The Sandman’s Vanessa Benton on Writing About Death and Dreams

The Sandman’s Vanessa Benton on Writing About Death and Dreams

“It’s scary as shit. I’m working on Sandman as my first staff writing job?” Vanessa Benton shook their head as they said this, leaning back a little; we’re talking in the morning over video chat. “It was an incredible learning experience, diving headfirst into that.”

Benton has been working in Hollywood for a while: after graduating they were a showrunner’s assistant for In Contempt, and then for Peter Nowalk while he was working on How to Get Away With Murder. Benton was later promoted to writers’ assistant on the crime/thriller show, and penned and produced an episode during the final season. All of this prepared them for the leap into staff writing, but it’s hard to imagine the pressure of being on a show with as much anticipation as The Sandman.

Industry experience might have helped Benton get in the room, but they brought a plethora of inspiration to the table for their work on The Sandman. One of those touchstones was fanfiction. “I’m coming on to this property that has millions of fans. I’m used to writing fanfic — and taken slant, we’re writing a fanfic version of the comics,” Benton explained. Allan Heinberg, the showrunner, was very clear on the kind of show that he wanted to make. Benton said that Heinberg’s big edict was that “we can’t disrespect the fans… you can’t destroy Sandman with your changes. We just have to make sure the original fans won’t ask, ‘Why is everything torn apart?’”

The Sandman was an incredible balancing act between remaining faithful to the source material while also giving new fans something solid to stand on. Dream of the Endless (Tom Sturridge) often goes in and out of the narrative. “A big part of the adaptation was making sure there’s a through line for Dream so people who aren’t familiar with the comics don’t ask, ‘wait, why is Dream only in like two episodes and has like three lines,’ you know what I mean?” Benton said.

In addition to pulling the threads of the original comic in order to tie narratives more cohesively to a story, reworking The Sandman also helped expose subtext that might not have been intended in the original series. One of those moments of discovery — where the source material just seems to lend itself perfectly to an interpretation — happens during episode six of the series, which follows two plots: one where Dream accompanies his sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) as she makes her rounds in London, the other where Dream continually checks in with a man named Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley), whom Death has made immortal. The Dream/Hob ship sailed almost immediately, inspiring fiction, art, and memes across the internet.

immortal boyfriends (Image: Netflix)
immortal boyfriends (Image: Netflix)

“The Dreamling romance wasn’t baked in,” Benton said, “However you have a ton of queer people in the writer’s room, you have a gay man as as a showrunner, and you have actors who have chemistry.” It just worked.

Benton also pointed out that Dreamling (a portmanteau of Dream and Gadling, a common ship naming convention in fandom spaces) has “the tropes that fandom loves: the broody, distant, mysterious man and the ray of sunshine puppy dog of a man who’s just constantly asking to be friends.” There’s also the much-beloved exploration of a love story spread over time, and the hope and optimism in the face of disappointment — “and it just kind of all exploded to become this new, fan-favourite couple.”

While it might have been a happy accident that Benton didn’t expect, they also say that the subtext was able to come to the front in part because of who was in the writing room. “In another room with different writers, different creators, there might be a pull away from that story. I just feel very happy that this is the room, this is the show, and these are the people that it landed with. They were kind enough to allow this new side-of-romance story.” Benton is effusive. They’re excited to confirm that (to them at least,) “It is real. It is definitely real.”

Benton mentioned that in another property they’re writing for, there’s a palpable sexual tension between the main character and the antagonist. “I’m going to just try to slip [subtext] in because I’m like… they’re going to be fucking, right?” Benton described the scenario; they meet up, they mess with each other, they hate each other. “But…” Benton shrugged, “there was no other way for me to interpret this dynamic than through a queer lens. And it’s the most fun thing. Now that I’m coming into who I am, I realise that I’ve been trying to do this for years. I kept it on AO3 [the Archive of Our Own, a popular fanfiction site] for a while, and now it’s like, ‘No, fuck it!’ I’m glad that I can bring more queer subtext to my work and to TV, because I love writing it.”

It’s easy to see the hold that fandom and fan interaction has had on Benton. They are just about to launch their original project, God Bless the Promised Land, an immersive, interactive story where the audience takes on the role of unwilling voyeurs who have found a cell phone and accessed its memory. “The project is about earning your space in the world during a series of escalating climate disasters,” Benton said. They weren’t necessarily thinking of doxxing or swatting when they wrote the piece, but with the audience as the antagonist, it’s not hard to draw prescient parallels.

Benton is open about the fact that they’re exploring a variety of paths. From TV writing to an ARG, they’re unafraid to take chances with their art. And The Sandman left an incredible mark on their life. “We were working on episode six [‘The Sound of her Wings’] and one of the writers in our room mentioned death doulas.” Benton said that one conversation changed the trajectory of their life.

She's a queen, she's a star, she is Death. (Image: Laurence Cendrowicz/Netflix)
She’s a queen, she’s a star, she is Death. (Image: Laurence Cendrowicz/Netflix)

“I was already very interested in how Death was portrayed [in The Sandman], and how she was written as being very pragmatic — when your time is up, your time is up.” An end of life doula — also known as a death doula — is a caregiver who assists those who are dying and their families through the last stage of their life. Much like the more well known birthing doulas, death doulas are a way to support and affirm changes in a way that is supportive and affirming. Benton, after working on Sandman, and with Death in particular, is now studying to become a death doula.

“Working with this character and studying in this field, it’s helped me appreciate and understand life more,” Benton said. “Working with death — ” it’s not clear during the interview if they mean Death the character or death itself — “has changed the way I carry myself and the way I deal with my depression. Even in my darkest days I have hope.”

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