Interview (Part 2): Jen Bailey and Max Lance

My interview with the 2017 Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting winners.

2017 Nicholl winners: Cesar Vitale, Max Lance, Jen Bailey, SJ Inwards, KG Rockmaker, Vigil Chime

Jen Bailey and Max Lance wrote the original screenplay “The Queen of Sleaze” which won a 2017 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Jen and Max about about their background, their award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to them.

Today in Part 2 of this six part series, Max and Jen share what it’s like to write together as a couple:

Scott: I did a bit of Google stalking, and I found out the first person thing that you wrote, Max, where you described your creative journey. You wrote this, “I realized I lack the natural talent for writing that a lot of my classmates had. If I wanted to make anything of my life and career, I would have to substitute extremely hard work, perseverance and stubbornness.”
So hard work, perseverance, stubbornness. Let me ask both of you with this question. How important do you think those three things are for screenwriting in comparison to talent?
Jen: It depends if you’re looking for a one‑off thing or if you’re trying to create a whole career out of it. I would say that there’s nobody that works harder than Max. I wish that I had his ability to get up and write every single day. It’s quite impressive.
I would say that that ability to just keep doing that, year after year, day after day, whatever it is, is going to…I personally think he’s talented, but you build that muscle and the work ethic to just keep working.
Max: I pulled Cesar aside, who was one of the other Nicholl winners, after I read his script. I was like, “I would kill to just be as good and natural of a writer as he is.” I feel that way whenever I read something amazing.
I don’t know if they have to spend six months’ worth of rewrites and work through every single word like Jen and I do. I never felt like I had that thing where poetry just flows out on a first draft.
Scott: In fact, during these years that you were writing all of the stuff at USC and beyond, I believe you said you submitted eight different scripts 10 different times or something like that to the Nicholl.
Max: Yeah. I submitted 10 different times to the Nicholl and got every stage that it’s possible to reach in that competition. Jen submitted twice and finaled once and won once.
Scott: Well, there you go. I guess the math speaks for itself.
Max: The moral of the story is that I should be an actor.
[laughter]
Scott: Seriously, Jen had had this experience of working with Young Storytellers and learned something about screenplay structure from that. What was it that you thought, “Well, you know what? I really want to ask Jen to be part of this project,” I guess it was “Best Funeral Ever”. Was that the first one you worked together?
Max: Yeah, but she was reading everything that I was writing and telling me how to make it better, long before then. It’s not Young Storytellers. It’s all of Jen’s experience acting and the many, many classes, and workshops, and auditions, and that character work, which she could speak to better than I can, which informed all the characters, which then made everything click.
Scott: Let’s talk about that, Jen. How important has it been in terms of your skill sets as a writer, your background as an actor with those workshops, and the auditions, and all that?
Jen: I think that’s what I really bring to the table. My favorite part of any script to work on is when I get to go in and create the character bios, and go through and…There’s absolutely zero typecasting when I get to cast myself in the role of everything I write.
I can play absolutely any character. It’s in my own living room. However, being able to go through and get into the head, and really imagine what they would be saying in the scenes, I think that’s what I bring to the table in our writing combo. Max is great with the structure.
Whenever I’m arguing about a line with him, I’m always telling him, and it sounds so bizarre…I’m like, “It just doesn’t feel right in my mouth.” Saying it out loud and trying to actually imagine these people is very, very different than how it sounds and having it be well‑written.
Scott: That leads into the question I wanted to ask you all, which is that, obviously…You’ve been married how long now?
Jen: We’ve been married for almost two‑and‑a‑half years.
Scott: You’ve been together for, presumably, some time before that?
Jen: Yeah, we’ve been together for about seven years.
Scott: Seven years, all right. What was that shift like where you became more than just life partners, but you became writing partners? How does that play out? I guess what I’m hearing is that, Jen, you’re more character‑oriented, Max is more structurally or plot‑oriented. How did you work out the dynamic of actually putting words on page and getting from fade‑in to fade‑out?
Jen: This is, I think, going to answer your question. The very first thing, when we started working on the “Best Funeral Ever” together, Max needed…It was a female‑driven script. As much as he’ll tell you he knows women, he does not actually know women…
Max: That’s not true.
[laughter]
Jen: …nor can he write from that perspective. The whole reason I wanted to work on something with him was not because I necessarily wanted to transition into writing, as much as I was sick of auditioning, and I wanted to create a juicy role that I’d want to play. From there, I found that I really enjoyed the work.
The way that we tend to work is, usually, Max’ll have some crazy idea. We’ll talk through it. We’ll argue around it a little bit. From there, he’ll attack the first draft. Then I’ll rewrite what he wrote. Then he’ll rewrite what I wrote. Then we’ll both make notes on the same version. We’ll come together, and we’ll argue our way out. Then we’ll have what I would consider our first draft.
Max: I’m a big believer in the terrible first draft. We have the most inefficient writing process you can imagine, in that we outline…
Jen: After we’ve done the draft.
Max: Yeah, we outline after we’ve done the bad first draft in a way. We don’t tell anyone in our writers group or show it to anyone. I don’t know. I have this weird need that I need to sit down and write 5 to 10 pages every single day of something, no matter how awful it might be. I just need to do that every day on something. Then we divide and conquer.
I’ve talked to many writing teams. They tend to sit down together, and put their script on a projector, and work on every single line dialogue, and do that as a first draft together. We are exactly the opposite. We will just go off into our own separate spaces and work on something individually. We won’t really sit down together until close to the end of the process.

Tomorrow in Part 3, Jen and Max talk about how they became interested in writing a screenplay about the infamous O.J. Simpson story.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Jen and Max are repped by Heroes and Villains Entertainment, and Verve.

For my interviews with 29 other Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting writers, go here.

For my interviews with 53 Black List writers, go here.