Which Story Does A Writer Tell First? by Lee Jessup

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Lee Jessup:  And so she told she taught my client to do the same thing.  Fast forward 20 years, my client is a comedy writer.  What does that tell you?

Film Courage:  I think this is another blog post of your’s and I want to expand on it…

Lee Jessup:  Sure.

Film Courage:  So writers are great at explaining someone else’s story, but what about their own?  Especially when it comes to presenting themselves in the world, to the studio system.  What is the refining of their own story?  What is too much [information]?  How truthful should they be?

Lee Jessup:  You want a writer to be truthful when they talk about themselves but you have to also remember that a writer’s first story is their own.  So if they don’t know how to tell their story it’s going to be tough to trust them with other stories.  So you really have to figure out where is the ‘juice’ in your story.   It’s never in chronology or very rarely in chronology (sure if you travel to space, sure chronologies just fine).  But it is about finding a way to connect your human experience (for lack of better words) to the person you’re sitting across from you.  To become interesting, to become unique, to tell them a story they haven’t heard that is truthful and your’s.  And it can be completely anecdotal.  You know I’ve certainly talk to people who start out saying “I have never done anything interesting in my life.”  Well then, what’s your point of view on the things that you’ve done?  What have you made of your experiences to find those stories that really speak to who you are as a person and as a writer.  To tell something interesting and unique so that a month later, a month after a general, be it with an executive in a production company or studio, that executive looks at a piece of work and says “Hey what happened to the writer who…the writer who had that experience so I can bring it into this one?”

So it is about sharing those experiences, those points of view and finding a way to tell that personal story that is meaningful and that is connective and that isn’t tied up in a bow and doesn’t have to be pretty.  It has to be memorable and eloquent.  You have to be comfortable talking about it.  So it can’t turn into a therapy session.  But it has to be that story that nobody else has to tell.

So for a while everybody was talking about writers who would go into networks and talk about how television was their only friend. We’ve heard a lot of those stories.  So those stories are no longer unique.  Every writer, every person has an experience and has a point of view is uniquely theirs.   You don’t have to take half an hour to tell it.  In fact we want it told in two minutes, three minutes most.  But relate to us something that we can remember that speaks to who you are because that’s who we want to work with.

I have a writer who is a super talented, lovely, lovely woman [who is] very, very shy who came to me and said “I don’t know what my personal story is and I can’t really talk about it.”  And so I had to bring in a lot of anecdotes.  There are a lot of different stories and they all came out kind of sad.  The problem was that she’s a comedy writer.   Until one day she brought me a story about her mother.  She’s Korean and she grew up (naturally) with a Korean mother who was obsessed with not wrinkling her face so she taught herself how to laugh without moving any of the muscles on her face so that she would never age.   And so she told she taught my client to do the same thing.  Fast forward 20 years, my client is a comedy writer?  What does that tell you?  Of course she told it with a little bit more flair and detail but those are the kind of stories that stick, that are unique, that are memorable, that nobody else has. those are the stories that you want to share with the industry because they’ll remember you that way.

Film Courage:  Okay, so if someone is envisioning their story and how they may explain it, first off how will they or in what arena will they be telling the story.  When would it ever come up to say “Hey you know what, Lee?  Tell me about yourself.  I’ve seen what you’ve written but I want to know your deal.”

Lee Jessup:   In every general meeting an executive will sit you down and literally say “So tell me about yourself!” Just like that.  We talked earlier that I was doing a lot of interviews for this book that I just written and in that environment I’d gone into me with agents, managers, executives that I’ve never met with before. I can’t tell you how many times folks that I was interviewing would sit down with me and say “So Lee, tell me about yourself.” Those are the moments that are asked in every general.  It’s in every opportunity: Who are you?  Is there anything for us to connect on?  Is it the story that you tell? Is it the way that you tell that story?  Is it the sensibility with which you see the world?  So it’s in every general meeting. Every last general meeting “Tell me about yourself.” Other than “What else do you have?” it’s perhaps the most popular question in this industry.

Film Courage:  Lee where would someone actually be telling their story and how deep do they go?  How light do they keep it?  Can I envision the scenario as to how someone’s going to be asking about me?

Lee Jessup:  Sure.  Oftentimes it’s going to happen at a general meeting it’s niceties, over a bottle of water “Tell me about yourself.” “Can I get you something to drink? Tell me about yourself.” It’s very blunt and upfront and “do your show.”  You know I have writers who have different versions of their stories. So I have one writer who suffered a traumatic event in her childhood and if she is meeting with somebody that she feels an instant bond and trust with then she will go deeper, she will go darker. With others she will leave the nitty-gritty out. So you tailor your story a little bit to see what and how dark you want to go.  But the rule is never make it a therapy session. Never bring in a story that you’re not ready to talk about openly without breaking down without having a moment of tears.  All of that is unnecessary because a lot of (specifically in TV) TV really looks at what do you bring into the [writer’s] room, right? It’s not just what you’re writing is but what personal experience, what themes speak to you? What do you bring with you into the writer’s room so they want to know that you are capable of talking about whatever it is you’re bringing comfortably. That it’s not going to be a therapy session. That there’s not going to be suddenly an elephant in the room that makes everybody uncomfortable. So you want to have those layers to the story. Comedy writers tend to really look for the lighter, fluffier, happier stuff or the really dark stuff told in a very funny way, you know. Tragedy via comedy. The drama writers tend to have those more layered stories that they choose how deeply to go into.  So if it’s being abandoned by your father and the life of petty crime you’re forced into at 12 and how cute you were getting away with it? Or was it the nights that you spent alone and when you didn’t have money to pay for electricity and what that felt like when social services showed up and tried to uproot you from your home.  Those are different ways to tell the same story. So writers really do pick and choose and it’s important that you assess your environment to really determine which version of which story you’re telling. Ultimately it’s always going to be the same story because you’re going to get known for that story in them they’ll be other anecdotes that will come along with it but it really is about finding that core story and taking it out there and getting the industry to know you through it.

Film Courage: Okay so different versions.

Lee Jessup:  Yeah.

Film Courage:  Maybe have an a, b and c version?

Lee Jessup:  Yeah.  You have a kind of deep version where you really kind of drill into the story and then you have your (more for lack of better words) shallow version of it that is less confrontational, less demanding of the listener, less uncomfortable potentially.  It really is how you look at it. Some writers prefer to not expose any sort of wound when they talk about a personal story. They’re perfectly happy to stay surfacing and just allude to it. But it really is about planning and rehearsing it and exploring it so that when you go into a room that’s not when you’re excavating your own story and figuring out what’s what works.

Question for the Viewers:  Have you worked on your own personal story?  Do you think it’s important?

Watch the full video interview with Lee Jessup here on Youtube



Watch all of Lee Jessup’s Film Courage video interviews on Youtube here
Getting it Write: An Insider’s Guide to a Screenwriting Career by Lee Zahavi Jessup










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