vanessa benton sandman
via Vanessa Benton/Netflix

Exclusive interview: Writer Vanessa Benton talks ‘The Sandman’

Writer Vanessa Benton talks to WGTC about 'The Sandman', 'Fate: The Winx Saga' season 2, and more.

After decades stuck in development hell, the long-awaited adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman finally comes to Netflix tomorrow, and it’s virtually guaranteed to become a late-summer smash hit for the streaming service.

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The expectations and pressure surrounding the series are huge, a fact that’s not lost on writer Vanessa Benton. A former showrunner’s assistant on legal drama In Contempt and writer’s assistant on smash hit How to Get Away with Murder, Vanessa has landed their first staff writing position on one of Netflix’s biggest new shows.

As well as working as part of the core staff for the hotly-anticipated comic book fantasy, they’re also the sole credited writer on the ninth installment of the 11-episode run of what could be the first of many seasons. To cap off Vanessa’s rise up the Netflix ranks, they’re also part of the writing team on season 2 of fellow Netflix success Fate: The Winx Saga.

Ahead of The Sandman‘s premiere, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to Vanessa about their experience on both upcoming shows, as well as their lifelong love of dark fantasy and horror, potential future projects, the ideal properties they’d love to adapt above all else and much more, which you can check out below.

How does it feel on a personal and professional level to know that The Sandman is only days away from premiering on Netflix?

I didn’t think I’d feel nervous about it. I don’t know why I’m nervous. This is the first time obviously, that was one of the first shows I worked on. But I think it was seeing the Comic-Con panel reception that I was like, “Oh, shit, it’s like it’s happening”. And I just want it to be good. I mean, I think it’s good, but I just want people to receive it well. And yeah, so excited, but nervous more than I usually am.

You must take a huge amount of pride in the fact that your name is on a project that was stuck in development hell for so long, and went through so many false starts before finally coming together?

Yeah, it’s like I said, it was amazing. It’s like, you know, obviously, going into it, I knew that it was an extremely popular comic, I read it in college myself. But you don’t really get the full magnitude of it until you start seeing the interviews. Like the writers, we started talking, when we start seeing like the Neil Gaiman interviews, and the Tom Sturridge interviews, we were like, “Oh, it’s happening”. But doing press. It’s just a very strange thing. So, I don’t know. I feel very honored and grateful that again, that was like the first job that I got staffed on, and I learned so much from it.

I know a lot of people are curious about the difference between being a staff writer on a show and being the name credited on the teleplay, so what was the creative process like behind the scenes overall, and how did that lead to you being handed the reins so to speak for the ninth episode?

I am not quite sure how different rooms operate. But for us, it didn’t necessarily seem to be a “well, you’re gonna write this because XYZ, you’re gonna write this”. It was all a completely collaborative process. Like we broke everything together. Obviously, Neil Gaiman had his hand in things, he knew everything, but as far as in the room, as a staff writer, and then obviously the levels above you were all breaking episodes together, pitching together.

And then when it comes time to write, you have the… you can pitch more of your ideas, and you’d be responsible for that episode. But then, the way streaming works as well is that our time writing is so stretched out from the producing and the shooting, that things inevitably change in between whatever you’ve written and developed to then. So it’s just like a super collaborative thing. And you’re kind of involved in everything, including your episode.

Arguably the single most important aspect of bringing something like The Sandman to a platform like Netflix is to appeal to fans of the source material, but also make it accessible to newcomers who aren’t familiar with comics, of which I am a part. Were there any early struggles in trying to find that balance before the scripts began to take shape?

Exactly. So one of the things that our showrunner Allen Heinberg, he kept like making sure we understood that you can adapt things in many different ways. Like, we’ve all seen our things be adapted, and some things are loosely based, there’s like one character, you know? And then it’s just a reenactment of the books or whatever. And so, Alan was super heavy on making sure that we didn’t disrespect fans, and miss moments, or miss characters, or miss things.

But also giving ways that necessarily may not be in the book for people who haven’t read it. So you can be someone that hasn’t read it, and start the series. So yeah, mixing, having a good mix of both respect and freshness was really important. And it was a way that I’ve never necessarily seen adaptations done. I’ve never really been in behind the scenes on this, and I really respect this process.

Fans have been looking forward to The Sandman for what feels like forever, does it add extra pressure working on something that has so many fans covering so many generations, all of whom will have envisioned their own live-action version in their heads at one time or another, do you feel confident that you’ve managed to pull it off and give the best of both worlds?

Yeah, I mean, I feel confident, especially with the previous fans, because Neil Gaiman himself had approved everything, and his hands were in it. So you had someone who’s had this in their head for 30, however many years that is since 1989. So, with that level of involvement, I feel very confident.

Obviously, you can’t appeal to every single viewer ever, but I just feel like you we did a really good job of trying to reach those who are just going to be sitting down on Friday, and be like, “What’s this? I’m gonna turn this on. Oh my god, what is happening?”. You know? I think that we’ve used the Dream character while connecting all these stories. And yeah, I’m pretty confident. I mean, it’ll be fine either way, because comic book fans are generally quiet and you never hear from them if

It’ll be fine either way, because comic book fans are generally quiet and you never hear from them if there’s something they don’t like…

They’re not even online! I’ve never heard a peep from comic book fans. They’re generally really chill, so…

Image via Netflix

You’re part of the writing team for season 2 of Fate: The Winx Saga, that’s only a month away and that’s two big hit fantasy Netflix shows in quick succession.

Yeah, I am someone that loves my privacy, so it’s awesome that two giant Netflix shows are coming out one after the other! Not that they’re my shows! I feel very lucky. But again, it’s always that thing of you just don’t know how the reception is going to be. And you just hope that the work that you put in A: Lasted, because again, there’s so many changes that happens, and B: That it still stands the test from whenever you wrote it to the year after that it is airing. I feel very excited though, I was really excited to come on season 2, there’s a character Aisha on the show that I really was excited to write for. So I’m actually looking forward to the second season coming out.

Fate: The Winx Saga comes with its own pressures as well, when the first season racked up 918 million minutes of streaming in its first week, which made it number two for the quarter behind Bridgerton, which was Netflix’s biggest show ever, so no pressure.

No pressure! I think I was lucky, because I came in when we started season 2. That was a bit before season one started airing. So I hadn’t felt it. And we were all kind of like, for Sandman, we know that it’s going to be of heavy viewership. For The Winx Saga, because I wasn’t involved in season one, I was like, “I’m not quite sure like what the promo has been on this, but people are gonna see it”. And then it became that and it’s like, “Oh, so this is a big deal”.

I actually grew up reading the Winx Club, little books. So I was a fan. But I didn’t know how that would carry through audiences. So yeah, that was pressure. But again, because I was a fan of it, I wasn’t too worried that I couldn’t step up to the plate and have a perspective. It’s also ensemble, and I started off on an ensemble show. So I felt kind of confident in that but a little bit of pressure.

So, in six weeks or so, you’ll have made a name for yourself when it comes to big supernatural fantasy shows on Netflix. Is that an avenue you want to keep exploring in the future, or is it all about broadening horizons?

Yeah, so I feel super lucky that fantasy and dark fantasy is such a big thing now, because I was telling folks before when I graduated from college and came out here with the scripts that I did, it was like, “Yeah, you do fantasy. But do you have something else that can show that you can actually write”. Like, it wasn’t that respected as it is now. So I just want to keep riding the wave of the dark fantasy genre.

And I’m also super excited about horror. Horror is where my my true heart is, I kind of grew up with the Saws, the Final Destinations, and all that kind of more gory stuff. So that is kind of innate in what I’m really excited about writing. And I feel like horror is getting its day on TV, TV networks are taking more chances on allowing kind of the weird horror stuff to come out. So I’m really excited about working in that genre, as that’s like my foundation.

You started out on In Contempt and How to Get Away with Murder, but you’ve now segued into the world of dark fantasy, was that always a natural progression you imagined yourself making and where you wanted to be at this stage of your career?

No, absolutely not! Absolutely not. I mean, when you start I was just grateful to have gotten an episode on Murder, and I was like, “Whatever else, I don’t… I’ll do a fraud comedy”, like I respect it all. So for this, I’m really grateful that I kind of stuck to my grounds of what I wanted to do. It just kind of got better in my personal writing when it came to genre, so that when the opportunity presented itself, I was ready and I hadn’t backed out on myself earlier.

But I would never would have expected this level of shows back to back. It’s kind of… sometimes I forget. And then people are like, “Oh, no, it’s a big deal”. And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, it is a big deal”. Just because I’m surprised that I’m in a big deal, you know? Like, “Oh sh*t, yeah!”.

Where do you hope things go from here moving forward? Are there any new projects in the pipeline, original ideas you’re developing, or ongoing shows you’ve got your eye on, or a return for season 2 of The Sandman?

From your lips to god’s ears, I hope is another season for Sandman, because I would love to return for Sandman season 2. So I’ll just put that out there for whoever can listen and make that happen! And then, as far as everything else, again, I am really excited about some of the stuff that I’ve been doing.

Besides screenwriting, I’m really interested in playing with just different forms of storytelling. So mixing genres and mediums, and I feel like audiences are now kind of ready and open to that with video games becoming so popular. And with experimental theater being a thing. So I’m working on a project now that’s like a mixture of found footage from someone’s phone, that you as the audience have to go through a surveillance portal to watch her story. And it’s kind of pushing audiences into trying new things.

And yeah, so besides that, there’s something else that I just got roped into that I wish I can talk about, but it’s really exciting. It’s in the animation space. And I I’m a huge anime fan. So that’s kind of where I also see myself moving. But again, continuing in the genre of that more dark fantasy horror stuff.

With film, TV, streaming, podcasting, audio series, social media, even places like Wattpad, there are more ways than ever for creatives to get eyes and ears on their writing than there was even a couple of years ago, which is possibly as inspiring as it is potentially overwhelming in terms of trying to break through.

Yeah, exactly. And I feel like, at least for when I was coming up it’s different, like you said, things have changed in the past couple of years. But when I was coming up as an assistant in Hollywood, again, I focused more on the network of meeting people in Hollywood, versus now forming an audience, which is what I’m interested in doing. And I feel like the pressure comes from now kind of pivoting.

As far as you are a Hollywood person; you mingle in Hollywood, you come up the studio path, you pitch a show, and that’s how it gets made, to now adding this version of my brain to “yes, that’s a part of my career that I am very honored to have. But now, developing my own independent stuff to kind of gain an audience”. So if I never get to make a show, on HBO, or Netflix, I could make something on YouTube that had a small following, I really only care about making stuff that some people want to watch.

That’s kind of like the dream. So as long as I can do that and have a platform for it, yeah. But I think it is a lot of pressure switching your brain. You can write in the oblivion, and like have a network make your stuff, to having to publicize your stuff, and put yourself out there. That’s been the hardest thing for me.

“From the writer of The Sandman” is always a good one to have in the back pocket.

You’re right, you’re right! Thank you.

If you could choose one property or franchise to either work on or adapt without restrictions, what would be top of your writing bucket list?

Oh, my God, any property? Okay. So, two things came into my mind. There’s a book that I’m reading right now and I’m sorry, because I wasn’t prepared. So I don’t have his name pulled up. But it’s called A Head Full of Ghosts [by Paul Tremblay]. And it’s a horror novel that I’m reading, and it is a possession story. And it is so strong. It’s usually, you know, everyone has their genre in horror, like possession. Possession usually isn’t my thing, it doesn’t really scare me. But this book has me freaked out.

And it’s already very graphic, and it’s pushing the envelope. So I would love to , if that ever becomes anything, I would love to work on that. And then kind of on a different thing. There’s this video game. It’s a Ubisoft video game called Beyond Good and Evil. It was a very small video game that came out it was PS2 a long time ago. But the story… I remember growing up with that and loving the story about a journalist who is uncovering conspiracies. I do not like government entities, so it was perfect for me! It’s all about conspiracy and fighting for the people. So that property, strong female character. Yeah, those are my two that came to my head.

Is it right that Beyond Good and Evil is in the early stages of being adapted for television?

Yeah, yeah. And I just hope that it… because there’s so many changes happening. And I don’t know if you’re seeing the news, as far as like, mergers and all this stuff. I’m just like, “please just survive development”. So even if I’m not a part of it, I can watch it.

It’s dark fantasy that’s in development at Netflix, so that sounds straight up your street anyway.

Exactly, exactly. So I love this series, even if it’s a season two situation, like I would love to work on that show. It’s an awesome story.

I won’t say good luck for The Sandman and The Winx Saga, I’ll say congratulations because they’re pretty much nailed on as far as success goes!

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

The Sandman premieres on Netflix tomorrow, August 5, and Vanessa Benton is the credited writer on the ninth episode. Fate: The Winx Saga season 2 lands on September 16.

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