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From O.J. to the Eagles: The life of a Tonawanda-born film editor

Ben Sozanski, a 34-year year Emmy award-winning film editor, sat at the neat kitchen table of his parents' Town of Tonawanda home, using a laptop computer to work on his latest documentary project.

"This one is about health care in a rural area of New Mexico," Sozanski said. "It's about how difficult it is to provide quality health care in these isolated, rural communities."

The health care film won't be his most high-profile project, but the soft-spoken Sozanski said he's proud to work on a documentary that focuses on a serious problem that needs attention.

"There's a big spectrum of projects an editor can work on," he said. "There are a few editors who live in Hollywood and only work on big-money films like Transformers. There are also people who only work on small projects that mean a lot to them, like this one…It all depends on what you're looking for."

In the relatively small and mostly under-the-radar world of documentary film editors, Sozanski has hit the big time. Last year, he and two colleagues – Bret Granato and Maya Mumma -- won an Emmy award for their work on "O.J.: Made In America."

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The powerful, nearly eight-hour documentary about a once-beloved Buffalo Bills star and his infamous murder case became one of the most honored documentaries in decades after it was broadcast on ESPN in 2016. In addition to winning the Academy Award for best documentary feature, the O.J. project won 40 other awards from film organizations.

In addition to the Emmy he now keeps in a closet of his Brooklyn apartment, Sozanski and his two colleagues won five other awards for their work in editing more than 800 hours of archival footage and hundreds of still images.

Sozanski spent eight months immersed in Simpson's world, concentrating on the fallen star's strange life after he was acquitted of murder charges in 1995.

"O.J. is really a tragic figure," Sozanski said. "This was a charismatic, talented guy who was capable of doing so much good in the world. But there were a lot of warning signs about him that just went unheeded."

Reviewers raved about the O.J. project, including Sozanski's work. Wired magazine called the film "a masterful feat of editing."

Winning awards for the O.J. documentary was exciting for Sozanski, who attended elementary and middle school in the Kenmore-Tonawanda public schools before graduating from from St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and Vassar College. He's also edited several other documentaries that received plenty of attention.

He got to work with members of the Eagles rock band on the 2013 documentary "History of the Eagles," which won several awards. He worked with family members of the late Frank Sinatra on the 2015 project, "Sinatra: All or Nothing at All," which was nominated for a best documentary Emmy. He collaborated with actor Leonardo DiCaprio and other environmentalists on "Before the Flood," a 2016 doc about the dangers of climate change. That was followed by "Rolling Stone -- Stories From the Edge," last year's film about the history of Rolling Stone magazine.

Sozanski doesn’t make a big deal about the time he's spent with celebrities, but he was impressed with the late Glenn Frey, Don Henley and the other Eagles, who "were really involved in the documentary, really cared about how their music sounded in it." DiCaprio was always surrounded by a big entourage, but Sozanski was impressed with his "passionate" dedication to protecting the environment.

The website credits Sozanski as working on 21 films, either as an editor in other capacities.

It's a pretty amazing resume for a young man who had no inkling that film would be his career choice after he graduated from St. Joe's.

As a teenager, he loved watching John Candy comedies, and at age 15, he and some friends did a film project that Sozanski describes as "a trampoline adaptation of 'Lord of the Flies.' " But he never thought seriously about film until he got to Vassar and – mainly for fun – took a couple of film-related courses.

"I really enjoyed and admired some of my film professors," he recalled. "I saw a documentary called 'Following Sean' that really made an impact on me because it told a story in a way that I'd never seen before." He wound up graduating with a film degree in 2005.

After Vassar, Sozanski spent a summer back in Tonawanda with his family, and then moved to New York City. He worked as a paralegal for a law firm and then as a telemarketer, not having much fun. Then, he landed a job with a company called Jigsaw Productions, which was making documentaries, including one about the late "Gonzo journalist" Hunter S. Thompson.

As a production assistant, Sozanski loaded trucks and ran errands. At the time he was earning $300 a week, tiny by Big Apple standards, and needed a side job as a dog walker. But he was getting his feet wet in the world of documentaries – and enjoying it.

He worked for a year as an assistant on the TV show "Law and Order – Criminal Intent" and then began getting some editing work with a company that produced commercials. That was a great training ground for Sozanski, "because the work has to be done fast, and the bar for quality is set pretty high." That led to his first job on a major documentary -- the Eagles project.

"You sit in a room and watch hundreds of hours of film of the Eagles. Then you edit the best bits together, and you show your segment to the director, or maybe to a whole room of people," Sozanski said. "They might love what you did, they might have suggestions. It's a real collaborative effort, and I liked that."

A big hit with Netflix viewers, the Eagles documentary led to other projects for Sozanski, who said he now makes a comfortable living -- even by New York City standards – and no longer has to walk dogs for people.

His parents, John and Marilyn Sozanski, are thrilled by their son's success.

"Ben's qualities of risk-taking and creativity have always impressed me," John Sozanski said. "I will always admire his initiative and resolve in moving to NYC on his own, entering a very competitive profession."

Seeing her son's Emmy award at his apartment was "surreal," Marilyn Sozanski said. "We had to ask him to bring it out so we could see it … Posing for a photo with it was actually pretty exciting."

There is nothing remotely easy about breaking into the film world. What advice does Sozanski have for aspiring young filmmakers? He said the first step is going to college for a film degree "if you can afford it."

"At an entry level job, be ready to work really hard. Look for people you can learn from and people who are willing to teach you," Sozanski said. He advises young people to keep an open mind about learning various skills, and then deciding what area of film they are best suited for.

"If you take it seriously, and work hard, you have a good shot," the young Emmy winner said. "You may not end up doing exactly what you set out to do, but maybe something like it."


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