Ben Williams is Producer’s Assistant to a leading UK Producer as well as screenwriting and directing his own films, most recently a beautiful tale of fandom and friendship in his short film “The Fan”.
It struck me chatting to him over a cuppa at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, what an important link between Producers and screenwriters (not to mention everyone else on a film) that a Producer’s Assistant is, and yet how little we really pay attention to the people who do this work and what the job itself is. So I asked Ben to answer a few questions for us to tell us a little about his work and he was kind enough to share a few thoughts.
Can you tell us a little bit about your work as a Producer’s Assistant and the sort of things it entails on a day to day basis.
Day to day, my job entails a multitude of tasks, from the complicated to the basic. We’re a small company, so I take on most things, from emptying the bins to preparing important legal documents. For the most part, it’s all office-based, administrative tasks – hardly the glamorous things I think some friends imagine. Film companies spend 99% of their time trying to get projects off the ground, and I’m around to help with all the necessary steps that make that happen.
Does your work change drastically when you are in production?
Yes. It’s sort of the difference between war and peacetime! The core roles as assistant remain the same, but the context changes, and you take on more tasks for other people. On our latest production we were based mostly on location, sometimes in very remote and difficult places. I kept on assistant-ing as normal, but I’d also be helping out elsewhere on the production. There’s no set formula to it, but I found myself meeting actors at the airport, scouting locations for wrap parties, arranging translations of dialogue, keeping in touch with historical advisors, preparing casting materials for the director, keeping abreast of changes to the script and writing change logs for the crew – and lots of other things. Generally, someone was always looking for help, and I was able to offer myself on quite a few occasions. I do regret trying to run a mini-fireworks display on my own, however. And once asking whether any of the camera crew wanted a cup of tea. But you live and learn.
What’s the most fun thing about your job?
There are loads. I’ve worked away from home for four months, living in hotels and meeting the most amazing people. On other occasions, I’ve met Oscar winners and world famous actors in the flesh. On a completely different level, I’ve been made responsible for the running of an office, which I really enjoy. The constant, day-to-day nature of it is enjoyable, too. Some days not much goes on, and in a way I enjoy that too.
What is the least fun?
Petty cash receipts.
How do you deal with contact from those attempting to make unsolicited contact or pitch ideas?
It’s unfortunate, but we really can’t read unsolicited ideas – most film companies can’t. From the outside looking in, this might seem a bit harsh, but it’s for good reason. If someone submits an idea to us that’s similar to one that we’ve been working on, and we read it, we leave ourselves open to lawsuits if that film goes on to be a success. Traditionally we would return paper scripts unread, but in the world of email that’s harder to do – especially as some people presumptuously attach the script anyway! – but the same rule applies. In all communications, though, we are always polite and considerate, and I hope helpful.
You also write and direct in your spare time, is there one thing you’ve learned from working with your boss that you will always take into your own work?
Definitely an eye for detail. Interrogating the minutiae of every part of your project might be tiring, and often rubs some people up the wrong way, but it always pays off. Questioning one arrangement may lead you to discover an even deeper misunderstanding, for example, that could go on to harm your project and cost you money. As long as you stress that you’re not out to get or undermine someone, it’s a very useful habit to get into.
What do you think are the most important things to nail when writing a screenplay?
I’m hardly an authority! Generally, it’s pleasing yourself. I have a minuscule attention span, so if I can read and re-read the same thing a hundred times and still find it entertaining, there’s a very good chance that others will too.
The best scripts I’ve ever read end up being sort of invisible. It’s weird, but in these cases the subject matter is so strong that your imagination gets fired up and you lose yourself. It’s like being trapped in an exciting fog.
If there is one piece of advice you could give screenwriters about working with producers, what would it be?
Let them in, and listen to them. At the point of delivery, you might baulk at their advice, or it might sound ridiculous or totally misguided. But if you take it onboard, and perhaps even draw out the meaning (because, let’s face it, no one really nails what they mean in the first sentence), you’ll find the process incredibly rewarding and your script will so much stronger as a result. Remember: good producers are always on your side. Feedback can feel combative, especially if done verbally, but that’s just how it is. Bad writers will raise their defences and ignore everything. The good ones listen, and take note. This takes guts, and thick skin, but there will always be something useful for you at the end of it.
Cheers Ben, for taking time out to speak to us. Ben’s latest short film “The Fan” can be viewed online.