Today's post is the second part of an interview with Dan Benamor.
Dan is a screenwriter that recently exploded onto the scene with his screenplay Onward, Through The Night.
Onward, was selected as a Tracking Board Recommended script.
For anyone reading this that doesn't know what Tracking Board is - you need to check them out now.
Tracking Board Recommend is the highest accolade any burgeoning screenwriter can get.
As far as fast-tracking careers goes TBR is better than the Nicholl Fellowship.
Dan is a worthy recipient of that accolade.
He is also the writer of a highly polished thriller 'Initiation' out now on VOD on iTunes - and various other VOD platforms.
Here's a link to the film on US iTunes.
Here's a link to the film on Canadian iTunes
Here's a link to buy the film on youtube
Here's a link to the trailer for Initiation on youtube.
You should be able to find it on Amazon, Xbox, Sony PlayStation, Google Play, YouTube (for rental/purchase), and VUDU plus on most cable VOD providers.
DtS: So, after having made your first low budget feature straight out of film school, how did you come to move to LA?
DB: Honestly, it was all because of my buddy Kyle. He would call me every two weeks and say, when are we going? If it wasn't for him pushing me, I probably would have put it off for another year.
DtS: When did you arrive in LA?
DtS: Did you know anyone going into LA?
DB: My cousin.
DtS: How do you feel about LA?
DB: It's a great city. It depends on where you live. I lived in Hollywood at first, and that's a very dispiriting place to live. It's like a refugee camp. I've since moved to Burbank, and I love it there.
DtS: How did you get your fist job in the industry? I met you when you were working at NGN.
DB: Yeah, Nasser entertainment, NGN. I started as an intern, just doing coverage. Then I got hired as a development assistant. Then I got promoted, and eventually I was head of development.
DtS: How long did that take?
DB: It was really short. I had a really good rapport with the producers. We're talking maybe 6 months to a year.
DtS: How many films did you do there?
DB: I did thirteen movies in three years. We were pumping them out pretty good.
DtS: You have a very distinct voice in your writing. I talk about voice on the blog, and how it can carry a writer and carry a script. Your voice is very unique. Can you talk about your voice for a moment, how did you create your style?
DB: I was in a weird mental place when I wrote Onward, I had just gotten engaged, and I had left the job as the development exec', but I wasn't properly represented at that stage, I was sort of in this middle ground, and I had seen the money I could make there, and realised that unless I wrote something that changed things significantly for me, I was going to be earning less than I wanted to be.
So I went to this hotel, and I wrote the first draft really quickly and I chose to not second guess any of my decisions. I wrote it with anger, I think. I think that most of the stuff I have written has been done so with some element of anger.
DtS: You have a very noir tone to your writing. You have super short, blunt sentences. Where does that writing style come from?
DB: Part of the reason I left my old job, I had written a script under a pen name, and we got Michelle McLaren interested in it, who did more episodes of Breaking Bad than anyone, before she completely blew-up, she read my script, met with us, and she said that the thing she took away from it the most was the sense of humour.
But that was kinda weird, as it was a violent, noir script. I've noticed that most of my scripts that resonate with people has had a lot of dark humour, which prevents it from being too dark. And I think it's also my own sensibilities.
In Onward, there's a scene where there's this guy who's a torturer, and he has an ice-coffee that he brings with him to each torture session and he had a coaster, cause to me, you see, films that often have these genre elements, tropes, they're not real people.
So I think to myself, he's a real guy, that's his job, he goes to work and tortures people, and so little things and little moments like that end up being really important to me, and I think they're all about voice, they're not about story. I always try to approach it, like, even bad people are still people, they're not cartoon characters.
DtS: Onward is the script that has done things for you.
DB: Yeah, It got me representation, manager, agent, lawyer.
DtS: This has all come from the Tracking Board Recommends?
DB: I've gotta give them a ton of credit. It has made a huge difference for my career.
DtS: How is the process of working with a good production company on this script compared to what you've experienced perviously?
DB: When you're making an independent film it's all about, let's go make the movie. When you're working with a company like Anonymous Content, the bar for the quality of material is really high. They are also, sooooo smart. It forces me to be on my A game.
DtS: Dealing with notes. Have you received notes you don't agree with? And if so, how do you deal with that?
DB: I'm working with people that are incredibly accomplished and so smart -
DtS: So you haven't been hit with a note that you thought - well that's just stupid -
DB: No, definitely not.
DtS: As a writer, getting bad notes from other projects, how did you deal with it?
DB: I think that because I was a development exec, I've seen both sides of the table. So when a producer gives me a note I know that they're not just saying it for fun, that there's a reason behind it. If it's something I disagree with it's a conversation.
I say, well if I do that, then this is what the domino effect of that will be, and this would be my concern, and then it becomes a conversation and we figure it out. I think that having been a development exec has been super helpful with that.
DtS: Initiation, your film that's just come out on VOD. When did you write it?
DB: About three years ago. My cousin had a script, I ended up coming in and co-writing the script with him.
DtS: How was the co-writing process?
DB: We had a really good working experience together. My cousin brought some great things to the table. He thinks outside the box and it was great. His background is more visual than mine, and he brought things up that I would never have thought about.
As writers we tend to think of the internal workings of the script - the elegance of the structure, themes, arcs, metaphors etc, and for me I'm always trying to bring emotion to everything I'm working on, but with my cousin he thinks how all that is going to be conveyed visually, which is something that writers often forget about. For me, it's all about trying to create an emotional connection between the story and the audience.
DtS: Do you go into a screenplay thinking how can I create a vicarious connection between the audience and my script? Or is that something that you feel is second nature to you?
DB: When I sit down to write, I think, if I was going to read this, why would I give a shit? And I try to set the bar on that relatively high.
Unfortunately, I think we are so numb to stories, that now they have to be so intense or otherwise we just don't care. I'm a horrible audience member. I try to watch a movie now and it's often a disaster, if it's not awesome, after 20 minutes, I'm out.
DtS: Back on your writing process. You said you locked yourself in a motel room and wrote Onward, how long was that?
DB: The first draft was three days. Then I did a couple more drafts before I sent it to anyone. Once the script got the recommend and then I got representation, we changed the script significantly before it was sent out and now that there's a production company involved it's changed again but the spine of the story hasn't changed since that first draft.
DtS: Further on your method. Aside from your three day bender with Onward, what has been your process?
DB: It depends on the circumstances. If I've been hired to write something I'm not at liberty to be as wild with it so it becomes a lot more about craft, I'll do 5 pages a day and I want each page to be really tight.
If I'm writing a spec it's really more about prep, the actual writing of the script doesn't take me that long, it's about the outlining and research, I will read about two or three books about what ever the subject matter is.
And there ends the interview with the talented Dan Benamor.
THE TAKE AWAY...
1) Getting out to LA sooner rather than later worked well for Dan. He took an internship and turned it into a development executive position within 12 months. Obviously everyone's journey is different, but if you feel that you're a procrastinator, possibly spurring yourself to make the move sooner rather than later could move your career faster for you.
2) Voice - is a very important element of screenwriting. I often talk about how voice is the sum of all the elements of your screenplay. If you nail all the smaller elements of your story your voice will come across as strong. Voice is also the way you write. Do you use short sentences, do you have a good sense of dark humour like Dan does. Are you able to write the fine detail that will make your script and the characters feel real like Dan's torturer who brings an ice-coffee and coaster to work with him every day?
3) Tracking Board Recommends is great at starting careers. Dan is a great case study for this. When you have a script that you feel is ready, send it to TBR. If it's not recommended then take their notes seriously and apply them. TBR has the power and contacts to get you representation.
4) Dealing with bad notes. Make it a discussion. Don't be blunt. Don't just say, no, I'm not going to do it. Voice your concerns about the note and give reasons why you think it wouldn't necessarily work. Most importantly - make it a dialogue - not you simply saying, no, not gonna do it.
5) Method - when writing a spec - outlining and working on your structure is critically important to the success of your script. The more intimately you know the framework of the screenplay you're about to write - the easier it will be to do the actual writing.