11th Mar2013

Interview with Ben Trebilcook

by Lloyd Paige

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Ben Trebilcook is a well known UK screenwriter and producer. He has worked in special effects for TV commercials and has also penned a screenplay spec, ‘Die Hardest’, for the Die hard franchise. Ben has also stepped into novel writing for the first time too, so after we met in London I invited him onto the site.

1. Hi Ben, where does your love of films stem from because you actually studied Fine Art, Graphic Design, and English didn’t you?

Hi, Lloyd. My love of film began very early on. I don’t remember screaming with joy all the way through it, but my mum once said when she took me to see Star Wars with my older brothers in 1977, that’s exactly what I did. I was two years old. The love of film kicked off then, I suppose, however I remember seeing The Muppet Movie in 1979 more vividly. I always wanted to make Muppets. I adored monsters and special effects, but was also making sketches with my best friend, so writing started to take centre-stage. It’s an amazing feeling creating your own characters and the worlds they inhabit, making them do what you want them to do.

2. Who are your favourite scriptwriters and what makes them stand out for you?

There are lots and I’m fortunate to be in personal contact with those who inspired me. John Fusco, who penned two of my favourite movies in Young Guns and Young II, is one of my screenwriting heroes. Shane Black needn’t any explanation really. His sarcastic, quick-fire dialogue is outstanding in every script. Doug Richardson of Die Hard 2, Money Train and Bad Boys fame is brilliant, as is Steven E. De Souza, who wrote Die Hard and Commando among many others. He and John Fusco are very encouraging. Scott Rosenberg, Scott Frank, Tony Gilroy, all cool scribes to me. If we’re talking really old school, then Ben Hecht was sheer brilliance. The way these guys fire off dialogue, set up a story and a central character in no time, amazes me.

3. How long does it normally take you to write a full-length script?

It depends on so many factors. What kind of script it is, who’s paying you or not paying you, when they want it by, and what else you might be doing in your life. I think the quickest time I wrote a script was about 8 days. The longest, I don’t know, on and off for about a year. I think on average would be about 2 months for a first draft.

4. With different writers often working on the same script, isn’t there a danger that it might affect the consistency of a story?

It’s a difficult question to answer really. I’ve never been in the same room with other writers, banding different ideas around for the same script and one of you is tapping away on a keyboard. I’ve experienced it from a distance where I’ve been hired to write a certain section of something, knowing others are writing another part or the rest of it. I’ve done scripts for the same project where other writers were also doing the same, with some even being given the same storyline. Naively, I had no idea any of that occurred in my early days and upon learning it, I was a taken aback.

5. You penned a script which you believed would make a great Die Hard 4 movie. Tell us a bit more about that.

This story has been documented a fair bit and in a Chinese whisper type fashion, elements have been distorted and twisted over time. I’ll be brief with it. I was working in a supermarket many moons ago and had a couple of action screenplays I’d written. Both were classic Die Hard templates to be honest. I was at breaking point working at that place. I called up the acquisition department at Twentieth Century Fox and said I’d written a script that would make the definitive Die Hard movie. It was instructed for my agent to send it over to them, but there was one slight problem; I didn’t have an agent. I sent a hundred or so letters to agents in LA. Only three replied, one of who was a lawyer as well as an agent. By sheer coincidence, he went to law school with Bruce Willis’ lawyer and so began the first of many dialogues and challenges and hoop jumping, as well as the resigning from a certain supermarket.

6. At what point did you believe that you might be close to getting the script chosen?

I was completely delusional! In a short space of time, my name was linked to both the Die Hard and Mission: Impossible franchises, within print and online media, in the UK, the US, Europe and Asia. The net wasn’t like what it is today. Chat rooms, newsgroups and forums, were the in-thing and there were just a handful of movie-news websites whose webmasters were like rock stars. When I read my name in the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper and online on sites like AICN, Coming Attractions, moviehole, my heart raced. Especially when it was in the same breath as Die Hard. These sites were influential in their sway of audience and fan-power. I knew certain stars and studios read them and that made me feel like I was on their radar.

7. In the end another writer (with a writing credit to his name) was chosen to pen the movie. Looking back if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Willis and his camp gave me around 6 years to get myself noticed somehow, make a movie of my own or get a big producer behind me. “Nobody was going to get a Die Hard deal if they hadn’t any previous credit,” I was told when meeting about The A-Team feature, which came around at the same time. It was a whirlwind kind of time, as lots of different projects were kicking off and there was decent interest in me. I was living in a hotel in LA for a fair while. Would I do anything differently? Probably not. I’m thankful to Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis simply because of the association I had to two big action franchises. I got a lot of work on the back of that. I’d maybe have gone out to LA for longer and trusted different people, and perhaps read legal documents more closely.


8. Tell us about your involvement with the Mission Impossible 3 film?

It was around the same time as the Die Hard 4 shenanigans. I received a call from development exec at Cruise/Wagner. I’d penned a script, which I originally wrote for John Cusack. It also went over to Kevin Costner at his TIG company. It was called Breakneck and was about a rogue agent blowing up wonders of the world and the CIA operative out to stop them. I was asked if I could place Tom’s character from Mission: Impossible into my ‘wonders’ script. What are you going to say? No? Of course not! Tom’s the biggest movie star in the world and I loved the Mission films. They’re very different beasts to other action franchises and the Ethan Hunt character is mysterious enough for writers to play around and go pretty much anywhere with him.

One draft I did featured a scene where an aircraft made contact with the Statue of Liberty in a terrorist attack. It had Ethan Hunt discover CGI imagery and TV fakery was used, with news stations in on the act. This was 2001 and, well, to say it became a sensitive issue is an understatement.

I did a completely different story, which had Hunt chase down human organ smugglers in Africa. This was a major eye-opener for me of how Hollywood works. So many directors were on board and writers. I think at some point my script went to Frank Darabont and Fincher and Ang Lee was linked to the project before leaving to do The Hulk. Ha! That was a fun time.

I remember being told Ang Lee was going to do Mission: Impossible III and I said ‘no, he’ll do The Hulk. Joe Carnahan did about 18 months on that project, too. His take was extremely dark and would have been a great move. J.J. (Abrams) eventually came on board and brought his cool, faithful scribes. I’m leaving a lot out, but it was a fun and interesting time. I felt better seeing M:I3 than I did DH4.

9. If money was no object, what project would you like to write and produce?

I have a little company with my pal, James Michaels. I grew up with James and he was an executive over at Fox here in the UK. I don’t get as hurt or stubborn when he comments about a script of mine. We have a slate of projects; one in particular is ‘Knockout’, which is a martial-arts movie with Tom Sizemore and a ton of tough UFC and MMA talents. I love martial-arts and would love to do a really big one like Enter The Dragon. One dream project is a female driven spy script and I don’t know if I’m allowed to say, but I’ve developed a very cool, origin-centred cop show based on a certain action franchise. There should be more on that this year. I’d like to buy the rights to The A-Team or Rambo.

10. You’ve been recently writing a novel, what is it about and does it read like an action film?

It’s called ‘My name is not Jacob Ramsay’ and if I was to pitch it, I don’t know, “It’s Grange Hill meets 24 or for the US, it’s 21 Jump Street meets 24.” It’s about a teacher in London who is kidnapped by one of his students. Does it read like an action film? It could be a movie or a three-part TV drama maybe. There’s action in it. It blends the worlds of education and espionage together, both of which I have personal experience in. Write what you know, right?

11. How have you found the novel writing process and what made you want to jump into the book world?

For one, I wasn’t paid to write it and there was no time limit to get it done, so the only pressure was to motivate myself. I originally wrote it in the present tense, as it was what I was used to. One agent told me to think about changing it to past tense and Screenwriter John Fusco told me he’d recently done the same and said I’d find that it’s a great exercise. He wasn’t wrong. It was and the book instantly gained a different feel. Why did I want to jump into the book world? I like writing and it’s another extension to what I already do. I have a few scripts that people have said would make better books than movies. Books seem less of a heart attack process than movies for me right now.

12. By doing this, do you see yourself as having to start over in a different industry?

Absolutely, but I’m not as naive as I was when I started screenwriting. I may not know the ins and outs of it, but I’m certainly no fool. However like the movie business, there’s a lot of different ways to get your product out there. I can go through the standard motions for only so long, but the web has opened up a great deal of alternative options for creative types. You can upload a video and pitch a movie directly to a studio, you can upload a script and you can upload a novel or short story. I have a lot of support and encouragement and it’s an interesting experience. Check on me in about a year and we’ll see if I say something different.

13. How has the impact of social media helped those wanting to get into the entertainment industry?

People have been found on Myspace and Youtube and are now household names, just because they sung a few songs. There’s amazing film talent currently out there online. My friends run a site called Stage32 ,which is like a creative Facebook, a sort of online networking site. I think Hollywood fear people who don’t need them. Some studios are definitely going with the times, but others are being very, very slow to go with the times.

14. Finally, as a writer what would you say are your main strengths?

Patience. Not taking anything too personal. Allowing other people to hold your baby. I try not to allow anyone to put in what I should have done. I like to pleasantly surprise.

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