NAME: Jessica Bendinger
CLAIM TO FAME: Jessica is a screenwriter whose movies have grossed over $500 million worldwide. Her original script Bring It On debuted at #1 in the box office and remained there for two weeks. Jessica was named by Glamour Magazine as one of Hollywood’s Most Powerful Women Under 40. She was a writer for Sex And The City and her screenwriting credits include The Truth About Charlie, First Daughter, and Aquamarine.
Jessica also directed music videos for artists such as Queen Latifah, Steady B, Coro, Tony Terry, Warrior Soul, Masters of Reality and Loudness. She also published a novel The Seven Rays and co-wrote “Hurts to Think” for Miranda Lambert’s last album.
I start writing first thing in the morning. I make my coffee. I sit down with a notebook handy. I get the lint out of my head with a list of three things I’m grateful for and three things I’d like to get done that day. Then I just write. Longhand in a notebook to start. Then I move to the laptop once I feel like I’ve removed the crap from my mental dryer trap.
I have a couple tools:
1) Pen and paper are lovely. I’m fond of the Pentel EnerGel and the MiracleBind notebook by Blueline.
2) Voice memo or the transcription function on the iPhone. If you’ve never used the tiny microphone to the left of the space bar on the keyboard? You’re welcome.
3) Mac laptop. Hemingway Editor. FinalDraft.
I use both music and silence. I love hotel lobbies and airport lounges for the little bit of white noise. I enjoy the headset in public and will blast some hip hop if I’m stuck. If I’m in my office, I’ll use music to get me launched. MADE YOU LOOK by Nas and ONE BIG HOLIDAY by My Morning Jacket got me over the finish line with STICK IT. ONE BIG HOLIDAY made it into the movie which was pretty fucking gratifying.
The days of not writing are important to me. I have to fill the well with walks, reading, watching and zoning out. There’s something about a long walk and staring off into the distance that really sparks ideas for me. Walks plus music generates wonderful sparks and new combinations of thoughts. The transitional periods between productivity and gestation are crucial for me. Decompression is a critical tool for me. I used to go from project to project without stopping. It hurt my body, my psyche and my work.
Gestation periods are like a pupu platter. Internet and book research is the appetizer. Interviews and conversations with experts or sources are the entrees. Visual research (like Pinterest boards) are dessert, unless an image kicked things off. I use Pinterest boards now but used to pin images on the wall. I had every surface of my office covered for STICK IT. I loved looking in any direction and getting inspired. I tend to go down lots of rabbit holes using enthusiasm only. I need that “YES” feeling, whether it’s an idea, an image or a quote. I bookmark or pin anything that resonates. For links, I cut and paste the morsels into an email message that stays open on my desktop. I email this incoherent thing to myself and use it to circle back later. When I need to find the original again, it’s in my search history or my inbox. It’s a sprawling messy pile of scraps. I really love metabolizing the chaos into something original and fresh. Order out of the chaos still feels satisfying to me.
The audience is everything to me. Some frown on this, but I have to know who it is for before I write. When I don’t know, I struggle and the writing suffers. I was working on a spec rom-com for years. Because it was genre, I got super lazy and forgot to consider WHO it was for. The drafts sucked. Just sucked. I finally went, “Wait! It’s for me and my gay friends.” Suddenly, I was jettisoning scenes and tossing bullshit fodder. It came into focus so sharply. It got all this edge and vinegar. To this day, it’s one of my favorite unproduced scripts. It is just so salty and wicked. I love it. But for a long time, it was incredibly meh.
I’m trying to build a bridge between the idea and the audience. To do this, I’m using a story. If I know who they are, that’s great. Better yet, do I know how they are underserved? Do I know how they get or feel marginalized? Do I know what they aren’t getting enough of in the marketplace? That’s my favorite game: I look for what’s not there but should be or could be. Then I can play in that space. I want to locate what’s missing and surprise them with it. Until then, I’m the stand-in for the audience. I’m trying to amuse, startle and delight myself and/or a dear friend.
It was challenging. Movie scripts are these strange haikus. Screenwriters have to distill a ton of info into concise encapsulations. It’s like code. It has to expand into something satisfying when you add the water of the cast, the crew and resources. Movies are a recipe for something else.
Books are not recipes. They are the meal. The book is everything. My muscle tone was in another form. The process was super rocky for me. I’m glad I did it but the book was hammered. It was written to be part of a series and – ultimately – I’d hoped it would be a franchise. I liked my choices conceptually, but my inexperience is obvious.
I was enamoured with the idea of total creative control and controlling the copyright. The publisher was in the middle of a contraction. I had to hire an editor to shepherd me through the process. I white-knuckled it. The gap between my aspirations and my abilities was wide. I’m proud I finished it and I still love the idea. My learning curve is all over THE SEVEN RAYS but I am grateful I got the chance to do it, wonky as it was for me.
A good ear is critical for screenwriters. Frequently, all our characters sound the same. Especially when we are starting out. But as you mature, figuring out ways to distinguish between cadence and tone is fun. I use music as a bit of a hack to help this process. I will pick a genre for each character. Let’s say the “Ryan” character is metal. Then I will put on a track, like “Enter Sandman” and read that character’s dialogue whilst listening to that Metallica track.
They have to align. It gives me something to contour and shade his voice using tempo, dynamics, rhythm and tone. If “Ryan” were a sultrier, softer character, I might try listening to Miguel or Astrid Gilberto. That would imbue them with a completely different vernacular and feel. Ideally, I’ve selected the musical style in advance and inseminated it as I go. Sometimes – especially with lesser characters or beats I’ve been lazy with? I have to go back and adjust accordingly. It’s a solid technique that has worked for me either way.
My work style is genre specific. In songwriting, you are working with collaborators in real time. It is very spontaneous and improvisational. Musicians are a pretty fun lot, so this is delightful for me. I love songwriting because this social, tribal piece is delightful. Productivity and delight are nice compadres. Screenwriting itself can be pretty solitary. Production rewrites are totally different. They require input from the director, the studio execs or producers, and sometimes the actors. Production rewrites are time-sensitive, demanding different mindsets and skillsets. Agility and experience kick in. You have to trust the process and roll with the variables. I’m myopic when I’m writing alone, and a team player during pre-production and production. They say every film is three different movies: the movie you write, the movie you shoot and the movie you edit. The script-to-screen process is wonderfully iterative. You keep getting chances to course-correct the thing until it’s done.
Yes. The technique I use is to simply agree with the monkey mind. When it says, “This sucks!” I say, “Yes, this does suck. And it will for some time.” When you agree with that energy of opposition, the tension diffuses and deflates. Unless I can use the tension, for example in dialogue or banter. Then? I employ it and direct it. I allow the monkey mind to become the other character and we duke it out. Either way, making it inclusive always serves me. When I don’t, I can deflate, take it personally and get discouraged. Discouragement becomes an important signal to me. If I haven’t been integrating the darker aspects of the inner critic? I am de-energized. Deflation is a cue that their weapons aren’t working for me but are turning against me. It’s amazing how frequently I forget this. Barry Michels – my former therapist and co-author of THE TOOLS – helped me with this piece enormously. Know yourself. Be mindful of your edges. When deflating, make sure you aren’t slashing your own tires.
I have experienced extended periods of not writing. These periods are circumstantial, physical or emotional. If I am unwell – physically or emotionally – I’m not writing. If something traumatic goes down, I can fight, flight or freeze (and sometimes all three at the same time). I’ve been writing for over thirty years. When I’m not writing and want or need to write, I do a three question check in. 1) How are you feeling? 2) What do you need? 3) Anything else? This technique breaks up the fog of mood and circumstance and grants me clarity. The darker or more stuck I get, the more I need a check-in. If that doesn’t work, I just start writing ABOUT the feeling of being blocked itself. I engage with it and ask it questions as if it were trying to tell me something. Using inquiry is an enormously powerful tool. Especially when shit is not happening and I’m stuck.
I love this question. It is not quiet in my head or outside of my head. It is noisy. Sometimes, I will talk out loud, but – bear with me here – I actually make strange noises. When I’m trying to feel something visceral, sound expedites access for me. Emotions have physical corollaries in the body. They often have sound. This is why sound design and score are so fundamental to movies and television. But there I am, alone with the laptop, trying to pump feelings into words. There may be a distinct feeling-tone I’m pinpointing when writing dialogue. So if I’m making primal noises while typing, this is a terrific sign. Grunts. Sighs. Silly verbal tics that sound like jibberish but evoke something. I trust this. There is always a point with a new assistant where they keep saying, “Did you need me?” And we have the talk, “Um, look. If you hear noises and sighs or hear me talking to myself, I’m fine. It’s how I work.” So, it’s not exactly talking out loud but I am externalizing feelings to align them with the page. It’s a semi-private ritual.
My pal Chris McQuarrie likes to read drafts aloud. Once, he made me read through one of my scripts aloud with him. It was utterly painful but helpful. I wish I’d recorded that. Casual read-throughs are my favorite method. There’s nothing like experiencing actors struggling with your dialogue to grease the idea wheels. And hurl you towards a rewrite.
Finally, I try to move my body quite a bit. I look like a fidgety child when things are flowing. When I get too stuck on something, my body has probably been in a forced position. This is bad news. When this happens, I get up as soon as I catch myself and stretch, move or change position. I think Tony Robbins calls it “pattern interruption.” I’ve also used brain gym techniques and cross-body tapping and bilateral stimulation. I’m a fan of using whatever works. Movement and sound are wonderful tools that help me get stuff on the page.