Interview: Ben Robbins (MADOFF)

Ben RobbinsThe two-part original movie event MADOFF airs tonight (February 3rd) and tomorrow (February 4th) at 8pm on ABC.

MADOFF follows the prodigious rise and abrupt demise of the former investment advisor and the subsequent fallout with his family, associates and investors. Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss stars as Bernie Madoff, with Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth.

MADOFF was written by Ben Robbins. Ben has written and produced the Banff Award-nominated A&E Biography specials BOB DYLAN: AMERICAN TROUBADOUR and EUGENE O’NEIL: A HAUNTED LIFE. He has also written and produced for the nonfiction shows MEDIA MATTERS (PBS), THE FIRST 48 (A&E) and INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS (A&E). Robbins currently serves as the Creative Director of The Screenwriters Colony.

The WGAE spoke with Ben about his writing process, how he got his start and MADOFF.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got your start and how you came to write the mini-series MADOFF?

I started out working in distribution for Bingham Ray, whom I still miss every day. He taught me how hard you have to fight for your vision to keep it intact at every step of the process. I lucked into my first screenwriting break while working in documentaries, adapting Hemingway’s A MOVEABLE FEAST for a documentary producer who had the rights and (for some inexplicable reason) thought I knew what I was doing.

For MADOFF, an exec at ABC read a screenplay of mine called KINGS OF CAMDEN that I’d been developing with Frank Oz. He liked the writing and asked me to pitch on MADOFF.

Your script for MADOFF is based off on? ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross’s book The Madoff Chronicles. What other materials/resources did you have to aide you with your script?

This is one of the most covered stories of the past decade. The research process was much more about avoiding falling into rabbits’ holes – choosing what not to dig into rather than searching for more information.

What were some of major themes from Madoff’s story that you felt were important to be included in this mini-series?

People always hold Bernie up as an icon – the icon, really – of greed. I think that’s wrong. The more I learned about him, the more I realized he wasn’t motivated by money but by the need for admiration. Bernie was worshipped within his community. That’s what he got addicted to and couldn’t imagine giving up even when he knew things couldn’t end well.

How did you put together your script? Do you have a certain way you like to work when you’re telling a story?

It turns out that writing four hours of television is more than a bit of a structural challenge. I’m a fanatic about notecarding. They’re almost literally my security blanket. By the time I had the whole series structured, all three panels at my carrel at the Brooklyn Writers Space were papered over with notecards. It looked like an analog version of Tom Cruise in Minority Report – or maybe the obsession wall of a deranged serial killer.

Is there a scene that you felt translated particularly well from the page to the screen?

I love con-men movies. We’ve taken some flak from reviewers for having too much fun with the con at the expense of conveying the victims’ pain, but scenes like the ones where Bernie dupes his hedge-fund investors with fake software, or forges documents for the SEC are hard to resist – they’re pretty much screenwriter catnip.

How do you like to write? What kind of environment do you like to be in?

If I don’t get started first thing in the morning, I’m screwed. OK, not screwed, but about half as productive at best. Quiet is important. The only music I ever listen to while writing is Django Reinhardt or Arvo Pärt – nothing with words. I also need somewhere I can nap.

Are there things that you’re watching or reading right now that you would recommend to other writers?

I think the best writing on TV right now is in BETTER CALL SAUL, TRANSPARENT, FARGO and LOUIE – which I truly think is a masterpiece on the order of THE SOPRANOS and THE WIRE. In movies this year, I thought EX-MACHINA was fantastic across the board – definitely the best-written film of the year, with INSIDE OUT a close second. And in its own way, MAD MAX was a pretty amazing script, too.

Can you point to a specific line or piece of dialogue you wrote for MADOFF that you personally love and why?

One of my favorite scenes was one that ultimately didn’t make it into the movie. It was Bernie on the morning of 9/11, eerily calm as he watched the smoke from the Twin Towers rise in the distance. While the rest of the world freaked out, we heard his thoughts in VO: “So this is how it ends. How it had to end. Everyone dies. I die. My investors die. My family dies. The world ends… and I get away with it.”

Highlights From “Writing Disabled Characters” Panel (VIDEO)

The Writers Guild of America, East. in partnership with the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, presented a panel on "Writing Disabled Characters" on June 10. The panel was hosted by Tom Fontana (OZ, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET) and featured writers from THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW, LAW & ORDER and DRAGON TALES. You can watch video clips from the event here.

Diversity-focused Hollywood Creative Forum East happens June 19

On June 19, Writers Guild of America, East’s partners with The Walter Kaitz Foundation and The American Black Film Festival to present the HOLLYWOOD CREATIVE FORUM EAST. The program is meant to help build and promote diversity in television and film by generating a new and innovative program for its 18th annual American Black Film Festival (ABFF). This inaugural program will provide critical information for diverse writers and writer/ producers to succeed in television and foster relationships between established showrunners and writing talent from the realm of film, television and theater. Learn more about the Hollywood Creative Forum East here

Writer-Producers at Original Media Will Vote To Join WGAE

The writer-producers employed by New York nonfiction TV production company Original Media (Ink Master, BBQ Pitmasters) will vote whether to be represented by the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) in an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.  Ballots will be counted the second week of July. Read the full press release here.

Interview with David Javerbaum (Maya Rudolph Show, The Daily Show)

The WGAE Write On Blog interviewed David Javerbaum. Javerbaum’s work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, A Colbert Christmas and the Tony Awards has earned him two Writers Guild Awards, 13 Emmys, two Peabodys, a Grammy, the Thurber Prize and numerous other accolades. We spoke with the writer, lyricist and satirist while he’s working as the head writer of the highly-anticipated The Maya Rudolph Show. Read the full interview here.

WGAE Negotiates Collective Bargaining Agreement with Sharp Entertainment

The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) announced it has negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with Sharp Entertainment, LLC, one of the largest nonfiction television production companies in New York. Sharp produces shows for cable television such as Doomsday Preppers, Man vs. Food, and Bad Ink.  There are currently about 70 bargaining unit employees; in the course of a year the company employs approximately 150 writer-producers who are now represented by the WGAE. Read the full press release here.

Screenwriters Workshop Looking For New Members

Looking for a supportive writers group where you can get solid feedback on your new script? The Screenwriters Workshop at the WGAE has been meeting for four years and is looking for new members. The Workshop has openings for screenwriters/television writers/web writers who are actively working on new projects, including full or partial scripts, treatments, pilots, web series, etc. The Workshop also plans to team up with actors for table-reads. It’s is a fun, active, and diverse group.  For more information, please e-mail .

Statement on FCC’s Proposed Changes To The Open Internet Rules

Following the DC Circuit Court ruling, the FCC has the opportunity to stand with the hundreds of millions of Americans who use the internet every day as a basic utility in their lives for work, news and entertainment.  We urge the FCC to recognize that the American people will pay the price for permitting the Internet to be reconfigured in the interest of well-heeled gatekeepers. Click here to read the full statement.

Statement on Senate Hearing on Proposed Comcast/NBCU-Time Warner Cable Merger

The Writers Guild of America, East issued the below statement following today’s Senate Judiciary Committee on the proposed Comcast/NBCU-Time Warner Cable merger:“Comcast/NBCU/TWC is positioning itself at the top rung of the new media eco-system.  Forget the old world in which studios were independent of movie theaters (as required by anti-trust regulators many decades ago), where content producers were independent of cable TV companies, where television and Internet distribution were distinct businesses. Comcast/NBCU/TWC recognizes a new universe in which consumers will go to one place to watch what they want, when they want it – and Comcast/NBCU/TWC intends to be that place.  It wants the market and pricing power to dominate (at least in a third of the U.S., including most of the major urban markets), and to reap the profits of that domination.  This is not in the interest of cable and broadband customers, or of content-creators, or of the employees who face Comcast/NBCU in the workplace."

Interview: Joe Mefford on Final Draft 9, April 2 Training Session

On Wednesday, April 2, the Writers Guild of America, East  will hold a training session for the recently released Final Draft 9 with Joe Mefford, Final Draft’s Vice President of Ecommerce (RSVP HERE). At the training, Joe will be demonstrating the all-new Final Draft 9 for Mac and Windows along with the Final Draft Writer for iPad and the Final Draft Reader for iPhone.

The WGAE Write On Blog spoke with Final Draft’s Vice Presidnet of Ecommerce, Joe Mefford, about Final Draft Version 9 and what members can expect to learn at our upcoming training session. Read the full interview here.