the things she does so well, especially with the success that she’s seen. While her character on Buffy was killed off near the end of last season, her career didn’t begin with the series; her previous credits include The Crush, Bye Bye Love, and Imaginary Crimes. It’s likely that Amber hasn’t ended her acting career with Buffy, either—although, given series’ creator Joss Whedon’s predilection for bringing characters back from the dead, she might not be as conclusively gone as it would appear. This is, after all, a show about the supernatural—and the undead. Regardless, with directing, producing, and writing under her belt, the sky seems to be the limit.

Back in the present, the fans aren’t the only ones excited about the upcoming premiere of Chance. Make no mistake about it—those fans are excited, seemingly to a fanatical level; the message board on Amber’s website is filled with countdowns to Sunday the 22nd (when the film will show at the Alabama Theatre) and rants about traveling from as far away as Europe and spending small fortunes in order to support their favorite actress. Amber, in a typically non-Hollywood manner, is happy to be coming home, and happier still to have her debut opening in Birmingham at Sidewalk. "Everyone here is so supportive of me and my film. In L.A., things are very chaotic and crazy. No one really has any time to sit down and relax. It's just nice to know that when I'm in Birmingham people are gonna be at the festival in both body and spirit. That's what Sidewalk is all about—bringing independent film to an interested audience. And that's why I wanted to be a part of it."

As natural as the timing seems, though, the premiere almost didn’t happen. "Amber was part of Sidewalk's inaugural year in 1999, and we ran into her again this past January when we were out at the Sundance Film Festival," recalls Jambor. "It is hard to recognize anyone when they're bundled up for the Park City weather, so it's pure chance that we caught each other. She was out there for a film she was in called Taboo, but was most excited about what she had going on with Chance. It is always exciting to be able to bring Sidewalk alumni back to Birmingham, and with Amber moving into writing and directing, Chance seemed like the perfect opportunity.

"Unfortunately, by the time we began programming Sidewalk, the phone number that I'd jotted down in the snow had vanished and all the old contact information we had from '99 was no longer valid. We kept the film in the working schedule as new submissions rolled in, but still had no way to contact her. Eventually we turned to the Internet and emailed Little Willow, the webmaster of ‘The Essence of Amber’ website, in hope that she could forward an email to Amber. Amazingly, a few days later I received a call from Amber's mom, Diane, and by late July were sitting at the Cracker Barrel in Cullman, locking everything in."

Like any expatriate (California, after all, is as close to a foreign country as most Alabamians have need for), Amber has other plans for her visit. "Birmingham was a wonderful place to grow up. Yet, all my childhood memories somehow seem to center around food. I actually have a list of places to chow down when I go back."

Amber will display her hard work to the crowd on Sunday, precede that with a planned appearance on one of the "Under the Sidewalk" symposium panels, and spend the rest of the weekend visiting old friends (and restaurants) and presumably taking in some cinema with the rest of us. As for afterwards—Chance is still in need of a distributor, but Amber is characteristically laid-back about the issue. "I just want to see Chance in front of an audience. Then I'll start worrying about how I'm gonna pay the bills." And for the writer/director/actress/dancer—well, again, there are no worries. "I'm just kinda taking life as it happens. Throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks."

For the Birmingham woman whose dreams have carried her this far, it probably won’t take too long for something to stick.


Kenn McCracken is comics editor for RevolutionSF.

 
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