A television writer’s room can consist of anything from a handful of people to over ten. As of 2017, just 4.8% of television writers were African-American. That number has jumped to 6%, which is still paltry.
While there’s more diversity on the big and small screens these days, the landscape for behind-the-scenes players still needs to be more inclusive. Oddly enough, according to a report by Color of Change, 100% of Black showrunners included white writers in their writing rooms. Shonda Rhimes, Tyler Perry, Donald Glover, and Kenya Barris are just a few of the heavy-hitters when it comes to African-Americans controlling the narrative of a television show.
Octavia Butler is considered the first African-American science fiction writer. In Bloodchild and Other Stories, she has a quote that is relevant to all industries and disciplines: “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice.” These wise words have been a guide for The Sandman writer Vanessa Benton.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin native Vanessa Benton paid their dues as a showrunner’s assistant for BET’s In Contempt, which laid the groundwork for them to garner a position in that writer’s room. They went on to assist showrunner Peter Nowalk at How to Get Away with Murder, which lead to them eventually writing and producing an episode for the final season. They’re currently a part of the highly anticipated Netflix series The Sandman and Netflix’s popular Fate: The Winx Saga, which is based on Nickelodeon’s animated series Winx Club. Their writing trajectory is a smart template for any aspiring television writer to follow.
How did you get involved with The Sandman?
I knew Allan Heinberg. He went on to run Sandman. Pete talked about me a lot. When Allan was looking for writers, he asked if I was interested. He wanted to read my material. He read one of my samples and liked it. We went through the meetings and all that stuff. That's how I got on Sandman.
What was an average day like in the writer’s room?
It was pretty similar to most days in a writer's room where at the beginning of the series, we blue-skied it. This one felt different in that we had source material. We had some direction from and interaction with Neil Gaiman, so there was less of an empty wall of nothingness. We'd go over issues that needed to be covered. In-between that, it was us breaking episodes together as a collaborative effort. Make sure we're honoring long times fans and readers and keeping it fresh. Giving voice to Dream, who doesn't talk as much in the comic, which can't happen in a tv show.
Had you read the series before getting the job?
I read it in college when I was in my depression era. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. It was before leaving my first college and going to NYU Tisch School of the Arts to do writing. During that transition, I was super-depressed and fell into fantasy books. The Sandman was one of the ones that I ended up reading. So, it was cool to be invited for this show. Then, once you get staffed, you read it a million times. Now I know it like the back of my hand.
You wrote Episode 9. How long did it take you to write it and where does it fall in the timeline of the story?
It was pretty quick since it was near the end of the series. The way we do our outlines, everything is there so you don't have to come up with things. It's the penultimate episode before the finale. Obviously, I can't give spoilers but some pretty huge things happen. Some big, funnish characters are introduced. This is one of my favorite episodes because you meet some really creepy people and everything is coming to a head before the season finale.
You were a showrunner's assistant at BET. How did it lay the groundwork for you as a writer?
I worked on a show called In Contempt. It was on BET. The showrunner was Terri Kopp. That was my first official industry job after graduating. It taught me everything. Usually, you come in as a P.A. Terri took a chance on me, even though I was green, and gave me an important position as her assistant. It taught me everything and the room was like a family. There were a lot of late nights involved just because it was a new show, and we were breaking it. But it never felt like that. I learned how to break story. Even small things like where the brads belong on a script was something I learned. Teaching me how to pitch. Allowing me to write scenes. Allowing me to adjust and get notes on scenes so I can know how to take notes. To answer that question, I don't think I would have been able to do as well or get an episode on Murder without that foundation. The executives there were very cool and very open. There was kind of an open door situation where I didn't feel like I was excluded from the big decision making. It was just a really good environment. I'm so glad that was my first experience.
Tell me a little bit about Fate: The Winx Saga.
It's another adaptation. It's about a fairy school. Five or six girls who all have different types of fairy powers come together in the name of friendship. I came in on Season 2 of the live-action adaptation. I was really excited. The characters are very diverse. There's a black fairy that I was really excited about doing some writing for. The writers in that room were some of the most creative and talented I've ever worked with. I really enjoyed it.
When does Season 2 premiere?
What's the Starfish Accelerator Program?
They're dedicated to working with marginalized writers and creators. I received a grant from them in 2020. At the time, it was about taking whatever you write and turning it into IP. They teamed us up with mentors. I had great Black mentors in the nerd, comic book space. My idea went from being a graphic novel to being an interactive, transmedia project...using a bunch of found footage. That was because of the help of my mentors. I had a woman, Mikhael Tara Garver, who does experiential design for theme parks who helped me. I had a strong team of mentors. We're working on putting this out in September. It taught me that I can do things outside of screenwriting. With TikTok and YouTube, audiences are there to experience stories in different ways. I grew up in this generation, so I'm teaching myself to tell stories in different ways.
What is God Bless the Promise Land?
That is the project I created out of the Starfish Accelerator. I wrote a script years ago when it was reported that we don't have that much time when it comes to climate change. I created this world around it. God Bless the Promise Land takes place around a character as this climate disaster is happening. It's exploring the idea of purpose. If purpose is a real thing and if it really matters when the world is falling apart. Can you just exist? The character is being surveilled by the government. We're following her through her tapped phone. The audience experiences that by logging in and reading a file, as if they're an employee. That's how they see her story. We shot everything in 2020. It was all virtual.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I think I've always been interested in writing. When I was growing up, my mom was an educator and a musician for a funk band. She was also into advocacy, so we were always at protests. I was always surrounded with art and independence and having a point of view that you could articulate was important. She was always exposing me to different genres of music. For the protests, it was mostly teachers' rights and police brutality at the time and afterward talking about it. I was never much of a talker, so I'd write little stories about these experiences. When I went to college, I was going to be a lawyer. Tried that, hated it! I went through a bunch of majors. When I was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I went to a career fair and saw communication arts - tv, radio and film listed. I was like, 'Wow, that's a thing?' Then I transferred over to NYU and got more serious about studying the arts.
Do you have a favorite character in The Sandman series?
Death! I like how Neil wrote the character as a soft...soft isn't the right word but I'll use it here....a soft, understanding presence that doesn't really give you answers.
Do you have a favorite dream?
In the Endless or my own?
A daydream or a dream that I dreamt that was subconscious?
I think I'll go with daydream.
Does the daydreaming help your writing?
Yes, absolutely. Usually what will happen is I see a picture that's very visceral and be like, 'Oh what is that feeling?' I feel weird or bad. Then I come up with a world for that. I also daydream about playing music. It's the idea of having an audience that I like. I'm always daydreaming about connecting with people who 'get' me.
How did writing this episode for The Sandman compare to the episode you wrote for How to Get Away with Murder?
They feel like very different things. With Murder, it was network and we were airing. You don't have time to nitpick things. You're shooting it and you're on set. If I faced any challenges, it was because of my greenness as a writer. Sandman is my first staff position. I'm hugely creative and the challenge for me was learning the ins and outs of visual effects, budget, and production. My showrunner sat me down and said that I should keep that creativity, but this is what we have to learn about this world.
Any plans on writing features?
Yes...! I'm grateful to have worked in dark fantasy and am excited to get into horror. Creating a horror feature is what I'm excited about doing next.
Do you have a writing routine?
I try to write at least two hours a day, when I have an idea and outline and it's just time to write. Time of day doesn't matter. As far as projects, my routines is changing as I'm getting better at writing. I'm starting to focus on that pre-planning and pre-character work. Writing in genre can be tricky for new writers because you get caught up in writing the world instead of zeroing in on the character's story.
The Sandman premieres on Netflix on August 5, 2022.