Southend writer Ben Trebilcook share’s how he ended up writing for the likes of Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis, finding that creative spark to continue when things are down and how we all have a symbolic ‘monk’ figure who believes in us.
Hello. I’m Ben. I’ve been writing movies for goodness knows how long. Some were kind of made. Some were rewritten, some were bought and not made and most will never be made. I’ll get back to that further down this lengthy blog, so do bear with me.
I have a monk friend. I don’t go out with an intention to meet him, I just randomly bump into him; be it on the seafront, in a side street or shopping centre and it’s more often than not when I am carried away with a deep thought of hope.
He is real, by the way, the monk. I did doubt his existence once or twice, however one clarification came from my little boy, Finn, who said: “There’s monk, under the blossom tree,” whilst another came in the form of good ole faithful Facebook.
I respect the monk, though my cinematic mind kicks in every time I see him. He’s my Miyagi. He has sensed my feelings of angst, passion and will. He has told me life is like a wheel and I am moving from the bottom and will eventually be on top again, just believe.
Every single one of us has ‘stuff’ going on. On top of all our ‘stuff’ we, as creatives, have our creative ‘stuff’. We want things to run smoothly, without the bumps and the drama. “Why can’t I be an overnight success?” We can sometimes have days of grumpiness, which may be seen by others as bitter jealousies when discussing (bringing down, dissing) other artists: “How the heck did they get that gig!” It’s so easy to lose our focus – and d’you know what? It’s OK to have those days. We all get them. ALL levels of the game get them, but back to the monk for a second, we need to continue to believe in ourselves and retain that never-give-up attitude. In this business and of course with life in general, but for this article and for US, our never-give-up is film. Without the bumps and the drama, I hasten to add, we wouldn’t be the tough go-getters of Never-Give-Up Land.
When I was asked to contribute to this month’s article, I hadn’t a clue on what to write for you, as members, for you as friends and for you as colleagues. I’d written a lot of blogs over the years for film sites and movie networking platforms didn’t want to repeat myself. I have been feeling knackered of late from ‘life stuff’ which in turn tripped over and bullied the hell out of my ‘creative stuff’. I had been in a limbo state for sure.
Where was I? Oh yes, those little bouts of feeling low and the need for a boost of self-belief. I liken the feeling of a baby falling over and getting back on its feet again, having tried to walk. The baby doesn’t stay on the floor, it gets back up and tries again. It’s what we must do after a creative fall. Pick ourselves up again and start walking.
I was working in a supermarket in south east London for many years. During those teenage years, I fell for a colleague I based a character on. Lorna would often ‘shoot’ me a ‘Hello, Benny!’ with her two finger gun-hand as she bounced with her rucksack, swinging her ponytail and started her shift, having been at college studying antiques and history and psychology. She whistled the Indiana Jones theme tune one time and I was in awe. Despite sending scripts about a female Indiana Jones and a character called Lorna Cruise to a video game company to reject in the mid-nineties, my ears turned to a funny character at work. He was a guy who used to collect the trolleys and one day he yelled out at me: “Hello, monk!” I laughed and found that quite bizarre, but then heard a: “Hello, Malcolm,” for a reply. Turning, I saw an actual Benedictine monk, doing some shopping. I was writing and sending off scripts, trying to get an agent to no avail. I had experienced many knocks and creative lows. I stepped outside during my evening break and saw the monk exit a library opposite. “I believe it’s closing soon,” he said to me, oddly. I found myself going inside to get a number for Twentieth Century Fox in LA. I decided to call them and tell them I had written a cool Die Hard 4 script. I called them from a phone box in my evening break. They were surprisingly keen, but told me to get an agent to get in touch. I felt that boost feeling. The next day I went into the library again and got the names and addresses of about a hundred agents in LA. This was all pre the internet we have now. I wrote to them and said Fox will read my script if I had an agent. Only three replied. One in particular was a lawyer and a manager, so I chose him to represent me. It just so happened he went to law school with Bruce Willis’ lawyer. I felt on the up. Bruce’s team told me he wasn’t going to do ‘Die Hard 4’ for another six years, so I had to gain attention somehow or gain a ‘big gun’ of a producer.
I managed to gain the late great Andy Vajna’s interest. Andy produced the Rambo movies, as well as Terminator 2 and Total Recall and also Die Hard with a Vengeance. My script was set in the Caribbean, on an island. Off the back of that, I gained the interest of CW Productions and Tom Cruise. I was asked if I had anything to that would fit Tom’s character from the Mission: Impossible films. I was soon rewriting an action script of mine into a potential ‘Mission: Impossible 3’. 9/11 occurred and the world changed. I had a scene reminiscent of what took place on that unbelievably heart-breaking nightmare of a day. Action movies were put on hold. I didn’t want anybody to see that script again. I was sad. New York is my favourite place. I wrote another draft and focused on other things. I got into teaching. I drifted away from my creative kind.
I dealt with a child who shouted: “Ah, believe it, man. I got monk on my finger!” A tenuous link to monks if ever there was one, but hey, I was taking any sign I could get! Are you all still there? I decided to focus on an animated show; a British South Park, if you will. (Previous years had me hanging out with Matt Stone and Trey Parker at Rain Dance in ’94 and turning down their invitation to work on a cartoon with them). I called my cartoon ‘The Kids from the Munkfinger Estate’. There’s a trailer some place online. It didn’t take off, however it gained me an invitation to Cannes.
I could do a weekly blog on the Cannes Film Festival and my exploits there. It’s extremely exhausting and is go-go-go. Believe it or not, one can feel as though one is travelling a hundred miles an hour, yet not really getting any closer to your goals.
Having spent a few nights in a row in the company of Jean-Claude Van Damme, bemused, I sat on a bench and looked out to sea. A young homeless man, who looked like Johnny Depp, approached me and tried to sell me a premiere ticket. I pointed out to him that it had expired. He said: “Believe me, it is the real deal, just like JC the monk up there. Follow his eyes,” he gestured to a billboard of Jean-Claude that pictured a movie that never got made called ‘Kumite’. I asked the homeless chap why he called JCVD a monk, but then recalled there was talk of a friend of mine making a movie with him called ‘The Monk’. I followed JC’s eyes on the billboard and headed into a hotel where a press conference was taking place. I saw Andy Vajna who welcomed me, but told me he had sold his Die Hard rights back to Fox in order to make Terminator 3. He then introduced me to his producing partner and now my long-time friend, Mario Kassar. Mario told me to believe in myself and then introduced me to Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had met Arnold several years before in New York in 1994 whilst he was promoting ‘Junior’ with Danny Devito. As well as saying to me: “My arms are bigger than your waist. You must look after yourself,” Arnold told me: “Never give up believing.” Well, if you’re going to be told that by Arnie, you’ve little alternative than to take it in.
A couple of years went by and I received a message to get online. Bruce Willis had started his own website which bizarrely had a chat room feature. Instructed to have a ‘code name’ for which I chose ‘12th Monkey’, (Bruce’s was ‘King B’ and he actually appeared twice a week to talk to fans. Bruce, yes the Bruce Willis, would private message, tell me to ‘believe in myself’. A pick me up for sure. He said I should go to Paris and meet him. What?
It was 2005 and Bruce was promoting the movie ‘Hostage’. I found myself in Paris, but it didn’t go too well. It’s more of a pub story. In 2007 I developed a Die Hard TV show with Fox UK, which was ahead of its time and hit a few hurdles. For a long while I gave up on chasing the Die Hard dream. I had come close, however. I focused on a project I had developed years earlier called Daisy Scarlett. Having been through a massive legal dispute over who had created a certain female gaming character, lawyers said to me: “If you can create a female Indiana Jones, you can create a female James Bond.”
So, I did.
Pitched as a ‘female Bond’ that project alone went through many stops and starts. From Kate Beckinsale to Naomi Watts to Gemma Arterton to Mischa Barton, the talent interested was wonderful, yet it didn’t quite edge it to where it needed to be. I had scored another US agent and was practically living in a hotel in Westwood outside of Beverly Hills. I returned home to the UK and took my eye off the creative ball by teaching disadvantaged children in south London. I bumped into friend, Dexter Fletcher in the Apple Store in Regent Street. It then led to a friendship in stunt director Peter Pedrero who had worked on Bourne and Bond and countless others. He was keen to take on Daisy Scarlett. Peter was another monk figure and is so encouraging, though unlike the States, the UK tends not to give stunt directors feature-film gigs, despite them crafting the majority of many a film. What happened then? Die Hard 5 was savaged by the critics and some journalist friends decided to write articles about an unknown Die Hard script of mine and how it should be the sixth and final Die Hard movie. News of it went global and then nothing. I turned ‘Daisy Scarlett into a novel and then I find myself living in Southend. I’m signed by a Chinese agent, which didn’t particularly lead to too much. I end my teaching job in London and focus on my little boy, Finn and much needed ‘life stuff’ which consumed every inch of me (and still is). My producer friend Mario Kassar would and still does check in with me. He asked how I was and what I was doing. I wasn’t doing anything creative at all. I fell into a limbo state, which was utterly understandable. I was only really in contact with a three-year old each day. Mario told me to forget Die Hard and focus on myself a little more. Finn is of course important, but so is self-love. As Hollywood just isn’t what it used to be, Mario said he’d take on Daisy Scarlett in Indonesia (which required me to rework it somewhat, but hey, the legend that is MK was going to produce my movie).
Then COVID hit. What were the odds? Daisy Scarlett’s story is about a virus made in China. The world and its film sets were locked down. Nothing was happening anywhere. Life stuff rolled on. We all did what we could to get through it.
I was talking to a woman in a bank once whilst I was opening a new account. The woman said her son was a filmmaker and put me in touch as the two of us would get on. The woman’s son happened to be the talented Daniel Keeble. We’d meet up and chat film and swap stories, OK, mainly me waffling on about Van Damme, though in between he’d read some of my scripts and we’d plan to work on something. He introduced me to a mate of his, Rory Joscelyne , another film talent, who had a cyberpunk podcast and got me on it. I felt there was certainly a lot of creativity buzzing about in Southend and I craved more of it. Dan forged a great friendship with the talented Lily Streames who formed the ESSEX FILM COLLECTIVE.
Creatively zapped, I pressed on. I’m not particularly religious, but a day when I had bumped into ‘my’ Southend monk and he had told me to believe in myself, I received a call from EFC’s Lily asking me if I could do a script, which subsequently was filmed (You Know Me) as part of the EFC micro shorts series. It was a major boost, especially, one, other talents liked what I had written and two, it was definitely going to be filmed – and during lockdown!
I felt that buzz again. “Yeah!” It was great being on set and seeing the wonderful key people bringing those words I had written to life. That feeling of being on the up is certainly a good one and it brings about more good feelings and generates positive thoughts and that self-belief is starting to roll along nicely. That ‘life stuff’ will still be there, but the ‘creative stuff’ needs maintaining, feeding, watering. Being amongst like-minded, good-for-you people is essential, an absolute must. Like attracts like. It’s healthy. You ‘send it out there’, you’re sure to attract it. I’m a firm believer of that.
After the short film wrapped, I oddly, gained my first UK agent! Ever since I started writing back in, well, that’s a hard thing to nail down, too, to be honest. It’s like acting; when does one say they first acted? I used to act when I was younger, as did friends. Did my friend first ‘act’ when he was 11 in a home-zombie film that nobody saw or when he was cast in a West End production at the age of 28 where lots of people saw him? Did I first start writing when I was 14 when I was making short films or when I was 18 and had written my first screenplay or when I was 20 and had been first hired to write a script for a company? Let’s just say years. I spent so much of the nineties trying to gain UK representation. I kept all those rejection letters, too. In fact, I couldn’t even get into the film school I wanted to as it was too much money and I hadn’t a wealthy family to pay the fees, let alone a family who were connected to film. I met Elliot Grove who founded Rain Dance and attended the first and second festival in the early 90’s.
Elliot may have been my first movie monk. “Reject rejection,” he would tell me. “Believe in yourself,” he continued. OK, I wasn’t exactly writing what most people seemed to be doing the in the UK back then. Gangster geezers and rom coms by the same-o-same-o just wasn’t my bag. I was writing about people running down the street, yelling ‘No!’ with a gun and blowing up The Sphinx! I had my sights set on writing a ‘Die Hard’ movie, dammit and nobody was going to tell me ‘no’. Everybody in the UK told me ‘No’, actually. How utterly disheartening, however now, my new agent wants to push Daisy Scarlett and get it made.
I saw the series of micro shorts that EFC were behind, including our own ‘You Know Me’. The gathering afterwards with like-minded creatives was a real boost and should be. The Collective is filled with wonderfully talented people, many I call friends.
I booked tickets for the new Bond. A friend did a review for a movie site. He got in touch and said: “The plot is just like Daisy Scarlett!” I go out for a walk and bump into the monk.
We all have our own monk or monks in our lives. A parent, grandparent, best friend, colleague, mentor, a group who pals who simply fly your flag and champion all you do. They believe in you, as you should believe in yourself.
Ben Trebilcook is producer, screenwriter and published author, represented by WGM Atlantic Creative, and is currently working on various film and television projects. @bentrebilcook