Ben Smith (Writer for Hbo’s Barry): Embracing the Messiness and the Fun of Writing (#199)
Our Guest Today: Ben Smith
Ben Smith (@bwksmith) is a writer, producer and director.
His most recent project is the popular HBO TV Show called Barry, for which he worked as a writer and coproducer. Prior to that, he wrote for Trophy Wife on ABC, Benched on USA, Other Space on the Yahoo streaming platform, Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix with Drew Barrymore. Plus his own projects – Gentleman Lobsters and Meet Cute.
What you’ll learn
- How Barry began to work as a writer as an undergrad
- What it means to have an agent in LA
- What it’s like to work in Hollywood and inside a writer’s room
How screenwriting work
What to do when he’s stuck on writing
How Ben learned to embrace deadlines
- The difference between working on a show (such as Barry) vs. his own project
Born and raised in Lexington, MA – Ben’s mom is Chinese so we were able to chat about what it means to grow up multi-cultural. Since most writers in Hollywood still are white male, Ben talks about diversity and how it’s important in the writer’s room.
Still in his 20s, you may be wondering how Ben got his first job and survive the competitive landscape of not only being a writer, but talented and lucky enough to work his way up. He’s incredibly humble and shared his own experience since college.
Moving from the East Coast to the West (currently living in LA) is a big change. Not to mention both of Ben’s parents are doctors. He talks about how he pursued a very different career that’s not linear but nebulous compared to medicine.
We ask our guests a lot about their creative process, Ben’s writing process is quite a lesson for me to learn as well. If for nothing else, you’ll find out why we should embrace deadlines and constraints.
Ben is nearly invisible on social media. He’s on Twitter @bwksmith
You learn a lot innately from watching TV, or watching movies. On some level you are processing what you like and what you don’t like, or works or doesn’t work.
You need to recognized just as much as your idea can make someone else’s thing better, that’s the value you bring, someone else has an idea or a joke that’s better than your own, you can’t be precious about everything you pitch and create
I felt both Chinese and White, and not Chinese and not White, never othered. I was very proud of to be half Asian, it felt special and unique.
The idea to make a short film was born out of I want to make something I actually just wrote, and get to share it with people. It was a cool and worthwhile experience to tell what you need to tell.
I feel that you have to enjoy the pure side of the process, because that’s 99% of your time will be spent doing. If I’m only just waiting for the audience’s response for the 30 minutes that end up being made that comes out months later, that’s not gonna sustain me. What’s going to sustain me is enjoying the messiness and the fun of that writer’s room all day
[04:00] What is the show Barry about and how did you manage to get involved in that project?
[06:00] How does the writing work? Do you finish all episodes upfront or you write while the show gets published
[08:00] Do people reach out to you asking what is going to happen next in the show?
[09:00] What is the Writer’s room? Who is in it and what are their roles?
[10:00] How does an outline look like?
[11:00] Once you have defined an outline, does it state the conclusion/end of each episode?
[12:00] Where did you acquire your skills for writing collaboratively, was it during school/training or at work?
[14:00] What was your first project about?
[16:00] How do you keep your script engaging to not loose the audience? What (writing) resources do you use for that?
[20:00] How do you define characters and personalities, how do you come up with those and how do you keep track of the fictional characters?
[22:00] What was your experience with diversity in the writer’s room? How is often the mix (people, backgrounds) and how does that help?
[26:00] What’s the layout/setup of the writer’s room and how does that very from project to project?
[28:00] Where else do you write when you are not in the writer’s room? How’s your routine?
[30:00] How do you unblock if you are blocked?
[32:00] In a script, how much is dialog vs. Context?
[34:00] Do you work close to directors and other roles?
[35:00] How did you experience your cultural background, and being Asian? Did thay play a role in your upbringing and current job?
[37:00] How did your parents react to your intention to be a writer?
[42:00] How did you start your own project? What is it about?
[44:00] How long did the recording take? What about pre and post production, editing, etc?
[46:00] How do you feel about your decision of investing money and time in a project of your own, retrospectively?
Transcript of Interview With Ben Smith.
Fei Wu [4:21] So Ben, after meeting you, I literally binge-watched the entire series of Barry on HBO. And I was insanely curious to talk to you as a writer and a co-producer of it.
Could You Tell Us a Bit About the Show Without Giving Away the Plot? How Did That Project Land on Your Table?
Ben [4:55] Barry is this show on HBO created by and starring Bill Hader from SNL and a bunch of movies. He plays this character, an ex-Marine who is depressed and who’s a hitman. He takes a job in LA and there he follows someone who happens to be in an acting class, so he gets pulled into the acting class. He’s a terrible actor, but he finds that he absolutely loves it. It’s a story about this person who is very good at killing, but it brings him no joy, and he is a terrible actor who wants to transition into the acting world, although it is very difficult to extract yourself from this hitman underworld. So it was a project that Bill and a co-creator Alec had set up at HBO. With many of the jobs I get, I’m unaware of them until my agents bring it to my attention, and the great resource they provide is that they’re aware of shows and of the people making them. So I got brought in and met with Bill and Alec, loved their vision for the show and then worked on season one.
How Long Does It Take Between You Writing the Show and the Launch of the Series?
Ben [6:38] Yeah, it’s a good question. It varies from project to project. HBO was very unique in that because they have a very limited release schedule. HBO only airs originals on Sundays, so they only have a couple shows at a time. What it really means is there’s a lot of time for the creative to make their product and really perfect it before they have to air it. We wrote Barry in the fall of 2016 and then it didn’t air until 2018. So that was a very unique experience.
But I worked on a show on ABC where we’re working on Episode 10, filming Episode 12 and airing Episode 7, so they’re all happening at the same time. You’re keeping track a bit, and it’s a very different experience in terms of watching it and seeing the fan response and reaction while you’re still working on it. So it varies from show to show.
Fei Wu [7:48] How often does it happen that your friends or the fans of the show try to probe what happens next?
Ben [8:01] People do ask what is going to happen next. And sometimes they say an idea. You’re like “That’s great, but we’ve already written it, we can’t do that idea” or you keep it close to your chest what’s going on there. I’m very excited for people to see what happens next.
What Is the Writers’ Room and What Does It Look Like?
Ben [8:37] On a day-to-day basis, you go into the writers’ room. They’re laid out differently from show to show, but for the most part, it’s like a big table with chairs around it and there’re about 10 writers. And you, basically, just sit around the table all day working together. So it’s not like you go into your own office or work from home when you’re on a show. You’re in the office every day. And there’s the showrunner, who’s kind of the head writer, and he manages the conversation. For example, he says “Right now we’re talking about larger ideas for the whole season. Now we’re narrowing in and figuring out what the main story is. Let’s stop and now talk about this character. Who is this character? What is their history? What’s funny about them, what’s interesting?”
So they kind of get direct where the conversation should be, and the rest of the writers’ job is to pitch ideas to go off of the decisions the showrunners are making.
That’s happening early on, and we’ll kind of do big-picture stuff, narrow in on specific episodes, and will work as a group to outline each episode. That episode is then assigned to one writer who goes off for about a week or so and writes the first draft of that episode based on the outline that the whole group worked on. Then they come back with that script and the whole room rewrites it together.
Fei Wu [10:00] What does an outline look like?
Ben [10:03] All of these things do vary based on the preference of the showrunner and the style that they like. But an outline typically is broken into scenes. It breaks down the plot in prose of what happens in that scene – where we begin, the middle, the end. In comedies, in particular, it’ll include some jokes, and it basically should be enough to take home with you and know what is happening in that scene narratively – what the purpose is, how it moves the story, what’s next.
Some people make outlines that are very specific, and there’s not much room for the discovery on your own, and then some of them are a little looser. It’s like “These are the points that we know we need to hit”, but then during your week of home writing you kind of find that extra flavor and fun.
Fei Wu [10:56] Are conclusions typically given in the outline? Like, could you deviate from the original plot or create new stories?
Ben [11:14] They typically wouldn’t. I mean, during that week off, maybe you reach out to the creator or the showrunner and be like “Hey, I’ve been working through it, I’m finding this little problem, I had this idea”. And maybe you could make a change, there’s definitely room for changes and your own voice to come through. But I think it’s also valuable to do it as prescribed by the outline, and then when the whole group is rewriting, you can share like “I had trouble on this part I found when I was working on this that we thought this would be easy, but it feels like there’s too much information in the scene, it’s a little confusing”. You know the script better than anyone because you’ve spent the most time with it. So that week, even if you stick to the outline, you might have new insight into the story that in the outline phase wasn’t apparent.
Where Did You Acquire Those Skills? Was It in School or Mostly on the Job?
Ben [12:23] I definitely learned more in my first week at my first show than I had. I thought I knew what was going on, and then clearly I had a lot to learn. And a lot of that is due to my incredible co-workers who took it upon themselves to teach me and to make an environment where it’s easy to learn.
It’s a good question. I feel like you learn a lot just innately from watching TV or watching movies, if you’re paying attention and processing what you like or don’t like, what works or doesn’t work. You just pick up on how people talk to each other, what makes you nervous, what makes you excited. So I think a lot of it you learn if you’re just aware of what’s going on around you or what you pick up.
And in the writers’ room I learned the language to articulate what I had been observing for years, like “Oh, this is how you might want to structure something to create that feeling”. So you’re familiar with the feeling already, and now someone is telling you just the language of defining what you’d already been thinking.
Fei Wu [13:46] You brought up your first project. Could you tell us a bit about it and what was it like?
Ben [13:55] The first show I ever worked on was the show called Trophy Wife, it was on ABC back in 2013. It was an ensemble family comedy and it was an amazing experience for me. It was the largest writers room I’ve ever been in, so it was like 15 of us, and I was the youngest and the lowest level writer. I didn’t really know what to expect going into it or how all the other writers would treat me as kind of this new, young person, but they were incredibly supportive. They took me under their wing. I think a big part of that was that all those writers were very secure in who they were and had no ego, and it was all about making the best product. So while they were all experienced, there was never any fighting between them as to whose vision would win now, and they truly believed that the best idea could come from anywhere in the room.
So they gave me plenty of opportunities: I got to write two scripts of my own, I got to be on set during the filming of my scripts, I got to participate, give notes on editing, casting. I learned a lot in that. I was exposed to everything and given an opportunity to everything and people were available for questions and guidance.
One thing I learned which I appreciate a lot was just simple story structure, really distilling scenes down to what is important about them. I remember when I first went into writers’ room of this comedy, I was feeling like I had to prove myself. I would write these outlines or these story areas, which are even shorter outlines, and I really focused on the jokes and what is really funny about this. Like I wanted to like say “I belong here”, by writing jokes. And the feedback was very helpful in stripping out the unnecessary detail. It’s good to have a joke or two just to make it a fun read, but really, what is the plot and what is the purpose of this scene? Because if you can pull it out, and the story still works, then you don’t need that scene. It was a really good emphasis, because especially with television, in comedy, which is only 22-minute episodes, you don’t have a lot of room for the unnecessary story. So it’s really trying to make sure the story is economical and well told.
How Do You Start and End the Story to Make It Engaging?
Ben [17:06] Yeah, that’s a good question. I feel like there are a lot of different ways I have gone about coming up with the story. Sometimes it’s just a moment that you know it is correct. There are shows like Barry where each episode is picking up where it left off, so you know where you ended the last one. And there is a very simple version of storytelling, which is like “And then what?”, and you ask: “What is the honest reaction of these characters? What would they do to get out of it? What would they do to move forward?” Sometimes you are locked into a moment already based on the previous episode, but other shows are more episodic, which basically means they consist of standalone episodes, like, there’re the same characters, but the stories kind of reset. It is about finding a core idea, a storyline, or a moment that feels interesting.
I think it’s very easy to come up with a plot idea or that big thing that happens in the third act where it’s a mess and the characters are at their lowest point, but then for the story to really work, the writers’ room will stop and say like “What is this story about?” because it can’t just be the plot. “Oh, this is a story about this thing that happens in the workplace”, but what it’s really about is a character having to deal with more responsibility for the first time or a character who doesn’t ask for help. And once you find the fun plot, you then have to make sure there’s an emotional story that’s character-driven that goes with it. So sometimes you have a bunch of really fun scenes, and you stop and say “Well, we don’t really have an impactful story here. We don’t have a character-driven story”, and you take it apart.
Fei Wu [19:22] I love when you say that you put yourself in that character’s shoe.
And I feel like even not being a writer, if I’m sitting in the room and watching a show I’d be like “Wait, who is this guy again?”
How Do You Even Keep Track of These Mystical Characters?
Ben [19:49] With the Santa Clarita Diet I’ve exclusively worked on the first season of the show, I’ve also worked on season 2 and season 3 subsequently, so I’ve always been there at the beginning of a show. And there is really important work that happens in that first couple of weeks, where we’re not even figuring out stories yet and just talking about the characters.
Obviously, when you’re brought into a pilot show, they’ve already written the first episode for the most part, so there’s a little something to go off of. But we then spend a good amount of time figuring out what are all the other parts – who are the side characters, how do they all relate with each other. So there’s a lot of open pitching and some stuff that sticks and some that don’t. And that’s, I think, the real value of bringing in a writers’ room – you bring in a diverse group of people with different ideas and perspectives and experiences, and they offer up characteristics and qualities about these characters. So we have more than we’ll need, and then we kind of narrow it, whittle it down and figure out who these characters are. And they become less abstract and more concrete.
Fei Wu [21:03] Wow, I love that. And about diversity – you are half-Chinese, so your mom is Chinese. And I had the pleasure to meet both of your parents and your younger sister as well. As somebody working in the creative field and someone who loves watching movies and TV shows, I remember watching the credit and seeing very few people with the Chinese last names. But you’re different.
What Are Your Thoughts on Working in This Industry as a Half-Chinese?
Ben [22:00] It’s funny you mentioned the credits. I feel like growing up as a kid, I had no awareness of Hollywood at all. Like, there were names in the credits, but it didn’t register with me that someone wrote that. It only was in college that I realized “Oh, shoot, there are people who get to do this as a job! I want to pursue that”.
I think in the last few years, there’s been a lot more awareness and push towards diversity. I’ve worked in six writers’ rooms with varying degrees of diversity in it, but I’m certainly aware of it as someone who is a diverse writer. I think that there is this push right now to have more women writers, more writers of color. There are a lot of diversity programs right now which help to get people their first writing jobs, often to become a staff writer, the lower level writer. And there’re diversity funds that can help pay for those first-level writers. So my first two jobs were paid out of this diversity fund, and I’m very appreciative and grateful and aware of how diversity played a role in my own career. The next step is then getting those subsequent jobs, getting those mid-level writer jobs once you get your foot in the door.
I think that shows Benefit from diversity. That can be many different things, it’s not just white versus not white or male versus female. Although I think there it is good to have that type of diversity of voice. There’re so many different things that bring different perspectives, and I think that’s why you have a writers’ room – is that you can bring more perspectives.
Fei Wu [24:15] The part of me that’s been 12 years in advertising and marketing just cringes now like “Oh my god, so many people in the room!” I remember being in a meeting of the smallest two to three people, and they just cannot agree on things that are not even all that important.
How Is It to Work So Closely With 15 People That Know Very Little About Each Other?
Ben [24:51] Well, there will be disagreements. I think to be a good TV writer you need to develop interpretive skills. To work in a television medium, you have to be able to get along with people, because you’re in a room together for 8-10 hours a day, and you’re just having discussions and having to make decisions. Part of it definitely falls to the creator or the showrunner, whose job is to moderate these conversations and make decisions and be firm in their decisions and kind of make it clear. But on a personal level, you need to not have an ego. If you truly believe that a writers’ room produces the best results because there is creative disagreement or creative cooperation, you need to recognize that just as much as your idea can make someone else’s thing better, someone else can have an idea, or a joke or something that is better than your own. You can’t be precious about everything that you pitch or create. It definitely is a learning process that when your jokes or your story gets rewritten, it’s not personal.
Fei Wu [26:14] While you’re describing, I envision a big room with some windows and a big round table or a table which is like a square and empty in the middle. But to manage so many people, they have to kind of spread them out. What does the setup like?
Ben [26:31] Generally it’s just a table that everyone sits around. The biggest writers’ room, in my opinion, was 15 people, and the smallest was four people. So it’s all of us just sitting around this one table, and no one has their computers, the only person with the computer usually is the writers’ assistants and they’re the ones who are taking notes on everything. So we just have a pad of paper or some scripts and are doing stuff by hand.
Fei Wu [27:11] No way! When you’ve been writing on a computer for a while, writing in a notepad becomes really difficult, spelling becomes very challenging.
Ben [27:21] I find it much less distracting. And a nice thing is that the assistants are taking notes on everything that’s been said. A lot of that won’t end up getting used, but they’re chronicling everything, so later, when we go to outline we have all the notes to help us to be outlined – we go to scripts, we have all those old jokes that we can put in, we can keep track of our stories, and when we get to the scripts rewrite phase, when we come back from our week away with the script, their computer gets linked up to a TV monitor so we can all see the edits. And the assistant is the one at the computer typing the dialogue that we are saying to them.
So yeah, I find it actually quite freeing not having my computer in front of me all day.
Fei Wu [28:16] Love it. And so you put your cellphones in front of you or not?
Ben [28:21] Showrunners have different preferences for how they want their phone system. I usually keep mine on “Do Not Disturb”. So I don’t look at it except if we take a break, or if I go to get water from the kitchen, I’ll check my phone, see if I have any messages. But yeah, I try to keep it away.
Fei Wu [28:39] Got it. Where do you write on your own for that one week? I mean, do you go to Starbucks? Do you stay where you are in your office? How crazy do you get?
Ben [28:50] I will write a lot from my apartment, and then I will also go to a couple of coffee shops. I find that I work best in three-hour stands. If I sit down in one place and try to work for six hours, I’ll just stop being productive. So typically, I’ll work for a chunk, and once I’ve hit that little wall, instead of pushing through, I’ll pack up my stuff, move to a new location, get a little food and then start again. So by giving myself that hour break, where I feel like I wouldn’t be productive anyway, I reset and start working. The change of scenery really helps.
How Do You Overcome Writer’s Blocks?
Ben [30:05] It’s amazing what a deadline does for me. For me, I feel like I will always fill the time. If I told myself “I have a month to do it”, I’ll take a full month to do something. So I’m always shocked when I write these scripts in a week and then I’m like “Oh, great”. Having a deadline helps me. I’ll manufacture deadlines for myself during my free time when I’m working on my own projects, and I’ll hold myself accountable. I can tell someone else like “I’m going to send you an outline to read in a week”. So I hold myself accountable by telling them.
In writer’s block, sometimes you have to just push through, and you have no choice. But when there is flexibility, I try to go to whatever is exciting for me. So if I know that in this larger story this scene is really fun, ‘m going to go write that scene first because it will get me going. Or maybe there’s a character dynamic that I feel like I really understand or that feels fresh, so I’m going to do that. And my hope is that by doing those scenes and doing writing that I know I can do, it’ll either give me momentum, and now I can go tackle the other stuff, or I’ll discover something in those scenes that will help me better understand the scenes that I feel are giving me difficulty. When I have the luxury, I will try to do the scenes that feel easier to me, but not just because it’s a thing to check off the box, but hopefully it’s something that will give me some momentum to do the rest of the story.
How Much of What You Write Are Conversations and How Much of It Is Painting the Context or Setting the Background?
Ben [32:33] Certainly, the dialogue is all us, that’s like a very important part of it in the script. You have the dialogue and then you have stage directions, which are action text, which is kind of like “Character walks out of the door and crosses to the couch” or “In the background, we see someone get out of their car”. But there is a balance between wanting to provide the information that’s necessary and not wanting to overwrite, which is a function of the length of scripts. We’re supposed to keep our scripts around a certain length, and you don’t want to just fill it up with this action text. Part of it also is kind of an unspoken courtesy, I think, with the directors. Our job is to write, the director’s job is to direct, and we shouldn’t give every description like “the camera starts here and lifts” because that’s their job.
There can be some things that we as the writers feel very strongly about, like, if we think that we need to include certain details to the moment. So sometimes if it is important we’ll write in the script directions like “they step out of the car wearing these boots” because that shot’s very clear to us and that’ll help sell who this character is. But otherwise, that’s something to be discussed later when the director will talk to the writers. So it is a balance between not wanting to over direct and a want to make sure there’s enough information that the story we want to tell is clear.
Fei Wu [34:08] Sounds like you do work fairly closely with the producers and directors as well.
Ben [34:25] I’ve heard there’s a difference between television and film – in TV writers are the most powerful. Part of that is because each episode, for the most part, there’ll be a new director, so they’re, basically, a visitor on a set. That’s why they need to talk about a lot of things with the writers. So you’ll have these directors come in and learn the visual language and the storytelling style of the show, and it’s their job to recreate the style of the show.
Fei Wu [35:21] Yeah, that makes sense. Very fascinating to me!
So I would like to talk about your origin stories for a moment. And I will preface by saying that after living in the US myself for half of my life and having grown up in China, oftentimes I don’t think of myself as an Asian until I go back to China. I actually lose touch with something that is seen as fundamental.
How Do You Feel About Being Half-Chinese?
Ben [36:15] It may be similar to what you’re describing. I didn’t think about my
Ethnicity that much growing up. I grew up in a very diverse town in Massachusetts and went to a very diverse college. And then LA is very diverse as well, so I felt both Chinese and white, and also not Chinese and not white and never bothered. I never felt excluded from a group. I was actually very proud and excited to be half-Asian, it felt special and unique. I think that’s kind of actually my main relationship with me being a half-Asian – I thought it was kind of cool and different. I felt like I was both a part of two cultures and then also unique in myself. Also, in the last few years, I started to have a greater appreciation of being Asian and developed more interest in my Asian heritage.
How Did You Come Up With the Idea of Being a Writer? How Did Your Parents Respond to It?
Ben [37:20] They’re both doctors, and I definitely grew up around the dining room table with them talking on a whole different language, you know, just all these medicine terms back and forth. There was a point when I was really young when I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist, and then I went through a whole bunch of stuff that I wanted, and then when I went to college, my thought was “I would go into government and politics”. I was interested in law and international relations throughout high school. And in college, I did theater stuff -I would do plays, make movies with friends. Whenever we had a class project, we tried to see if we could do a film instead. So that was always something that was very fun for me and creatively fulfilling. It was a very social activity for me, and I got to be with my closest friends, but I didn’t know or think of it as a professional opportunity until junior year of college when some other writers I knew were talking about moving to LA or moving to New York and pursuing this. And that’s kind of when I realized that this could be a career, and that was incredibly exciting to me that what I thought would always be extracurricular could be a profession.
But my parents have always been incredibly supportive of everything I’ve done with all my interests growing up, they always gave me opportunities, always were trying to encourage my interests. And I think, you know, medicine and film, we’re very different. But I would always see the way they approach things, and it was just “Do the best you can”.
So I think, they’ve been wildly supportive and very proud of me. There’s no bigger fan than my mom on Facebook for the shows I’ve worked on.
Fei Wu [39:16] You mentioned the diversity writer’s funds that helped you get started.
Do You Remember How You “Broke In”? What Are Your Memories of the Very Beginning?
Ben [39:41] I was very fortunate in my first job. When I came out to LA, I had an agent and a manager already working with me, and it is very difficult to find representatives because a lot of them don’t want to sign you until you get work, but also it’s very hard to get work until you are represented because representatives are in many ways the gatekeepers, they get your scripts and your name onto the desk. So I was very lucky when I signed with them. They’re like “All right, our goal this year is to get you a staff writer job on TV”. And that was not what I was expecting. I thought like we’re trying to become a writer’s assistant, I thought it was lower. And they basically recalibrated my expectations. That was helpful right off the bat, like, this is how I should frame my expectations.
I spent the next six months working on a couple of scripts and trying to get them in good shape. It all happened really quickly. Then they sent one of these scripts to the creators of Trophy wife, who responded to the material and brought me in, and they’re incredible. And I was there with both of them, they did not really know who I was, but I think in that meeting they were like “Oh, this is really exciting. This is a script we liked. This is a person that we feel some connection to”. I think they really took it upon themselves, like “We have money and spot for one more low-level writer, let’s hire this person, and we’re going to mentor them”, so I am totally indebted to the two of them for taking a flier on me and for not just hiring me, but then working with me and setting me off on this trajectory. So it came down to having material that was good and then also to finding good people who want to work with you and who will go out of their way to be good collaborators and partners.
Where Did the Interest in Doing Your Own Projects Come From?
Ben [42:40] Okay, this is a short film that I made with my friend Megan a couple of years ago. So writers do a lot of writing that never sees the light of day. We write these scripts that our agents read, that the people hiring us read, and these are the projects that are my own ideas or feel the most personal to me, or that I’m most excited about. And it was a big difference.
The creative lifestyle that I got into initially was Improv, where you create something right there, at the moment, in front of an audience, and you immediately get a response. You get to interact, to have that sharing of creative ideas, response, and interaction. And that was the polar opposite of writing a script that no one ever reads.
So the idea to make a short film was born out of the wish to make something that I actually wrote and get to share it with people. Initially, the idea was like “Let’s make something that’s pretty self-contained, easy to make, and only requires a couple of actors and a couple of locations”. And we came up with this story together. I wrote it, and we decided to direct it together. Then we had the really good fortune of partnering up with this producer Josh, who had a vision for something bigger. So initially we’re just going to do it on our own camera with a couple of friends, and then all of a sudden we had these really wonderful actors, and we got nice equipment, beautiful locations and houses, and it became a much more serious production. So it was a very cool learning experience on the fly, but it was all born out of this want to get to actually share with other people a story that we made ourselves.
Fei Wu [44:35] How long did it take to make that?
Ben [44:40] We filmed it in four days (two weekends).
Fei Wu [44:48] Wow. What about the preproduction and then editing? How long did those take?
Ben [44:55] We did one table read with two main actors. And it was really cool to hear them read because it was something that I’d written and I heard so clearly in my head, and then when they read some parts, there were jokes that I didn’t know existed. I didn’t even think that it was going to be funny.
In the process, you bring something to the performance. There were scenes that we played differently, also I went and did some rewrites based off of their read. Then on set, we would run through the lines, Megan and I. And we’re very lucky to work with these actors, they were very professional. There were very some changes we had to make in their performances, and they really understood it and got it from the beginning. Editing did take a little bit of a while, but we had a wonderful editor. I think our original thing came in at like 30-35 minutes or something like that, which was way too long, and it was an exercise in cutting it down. But he totally nailed it.
Fei Wu [46:16] One thing you mentioned very briefly in our email exchanges that really touched me deeply is that even though we were working on drastically different types of shows, you too invested a lot of your own money into building this. And you’re much younger than I am.
How do you feel now about this decision of yours that you made?
Ben [46:50] I’m happy to make it and have no regrets about spending the money to do it. I mean, the main goal was to get to make something to share that I wrote. And that was really cool. It was a very exciting experience to get to have feedback from people, and I was really, really proud of what we produced in the final product. So that was really positive.
And I think it confirmed to me that I’m interested in directing other projects in the future. That was a really stressful but exciting experience, to be on set and to collaborate. It was really amazing, so it kind of reinforced this idea in me that this is something that I know I want to do.
And then it was just an incredible learning experience. Up to that point, I had come from the perspective of a writer, and it was really cool to get to direct, to be part of the editing, to work closely with actors because I think it does make you think differently about writing or about storytelling in general.
And earlier, we talked about dialogue versus the action text. I think that as a writer, there can be a crutch where you think just about the dialogue, like, that everything that needs to be expressed needs to be stated or one of the characters has to say it out loud. And I think when getting to work with actors and getting to direct, you develop a trust that you don’t have to be as explicit – an actor will say it with a look or with the tone of their voice. It was a cool and worthwhile experience to appreciate all the other ways to tell what you need to tell. So I think that affected my writing in a sense, and I think that I approach writing with a more holistic viewpoint now.
Megan and I have an interest in making other short films or other projects. We’re really happy with how this turned out. The best part was getting to make it and collaborate with the rest of the crew and the cast, so I think that’s the part that we’re most excited about next is just getting to do the experience all over again.
Fei Wu [49:18] And I think there is also the less pure side of the creative life, like how you’re going to make money from it, how quickly you should make money from it, and that you should be famous. All these things are taking away from the purity of the art. But regardless of how little sleep I had shooting my documentary, part of me was thinking “Oh, my God, I want to do this at least once a year”.
Ben [50:01] I feel like you have to enjoy the pure part of the process because that’s like what 99% of your time will be spent doing. On the TV show, we spend 10 hours a day in a room for months just only interacting with the other writers. If I don’t enjoy that, if I’m only just waiting for the audience response for the 30 minutes that end up being made and that come out months later, that’s not going to sustain me. What’s going to sustain me is enjoying the messiness and the fun of that writers’ room all day like that. The process has to be what’s fun because that’s what you’re doing most of the time.
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