Featured Q&A – Behind the Screen with Writer Ben Kopit

Ben-Kopit

Ben Kopit recently sold his first screenplay, THE LIBERTINE, to Warner Bros and is working on another original project with them. Prior to that, he received an M.F.A. in screenwriting from UCLA and garnered a number of writing awards. (2015 Reddit Screenwriting Contest winner, 2014 Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Finalist, 2013 Sloan Screenwriting Fellowship, 2013 David C. Baumgarten Endowed Award in Comedy Writing, 2012 UCLA Showcase Honoree, 2012 National Association of Theatre Owners of California/Nevada Fellowship in Film, 13th Annual Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest 2nd Place). He received his undergraduate degree from Columbia, where he studied music and playwriting. In between Columbia and UCLA, he spent a few years working in opera: the one industry where a degree in classical music and theater is deemed “impressive.”

He lives in North Hollywood with his partner, actress Christa Cannon, and their two cats. In his free time, he enjoys eating poorly and not going to the gym. He also played in a darts league for six years while mysteriously managing to never become any good at darts. He likes to think he has a laugh that most would consider non-grating.

In this Q&A Ben shares what led him to pursue professional writing and his advice for aspiring writers.

Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?

Ben: I realized fairly young that I wasn’t as good at anything as I was at B.S.ing and making shit up. I considered trying to start a cult, but that seemed like a lot of responsibility. Maybe when I grow into a more mature work ethic.

Q2: How did you start your writing career?

Ben: I started doing student theater in high school and college, which I think is a great place to begin because it’s low stakes, high volume, and encourages playfulness and risk taking. For a while in my 20s, my writing slowed down as I worked in opera in what was essentially a producer capacity. I think opera helped move me from stage to screen, because opera is really the film of the stage; it’s a big budget, interdisciplinary medium where a wide array of art forms have to be represented in their highest form in order for the final product to succeed. I realized I liked that level of collaboration. So, when I was looking to focus more intensely on my writing, I went to film school for a screenwriting MFA. Then, in my last year at UCLA, I decided to write a micro-budget screenplay one could shoot with other film students on a two-week schedule in one location. Ironically, I sold that script to Warner Bros.

Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why?

Ben: This question is impossible to answer, but there are a small number of films that have been huge creative influences on me. Woody Allen’s SLEEPER is one. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE is another. Paddy Chayefsky’s NETWORK is the screenplay I most often use for aspirational influence. I think the screenplay disproves a number of “universal truths” about screenwriting structure. I like how the humor serves a purpose. It’s not funny just to be funny; it’s funny because the humor makes it more insightful than a more earnest version. It’s also a great study in how to present monologues and ideas without becoming ponderous. The scenes and story are constructed in such a way as to always make the audience doubt the veracity of what they are hearing, and in this way the script avoids having the monologues become on the nose or pedantic.

Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?

Ben: Don’t be in a rush to share your material with people in the industry. Those people will still be there when your writing is ready. It’s actually fairly easy to get a script read. What’s difficult is improving a bad first impression. The industry is also incredibly small, so word travels quickly. I was in LA for years before I went after a manager or agent. The strategy I set for myself was that I wouldn’t try to go out with a script until I had 2 scripts with which I was really happy. I also said that neither of those could be the most recent thing I’d written. The reason for this is that you always think the last thing you wrote is better than it actually is. Also, for your first few scripts, the difference between each script and the next is night and day. As long as you are still in that exponential growth phase, you are not producing your best work. The reason why I made the 2 script rule was not that people often ask for a second sample (even though they often do) but that I wanted to be able to handle a best case scenario. If you are lucky enough to sell a script, you will then have a lot of pressure put on you to write another. If you’ve only written one good script, how do you know you can repeat it? It’s much easier to get lucky with one script than it is to arrive at a place where you can consistently write quality material. The two script rule was so I wouldn’t be terrified that my one script was a fluke.

 

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My Fifteen Minutes

My fifteen minutes of glory and fame (it was more like four or five years) have come and gone.

There was a time when I constantly appeared on radio and TV political talk shows: maybe ten times on Today, a dozen on (may God forgive me) The O’Reilly Factor, perhaps two dozen on MSNBC’s Hardball With (that blowhard) Chris Matthews (isn’t Chris mainly into bombast?), Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough, and oodles more.

Sometimes friends ask me, “How could you agree to appear on O’Reilly?”

Frankly, I welcome the opportunity to stand up to bullies and to set them straight. Between Bill and Sean and others I was starting to feel like Fox News’s house lib.

In fact I consider myself not liberal but conservative.

I am, for example, a longtime supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is widely characterized as a liberal group. But are we really? Aren’t we the ones who truly support Thomas Jefferson’s notion that the best government is the least government, who believe that legislatures should stay out of citizens’ private, personal affairs (like telling people whom they can and, more pertinently, whom they can and cannot marry; like telling law abiding, tax-paying grownups what substances they can smoke; like dictating to women whether or not they can choose to have a safe and legal abortion)?

We are the true ‘originalists.’ We’re the authentic ‘strict constructionists.’ We’re the ones who believe the Constitution means what it says and says what it means.

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Regarding reproductive rights, I am fiercely pro-choice and anti-abortion. I don’t know anyone among the pro-choice crowd who thinks abortion is a splendid, joyful procedure, a barrel of laughs, the default position for irresponsibility regarding safe sex and contraception. That’s why I support Planned Parenthood. Through sex education and distribution of contraceptive devices, no group has prevented more unwanted pregnancies and, therefore, more abortions.

Thanks to Planned Parenthood, surely millions upon millions of abortions have been avoided. How do you tally the number of abortions that did not occur?

My signature issue during the political media appearances was sex and violence. Every time the new Sopranos season would crank up I’d be invited to opine regarding the series’ express, explicit, mayhem and bloodletting. Given my retro hippie peacenik affect, not to mention my university professor stature, many would imagine I should bash all the whacking. Instead, my detractors denounce me as a toady for the studios, a company man, an apologist for Hollywood’s crass commercialism and malevolent excess.

To have detractors, of course, one has to be regarded as influential. That is why I feel my detractors honor me.

I view the violence on The Sopranos as wholly, painstakingly moral. Every once in a while, when Tony and his mobster buddies got too cozy, too amiable, too teddy-bear benign, writer/producer David Chase and his scribes considered it necessary to remind us who these folk really are and the crimes they committed.

My favorite O’Reilly moment came during a routine pre-broadcast telephone interview in which the producer runs the subject de jour past the potential guest to see if he expresses the position they want him to take. This particular day the subject was Bill O’Reilly’s belief that Hollywood (meaning American public and popular expression) is corrupt, corrosive, immoral, unprincipled, and that American film and television fuels anti-American sentiment abroad.

I asked the producer, “Does it bother Bill to find himself in lockstep agreement with Osama Bin Laden?”

I then hastily added, “Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting Bill O’Reilly is as evil as Osama Bin Laden.”

Letting down his guard, the producer replied, “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t work with him every day like we do.”

Here’s Bill’s own producer in a conversation with a potential guest comparing him to Osama Bin Laden!

On one occasion the subject was whether or not the FCC should seize the broadcast license of a radio station whose shock-jock hosts had committed a sacrilege, in a certain sense desecrating a Catholic church. The station had already fired the jocks. If I owned that station, I too would have fired them.

But that wasn’t enough for host O’Reilly and my counterpart on the broadcast, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell who, along with Bill, supported having the FCC seize the station’s license and put them out of business.

“Take that position if you like,” I told them. “But you can’t hold that view and at the same time call yourself conservative. Isn’t small government conservatism’s organizing principle? If you support the feds putting out of business a company due to expression you (and also I) don’t like, you’re not a conservative,” I said. “You’re and authoritarian. You’re a totalitarian. And to the extent that you preach one set of principles and practice another, you’re also a hypocrite.”

I gave them a moment to digest all that.

“I hear dreadful, offensive speech on the air every day,” I said. “It tells me that I live in a free country. You’ll never hear stuff like that in Saudi Arabia or North Korea. Are those the kinds of societies America should emulate?”

Finally, I said to Falwell, “Reverend, the most offensive language I ever heard on the air was your own commentary offered just a few days after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. You agreed—agreed!—with Osama Bin Laden that America had gotten exactly what we deserved. That it was God’s righteous wrath, his answer to people like me who support the American Civil Liberties Union and, among others, those whom you referred to as ‘the Lesbians.’”

I love the definite article ‘the,’ as if in the nation somewhere there are fourteen or twenty-nine or a hundred and twelve lesbians, and that they are all in agreement with each other regarding relations in the Middle East.

“I was deeply, keenly, profoundly offended by those remarks,” I said. “But you don’t hear me calling for the Federal Communications Commission to pull the broadcast licenses of the stations that carry your pal Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, on which program you offered those deplorable remarks.”

[Full disclosure: my cousin Douglas Karpiloff was killed in the attacks.]

Falwell’s response: “That was unfortunate timing.”

“Timing?” I said. “Tell me, please, what is the proper timing for ignorance and bigotry?”

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How Does A Writer Know They Are Good Enough? Film Courage Interview with UCLA Professor Richard Walter

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A Letter to The New York Times on ‘Capturing Steve Jobs’

In a recent issue of The New York Times – you’ll find a published letter to the editor by Richard Walter (Chair of the MFA Screenwriting Program at UCLA) in which he shares: “Judging even from Joe Nocera’s criticism of the film ‘Steve Jobs,’ it is clear that the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, fulfilled his charge most admirably.” Read the full commentary online here.

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Are Movies With Too Much Realism Boring? Film Courage Interview with UCLA Professor Richard Walter

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My Favorite Film Critic

I rarely read movie reviews.

Here and there I may peek at a review, but never one that treats a movie I have not yet seen.

My reluctance is not because I want to avoid spoilers.

The reason is this: if a reviewer loves a film, I’m likely to find it disappointing.

Conversely, if a critic hates a film, I’ll probably consider it worthy.

This is testimony to the power of expectations.

High expectations? The film disappoints.

Low expectations? The movie is worthy.

Many critics seem to laud almost any film that fails at the box office. This feeds their narcissism by demonstrating how intelligent, insightful, astute, and profoundly intellectual they are (and how dense, how blind, how stupid are the rest of us).

Likewise, critics denounce almost any film that enjoys blockbuster commercial success. Critics are likely to have fragile egos. After all, who in her right mind would set out to be a critic? Isn’t ‘movie critic’ just a fall-back position for one who couldn’t make it in show business? Critics are soothed, therefore, by demonstrating a sense of superiority, a feeling that the critic belongs to an artistic and creative elite.

In other words, critics are snobs.

My favorite film critic was my grandmother.

She was no snob.

I recall two informal reviews she gave a pair of movies I happened to see with her and my sister Jessica at a neighborhood theater in Jackson Heights, Queens, when we were kids.

I don’t remember the names of the movies, but they were released in the early ‘50s, two black and white WWII air force epics. Perhaps one was God Is My Copilot.

In those days when movies played in neighborhood theaters they were inevitably part of a double bill, that is, two movies for the price of one.

And there was much more than merely two movies.

There were also cartoons, newsreels, a ‘short subject’ or two or three, maybe a travelogue, and always previews of coming attractions.

Notably, it was the custom in that era for patrons never to check the screening schedule in advance. Audiences would routinely enter at their convenience in the middle of one movie, sit through it until the end, then view all the in-between paraphernalia, and then watch the entire second film, which was followed by still more interim material, and finally the first movie again, this time from the beginning, remaining seated until the film came around to the point where they had entered.

On that particular occasion maybe sixty years ago at The Earle Theater on Northern Boulevard, the second picture might have been Twelve O’Clock High.

During this ordeal, if they had carried Dramamine at the popcorn stand, they would have made a fortune.

We sat there through hour after hour of soaring, roaring engines, dog fights, bombing runs, anti-aircraft fire, hearing crackling dialogue like “Jap Zero on your tail at oh-four-hundred hours!” and worse.

In the intermission, the newsreels ran still more black and white Air Force footage, this time reporting on battles from the bloodbath de jour, the Korean War.

By the time the first film came around again and reached the point where we had entered, my sister and I rose from our seats and headed for the aisle.

Grandma said, “Where are you going?”

We said, “This is where we came in.”

With an Eastern European inflection as thick as borscht, Granny said, “But I thought there were two pictures.”

Years later, with Jessie herself a star of stage and screen, she was not so much at the movies as in the movies,

My girlfriend (and now longtime bride) and I went along with a passel of friends and family (including my favorite film critic) to the world premiere of a movie in which Jess starred opposite James Garner, the international racing epic Grand Prix.

It was not unusual during that era for movies to run long, at least in their original release. (By the time they hit the neighborhood houses they might have been trimmed so as to fit the platform for the double feature.)

When movies ran as long as Grand Prix, they also had an intermission.

Of course the actors gave splendid performances, but that long ago screening of Grand Prix the whole evening seemed to take about as long as the Bronze Age.

After enduring the entire film, including the intermission, in the lobby my date turned to my grandmother and asked, “What did you think of the movie?”

Granny shrugged, rolled her eyes, adjusted her dress, sighed, and said, “I should have worn the other girdle.”

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Why Screenwriting Is So Difficult – Film Courage Interview with UCLA Professor Richard Walter

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WRITE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW (WITH THANKS AND APOLOGIES TO JULIAN HOXTER)

Thirty years ago I was profiled in The Wall Street Journal. Their reporter called me–I’ve memorized it—“… the prime broker for Hollywood’s hottest commodity: new writing talent.”

I mention this not to brag—though it’s surely worth bragging about, and I’m a shameless braggart—but to explain why agents and producers approach me regularly in search of new writers.

It used to be said, of course, that in Hollywood a producer is anyone with access to twenty-five cents and a payphone.

Many of these overtures are sincere; some are not. Regarding the latter, I’m often told by callers or e-mailers that they seek a writer who’s fresh, new, not entrenched in weary and wearying Hollywood gamesmanship, writers who simply love to create stories.

Almost inevitably they leave out they require also a writer who is willing to work for free.

They’ll rant enthusiastically about their connections, about back-end net profit payouts for the writer, and more.

“Net Profit” derives from the Russian “nyet profit.” That is, no profit.

It is sometimes said that the most highly creative writing in Hollywood occurs not in writers’ rooms but in studio accounting departments. Among a host of other scams, working mischief-making bookkeeping strategies such as ‘cross-collateralization’ makes it possible to write off profits against other pictures that bombed, and thereby turn a hit into a financial black hole that emits neither light nor cash.

With such producers I do not cooperate.

In fact, writers write for free all the time. It’s called speculating. The writer speculates—hopes; guesses; estimates; calculates—that eventually the script will sell. Of course, there are huge rewards that can accrue even from a script that fails to sell. I’ll review some of those benefits in another column on another day.

There’s nothing wrong—and everything right—with speculating, as long as the writer owns one hundred percent of the script she creates. When a script is based upon someone else’s notion, however, for example an erstwhile, self-styled “producer,” impediments arise regarding copyright issues. Lawyers call these ‘entanglements’ and ‘encumbrances.’

Writers should avoid them. In the words of my late mother, “Who needsunnecessary heartache?”

If producers are legitimate, however, if they guarantee writers a fee in advance regardless of the outcome of the project, I’m happy to refer them to worthy writers.

From time to time, producers assert they seek a particular kind of writer, for example a woman, a Latino, a gay man or lesbian, an African American, or a Muslim.

They’ll explain that the particular movie they intend to produce resonates with themes affecting one or another of those communities, and that only a member of the particular community, therefore, can tell the story in an informed, authentic voice.

If you happen to be a female, Latino, gay, lesbian, or African American writer, that might cheer you.

Don’t fall for it.

Implicit in the notion that certain scripts are uniquely suited to be written by, say, women, is the belief that there are certain scripts for which women are not suited.

There is a name for this sort of attitude: bigotry.

I’m one of those people who believes that old can write young, young can write old, gay can write straight and straight can write gay, black can write white and white can write black.

There are only two kinds of screenplays. These are not, for example, Latino screenplays and Anglo screenplays but good screenplays and bad screenplays.

 

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Screenwriting Tips: Finance 101 for Screenwriters

A well known and somewhat wacky NY stage actor friend of mine was irresponsible regarding the way he managed his money.

‘Wacky actor,’ I expect, strikes many as a redundancy.

His finances were handled by an old neighborhood pal whom he’d known since grade school. The kid had become an accountant. As his bookkeeper and manager, all of the actor’s fees were sent directly to him; likewise the bills. He also prepared and filed the actor’s taxes.

Each month the accountant paid the actor’s bills and doled out an allowance in cash, walking-around money sufficient to keep his client in cab fares (this was the pre-Uber era) and Sabrett sidewalk hot dogs (with onions in red sauce).

If the actor wanted to take a girlfriend to Puerto Rico for the weekend, the accountant would shoot him an additional two or three-thousand dollars to play the tables at the Caribe Hilton.

Everything went smoothly for a quarter century until, one day, the Internal Revenue Service contacted the actor directly to ask why he’d failed to file his taxes over the past six years. When he referred them to the accountant, they informed him that he was at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility awaiting arraignment for having looted his clients’ funds.

Not all the news was bad, however, the IRS reassured him. They told the actor that though he no longer owned his house (they now owned it) they would allow him to rent it back from them. It was part of a settlement lasting several years allowing the actor to pay his taxes and penalties in installments.

The last part of the settlement was the requirement that he attend the economics equivalent of traffic school: Personal Finance School.

Contrary to what he had expected, Finance School turned out to be pretty cool. The instructor was charming, poised, engaging. She gave him and his classmates useful advice.

The two most important rules were not sophisticated and canny accountancy strategies but principles that were wretchedly, glaringly mundane.

1) Upon writing a check, immediately do the math. This way the ledger always shows precisely how much – or how little – is in the account. It’s all too easy, she said, to delay making the subtraction, letting payments accumulate for even merely a brief while, relying on a loose guesstimate of what is in the account. This leads inevitably to thinking the balance is larger than it really is. Therein lies, of course, a recipe for bouncing checks wrecking one’s credit rating.

The other rule holds that 2) it’s fine to charge purchases to a credit card as long as you pay off the entire bill each month and never allow even merely a nickel to revolve.

This way your interest payment is zero.

Do you know what the credit card industry calls cardholders who pay off their bills in full each month?

Deadbeats.

To them the bad guy is not the cardholder who stiffs his creditors but he who regularly pays his bills in full.

There are rare times, the finance counselor preached, when a writer might legitimately borrow money. Revolving credit card debt and cash advances, she insisted, are not the way to do that.

The credit expert preached that should anyone ever find that he’s allowed even only one credit card charge to revolve, that is, if he has failed to pay off his monthly balance in its entirety, he should take the card in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other and, well, you can figure out the rest.

If you want others to treat you as a professional, you must treat yourself as a professional. Professional writers act responsibly regarding their finances. The main thing writers need is: time. That’s what money is for: to buy time to write.

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UCLA Screenwriting Chairman Richard Walter Offers On-Campus UCLA Screenwriting Seminar – Summer 2015 (Class FTV 135A–Open to UCLA and Non-UCLA Students)

Here is a rare opportunity for UCLA and non-UCLA students to enroll in an on-campus screenwriting seminar with Professor Richard Walter at UCLA.

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It’s easier to win admission to the Harvard Medical School than to the graduate screenwriting program that Professor Walter has chaired and co-chaired for more than thirty years.

He takes you all the way from idea, to draft, to studio deal. UCLA-trained screenwriters have won three Oscars and five Oscar nominations in the past five years. They have written eleven movies for Steven Spielberg.

The class, FTV 135A, is offered in UCLA Summer Session ‘A’.

This advanced screenwriting workshop is especially designed for the summer session and is appropriate for new writers and also for experienced writers. It is a round-table roll-up-your-sleeves-and-write seminar. There are in-class writing challenges and also analysis of in-progress script pages written by students in the class.

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The class meets on UCLA’S Westwood campus for six Monday afternoons from June 22 through July 27, 2015, 2:00 to 4:50 PM. The class, listed in the online catalog of courses as “FILM TV 135A ADV SCRNWRTNG WKSHP” (more info here) is open to UCLA students and also to students who are not enrolled at UCLA. All students receive 8 UC credits that are transferable to other institutions.

All pre-requisites are waived for this special summer offering.

To learn about enrolling and registering as a UCLA visit http://www.summer.ucla.edu/uclastudent or as a non-UCLA student, visit http://www.summer.ucla.edu/usstudent.

Writers with questions regarding enrollment can contact the UCLA Registrar’s office directly at (310) 825-4101, or Kathy A. Berardi (Professor Walter’s media manager) at (678) 644-4122 or kathyaberardi@gmail.com.

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