This interview with writer Benjamin Ray is the first of what (hopefully) will be a monthly feature. The point isn’t to sell you on how great my services are, although Benjamin’s kind words are greatly appreciated. The driving force behind the interviews and the ReelWriter blog in general is to foster practical information and advice on how to be a writer in Hollywood without losing your soul. Or your mind.
Newbies, experience writers who have hit a wall or just folks who love to hear great underdog stories will find something to appreciate in these monthly tales of how writers just like you are putting their talent to work telling stories that mean something to them even when they aren’t getting paid the big bucks. Yet.
Benjamin sent me his script, “Marcus and Faith” a while back for coverage and I was thrilled to hear that since then, it has racked up some impressive awards. Here’s his story...
MW: HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN ENTERTAINMENT?
After I graduated from University of Toronto, I realized I made the greatest mistake of my life. No wonder my friends told me I was lost.
Ever since I could remember, I always had an interest in stand-up comedy. I tried it, got off to decent start but soon I was finding it hard to behave like a LIGHT SWITCH – you know -- jump on stage and you have to be ON -- happy, happy, happy. Listen, I don’t mind being happy, just I’m happy being unhappy, sometimes. It’s too exhausting to fake this happiness thing. Well maybe I could fake it real good if I did drugs which are fashionable in the comedy business. But I knew if I chose that path I would be dead in the gutter. Screenwriting came to rescue.
MW: DO YOU LIVE IN LA?
I live in Toronto. It has been proven; you don’t have to live in Los Angeles to make it in this business. If you have a solid business plan for unexpected expenditures, then taking that risk is possible. When the time is right I will be in LA.
MW: WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING WHEN YOU AREN’T WRITING?
I’m a business plan writer and tax preparer. I had to pick a job. One that keeps me stressed out, which a good thing, sometimes.
MW: WHAT AWARDS/RECOGNITION HAS “MARCUS & FAITH” GARNERED?
Semi-finalist with 20/20, Quarterfinalists with -- Fade in Magazine, Writers Network, Script Shark, All Access Screenplay Competition. And of course -- winner (finalist) with Pacific Northwest Screenwriting Contest whose Judge Daniel Yost -- co- screenwriter for Drugstore Cowboy – starring Matt Dillon
MW: HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK IT IS FOR A WRITER TO ENTER CONTESTS? WHAT’S THE MOST VALUABLE THING YOU GET OUT OF THEM?
If you want to stay in this game – enter selective contests, at least 4 per year. Stick only with contests with proven judges/filmmakers/producers. Look, study and research their current and past winner list and identify similarities. Find what kind of scripts the contest gate-keepers like. This is a business with no rules. Some contest providers push only the genre and style they like. I really don’t want to sound discourteous – some Contests don’t think like producers or studio heads. Grab the bull by the horn and ask tons of questions. And stay away from writers who open up screenwriting contests. I want to grow as a writer and as to understand the business of Hollywood, not just to write. So I have to be selective. Also, some Screenwriting Contests think they have a monopoly on cinematic vision when in reality they are not trained in the business world where the producers are the Kings, the Queens and the Jokers.
MW: WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO GET YOUR SCRIPT COVERED?
Needed to find out if Hollywood would appreciate my style of screenwriting. I write on a “cinematic visualization style”. You know the camera films most of it, so I must write scripts, not novels. Fore-mostly, I wanted to know if I was writing a lean mean “blueprint” or just building a damn estate for some trophy wife while sleeping with the interior designer. If you know what I mean.
MW:A LOT OF WRITERS HAVE A HARD TIME LETTING GO FOR THE FIRST TIME AND HAVING AN OUTSIDER TAKE A LOOK. WHEN DID YOU KNOW IT WAS TIME? WAS IT A TOUGH CHOICE?
It wasn’t a tough choice; I knew I could write a cinematic script. Got coverage from Scriptapalooza. The guy slaughtered me but he did like my Act 1 and went on saying that it grabbed him by the throat and it was well written. The day you become fearless of coverage is the day you realize that only parts of your script are good. Only parts!!! There is no such thing as a perfect script and those that praise you writing 100%, are wasting your time. And those who give scripts high marks are also wasting your time.
Trust me, after a while, mean-spirited coverage does not affect me anymore. Okay I lied, maybe for 2 whole minutes, then their notes go in the garbage and I will delete you from my hard-drive. So far the only fair coverage I got was from you at www.thescriptfixer.com.
MW: HOW DO YOU THINK COVERAGE HELPED YOUR SCRIPT?
I had 5 professional coverages for “Marcus and Faith”. Most of them were trying to shove their genre and their cinematic likings down my throat. One coverage provider told I should learn to write like Shane Black and went on to say that I should make it into a drama instead of a thriller.
Your coverage gave me confidence to pitch it live. Your logline and coverage of the script’s theme was motivating and respectful to my prerogatives. You told me the good, the bad and the ugly in a professional way.
MW: HAS IT HELPED YOU PREP TO TAKE IT OUT AND TRY TO SELL IT?
Of course, your positive coverage gave me confidence to accelerate my marketing plan. If a coverage provider is negative, demand a refund. Negativism is a natural force and it can slow down your progress if you don’t have the experience to fight back.
You are truly a leader in this business.
MW: YOU MENTIONED BEING SELF-TAUGHT – WHAT BOOKS DO YOU RECOMMEND FOR OTHER WRITERS STARTING OUT?
I read some screenwriting books by not taking them seriously while have my ADD moments. I always believed that screenwriting cannot be taught. I did not and will not attend film-school. Every time I read a book on screenwriting, I lose my motivation and get temporary writer’s a block. It’s not for me.
I learned to write screenplays by watching ICONIC movies and taking notes.
And I also learned for reading one exceptional book which changed my life forever. It’s written by Phil Gladwin at www.screenwritinggoldmine. It’s the most truthful book out there on this business.
Also, I learned from reading biographies of ICONIC film directors. Read how writer/ director Francis Ford Coppola mortgaged his house to make a movie. Or how a director wanted to kill the producer if they changed one word in his script. Read their scripts, it’s the most economical piece of art. That’s screenwriting! They believed in their story-telling instinct.
It’s good to consult, but only with those who know what they’re talking about.
Consult with people that actually made movies. If you believe in you story, stick to your guns and make it happen. Work with people that can inexpensively test a scene on a cinematic level with Cinematographer. Consult with people who have worked with an editor or involved with mixing of music to some scenes. I don’t think there is a book out there that analyzes screenwriting from a director-/screenwriter angle. I learned by “method writing”. If you’re going to write about a boxer or a dancer or teacher – think like a director – they will tell you -- go out there and live in their shoes – then thank them for that experience.
MW: HOW DO YOU THINK LEARNING ON YOUR OWN HAS MADE YOUR WRITING DIFFERENT FROM SOMEONE WHO WENT TO FILM SCHOOL?
I would like to answer this question without insulting anyone. Here it goes -- I enjoy visualizing all the scenes in my scripts. We are servants of our imagination. The mind does not have a map and cannot be tamed. Film school is not for me. . Don’t get upset if one day you’re 88 years old and haven’t sold a script or made a movie. Do what you want to do, listen to only a few trust-worthy consultants. There is no formula or strategies. Sorry, film-school does not work for me. I get so upset when people tell me to go to film-school. If they have film-school, why don’t have music-school – and we all can go there learn how to be the next Mick Jagger or Amy Winehouse or Eminem . You see what I mean.
MW: HOW DID YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A STAND UP COMIC INFLUENCE YOUR WRITING IN GENERAL?
Jokes or dialogues, same thing – edit, edit over and over and over and then test it out in front of the mirror or with a microphone. Tape and listen.
MW: DO YOU MISS THE INSTANT FEEDBACK OF A LIVE AUDIENCE VS. THE AGONIZING WAIT FOR WORD BACK ON A SCRIPT?
I don’t miss it. I use the internet, forums and blogs and unexpected office staffs for instant feedback.
MW: HOW IMPORTANT IS FEEDBACK, BOTH GOOD AND BAD, TO YOUR SELF-EDUCATION PROCESS?
Stick to your guns, feedbacks can be wishy-washy. Again, just find one or two coverage providers who will honest with you and treat you with respect.
MW: WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND IS THE MOST PRODUCTIVE WAY FOR YOU TO WRITE? FOR INSTANCE, DO YOU HAVE A SET SCHEDULE? DO YOU WRITE 20 PAGES A DAY, WRITE FROM MIDNIGHT TO 3AM, JOT DOWN THOUGHTS WHILE YOU’RE IN YOUR CAR, ETC.
I change my writing environment every time – Subway, buses, accidental long distance travel, office space, hopping from one library to another or in the middle of a breakup with psychos and angels. I don’t think about the routine of writing, I just make it fit in my circle of life.
MW: HOW MANY SCRIPTS DID YOU START BEFORE YOU FINISHED YOUR FIRST?
Marcus and Faith is my second. My first script was “Sin So Well” – it’s a B movie/script thing with lots of action and R-rated jokes. Actually some of the coverages found the jokes offensive. They’re probably the same people who found BORAT offensive.
MW: WHAT WAS IT ABOUT MARCUS AND FAITH AS CHARACTERS THAT COMPELLED YOU TO WRITE THEIR STORY?
Marcus and Faith had a controversial lifestyle and aspirations. Most artists come from a dysfunctional background. Some can’t adapt and give up in life by becoming self-destructive. I wanted to show that Marcus and Faith are survivors not matter how bad their childhood was. Whatever happened, we cannot blame our parents, teachers, bosses for the stress and pain we have in this life. We have to take control. Marcus and Faith found each other and they helped each other survive.
MW: WHAT ABOUT THEM DO YOU THINK WILL MAKE THEM, AS YOU EXPLAINED TO ME, “LIVE IN THE HEARTS OF YOUNG ADULTS AND TRANSFER FROM GENERATIONS TO GENERATIONS”?
I did a survey, when the movie Saturday Night Fever came, out – a specific crowd was able to identify with Tony Manero. Young adults with their problems with careers, unsupportive parents, sex-in-the –city syndrome and dead-beat friends.
Young adults love a lifestyle where they can piggyback vicariously on the entertainment culture. They temporary think that they will achieve stardom in anything they do and their future will be cozy and comfortable. But they fail to realize that this chase is a dangerous game and we have to tread carefully. It’s possible, no to drown….Marcus and Faith helped each other.
MW: YOU’VE SAID THAT FOR A “STORY TO FLOURISH IN OUR MODERN TIMES AND TOUCH OUR HEARTS, IT MUST BE DARINGLY DIFFERENT AND DARK.” DARINGLY DIFFERENT I GET BUT WHY DARK?
It has to be dark in some parts, in order to justify the happy ending. For a movie to play the immortality game, it has to be dark.
MW: THE SEX CLUB, KAMA-SIN, IS INCREDIBLY VIOLENT. DO YOU THINK THAT’S A COMMON EXPERIENCE FOR AUDIENCES OUT THERE? A TYPICAL FANTASY?
Mel Gibson was very vivid with Apocalypto and The Passion of Christ.
The Kama-Sin is my forecast of the danger that awaits society if we don’t put end to this addiction people have to sex vices. I’m just showing what happens when men get bored with certain things and they CAN’T GET SATISFACTION – until they find a temporary fix – the birth KAMA SIN, for example. In certain business culture – the rich and famous really like to experiment on this level.
MW: IF YOU COULD PICK FIVE WRITERS (ALIVE OR DEAD) TO BE IN A WRITING GROUP WITH YOU, WHO WOULD YOU PICK?
1. Frank Miller
2. Guy Ritchie
3. Robert Rodriguez
4. David Cronenberg
5. Spike Lee
MW: WHERE DO YOU GO FROM HERE WITH “MARCUS AND FAITH”??
I ‘m getting ready to market “Dance Desire Violence” – a dramatic thriller which takes place in 1977 New York. It’s about a college dropout, dirty dancing, schizophrenia and a crime boss and his promiscuous wife.
Also putting the polishing touch on “Don’t Hit My Mommy” – -- takes place in modern New York about a retired boxer/father, HIV, AIDS and an illegal escort business.
Lastly -- marketing a sit-com version of a tamer version of “Marcus and Faith”.
Email me for full synopsis of any of the above.
I believe in these scripts. New projects are always happening