Interview & Q&A: Screenwriter & Playwright Benjamin Elterman

So this might be cliché as all hell, but I met Ben in a coffee shop nearby some film studios. (Two clichés for the price of one? Yes, please!) I was hanging out with another writer friend talking scripts and he happened to chime in. We got to talking and, after a while, we ended up working together on a project I knew I needed his voice for, Things Left Unsaid. Now one of my favorite writing friends to waste air with, Ben’s making a name for himself on-screen and on-stage. I, personally, can’t wait to see where he goes because I know exactly what kind of writer he is and because he’s probably the only other writer I know that’s as neurotic about his coffee and writing as I am… thus the interview.

— A.W.

BenSmall

Meet Benjamin Elterman

Benjamin Elterman has done production work on such shows as Robot Chicken, Boardwalk Empire, Behind the Candelabra, Bunheads, and others. His play Same River Twice won a spot in Hudson Warehouse’s WAGG play reading series in New York and will be staged for a full production this November.  He has collaborated on such projects as Things Left Unsaid episode 2,  his pilot The Hollow Men, and several others currently in development. He also maintains his own blog at www.mackjackandjill.com.

When did you first tell a story?

Uhhh… mmmm… first??? Who knows? I did acting as early as 5th grade. But I assume you mean my own stories. In my senior year of college, I did a one person show class. You had to write, act, and direct your own stories. One a week, but most of them were about 7 minutes long.

What was it about?

The first one was about a nerdy guy who overhears two girls not understanding the movie Fight Club then he yells at them.

Did you ever make up imaginary friends or beings for the sake of boredom or general mischievousness?

I don’t think I made up anyone. But for some reason I used to play with an imaginary Macaulay Culkin a lot.

Who influenced you the most as a writer?

I had an acting coach by the name of Charles Waxburg in Seattle. When I made the switch from acting to writing, he became my writing coach. He taught me structure and how to write interesting dialogue.

Favorite book or screenplay, ever. Yes, I am limiting you to one.

I was always a big fan of Flower for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It fascinates me when characters grow and change their points of view. Also the only thing that I think is worse than death is brain damage. Flowers for Algernon has both.

Easiest part of writing for you would be….?

I really do love writing dialogue.

What is your most dreaded, please-don’t-make-me part of writing?

If I have to dramatize actual events, but the details of the events are unclear. Basically you’re stuck reinventing history. But the history still has to fit into an expectation.

If you could have dinner (and dessert) with any fictional character who would it be and why?

Special Agent Dale Cooper. I was a huge fan of Twin Peaks and he is an utterly fascinating character. Generally speaking main characters have to have some sort of edge to them or they run the risk of being bland. Not Dale Cooper.

Any sage advice you can pass on to fellow writers that you wish someone had told you sooner?

I developed a motto “Just give yourself permission to write it shitty.” It’s better to write something terribly and have pages to fix than to stare at a blank page for half a day.

Do you have any weird or necessary writing habits or rituals? How do you write?

Within a day, I can’t be limited. I can’t say “I’m going to write for an hour. Then go to work/meeting/gym/strip club.” I have to have a large chunk of time. Now granted I may get less than an hour’s writing done, but I have to have a good chunk for the ideas to simmer.

What is the color of your editing pen? Yes, I’m serious.

What’s a pen?

Of the senses (all six), what is your favorite sense to write?

Generally, I write scripts so you don’t get to do that much. But my blog is narrative. And more so than a sense, I’d say there is a head space I am particularly fascinated with. It the moment when you know something bad has happened but you refuse for a couple of seconds acknowledge it. Imagine you’re at a fancy dinner and you’re wearing an expensive suit/dress. All of a sudden a waiter carrying a tray of gelato trips and spills it all over you. You know what just happened, but you stew in the denial for a few seconds until you accept reality.

Do you believe in Writer’s Block? If so, how do you break through it?

Absolutely. Generally dead lines are a good cure for it. Also the “write it shitty” above. But a teacher once told me if you are really stuck, that often means something is probably really wrong in the pages you’ve written just before. So, I’ll go back and find I’ve made a choice that doesn’t work as well as it could.

There’s all the hoopla over being a Pantser or a Plotter – which team are you a part of or are you somewhere in between?

Early on, I never did outlines. I really enjoyed diving in. But as I’ve worked more in TV scripts and with writing partners, it’s been really helpful to have a structure outlined. There are projects I’ve gotten so stuck on and I go back to my outline and see that the very moment I’m stuck on is the part of the outline where I gave up and started the draft.

About Benjamin’s Work

Tell me about your upcoming work.

What's the hold up reverseWell, I’ve got a few projects I’m working on. So I’ll talk about my indie film “What’s the Hold Up?” It’s a short I wrote a few years ago and finally decided to produce it myself.

Also, I’m working on getting funding for “What’s the Hold Up?”. We’ve launched an IndieGoGo page and are more than half way there, but time’s running short. Less than two weeks left. So if you wanna help bring it to life with us, we’d love your support.

(AW: I have the privilege of knowing a few on the creative team for WTHU and I can tell you… this is going to be great.)

>> Support “What’s the Hold Up?” & Indie Film <<

What makes your work different from all the rest? What genre would you put it in?

It takes a look at a robbery done as a con, but on top of the action we have another layer of the con man explaining the ins and outs of robbing people. So genre? How to? (actually drama).

Who was your favorite character to create?

The con man is a guy named Michael and he was a lot of fun to write. We get to see him in the robbery, charm his unsuspecting mark Victor. Michael the guy who can cross social boundaries but still make you feel comfortable while he’s invading your personal space. But then when he’s instructing Chip (his new apprentice) you see a completely different side of him.

What was the hardest part about writing this project?

Originally, the short was written as a play and I didn’t have the layer with Chip. It was start to finish of a robbery. So from a dialogue standpoint I was very proud of it. But when I decided to make it a film, I looked at the script and thought, “this would be the most boring thing to shoot ever.” I had to find a way to make it visually more interesting. Which is why I added the new layer. And I’m really glad I did because I got a whole new dimension of Michael’s character.

What was the easiest part about writing this project?

I love writing Michael. Just the wonkiest thing would come out of his mouth and it would almost always fit. It’s great when you can let your mind go with a character.

Have you always loved and written in this genre or was another your first love?

My ideas tend to either be dark sci-fi or comedy. I’m way across the map on those two. But with “What’s the Hold Up?” I get to have my cake and eat it, too. Funny dialogue but the story goes really dark. (Though not sci-fi horror dark).

Do you have any genre-specific tips?

This originally came from a writing exercise. Which was to take a moment of your life, dramatize it, then make it more universal. It worked well here.

Do you have any other projects that you’re working on?

Same River TwiceOh, yes. For one thing a play I wrote a while back called Same River Twice is getting its first staging in New York November 6th through 16th. I’m not currently working on it, but I figured this would be as good a place and any to plug it.

If you’re in NY, check out this event details page for more info.

I’m also working on two screenplays and a pilot (all are collaborative works, thank God.)

 

 

Find Benjamin

Twitter: @Elterfleckable

Blog: http://mackjackandjill.com

What’s the Hold Up?” Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WhatsTheHoldUpFilm

What’s the Hold Up?” on IndieGoGO: http://igg.me/at/WTHU/x/8437612

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