This is the part of the series I’ll call breaking in.
Ben is a writer’s writer. After making a comfortable living in corporate communications for Bank of America, he realized his passion for scripted television and soon left Wall Street to pursue his dream in Los Angeles. There, he participated in the ABC Production Associates Program, the Cosby Screenwriting Fellowship, and also became a finalist for writing programs at NBC, CBS, Warner Bros, and a host of others. He has worked as a development assistant, script coordinator and writer’s assistant on series including The Deep End, Fairly Legal, and most recently ABC’s Castle. And after several years of hustle, he’s managed to secure both a manager and an agent, and is making his foray into short films, web series, and features.
As often as we discuss the need for more black faces in front of and behind the camera, sometimes there isn’t enough emphasis or exploration into just how much time, effort, and assistance is needed to reach that goal. Ben, to me, is reflective of that struggle. We sat down to chat about his journey as a young writer working to rise up the ranks.
S&A: Tell me about how you made the transition from the corporate world to entertainment.
BCJ: It got to the point where I was putting in 80, 90 hours a week working on Wall Street, and I realized, if I’m going to put this much time and energy into a career, I should find out what my passion is. And I was flipping through the course catalog at NYU and saw TV writing. It was around 2005 when Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives were catching on. It was a good time for television. So I started to take this writing course and it became the highlight of my week, and I realized, people actually do this for a living. They transform their passions for storytelling into a real career, and I didn’t know that existed before. I’m from Memphis. Nobody I knew worked in entertainment. We all worked at FedEx. That’s just what we did. So to be in New York and go to NYU and to study TV writing – I just caught the bug and I got hooked.
What moved me to LA was the Production Associates Program. It basically became like graduate school. We were floater assistants, but on any given day I could walk into ABC and they would tell me, you have to cover this production executive’s desk. It was like an education, because before I moved here, I didn’t know what a studio or a network was, I didn’t know the difference between a current exec and a development exec, but that’s what you absolutely have to educate yourself on if you want to be in this business. You have to know the players and the companies and how it all works.
S&A: And when you got your first job in television, what was that like for you? What were some things you picked up along the way?
BCJ: When I got hired as a script coordinator it was a huge learning curve, because literally once a writer is finished with a script, the first person to see it is the script coordinator, whose job it is to catch any typos, fix any grammar, so it’s ready to be published widely. You really have to surrender your life and you can’t necessarily have any qualms about it, because if a writer finishes a script at two in the morning, and it has to go out that day for production, you just have to get it done.
I remember one time it was my birthday and my friends threw me a surprise party. But I knew that if I left my house I had to have my laptop with me just in case. You don’t always get a heads up that a script is coming out. Sometimes a network note will come in late or when you don’t expect it. But it was my birthday party and I had to excuse myself for a while to get a script out. I didn’t mind it because I was dedicated. I’m in this for the long haul, for as long as I can, to be valuable to any show that I work on.
S&A: It’s a peculiar question, but people always want to know – How do you get an agent? And especially, how do you get an agent without having a produced credit?
BCJ: It’s different for everybody. For me, it was an interesting story. One of the writers on Castle called down to the office and asked for someone to go meet her agent at the security gate, and bring her to the stage. I said sure. That’s the thing about being there and doing whatever the writers need. Sometimes it’s as simple as going to get coffee or going to the security gate, but just being that person that they can call to help them out. So I walked to the gate and saw this guy in a suit, who was a colleague of the agent I was going to meet. And we were just standing there waiting on his cohort to park, and we started talking – I told him my story, how I got to LA, the different shows that I’ve worked on, my perspective on writing. Little did I know he was also an agent, and after we had maybe a 15-minute conversation he said, send me your material.
And it was very much out of happenstance. But when he told me to send him material, I had two solid scripts – a pilot and a spec – that I’d been working on for a good amount of time. These scripts have gotten me into the finals of writing programs. They’ve been vetted by writers. So when the time came, I had material to send him. And he read the scripts and a couple weeks later called me into the office, and we’ve been working together ever since.
Really, the way you get an agent, the way you get a job, the way you get anything is by expanding your network. I tell people the moment you set foot in LA your job should be to have coffee, lunch, dinner, or drinks with somebody new, every day if you can. Because this is an apprenticeship business. You have to find mentors. There are writers like Charles Murray, Ayanna Floyd, Janine Sherman-Barrois and Randy Huggins who’ve all taken the time to sit down with me and explain what the process is like, and I feel like I should spread the word and tell other people. The only way you learn about agencies and managers and jobs on shows is by the network that you have.
S&A: So at this point, you've had some work produced. Tell me about your web series, The One Percent.
BCJ: Three young ladies that I met at a brunch – Marcie Scott, Vanessa Giordano, and Daffany Clark – we started to vibe on what it’s like to break into the business. As we started sharing stories, they told me that literally only one percent of all people trying to become actors in this town would actually “make it,” and become those names that you hear about constantly. That’s what they’re up against. So we created a web series that follows three actresses as they’re trying to become the one percent. We wrote and shot ten episodes, and it’s up on YouTube right now. The director was Choice Skinner.
The writing was probably the longest part, maybe six months, because we wanted it to reflect true and real life stories. So I would literally sit down with the actors and say tell me your horror story. Tell me what is it like to go on an audition, what is it like to not be SAG and try to get an audition, and how even if you get to an audition early, the SAG actors are going to be seen, but you may not get seen even though you’ve waited all day. So it was just about telling their stories, and doing it in an interesting way.
S&A: It seems that web series are becoming more and more popular, to the point that there are now festivals and funding programs specifically for web content. But there are still challenges with how to turn a profit. What do you think about the direction web series are heading in?
BCJ: Of course the industry is still trying to figure out how to monetize web shows. And there have been a few shows that have started out as web series that have made it to air, but sometimes it’s not necessarily about, can I get my web show on the air, but just,how can I get my voice out there? I think the web is the new frontier, especially for someone just starting their career out. People will always tell you, I’m a struggling writer trying to get my career going. What can I do? There are plenty of things – write a web series. Get some friends together and try to produce it. Write a short film and shoot it on a weekend for a few hundred dollars. There are a lot of things at our disposal. A lot of what I hear is that we don’t have all the black sitcoms we had back in the day, so it may be harder for a lot of us to get jobs on shows, but nobody can stop us from creating our own material.
S&A: You're also working on a short film now?
BCJ: I’m a big fan of shorts and I think they’re a good way to tell a concise story. So I’m working with two of the actors on Castle, Jon Huertas and Tamala Jones, and we’re in pre-production on a short called The Box. It’s a very interesting period piece that’s set in, a box.
S&A: What was that experience like, as a writer’s assistant approaching those actors to work on an independent project? Was it an easy conversation?
BCJ: The great thing about the show that I work on is that we just established a relationship. All of us are in the same community together. I think if I’m a writer, you’re an actor, or a director or a producer, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t all come together and try to make some things happen. Relationships happened very organically, and I think that those are the best kind. I’ve seen very well-established actors do shorts, do web series, because they just want to tell their story.
S&A: Tell me about the pilot you're co-writing with Lena Waithe.
BCJ: It’s a half-hour dark comedy called S&M. Our characters are struggling with something that a lot of us may find shocking, but it’s what they’re going through, and the theme is tapping into what it’s like to be a 20-something out here struggling against formidable odds. It’s just in the spirit of being collaborative. Lena and I realized early on that we had a lot of the same sensibilities, and when you meet somebody like that, I’m very much a fan of let’s all collaborate. Let’s figure out how we can conquer this town together. When I lived in New York, that’s what it was like. And sometimes I don’t understand why Hollywood doesn’t embrace that as much. But I think this new generation, we’re embracing that.
Back when you had Martin, Moesha, Living Single – all those writers knew each other, they hired each other. So what we have to do is work together. She has tons of things going on, and I have my things going on. So the two of us combined can really make some inroads.
S&A: Do you feel like there’s a specific theme connecting all your different projects? What kind of stories are you most attracted to, or most interested in telling?
BCJ: My background, especially going to an all-male college [Morehouse], I definitely have spent a lot of time exploring what is masculinity, and what does it mean, and I think the threads that go through a lot of my material explore that idea. And I never shy away from writing about characters that are like me. I’m from the South, I grew up with a very large extended family. I grew up listening to blues and jazz. And so everything that I am, I try to reflect that on the page. And I want you to walk away from reading a script of mine or watching my web series or short film, and feel like you know a little bit more about who I am. Because I don’t want there to be such a huge barrier between who I am and what my audience is.
When I think about shows that are out now, I definitely respond to shows that tell things in a way they haven’t been told before. That may sound broad, but some of my favorite TV shows are Shameless, and Nurse Jackie and The Big C, and I think those shows are all daring. I enjoy where TV is going, and I think there’s content and material out there for everybody. But those of us who are coming up the ranks now, we have to take up the charge of all the writers who came before us and make sure that our story is being told.
S&A: A lot of the shows you mentioned aren’t specifically black shows, or even have black characters. When that’s the case, how do you approach telling our story?
BCJ: As I was starting out, there was an internal debate I would have with myself – should I write a pilot featuring a black character? Should I write a script that has a black lead? I should write a pilot that when you read it, knocks your socks off. That’s my main concern. And if it happens to have a black lead, so what. If it doesn’t, so what as well. It will have my sensibility, my style, my soul; it will have the things that I care about. But I want it to knock your socks off, because if it does that you won’t care who’s in the lead and what color these characters are. You’ll just want to know more about the story.
S&A: Tell me about your writing process. Do you follow a certain routine?
BCJ: Ever since I came to LA I’ve had a day job or I’ve been an assistant. And so my process is that I need to be able to write whenever I can, wherever I can, for however long I can. I’ve had some jobs where, even though I may have an office that’s in the middle of a bullpen, I still have to know how to tune that out and hunker down and write. So I think for me, one of my greatest strengths lies in writing with speed, and not necessarily having to be in a dark room with sad music playing. And when you get on a writing staff, they have to write like that; they have to write even if they don’t feel like it. So that is my process – to do it whenever, and wherever, and however I can. And if I can, I try to have a glass of red wine.
S&A: What’s your goal, in the long-term?
BCJ: I want to do it all, but one of the things that drew me to television is, there’s kind of a path. You start as an assistant, you work your way up, hopefully getting your own show on the air. I want my own show on the air. I’m a writer in my core.John Singleton has a quote that I always loved: “I'm a writer first, and I direct in order to protect my vision." And that’s pretty much how I approach whatever I do in my career. I’m a writer first. And if that means I become a director to protect my writing, then so be it. If I’m a producer because I want to make sure that my writing sees the light of day, then that’s what I’ll do.
I have some feature projects that I’m working on as well. My mother passed away of breast cancer when I was seven years old. And my family has genetic breast cancer, so I lost my mom and an aunt to the disease, and two more aunts are living and battling it. I have cousins who’ve also battled the disease. So it’s had a huge impact on my family. And there’s a story I’m working on now that takes my mom’s experience and puts a twist on it. I think it’s a story that people will want to hear.
S&A: With your mother’s story, do you feel like that affects the work you do now and how you approach the business?
BCJ: My mom died when she was 36. She was a writer. And when I think about the life that she wasn’t quite able to live, that’s 100 percent the thing that implanted in me a sense that, there’s things I have to accomplish. There are things that I have to do, so I better learn the way to do them now. Not to sound somber about it, but life is really short. There are stories that must be told, and I’m going to tell them.
S&A: Looking back on it, it seems like you’re pleased with your decision to leave your old career and pursue entertainment. Do you ever compare the two?
BCJ: Well, the thing about when I worked on Wall Street and was writing all those speeches – you could definitely see the fruits of your labor with what you did. In entertainment it’s sometimes hard when you’re coming up the assistant ranks; you don’t always know the impact you’re having. When I tell my friends I have to go and do this script, I know that I play a vital part in the show being successful, and that’s an empowering feeling. I always say, coming up as an assistant or trying to be whatever you want to be in this industry, it’s all about the small victories. As a writer, you don’t always get a lot of affirmation that your writing is good, that you’re on the right track. So you have to take those small victories and use them to propel you to do something else.
A friend of mine who became a caterer – it’s funny that so many of us are in our second careers. We did the jobs that our parents thought we should do right out of college, and we found out that’s not what we want to do. And our generation is really about following your passion. But my friend who’s a caterer gave me some advice, “There are going to be a million reasons why not to do something. A million reasons not to pursue this. But the moment you get a reason to keep going, that needs to be your springboard – the thing that keeps you moving forward.” And you have to be committed to it, because it’s not easy.
Many thanks to Ben for lending his thoughts to this piece.