15 October 2019
Since graduating UCCS, Sheryl Benko has worked on the production of “Titanic,” directed short films and worked on Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” Now, with her first book “The Last of Will” winning the 2019 Irwin Award for the Best Coming of Age Novel, Benko can add “award-winning author” to that list.
Despite the success of her novel, Benko never anticipated writing a book when she had the idea for her story. In 2006, Benko had a script, and after approaching an agent, she was ready to turn her script into a movie. With years working in the film industry and experience directing and producing under her belt, Benko was ready to make the rounds.
After her agent submitted the film as a spec to producers, she attracted the attention of major production companies. The script landed her a meeting with Dreamworks and was picked as one of four scripts considered by Steven Spielberg. With excellent writing and a compelling story, the feedback from producers was as good as Benko could have hoped for. However, despite the positive reception, producers wanted her story to be based on a real event or book.
To solve that issue, Benko decided that she would write a book and have the screenplay based off it. The simple solution proved to be harder than she expected, and the entire process for writing her book took seven years. Writing a book, Benko learned how different the process was from writing a screenplay and the experience challenged her to grow as a writer.
“There were times sitting up late at night agonizing, trying to find the right way to say something. You think you are never going to get there, but then you look back and realize, ‘I did that,’” Benko said.
Before the idea for writing a book ever crossed her mind, and before her career took her to work on projects with esteemed directors, Benko was a student at UCCS with a passion for film. Benko credits her time at UCCS for encouraging her to seek out opportunities and take risks.
“The thing that all my professors did was encourage us to try things and be brave,” she said.
When Benko was at UCCS, she got her first job working on set at the production studio. Though small compared to her roles now, Benko said that every job makes you better at what you do. At UCCS, Benko realized the importance of growing and learning in every opportunity you take on.
“The world that awaits you is going to be everywhere and you have to be able to think about where you want to be in that world, how you want to be relaying what you’re doing and how your work will relate to the world,” Benko said.
Benko took the lessons she learned at UCCS to land her first role on a major feature film. During her first four years following graduation, Benko lived on location in Arizona working on Western movies. She was staying with friends in Tucson when she got her first job on a major motion picture, “Tombstone.”
Before even working on a film, Benko volunteered at the Environmental Film Festival in Colorado Springs, while at UCCS. Her role was to work with celebrities and talent attending the festival. While Benko took on the role un-paid and purely out of interest, it helped her land her job on “Tombstone.” The importance of seemingly small opportunities stuck with Benko.
“Any opportunity to grow and learn will come back and is always going to help you in some way. Even if you don’t get paid for it, it will pay you back, either in knowledge, in experience or in opportunities,” Benko said.
Benko believes failure is a way to learn, and when you embrace the choices you make, you create opportunities for yourself.
Once she was in the world of film, Benko learned quickly that writing was her passion within the film industry. Learning remained a theme in Benko’s career. Working for a director, Benko discovered what it meant to write for the screen and allowed herself the freedom to let go of things that did not work in a story.
“In any creative endeavor, you have to be willing to look at sacrificing parts of it for the greater good,” Benko said.
Benko encourages students to seek out opportunities for themselves and maintain a sense of wonder about their work and the world in general.
“Even if a job seems out of reach, everyone started where you are starting,” Benko said.
Benko is currently working on two projects, an indie film with Catherine Hardwicke, director of “Twilight” and “Lords of Dogtown,” and a script written by Alan Ball, the writer of “American Beauty.” In addition to her film projects, Benko is currently on tour for her book “The Last of Will” and will be reading at Next Page Books in Frisco, Colorado on Nov. 2. Her book is available at bookstores throughout Colorado.