For your reading pleasure, please enjoy Backstory’s Black List Tales interview with The Second Life of Ben Haskins writers Matt Kic and Mike Sorce from Backstory Issue 38 – out now exclusively for subscribers.
When you’re starting a new job at a Hollywood agency, the last thing you should do is admit you don’t have any interest in becoming an agent. Yet that’s exactly what both Matt Kic and Mike Sorce did when they started working in an agency mailroom a day apart in 2015. And out of that common bond, a fruitful writing partnership formed. “You’re not supposed to tell anyone at an agency that you want to be a writer, but we secretly said it to each other,” Kic says. The duo kept lamenting how they couldn’t get as much writing done as they would like due to their day jobs so they tried their hand at co-authoring a script. “We decided to partner up. I wasn’t really looking for a writing partner, but it just happened.”
The next few years were prolific. As Kic and Sorce continued to work various jobs in the industry, they penned a noir thriller, One Day Notice, that became a semifinalist for a 2017 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship. They felt so strongly about the material—which ironically centers on a mousey agent’s assistant whose life crumbles when he ups and quits—they and director Bryce Marrero made a short film designed to double as a proof of concept to get the feature version off the ground. The pair turned out a handful of TV pilots, one of which got them representation with Magnolia Entertainment. In 2018, they refocused on feature scripts and finished three, including The Second Life of Ben Haskins, which ended up being their big break. Though three years may seem a short climb, that discounts the earlier work the pair had each put in as writers on their own. “I went back and counted, but for me personally, that script was the 22nd script I wrote,” Sorce says. “I think it’s a number people should hear because you meet so many people who say they want to be writers and they don’t understand the work involved. It’s important for people to hear how much work came before.”
The idea for Haskins was generated by Kic, who read an article about a clinic in Switzerland that was euthanizing healthy patients at their request. “I’m always thinking about weird sci-fi concepts, and the article mentioned a person donating their organs,” he says. “So I thought, What if there was a future version of this where if you were a suicidal person, you could have your consciousness deleted? That way your entire body is a healthy vessel and could be given to someone who had terminal cancer or something else.” Sorce notes while Kic pitched the admittedly high-concept idea to him several times, he didn’t necessarily see the appeal. That forced Kic to think outside the box a bit, which led him to the idea of marrying that conceit with a love story. That got Sorce on board. “I like that he was being resistant,” Kic says of his partner. “If he wasn’t, we might have just done some sci-fi thriller. Instead, him feeling that way helped us find a unique way to go about it.”
The script follows the titular character, who after losing his battle with cancer, decides to place his consciousness in another man’s body. But when he awakens 19 years after the procedure, he discovers his wife, Kat, has moved away and moved on, and he is not allowed to contact her. He befriends a young woman named Abby, who vows to help him track down his wife. Though partners for years, Kic and Sorce begin their projects in a decidedly 2019 way: They text ideas back and forth. When they have enough to go on, they meet in person and spend a day or two talking through the major beats of the story idea. Eventually they break things down into eight sequences—two each for acts one and three and four for act two—and craft an outline in the same fashion. This helps them follow their story’s arc and sets a good dividing line for trading off the writing. “Matt usually starts our scripts,” Sorce says. “He’s very good at setting up tone and establishing what people sound like and what the world looks like. I think one of my skill sets is matching tone and voice, so I always like to have him throw me that alley-oop.” Kic says Sorce’s dialogue is a major strength. “No matter how good or bad my dialogue is, Mike definitely makes it better,” he says. Their routine for writing the actual scripts has remained consistent. Kic will take the first sequence and spend a week with it before handing it over to Sorce, who does revisions on that and pens a rough draft of the second sequence. And so it goes week by week. Although the system works well for them, they have occasionally been frustrated by weeks where only one of them was writing. They found a unique solution to this during the writing of Ben Haskins, as they were simultaneously penning another script so while one was writing Haskins, the other was able to work on the other project.
Many things stand out about Kic and Sorce’s script, but perhaps above all is the way they are able to convey loneliness and isolation in the first half of the story, whether it’s Ben’s longing for his wife, Kat’s despair at Ben’s decision in the opening scene or the mysterious bereft feeling that seems to hang around Abby that is brought to light in a major reveal late in the story…which we won’t spoil here. It may sound simple, but it’s one thing to tell a reader the characters are lonely and a whole other thing to bring it home through both visuals and dialogue. “That was difficult to set up quickly,” Sorce says of their efforts. “We wanted to show that he not only doesn’t have his wife but he has no one else around him.” Abby later reveals to Ben that her profession is being a “proxy,” where she texts and video chats with lonely individuals who need someone to be there for them. “Let’s get real for a sec,” she tells him. “Society may look advanced to you, but an advanced society is a lonely one.” There’s a lot going on in this complex script, but that is one of the more crucial ideas the writers are throwing out there. “If you’re writing a sci-fi movie, especially if it’s set in the future, you should be saying something to justify that setting,” Kic says. “You want to say something about the world you live in now and where you think it’s headed. Despite our society being constantly interconnected, people are becoming lonelier. Technology is putting people into bubbles. That’s a fundamental part of the world of the story and our character.”
One reason that sense of loneliness is so beautifully communicated is the writers do quite a lot with the opening six pages of the script, where they somehow are able to communicate the totality of Ben and Kat’s relationship without the aid of much screen time. Those opening pages are crucial to not only showing Ben’s investment in his marriage, which will drive the plot of the entire film, but to showing readers that same commitment. We care about the story because we care about Ben and Kat, and we only care about Ben and Kat because of the success of those opening pages. Ironically, the writers were initially worried they were not giving the opening enough time to plant those roots. “We were fighting with making the audience care enough to go on that journey with him,” Sorce says. “You have to buy into the fact that he needs to find her.” In the first draft, those pages didn’t exist at all and you don’t meet Ben and Kat until later. Instead, it opened with the suicide of the man whose body Ben eventually inhabits. Thankfully, the two agreed to open with something more emotionally charged, though it’s an intro they continued to refine in later drafts of the script.
They finished writing Ben Haskins in September 2018, and soon after sending it out, they felt momentum. “It was the first script where when we sent it to friends in the industry, they all said, ‘I want to show this to my boss,’” Sorce recalls. Later that fall, the script landed on both the Black List and Tracking Board’s Hit List and was purchased by Chernin Entertainment, the production company behind the Rise of the Planet of the Apes series, Hidden Figures and The Greatest Showman. After some rewrites, they found a distributor in a little-known company named Netflix, where the script is currently being developed. But Ben Haskins is far from the only iron the duo has in the proverbial fire, as July will see the U.S. debut of the One Day Notice short at the LA Shorts International Film Festival. Still, given their success with Ben Haskins, they’re staying on the sci-fi route and now have a “spiritual trilogy” of features under way. The second of them has a director already attached, and the third is garnering interest before it’s even finished. Indeed, there are few inevitabilities in screenwriting, but based on their talent and partnership, one thing seems certain for Kic and Sorce: This is only the beginning.
To read the article in Issue 38 of Backstory, click HERE to subscribe or buy it as a single issue.
For more info about all the other articles in issue 38, view the Table of Contents.