1 on 1 with Writer/Producer, Pam Bentley

by Meeshelle Neal on January 5, 2011

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Pam Bentley is a writer/producer hailing us from many places including Louisiana, Ottawa and New Mexico.  I was delighted to have the chance to sit down and discuss her view on the acting world, making movies and overall telling a story.

Meeshelle: So, Pam, tell us a bit about yourself and what brought you to Vancouver.

Pam: Well, I have had lots of experience with story, in many different forms: teaching high school drama & English, teaching college literature and composition, helping other people tell their stories, writing, narrative poetry, writing novella- I just finished a draft of a novella and then, you know, writing scripts – it’s all about story right?

I came to Vancouver to kind of start another phase of my life where I’d stopped teaching and I wanted to do my stories instead of teaching or helping other people do their stories.  But what’s been good about that is, working with film you work with a whole team of people and of course you all work together.  So as a producer I get to help them make it happen.

M: During a conversation we had a while ago you mentioned auditioning a group of dogs and how you wish actors could have seen that.  Can you elaborate?

Pam: I had put up a description onto Craigslist of the five dogs that we needed and I was describing a look and an attitude.  So, I’m looking through these e-mails and these pictures and going, “That’s a great dog, but it’s not anywhere near what I described or what I’m looking for,” and I thought, “This must be what it’s like (when looking) for actors,” but for actors it’s harder to not take it personally because actors go to auditions and then they think that it’s because they can’t act but it might not be that at all.  It might just be that you’re not right for what somebody who has the most power on the decision-making team has envisioned for that part.

So, in that light I thought it might be very good because I know it can be ego bashing for actors to go to auditions but it just made me realize that oftentimes it’s nothing you have any control over.

M: What about when you were looking for voice-over actors?  How was that?

Pam: Well, that… (she laughs) the voice over actors were more just who was available to do it.  We asked people who we knew had a great attitude.  We knew people who were experienced voice actors but there was this one person we got because he was an experienced voice actor and he also does sound work and he had to cancel on us the day before.  So we ended up getting the roommate of somebody who Tara (the director) knew and he was awesome.

M: What has been the hardest part of being a producer?

Pam: I enjoy the parts where I get to put together the team.  I really enjoy the parts where I’m problem solving.  The parts that are tough or the parts where I go, “Oh no I’ve put myself in a role that separates me out and takes me out of the fun,” or when you have to say some version of, “the clock is ticking and the money drawer is open.  Let’s go here.”

I want to be part of the process and because I’m a writer as well, it’s really thrilling for me to see the work come to life. I know each of the people on the team in varying degrees and don’t want to squash or limit or take away from what they’re doing but as the producer I’ve got to say, “We’ve got another hour and, this has to be done today, so if you want that shot, you gotta move it.”  And sometimes people get a little annoyed and that was the hardest part… that and the reaction to me playing that role… because, I would love to just let it go.

M: What’s the biggest challenge to you as a writer?

Pam: I love seeing my work come to life but then when you hear something and it’s not working or it really sucks, like something that you didn’t notice until you hear it in the actors’ voices and it’s too late to change.  That’s hard.

Knowing that it might never be made.  Something you’re writing might not ever be made because you don’t have access to the power to make it happen.

M: I can see how that would be especially difficult.  From a producer/writer standpoint, what are you looking for when an actor auditions?

Pam: Well, the look and attitude of the character.  So, they’re close enough to it that they can do it naturally or it’s just easy for them.   I want them to be interested in the project.  I want them to have read the script and I want them to have thought about the character and I know that that’s not industry standard (to have read the script), and I know that not everyone is going to be as passionate about it as the person whose project it is but I want to know that that person somewhat ‘gets’ what you’re trying to do and at least has some passion for it.  Because otherwise perhaps they would be better off working on something that they do have passion for and we would be better off with someone who gets what we’re doing and delights in it as well.

M: What can they bring to the role or to set?

Pam: I think that they need to be willing to have fun.  That’s huge for me.  I think the creative process is fun and you have to be willing to have fun.  And, I want to hear their ideas.  I want them to be open to collaboration.

M: How would you respond if an actor feels they’ve blown the audition and asks to go again?

Pam: It depends on how they ask.  I would let them do it and see what they bring the second time.  The more money you have the less personality matters but when you’re working on small budget stuff, it’s all about who you are and the attitude you’ll bring to set.  Aim to be gracious, always.

M: Do you ever go elsewhere to find talent?

Pam: I go to the cold reading series and am blown away by the talent there.  I would like to see more diversity on television (and in general).  That’s why I like British TV. People look like people.  I mean, I wrote a script in the hopes that we would cast fuller figured women but I have some sadness around the thought that if it gets picked up they’ll change the women to a size zero.  Beauty is so much more varied than that.

I have a friend who says that if he’s watching a show and all the characters look too similar, within the first five minutes he’ll change the channel.  I love that.  He just, changes the channel.

M: Nice.  So, let’s go back to the writing aspect.  Your latest project was co-written.  How was that for you?

Pam: I love co-writing, particularly if you have a co-writer who is good at the things that you might not be so good at.  So one of my things is actually getting the draft down but once I’ve started on it, it gets some momentum but my co-writer is good at just getting things down.  I guess it’s that kind of tyranny of the blank page.

I also think a lot when I talk, so with co-writing you can talk through ideas and in comedy in particular you can riff off each other and the jokes come a lot faster and I think they are a lot funnier that way.

M: What sort of advice do you have for actors in general?

Pam: I don’t know… that’s a tough one.  I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice.  I’m old enough to know that I’m wise enough to not know.  (both laugh)

M: What did you used to tell your acting students?

Pam: When I was teaching high-school drama my background wasn’t actually theatre.  I had a Masters degree in English and I got into teaching drama because I was teaching at a small school and they needed a drama teacher and I was willing to try, so I learned a lot as I was teaching.  That’s why I hesitate.

When I taught high-school drama it was more about the drama rather than theatre because I think high school drama is more for the kids to become comfortable in their own skin and whether they become actors or not, because there’s probably one out of 1000 who do go on.

There were a lot of kids who are told directly to their face that they are stupid or what-not so then as a composition teacher you help them find their voice, right?  And when you teach high school drama you help kids find their voice, whether or not they use it for acting.

It’s all about story and voice.

Through helping people become more comfortable in their own skin I learned to do it myself too.  ‘Cause I was only 27 when I started.  I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin yet.

So maybe it’s that.  Be comfortable in your own skin.  Don’t take it so personally. 

M: It’s a hard thing to do.  Intellectually we might know but when all you hear is “no no no” and get that constant rejection, it’s hard not to take it personally.  So, that’s what made me want to interview you.

Pam: Ok, so here’s another example, you might not use this but think about the rejection in a romantic sense.  You go to a bar and don’t want to approach anyone because you don’t want to get rejected or whatever but… you have no idea why they might be saying no to you.  Maybe you look like their mother.  Maybe your voice sounds like the teacher they hated in high school.  Maybe they’re coming down with the flu.  You know?  But… what do we do to ourselves?

M: Exactly.  Well Pam, thank you for letting me interview you.  Do you have any parting words?  Anything we haven’t covered?

Pam: Yes.  Trust your director.  The producer and director have probably had a lot of talks about what they’re looking for.  The director does not work in a vacuum and there are a lot of producer/writers out there.  And have fun.

Pam’s words about wanting more diversity made me think about ‘reality’ television.  Perhaps that is why we are drawn to these shows that are often extremely far from ‘reality,’ but tend to have people of varying weight, height, colour and background.  As much as I hate to say it, in that way reality t.v. shows give us the diversity we so crave.

Episode 1 of  The Dogumentary

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