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BSS 2012: Ben Lewin

I must confess a biased interest in wanting to interview the first guest speaker to be announced as headlining the first Big Screen Symposium. In 1984, still a novice in the screen production world, I travelled to Australia, as a result of my wife receiving a post-graduation study grant. The first job I landed there was as 2nd AD on a television mini-series called The Dunera Boys – written and directed by a Jewish lad from Melbourne, one Ben Lewin. The third AD was Ben’s wife, Judi Levine.

This dramedy, as it would now be called, told the story of how in 1940 every German or Austrian male between the ages of 16 and 70 resident in the UK at the time was arrested and transported to either Canada or Australia – 2,000 to the latter – and there interred in detention camps for two years. Until, that is, someone in authority was finally, and more than a little belatedly, prepared to acknowledge that 99.9% of these “suspected German spies” were of course refugees from Nazism.

Four years later we’d returned to NZ, while Ben’s career in Australian film and television continued steadily. But there came a point at which the work dried up for some considerable time, and Ben and Judi (by then a producer) decided a move to the USA could be a kick(re)start to their film life. But for 8 years, Ben found that the only reliable income was to be made by turning his hobby of collecting unique watches into a sales job.

But all that’s different now, thanks to a sleeper hit at Sundance by the name of The Sessions – which is an absolute must-see.

But before recounting portions of my first encounter with Ben since 1985, some quotes from his two seminars at the Big Screen Symposium (titled “The Sessions” and “Working Backwards From Your Audience”):

Ben: “Before I was a writer, I was a criminal lawyer.” Facilitator John Barnett: “A criminal who happened to be a lawyer?” Ben: “No, a lawyer who relied on crims for business.”

“Choice of subject matter is perhaps the most crucial decision you (as a writer) can make.”

“You need to find a character who can ‘hold the movie together’.”

“Finding a character’s own tone, his own style of language, is a critical part.”

“It was an interesting discovery that fear of sex is something that everyone relates to.”

“If scriptwriting (in the USA) is a science, which I doubt, if you are ever in trouble with a script, just write the word KABOOM!, and then things will follow. Sometimes such a jolt to the audience is just what’s needed.”

“My one regret about when I’m the scriptwriter only, is that I don’t get to edit. Editing in post is another edit, a rewrite, of the script.”

When challenged by Facilitator Nick Ward with the idea that with his latest film he’d not let the truth get in the way of a good story, Ben responded that he’d wanted to use the truthfulness of the story in marketing, and that actually he’d been “more truthful in this film than in any other. In Dunera Boys, I’d got bogged down in ‘the truth’ for years.”

Ben was a childhood victim of the 1950s polio epidemic. One could say he got out of it “medium-light” when compared to some; and it certainly hasn’t held him back from taking life head-on. In both the BSS sessions and our conversation, Ben was not afraid to draw and discuss the links between the screenplays he writes, including The Sessions, and his own life: “Most disabled people are not cute, they’re not kids, and they’re not cuddly – and often not even nice people. I spent many years avoiding disabled people – and avoiding who I am.”

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Tony Forster’s interview with Ben Lewin is here

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