Interview (Part 3): Jen Bailey and Max Lance
My interview with the 2017 Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting winners.
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 3, Jen and Max talk about how they became interested in writing a screenplay about the infamous O.J. Simpson story:
Scott: You mentioned a writers group and I think Scott Miles and Alisha Brophy…
Scott: Are they part of your writers group?
Max: Yeah. We like to say that we have the best writers group in LA. We had six people in our group, and five of them were Nicholl winners, and the sixth person gives the best notes.
We’ve basically, in one form or another, been meeting every single Tuesday night since I moved to LA, so over a decade, I think.
Scott: Do you have people reading pages and giving notes?
Max: Yeah. It starts with a log line. It starts with like, “Hey, what do you guys…? Gut shot reaction. Is this a good idea or bad idea?” Then it starts with the conversation. Then it goes to the log line. We treat it like a production company’s development division.
Scott: Who else is in the group other than Scott and…?
Max: There’s Scott, Alicia and, then, Nick Scown, who I hope you will be interviewing this year for his own success.
Scott: That’s great. Jen, you’ve been taking part in that group, too?
Jen: It’s a very hard to get into group. I, in fact, had to marry in order to get into it.
Max: Jen married into the group. It’s her Canadian citizenship.
Jen: I started two‑and‑a‑half years ago, once “Best Funeral Ever”…when it became obvious that our careers were intertwined. You were asking earlier, and I totally didn’t answer, but I don’t think the question you’d ask about within our relationship, how it changed?
Jen: We finished and then it didn’t happen this way on purpose, but we finished our first major draft of “Best Funeral Ever” three‑and‑a‑half years ago or something like that. The morning that we finished that, we were on a vacation in Tahoe, and that afternoon Max ended up proposing. We basically went all in ‑‑ career, and life, and now we have a baby. We haven’t left much that isn’t intertwined.
Max: That’s true. We divide and conquer everything. Jen is really good with the responsible parent stuff with the baby, and I’m really good at the fun parts.
Scott: The male/female divide. They’re stereotypical in some respects.
Max: Yeah. I change my fair share of diapers, but we like…
Jen: Yeah, it is pretty…For as untraditional as Max and I are, we are pretty traditional.
Scott: You write the script, the Best Funeral Ever, and that got you representation. Actually, did that get set up?
Max: Yeah. That is in development. It’s moving forward and we like everyone involved in it.
I also took a development job before we finaled “Best Funeral Ever”. I had taken my first job in development because I wanted a crash course in what it’s like working for production company, and what it’s like on the other side of who’s reading your script and stuff, and how that all works.
It took us a little while to stop trying to recreate the funeral success, or guess the market, or appease people who were very excited to read what we had next. In some ways “Queen of Sleaze” happened because no one really cared what we were writing. I know that’s not a very diplomatic way to say it, but, up until then, we didn’t care what we were writing.
We just said, “Screw it. We are very excited about this story. We’re really passionate about it.” It took a little while between Funeral and Sleaze.
Jen: Also, because “Best Funeral Ever” was the first thing that we had written together and it was such an organic experience, there was no method to the way we worked. We had no idea how we worked, so then we were given this amazing opportunity where people actually wanted to read what we had next.
I equate it to we had this take apart the toaster and then try to put it back together to see how it worked. It took a little while for us to actually do it opposed to just theoretically talk about how we did it, if that makes sense.
Scott: Max, you’re working on this development gig. Did that have a tendency to steer you more toward, “Well, I’m gonna put my producers hat on, and try and read the tea leaves, and see what the market might want”? Did you find yourself going that direction?
Max: That was a very valuable job I had, and I’m thankful for it. I don’t think that it was the best place from a creative standpoint as a writer to be working while pursuing writing. It’s an excellent crash course for my time in this industry.
I’m learning how it all works and what happens when you’re script is received, or purchased, or bought, or set up, or being filmed, but from a creative writing the best script possible, I don’t think it’s the best place to be.
Scott: It sounds to me like, reading through the subtext here a bit, that your choice to do “Queen of Sleaze” was more of like, “Screw it. Let’s just do this. This seems really interesting to us,” and you were more passionate about that story. Is that right?
Max: Yeah. Actually, the origins were that we were trying [laughs] to come up with an original entry for the television fellowships. About a year ago right now, actually, we had the idea while we’re watching the Golden Globes.
We really didn’t want to sit around and write another “Big Bang Theory” spec or whatever. We thought it would be original to write the missing episode of “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” which we really loved. This all started as a TV spec.
Scott: That’s crazy, too, because the person who presented to you the award at the Nicholl was Larry Karaszewski.
Max: That’s who created that show.
Scott: He created the show with Scott Alexander. He had a funny story about it. He pulls the script out and had a kind of Twilight Zone experience. He’s like, “Wait a minute,” [laughs] “is this…?”
Scott: The angle you took in your script…Can’t get too much into the plot of it, but the way it’s described via the Nicholl people is, “When the most notorious woman in publishing history decides to legitimize her reputation, Judith Regan, aka the Queen of Sleaze must get O.J. Simpson to confess to murdering his wife in a book deal and TV interview.”
Again, can’t get much into the detail on script itself, but could you talk about the genesis of the project? It was the Golden Globes, but what about that? You’d think, with everything that’s been done about O.J. and that series ‑‑ it was very, very highly publicized ‑‑ why did you think this is a particular angle on it or a fresh take that could be worthy of being a film project?
Jen: I think we stopped thinking about what would be a worthy film project and just wrote something that we really wanted to write.
Scott: How old were you when the whole O.J. circus was going on, the trial and all that? How old were you?
Jen: I believe I was in sixth grade.
Scott: How about you Max?
Max: We were somewhere in middle school.
Jen: I can remember watching the verdict on the TVs they had in the locker room.
Scott: You were tracking it a bit, at least, then.
Max: What we loved about “The People v. O.J. Simpson” was that it explained all the things that we kind of picked up when we were in middle school. We hadn’t really seen something that just explained it from start to finish. Also, there was the ESPN documentary as well. Definitely, two years ago, whenever all that stuff was coming out, it was very much in the zeitgeist.
We never really set out to win the Nicholl.
Tomorrow in Part 4, Jen and Max talk about the research the did for “Queen of Sleaze” and the time that Jen was giving script notes in the hospital after having been induced into labor.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
Part 2, 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.