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Sunday 19 December 2010

JESSICA BENDINGER Screenwriter Interview

JESSICA BENDINGER knows a lot about writing. You can't come away from an interview with her without being inspired. Her first credit as a screenwriter was the hit movie "Bring It On" starring Kirsten Dunst. Jessica's other screenwriting credits include "First Daughter" and "Aquamarine." 

 "Stick It," in 2006, was her first film as a writer/director. There'll be many more to follow. She was also brought in as a writer during the 4th Season of "Sex & The City." That's a lot of work for someone whose first screenplay credit was only ten years ago. But when you speak to Jessica, it's not hard to see why she's been a great success.

Let's begin with the most important question--- what is your favorite movie and why?

I think trying to identify your favorite movie is an impossible task for movie lovers because we are drawn to movies based on what mood we are in at any given moment in time. So my favorite movie changes, any minute of any day of the week, depending on what my mood is. However, some of my favorite moves are Diner, American Graffiti, Lawrence of Arabia, and Bad Santa!! It just depends on the day and my mood.

What do you love most about screenwriting?

I love the freedom of this career, and I use that freedom as a part of my process. I thrive on it, but have the ability to reign it in and generate concrete, timely results if I need to. Somebody once said to me, “Hard work is for people without talent,” but I think you need both. You need talent, but you still have to know what lights you up and what will get your butt in front of the computer whether there’s a paycheck involved or not. I do know the more I write, the easier it is to write. The less I write, the longer it can take to start the car. I mess up all the time, I fall into patterns and struggle to stay conscious, integrated and connected, but I’ve learned to relish the harder stuff for the clarity that follows.

The percentage of women screenwriters in Hollywood is still very low. What thoughts do you have on this, is it getting better?

I honestly don't know if it is getting better. Probably better in TV than in film. I believe that the hours and the solitude are too crazy-making for most people - men or women. I'd be curious to see the numbers of Hollywood versus the rest of the job population. How off are we? I need to see a power point.

I feel that when screenwriter's write about women, there is so much to explore, because we are still more likely to see the journey of a man when we go to the cinema. Would you encourage writers to be more diverse in regard to gender - or do you think people should stick to whatever comes naturally?

I think you should be true to who you are as a writer. I don’t think about diversifying at all. It never even occurred to me. In a weird way I know I'm branded that way, this female empowerment writer, but really, writing is writing to me, and I write what I am most interested in and am most enthusiastic about.

You are credited as one of four writers on "The Truth About Charlie." How was the experience for you; what was your involvement like?

I didn't think the movie should be adapted, to be honest. I was dubious, and I'm not sure I was totally wrong. I did the first pass when Will Smith was attached to star with Thandie. Will dropped out, and Jonathan wanted to have a whack at the script on his own. That's the extent of it.

Of the films that you've written - have you been mostly happy with how your work has been portrayed on screen?

Bring It On and Stick It because they are my original ideas from start to finish, are my babies. The other work - rewrites - is a more detached animal, because you are repairing someone else's work.

"Bring It On" was a very big success. Were you expecting this? What effect did it have on your career?

I was not expecting it, but it was delightful and very gratifying. I have been working steadily ever since, so that's been awesome. It’s great to have created the mother ship of such a huge franchise. That’s hugely flattering and very validating, certainly. When I created it, I suspected it would have an audience. In a full-circle moment, I actually went to a psychic who told me it was going to be a really big hit. It was called Cheer Fever, at the time. He also was very specific about how it was going to be successful, which was interesting. He said it was going to have a huge cult following after its initial release, which is what’s happened with the DVD sequels.

You did some work on "Sex & The City" as a creative consultant. Could you share a bit about what your job entailed?

All that means is I was a writer on the show. It was my credit for working 1 day a week vs. 5 days, as I was coming off Bring It On at #1 two weeks in a row, and very busy/in demand with movie stuff. But Sex & The City was a blast! Season Four was a good time to join the show, because they were coming off a ton of criticism from the end of Season Three (drag queens on a rooftop, anyone?), and they were ready to ventilate the world of the show with some fresh air. It was really fun to get into the skin of the characters, but we had to bring all our personal stories to the writers’ table. We were expected to be brutally honest about experiences we’d had or had heard about, so inevitably everyone’s voice got transfused into the mix. We were like a giant dialysis machine. No — wait! A giant blood bank? A bone marrow transplant? Oh, just pick your own transfusion-y analogy and run with it. I think the new blood challenged some of the old "rules" they had for the first 3 seasons, and it brought a new gravitas to the show that was amazing.

You made your directorial debut with "Stick It" - how was the experience for you?

I loved it and learned so much from it. It is very challenging to shepherd a 28million dollar asset to the finish line successfully. You make huge sacrifices to usher an experience like that through your life when you don't know all the variables. It is an all-consuming, all-encompassing, exhausting trade-off you make. There are wonderful rewards, but also huge drawbacks personally, physically and emotionally. Although “Stick It” was my first stab at directing a feature, I'd directed music videos first. Having a background in Music videos was great because it taught me how to stay out of the way, for one. I think first-timers make the mistake of trying to exert too much authority on set, and that’s absurd. You are working with cast-members and crew members who have logged more hours on sets than you will ever log as a director in your lifetime. Therefore, hang back. Observe. Stay out of the way. If you’ve done your job, by the time you get on set everyone is doing theirs. Directing is an amazing opportunity to experience collaboration on a massive scale. You get to work with these very specific craftsmen who have vast reserves of experience. It's incredible.

Do you want to do more directing?

Yes, definitely. I have two projects in the works. The first is the adaptation of my novel, The Seven Rays. And the other is a music-driven movie.

I often share a view on this site that, sure, you can read screenwriting books- but more than anything, you need to find what works for YOU. Is this is a view you share?

Totally!! There are many ways to come up with ideas, write outlines and birth screenplays. The biggest journey we all have is finding out what works for us, and the beauty of that is that it will be so radically different for everyone. I believe in following my enthusiasm, my curiosity and my fear. Not necessarily in that order.

Finding the discipline to write features is tough. Even people who call themselves screenwriters and dedicate their lives to it find it hard to sit down and do the work. Why is this? And what advice can you give?

Writing features is tough! You have to involve so many other people to get it from being the written word to being a screenplay and most people don’t survive that process. It’s really kind of rigorous and it rewards people who aren’t necessarily the best writers but they are the best at the process of screenwriting, which is this really unruly social and political process. I think I have charted the waters of writing in Hollywood by trying to have a really unique point of view. I love what I love and I’m unapologetic about it. What works for me is to be true to myself, and trying to write the movies, books and TV shows that I want to see. Hollywood is very much a geo-political, commodity-driven economy, and that truth can really stop/impact people in lots of ways. Make sure qualified readers with genuine critical discernment are giving you notes. If you don't have access, then pay for it with a reading service if you can (Script Shark, ScriptXpert), etc. Just write for the joy of writing and the joy of expressing and cultivating your craft. Very few scripts get made. Make it your business to relish the process of writing so you got something out of it besides a movie. The world is a better place when people have something meaningful and happy-making in their lives, so do what you love and do it as much as you can.

We haven't seen any films that you've written for a few years now. I know that you were busy writing and releasing a novel, but now that's done- what can we expect to see from you in the coming years?

I’ve been busy writing my next original movie, which takes place at a Berklee School of Music type of place. My mother is a musician and my dad was in advertising and wrote jingles, and I grew up very much in the margins of the music business, so this movie is a love letter to the more working side of show business. It’s less the American Idol and Glee version of that and more what happens to people who really explore it as a career and how hard that is. It takes place at a music conservatory college and follows four different students with different majors in music. I’m really excited about that.

And, I’ve also co-written music for a long time, so I’m also co-writing a solo album for a new artist. That’s very gratifying. It’s so nice to work in three-minute chunks, after having worked on movies and novels. Songs are a really sweet vacation from such a long form. My dad was a jingle writer, so it’s really in my blood. I never did it seriously because my parents did it professionally, so I was always daunted by that. I’m having fun working on other people’s material, where I don’t have to be responsible for the whole thing. I just do my part of the song, and then I get to hear the finished product. It’s really nice.


  1. very inspiring! wonderful to see women like jessica doing so well in the industry!

  2. Great interview, Kid! I am truly inspired by Ms. Bendinger.

    I was just thinking of how songwriting has been good training for other types of writing, and I can see it goes both ways.

    Gotta go write something now. :)

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  5. I have seen Jessica speak and even met her on a few occasions and she is one of the smartest people I know... Really understands people, the human condition, is veritable siv for modern culture, picking it apart and adopting into her work things that "work" for her-- I admire her work and dedication so much. Thank you for the interview!