Q&A: Ben Ripley, writer of ‘Source Code’ and ‘Boychoir’
It’s been said that a new door opens into Hollywood every day, you just need to figure out how to get to be in front of the door that opens. There is no set path to success in the film industry. Writers break into Hollywood in countless different ways; contests, personal connections, query letters, networking, working at agencies… etc. Our goal here is to talk to working screenwriters not only about their current projects, but what they feel was their big break that helped them break in. Hopefully these conversations will help you position yourself in front of one of those doors when it opens.
Today we are talking with Ben Ripley. A graduate of Stanford and the USC School of Cinema-Television, Ben has been active in Hollywood for years. He is known for Source Code and the currently released Boychoir, both of which were his own spec scripts.
FD: First off, I would like to say congratulations. Your current film, Boychoir, just had its limited release on April 3rd. The film has an absolutely amazing cast; Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Eddie Izzard, Debra Winger, Josh Lucas… When they told you who was attached, did you check your calendar to make sure it wasn’t April Fools’ Day?
BR: Yeah, right? I think that the big coup was getting Dustin Hoffman to play the lead. Once you have that anchor piece of talent we had an increasingly easy time getting the attachment of people like Kathy Bates and Debra Winger. Although they didn’t have huge roles in the project, it started being seen as the chance to work with Dustin again, or for the first time, for them. So, yeah, it just became a very prestigious cast.
FD: Which actually leads into my next question: How gratifying is it when you hear something like, “Dustin Hoffman loves your script”?
BR: It was fantastic. I had the opportunity to meet with him on several occasions, both as we were gearing up and on set, and he was just a lovely guy. He was completely intrigued by this type of music and asking a lot of questions about his character and the different scenes he was in. So, I found him to be very hands-on and very charged up by the material and really pushing to give it his best. Given how much of a veteran that he is, I think it was a high compliment to the material.
FD: I noticed in another interview that you said you like to focus on subcultures and steep yourself in their story. Is that what drew you to Boychoir?
BR: A number of things drew me to Boychoir. Foremost was an actual boy choir school called The American Boy Choir that existed near my hometown in New Jersey. I always knew about it growing up and a friend of mine, years ago when I wrote the first draft, sent me a profile of the boys in the school and their struggle to become essentially professional musicians at age 11, 12 and 13. I thought that was a really compelling subculture and a really compelling character.
Another thing that drew me to [the story] was my love of music. I was never a singer but I did play classical piano for many years growing up. So, I was comfortable with that. But I think, now watching the finished product, that anyone who is creative in any way will relate to the struggle to discipline your talents and grow them.
FD: Boychoir is a departure from your last film, Source Code. Was that a tactical decision to move away from science fiction, or was it a great opportunity to tell a story that spoke to you?
BR: It was a script I first wrote 18 years ago. So I guess you could say that Source Code was an evolution away from a small drama. I had just gotten out of film school and didn’t really know what I wanted to write, and came across this story. I thought it was great and I wrote it up. It was a challenging piece to attract the right elements to in terms of financing and cast. It took a long time, as you can see, to hone the script. We had a great director, Francois Girard, eventually come on. I think every writer begins with personal stories, small stories like this. Then you have to make tactical adjustments to work in the market place, so you leave that behind. For me, I was lucky that people had high enough regard for the script that they just never gave up on it.
FD: You went to film school, and you were working in the industry, but is there any moment that you consider to be your “Big Break”? Or is more the adage that it takes years of hard work to be an overnight success?
BR: It did take years for me. It took about seven years from my graduating film school and cashing my first paycheck as a writer and being able to become a full-time writer. During that time I worked in and out of Hollywood. I worked as an assistant, at non-profits, in different industries, but I kept writing. I think that’s the most important thing because when you first try something, you’re not that good at it. You have to keep refining and getting better at something before you’re writing at a professional level.
My big break came after years of building up better and better material, working with an agent, getting representation. Then, back in 2002, I wrote a little horror movie called In Vitro that sold to Fox. It never got made but it got me into the industry. It was both a big break in terms of one day I wasn’t in the industry and the next day I was, but it was also the culmination of a lot years and probably 13 unproduced screenplays.
FD: It’s always fascinating to hear the work that it takes to get “there.”
BR: You look at any profession and there is a long apprenticeship to get in. In any highly complicated profession. If you want to be a pilot, they don’t just let you start flying. If you want to be a doctor, they don’t just let you do an operation on someone. It takes years and years of practice and trial and error and learning stuff and being bad at things. Writing is no exception.
If you want to be a carpenter, you’re going to make a desk and that first desk you make isn’t even going to stand up. It isn’t going to be level and it’s not a desk that can be used. By the second or third desk at least it’s functional but it still looks terrible. Maybe by the twentieth desk someone may actually pay some money for that desk.
FD: I remember when my writing partner and I finished our first screenplay. My writing mentor looked at us and said, “Congratulations. You are now ahead of 90% of people who say they are going to be writers. Take a moment, enjoy the feeling, and then go rewrite it.”
BR: That was a very smart thing that he said. Enjoy the feeling of completion but writing is continually going back and refining.
FD: It seems that there is more and more work moving over into the TV arena, especially with the rise of streaming services offering their own content. Do you feel pulled toward television or do you like to stay in the feature arena?
BR: I definitely have an interest in television. I’ve written two pilots for NBC that never got picked up. I think there is so much interesting work being done on television, and fewer movies being made. So, that talent and energy of actors, writers and directors have to go somewhere. Luckily we do have this burgeoning, multiplying number of outlets.
I think it’s a very exciting medium and it’s one where, as a writer, you exercise more authorship and control. That certainly should be in any writer’s mindset to work in television.
FD: You mentioned that the first script you ever sold was horror. Source Code is in the science fiction arena. Boychoir is a drama. Now you’re looping back to science fiction again with Source Code 2. Do you find it hard to switch between so many genres?
BR: A lot of these genres are tangential. Horror is tangential to science fiction and science fiction is tangential to thrillers and thrillers are tangential to historical thrillers. It’s not like you’re radically changing tone. You’re not going from teen comedy to Downton Abbey. You have to be able to have a bunch of different sub-genres you enjoy. You don’t always want to write five science fiction projects in a row. I think every writer has at least four or five sub-genres in which he or she enjoys working.
FD: That touches on what seems to be an age-old debate, especially for breaking in, whether you need to stay in the same genre. The thought that a manager can’t take you out with an action script and have your next one be a musical.
BR: You can experiment a lot before you’re working. If you’re still trying to get that first sale in Hollywood, I would encourage any writer to experiment across genres and see what you’re good at. See what you enjoy. Chances are that if you enjoy it you’ll get good at it. I’ve written comedies. I’ve written historical romances. Those things didn’t turn out so well, so I moved on. You have to experiment and see if you can do that while you’re still introducing yourself to the industry.
It’s once you get into the industry that you start getting projects sent to you. Work that is in the tone, or in the world, or vaguely reminiscent of whatever project you’ve sold to get you into that industry. It makes sense because people read that big spec script and then they think they have some project they think you would be good for based on that [script].
FD: You sold projects that didn’t end up being produced, and you were working on assignments, but you kept writing your own specs. That eventually led to the sale of Source Code. I have to ask, what was the moment like for you when you sat down in the theater, looked at the full house and thought, “They’re all here to see the movie that I wrote”?
BR: It’s a wonderful moment and it’s like you’re wandering into your own imagination. You see the credits at the end. You see the character names and the actors who played them and these are characters that you named and whose dialogue that you wrote. You thought them up and suddenly they’re all embodied. It’s this tremendous feeling of surreal power. I guess you could say that you’re witnessing the build out of your own imagination. It is wonderful, when it’s working well, to detach, pull back and watch the audience watch the movie and experience how they see the movie. That teaches you a lot as a writer, when you’re working too, because you always want to be aware of how things are playing for an audience.
FD: An admittedly silly question here. We’ve all had that person in our life, whether it’s sincerely trying to help or passive-aggressively trying to throw some shade, who question our sanity trying to break into Hollywood. “Might as well buy lottery tickets” they like to tell us. When the lights went down, without having to give any names, did you think, “I should really call this person”?
BR: (Laughs) I will say that there were people, as I was trying to work out what Source Code should be, producers I was trying to pitch and to and partner with. I got a lot of blank stares. After the movie came out, one of those producers called me and said, “Okay, I’m a total idiot.”
But I have to say that it was a difficult idea to convey and an idea that had to be written out. The types of people who are either actively or passively trying to discourage tend to go away once you start working in the industry because you just don’t see them anymore. You’re busy with legitimate people who are making movies and they don’t have that mindset. I would just encourage writers trying to break in to simply not listen to them. Just ignore negative energy and continue to invest in yourself and take those types of creative risks. It’s so important to honor that part of yourself.
FD: Negative energy can come from outside, but also from inside. I think it’s pretty well known that writers can be their own source of negative energy. I think that everyone has that moment where we question our own sanity. We question our talent, usually I like to call that the midpoint of the script where you wonder if it’s any good. Do you have any advice for writers feeling that and to keep moving forward?
BR: Keep moving forward is good. It’s inherent in every single project. Every writer at every level will always have a moment where he or she doubts the value of what’s on the page. That’s just inherent in any creative endeavor but you have to keep pushing through that. Get to Fade Out in the end and know that the script will only get better from there.
I try to write my first draft as quickly as I can. I do a little bit of polishing but I give it to a producer or whoever my partners are and I tell myself, “Okay, it’s only going to get better from here.” And it does. The first draft is not a validation of your talent. Your first draft is a starting point.
FD: Kind of like a vomit draft? That it’s easier to fix a written word than a blank page?
BR: Yes. I don’t personally consider my first draft to be terrible. Each time I do another first draft they’re better than the previous script’s first draft. I’m never careless. I know exactly what I’m doing. With that said, I don’t sit there endlessly rewriting page 42.
FD: Do you follow a set method when you write? Randall Wallace once told me that he always laughs when people try to talk to him about the Inciting Incident in Braveheart. He said you could name multiple moments in the movie and he would agree with you because he never sat down and said, “This is where I need my Inciting Incident.” Do you follow a basic method or is it to just let the story tell itself?
BR: I know where I’m going. I outline each project. I don’t outline obsessively. I don’t outline every scene. But I do know what my first, second and third acts are. I do know what the midpoint is. I do know what the theme and the point of the story is and what the character’s journey should look like.
But what Randall Wallace may have been alluding to is that in the process of creating, things shift around and what you thought the point of the movie is becomes something else. It shifts from draft to draft. It shifts from draft into production. It shifts from dailies into rough cut. It shifts again when rough cut becomes final cut. So, you might have a bunch of different midpoints during that whole arc. Or you may have a bunch of inciting incidents during that whole arc. But I would argue that you would be well served before you sit down and write and spend some time to consider what could be some of those four or five important structural scenes. Because it gives you a frame to hang the story on even if it evolves away from that.
FD: Yeah, I like to joke that Writer Dave (the interviewer) and Director Dave don’t really like each other.
BR: (Laughs) Don’t even talk about Editor Dave.
FD: That’s not even bringing in Producer Dave who once cut a character three days before production when he looked at the budget.
BR: And that’s a whole other type of writing. Writing for production and trimming stuff down. You have stuff that gets made and you realize how much you’ve been overwriting and how little you need. How hard it is to be simple.
FD: As a writer, what is the bigger moment for you? The day the spec script sells or the day you get the official green light for production?
BR: It has to be the green light. Movies are miracles when they get made, so you want to celebrate that whenever it happens. For every movie that gets made you probably have two or three or four other spec script sales that are always exciting and always gratifying, but that’s not why you’re in the business. You’re in the business to get movies made and to get them into theaters and onto screens and in front of people.
FD: You’re next announced project is Source Code 2. Were you apprehensive when they first started talking a sequel to it, or had you always thought about a sequel?
BR: I didn’t write the first one to be the first of a series. I tried to tell a closed-ended story as best I could. But the fact that Source Code was a profitable movie meant that I was not surprised when they came to me wanting to do a sequel. I think I’m also helped by the multi-layered story, the non-linear world of Source Code that it allows us to either continue Source Code 1’s original story or pick up with a fresh story.
FD: One final question. Are you still able to roll those perfect film school coaxial cables you’ve talked about?
BR: (Laughs) I can, but these days it’s more about rolling up the garden hose in my yard than the cables.
Dave Merlino and Dustin Sweet
Dave Merlino and Dustin Sweet are friends who have somehow managed to survive being writing partners. They are winners of the Randall Wallace Round of the Industry Insider Contest and placed in the Top 10 of the 2014 Final Draft Big Break Contest in the horror genre. Their short film, Happy Birthday, Dad, is currently playing on the festival circuit and will be released publicly on June 18th. For more information on the film, you can visit its website at www.hbdfilm.com. You can follow them on Twitter at @damerlino and @dustinsweet