Sunday, 15 January 2012

Interview with Xander Bennett

Xander Bennett is an Australian screenwriter who divides his time between Sydney and Los Angeles, where he once worked as a Hollywood script reader. He first became famous as the author of the Screenwriting Tips... You Hack blog, and a book of the same name.
    I stumbled across the blog a year or so ago and found his advice sharp, funny, helpful and absolutely to the point. I imagined him to be a stern bear of a man, with a mop of unruly hair and a severe, professorial manner. Then I discovered he was under thirty, meaning even I could trust him. I wanted to learn more about how such a young man could have done all he has, and still have time to develop wisdom, so I asked him some questions.


* You were born in Perth, Western Australia, on 16 February 1984. What were you like growing up?  (Were you a nerd? Did you play football? Were you a gang leader? When were you first arrested?)

You'll have to speak to my lawyer about that last one. I have four (lawyers): my father, mother, brother and sister-in-law. 
  Yep, I grew up in a family of lawyers. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems quite inevitable that I'd grow up geeky and literate. We were surrounded by books from a young age. I vividly remember books on mythology, some early Batman and Silver Surfer comics, all the big sci-fi authors (Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury), and especially Terry Jones' book Erik the Viking, which for some reason scared the crap out of me.
  I was not a sporty child except when it came to swimming, which I excelled at. I was picked last for every team except water polo.
  Summer was my time to shine; in every other season, I just went back to avoiding sports in favour of geeky activites: LAN parties, D&D, etc. 

* What kind of a family did you grow up with?  

I grew up with a small but supportive family. I have two younger brothers. We couldn't possibly be more different from each other, but we still get along very well.
  My parents wanted the best for us, and my dad had (and still has) a love of gadgets. Those two factors led to us becoming early adopters for game consoles, home computers, the internet, etc. We even had a massive home video collection at a time when that meant closets full of bulky VHS tapes. 
  My parents never pushed us one way or the other; they always told us to follow our dreams and become whatever the hell we wanted to be. You can't ask for much more. 

You started writing early. You won the West Australian Young Writer of the Year award in 1999, when you were just 15.  How did that come about?  
My mother encouraged me to write short stories. I'm sure they were absolutely terrible, but she made a big deal out of them. I'd print them out and she'd read them quietly and reverentlymaybe make a few polite suggestions here and therethen tell me how good they were before filing them away in her document folder.
  Thanks to her, I developed an artificially inflated sense of my own skill. I heard about a short story competition which our city's newspaper was running and thought, "Pfft, I can do this". My entry was something grandiose about God and Death playing a game of chess, except the chess game was actually World War II. I even threw Hitler in there! 
  Anyway, I won, and I got to go to an awards ceremony and listen to my entire story being read out in front of a hundred people. They gave me a little trophy. I think that was it: my inciting incident. People had publicly announced that I was a writer. I had independent verification. I've been trying to live up to it ever since.

* How old were you when you first left Perth?  

I was right on the tail-end of 18 when I first left Perth. It was a big decision, but I wanted to go to film school and there weren't really any film schools in Perth at that time.
  (For your international readers, let me explain: leaving Perth is a little like leaving your village in Siberia. Perth is the most isolated state capital in the world. It's a five hour flight to pretty much anywhere else on the continent. Kind of a weird place to grow up.)
  At the time, I figured I'd live over east for a few years before moving back home. Nine years later, I still haven't moved back.

* You won the 2010 Queensland New Filmmakers Award for Most Original Script. Tell us a little about that screenplay. What happened with it?

That was a weird one. Myself and a group of my closest friends were sitting around one evening in December, and we realised: hey, we're all film school graduates, we're all pretty talented, but we've never actually made a film together. Surely we can bang out a script, gather some more friends, call in some favours and get a short film made? We even know a great production designer with a garage full of props. The sky's the limit!
  Obviously, it was a lot harder than that.
  To start with, I wrote a weird little script. It was a mock 1950s educational film from an alternate reality in which aliens have enslaved humanity. I'd read about how the early atomic scientists were afraid that nuclear fission might, y'know, rip a hole in the fabric of spacetime. Our premise was that it did, and aliens came through and kicked our asses. The film was narrated by a creepy scientist called "Doctor Sitwell", and it consisted of him explaining how we could best serve our alien masters.
  I was not subtle with my allegory in those days.
  It was a hard script to film on a low budget, but we made a valiant attempt. There were problems and hang-ups, as there are on any film set, but we got it done.
  My friend then spent three years editing it. I couldn't tell you exactly why. Suffice it to say that she does things in her own time, and hey, the end result won awards!

* You have lived in Perth, on the Gold Coast, in Saigon, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and in Sydney. Which is your favourite place and why

My favourite place would have to be Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, if you have no romance in your soul). Why? Because you could take a photograph of a random street in any of those other cities, and I'd be hard pressed to tell you where they came from.
  But Saigon's different. All of Saigon looks like Saigon. It's another world, completely unlike anything I'd ever seen, and it blew me away the first time I laid eyes on it. I'm not sure that it's a perfect place to live and writeI find it quite draining, mentally and physicallybut it might be a nice place to retire.

* You have written film and television screenplays, videogames, role-playing games, comics, a graphic novel and a screenwriting advice book. Which is your favourite form of writing, and why?

I suppose it must be screenwriting, because that's the one I think about every single day. I go through phases of loving comics and games, but film and television is a constant presence in my life. And when I come up with a new idea, I tend to mentally frame it in terms of either a feature or a TV pilot.
  That said, I'd love to try comics writing again. Comics are a bit magic. There's a weird alchemy to them that I haven't quite figured out yet. And nothing in the world compares to the feeling of getting a finished page of art back from an artist. That's pure, almost instant gratification. Writers can, and do, get addicted to it. 

* What sort of role-playing games did you write, and what was that experience like?

The Song of Roland
If you know about role-playing games, you might remember that they had a surge of popularity in the mid-2000s due to the rise of digital publishing and the release of a universal system called 'D20'. It was the biggest thing to happen to RPGs since Dateline declared D&D a satanic cult. And it gave many geeky young writersme includedtheir first shot at freelance fiction.
  I worked for several companies, including The Le Games, Dogsoul Publishing and Highmoon Media. One book was about pirates. Another was about the Tuatha deDanann, the Irish hill faeries. I also wrote an enormous adaptation of the Medieval French epic The Song of Roland. I think about three people read that one. Overall, the experience of writing for RPGs was educational, if not exactly lucrative.

* Your first job as a writer was on the Australian animated children's show FARMkids in 2005.  What do you remember most about that experience?

I remember the exec producer was an incredibly loud man who spent most of our meetings talking about himself. In the Australian vernacular, he was "a character". I was worried he'd turn out to be a control freak and I'd be stuck doing drafts forever, but it wasn't so badonly one or two rounds of notes.
  Mostly I remember the thrill of getting paid to write a script which I knew was going to get turned into a real, live episode of television. That's exciting!

* Your most recent feature film work was developing The Colour of Fear for a Melbourne-based producer. What is happening with that project?

That project is the brainchild of actor/producer James Vegter. It's an Australian thriller set in India, for the Australian and Indian markets. James brought me on board to revamp the story and write a lengthy outline, with an eye to eventually write the script. They're still in the pre-production and funding stage, but James is an incredibly persistent guy. If anyone can get the project off the ground, it's him.

* You’re famous for your blog, but you’ve also written a book with almost the same title: Screenwriting Tips, You Hack: 150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter.  The book surprised me a little. I wasn’t expecting much more than a selection of Tips from your blog, perhaps with a comprehensive index. Instead it is a screenwriting manual; written from a coaching perspective, rather than the usual dry, by-the-numbers reworking of Syd Field. Now that it’s out there, are you happy with the book?  

I'm very happy with the book, and I'm glad it surprised you. I wanted it to be much more than just a collection of tips. I guess I had a lot to say about screenwriting, and the book was the perfect outlet for that.
  Some amazing things have come from the book being published. One of them was hearing that the great Will Akers had added my book as a course requirement for his screenwriting class. And several readers have emailed me to say how much they enjoyed the book. One reader even said she'd make sure to credit me in her first film! It's comments like that which make you feel like the whole thing was worthwhile.

* Who was the screenwriting teacher who had the biggest influence on you?

The aforementioned Will Akers, definitely. I didn't like my screenwriting teacher at university, and I had never gotten much out of McKee, Vogler or Field. But Will's book Your Screenplay Sucks! made a big impression on me. I thought, wow, here's a guy who's not sugar-coating it. He's not pretending that it's going to be easy, or glossing over the grimy mechanical parts of the process. 

* If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book (not your own) to a newbie writer back in Adelaide, which one would it be?

A toss-up between Will Akers' Your Screenplay Sucks and Blake Snyder's Save The Cat!. In fact, I'd cheat and tell you to get both. One focuses more on the first draft, the other more on rewriting. 

* Is it true you play ukulele in a strip club to unwind?  

That's not true, although now I kinda wish it was. Mostly, I unwind by watching TV. Which is a bit sad, considering I already think about it all day. In my defence I watch a lot of half-hour comedies, a genre which I don't write.
  I'm also partial to a bit of Rock Band on Xbox (Expert guitar and vocals!), and I'm addicted to buying games on Steam for my PC. I try to read as much as I can -- comics, histories, scripts, novels, whatever. I also recently discovered Scotch whisky (trust me, it's an entire hobby in itself).

* As a final question, tell us something about living in L.A., and rubbing shoulders with celebs.  Any famous encounters, conquests

Hmm. This is a hard one. I'm rubbish at celebrity sightings. Even when my friends point them out, by the time I turn to look they're invariably gone.
  Let's see... I saw Gary Busey at a party once. Um. I met Scorcese's agent? Nope, that's crap...
  Wait, I know: I once walked past Susan Sarandon on a plane and gallantly refrained from singing Rocky Horror songs to her. Does that count?

It will have to do. Thank you, Xander Bennett.


Anne Flournoy said...

What a great interview! Thoroughly enjoyable. Amazing person this Xander Bennett. Thank you.

Kathy said...

Wow, it's great to find out more about the person behind the book. Usually it's disappointing but not this time.