Interview: Laura Bensick
Runner-up in the 2016 Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition, Laura Bensick’s career has been steadily on the rise. In September 2019, she sold her show Everyday Insanity to Fox with Sterling K. Brown (This is Us) and Ken Olin producing. Earlier the same year, her play Life in Paradox debuted in Los Angeles. She placed in Script Pipeline with her pilot The Mother and later signed with UTA.
You showed up on our radar with The Mother, which is still one of the most remarkable drama pilots we’ve reviewed, and placed as runner-up in a tight race that season for the top spot. When writers are consistently drilled with this notion that they should only be focused on “writing genre,” how do you disregard that for a moment and write what feels true to your self and your sensibilities? What inspired the concept behind The Mother, which is, let’s be honest, a fairly heavy subject matter? (no need to pitch it here, though, let’s keep that under wraps. . . .)
First of all, thank you for your kind words about The Mother. It still holds a very special place in my heart. I think that you always have to find some connection to what you’re writing. If not, I think the writing comes off as inauthentic and the reader/audience can tell that you’re not truly passionate about the story. That said, it’s a balance–you do also have to keep in mind what the industry wants without letting that completely dictate what you write, especially because the market is constantly changing. Of course in TV, you also need to think about how the series can sustain itself for many hours. So there’s a lot to weigh, but the most important factor is that you really care about what you’re writing, especially when it’s an original script. If it’s someone else’s show you’re writing on, you still need to find what you connect to personally, and I find that, at least for me, it lies in the characters and their relationships.
When I wrote The Mother, it was the most personal pilot I’d ever written. As I was outlining, the characters were really telling me what scenes I needed–I was waking up in the middle of the night going “oh, we have to see that moment” and scribbling it down. It came together incredibly quickly I think because I was so familiar with the inner lives of my characters and their relationships because they came from such a personal place. The script explores, among other things, a family whose lives are changed by their loved one’s mental health issues. That was something I had lived, and while the circumstances in the pilot are much different than what my family went through, the emotional truths were very similar. As I wrote it, I felt so connected to the characters. I remember crying while writing one of the scenes because I could feel the main character’s pain. It all felt so real to me, and I think that’s what you have to aim for in your writing. If it affects you, odds are it will affect someone reading or watching it. And sure enough, The Mother was the pilot that for the first time, really got me noticed by the industry and has propelled my career since then.
It was inspired by my desire to tell the story of mental health in a family and the goal for a lot of my writing which is to explore issues that specifically impact women. The main character is someone who has been vilified by society and I wanted to challenge that notion–to explore who she is as a person and as a mother and daughter, which I think is something we should remember to do with everyone affected by a mental health issue: they are not their illness, they are a person. So needless to say, I’m very passionate about this subject matter, and I found a way to explore it on a very personal level in the script, while also developing a mystery that pushed the story forward. I would encourage any writer to think about what they’re most passionate about and write about it. Yes, find what’s going to make it marketable too, but start with the personal and the passion and then figure out the hook.
Your play Life in Paradox is autobiographical. When something is so personal, even if only in theme, do you approach the story differently? Is there a sense of, let’s say, “creative therapy” in that process? We see it more often now than years back, too: screenwriters crossing over into playwriting. But it’s still rare. Why did you take that plunge?
Oh, definitely. There is a lot of responsibility when it’s autobiographical, especially because it wasn’t just focused on me, it was focused on my family, and I wanted to make sure I portrayed their lives authentically. Of course, the first step was asking all of them for permission to tell the story! The next step was deciding on the right medium for the story, and I happened to be taking a class at the time about documentary drama (for ex: The Laramie Project). I realized the best way to tell the story was to let them tell it in their own words in the form of a documentary drama. So I interviewed each of my family members, and my brother lent me his journals, and I wove all of their words into a play following nine years in my family’s lives after my brother’s diagnosis with a very serious mental health issue.
I ultimately chose to leave myself out of the play because it felt that my “voice” came through in how I crafted the story, I didn’t need to be a character. Emily Mann (a playwright who has written many documentary dramas) has discussed how this type of theater piece allows you to portray factual authenticity, but that there is an undeniable presence of subjectivity because the playwright chooses which words to include and how to structure the piece/tell the story. I found that to absolutely be true. It was ultimately a very cathartic play to write because it allowed me to process everything that happened during that very tumultuous time. I was 13 when my brother was diagnosed so I also just couldn’t even grasp everything at that age. Getting to hear each of my family members talk about their experiences helped me to understand all the different points of view, how my family fell apart, and ultimately, find the positives that came out of everything.
As for crossing over to playwriting, I actually wrote this play years ago, before I crossed into screenwriting. So playwriting was my first love before I discovered writing for television. I had always loved TV, and it was almost therapy for me to watch it when everything was so challenging at home, but I really hadn’t ever thought about the fact that people write for it. It wasn’t until I had a roommate in LA who was working on a show and thought “oh, maybe that’s something I could try!” TV draws on all the character work and dialogue from playwriting, and like theater, TV is very collaborative, and I love that.
Your show at Fox is adjacent to Life in Paradox, it seems. Everyday Insanity revolves around a similar topic. Did producing the play help fuel this sale? Tell us a little (or as much as you’re able) about the series itself and the direction you see it heading toward.
It is similar–both explore mental health, but Everyday Insanity will cover a lot more ground. Producing the play didn’t really lead to the sale, though funnily, as things always seem to happen at the same time, I was in rehearsals for Life in Paradox the same week I was due to pitch to 20th Century Fox (the studio behind Everyday Insanity). While that was very stressful, I think it put me in a good headspace for the pitch because I was reliving everything my family went through in rehearsals, so that was really on my mind when I then pitched this very personal project to 20th. My pitch to 20th was actually the morning of opening night, and my wonderful producers came to the opening and revealed 20th had signed on. I honestly don’t remember what I said to anyone that night because I was so overwhelmed, emotional, and excited!
I don’t know how much I can reveal about Everyday Insanity but it’s an uplifting drama about three wildly different families who form a “created family” to support each other after their loved ones are diagnosed with mental illnesses. I’m hoping to portray the reality of these situations, but also give hope to those who may be struggling or have a loved one who is struggling. My family and I have found that our experiences with mental health have been incredibly challenging, but also have really taught us the true meaning of unconditional love. That’s what I hope to capture in this show. And I think that in a time when our country is so divided, it’s interesting to explore people who come from very different walks of life, who have potentially opposing points of view and values, and yet can also find common ground in a shared experience and the love they have for their families. It’s inspired by my family’s experiences and how what we’ve gone through has connected us with other families also dealing with mental health issues. And I hope that by putting these stories on screen, it can have some part in ending the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Behind every good writer is a good rep–or team of reps. How did your early contest and fellowship recognition parlay into finding management? And the bigger question for writers who have yet to find a manager or agent they connect with, what are some of the things you look out for when deciding on a manger or agent? Understanding your voice and your material, of course, but what else makes a working relationship successful?
I think that early contest and fellowship recognition showed my manager that I was pursuing this seriously. Someone else had vetted me and decided I had writing worth reading, and it got me in the door to meet with him. I meet with a lot of writers starting out and remind them to make sure they aren’t relying on just one good script to get reps. Yes, that may be getting you recognized, but the rep’s first question will be “what else do you have?” They want to make sure you’re not a “one hit wonder.” My manager actually read four of my scripts (three pilots and a spec) before signing me–fortunately he reads quickly so I wasn’t anxiously waiting for an answer for too long! The attention I got for The Mother, both from contest wins and producers (including one I met through Script Pipeline), helped me land agents.
As for what to look for, yes, the most important part is that they understand your voice and material, but also that they can verbalize why they love it. I think it’s good to ask in a meeting, “what did you like about [script]?” because it helps you know how they are going to pitch you and your script to other people. Also, if they don’t offer up notes, ask for some so you know how they give notes, and if they’re smart notes. Ask about how they like to work with their clients (some are really into development, some are more hands-off with writing/into the business side of things more). Ask about their favorite shows, how they’ve helped other “baby writer” clients launch their careers, what their plan would be for you over the next year and five years. Basically you want to get all the information you need to know about how they do business while also assessing their personality and if it’ll be a match with yours. And ask around to make sure they have a good reputation in the industry because you want execs to take their calls. As for making it successful, I think it’s a relationship of mutual respect. Listen to them but also let them know when you disagree, in a respectful way. I think that especially for women, it’s sometimes hard to speak up because you don’t want to be “difficult” and I’ve had to learn how to do that. It’s important because it’s your career so don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. The main thing they’ll ask of you is that you just keep pumping out new material.
I always ask this question because individual experiences vary: what’s the pitch process when you’re meeting with networks and TV execs? That first meeting you ever had, what was it like? What are some things a new writer or show creator needs to focus on in a face-to-face conversation to fully illustrate their project and themselves as a writer?
No, it’s actually not as bad as our anxious writer minds make it out to be, but pitching is definitely it’s own unique challenge. After all, writers tend to be people who communicate best through writing, not speaking.
I was lucky for this project to have a great team of producers and studio execs to come to the pitch with me. I would get to all the pitches very early, you never want to be stressed out about traffic, and sit in my car and just take some time to get in the right headspace for the pitch.
Then, once you get brought into the room, it’s a couple minutes of just chatting, and then in my case, the studio execs talked about why they like the project, then the producers about what they connect with, and then they turned it over to me. I basically had the pitch memorized, but brought cards just in case my mind went blank or if they ask a question and the rhythm is interrupted. I know some people memorize, some people don’t, but for me, it actually helps me be the most natural while also making eye contact. After you finish pitching, they’ll ask questions, and that’s it! Something someone told me which is good to remember is that the execs are rooting for you to do well — they want you to have a great idea.
As for what you need to have prepared: have your “quick story” about yourself (that’s more for general meetings than pitches, in a pitch you should address how the show is personal to you, but it’s not the couple minute blurb you’d give in a general). In the pitch, besides your personal connection to the project you’re pitching, you should be able to talk tone, characters, pilot story, season one arcs, and at least some about future seasons. Brainstorm some possible questions they might ask and your answers. I think especially with TV it’s important that you spend time on the characters because those are the people who will keep audiences tuning back in each week. Make sure you’re enthusiastic about the project (without being desperate).
Also, do your research on the people you’re meeting with ahead of time so you know what they’ve worked on, their tastes, anything you have in common with them, and if it comes up naturally in the meeting, you can connect over something. And finally, if your mind goes blank, take a sip from that water bottle they’ll give you–it’s a great way to stall for a moment!
Laura Bensick discovered her passion for storytelling as a drama major at Washington University in St. Louis through two quite different writing mediums. . . . She penned plays, including an autobiographical drama about mental health issues in her family, and she also embraced lighter fare as the school’s romance columnist. But TV was Laura’s true love and she went on to earn her MFA in Writing for Screen & Television from USC. Laura’s pilots have placed as runner-up in the Script Pipeline TV Writing Contest, and finalists in Austin Film Festival and the PAGE Screenwriting Awards. In 2017, she landed on the Tracking Board’s Young & Hungry List. Most recently, she developed TV projects with Sony TV and Warner Bros. TV. Currently, Laura is developing the family drama Everyday Insanity at Fox with Sterling K. Brown’s Indian Meadows Productions, executive producer Ken Olin, and 20th Century Fox TV.