Ben Reiser

My day job is being Director of Operations for the Wisconsin Film Festival. I also program films for the Festival as well as UW Cinematheque.  And I’m a filmmaker and a songwriter.

I’ve always liked film. I originally thought I wanted to be an actor, but quickly realized I was more interested in being a storyteller.

I hated school and didn’t plan to go to college, but then I found out that at SUNY Purchase I could get a Bachelor of Fine Arts in filmmaking—which meant 90 of my required 120 credits were film-related—and so I immersed myself in film for four years.

I met my future wife, Katie, at school, and after we graduated, we moved back to my parent’s house in Brooklyn where I’d grown up. We eventually moved into our own apartment and stayed in Brooklyn for about 10 years. I tried to do some things in the film world—I wrote a screenplay or two—but realized I didn’t see myself in that role and didn’t want to work on a film crew. This was before the days of high-definition video so there was no way to make a high-quality feature film on the kind of shoestring budget I had at hand, and I was loathe to try and sell myself as a filmmaker to potential investors.

During this time, I was working for a copy center doing deliveries and print jobs. In my free time, I kept writing songs and continued to sing and play guitar with a band I’d started while in college. That gave me a creative outlet and it was a lot more fun to write a song and get up and play guitar and sing than it was to spend months on a screenplay.

Fast forward a few years, and a guy I’d gone to school with who had moved back home to Seattle got in touch with me. He was also in a band and he’d just been signed with Columbia Records and one of the songs on his album was something I’d written. He sent me paperwork for the royalties and in one of the more insane miracles of my life, that album (The Presidents of the United States of America’s debut release) sold three million copies and I made hundreds of thousands of dollars! It was crazy.

Katie and I decided it was time to buy a house—we were sick of spending our days finding places to park our car and we wanted a fenced-in area for our dogs. We didn’t think we could afford anything in New York, so we decided to come back to Wisconsin where she is from.

I went back to working at a print place, eventually worked for Xerox and then was assigned to run the mail room for one of their clients. When that client later had financial difficulties, I lost my job and started thinking this was the time to do something with those filmmaking dreams I’d always had. The timing was good in two respects: high-definition video was now a thing, which meant I could use video to make something close to the quality of film, and it was right before the submission deadline for that year’s Wisconsin Film Festival.

I got together with some friends, we brainstormed an initial scene and shot it. I showed it to the people who’d helped me, and we all decided it was good enough to do more with it. I created a 10-scene idea for a movie, we shot the remaining nine scenes, edited the film and sent it off. Shockingly enough it was accepted and went on to win the Golden Badger Award for acting! That earned us $250 that we spent on a party bus and a fun party for our friends.

The next year an email went out looking for someone to be an assistant director to the Film Festival. I told a good friend who applied and got it; she later introduced me to her colleagues and over time I got the opportunity to work on campus with a part time job at UW Cinematheque and later added a half-time job with the festival. These days those two jobs have more or less coalesced into a single position, and I find myself delightfully submersed in all things film, all year round.

Because of COVID, we weren’t able to hold last year’s festival—things got shut down right as our tickets were going on sale. It was sad to do all the work, spend the money and be cancelled.  We’re very hopeful the 2021 festival can happen— primarily online, but maybe with some outdoor screenings as well!

My most memorable caffeine is the coffee my boss at the copy center in Brooklyn would make for the staff. I wasn’t a coffee drinker at that point, so I’d make myself a half coffee, half hot chocolate. I have very fond memories of that.

My current caffeine of choice is often Caribou Coffee, their house blend. I’m also a fan of trying out all the different varieties of Trader Joe’s coffee.

My favorite place for caffeine is my own house! Even before the pandemic, my favorite place to drink coffee was right here on my street.

The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is my Grandpa Jack, whom our son is named after. Jack Goldman was a coffee drinker and some of my earliest memories are of the smell of coffee in my grandparent’s apartment. I always loved that smell.

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: Anything! I lived for 45 years without drinking coffee and now I feel like I’m making up for lost time. I find I want it every morning to get me going. I don’t exactly need it and I’ve never had withdrawal symptoms if I don’t have it. But drinking a cup or two makes me feel complete and like I could tackle anything.