Ben Smith (Writer for HBO's Barry): Embracing the Messiness and the Fun of Writing

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About Our Guest

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 works 

  • - 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

Favorite Quotes

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

Ben Smith’s own project

Show Notes

  • [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?