Tom Benton

About the filmmakers

James Bogan

From the filmmaker

photo: James BroganIn 1969, with a freshly minted master's degree in English from the University of Kansas, I arrived at the University of Missouri-Rolla, where I had been hired to knock the corners off engineers. For the next 10 years I taught writing and literature, and finished off my dissertation on William Blake's illustrated epic "Jerusalem." After a decade of wrestling with the mega-intellectual English bookmaker-mystic, I was ready for something different, and when I looked around, there was Missouri — and Thomas Hart Benton: accessible, American, large scale. Out my window I could see his visions of rolling pasture, twisted forest and elongated Ozark clouds. Furthermore, his most ambitious mural, A Social History of the State of Missouri, was just up the road in Jefferson City in the Capitol building.

As part of a lecture series on Benton that I organized for the Missouri Humanities Council, Bob Dyer sang his ballads of Missouri history surrounded by Benton's murals in the House Lounge. Over a couple of milkshakes after that event, as I remember it, Frank Fillo and I came up with the idea of making a documentary about the mural that would not insult art historians nor bore junior high kids. It took several years and 20 hours of 16mm film to catch Benton’s masterwork. When "Tom Benton's Missouri" was released as a half-hour film and VHS cassette in 1992, the documentary was widely shown on PBS stations around the country and intensively in Missouri. A cutting-edge — at the time — floppy disk teachers’ guide accompanied the film into classrooms, and the package was widely used over the next decade. An award for Best Short Feature at the Great Plains Film Festival marked the film's critical success.

A Portuguese-language version of "Tom Benton's Missouri" was developed as a follow up to my Fulbright lectureship in the Amazon state of Pará. Benton was one of the ways I taught American culture, and there is abiding interest in his work in Brazil, the land of another great muralist, Candido Portinari.

Revisiting the film to retrofit it for high-definition digital distribution has been a treat. Our decision to let the mural speak for itself with narration by Benton, background from Bob Priddy and the music of Bob Dyer has kept the bold joy and cutting satire of the mural alive in yet another medium. Now another generation can decide for itself what to make of Benton's art.

Frank Fillo

Frank Fillo led the Cooperative Media Group at the University of Missouri for many years before retiring in 2009. He holds a bachelor’s degree in film studies, with a minor in creative writing and English literature, from MU.

Before joining University Communications at MU in 1981, Fillo was a cinematographer for Basic Issue Films, a New York documentary film production company; a producer/director for several independent film and television productions; and a radio talk show host. He also produced live coverage of the 1976 Republican National Convention for a consortium of NPR and Community Radio stations. His work has been featured on the "ABC Nightly News," CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, The Discovery Channel, Arts and Entertainment Network, National Geographic Channel and other national media outlets.

Fillo’s work has been honored with a CINE Golden Eagle, four Telly awards, first place in the Great Plains Film Festival, a red ribbon in the American Educational Film and Video Festival, and a screening at the Venice International Art Film Festival.

He has devoted his life in retirement to raising and showing purebred Shih Tzus and hopes one day to add an American Kennel Club Best of Show to his awards list.

Fillo recalls how the Benton film began

After so many years, I have a hard time remembering exactly how this film began. What I do remember is that I was recording a Bob Dyer performance at the House Lounge in the Missouri State Capitol on April 15, 1984, and after the performance, Jim Bogan and I shared ideas over a few root beer floats. The big questions were: How can we raise the funds to cover the cost of the film, and would the University support the idea. University support came rapidly, but the grant funding took years. If not for Jim Bogan’s persistence, the film would never have been made.

Memory of that time is now blurred by the passing years, but I do remember two strong feelings I had:

  • Fear — the sheer terror of the responsibility to Benton, of making sure his painting looked right and doing his work justice on the screen; and
  • Joy — the film brought together a group of very talented art historians, state historians, student interns, lighting grips, audio mixers and so many others — please watch the credits — who were great people to work with.

The current group of people who worked on the HD restoration of the film and revamped the study guide are equally talented. Both groups gave so much to the film.

Michael Hicks

Supervising Editor of Restoration: 

Film and Television Producer
Cooperative Media Group
University of Missouri Extension

Michael Hicks, who oversaw the restoration and HD conversion of “Tom Benton’s Missouri,” has been creating industrial and educational videos since 1983.  His creative spark was apparent early on: The first of his many awards was from the International Television Association for his Mizzou student film, “Hard Days,” a lighthearted look at a young man developing his self-confidence and self-worth.  After working at a few other colleges, in 1991 Hicks landed back at Mizzou, where he has helped to guide his office through many technological changes and advancements. “Through every change I worked to maintain our high standard and to effectively keep our office distributing the key messages,” says Hicks  “The way we do business has transformed many times, but our goal has remained the same: to help people understand the value of Extension and the University.”  Hicks’ efforts to combine curriculum design and educational needs with the latest advancements in media have paid off.  Through his career, Hicks has won many national awards, including Crystal Communicators, Bronze Apples, Videographer’s Awards, ITVA Awards, and 18 Tellys.

Hicks performed some minor audio editing and other tasks for the original release of “Tom Benton’s Missouri.”  “I’ve always felt the film gave great insight into Benton, allowed deeper understanding of the mural and that the soundtrack always inspired children and adults.  I’m proud to have a chance to give it new life and allow it to introduce another generation to the rich history and hard work it took to build our state,” says Hicks.

Throughout his work, Hicks has strived to find a way to visually enhance each story.  Hicks explains his philosophy of shooting: “I feel that you have to focus on what the pictures are saying about the story as much as the story itself.”  This vision is also evident in the refinements and clarity Hicks brings to every project he edits. “My goal is that after all the editing is done, the viewer will forget they are watching a synthetic image representing the story and just enjoy the moment as if it was real.

A documentary Hicks wrote, filmed and edited, "Battle: Change From Within,” is currently on the festival circuit, appearing at such venues as the Seedling Film Association’s 2012 Offshoot Film Fest.