Film Courage: Lee you mentioned earlier planning and tracking software. I’m wondering in terms of screenwriting programs can they really teach someone to be a better writer?
Lee Jessup: No. [Laughs]. Truly writing is inspiration. Writing is a craft. If you get a hammer, it’s not going to teach you to be a better carpenter. It may make the creation of carpentry easier. It’s not going to teach you how to be a better writer. It is a craft. It is a craft that has to be practiced. Sure there are tools like Dramatica to help you, etcetera, etcetera. And there is SAVE THE CAT and all of those. But I’ve seen writers take on SAVE THE CAT and not get screenwriting to save their lives. It’s not paint by numbers. And (you know) if you’re color blind, painting by numbers is really not going to work for you and that’s pretty much the equation. So I think that all of those things have their uses and I think that they can be very important guides for the mechanics of your work but you the writer are going to have to master the craft. I’m a big believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. You shouldn’t be shy of getting those. For most writers, the first script is not going to be ‘The Script.’ The second script is not going to be ‘The Script.’ You are going to have to really get better at your craft and there is no short-cutting that. Even if you filled out the 40 beats of SAVE THE CAT perfectly, that does not mean a perfect script, ever.
Film Courage: Right…let’s take Malcolm Gladwell’s the OUTLIERS in terms of environment and fostering genius or genius already being in someone but environment either hindering it or getting it out there Have you seen that?
Lee Jessup: Oh certainly! Listen there has to be a kernel of genius there. You can be a technically proficient writer but if you’re not able to invest some soul in your work. If you’re not able to feel the way that it sings, then it will always feel mechanical.
I had a girlfriend growing up who really, really wanted to be a great pianist. She never felt it. So her playing was entirely proficient but entirely cold. And the same thing happens with screenplays. There has to be some (whether we want to call it genius or anything else) talent, something innate that you’re able to invest in the work that makes it uniquely your own or else it just becomes a perfectly, technically executed screenplay, but not a great screenplay. And I do believe that is the difference between good and great, that extra thing. And certainly environment can nurture or destroy it. But I can tell you sadly that I’ve seen writers come to screenwriting and really, really want to get it. But they don’t and you’ve tried every different way.
I was speaking recently to a friend who is a UCLA instructor who said “I’ve always believed that anybody can be taught how to write. And then every once and awhile somebody walks into my class that reminds me that…no! It’s just not the case.” There are some things that either you understand them innately or you don’t. I think most people that come to this come with some innate understanding of screenwriting. With the flow of screenwriting. With the general structure, the general rhythm of screenwriting. But I think you certainly want an environment that you nurture it, to promote it and to help you rise to your very best.
Question for the Viewers: Can a bad writer become a great screenwriter?
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