Film Courage: Continuing on with fighting for the work. Let’s suppose you’re working with someone and they come to you and you either have someone who is self-deprecating and “mouse-like” or someone who is more of an over-confident braggart. Either one is probably detrimental to getting their work out.
Lee Jessup: Yes!
Film Courage: So what are your rules for either breaking down the braggart or maybe you’re not doing this? Or boosting up the mouse?
Lee Jessup: With the mouse…I just talked to one such mouse this morning who takes very failure, every “no” as a testament to her own life long, predestined failure. And so I have very hard brutal conversations about the fact that there will be a lot of rejections, there will be a lot of no’s at every level. At every level of this industry, nothing is ever perfect. Nothing is just ever handed to you.
And so it’s important to me to have a lot of candid conversations about learning not to take the no’s with quite as much weight, because if you do, it’s just never ending, right? It’s just a recipe for disaster. So we talk a lot about conviction in the work, believing in your work, believing in your potential, not needing to rely on other people for your own self-worth. Because really, that’s what it boils down to.
And so we talk a lot about that and fattening up people’s lives. So making sure that my writers that are mousey have their sources, their dependable sources of fun. That it’s not about the writing all the time. Because the other side of it is, if it’s just the writing, if it’s all about the writing, all the time and nothing else, eventually they will have nothing else to invest in the writing itself. They will have nothing to bring to the writing.
So it’s really kind of filling our their lives and making sure they they are fulfilled on many different levels and it’s not just the writing that defines them. Because if it is only the writing that defines you, A) you will become a very boring writer and B) it will never be fulfilling enough ever…and I’ve seen that a million times. Hemingway committed suicide. There is something to learn there.
And so the ones who are…tend to be a little bit more “braggy.” Tend to be a little bit more egotistical, a bit more full of themselves, we will talk a lot about how their behavior is coming off, and I will do a lot of meeting prep with them and “the way you are talking about that (to me) comes off a certain way” and you may want to pay attention to these things. That’s why I am here. I am here to reflect that and be a mirror to those things. And so we will certainly talk about how those things come off and that we can’t afford that. Nobody wants to work with someone who is completely full of themselves.
I had recently a conversation with a manager about a client of mine who he represents. And he says “I think this client couldn’t care less about my opinion.” And I said “Well, actually I think it is quite the contrary. I think that he is desperate to impress you. And I think because of that he may be coming off a little bit more bigger and boastful but it’s out of desperation to get you on his side, to get you to rally behind him. It’s not for lack of respect, it’s because of respect that he’s behaving that way.”
So many times writers don’t have me as a go-between to communicate to their agents or their managers or the executive that they are working with so a lot of it is me talking to them as “Listen, this is how I am reading you right now. I know it doesn’t sound fun and I’m sorry to say this and I love you and I know what a great person you are, but this is how I am reading this. Is this how you want me to read this? If you are fine with it, keep going. But I am reading this as someone who thinks they are smarter than anyone else in the room.” Nobody wants to work with that.
Film Courage: Can I hear some examples? Let’s suppose conversations with the self-deprecating writer versus conversations with the braggart, because maybe this person doesn’t recognize who they are?
Lee Jessup: The braggart….the most obvious and overt ones are the braggarts that will come in and say (and these are usually not professional writers. Professional writers don’t do this and have learned better and have broken because they don’t. But it has happened). “This is the greatest script you are ever going to read!” “I am the Michael Jordan of screenwriting.” Whoah! Hold on…these are things that have been said to me, for the record. “This is the script you’ve been waiting for.” “Take this script on vacation. This is my vacation gift to you.” “I want you sit at sunset and read it on the veranda because this will make your vacation.” So those things have been said to me.
You know, you want to steer clear of “This is the greatest, this is the best script ever!” You can certainly say “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever written, I’m really proud of it, I’ve worked really hard at it. You know, I have eight scripts behind me and this is my best one.” That’s not braggery, that is genuine. But somebody coming in and saying “Oh, my God. This is so much better than anything else out there.”
I had one writer, a working writer, no longer a working writer, who used to be very, very successful, had fallen from grace (a bit, not a great deal) but who used to every year write a list of all the screenplays that were nominated for academy awards and then write arguments for why his script was better and send it out in Christmas cards. Not a good idea! Just not a good idea.
If you are saying to me that your script, that is unproduced, that nobody wants to pick up, that has been read by everybody, but nobody loved it, is better than ARGO, you’re…hhmmm. It’s a problem. So that’s the braggery side and of course the examples I’ve brought in are a little bit on the extreme side of it, but I think you get the tone of it.
The more self-defeating writers, it’s usually conversation about “I got this rejection. I know that I will never be the person I want to be.” There’s usually a direct connection about what rejection means about the person, not about the script or the person reading the script. “I’m not going to make it as a writer. I will never be happy. I will never be fulfilled. I’m just a loser. I didn’t make it in this contest.” I can’t tell you the rhyme or reason of screenwriting contest. I’ve been in this industry forever and I still don’t understand them. And I have writers say “I didn’t make the quarter finals in the Nicholl [Fellowship], I’m a loser, I know that I’m a loser now, I’m a bad writer.” Hold on, there’s going to be lots more rejections, there’s going to be lots more opportunities to be a loser. Don’t jump at the chance so quickly.
But for a lot of writers it’s very real. And don’t get me wrong, every writer has a moment or 15 of being self-defeatist. You know, I have one writer who is a working writer who is always saying if you’re not thinking about quitting at least twice a week you are doing something wrong. And I believe him. I think it’s very, very true. I think every writer thinks they are failing at a moment, every writer thinks that they are not good enough, every writer thinks that they are never going to recreate the past success that they’ve had. I think that’s perfectly part of the deal, but seeing everything as a failure, as an indication that you are just a loser. Or that you are just a bad writer. Or you are just a bad person. That is what I see in the more self-defeated writers. And the problem is that nobody wants to work with that. Nobody wants to be in a room with that. Nobody wants to pick up your script as a validation to who you are as a human being. They want to pick it up your script because it’s a great script and they want to bring you in the room because they think you have something to contribute. Not because they think that you need the room and that’s a big distinction.
Film Courage: So are you giving these people pep talks or that’s not really what your job is about?
Lee Jessup: Oh…I give people pep talks…I’m Israeli, I’m married to a New Yorker, so there’s a lot of tough love in the picture. You know, admittedly I get a lot of tears from a lot of people and I want to be the safe space to that and the place for writers to voice frustration and I certainly try to support them through it.
There are writers where if I see that we are getting to a place where every time we meet it is just horrible and the writer is in pieces, I will ask “Why in the world are you doing this?” It’s more important to be happy than be a writer, what are you doing? I will have those conversations. There are pep talks, there is tough love and there is a shoulder to give. I recognize that this is a really, really hard profession.
You know, I was talking to a writer this morning who was really frustrated with a set of notes that she was given on a pilot that she just sold but the draft that she turned in, she wasn’t delighted with. And it took a toll on her because she really wants to do the best at every thing. And it brought her to the question “Why am I doing this?” And this is not her first time to the rodeo and “Should I really keep going because this happens every time?”
And I said to her “You know, the day you sold this pilot, you called me on the drive home after the pilot sold in the room and you told me that this was one of the happiest days in your life. Now you are having a bad day, this is not one of the worst days of your life and because of that you are going to keep going.” And that’s the truth of the matter, we are all going to have bad days here and I’m here to support my writers though them but it’s about understanding when there are some bad days and when it’s all bad days.
Question for the Viewers: What has been your best day as a screenwriter?
Check out Lee’s books on Amazon:
Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches
Getting it Write: An Insider’s Guide to a Screenwriting Career