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Bald Steve
09-04-2007, 03:42 PM
Hey all. Thought ya'll might want to check out this interview (http://www.boblayton.com/bloglayton.htm) where Bob Layton and Mike Benson basically shoot the shit. It's a very cool and informative conversation. A little lengthy, but worth the read:

BOB LAYTON SPEAKS WITH ENTOURAGE'S MIKE BENSON

In the last year, I’ve come to know Mike Benson as a true aficionado of comics and the Invincible Iron Man in particular. We had corresponded for a while, and become friends, before I learned that Mike was also an acclaimed Hollywood writer and co-exec-producer of one of my favorite TV shows—“Entourage”.

Benson is originally from Westchester, New York and attended Syracuse University.

After college, he moved to California in 1990 to make it as a television writer. Mike came up the hard way, as many have to do in Tinseltown, working a lot of ‘Joe jobs’ along the path to his dreams. According to Mike, he worked through those early days as a bartender and a waiter.

Eventually, he landed a gig as a production assistant. Shortly after those ‘salad days’, Benson got on his first show and, with writing partner Marc Abrams, worked their way up the Hollywood success ladder.

‘Success’ is definitely the word to describe Benson’s efforts these days. Mike has just penned a deal for a new production company, had his push pilot picked-up by a network and has recently been nominated for an Emmy in the ‘comedy series category’ for "Entourage," having worked as a writer and co-producer on 20 episodes of that HBO hit show.

Before "Entourage", Mike was one of the head writers and co-executive producers for Fox's "The Bernie Mac Show”.

Benson will be adding to his impressive resume’ when he takes over the scripting on Marvel’s Moon Knight starting with November’s issue #14. Mike will be working with co-plotter, Charlie Huston, the writer who reinvigorated the current series.

Since Mike and I had a lot in common, with our love for Iron Man and having worked in both the comics and Hollywood, I thought it would be fun to chat about the highs-and-lows of toiling in each medium.

Mike has been a good friend to me over the last few months, offering his advice and expertise to me--especially when dealing with the bullshit in Hollywood was starting to drive me crazy.

On August 29th, Mike and I sat down for this one-on-one conversation. Enjoy!

Bob: Mike, first off I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your incredibly busy week to spend some time with the BobLayton.com readers.

Mike: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Bob.

Bob: I guess congratulations are in order for the new deal you made with UMS and for your Emmy nomination for Entourage.

Mike: Yes, it's been a very exciting couple of weeks. When it rains it pours. I feel truly blessed-- it's like everything came together all at once. How's your week been?

Bob: I've had one of the crappiest weeks on record, Mike. I had to spend $1000 the fix the A/C in my Beetle, and then, my dog Bosco blows out his left hind knee and needs $2000 in reconstructive surgery. You're DEFINITELY having a better week than me, buddy! But, on the good side, Bosco will be able to play the piano again. (laughter)

Mike: Oh, shit! Sorry man. Lucky you didn't catch me the week before.

Bob: Why's that?

Mike: Three-year-old twin boys and no help! It was a lot to handle. And-- they have my DNA, which means they are a little...spirited!

Bob: I feel your pain. But, enough revelry! I've got a question that I've been dying to ask you since we began corresponding! Why does it take seven producers to do a half-hour TV series?!

Mike: Well, the term ‘producer’ in TV can mean a few things. When you see all those credits; co-producers, supervising producers, co-exec producers? Most of those people are writers. And those titles represent how much experience the artist has and or how much success they’ve had. So, to answer your question, seven writers on staff is actually on the light side

Bob: Which one do I want to be?

Mike: You want to be the Exec-producer - the King, baby!

Bob: How about Grand Field Marshall?

Mike: That’s good, too.

Bob: I'm aware of that... I'm hoping to land that title with my upcoming movie project.

Mike: The title Executive Producers in film is more nebulous. It can be anything from the creator--to the person putting up the cash.

Bob: I won't be putting up any cash. My dog needs surgery, remember? (laughter)

Mike: Are you excited about the Iron Man movie?

Bob: Yes…and no. You and I have had several discussions about this. I know the hype in Hollywood is HUGE on this project right now. But, I haven't heard much about story content. My biggest concern is that they are going to concentrate on huge set pieces and forget about the character. And, Tony Stark and company are always about character.

Mike: Jon Favreau is a smart guy. And from the little I've read about him, he's been a long-time fan of the character. So, maybe he'll get it right. He’ll get my $8.50.

Bob: I know that he's a sharp guy. And, in my heart-of-hearts, I'm really rooting for him to pull this mother off. After all, my creative legacy is tied to the character of Iron Man. Also, I imagine you're really looking forward to it, being a die-hard Shellhead fan and all.

Mike: Oh yeah. I'm jazzed! It’s one of my favorite characters as a kid. I grew up on your Iron Man, Bob. I’m curious--how much did you and David Michelinie shape Iron Man mythology in those early days? Was your Iron Man more popular than your predecessors?

Bob: When David Michelinie and I took over the series in the late 70’s, it was one of Marvel's poorest selling titles. As I recall, there were three books offered to us and Iron Man was one of them. All three books were at the bottom of the sales ladder at the time—including Iron Man. I think that's why they pretty much gave us Carte Blanche to do whatever we wanted with the series.

Mike: Really? So--you guys were the ones who came up with Tony Stark becoming an alcoholic? I know you did that run.

Bob: Yeah, we figured it was a logical progression for the direction we were taking the series in. David and I wanted to establish Tony Stark firmly in the business world and get rid of the once-a-month heart attacks. We came up with the idea of his alcoholism as a replacement weakness that made more sense in the world we were creating for him.

Mike: It was groundbreaking.

Bob: I've heard that Favreau's sequel is going to adapt some of that ‘Demon in a Bottle’ storyline. Let me ask you...what has always fascinated you about the character? I know you're a big fan of the series… but why?

Mike: First off, Iron man has one of the all-time best costumes. I especially liked that first gray, clunky looking one for whatever reason. But what’s always been interesting to me about Stark is that he’s both hero and villain, depending where you stand. Also, Stark didn't have super powers, but designed his armor and derived his abilities from that invention. And--that he was a genuinely conflicted, tortured guy.

Bob: Who isn't? (laughter) Isn't that the sort of personality trait that makes a character believable, regardless of the medium?

Mike: But--at the same time-- he got the girls!!

Bob: I LOVED getting him the girls! I loved pimpin' for him!

Mike: Yeah. I mean--he lived both a dream and a nightmare.

Bob: Haven't we all lived both at one time or another, brother?

Mike: Iron Man just felt more grounded to me.

Bob: I'll take that as a high compliment to both David and me.

Mike: And-- your art, lets face it, is beautiful!! Big time!

Bob: Now-- I'm blushing. Mike, you have so many things going on in Hollywood…but what’s going on with your upcoming Moon Knight series for Marvel?

Mike: It’s going really well. Charlie Huston and I are co-plotting and I’m writing the scripts. So far I’m really enjoying the process. I'm really excited about having this opportunity.

Bob: You've written for top TV shows like Bernie Mac and Entourage, you have this new production company and a new TV series. So--why write comic books?

Mike: As a kid, comics got me interested in creative writing. So it’s a full circle that I get to write them now. Not to mention, I was really digging Charlie Huston’s take on the book. So when the opportunity presented itself, it was a no brainier.

Bob: What did you like about Charlie’s take?

Mike: Charlie updated the book, made Moon Knight more contemporary. No gimmicks. No super-natural powers. And I liked how he played the relationship between Marc Spector and Khonshu. Gritty stuff.

Bob: Amen! As you know, I'm not a big fan of the super-powered guys anyway. One of the reasons I was so attracted to Iron Man was what you said earlier about those types of characters.

Mike: Again, Moon Knight is a truly conflicted character, much like Tony Stark. Charlie was true to the spirit of Doug Moench's Moon Knight, which I appreciated. Also non-super-powered heroes resonate with me a bit more than ones who can’t be injured. One’s who are invincible.

Bob: It's refreshing to hear you say that. You and I are on the same page, bro. When is your Moon Knight debut slated to premiere? And, how long do you plan on scripting it?

Mike: I believe it premieres in December. I'm finishing the sixth book now, so I already have five in the can. I'm way ahead. I knew things were going to get crazy for me-- so I just threw myself into it at the beginning.

Bob: Is there a character that you're chomping at the bit to work with?

Mike: I am working with Axel Alonso. Brilliant editor. I really like working with him. I'm going to concentrate on Moon Knight and soak up as much as I can from Axel and the entire Moon Knight experience. I have some characters I would like to play with. But ‘Moonie’ is where I want to be now. Maybe in the future--Master of Kung Fu or Power Man and Iron Fist. Maybe Tin head. We’ll see.

Bob: You're mostly known as a comedic writer, but you were a comic enthusiast before you got to Hollywood. Why haven't you tried your hand at the super-hero genre in TV or film?

Mike: It was really not an option. When I first came out to LA, I was just trying to break into the business. Plus, I was watching shows like Seinfeld and Larry Sanders. It was just the path I choose.

Bob: Speaking of which, I've always contended that comedy is much harder to pull off than any other genre’ as a writer. I suppose that's why I'm impressed with your work on Entourage. As I recall, some of the most memorable episodes were penned by you.

Mike: Nice of you to say, Man. I really liked working on that show. Doug Ellen created a great world and we had a very talented writing staff. We were able to bring things into the show that were happening to us everyday.

Bob: So my next question is, why do most TV comedies fail? I have my own thoughts, but I'd like to hear it from you.

Mike: Sometimes it has to do with the development process—the writer is addressing so many notes the show loses what made it interesting and funny. And sometimes you may have a very funny script, but it does not translate for whatever reason. There are many factors.

Bob: Believe me, I understand that. We're on our third writer with our movie project. And, it seems that each writer changes the premise a bit when they come on board. But, the same could be true for comics. After all, Michelinie and I didn't exactly stick to the status quo with Iron Man when we inherited it.

Mike: I have worked mostly in single camera, which means we shoot as if we're making a little movie each week. No audience. It’s also a different type of writing with different rhythms.

Bob: The reason I think Entourage works is the inter-dependency of those four, diverse characters. Each one has a very different personality, but they all rely on each other emotionally and otherwise to get through the day. That and, unlike most sitcoms which are based on a lie that gets blown out of proportion, the Entourage boys tend to speak truth to each other. I think that's what made it so refreshing.

Mike: At the core, Entourage is about friendship.

Bob: Speaking of which, of all the characters you had to choose from for Entourage...why Aquaman?

Mike: I had nothing to do with that. That was decided before I got there. I thought it was done well, however.

Bob: Okay...you're off the hook! But, since we're talking about the series, why did you leave?

Mike: My partner Marc Abrams and I left to develop our own material. We were ready to step up to the plate. We had already logged many hours working for other people and we had so many stories we wanted to tell and goals we wanted to accomplish. It’s starting to pay off.

Bob: Can you talk about you new TV series “ZIP” at all? Or-- is it too soon? Do you want to know how Iron Man/Doom ends? I'll trade you!

Mike: No, it’s not too soon. “ZIP” is the story of Trip Springer, a single dad who brings his three children to Beverly Hills for the school. Only Trip is a con man and Beverly Hills is his playground. It’s very funny! We developed it with a writer named Mark Rizzo, who is a very talented guy. I'm really proud of the script. We just turned it in yesterday so--keep your fingers crossed.

Bob: I'm crossing my fingers for you, brother.

Mike: Please tell me about Doom!

Bob: He's gray...and he's mean...and he's really, really smart.

Mike: (laughter)

Bob: This time around, Doctor Doom manages to gain possession of the mystical sword of kings--Excalibur. With it, he becomes invincible but inadvertently unleashes a curse that threatens to engulf the entire planet. Reluctantly, he has to call on our boy, Shellhead, to bail his ass out! But, it’s not without serious consequences and an abundance of the usual Doom snobbery.

Mike: Sounds great! When is this coming out?

Bob: Ron Lim has started penciling it and I should be seeing some stuff to ink in another few weeks. It's scheduled to be released around the time of the Iron Man movie, which I believe is May 2008.

Bob: Did I tell you that I'm in the special features section of the DVD version of that film?

Mike: You mentioned that before. So cool!

Bob: They flew me out to Hollywood last September to do a large interview about my contributions to the character's mythology. I was wearing a really nice shirt...and I actually had pants on for that interview. (laughter)

Mike: Well, you are so closely associated with the character-- it seems appropriate that they’d want to talk to you on camera.

Bob: In fact, one of the writers on our pending movie project warned me not to say too much on camera. He believed that Hollywood does something called, "mining for character." Namely, he feared the Producers were going to pick my brain about Iron Man’s character for free. I laughed it off, of course.

Mike: How does it feel to be working with Marvel again?

Bob: I should ask YOU that question, Mike! I really haven't started working for them yet--officially. Ask me about that the next time we talk. But, it is a thrill to be back working on Iron Man--and with my best pal, David Michelinie.

Mike: Honestly, it’s been fantastic working for Marvel. I couldn’t be happier.

Bob: I have an unrelated question... (pause)...may I?

Mike: Sure.

Bob: One of the expressions I've learned in my dealings with Hollywood is, "We must conspire against him--in order to help him." What kind of ass-backwards concept is that?

Mike: I have no idea. Most of the people I’ve encountered in Hollywood are hard-working people like you and I.

Bob: NO THEY AREN'T!!! Or else--we must travel in totally different circles! (laughter)

Mike: In every competitive industry, you’re going to have big egos and back stabbing, Bob. However I've worked on the TV side for a while now. And, a lot of the time, your crew becomes your secondary family. Maybe the movie side is different.

Bob: No shit! (laughter)

Mike: It's all hard, Bob.

Bob: Can I come over to the your side? My ass is getting sore.

Mike: Nice.

Bob: Actually, I've pitched a few TV shows out your way and I found the people involved to be surprisingly pleasant.

Mike: Yeah.

Bob: Okay, I'm going to wrap this up now. But before I go, I want you to know that I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you winning the Emmy this year. My last question is...

Bob: Once you win that Emmy...can I touch it?

Mike: You can even get a photo with it. But I don’t think we’ll win. I think it will be ‘Ugly Betty’ or ‘The Office’, but keep your fingers crossed!

Bob: You're the best, Mike. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. Good luck with everything and keep in touch.

Mike: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Bro.