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.