In August 2015, Ben Phillips published his first post at Diary of an Uber Driver, recalling his inaugural ride-share experience. He never expected what came after: a book and a TV show. Four years later, a six-episode dramedy series, inspired by his encounters with strangers in his car, recently aired on the ABC in Australia. Ben chats with us about this wild ride, and how it all began on his blog.
What compelled you to start the blog? When did you realize it was worth chronicling these encounters?
In 2015, when my first Uber passenger turned toward me — with streaks of purple and black mascara cascading from her bloodshot eyes — and hissed, “It doesn’t matter that you’re ugly and have a small dick, you’ll still have women throwing themselves at you, won’t you,” I knew I was going to experience something very unique.
This complete stranger, who I’d known for five minutes, had just been stranded midway through a Tinder date. The “fu**ing jerk” pretended to use the bathroom before escaping out a side door. Unfortunately for me, I was at the epicenter of her fury.
After surviving that typhoon of rage, I pulled over beneath a streetlight and began tapping away, transcribing the very one-sided conversation into the notes section of my iPhone. I didn’t know why at the time, but I just had to write it down.
When I retold this story to friends, I was met with looks of utter disbelief and one key question, a question that came up again and again: “Why do people you’ve just met reveal so much about themselves?”
It was true. My car was a confessional. I was privy to information and emotions these strangers hadn’t shared with anyone else — not their parents, best friends, or children. But why?
I think it was partly the anonymity, the fact they would never see me again. But mostly, I think it was because I couldn’t pass judgment. How could I? The only things I knew about these people were their names and star ratings on Uber. So I’d lend an ear, ask if they were okay, and get them home safely.
I’m so grateful the amazing people of Sydney shared vignettes of their lives with me. They changed how I look at the world.
How did the book come about, and how essential was your site in making it happen?
“Hello, I’ve just been reading your very funny blog. Have you considered publishing it as a book? I work at HarperCollins Australia and would love to talk to you further. Have a great afternoon.”
I received this message after a number of online news sites published stories about Diary of an Uber Driver. I was averaging 50 to 60 readers a day, but after a whirlwind of media attention, 26,000 people visited my blog in a single afternoon. The attention came about from a few emails I fired off to particular journalists I thought might be interested in the blog.
I met with the lovely people at HarperCollins Australia the following week at a coffee shop in Sydney and they offered me a book deal. I’m still pinching myself to this day. My book, Diary of an Uber Driver, is now a bestseller. I never thought I’d say those words.
Without my WordPress.com blog, none of this would’ve happened.
Without my WordPress.com blog, none of this would’ve happened. I wanted to record my stories on a website, but had zero experience in coding. I reached out to a friend who built websites and was given a quote for $2,000. I didn’t have $2,000. After the initial disappointment, I searched for alternatives and WordPress kept popping up. I had never heard of WordPress, but the reviews of the platform were really good. Without my blog, Diary of an Uber Driver would never have been made into a book and then go on to become a critically acclaimed television series.
What do you like about WordPress.com? What features have helped you amplify your story?
Everything. I’m a complete troglodyte when it comes to technology. WordPress.com is intuitive — I think even the most technology-illiterate people can find their way around the platform. I found the process of choosing a theme and deciding how to structure the blog really fun, and whenever I got stuck, the support team got back to me within the hour. I can’t speak more highly of WordPress.com and recommend it to any person who wants to share something with the world.
The contact form has also made it easy for journalists and TV producers to get in touch with me. Diary of an Uber Driver has been featured on countless TV and radio programs and online and print media around the world. This certainly helped amplify the blog.
How did the TV show become a reality? Is it weird to watch the material on screen take on a life on its own?
The second most exciting email I’ve ever received came from a TV production company in Sydney called Revlover Films. They wanted to chat about my blog and to learn more about me. After a handful of meetings at their office in Redfern, a contract was drafted with the intention of one day transforming my stories about driving for Uber in Sydney into a TV series.
Watching my stories come to life on screen gave me immense pride and joy.
TV shows don’t happen overnight. One incredible coincidence is that the show aired exactly four years after I published my first post. During these four years, which felt like 400 years, I met with comedy writers with ideas on how to best adapt the blog into script form. Meanwhile, Martha Coleman, the brilliant executive producer from Revlover Films, traveled around the world to try to secure funding for the program. Martha struck a deal with All3Media in London and the wheels were finally in motion.
In a moment of serendipity, Emmy-nominated scriptwriter Tom Ward became available after wrapping up his work on the TV series Please Like Me. I went for a few beers with Tom, and a couple weeks later he finished writing the pilot. I knew from the moment I read the pilot episode that the show was not only going to make it to the production phase, but it would be a success.
Watching my stories come to life on screen gave me immense pride and joy. I was utterly gobsmacked, almost to the point of tears, when I watched the entire series at an advanced screening. I sat there, mouth agape, for 20 minutes after the final credits rolled. I’m just so grateful that people saw enough potential in my stories to make my dream come true.
What’s your favorite story from the blog?
The most popular story and my personal favorite is about an elderly gentleman named Ken whom I picked up with his carer from the Southern-Sydney suburb of Erskineville. The carer spoke about Ken as if he didn’t exist, as though he had already checked out. When she left my car, I heard a low grumble from the back seat. “Good riddance,” said Ken. He hadn’t checked out after all. Upon arriving at Ken’s home, he asked if I wouldn’t mind giving him a hand with something in his back shed. Inside, I discovered an elaborate beer brewing setup he had been operating for many years. He asked me to disconnect one of the kegs and carry it through a narrow passageway behind his home. Ken was selling beer to the pub behind his house. We sat together for an hour with one of Ken’s home-brewed beers and discussed life.
It was a beautiful reminder to never judge a book by its cover and how connecting with strangers can leave an indelible mark on your own life, usually for the better.
We’ve seen similar sites that tell the stories of ride-share drivers — to varying degrees of success. Why do you think yours stood out?
The stories were never just recounts of the day’s events or humorous conversations overheard in my car. Each story was about a real person, where they were at in their lives, and the impact their worlds had on mine. These strangers opened up to me about everything, from cancer diagnoses and marriage breakups to romantic first kisses and their child’s first words. I started to conclude my stories with a few words about the lessons I had learned from these wonderful people I would likely never meet again. I think the message about the magic of connecting with strangers and how it can change your life is what made my story stand out.
Each story was about a real person, where they were at in their lives, and the impact their worlds had on mine.
What’s next for the show? And what’s next for the blog — are you still writing?
We are hopeful for a second series and perhaps a few international remakes. I have daydreams about a version of the show being made in New York, London, Berlin, or Paris. The program has been nominated for a number of awards in Australia and has received four and five-star reviews from critics. It is still available to watch online.
The blog still attracts a good number of readers who have heard of the book and TV show and want to find out where it all started. I’ll continue to update it with news.
And I still write every day. The success of the show has inspired me to give screenwriting a go. I’m attempting to write a TV show with a friend and am hopeful to have the pitch document and first few episodes finished next month.
My WordPress.com blog changed my life.
Learn more about Ben Phillips on his blog, Diary of an Uber Driver.