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Q&A with Ben Williams ~ Producer’s Assistant

Posted on: November 4th, 2011 by Leilani No Comments

 

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.

 

 

Leilani Holmes

www.leilaniholmes.co.uk
www.twitter.com/momentsoffilm
www.momentsoffilm.blogspot.com

Festival Faces..

Posted on: October 31st, 2011 by Leilani No Comments

A few of the faces I met at the festival today…

Daniel Martin Eckhart, Crime Screenwriter working for some of Germany’s best TV networks, and producers. One of the speakers at this year’s festival.


Elena Dapelo, Writer and Actor with some production experience.


Richard Messenger, Screenwriter, Producer and Filmmaker.


Judy Kerlander, writer and artist.


Michelle Good, Screenwriter and Script Reader.


And finally, our festival founder, and Creative Director, Chris Jones. Thank you Chris for another great year of the London Screenwriters Festival! I hope you enjoyed it every bit as much as we did!

Leilani Holmes

www.leilaniholmes.co.uk
www.twitter.com/momentsoffilm
www.momentsoffilm.blogspot.com

It’s a Wrap! London Screenwriters Festival 2011

Posted on: October 31st, 2011 by Leilani No Comments

And so, the hundreds of delegates who attended the festival gathered one last time in the main hall to hear Chris Jones wrap up the 2011 London Screenwriters Festival. In it’s second year the festival has been more focussed and built on the feedback from last year to give a very full and varied experience to everyone attending.

It’s clear that there’s a real need for this festival to happen so that screenwriters can have this forum for meeting, discussion and sharing within the industry and a place to make opportunities happen for oneself. Chris Jones assures us that the festival will be back in 2012 so if you didn’t make it this year, then make your plans now to attend next time and put them into place, and maybe bring a friend too. The festival happens because of the people who attend and the people who give their time to making it happen. Everything everyone gets out of the festival is down to those others in the room with us, and on that note it was time to give a roaring applause and standing ovation to the most excellent festival staff and volunteers who gave us so much care and consideration all weekend. Each and every person has worked very hard so that the delegates could get the best out of their time here and always with a friendly smile and a willingness to assist. A big thanks to all of them and to the festival organisers.

Leilani Holmes

www.leilaniholmes.co.uk
www.twitter.com/momentsoffilm
www.momentsoffilm.blogspot.com

Common Pitfalls

Posted on: October 31st, 2011 by Leilani No Comments

Writers, Daniel Martin Eckhart, Paul Andrew Williams, Evan Leighton-Davis, Danny Stack and Steven Russell using their own experience and mistakes as early writers, covered the common pitfalls that new writers can make when marketing themselves, their work and writing their early screenplays.

In fact, the session was more positive than it’s title sounds, with the writers talking at length about the things a writer should and could do to give themselves a positive experience. The session was relaxed and friendly, with questions from the audience and advice ranged from picking your battles and learning to adapt when taking notes and feedback to not sending generic letters or emails, learning not to be difficult and just staying calm and pleasant, understanding that what you wear can be a visual metaphor for how people view you as a writer (a superman t-shirt not being a bad thing in some instances apparently!). Research was highly recommended so that your genre and style of work goes to production companies who actually are looking for that type of thing and so that you don’t earn producers’ disrespect.

Dialogue needs to be good and real (‘not shit’ director Paul Andrew Willams amusingly phrased it) and not written the way you’d be used to hearing it in other movies, but the way the people in your film would naturally say it. Rein in your ego (not reign in your ego as I mistakenly tweeted during the session!) and in person just take it easy, chat and be yourself. Producers are people too, they want to work with people they get along with. As long as you treat people nicely and approach them with respect they won’t care if you persist every so often if your work is good and you’ve made contact in the right way.

A lot was said about public presence too. It’s true that social networking and online presence has become a familiar thing for most of us, and while you can get away without an online presence right now often people will expect you to have one and the general consensus was that this aspect of working will mean that in five years time if you can’t be googled online then you’re nobody. But when in public internet space you have to take care with how you portray yourself. Don’t blow any fuses online. Maintain your online presence well & make a good representation of yourself. Social media is an extremely powerful thing. Don’t burn any bridges that you might want to use later. Danny Stack pointed out that blogging is not going to be for everyone but if you do decide to blog, do it well and make it about what you want to say. And to remember that it’s not an instant thing to benefit from blogging, it can take years for blogging and tweeting to pay off. Daniel Martin Eckhart brilliantly pointed out that there is always downtime from writing so blogging and micro-blogging are a great way to use social media to express things and show you know something about writing and about the world and why not take full advantage of that!

Paul Andrew Williams probably put forward my favourite bit of advice from the session. He said to establish a relationship now and allow it to develop for years before it reaches fruition and becomes truly beneficial, often partnerships forged years ago can lift both individuals up in time, especially if one does well an opportunity arises and they can bring the other into their work and lift them too.

Finally the consensus was not to fixate on luck. Make your own luck. A great and friendly last seminar of the festival and with a fantastic bunch of writers who were charming to listen to.

Leilani Holmes

www.leilaniholmes.co.uk
www.twitter.com/momentsoffilm
www.momentsoffilm.blogspot.com

In Conversation With Ashley Pharaoh

Posted on: October 31st, 2011 by Leilani No Comments

Ashley Pharoah writer, producer and creator of numerous TV series including ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ gave us an in-depth and honest account of his career to date and his current work and new series ‘Eternal Law’.

Training at the NFTS he was at first reluctant to take work in TV, especially soap writing because of the attitude he’d inherited which biased him toward film as being more artistic. Five years with little money however encouraged him to give it a try and not only did he find that it was more than useful to be able to write regularly and see the work performed, strengthening his craft through production, but he had produced credits and a career to prove to his family that he was succeeding in his chosen profession.

From those beginnings and after a number of years on Eastenders, he went on to write for other well known TV Dramas, until he eventually began creating his own shows.

In terms of getting his own creations made he says that he doesn’t do Show Bible’s as he finds them to be difficult documents both to write and to read. And while some writers do still use them he never does. In pitching the ideas he says that you must, in a sentence be able to to put across the concept for a show in a way that puts across the idea that it has endless potential for conflict.

Always bothered by the idea that TV is seen as social realism and that film was viewed as more poetic and he has tried to bring high concept into his TV work as Dennis Potter often did. Television writers have a lot more influence over the shows they produce but he finds film is far less writer-centric and he both dislikes the way writers are treated with the significance of a cleaner in film finding it baffling that film directors and producers would not use his extensive experience to the film’s advantage. TV writing is therefore more fun and given the trend for current cinema more intricate and containing more craft than a lot of movies these days. And a decent living can be made from TV writing, but it’s important not to become complacent or lazy, it takes more than talent to succeed.

Ashleigh finds Genre and structure a help when writing, comparing it to writing writing a sonnet, that the rules of the structure help the writing a great deal. However sometimes you need to let a show die, when it’s run it’s course. He went on to speak about moving on from ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and not really wanting to do those again, he went on to speak about the transfer of ‘Life on Mars’ to the US and that having not contracted the original writers to consult on the series they were free to adapt it into a longer seasoned US show without really having the expertise of the original creators involved to keep it on track, therefore it did less well than in the UK. He’s since formed a writers company with his writing partner, not so much a production company but one that holds the rights to their work, that way if any future work goes to the US he can arrange to be as involved as he wants to be in the development of it.

Speaking of series writers and the people he employs on writing teams Ashley said it’s not all about talent. It’s also a great deal about being able to sit in a room with someone over long periods and be able to like each other and have a laugh. In terms of his writing partnership with Matthew Graham they split up the writing according to their individual strengths, something that works well for series television.

His new series ‘Eternal Law’ is currently in production and despite his proven and excellent track record for drama, he still has his difficulties to get work produced in the way he intends it. TV drama is tough and producers ever concious that if their audience don’t get something that they will just change channels.

Enthralling us with ‘war stories’ of his ‘Life on Mars’ US experience and other writing tribulations and engaging us with his clear love for the job he does, the hour went very fast indeed but it was clear that here was a writer who enjoyed giving the benefit of his vast experience to other writers, something that came across even more clearly in the scriptchat afterwards where we sat around a table in Herringham Hall and spoke more casually with him. He’s a very personable writer who cares deeply about his craft and likes working the way he does, becoming a show creator and producer has not made him a poacher turned gamekeeper but has rather allowed him to work with other writers and pass on the benefit of his own solid experience and is something not every writer has the talent for but that he finds he has a knack for. His love of his work and the writers he gets to work with was perhaps the nicest thing he shared with us and that was very appealing. Eventually we reluctantly let him go but it was so very nice meeting him and I look forward to watching his new work very soon.

Leilani Holmes

www.leilaniholmes.co.uk
www.twitter.com/momentsoffilm
www.momentsoffilm.blogspot.com

Events & Horizons..

Posted on: October 30th, 2011 by Leilani No Comments

As well as the business side of networking at the festival, there’s been social events every day. A great opportunity to relax after the flurry and frenzy of energy surrounding the speed pitching sessions and many of the speakers have come along and mingled with the delegates sharing more of their knowledge and people everywhere are just saying hello, it feels very inclusive and the evening drinks and coffee sessions have spread out all over London until the early hours by all accounts with some firm friendships being forged in the process. There are smiles everywhere and a few tired faces, it’s quite a marathon of a festival but you sure get your money’s worth in terms of things to do.

The speed pitching is going very well by all accounts, some writers having a go just for fun and some finding it terrifying but being proactive with their work. Many writers I’ve spoken to have asked to send in their sceenplays to the producers who’ve heard their pitch. Good luck to all!

Last night we were treated to free drinks from The Welcome Trust, a charitable foundation who work with creatives in order to share their stories with a wider audience. It was wonderful to hear about their work and to also see more opportunities for ours. And the free wine went down a treat, after the second intense day at the festival, everyone was very exhausted and very ready to unwind and yet there were still opportunities being talked over and a lot of excitement in the room. Indeed there are so many people with projects going on at the festival and not all are writers, some are filmmakers, producers and directors too and I’ve been pleased to meet some people interested in having me involved in some of their work either directing or writing for them, whatever comes of it, it’s been an absolute pleasure to see so much happening in the industry. A big thank you to The Welcome Trust for hosting a really pleasant evening.

Leilani Holmes

www.leilaniholmes.co.uk
www.twitter.com/momentsoffilm
www.momentsoffilm.blogspot.com

Festival Faces.. day 2

Posted on: October 29th, 2011 by Leilani No Comments

A few of the faces at the festival today..


Matt Howling is a writer with attitude who’s written for radio as well as film and is a former journalist.


Robert Grant is a fledgeling screenwriter and also part of SCI-FI LONDON Film Festival.


Rav Punj writes TV screenplays and came to pitch an idea for a show.


Emer Gillespie is a novelist and screenwriter.


Andy Wright, screenwriter and founder of Evermore Films has worked in the television and film industry for twenty years.


Emma, Screenwriter and Nathaniel Lloyd Actor & Screenwriter both networking in the refectory.

Leilani Holmes

www.leilaniholmes.co.uk
www.twitter.com/momentsoffilm
www.momentsoffilm.blogspot.com

Connecting With the Audience: What the Numbers Mean.

Posted on: October 29th, 2011 by Leilani No Comments

Comprised of analyst and journalist, Charles Gant, British Producer Stephen Follows and film distributor David Wilkinson this seminar dealt with box office figures and why screenwriters should pay attention to them.

Speaking about British film in particular, theatrical release is a tricky business. Most films want it and most distributors will try to place it but this is perhaps something that is not serving the industry as very few films make profit from theatrical screenings. When it comes to smaller films, there is the problem of there being just too many produced. Theatrical distribution windows are tight, often they compete against both mainstream films and other independents and as people don’t really go to see four films a week so if you are competing for theatrical box office you have to be compelling. Nice films alone are not enough and if a film lacks clear focus it’s harder to find a market. Strait drama for instance doesn’t work in theatrical. It’s done very well on TV so there’s no market for it in cinemas when people can get it at home for free, and broadcasters make films now so sales to TV are only a fraction as profitable as they used to be ten years ago.

All of this sounds quite depressing and it’s true that there are problems facing the industry. Paying attention to the box office though can help a writer see what audience want and what motivates them to theatrical screenings of film, plus identifying the trends and companies making the films that succeed.

It occurred to me walking away from the session that if I was in the business of marketing my work to other directors and sold screenplays that ended up as flops, then my my future as a screenwriter would probably begin to dry up and if I could market my work to the right people and my first few scripts produced did well then I’d be more likely to have a long and sustainable career. I’ll be subscribing to Charles Gant’s Box Office Analysis forthwith!

Leilani Holmes

www.leilaniholmes.co.uk
www.twitter.com/momentsoffilm
www.momentsoffilm.blogspot.com

A Network of Screenwriters

Posted on: October 29th, 2011 by Leilani No Comments

Regent’s Park is in it’s Autumnal glory at this time of year, and the beautiful buildings of Regents College are charmingly bathed in sun creating a relaxed atmosphere for the middle day of the London Screenwriters Festival. A perfect and calm setting for networking, which is what I largely chose to do with my morning.

Elsewhere in the comfortable conference rooms the serious business of screenwriting is being addressed. These are skills that writers need to be able to practice their craft and profit from it. Charles Harris once again is began his day with The Hour of Power to help writers get the best out of their festival, motivate and getting the mental game into the right space for effectively focussing on goals. Meanwhile other sessions included advice and information about agents, technique to get into what you bring to your work and characters to release the power of your writing, and the business end of how your screenplay translates both in terms of the cinematic language and in the edit room.

There are networking breaks dotted throughout the festival schedule and a fairly long lunch to allow time for meeting the other festival delegates. Yesterday was a very friendly day and today has been for me, more about the nature of our industry, and the legacy of the festival is the people who become part of your life after it finishes. Now is the time to meet those people. I know from my experience as an actor that future work comes often through being ready to take the opportunities that cross your path, and that those opportunities cross your path through the people you get to know and like. This was re-iterated time and again during the talks I listened to in yesterday’s sessions with every speaker mentioning one or more opportunities that had come to them through people they knew or friends of people they knew. Networking, after all isn’t all about swapping business cards it’s about getting to know people in your field of interest and maintaining those relationships so spending time really connecting with other writers now is time well spent.

It’s a glorious day for new beginnings so let’s see if I make some new friends today, and/or solidify the bonds I’ve created with the people I already knew who are here at the festival with me. Having had four short screenplays picked up by other directors (two already made) since last year’s festival I know that if I keep meeting people and learning from them, good things are ahead.

Leilani Holmes

www.leilaniholmes.co.uk
www.twitter.com/momentsoffilm
www.momentsoffilm.blogspot.com

Festival Faces

Posted on: October 29th, 2011 by Leilani No Comments

Just a few of the faces I met around the festival today..

Screnwriter and filmmaker Allison Parker is a deputy moderator of #scriptchat on twitter. She’s currently crowdfunding funds for her comedy short film ‘With a Little Help from our Friends’ on Indiegogo.

 

Met over lunch Russell Heyworth lives in the north, makes short films and has various scripts he’d like to improve and make.

Guido Lippe is a script editor of some nine years, writer and creative who lives in London, and is at the festival to network, learn and find fun.

 


Ben Williams is a Producer’s Assistant and also screenwrites and directs films.

 

Neal Romanek is a working screenwriter and my fellow festival blogger and tweeter.

 

Teenie Russell is a screenwriter of mainly comedy screenplays working on multiple projects, and is looking forward to the networking sessions.

 

From De Montfort University Tommy Haymes came on the recommendation of his university with some other graduates and students from his course.