Interview (Part 5): 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 5, we dig into some writing craft questions.

Scott: Let’s move into some craft questions, if we can. I think that this probably would go to Max. The first question I always ask people is, “How do you come up with story ideas?”
Max: It’s funny. We have a lot of ideas, but very few…I’d say the ones that have actually become things have really just…I don’t know. I’m the least mystical, [laughs] ethereal person you’ll meet. Yet, Queen of Sleaze, it just appeared. [laughs] Sometimes you’re in the shower or you’re watching something, and the idea will just show up, and it’s our job to…
Man, this sounds so New Age‑y, right? The idea that there are these ideas out there and it’s your job to, as the writer, be the conduit to make that idea which is out there in the world, and bring it into reality, I think, is more true than saying, “I have this great idea, and I wrote it.” It’s almost like our job is the messenger more than…
That said, I’ve spent, or we both have, we’ve spent many, many hours sitting down with notebooks, trying to think of an idea, write out ideas, and make them happen by logic. I would say a majority of them have just appeared and we listened correctly.
Jen: There’s certain ones that one of us will be like, “What do you think of this?” Then you can always tell if it’s an idea that we’re going to take to. Max will throw out an idea, and I’ll either fight him immediately on it, which usually means that I’ve had some emotional reaction to it, or we’ll both start talking about it right away and it’ll snowball from there.
“Queen of Sleaze” was one of the shortest because it just was the right idea at the right time.
Max: It’s easy to give this book a lot of flack because it’s such a giant, worldwide, Oprah Book Club, Midwestern book club kind of discussion thing. I really did enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic” on the history of creativity and ideas.
It’s weird to say that I’m the least, a very non‑ethereal, non‑religious, non‑spiritual person who buys into this idea that the ideas are out there and it’s your job to dip your pen into the river of ideas or something. It’s so stupid even saying it out loud. Yet, I kind of believe it.
Scott: You might enjoy reading some Carl Jung at some point, if you haven’t already, because the idea of the collective unconscious, whether it’s scientific or not… I think that many creatives would resonate with what you’re talking about.
Also, too, Linus Pauling was the only person who won two Nobel Prizes. He was a scientist. He said something I always thought was true. He said, “The best way to come up with a good idea is to come up with a lot of ideas.”
A lot of those ideas would be bad ideas, but you wouldn’t necessarily…You’re tilling the ground, the soil, to churn up that one great idea, all that work you did before. Do you think about commercial viability at this point, when you come up with a concept, or no?
Max: No.
Scott: Not at all.
Max: Not anymore.
Jen: Yeah, that’s always been our downfall…If we do, it stops the creativity.
Max: It’s a recipe for writing a mediocre script.
Scott: Then the opposite would probably be true. If you’re passionate about it, that’s a sign that you should be…something you want to be doing.
Jen: Yes.
Scott: How much time do you spend in prep writing? I know you say you got this interesting process whereby Max goes off and he’s just going to pound out 5 to 10 pages ‑‑ a muscle draft, a vomit draft, a zero draft ‑‑ but then you outline.
In that part of the process, I guess it’s post‑prep. I don’t know exactly what you would call it, but brainstorming. You said character bios, character development, plotting. What do you tend to do after Max writes that initial draft? What does that prep process look like?
Jen: Just a lot of discussion, just a lot of talking about it. Like I said, I guess I don’t know how clock it because a lot of times it’ll happen when we’re in the car or just eating dinner.
Max: Feeding the baby at 3:00 in the morning.
Jen: [laughs] Middle‑of‑the‑night feedings. It really depends on the project. Some projects, we have done tons, and tons, and tons of writing out the character bios and all of that and it’s gone nowhere. Other times, we’ve done very little and yet known exactly who these people were immediately. It really has varied from project to project, I’d say.
One of the most important things and steps for us is when we’re able to call up favors from a lot of my actor friends and hear the words out loud.
Max: Yeah, we…
Scott: You send them over lines or scenes?
Max: No, we invite everyone over and we cast. We just do a reading in our apartment.
Scott: Let’s jump to characters. I have a mantra for my students. I say, “Begin with characters, end with characters, and find the story in between.” Maybe let’s jump to you, Jen, because of your acting background. It sounds like maybe you do more of the character development work.
Are there any techniques other than, say, you mentioned character bio? Are there other ways in which you go about developing characters so you start to hear their voices?
Jen: I’ll monologue as the character in the shower or the car when I’m by myself. I guess, now, while the baby’s listening. It’s something that I do when I approach sides as well. I’ll just start talking and force myself to talk for three minutes or something. I’ve found that that can really inform me.
Max: You just have moments of inspiration striking as well.
Jen: Yeah, I always…
Max: Your character bios, you sit down and write.
Jen: I do. I sit down and I write those, or I’ll journal as a character. The other thing is sometimes Max will give me a problem to solve, or I’ll have a problem to solve. I joke that it’s always running in the back, even if it seems like I haven’t been working on something for a little while.
Then, out of nowhere, like 3:00 AM feeding, I’ll be like, “The cat was really in the microwave,” or whatever.
Max: Whoa, where was the cat?
Jen: I don’t know. First thing that popped into my head. Yeah, the answers will just pop out at the weirdest times.
Max: Like a cat in the microwave.
Scott: What I hear you saying, Jen, is that there’s not only these typical, not to demean them, but just the character bios or character questionnaires.
There’s a direct engagement that you do where you’re almost trying to get into the head space of the character, doing monologues, or you’re doing interviews and stuff like that?
Jen: Yeah, pretty much. It’s more fun that way.
Scott: That’s where the dialogue starts to come in?
Jen: Yeah, or sometimes that’s how we can then reread a scene and see if it sounds like the character or not.
Max: It’s funny. It’s weird. I’m sure you’ve had this, as I’ve read a lot of your interviews, and you’ve spoken with so many people and stuff where just the process of trying to describe the process, it’s very difficult to do.
Max: I’m like, “I don’t know what we…” We just sit down and we do it. We’ve never really thought…We just treat it like a job. When I’ve gone and worked as an assistant somewhere, and someone’s like, “What’s your process?” It’s like, “Well, I go to work, and I do my job.”
It’s difficult to sit down and try and describe it. I don’t know if that’s unique to us, or if you have found that with a lot of…I’m more curious about hearing what other writers say by interviewing you now.
Scott: Actually, I think that most of them really enjoy talking about it. It’s such a private, lonely gig. Now, I have read… Steve Zaillian, for example, said that whenever he goes into a bookstore, if ever he catches out of the side of his eyesight the screenwriting book section, he immediately races away because he doesn’t want to even think about his process.
Max: That’s funny.
Scott: Everybody’s different in that regard.
Max: Every screenwriting book that I ever read started with saying, “The best thing you can do for your writing is to go write.” The best advice I got at USC was a teacher who said, “If you want to succeed, then write every day for 10 years, and you’ll stop sucking.” That has always been my process, personally. That said, that process was never successful until Jen.
Jen: Until you had somebody talking to themselves to create the character voices. [laughs]
Max: Yeah.
Jen: Until you met the loony one.
Max: Until Jen was running around pretending to be other characters in our apartment. The key is to get a mentally unstable, pregnant lady in your apartment. That’s how you win the Nicholl Fellowship.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Jen and Max provide some advice for aspiring screenwriters.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, 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.