Tim is an exceptional individual. A bold statement I know. But for Tim, it’s the only way I can describe him. He presents himself and his impressive achievements with a quick wit and sincere humility. But, what I see is a man who has been in the industry for awhile, knows how it works, and refuses to let it change who he is at his core. So many times have I met the jaded, arrogant, or toxic writer out there. This is not Tim. He knows what he has to offer and yet still has the self awareness, humbleness, and discipline to stay true to himself. This is why I am honored to introduce you to him.
This is Tim Bennett-Huxtable…
I moved to Chicago after college, drawn to the comedy and theatre scene. I was fortunate to work and train at The Second City, a Mecca for creatives of all types, but definitely for those interested in sketch comedy, satire, and improvisation. I was literally surrounded by the Who’s Who of future A-list comedy talent as well as experimental filmmakers, authors, musicians, and artists. It was fertile ground for creative endeavors and where I wrote my first feature scripts and TV specs.
I re-located to Los Angeles and had an opportunity to co-create and run a satirical news program on The Microsoft Network, the first daily comedy series on the Internet. I found myself employed in the burgeoning web-based entertainment industry, until the DotCom boom went bust because of Y2K or whatever.
Suddenly unemployed (and unemployable), I toured with a shock rock band. For about a decade. It was as amazing an experience as it sounds.
I wrote and produced a 35mm short with my friend Graham Elwood based on a character he first developed in our college sketch troupe. The film, Hello Junkie, played over 100 festivals in three years. I also produced Graham’s feature Laffghanistan, a documentary about his performance tour of Forward Operating Bases in Operation Enduring Freedom.
With my frequent collaborator Dave Sheridan, I had some small success setting up pilots with Fox, Comedy Central, and the WB as well as writing and directing sketch comedy for Canadian television. I met my partner Bob Harper through a post on Craigslist. Together, we’ve written animation and live-action hybrid projects for the kids/family market and the grown-up demographic, including a cartoon series with DreamworksTV.
I met director Ryan Sage via an ad on Craigslist, too (although we had met a few years prior when we both had independent TV pilots at a festival). Ryan directed and produced my feature rom-com script Temps, starring Grant Rosenmeyer and Lindsay Shaw. The little indie film climbed the charts at iTunes to reach the Number One spot in April 2016. (The trailer also has over 50 million combined views on YouTube, too.) I look forward to many more collaborations with Ryan and the team in the future.
I also act.
Q: How did you stumble upon screenwriting?
When I was in 5th Grade, I “adapted” a Mad Magazine parody of The Empire Strikes Back and staged a live production of my adaptation for class. I guess that wasn’t my introduction to being a screenwriter since it was legit theatre, but it was definitely an initiation into the glorious world of sketch comedy (and also the ethically-ambiguous world of unauthorized reproductions.)
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Roughly around that time, I started writing comedy sketches, crudely-drawn comix, and funny songs, tape-recording “radio shows”, making Super 8 films (and blowing up Star Wars toys) with my brothers. Coming-of-age in the 80s, I was fortunate to be able to rent VHS camcorders from the local mom-and-pop video stores for thirty dollars a weekend and make movies with my friends. I had two different groups of friends in high school that I created with, and I’m still writing with [almost] all of them now. In college, I joined a sketch comedy group. There were a number of media arts students in the troupe, so naturally, we made epic 16mm films.
When I moved to Chicago to continue my training in the Dark Arts, I figured it was time to start exploring long-form scribbling. Armed with a handful of the published scripts available at the time, I taught myself formatting and osmosed structure. I wrote my first feature longhand on legal pads pilfered from temp jobs and eventually typed it up on the Apple iiC at the artists-in-residence building where I lived. Twenty-four years later, [a very different version of] that script was finally made into a movie.
Q: Who/what inspired you into taking this path?
When I saw Ghostbusters, I had no clue how something like that gets made. But I would watch these shorts and features on Night Flight like Eating Raouland that made sense. Or the skate videos from Bones Brigade and the stuff Tom Stern and Alex Winter made at NYU.
I was a teenager in the first wave of the VHS home video market and was treated to a different kind of cinema. Not just Z-grade schlock, but amazing little films that rose above their budgetary limitations like Night of the Comet, Repo Man, Re-Animator, even True Stories. And the golden age of independents was nigh. Jarmusch, Hartley, Spike Lee.
But I think it clicked when I saw Diner and Tin Men. I could make that! And I would be remiss not to mention the Henry Jaglom film Sitting Ducks, which I saw at my friend Andy’s house. His parents owned the VHS, which says a lot about how much they influenced me.
Q: Who was the first person who believed in you?
I was a disruptive presence in school, and my teachers [probably] didn’t want to encourage that. In fact, at one point I think in the 5th grade, I was segregated from the class for several hours a day under the pretense of allowing me to explore my creativity or some other such nonsense. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Bryant believed in me but needed a break from my antics. I had a number of well-intentioned teachers who tolerated me and a few [really, just Mrs. Lewis] who refused to disguise their disdain for me.
Two big moments in my life: when I was at The Second City in the early 90s, I had Stephen Colbert read an early draft of my first feature script and, without prompting, he compared it to Diner. Also, in the early 90s, I wrote a letter to Henry Jaglom seeking advice [validation] and he called me! He was incredibly encouraging and later when I moved to LA, he would invite me to screenings and even to the editing bay when he was cutting a feature. (In hindsight, he may have been subtly offering to mentor me, but I was too self-absorbed in my twenties to recognize it.)
The top brass at The Second City — Joyce Sloane, Sheldon Patinkin, and Andrew Alexander — all encouraged me in different ways, although unfortunately, I failed to recognize or acknowledge this as an Angry Young Man. I didn’t exactly fit the mold there, but they each found ways to nurture my creative impulses and keep me employed in various (invented) positions well past any reasonable usefulness I provided.
Really pondering this question, I think the first person who believed in me and actively encouraged me was my older brother. We were collaborators until I was fourteen or so, and I didn’t have any kind of relationship with him after that— he was a troubled dude — but even up to a few months before his death, he posted a cryptic message on my Facebook praising me as a sorcerer. At least I think it was praise. He may have actually thought I was a sorcerer. (And his post was a warning.)
Q: When was the moment you knew you wanted to be a screenwriter?
Watching Diner in 1987 at Andy Creighton’s house. I sort of knew before that, but it was concreted with binge viewings and recitations of the most dialogue-y dialogues from the film.
Q: How do you define success for yourself?
Obviously, I haven’t had a smash hit or been showered with accolades, MacArthur Foundation genius grants or gold bullion. I can’t even get people I’ve known and worked within this silly industry to email me back.
I’m creatively hyper-critical, obsessing over the mots juste, or as an actor, every inflection or the intentionality of action or some absent-minded tic that wheedles its way into a performance.
Chasing external validation or some internal perfection ideal is a dangled carrot. It’s exhausting and self-defeating and ephemeral. So, success to me is recognizing the destructive nature of putting too much value on those concepts of attainment. Instead, I measure success by how well I handle rejection, allowing myself to grieve creative losses without wallowing in anger, bitterness, and resentment. That said, I’m not always successful.
Q: Give us a typical day in your life.
I’m an early riser, usually up-and-moving in the five o’clock hour. Lately, I’ve been waking a little later because I have an elderly cat that has needs throughout the night, so I’m not getting my typical eight-to-nine hours of sleep (nor my typical eight-to-nine hour workday.)
There’s a whole body of research into chronotyping — Morningness versus Eveningness — but it boils down to Night Owls can pretend to be “more inspired” in the wee hours because no one else is up to watch them being completely slothful, licentious and drunken. I kid. (Not really.)
When I rouse, I immediately have breakfast — usually oats with nuts and fruit — and I caffeinate with black or green tea and occasionally coffee, although I’ve been avoiding coffee as a go-to for a few years now. (Boy, do I love it, but it agitates me. And no caffeine afternoon.)
I start my workday by six. For the first four hours of my day, I do busywork, submitting scripts or scanning the breakdowns for acting roles, sending follow-up emails, reading the trades, that kind of nonsense. Because the people on the other side of the table don’t open for business until ten, I like to clear my plate of all this stuff and deliver it to their in-boxes before they get into the office.
Sometime between ten and eleven, I make a smoothie with fruit, spinach, almond milk, maybe an avocado, and start cracking into whatever is on-deck creatively that day. This could be writing, editing, preparing an audition or self-taping, even creative loafing (which I think can often be as beneficial as staring at a blank page.) I’ll crank for four hours, after which point I find the returns to diminish exponentially.
I wrap up around two and bust out a workout. When I lived in Marina del Rey, I would jog on the beach, then do sprints in the soft sand and really blow out the cobwebs in the brain. Now that I’m in the Tehachapis, I do a lot of hikes through the foothills and mountains. But I’ll mix it up with weights, yoga, calisthenics, Tabata. Oxygenating my brain helps me with the late afternoon cognitive dip associated with my Morningness (and/or caffeine pharmacokinetics.)
In the late afternoon, my wife and I and our cat meditate. A lot of Kundalini breathwork. Our cat has asthma and the Breath-of-Fire helps.
I rarely go out at night, and I miss a lot of networking opportunities, but it’s not like I’m much of a networker anyway. I probably should do more on that side of the business, but frankly, it’s exhausting and drains me in a way that takes considerable psychic recovery. I feel my time and energy is better spent creating, or enjoying other peoples’ creativity on the streaming, or unplugging from it all with my wife and decompressing (usually with gales of laughter. My wife is the funniest person I know.)
Q: How do you define a successful day?
There are too many variables beyond my control to use booking a gig or selling a script or even being recognized for my efforts as a determiner of success. For me — and I think for a lot of creatives in the arts and entertainment — it’s a daily accomplishment just to show up. On the day-to-day, it’s not the number of pages or the epiphany that cracks the whole script wide open or the quality of the work, it’s the intentionality. In the face of another session of crushing loneliness, the cursor blinking insistently on the blank page, you’re gonna give it a go. And that’s laudable.
Considering the daunting nature of this profession, I do think it’s important to have things in your life that are within your control, where “success” can be “measured” daily — maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle and work-life balance; surrounding yourself with positive and encouraging family, friends and collaborators; de-cluttering your life of naysayers; being kind, generous and grateful. Being kind is the most important — to others and to/with yourself.
Q: What’s been the most important skill you've developed on your path to screenwriting?
I’ve become much more judicious, even in my first vomit draft(s). After years of overwriting and then, subsequent torturous editing passes, I finally developed a feel for coming into the scene late and getting out early. It certainly helps that I [mostly] write from highly-detailed treatments now. This doesn’t mean that I won’t indulge myself and let the writing take me where it wants to go, because I’m acutely aware of the kind of magical discoveries that can be made in riffing and always want to honor that.
I think I’m also patient, particularly with greener collaborators, and more open to different ways to approach the craft than I was when I was younger and already knew everything.
Q: What’s been the greatest challenge in your writing so far?
It’s an ongoing battle for me to scrub the writerly cleverness from my dialogue. There are a handful of writers who can pull off that kind of whiz-bang banter, but mostly, it comes across as inauthentic. Even in the often heightened and exaggerated world(s) in which comedy lives, it’s cutesy and glib. It negates the stakes and undermines the funny. And as an actor, that kind of writing creates disingenuous performances. You end up sounding like Spencer Tracy’s impersonation of Groucho Marx.
Q: What’s been the greatest reward in the choices you've made?
It’s very gratifying that some of the things I’ve written have found an audience. More to the point, I’m glad I’ve made people laugh.
Q: What do you want to learn from a community of your peers?
I always like meeting (and working with) creative people from different backgrounds, perspectives and artistic disciplines. I’m not necessarily interested in a community of like-minded writers, lockstep with whatever might be the screenwriting guru-ism du jour. I’m drawn to the mavericks and outsiders who bring unorthodox and unconventional ideas to the table. I dig the challenge of being exposed to points-of-view and ways-of-thinking that are new to me or even in opposition to my outlook.