Interviews: A chat with Ben Watts, Nashville Film Festival Grand Prize Winner 2016

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December 27, 2016 by tcawood

Today I’m thrilled to bring you a convo with writer Ben Watts, winner of the 2016 Nashville Film Festival. So pour some coffee, sit back and read. In this trade, it always pays to meet new people, listen… and – of course – learn!

Q: Could you give me a little bit of background on how you got into screenwriting?

One of the earliest memories I can recall is riding home on the bus from school — I must have been in 1st grade — and writing a single-page script entitled “Sord Ninjas” (intentionally misspelled here for authenticity’s sake). Don’t ask me how I knew the format, but I wrote a paragraph of description for the scene, then character names and their subsequent dialogue; I was always reading as a kid, and I’m sure that at some point, early on, I read a stage play and the basic formatting stuck with me. I wrote short stories and poems as a teenager, but it wasn’t until college that I started thinking seriously about the “screenplay” as a format. Our library had a “free printing” policy (up to 1000 pages, I think), so I printed out a few scripts that I found online, put them in a binder, and I’d secretly study them during classes.

Q: Your first credit, at least according to IMDB, is the 2008 short, Punch Drunk that you wrote and directed from a Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club!) short story. How did you get hold of that and how did you fund it?

My university was holding a short film festival, and I wanted to make something, so on a whim, I emailed Palahniuk’s agent, explaining how I was a college student and I didn’t have any money, but I wanted to adapt his short story (which comes from “Haunted) into a short film. I was a huge fan, and I’m sure I put that in my initial email. His agent was incredibly gracious and granted me “permission” to adapt the story, so long as I understood that all of the underlying rights remained with Palahniuk. I borrowed equipment from the Film department to make it, probably only spending $100 out of pocket.

Q: Did Chuck Palahniuk or his agent see the film? What did they think of it? (if they didn’t see it I wont include this one)

Ha! No, they did not. It’s objectively terrible, so I glad he hasn’t seen it, but it was a great learning experience.

Q: What did your University friends think of Punch Drunk?

I wish I could remember. It had to have been a good enough response that made me continue to pursue making other films.

Q: What did you learn from that experience and your subsequent shorts?

Everything! Those shorts were essentially my film school. I was taking classes on film theory and creative writing, but they didn’t focus on filmmaking itself: storyboarding, creating a shot list, directing actors, etc. For “Punch Drunk” and “Nickel Slick”, I was biting off more than I could chew, and that was a hard lesson to learn. I was running on the “Rebel Without A Crew”-mentality (from Robert Rodriguez, who famously made his first feature for $7K), thinking that I could go out and do everything myself — and do it well — but I was sorely mistaken. It takes a special kind of person who can direct, produce, gaff, camera operate, and boom op, and I’m not that person. So after those two shorts, I convinced myself to focus on directing and hire talented people to take on the other roles.

Q: Of the filmed shorts which is your favorite and why?

I think of them like (most) parents think of their children: it’s hard to pick a favorite. You’re proud of each one for different reasons, and as time goes on, you look back and wonder what you could have done differently.

Q: And of those not filmed (so far), which is your favorite?

I’ve got a few short ideas kicking around, but I’m trying to focus more on feature-writing for the time-being.

Q: You’ve taken the role of Writer/Director on your shorts, is this to maintain artistic control, or something else?

I’m not terribly prolific when it comes to writing shorts; I write things I want to direct and try to go make them. If someone wanted to direct a short I wrote and I didn’t have the means to go and make it myself, I’m sure I would hand it off, but no one’s asked me to do that yet!

Q: Any other shorts in pre-production we should be looking out for?

I’ve got a contained, character-based short drama called “Holy Water” that will (hopefully) be shot as soon as I find funding.

Q: Would you advocate writing short films, why do you think they are useful?

Absolutely. Write anything that you can get produced, because that’s the only way to truly learn how the process works. For most writers, that’s going to be short films, and the great thing about shorts is that there are no rules; it’s an open playground. You can write a short that takes place in real time in a single location, or you can write a short that spans decades. It’s a great format to figure out your “voice”.

Q: You work a lot on the Editing side of film, does this help with your writing?

Aside from just “writing more”, editing is the thing that has improved my story-telling more than anything else. It’s the final part of the process — the film’s been written and shot, and now you’re tasked with putting all the pieces together. You learn really quick how pacing and rhythm work in context to the larger piece, how little dialogue you actually need, what scenes you could potentially do without. Having that background in editing really helps when I start outlining a script; it helps to see the “movie” instead of just the words on the page — I’m more conscious of transitional scenes, how sequences will fit together, and the power that a single cut can make.

Q: You’ve edited a ton of short films, do you consider yourself inside the industry?

As my day job, I’m an editor (and occasional copywriter) for a commercial production company. It feels really removed from filmmaking and the “industry”, but the process is the same — just on a smaller and shorter scale.

Q: Did you start with short scripts and then move to Features?

I did, in part because I had no idea how to write a feature at the time. I think you’ve got to learn how to float before you can learn how to swim, and that’s what shorts were for me.

Q: When it comes to Feature scripts, how do you approach structure in your scripts? Do you follow any particular method?

Generally, I’m thinking about the three-act structure, but only in terms of beginning, middle, and end. Some people want to break that down into five acts, some want to break it into eight sequences, some want to break it out into beat sheets based on page numbers. I’m not strict about any of that, and that probably stems from me not having read any “traditional” screenwriting books that encouraged me to think that way. I believe that, inherently, we as human beings understand story structure. From the time that we’re born, we consume thousands of hours of narrative content. The notion of how narrative functions is ingrained in us — we just have to get out of the way sometimes and stop over thinking it.

In terms of my process, I normally start with a small idea — an image or a character trait or a line of dialogue. That small idea triggers the ending pretty early on. Once I know how to start and where I’m want to end up, I start trying to connect the dots. Sometimes that’s in a notebook, sometimes it’s in a free flowing document on my computer (if I had the space on my wall, I’d probably do note cards). Those free-flowing ideas turn into an outline. Once I think I know the story well enough, I’ll open a new document and rewrite the outline from memory, and I’ll do that again and again until I really know what I’ve got, story-wise. From there, I take my outline and drop it into Final Draft, making a new scene heading and simple description for each scene I’m imagining — a very basic Cameron-style “scriptment” — and start building the scenes out from there.

Q: What was the first feature you wrote and how did you get it out there? Did you query Producers, enter competitions, use Inktip, etc?

My first feature (“In Case of Rapture”) started out as a short (that I never made). After writing twenty pages or so, a friend convinced me to keep going, to expand it, which is what I did, keeping those initial twenty pages as the first act. I call it a “high-concept character study”, and I wrote it with production in mind — keeping the characters, locations, and VFX to a minimum — thinking it would be a great first feature for me as a director. I got some good coverage from the Blacklist, and I queried several managers/producers with that coverage, which led to a few reads, but nothing much more than that. It’s decidedly an “independent” film — with a significant lack of explosions — so it’ll take a producer with a certain sensibility to help it get made.

Q: Your Feature, *When The Devil’s Loose, *recently won the grand prize (congrats!) at the Nashville Film Festival and has done well in other comps, what’s it about?

In the summer of 1988, four young friends set out to discover the truth behind mysterious break-ins as an ever-spreading wildfire threatens to wipe out their small suburban community. It’s “Stand by Me” meets “Kings of Summer”.

The whole idea stemmed from a single line of dialogue. At the time, I had seen several movies where characters were reflecting on the “best summer of their life/lives”, and everything was painted with rose-colored glasses, as if nostalgia was the be-all-end-all, realism be damned. So in an attempt to flip that notion on its head I wrote on a piece of paper one of the first lines of VO in the script: “That was the worst summer of my life.” I didn’t know where it was going to go or what the story was, but I wrote it down and left it on my desk. A few days later, I was standing in my front yard, and a plane flew overhead (I live in a direct flight path, so this is a normal occurrence). As I was craning my neck, I started to wonder where this plane came from and where it was going. And that was the genesis of “When The Devil’s Loose”.

Q: What are your thoughts on screenwriting competitions, obviously you’ve had a massive win with Nashville (and Atlanta and Shore scripts) but thoughts in general?

I think there are a handful of contests that are great, especially for writers who live outside of LA or don’t have an “industry” job, but you have to go in understanding that they’re not going to be your golden ticket — unless you win the Nicholl. Winning (or placing highly) gives you some validation, but it also grants you something to put in a query letter.

I think there are a ton of contests out there who promise “results” or “connections”, but from what I’ve experienced, they’re almost always blowing smoke.

Q: Aside from the monetary prize from the comps, what else has happened since?

I got a manager after WTDL placed in the Tracking Board Launch pad competition. He’s shopping it around now.

Q: There are a ton of people out there who offer coverage services, position themselves as guru’s etc, what your view on such services?

I think almost all of them are bogus. There are so many great free resources online that can be exhausted instead of paying a “story coach”. If you’re not already, start listening to podcasts with other writers, people who are actually doing the job that you want to have — Scriptnotes, The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, Nerdist Writers Panel, The Moment with Brian Koppelman, just to name a few.

If you’re looking for coverage or someone to give you notes, find fellow writers who will give you honest, unfiltered opinions. If you can’t find those, or if you’ve used up all your “reads” from your friends and family members and you’re wanting to know where you stand, then pay for a single round of coverage from the Blacklist or similar reputable place. But even then, if you’re just looking for someone else to read your work and tell you if you’re any good or not, there are free online solutions for that as well — like Reddit or SimplyScripts.

Q: If you’ve used services/sites like Inktip, SimplyScripts, The Blacklist, what’s your view on this type of model for screenwriters to get their scripts seen, and hopefully picked up?

I haven’t used Inktip or SimplyScripts, so I can’t speak to those. In regards to the Blacklist, I think it’s well-intentioned, but it’s over-saturated now. There are success stories (and I personally know of two writers who got in when the site was brand new and got representation that way), but with the amount of scripts that are listed there now, it seems nearly impossible to stand out. Just like contests, I think you have to go into these sites with the understanding that it’s not going to be your “golden ticket”.

Q: What projects are you working on now and when can next expect to see your name on the credits?

I just finished an action/thriller spec with a writing partner entitled “The Losing Kind”, and I’m almost done with a first draft of my next solo spec, “The Crush of the Deep”.

Q: What’s the best and worse screenwriting advice you’ve been given?

“Write what you know”. That’s both the best and worst advice I’ve ever heard.

On one hand, it’s an incredibly limiting and navel-gazing sentiment; most writers don’t live fascinating lives — and I’m including myself in that group. We don’t spend our days solving murder mysteries or trying to stop alien invasions; we spend copious hours staring at screens or notepads. So trying to restrain your creativity to only what you know is a surefire way to boredom (unless you’re Charlie Kaufman and you’ve written “Adaptation”).

On the other hand, “write what you know” works when you think about it on a human level. No matter how high your concept is, or how big your set pieces get, it should always come back to character — what’s the emotion behind the action. As human beings, we should understand empathy, jealousy, anger, frustration, happiness, melancholy, whatever. Take those emotions you know and understand from being a human being and put them to work for your characters. Be real and true and honest. Your characters (and readers) will thank you for it.

Now for a few ‘getting to know Ben’ questions

Q: What’s your favorite film? And favorite script, if they’re different.

Because there are simply too many to name, I’ll just list my favorite that I’ve seen recently: “Green Room” by Jeremy Saulnier.

Q: Favorite author and book?

This is a toughie, too. I’m partial to Flannery O’Connor’s hypnotic mix of religion and violence.

Q: Beer or Wine (or something else)? And which variety?

Both. And I’ll take them as dark as I can get them: for beer, it’s Old Rasputin, and when I drink wine, I like Petit Syrah. Most of the time, though, I stick to the good ole’ classic Tom Collins.

Q: Favorite food?

The opposite of highbrow: peanut butter.

Q: Any other interests and passions?

I love to bake (and marathon viewings of “The Great British Bake-Off” certainly don’t help). Because I spend so much of my day sitting (writing/editing/coloring), I tend to want to stand up when I get home, so most nights you can find me in the kitchen experimenting on some kind of dessert for my wife and/or coworkers.

Q: Baking? So favourite thing to bake?

Anything chocolate & peanut butter, but because it’s summer, I’ve been baking a lot of pies lately; I make a key lime pie that’s always a huge hit.

Q: Do you live in LA, thoughts about moving there for a screenwriting career?

I’m currently in the Bay Area, and for where I am career-wise, I think it works for the time being. I’ve just recently gotten a manager, and I’m trying to crank out more material while he’s shopping around “When the Devil’s Loose”. I’m sure when/if the time is right, I’ll make a move.

Q: Any final thoughts for the screenwriters out there?

Get outside and live. Give yourself permission to daydream. I think we as writers get consumed by “putting in the time” in front of a computer screen — and don’t get me wrong, that’s important, too. But, at least for me, I get inspired by meeting new people and visiting new places. I think one of the greatest things you can do as a writer is to walk around and simply ask yourself, “What if?”

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