Heather Taylor interviews showrunner Ben Watkins, writer on USA Network’s Burn Notice, and creator of Hand of God for Amazon Originals, about breaking into television, advice on thriving in a writers' room, and more!
Continuing our Running the Show series featuring interviews of showrunners, we spoke with the multi-hyphenate Ben Watkins at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. Ben Watkins is a writer/filmmaker/actor from Berkeley, California. He started his career as an actor, playing Dr. Wesley Carter on The Young and the Restless.
He transitioned to writing with his award-winning short film Quest to Ref. Soon after adapting that project into a feature screenplay for Universal, Ben joined USA Network’s Burn Notice. He rose from Staff Writer to Executive Producer, before creating Hand of God for Amazon Originals.
Most recently he executive produced Truth be Told (starring Octavia Spencer) for Apple’s new streaming service. He is currently developing the continuation of New York Undercover.
Interview edited for content and clarity.
You transitioned from actor to writer to showrunner. Can you talk about that process of that transition and transformation?
I was an actor and I had a bold naiveté about the whole thing. When I was pursuing acting, I had two kids, I was living in northern California, and I had started making some headway and had gotten an agent. So, I said I want to move to Los Angeles.
My wife said we can move to Los Angeles as long as I have a job and we're going to be able to support the family, but let's put a time limit on it. So I moved to L.A. with a one-year time limit. I'm a star in one year, or we'll move back. The first year was pretty good in terms of getting jobs and building momentum. The second year, I think I booked one job the whole year. I was actually getting momentum that I didn't know about because I was screen testing for series, which is basically getting close to being a series regular. But to us, that was just another audition for a job I didn't get. So based on our deal, we were like, okay, it's not working, it stalled.
So, at the end of the second year, we’re going to move back to northern California. That was the deal. I was okay with that, and I figured whatever's going to happen for me in the creative space, it'll just happen some other time. There are some other ways, some other path. My wife suggested I do that short film that I’d been talking about so I’d have something to remember L.A. by. I wrote a short film that I'd been talking about for a long time, and I started sharing that script, trying to get people to help me. I got some feedback early on, including some pretty harsh feedback, but I just stuck with it.
There were a lot of hoops that I jumped through in order to get the thing made. Right around that time, we're still making arrangements for us to move back to northern California. Then I got word that I get into a film festival that had a $20,000 prize. And only five short films got in for this award. So that was a huge thing. That started the transition because I wrote it and basically did all the work to get that thing into shape to actually be a good project. That helped me learn what it means to be a writer and how it’s an ongoing process. You're constantly learning. You have to be open to feedback and sharing these things that you know are going to hurt your feelings from time to time, but will make you a better writer.
A casting director saw the film, which I also star in, and I ended up getting a regular job on a soap opera, but the bug for writing was in me now. I started trending towards that even though I actually had what I had originally set out to do, which was to get a regular job as an actor. That was the beginning of how that transition started. I adapted my short into a feature. I left the soap, thinking I'm going to get a lot of money as a writer, and filmmaker. Of course as soon as I leave the soap, I go jobless for almost two years. But I did write the feature and that feature eventually sold. That is what cemented the complete change in emphasis from actor to writer.
On Burn Notice you came in as a junior writer, and you transitioned into an Executive Producer over the seven seasons you worked on the show. What was that journey like?
When I came in I was behind the curve because I was a 35-year-old staff writer. But in a lot of ways I was ahead of the curve because I had worked in so many different environments and arenas, including some high-pressure and high-stakes places. I also had the advantage of having a family that I needed to support. So there was a drive that comes with that. But I knew nothing about how TV worked and how TV rooms work. I had written a drama pilot against my agent’s advice because I had sold a quirky comedy feature, and they wanted me to write another one. But that pilot is what got me the job on Burn Notice.
I started as a staff writer and my agent at the time thought I’d get 12 weeks and no script. It’s a nice first step, but told me not to get too excited because this is just a start. I was like, dude, I have four kids and a mortgage. I am going to be there for the run, and I'll be getting a script the first season. That became my goal and my mantra. And I did everything I could to make that work. I just made myself indispensable.
Practically, what kinds of things did you do in the room to make yourself indispensable?
I tell this advice to everybody: For anybody breaking in, a staff writer means you do anything and everything. You're looking for every opportunity to make an impression without imposing yourself. Of course you got to have good ideas. You have to be able to pitch them and know the right time to pitch. But one of the first things I did to sort of make my boss's job easier was offer to write emails. He’s trying to break story, trying to manage the room, and getting ready for production. He came in the room one day, and said the network wants to series arc ,and he kind of just leaves that out there. He doesn't want to write it. It's obvious. We have a staff of about seven writers and you know somebody's going to get assigned it. It's necessary but it’s busy work.
I took advantage of the little pause because I could tell nobody wanted it. I said I’d take first crack because worst-case scenario you have to throw it out and do it again. Best-case scenario, I get a percentage of it right and that saves you time. So I took the first run at the series document and then he took it from there. Then every time he would mention something he had to do and hesitate, I would do it. I started doing this thing where I'd write draft emails, send them to him and then he would either tweak, or he’d just send it off under his email. And it saved him a bunch of time.
That's the kind of thing that makes his job easier. It makes you indispensable. Then you get the added bonus of being able to show your awareness, your ability to distill story or make cogent arguments. And maybe eventually showcase yourself as a writer within those. Even an email can make a difference.
There’s also a lot of research on a show. Sometimes we’d put a pin in the actual specificity of the research and get on with breaking the story. As soon as I saw any moment like that, I'd be doing that research on our break. Sometimes I'd have that research done in 15 minutes. If it was a writer that was the one doing the episodes or they brought up the question, I would bring them the research because that's another piece of advice I tell everybody is to feed up.
You never know when you're going to get the credit or if you get the credit, but what you are doing is making other people look good, which makes them want to keep you around. Writers can start leaning on you and I'm making sure I have allies. It’s not about credit, it’s about becoming an indispensable part of this machine.
When you are looking for your ideas and creating your work, where are you looking for inspiration? What is the thing that drives you to make the series you do?
My ideas and my worlds are things that I'm interested in. You'll always hear people talk about telling your story or something very personal to you. I actually think that it doesn't really matter what the world is or what the entry into this story is. You're always going to bring the personal side of you to it. With Hand of God, I was really fascinated by zealotry and the power that comes with that.
I wanted to explore religion because there's a lot of nuances and controversy to it, and I like that. Also there was something about what was, and still is, happening in America that I call the cult of ambivalence. In America do all these things to make our lives convenient. In order for that to happen, we can't care. We can say we care, but we can't move as if we care. I liked that because now I'm exploring zealotry, and I'm in a society where nobody actually really cares about anything: That's why you have homeless people who don't have any real solutions; That's why the education system's fucked up; That's why the racial issues have never really been dealt with. It’s because we're ambivalent to it on both sides. Now I have a really good conundrum to get into.
Then you have to get into the personal side so you can take your ideas from wherever. It might be something that's been on your mind since you were in school and it pissed you off in history class. Or it’s something you experienced when you were on a bus when you were in the sixth grade. And that'll make it much more specific. Sometimes it's a combination of your experience plus your research. But it has to be driven by your experience through your own point of view.
After the election, I keenly felt the shift in how we interacted in the U.S. Has what you do shifted as the environment around you has shifted and how are you using your creativity to combat that?
For me, I feel like I was already on that track. I had a black history professor who called me the enemy in his lectures. I'll never forget the day we had a situation where we were talking about affirmative action, and this was a black professor saying you can't defend it. He was really saying that so that people would come up with real ways to defend it and explain it.
All the black students in the class were like, “What are you talking about? You can't defend affirmative action after years of slavery and racism, Jim Crow and all these other things.” He said, “Okay, I get it, the emotion, but you still can't defend it. We’ll put it like this. There's a white, blue collar waitress in Fresno whose daughter gets all As but doesn't get into Ivy League. And then she hears about this black student that got into Harvard, what would you tell her?”
Well, I said I would sit down with her and I would say, look at the incoming class of freshman at Harvard. Look at the percentage of black students, which is minuscule, now who do you think you lost your slot to? Now look at the percentage that are legacy, who do you think you've lost your slot to? Look at the percentage of people who have money that paid their way in. Who do you think you lost your slot to? You really think you've lost it to a black person who also got straight As? They're saying it's affirmative action. That’s what he was talking about.
So in 2016, Trump wins. The factors that brought him into power, they're not new. The people who felt like that was their way to get back at the system or make a statement, they have those feelings already. If they're wrong, what can you say to them that's going to make them see things differently? At the same time, the factors that led to his election, how come they're still there? The people who are suffering the most now that somebody like Trump is in power, why are they suffering the most?
Part of it is how they're being seen, and how we see people is influenced by how they are reflected in media. So if you're a creator, you have to think about being able to reflect people, and show all sides of people. Make them fully dimensional. At the same time, I have to be able to make arguments to people who are sitting in Nebraska or in Mississippi. By that I mean I need to touch you and change how you feel about the world without feeling like I'm preaching to you because just taking sides is not going to be the answer.
When you are building out your room, what are the skills that you are looking for in writers?
If you're going to make my job easier, you have a chance to be hired. If you're going to make my show better, you have a chance to be hired. So how are you going to make my job easier? Do you have a demonstrated work ethic? Does it feel like you would be showing up for free? And now I know that's bullshit, but the truth is when I get into the interview with somebody and they're so excited about the situation, the content, the ability to work, it feels like they would want to show up for free. That's the type of person that's going to make my job easier.
Are they going to make my show better? Their skill level comes into that. Their areas of expertise come into that. The other thing that comes into that is their willingness to share. I want to tap into the things that make you special. So I want people who have some very specific POVs who have tapped into really interesting and emotional parts of their life and are willing to share that story.
I always tell any aspiring writers or lower-level writers that when they come into an interview, they should show:
- Number one: You've done your research. That is a great indicator of what you're going to be doing in my room. So you know the script we were talking about, and you know the world. You might even have done things like I would do, like go listen to interviews and read articles and see what's important to the person who’s interviewing you. Or if the show takes place in a certain city in 1988, know what happened in that city in the 80s so we can talk about that. Then I’ll know if I bring up anything in the room, I'm going to have somebody who's going to do that kind of research.
- Number two: Let me know what languages you are fluent in. By that I mean how you're raised, where you were raised, what your interests were, what schools you went to, what you did since school, what were your life experiences? All of these things can become languages that you are fluent in. The more languages you're fluent in, the more productive you are in my room, and especially if they're in languages that I'm not fluent in. A lot of writers have a lot of reservoirs they can tap into. But you'll get into the room or the interview and maybe you only hear about one of them. I want to know there's multiple places we can go with you as a writer. You got to really take the time to say, here's what I'm fluent in. You'll be surprised, there's some things you don't give yourself credit for. So take a moment to think, what am I fluent in? And then figure out a way to inject some of that into the interview with the showrunner.
If someone wants to create their own show, what are some words of advice or encouragement that you can give to writers who want to make those creative decisions?
If you want that, you probably already having the urge, right? You already have the instinct going that way. It can't just be, I have a good story to tell. You have to have some sort of hubris in you that says I want the world to see this. I'll do what it takes for the world to see this. I don't know if it's teachable and don't know any level of advice. I run into a lot of people that have a good story. I'll be like, man, that's a great idea. You should write that. You're the best voice for that. But they don't take it to the next level. If you're willing to really to push through, then no matter what genre, no matter what the content is, do the thing that scares you.
If you find a story, the characters, and the way in, the stuff that's unpredictable, and unexpected yet very accessible, universal and specific will make it pop. You don't get there if you don’t want to be uncomfortable. Every time you get to that place, you’re only going to take it so far, then it might be good. But if you had gone and done the thing that scared you, it would be great.
If you find yourself in that position, you're in a perfect place because then you have an opportunity. If you're doing something and it's coming easy, it's probably not going to break through. Everybody's got a good idea. If you really want to take it to the next level, make sure when you latch onto that good idea. Then when you get to those moments, and there's like five or six times per script. you have a chance to do something more ambitious and more personal. If it scares you, be grateful for that fear and then act on it.