Each year, summer brings us a ton of new films loaded with action and adventure If you are looking for a little something outside the box, perhaps a modern update of the ’80s creature features we all know and love, ‘Stung’ is the flick for you. Directed by Benni Diez with a screenplay by Adam Aresty, the film offers a seamless blend of CGI and oozing practical effects. The film stars Matt O’Leary, Jessica Cook, Clifton Collins Jr. and the iconic Lance Henriksen. The film centers around an extravagant garden party hosted by Mrs. Perch at her remote country villa. Unbeknownst to the host and her guests, her illegal fertilizer has infested the surrounding countryside and transformed a local species of killer wasps into giant, mutant predators, on the hunt for prey in which they can lay their eggs. It falls to two of the party’s catering staff to stop the monsters and save the day. ‘Stung’ is a rollercoaster ride that offers up both laughs and scares. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Benni Diez to discuss his unique career path, his influences, the challenges of bringing ‘Stung’ from script to screen and what the future may hold for this director on the rise.
Let’s talk influences for a moment. What films had a big impact on you as a director and “Stung,” your debut feature?
One of the most important films to me was “Aliens.” It is funny because when I talked to Adam Aresty, the writer of “Stung,” for the first time, we realized this was one of his influences as well. We had that in common. The entire film owes a lot of its style and homages to movies like “Aliens,” “Jaws” and “Tremors,” the old-school creature films of the ‘80s and ‘90s where there are a lot of practical effects that bring a lot of warmth to them. Even the most gruesome effects had a warmth to them as opposed to the cold, bleak CGI-overload from recent years.
What can you tell us about your career path and what ultimately brought you to helming this film?
It started with me being an enthusiast of visual effects when I was around 14 years old. I taught myself how to do computer animation on the very first computer animation program. Later on, I realized it was something I could study and do as a profession. I always did my own movies and directed my own stuff but I was never really interested in studying effects and seeing where that would take me. I wanted to still be able to make my own movies but I wanted to study the effects to understand the technical side because I found it so interesting. I studied visual effects and animation at a German Film School in Ludwigsburg, Germany. That turned out to be a good decision because, later on, I had that as a selling point. I wasn’t just someone who was trying to make a movie but I actually knew how the effects worked from the technical side, which for a creature movie is a plus! I think it gave investors a better feeling than usual!
What was it about the script for “Stung” that made you want to bring it to the screen?
Initially, it spoke to me on a lot of levels. The most important one was the boy in me who had seen movies like “Aliens” way too early in his life and was messed up in the brain by it! [laughs] I also felt this was a movie I could dare to try to make because it had elements I was comfortable with. Had it been an ensemble drama, I would have felt differently, but it had one location with a couple of actors and a very compact plot. Those are the elements that excited me. All of the effects that existed within the script were things I had done in a smaller way at some point in my life. It had a lot of stuff that made me want to do it and made me feel like I could actually pull it off.
Was there anything you hadn’t attempted in the past you aimed to try with this feature?
Absolutely! That was actually the dialogue scenes. One of the moments where I was most afraid during the shoot was when we had a scene with the four actors in the basement. It was only dialogue, reading lines, conveying emotion and fleshing out the characters. On that scale, it was something I had never done before. I was very anxious leading up to that day. I was very happy with how it turned out because I was able to rely on such great character actors — Lance Henriksen, Clifton Collins, Matthew O’Leary and Jessica Cook. I could always learn from them and ask them to kind of teach me how to direct because they had all, in certain capacities, done character work and knew what they were doing. It was a very inspiring experience. It was an experience that really cemented in me the feeling that this is the job I want to do for the rest of my life.
The cast was truly terrific. Was it difficult to find the right mix of actors to flesh out the characters?
Yes. It was difficult because when you ask people with a certain name and standing if they want to star in a movie about 7 foot tall wasps attacking people, you really have to convince them! [laughs] We didn’t have a casting director, so it was a very tedious process to get them involved and convince them that this was a project worth pursuing. I was more than happy and lucky to have this great bunch of actors. I couldn’t have asked for better actors because they were so terrific.
What went into the design and functionality of the creatures in this film?
We really looked to nature, the wasp and everything that is happening in nature. Laying eggs into other creatures and having them hatch from the host is something based in nature. I am guessing a lot of monster movies are based on that concept as well. There are a lot of insects who take other animals as hosts for breeding. We really went back to those actual species, the closest one being the Tarantula Killer Wasp, who actual stuns the tarantula and then lays eggs in them. They have a very slick, alien like design. They are very dark, have very thick legs and wings. They almost look like a war machine. We based our designs on that and then expanded on them to give them more character and expression to give them some emotional quality.
You mentioned your love for “Aliens” and the sci-fi genre. Lance Henriksen plays a huge role in this film. What did he bring to the project?
It was such an exciting moment to know he was going to do the movie. Imagine getting that phone call, “Hey! The guy from your favorite movie in the world is going to star in your first feature film!” That, by itself, was totally insane! Having him on set and having him turn out to be such a great collaborator and a warm-hearted, generous person was amazing. He was really willing to give everything and help me as a director to get the best out of every scene. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better way to get into the higher classes of the movie business than working with someone like Lance and learning some of the old guard are really the real deal. He is such a gentleman and a great guy to have around on set because he was so funny and always ready to tell a story. He really lifted up the vibe on set. I couldn’t have asked for more!
Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts in making any film, let alone your directorial debut. What was the biggest challenges you faced on this project?
Getting the whole thing off in 24 shooting days was a big challenge. Creating a shooting schedule that allowed us to put everything that was in the script in the shoot and still get away with scenes having quality was a challenge. We had very short shooting days and couldn’t do any overtime because of contractual obligations, so it was a very difficult thing to pull off. In the end, it benefited us because we were very relaxed and well-rested because we weren’t doing 20-hour shoots. It was a very collaborative and laid back atmosphere on set with just 24 shooting days. The other challenges were getting all the many different things, the practical effects, the CG effects, characters that you don’t want to abandon due to technicalities, all into a coherent movie. You always want to work with the actors to ensure the emotional through lines and make sure they really work. That was only possible because I had a great team behind me. Everything I knew about effects were always handled by my supervisors, who I have worked with for years. It was very important for me to have people around me that I could trust in every department. My director of photography, for example, saved my life every day! He is very experienced and, in every situation where I didn’t know what to do, he pointed me in the right direction. It was like that with every department. There was one year of very tedious post-production processes and only a few people there to do it. I owe a lot of the movie’s final quality to my sound designer and musicians, who were there with me for months to elevate this movie to what it is now.
Where do you see yourself headed in the future as a director? Anything in the works at the moment?
There is nothing specific I can announce right now. I have a few projects cooking on different heat levels. Now is the phase where the movie is coming out and I am very consciously trying to use that momentum to meet as many people as I can and get the feelers out. It would be great to collaborate and I am always looking for new people to work with. I am never afraid to try new things. When you do a movie, you are in the process for a few years and really want to spend those years with people you know you can trust, people you love to work with and are inspired by. The main priority is to find good people. I have a few ideas under my belt that I would like to expand on but it depends on the next team I gather and work with. I am definitely still interested in genre films. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do another horror movie right away to avoid being pushed in that corner. I have spent the past three-and-a-half years with giant wasps, so I could really do with a nice thriller, maybe set in space with some robots. That would be cool!
The industry changed exponentially since you started your career and continues to evolve with each passing year. What excites you most about filmmaking at this point in time?
As everyone is right now, the concept of virtual reality intrigues me. It seems to pose a lot of new challenges from the storytelling standpoint. It will be an interesting new way to consume media because it is much more immersive and not as linear. We are used to going into a theater or sitting in front of a TV and watching something for one-and-a-half to two hours and then the art is finished. It seems VR will change that a lot because, much like video games that have become more narrative, it will open the door to multi-dimensional storytelling. I have no idea how it works but I am very interested in seeing what happens with that and learning more about it. It definitely won’t replace moviemaking but it will be an exciting new field to play in.
Thank you so much for your time today, Beni. I really enjoyed the film and it is definitely an impressive debut! We wish you continued success.
Thank you, Jason! I appreciate it!
‘Stung’ hits theaters and VOD on July 3rd! Check out the trailer to see what all the buzz is about! Become a fan of the film on Facebook.