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INTERVIEW: Kim Benabib (THE BRINK)
Late night shows like THE DAILY SHOW and REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER use humor to discuss politics. HBO’s THE BRINK uses politics to create one of the funniest and most well-written sitcoms on television.
The show, which was created by Kim Benabib and his brother Roberto Benabib, was picked up for a second season by HBO two weeks after the death of the series’ executive producer Jerry Weintraub.
The WGAE spoke with Kim about THE BRINK and his writing process.
THE BRINK focuses on America’s foreign policy. Are there certain politicians or specific events that inspired the show’s debut season?
We were inspired more by the state of world affairs than any specific politicians. The crazy policies favored by supposedly serious people in Washington and other world capitals was our jumping off point. The debate between hawks and doves was very fertile ground to get at some of these issues in a comedic way. But more than any news headlines, what inspired us was the comedy and cinema of the Vietnam era and into the 1970’s. Obviously there is a loving homage to DR. STRANGELOVE, but also films such as CATCH-22, NETWORK, and Robert Altman’s MASH. These were all politically engaged in a way that comedy has not been for a long time. In a post-SEINFELD world comedy has retreated to a micro landscape of relationships and workplaces. We wanted to go back and do something in the vein of the era when comedy took a wider view of the world.
Please tell me a bit about how the story was first developed.
THE BRINK started out as a spec script. My brother Roberto Benabib (an Executive Producer on WEEDS) and I wrote it together while he was in Los Angeles and I was in New York. We were thinking about the structure of DR. STRANGELOVE and how we could tell three different but interrelated stories in a half-hour format. We began to muse on characters and worlds and then emailed drafts back and forth to each other over a few months. Because it was quite different in conception than anything out there we got attention right away. Our agent sent the script to the late Jerry Weintraub, an amazing and legendary producer, who loved it and took the script to HBO where he had a deal. Shortly after that the director Jay Roach came on board and we were off and running.
How did things work within the writing room to build such dark and humorous storylines.
After the pilot was picked up to series we started a writer’s room and hired a staff. We had both TV writers (HOUSE OF CARDS, WEEDS) and feature writers in the room. The challenge was to build the 10-episode season using the three parallel stories of a Secretary of State (Tim Robbins), a foreign service officer (Jack Black), and a Navy fighter pilot (Pablo Schreiber) in a way that would unfold like a movie. We wanted to tell the stories on a big canvas, and to give the show a cinematic scope and scale. In the world of hour-long dramas that kind of scale has become the norm, but for a half-hour show we knew this was something new and different. That definitely excited us about what we were building in the room.
What source materials did you find vital for you and other writers on THE BRINK?
We read a lot of material on the worlds we depict, including some great books on Pakistan and the region. We also had a great team of technical advisers, including former State Department officials, Navy fighter pilots, and staffers who have served in the White House. And we all combed through the news. The writing staff would constantly email each other with links and articles that drove a lot of the conversation in the room.
Tell me a bit about the traits that are essential to Walter Larson (Tim Robbins), Alex Talbot (Jack Black), Zeke Tilson (Pablo Schreiber) and the amazing supporting cast.
The three leads are clearly flawed people who get caught up in a doomsday scenario and then have to find a way out for the greater good. We liked starting them in this fun place of human foibles and then show that the crazy forces they’re working against are actually worse. Walter Larson arrives in the Situation Room hung over, but he’s the only voice of reason in that room. Alex Talbot is looking for a good time when we meet him, but he has to navigate a US embassy where the born-again US ambassador is rooting for end times. And Zeke is a Navy pilot who deals drugs because his country has left him basically broke and in debt. While our media culture obsesses over personal foibles, those things pale in comparison to political malfeasance, especially when you’re talking about issues of war and peace.
Are there any particular scenes that you felt translated especially well – or became radically different – from the page to the screen?
One of the great things about our production process is that we have actors who are willing to rehearse together with the writers before we shoot. This is not always the case in TV, and it was a great opportunity to work out that transition from page to screen. Sometimes we would try alternate ways of doing things right in the rehearsals. It really became a collaboration with the actors, the writers, and our directors. Very often we would take what we had seen in the rehearsals and deliver new script pages overnight to the set. It was enormously valuable.
When and where do you do most of your writing? What kind of environment do you like when your write?
The best place for me to write is at home. We are at the office and in the writer’s room every day, but then once we have the season broken and outlined the writers break for two weeks to write scripts and there is no place like home at that point. I’m still old fashioned in that I need to print out my pages and go over them with a red pen for revisions as I go. I can only stare at the screen for so long before I have to see it on paper.
What shows, movies, books or media has demanded your attention in the last year?
I think it’s incredibly exciting to bring to television original ideas that movie studios are getting out of the business of making. I love what Steven Soderbergh is doing with his series THE KNICK. I watch Louis CK’s show regularly. I also watch a lot of documentaries. Everything done by PBS’s FRONTLINE series is great. You could option many of them to adapt for film. And Alex Gibney’s GOING CLEAR was probably the most riveting TV this year.
Follow Kim Benabib on Twitter at @KimBenabib