This week on The Alaska Show Podcast I talk to Ben Staley - born and bred Alaskan, filmmaker, TV producer, and Emmy award winner. Ben tells me about growing up off-the-grid, getting his start in Hollywood, creating a documentary about F/V Starbound, stories from his time working on Deadliest Catch, and how to get your start in the entertainment business as a creative.
F/V Starbound Documentary - https://vimeo.com/298002211
Ben’s Youtube Channel - https://www.youtube.com/c/AdventureArtStaley
Ben Staley is a filmmaker, producer, documentarian, and emmy award winner who grew up in Alaska.
Ben was born in the early 70s and graduated high school in ‘91. His go-to line is that he didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity until he went to college at 18. They lived in several places but always off-the-grid and always way out of town. Going to town was a once-every-month or two endeavor and it was a multi-day trip. At that point the nearest town was Wasilla. They were about 50 miles from Glen Allen. For groceries it was once a month or every 6 weeks. They would stay with friends in the valley and take a day trip down to Anchorage to Costco.
As a little kid Ben loved living out there. When he was 11 they moved closer to the valley - still in a small cabin and without electricity 10 miles out of town - but he was sad to move from his other home. At the same time he wanted a normal life that kids had. He had never been on an airplane hardly - they never had a tv. They would go to the Gunside Lodge up the highway and they had a few dozen VHS tapes they would rent out. The kids would ride the snowmachine to the bar and they would put on a tape for them once a month and Ben would be glued to the tv.
Which movies made the biggest impact? Definitely Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. His folks split when he was young - 4 or 5 - and Ben remembers living in McGrath with his dad and his mom brought him to Anchorage to see Star Wars in Totem Theaters and that was a transformative experience.
Ben became obsessed with movies. When he was 6 his dad picked Ben and his siblings up and gave them the choice of toys or a movie. He took them to see Alien. Not the kind of movie you should take a six year old to, but Ben left that movie fascinated. Ben’s mom was not very pleased. When he moved to Hollywood years later the actor who played the character Ash in the movie Alien - his son gave Ben his first job.
Ben’s parents were both from the west coast. His dad had dropped out of college to join the Marines in the middle of Vietnam. He fought for the marines in Vietnam for several years and survived. He married Ben’s mom when she was 17 when he got out and they went to Alaska for an adventure. Ben’s mom’s dad was a tugboat engineer in Western Alaska. Ben’s Dad’s dad was a major league pitcher - so his father came from a well-to-do family but sort of rejected that. They got a chunk of land near the susitna river and built a cabin.
His dad got into sled dog racing in the early 70s - they were sort of in the group of the Swinsons and Joe Reddington and other early Iditarod racers. His dad built dog sleds and they were very prized from what Ben heard. They were also into horses - his mom was a barrel racer in Washington as a kid.
Ben’s mom remarried and in 1980 his dad was in McGrath. Ben remembers staying with him that summer very distinctly. His dad worked all day and Ben and his brother sort of ran around McGrath and did what they wanted. The next summer they went with their mom and her new husband into the mountains behind Eureka. They lived in a teepee for a few months wandering around with horses and dogs. That summer his dad was killed in McGrath. He was riding dirt bikes with his buddies along old mining trails and fell off a place where he didn’t know the bridge was out.
That left a mark on Ben because his dad survived such horrors in Vietnam and ended up dying playing with his friends on a Sunday afternoon.
After that they lived pretty deep in the bush still. They would go dipnet at Chitina and catch like 150 fish and can them all.
Ben still likes salmon but he doesn’t want it to be frozen or in a restaurant.
He has had some success in the business he’s in because of what he learned growing up in Alaska. He has seen some kind of growing trend where people want to have something a little more tangible and a little more lasting and build something with their hands.
Ben tells a story about hiking back into a canyon in Chitina and tying themselves off on these rocks and when the reds would hit you’d get three salmon hitting your dipnet and it’s a lot of force. Ben has a daughter now and he couldn’t imagine doing that now.
Imagine parenting in the time with no cell phones or internet - it was hard and kids had to do harder and more dangerous things to feed the family.
Starbound Documentary. The owner of the company called Ben saying that they were going to cut their catcher-processor - the F/V Starbound - in half and add 60 feet to it. The owner wanted to make a documentary about it.
Ben gave him a quote and figured out how he would do it. He had to film on and off for a year then he had to edit all the footage. He crunched all those numbers and gave him a price and the guy bit and he made the doc.
Ben’s goal was to make the documentary look really awesome. He shot it all in 4k. Went out on the last trip they did before the boat went to dry dock to construction and then went on the next two trips after the construction was done.
Most of the work Ben has done has been an embedded situation. He knows how to get along with the fishermen - he eats with them and drinks with them and lives with them.
Does Ben have an agenda when he’s talking with people? He has the goal of moving the story forward everytime. Ben is always asking pointed questions about what, how, and why so the audience can understand the story.
Ben’s won an emmy for cinematography and he’s very good with images, but he thinks the best thing he does is talking to people and interviews. A lot of that comes from living life and sitting around a thousand campfires telling stories, working on fishing boats, and digging ditches - plus being genuinely curious about people. If you want to interview someone and you’re holding a camera people are on guard - as they should be. If you can manage to put that aside and connect and relate to that person they will open up. Ben doesn’t come out of the gate looking for really personal stuff. He will tell some stories, hear some stories, and then people will open up. It’s not manipulation it’s just making a connection.
Ben moved to LA to make movies and then ended up coming back to Alaska to make TV. He avoided that for a long time - he was shooting music videos and commercials and short films and independent feature films. Reality TV becomes more of a thing - he wasn’t so interested. Ben was struggling a bit way back when. He was self-taught and had to figure this stuff out. Had to figure out how to use a camera, had to make professional contacts, it’s a long road. He had some opportunities to do reality and didn’t have to so he didn’t.
At some point he had an opportunity to work on Deadliest Catch because it looked cool. He never got sea sick as a commercial fisherman. He went out on the Northwestern - his favorite boat. They left at like 1 am. His bed was in the forepeak of the boat. There was a wheelhouse producer and the deck shooter. Ben was the deck guy since it was his first season. The wheelhouse producer sleeps in a cubby hole under the wheelhouse.
Right away they were in bad weather. The Northwestern is a house-forward boat and the forepeak goes up and down the most. He couldn’t sleep, he felt weird, and realized he started getting sea sick. Everyone is sleeping and Ben puts on his pants and staggers out to the deck and puts his face over the cod bait and is puking two hours out of Dutch Harbor. He was so sea sick for the first 5-6 days he couldn’t have solid food and could only have little sips of water. He just couldn’t bring himself to quit and go home and managed to do the job. Those first 5-6 days, even after hundreds of days out there, were the worst he’s seen. They were in 45-foot seas.
If Ben was starting over he would start a Youtube channel and make films. In Alaska you have tons of great people and places.
Most underrated town in Alaska - Wrangell and Talkeetna.