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Karen Mintz and Simon Egleton on Their Frank Bender Doc

Karen Mintz has just finished shooting her documentary, The Recomposer of The Decomposed, about the forensic artist Frank Bender, who died recently. She is about to move into the post-production phase. I had the opportunity to meet with her and her producer Simon Egleton and talk about her film, the pros and cons of no-budget filmmaking, and the friend that she made, and also lost, during the process.

Filmmaker: Can you start by telling me a little about how you became a filmmaker and what your background is?

Mintz: I started working in production 15 years ago. I just kind of fell into it as a lot of people do. I worked for the Dept of Agriculture in New Jersey doing PR work and one day they had a big budget surplus. They were like “how can we spend this money? We’ve got to spend $70,000 before the end of the year.” I came up with this idea to do this cooking show with farm fresh vegetables. I didn’t know anything about production; I just kind of flubbed my way into it. So I ended up doing a series of little documentaries about farmers and agriculture and they did really well. Then with a partner I started a little production company in the city, we did a lot of commercial stuff – all the documentaries that we did at that point would air as small local pieces. I’m working on two feature-length documentaries now and they are my first foray into feature length work.

Filmmaker: How did you meet Frank?

Mintz: I met Frank at a party a few years ago. I came away from the party and I was like “I think that might be one of the most interesting people I have ever met.” The whole night he and a bunch of other people were hanging out just partying and talking, telling great stories: I didn’t know what he did, who he was, or anything about him. At the end of the night he hands me his card, and it was Frank Bender. You couldn’t meet a more upbeat gregarious, party guy. I don’t know what one would expect from someone who does the kind of work that he does. Would they be a little more morose or more serious? He just couldn’t have been less like that. So, I approached him, I wanted to try to do a series on him. I thought it would be great have him solve a case every month; it takes him about a month to do a case. My fiancée is English, so I was going back and forth to Brighton where he lived, and there is a really great production community there. So I met some people there and we were trying to pitch the idea of a series to Channel 4 and the BBC. It’s great because they just have more venues for a five-part series, or one offs, whereas here, you can’t find a home for anything. In the midst of that he called me one day and said, “I’ve got some bad news. I’ve got terminal cancer.” He said it as though: Aah, I’ve got some bad news, I can’t meet you on Tuesday.” But actually it was “I’ve got some bad news — I was just diagnosed with terminal cancer and they’re giving me six months.” And at that time, tragically, his wife was ill with stage 4 non-smokers lung cancer. He was actively being a caregiver for her and then he gets cancer. So it was difficult. Who’s taking care of whom? It was awful. At that time I was so invested in this story because he was so interesting. It was one of those things where you’re like, “Well, you’re either going to do it or you’re not going to do it. This guy’s going to be here for six months.” I felt like if I don’t do this, I’m going to regret it. I probably will never come across someone like this again. At the time he was commissioned to do a bust. It turned out to be his final bust. I asked him if he would mind if I started filming. I just filmed it on like a little Canon Vixia. I’m not a shooter, but you just use what you’ve got. Simon would be like, “Set the camera this way and then don’t touch it.”

Egleton: We did a bunch of tests and we found the ultimate settings.

Mintz: He was practically like “Scotch tape it – don’t touch it.”

Egleton: I was such a snob about high def and I was complaining and Karen said, “Look it’s this or nothing.” It was a bit like the Born Into Brothels situation. It was one of those things where – “this is the camera I’ve got, we shoot it or there is nothing.”

Mintz: He sucked it up and made it work.

Egleton: The thing is that Karen is a superb handheld operator. She can sit there for 20 minutes.

Mintz: It’s yoga.

Egleton: It’s so refreshing, because it is so stable.

Mintz: I’m not adept with gear, so it almost just comes out of gear loathing that I end up handholding. Simon helped me through the whole process of how we’re going to make this film.

Filmmaker: And you had no sound person?

Egleton:The sound actually initially started with a rode mic on the camera, and it was hissy and the shock mount rattled. It was absurdly badly designed for what it was. So we had this gorgeous shotgun mic left over from another film so we went to B & H and got a mount for it, we stuck it on top of the HV30 camera and it looked ridiculous. It looked like a huge cigar. But the sound drastically improved since we did that.

Mintz: The sound quality now is great. Anyway, it ended up working out well because Frank’s situation was so intimate, because he was ill, so he would call, sometimes he would say, “Ok I’m feeling really good today.” Or, he went through a period where he couldn’t stop hiccupping. So it was better to have something that was less intrusive than to have more people there. That camera was a blessing, because it’s just very easy and I’m comfortable with it. So we just started and he would call me as he was working on the bust, as he felt able. His wife Janice passed away. During the time that she was ill, he really was 24/7 taking care of her. After she passed away, I think making the film gave him something to do – another thing to focus on. I think it was helpful.

Filmmaker: How much time were you spending with him?

Mintz: I have about 50 hours. Much of my footage is just of him. It spans the past 18 months, as he would be at different stages. A lot of it was just going to his studio; it can be very private, it’s not really that comfortable to have somebody in your face, even if they’re not talking. We would do these sessions, and I am really grateful that he was willing to let me be there. He starts with a skull and so for a while you are sitting there and you are looking at this skull, you know – I’m not used to seeing that. And then he goes with the facial tissue thickness markers and starts to add the clay and it kind of builds into the bust. In the beginning, you know he used to de-flesh the heads. He’d put them in a pot on the stove to de-flesh them. He talked about all that stuff – but this head, the last one, had come to him already clean and we were looking at this bust and I would just come in and not say anything for the whole hour of tape. He would play music and I would just watch him sculpt and then through the process you would see, there is a very distinct point when he was working where you are staring at a person. There’s like a moment or a transition in his work where that happened. That was just unbelievable to watch. I hope I captured that. You are staring at this person and they are looking out at you and you are like “Who are you?’ “What happened to you?” That story really begs to be told. Suddenly you think about this person’s whole family and life, and parents who have no idea what happened to her. She walked out one day and never came back. You are so gripped by the mystery of what happened to her and you understand more how he, as an artist, being able to bring that person back to life was so dedicated to what he did.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting and poetic that he is bringing this person to life as he is dying.

Egleton: I remember seeing a quote where Frank said in an ironic tone: “I dedicate a lot of my life to removing cancers from society and I’m being killed by cancer.”

Mintz: It is a nice poetic theme and we hope that someone will identify this woman. There have had so many successes where people have come to him and said, “I would have never known …” This one woman I interviewed said, “My daughter walked out 15 years ago, she was sixteen, no idea what happened to her. Every time the phone rings… or I see people that look like her on the street, that never ends, until there is an end.” Even though they never caught the person that did this she felt like “He gave me back my life.” And he became friends with all those people. They would have barbecues together and go to the pool and hang out. He went to the trial of people he put in jail. He was so involved in the aftermath but he was also not attached to the outcome and I think that was a kind of interesting part of him. He didn’t keep a tally. He would do a bust and sometimes they would be ID’d and he wouldn’t find out until years later. I think a lot of true artists are about the doing of the thing. In his case of course he was happy by the outcomes when they were successful but for him it was the intensity of doing it and then he could let go at some point.

Filmmaker: You have finished filming now, and you are moving into post-production, is that right?

Mintz: Yes. For the most part I’m done filming. One interview that Simon and I worked hard to get was the interview with a prisoner. There were many ways that Frank touched people’s lives. Obviously he was able to help the families who had lost a loved one. There was another unusual thing attached to one of those cases; the case that was identified at the Mutter Museum. There was a guy who turned himself in after seeing Frank’s bust of him. We arranged a phone call for Frank to talk to him in prison. This guy saw the newspaper and ripped that picture out and carried it around in his wallet for ten years, and he said it just haunted him. He was a drug addict at the time that the murder happened and he couldn’t live with himself. He just turned himself in. He said, “Had I not seen that image … it just haunted me to the point where I couldn’t take it any more.” And then Frank was asking “What day do you decide ok, today I’ll spend the rest of my life in jail?” And he said, “One day I woke up and the room was filled with light – it was 2 o’clock in the morning and I took that as a sign, and I turned myself in.” And Frank said, “What did they say?” The cops were like “Get out of here.” They thought he was crazy – he had to like really rigorously turn himself in because they didn’t believe him. I think for Frank, talking to him and recognizing that his work also provided closure to this person who had committed this crime was something that gave him a lot of pleasure: to see the different ways in which his work tied people’s lives together and brought people closure from completely different perspectives.

Egleton: Where we’re at right now – Karen has been funding the film, out of her own pocket and when we first started talking about this two years ago, I was still living off savings from working on the HBO series The Wire. I’m a production guy who does post. We are good friends and we work very well together and it’s very collaborative and easy and so the more I got steeped in the world of Frank – I mean he’s a wonderful guy – everything about him is sort of – wow! He’s had an unusual life, he lived in an old butcher shop filled with hundreds of busts of dead people and didn’t have a problem with it. There’s something almost magical about the way he approaches the work. I think one of my roles on this, because Karen has been so close to Frank is to look and say “Well, what about his childhood, ask who he hung out with, what about his life in North Philadelphia? What brought him to this?” Maybe there was something early on that triggers his desire. He is so unusual and Karen has more footage than anybody. Right now we have a Final Cut Pro system, version 7. The next step is to really start sorting the footage.

Filmmaker:I wanted to follow up on something you said, Simon, about asking Frank if there was something in his childhood that brought him to that work. Did you ask him?

Mintz: He said that what brought him to that work was that he was studying at the Academy of Fine Art. He had just gotten out of the Army and they were offering courses in sculpture, and he wanted to learn more about anatomy. He had a friend who worked at the morgue who said, “You should come to the morgue, you can see bodies, if you want to learn. So he goes to the morgue, but he said, “Those bodies were like cut in half by trains, people had their heads blown off they were suicides, they weren’t kind of the neat orderly bodies I was hoping for.” But in the course of being there, they uncovered the face of a woman, and he said, “What happened to this woman?” And they said they had no idea. She was pretty badly decomposed, and Frank was like, “I know what she looks like.” This guy was a medical examiner and he was like, “How the hell would you know what she looks like?” Franks said, “I don’t know. But I know what she looks like.” And that was his first sculpture, his first bust, and it ended up putting away this guy named John Martini who was a hit man for the mob. He is in prison today.

Egleton: I mean, I don’t know whether it’s a true psychic phenomenon, but having watched the footage, something’s going on beyond the norm with him. I mean the fact that he can reconstruct an entire face that’s decomposed and he can produce a bust that is awfully close to the person.

Mintz: One of the skulls was just a hole; there was nothing in the facial area. That’s, I think what I want to start the film with, because that was the most unbelievable case that he ever solved. And it did put somebody in jail but there was nothing there. There were no facial orbits – there was a hole. He did it as a lark, on a challenge.

Egleton: Something’s going on.

Mintz: He risked his life in a lot of situations. He’s putting away these nasty people. But he just lived at his house; He wasn’t living under police protection. He went to Juarez Mexico; he did stuff that was really dangerous. He was a very do-the-right-thing-brave-guy, and that’s a rarity. That guy put his life on the line. Period. He didn’t look back.

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