Interview (Part 6): Ben Jacoby

This week I’m featuring an interview I did with Ben Jacoby. This has a particularly unique hook in that I have an email thread with Ben dating back to July 30, 2013. Every several months, Ben would contact me with the latest development in his writing life, so in effect the emails are a living history of his emerging screenwriting career. The fact he has been a longtime GITS follower makes his story especially satisfying.

Today in Part 6, Ben gives advice to aspiring screenwriters:

Scott: You mentioned theme. Are you one of those writers who starts with themes, or do they arise in the context of developing a writing of the story?
Ben: I think I start with it more and more now. I build my story around it, I find a way to craft characters based on it, I find narrative parallels between, I guess, micro and macro plot elements based on theme. A theme doesn’t necessarily have to mean, whatever, one of the classic themes —
Scott: Love conquers all.
Ben: — Yeah, right. I remember reading that John August likes to call it DNA. Whatever the fundamental building block of the movie is. In “The Inklings” it’s ambition versus love. In “Earthwalkers,” it’s redemption. So, yeah, I think theme is very important. It informs my construction of the story, kind of like a magnet that allows various ideas to come together in the right place and in the right way.
Scott: When you’re writing a scene, do you have any specific goals in mind?
Ben: Yeah, what everyone says — make sure the scene is essential to your movie, and make sure it advances the plot. Those are obviously critical.
If you’ve got a three-page scene, you want to make sure it has an evolution, an end-point that it’s driving toward. And the end should simultaneously satisfy and leave you thirsty for more.
Scott: Let’s talk about scene description. It seems like a rather mundane topic, but on most scripts it’s probably about 60, 70 percent of what we write. Are you consciously thinking about how to craft scene description so that it’s entertaining?
Ben: Oh yeah, definitely. Not necessarily entertaining, but just… good. [laughs] A lot of scripts are minimalist now, they have a lot of white space on the page. And that can be great. But I’d rather have a few extra words in there and really understand where I am, what I’m looking at.
My background is in books as much as it is in film, so my scene description may feel a little more literary, more like prose. But, I also try to echo the tone of the movie. People talk about a screenwriter’s voice. I think a single screenplay’s voice is more important. Make me feel like I’m in this movie, completely.
“The Inklings” for example, I wrote it entirely in British English, including all the scene description. It’s minor stuff, spelling “colour” with a “u,” using British inflections and colloquialisms, but I think it’s really important for the writer to set the tone of the script, just like the production designer, DP, and director set the tone of the film.
If a room is dimmed and books are stacked against the wall and there’s sawdust on the floor and the bookshelves are sagging and candles are burning in nooks, that all colors the scene, and I want to know it. There’s definitely such a thing as too much, but I do think scene description should be as literary and cinematic as possible.
Scott: When you finish a first draft, obviously we’ve heard that writing is rewriting, and probably nowhere more relevant than screenwriting. What are some of the keys for you in terms of your rewriting process?
Ben: I think, distance. For me, putting it away for a little bit and going to something else, purging your mind of it, and going back to it with fresh eyes. I always try to get opinions from other people I trust, and it’s important to sort through notes and really have the discipline to act on the ones you know in your gut are right, even if making the changes will be a pain in the ass.
Also, learning to say no to the notes you disagree with. As long as you truly disagree with them and you’re not just making excuses. It’s hard at first to figure out the difference between disagreeing with a note and being resistant to a note. It’s daunting to go in and have to tear apart this thing that you’ve built, and then try to put it back together. Once you accept that there may be a better way to do it, you just have to trust that you’ve got the ability to accomplish it. And you just may surprise yourself and make it better in ways that weren’t obvious at first.
Scott: You described that you like to listen to music. What other aspects would describe your writing process? Do you write every day? Do you work in private, or do you go to coffee shops? How do you write?
Ben: I write every day. I work mostly in private, but I do like coffee shops occasionally. When I first started out, I loved them. I went to tons of coffee shops in New York. But, if the environment isn’t ideal then I’d rather be home.
Scott: What do you love most about writing?
Ben: Everything.
Scott: In 5 to 10 years, what’s the ideal world for Ben? Where do you see yourself?
Ben: Pretty much in the same place, but hopefully with a few more movies. I love doing adaptations. I love writing original specs. I’m curious about directing, but I like working in my pajamas too much I think.
Scott: Finally, I get a lot of email. Frankly, as I was preparing for this, I just went and checked last night, and I’ve got over 100,000 emails from my blog account. But just about every week or so, I’ll get something from a writer with good news. They’ve won a contest, or they landed a manager, sold a pitch or something. It’s nice they take time to drop me a line to let me know about how the blog has been part of their process, but I don’t think I’ve ever had anything quite like our ongoing conversation over a period of two years.
As I was going through it again, Ben, it’s just amazing to me, it’s like literally tracking the major plot points in your evolving screenwriting career! So, my last question for you, after you’ve been through all this that you’ve gone through, this is a question I’m sure you’re going to be asked dozens and dozens of times in your career. What advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about learning a craft and breaking into Hollywood?
Ben: Learning the craft, I would say read all the great resources that are out there now, all the blogs that we’ve talked about, including yours, take advantage of them. They’re really a form of mentorship, a type of film school. Obviously, you can’t walk up to your professor at the end of the class and say thank you, though, so that’s why I wanted to write to you, just to say to you thank you at least, and let you know how much you’ve helped keep me informed and, honestly, motivated.
It’s comforting to know that there are struggles, even for the most successful screenwriters. That it was never an easy path. That’s the kind of thing that gives you a little added fuel to keep writing on a bad day, and keep hoping that maybe one day someone will notice.
Also, watch movies and read scripts, really read a lot of scripts. I don’t do this enough. And, of course, just write as much as humanly possible. Write a ton and give it to people who are better than you for feedback. That’s the only way to learn.
Scott: Well, this has been fantastic. I’ve enjoyed talking with you. You just strike me as a really sharp guy, creative, right in the pocket of where you need to be.
Ben: Thank you so much, Scott. It’s so exciting to talk to you and thank you again, genuinely, thank you so much for the blog. It really means a lot to us all.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Part 5, here.

Ben is repped by Verve.

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