'Write every day' The X-Files screenwriter Benjamin Van Allen shares his industry journey so far
Benjamin Van Allen is a screenwriter who started his industry journey as a production assistant and rose up the ranks of TV and moviemaking until he was offered to write an episode of iconic Sci-Fi, Mystery show The X-Files. Benjamin's episode 'Familiar' airs on March 7 and Mandy News had the pleasure of chatting to him about his journey from Tennessee to television.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the industry?
I grew up in Tennessee far away from the film industry. But I was always obsessed with movies. Going to the theatre was like a religious experience for me. I remember watching hours and hours of behind the scenes footage from every DVD I could find. Even though it seemed like an impossibility, I remember telling myself that I would someday get on a film set. I had to make it happen.
I ended up going to a small film school at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. It was during my experience there that I fell in love with screenwriting. Being able to work alone at a computer creating an entire world full of imaginary characters was intoxicating to me.
After I graduated, I knew if I wanted to work on movies, real movies, I had to move to LA. Especially if I wanted to write. So I packed up everything I owned into my tiny car with less than $1000 to my name and drove out to California. I knew one person working in LA who was a coordinator for a company that produced magazine photo shoots. It wasn't exactly "the movies," but it was work and I desperately needed money.
My friend was able to get me a non-paid, two-day job as a production assistant on a photoshoot my first weekend in LA. And I worked my ass off. I wanted to prove to everyone on set that, if given a chance, I would work harder than anyone else they could hire. The producer on that shoot noticed my work ethic and started booking me on paid gigs a week later.
But getting freelance production work in LA is hard. You have to work harder finding work than you do working. You have to build your network like a snowball until you know enough people who will regularly call you for jobs. I slept on my cousin's couch who lived an hour away from LA and drove down for paid gigs until I had enough regular work to find an apartment in LA (where I then slept on a futon mattress on the floor for a year with roommates I found on Craigslist).
It was hard. But I made it to Los Angeles.
How did you get involved with The X-Files?
For three years I worked every production assistant job I could find. Set PA, Office PA, Art PA, Props PA, Editorial PA. I worked on photo shoots, commercials, music videos, movies and television shows. I even had a stint as a segment producer on a daytime talk show that lasted a year.
But I felt like I had lost my way. I had strayed too far from what I wanted to do, which was work in narrative film and television. The worst part, I had stopped writing in my off time. I was miserable. So I quit the daytime talk show. Even though I knew I would have to live off a credit card until I found work. Even though I knew I would have to go back to being a lowly production assistant fetching coffees. Something had to change.
I ended up taking the first PA job offered to me after I quit. It was for a Chris Carter pilot called "The After" for Amazon. That's where I met Chris and Gabe Rotter, a producer at Chris's company Ten Thirteen, Inc. After that pilot wrapped, I stayed in touch and let them know I was looking for work. They hired me as their full-time office assistant a month later. A year after that, we brought The X-Files back for a six-episode run on FOX.
You have had positions as 'Assistant Writer' and 'Staff Writer' alongside your position as 'Writer' on the show, could you explain the different roles, approaches to each role and how you have progressed through these?
On a traditional show, I guess the progression would be Writers' PA > Writers' Assistant > Staff Writer. However, The X-Files wasn't run in the traditional method. That is to say; we didn't really have a writers' room. Each individual writer took their own episode and developed it independently from the group. Whereas, in a traditional writers room, every episode would be developed, or "broken," by all the writers in the room and then assigned to a writer to write.
Because we weren't a traditional room, it's hard for me to comment on all the specific responsibilities. But if I were to guess, a writer's PA would be responsible for making sure the writers' room was neat and organised, making coffee, getting lunch orders, among a host of other menial tasks. A traditional writers' assistant's primary task would be taking detailed notes of everything said over the course of the day in the writer's room. Some lucky writers' assistants are also handed a freelance episode to write. My experience as a writers' assistant was kind of hybrid of all these tasks combined.
A staff writer is a full-on writer on the show. You are in the WGA (Writer's Guild of America). You get paid on a WGA contract. It is the lowest level writing position in the room. Traditionally, you would sit in the writers' room and break story all day with the other writers, and then hopefully be given an episode to write sometime in the season. From there you move on to titles such as story editor, co-producer, producer, etc. These are all titles for the more senior writers in the room who also have producing responsibilities.
When you actually write an episode of television is when you would get the credit "writer" on that specific episode.
What is the process for writing an episode of The-X Files?
On the latest season of The X-Files, all the writers met once or twice early on to discuss ideas and talk in a broad sense about what kind of topics would be interesting to explore during the season, what the myth-arc would be, etc.
Because the X-Files isn't a fully-serialised show, there was less talk about an over-arching story. Instead, each writer would pitch ideas for their individual episodes. Then the writer would go "board" their episode, which is a process of outlining that involves a corkboard and 3" x 5" index cards.
Each "beat" of the episode is written out on a card with a black sharpie. You build the episode "brick by brick." Then the writer comes back to the "room", pitches their board and get notes. After approval from the network, the writer would write their episode.
What's coming up next for you in 2018 and beyond?
During the time of this interview, my episode is still in post-production. So I haven't had a lot of time to think about the future. I don't have an agent or manager, so I need to find one of those. I have some spec-scripts in mind I'd like to write. And hopefully, someone will hire me to write on another show.
Do you have any advice or tips for up-and-coming Writers?
Write. Write. Write. Someone once told me the biggest mistake new writers make is that they DON'T WRITE. You have a lot of sh***y scripts in you. Get them out now. Write every day. Treat it like a job. If you don't, it won't ever be one.