EP5 – Screenwriting from an Actors Perspective with Jess Paul


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Geoffrey: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.

Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have on a really special guest today. We have actor and writer, Jess Paul. Thanks for joining us.

Jess: It is so nice to see you, Geoff. Even on a public platform, like your podcast, I am very happy to be here.

Geoffrey: You’re such a pleasure to have on. I wanted to talk to an expert about being a writer from an actor’s perspective. I’ve seen you in a lot of stuff. I’ve seen you perform. You bring an earnestness and truth to your performances, and I’ve always respected that. And I have to believe that shines in your writing, as well.

Jess: I really do appreciate that, so much.

Geoffrey: Before we get started, I really want to hear about the origin story from Jess Paul.

Jess: To give a little background about my writing history, I actually started screenwriting before I started film acting. When I started screenwriting, I was about nineteen years old, I was in college. I always figured that there might be some kind of secret ladder to me becoming an actor, but I was in art school. So really it was kind of an experimental hobby for me. I’ve always written, though. I remember trying to write a crappy novella at sixteen years old, I’ve written poetry in rock-lyric form my whole life; I was always writing to some capacity. So when I was considering the idea that, maybe eventually, I might be able to get into film acting; which is what I always very secretly, deep down at the base of myself wanted to do; I started writing my own characters and my own plots. So as this kind of screenwriter/actor hybrid, the screenwriting was always just a vehicle for me to create characters and content that I could see myself acting in. Because I get the question all the time, it’s an odd question, some people say, “What’s your dream role?”

You can ask that to a theatre actor and they can pick from the two-hundred years of Broadway theatre what their dream role in an ongoing play or musical would be. But [film] actors, we have our roles written for us all the time, so we don’t know what those dream roles would be. Honestly a lot of us, well I can’t really speak for all actors, but I’ll speak for myself in saying I love coming across new characters that I’ve never thought of. These different people, I call them my new friends that I meet, they are my characters.

Geoffrey: That’s interesting.

Jess: But if I ever were to do a dream role, it’s the ones that I’ve written for myself.

Geoffrey: I’ve heard that a lot. I go to a lot of film festivals to rep my book and We Fix Your Script, and I meet a lot of actors who look at the book and think, “Oh this is interesting, but I’m not a writer.” And I say, “well you will be.”

Because every actor eventually wants to write their own part. So I think it’s really interesting that you took it from an opposite perspective: you started as a writer who secretly wanted to be an actor who then started pursuing their dreams. What kind of cross-pollination is happening there? Is your acting informing your writing? Is your writing informing how you approach a character?

Jess: You were saying how every actor eventually becomes a writer. I suggest that every actor does try writing an entire script or short story because when I do read a script from somebody else, in my opinion, it adds so much more depth to what the intricacies of a character might be. When you’re an actor and you’re in a serious scene, I like to use Breaking Bad as a great example, when they are saying their lines or doing a scene with each other, they’re always saying two to three things at the same time. Their face is saying one thing, their words are saying a couple of different things, and you have to get that across within your performance. To be a writer, you have to know where those intentions are coming from, those multi-layered onion intentions and feelings. Everybody almost has three emotions going on at the same time, as well. It is so informative, and I often want to talk to the writers. Good thing, a lot of the times, my directors are also the writers of the films, so I can understand where they’re coming from with some of the things in the scripts that I perform in.

Geoffrey: I think what we are speaking about here is subtext. From a writer’s perspective, getting into subtext is so important. You get a lot of writers where subtext is almost like an afterthought; they write the script and think, “how can I make this deeper?”

When I write a script, subtext is right at the top, “how do I take this scene and make it deeper?”

Now I’m not an actor, I played a bad guy once, but I’m not an actor. I was just a mean bearded dude. When I do write a part for an actor, I’m always thinking in my mind, “how do I give them meat to chew on?”

Because I want this actor to enjoy this part, I want them to find something in this dialogue that they can feel, and inevitably I’ll write it in this specific way of how I think the intonation will be read out loud by the actor. Then they’ll provide a line read and they’ll make choices that I didn’t even consider and it’ll be really cool to see how they interpret what I was trying to create by bringing their own flavor to it. I really think that is the magic that you find in filmmaking and screenwriting. I’m sure you’ve probably had that moment happen several times.

Jess: Yeah, I was just on set this past week. I was filming the last bits of my feature Galatia, which will be coming out this fall.

Geoffrey: I can’t wait to see it!

Jess: I can’t wait to see it, either. I’ve seen bits and pieces this weekend for the first time, some bits that I haven’t seen before. It’s amazing when the film that I produced is impressing me so much. I am going to be its biggest fan. I am so excited for this movie! Some of the shots we filmed this weekend had to do with a secret underlying, not only how the character felt, but there was a secret the audience doesn’t know the entire time. I don’t think I want to give it away.

Geoffrey: Yeah, don’t! I want to watch it!

Jess: We lined this entire thing with puzzle pieces of a mystery and I’m so excited for everybody to crack it and start to understand. Because it is a very emotion-based movie. It literally almost made me tear up, watching one of my own scenes. I don’t mean to oversell it.

Geoffrey: No, of course. If you’re excited about it and you’re bringing that kind of energy to it, that’s gonna show in the project. You’re not phoning it in, so that’s gonna show onscreen, and that’s exciting! I really want to see it, I’m a fan!

So let’s talk about any kind of wounds or traits that appeal to you, in a character. I know, as a writer, we’re always trying to create flaws with a character. Because that humanizes the character and makes them more empathetic, or at the very least, sympathetic. It makes them feel real. You never want a perfect character.

Jess: Absolutely not.

Geoffrey: So what draws you in? Is it from a writer’s perspective, where you like to write types of flaws? Or [are you drawn in] by what you like to perform? Or both?

Jess: There’s no character that doesn’t have flaws and if an actor thinks their character is perfect, then they’re more like a prop than they are a character. Humans are riddled with flaws, whether you see them in the story, or there’s just more of a subtext to the character itself. With my characters, let’s take Myra– I have another film coming out this fall, as well, called Fang. It’s totally different from Galatia, which is this sci-fi quirky rom-com. Fang is this gritty–

Geoffrey: Is it horror?

Jess: –psychological horror thriller. It’s got a lot of layers, as well. The logline to that one is: Billy has a depressing life, everything is going wrong, including his mother slipping into dementia. By taking the wrong meds, he slips into his own psychosis and believes he is turning into a rat.

Geoffrey: A rat? It sounds like a werewolf movie, but he’s like a rat. That’s interesting.

Jess: It was shot so beautifully. The acting, oh my god, I was so blown away by my co-stars. I have the privilege of being in the room, this weekend on Galatia and with Fang, with absolute professionals that are teaching me stuff all the time.

Geoffrey: That’s awesome.

Jess: [Actors like] Lynn Lowry, of George Romero fame, and Dylan LaRay, who is going to be introduced through this film. With Fang, I played Myra, which is Lynn Lowry’s character’s caregiver. She’s kind of the love interest, but she also is the helping hand who would give her entire life just to help another person, even in the slightest.

Geoffrey: Selfless.

Jess: Yes, she’s a very selfless character. But the flaw that played into her character was naivety. She had never experienced dealing with these kinds of problems with people, both with Gina, Lowry’s character, and Billy, LaRay’s character. She’s reaching into her college psychology class bag of tricks, but she can really only get so far with helping somebody who is literally devolving into complete insanity.

Geoffrey: Wow, that is something else. That sounds like a head trip, but it’s something I’d be into.

Jess: Yeah, wow!

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Geoffrey: It’s good to see that you’re working through genre, too. You’re not just stuck as a rom-com girl or scream queen, you’re branching out, which I think is important.

Jess: I am grateful for it every day.

Geoffrey: I think that’s great. That brings me to writing, so you get a lot of writers that get stuck in a genre. You’ve got the guy that writes horror, you’ve got the guy that writes rom-com, and I always tell people to break through that. Write in the genre you’re not familiar with. It makes you write better, but it also teaches you the clichés of the genre, what to do, what not to do, and what [rules] to break. In your writing, do you push past genre, as well?

Jess: I do, I usually have a pretty even thread of comedy throughout. I have to put comedy into something that I’m writing. The first project I was pitching, called Jessie’s Girl, I wrote when I was nineteen and have changed since then, thank god. That one is a YA comedy very akin to American Pie. The third one is more of a bitter dark comedy and the one in between leans more towards an epic fantastical horror story.

Geoffrey: That could be interesting.

Jess: It’s more akin to the tones of Harry Potter, which I’ve always imagined it to be in that vein.

Geoffrey: I love it when you dip your toes into something like a fantasy because then you can really start to get crazy with it.

Jess: You can make up your own lore.

Geoffrey: Yeah, you create your own world. Worldbuilding is so fun, you just have to be careful you don’t get lost in the world and forget about the characters. I’ve had plenty of clients where that’s happened. When I see more descriptions about the neon sign in the city than the character, we’ve got issues.

Jess: Yes, I understand.

Geoffrey: What kind of tips do you have for any writers that are currently looking into acting, or actors that are going to start writing for the first time?

Jess: Very interesting. I’ve never thought about that question. I did make a video on, if you’re a non-writer, how to teach yourself the beginnings of screenwriting. It includes reading real scripts, which is really my favorite link to understanding how a real screenplay/movie works. There are so many drafts of the same movies available online, so not only can you read what you’ve watched so many times, but you get to read a couple of iterations. When I was writing my first film, a couple of the films I took from were Juno, Mean Girls, and American Beauty. Those were the three I read right before I wrote mine.

Geoffrey: There’s some similarity there, but they’re definitely different approaches. That’s a really interesting way to inform yourself.

Jess: I wanted to get a little bit of a smorgasbord of different things I could include within my writing of different ways of how I could compose things. I remember in American Beauty, there’s a through-line with the Beatles song Fixing a Hole, and the script opens [with Ricky in jail for killing Lester]. With Mean Girls, there was this B-plot that would’ve taken way too long with Tina Fey’s character. She had a much longer plotline with the drug-selling accusation, where she had actually taken LSD from one of the kids who were into raves that wore sunglasses and a cutoff top the whole movie. [There was a scene where] she had to defend him in court, and it would’ve taken too much away from the main story, but I remember laughing out loud when I read it. I know it must have crushed Tina to take it out when they had to, but it also informed me of the process of what it’s like to cut things from your movie. To kill your babies.

Geoffrey: That’s true. If you watch the film Nightcrawler and read the script, it’s almost a direct translation. I usually love to read a script from a movie I really enjoy, like Nightcrawler had me going, “Wow!” Even the way they introduce the main character is interesting, you don’t usually see it that way. Then in the script, it’s the same way, they introduce him through the shadows and it’s not until after he cuts into the fence and walks out to the car that you get the [proper] introduction to the character. I’ve never seen that before. Usually, you get the introduction right away, instead, they build him up as this shadowy guy, then they reveal who he is. It’s just fantastic. Even the establishing shots are all spot on. And reading scripts are great, there are several free websites you can get them from.

Geoffrey: The one thing I would caution for any writers, specifically actors who start writing, is to write a reading script, not a shooting script. Many of the scripts that you’re going to read online for free are shooting scripts. They’re all going to be loaded with camera direction and you don’t want that in a reading script. A lot of times [actors] are used to reading it [in that format] so they think that’s how it’s supposed to be [written]. How about acting-wise? You’ve come from scratch, you didn’t have any contacts in the industry and you’ve built your career. That’s why I really respect what you’ve done because I’m the same. I’m just a dyslexic dude from Detroit, getting my screenwriting going. So when I see someone like you that’s made it happen, I really respect that. You’ve made decisions and it’s paid off. So what have you really done to get going?

Jess: I was just thinking about this on the way back because I meet so many kinds of actors and writers along the way while traversing this indie-sphere and working my way up. I have a couple of things in the works that I’ll talk about a little later because I’m not sure how everything is going to fall into place with the state of the world right now. But it’s looking really good on the horizon. One thing I’ve noticed that I’ve done differently from a lot of actors, I’m not only a writer and an actor, but I’m also a producer. I’ve practically played all hands on a crew before. I did that because I realized really early on, when I was a teenager, that I wasn’t going to become an actor. I was going to go to art school and then become an actor for a few reasons. There’s actually a story on my blog of how there was one day where I decided I wasn’t not going to do this anymore: I was just going to be an artist. But I realized that the world of acting is so competitive and so saturated, the more time that goes on, the more people that crop up, the more actors that are born. I once heard the figure as a freelance actor in Los Angeles with one agent; if I audition for a role in an LA-based film, there are 4,000 other actress that have auditioned for that same role, on average. It’s almost impossible to be seen, let alone get the part. I knew early on that this would be an incredibly uphill battle that I would have to trek if I was going to try this at all. So I went into it with the full capacity that my body and brain could handle. I wanted to learn everything. I wanted to get my hands in everything. Every door that I could put my foot in, I put it in there. I learned how to produce. I taught myself screenwriting.

Because it’s not really enough, in my opinion, to just be an actor. You can try for that, but that lowers your chances of being seen, being valued, and being in the light. The reason that I have my reel and I have my experience is because some of it I made for myself. I’d memorize my sides before going into any audition, whether it was required or not. In LA it’s more of a requirement, but I would do it in Pittsburg, too. I would learn as much as I possibly could. I would email the director to understand more of the context. I would learn to be a grip to learn how a set works. I would be on every single website trying to figure out where I could put my face, my bio, my links so that I could be seen. I would build my social network so that I could have the numbers and the audience that would look like a valuable commodity to a producer that might see it as such. I did everything so I could do this job for the rest of my life.

I’ve realized recently that I might never have a family, which is fine with me. I might never have a normal salary because this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.

Geoffrey: Well I just have to say it’s empowering listening to you speak about that. To show the sacrifice to see your dreams happen, the will and the drive to make it happen, and to be a multi-hyphenate by not just approaching it from one angle. We have similarities, Jess.

Jess: Tell me about them.

Geoffrey: I have this phrase that I like to tell people, “Nobody is going to make you succeed, but you.”

And when I look at Jess Paul, that’s what I see, somebody not sitting around waiting for it to happen. I see somebody who is all-in, and I’m an all-in kind of guy. And it is tough, it does take a lot of time. I have a family and it takes time away from them.

Jess: That makes it even more of a challenge and makes your success that much more warranted.

Geoffrey: Yeah, I have a wife and kid who are supportive of my success. And it hits me because I know it takes me away from them. It’s funny you mentioned how at one point you had given up on becoming an actor because every writer has gone through that. Sometimes on a weekly basis where you think, “I’m not ever going to do this again.”

Jess: I doubt myself about every five days.

Geoffrey: It just hits you so heavy. I remember I had a day job, I was sitting down with this old lady and she asked me if I loved what I did. This was before I decided to make screenwriting a career. She asked me if I loved what I did and I said no. And I didn’t. Then she told me I needed to find what I love. If that isn’t divine intervention, I don’t know what is. I felt it in my core. Ever since then I knew I needed to make this happen.

Jess: I told my director, this weekend, that it was the best week I had had in months because the past few months have just been me hunkered down in my apartment, save for a couple of grocery trips. I remember the initial feeling when we were filming Galatia. It was a month-long shoot, as any feature would take, and I get anxious about being prepared and doing a good job. But at the same time, it’s the best feeling I’ve ever felt, and I want to feel it over and over again.

I was speaking on another podcast about my philosophy on how people work, and it makes me understand the world better if I think about things in this capacity. Because I don’t think I finished my thought on the other podcast.

Geoffrey: Please do.

Jess: We were talking about competitiveness and selfishness in the way we want things to happen for ourselves. We’ll climb the ladder and knock other people down. Something that I did since the beginning was, every time I climbed a couple of rungs, I would write a blog or make a video that informed [others] about what I’d learned so I could pass it down. Something that I’ve noticed, speaking only for myself, my feelings and initial interpretation of things are selfish. There are a lot of opinions that I hold and ways I go about things that are inherently selfish because it’s the survival method all humans take when we approach any kind of situation. Now to say that it sounds like a really bad thing, but I think it’s just what’s at the core of us. What makes us better people is when we accept that our initial feelings and opinions might be selfish. Then we can build on that to make it into something selfless to give back to this world. So that’s what I’ve taken to in order to help other people up. Yes, I’m going to be competitive and want the parts, but I can also benefit from helping other people, as well.

Geoffrey: You’re absolutely right. A lot of screenwriters think screenwriting is a zero-sum game. They think that “it’s me or you.” I am secretly competitive, and I will admit it. I want to succeed. I want to be that best-selling writer. I want my name in the credits. I’ll do whatever the hell I have to. I’ll tell you a story about that in a minute. The thing is, you can be super competitive and super driven, but I’ll give you the secret. When I’m struggling on a story and I’m having a hard time breaking it, I’ll look to my wife and say, “do the thing.”

She’ll say to me, “I don’t think you can write this script.”

And that puts a fire in me like you wouldn’t believe. I will sit and bang on the keys and get the script done because somebody told me I can’t do it. That’s the competitive nature for me. If someone tells me I can’t do something, as a kid who had a hard time learning how to read, it’s not gonna happen. Now, being competitive driven and wanting to give back, Alex Ferrari has the saying, “In order to see your dreams come true, help other people build theirs.”

And that’s 100% what you’re saying, you do it on the Jess Paul YouTube channel. I see it, I love it, I try and do it with everything I do, too.

Jess: You are a perfect illustration of what I was just talking about. That book right behind you there, over your shoulder {The Guide For Every Screenwriter}, is what’s helping people. That’s what I’m talking about, to give back to that community and basically build the community around you that everybody can prosper in. There’s not enough of that.

Geoffrey: Exactly, and to do it in a positive way. So you talked about the 4,000 actors you had to compete with, holy crap! That’s crazy! I didn’t hit numbers like that, but when I first started out and started to get a little bit of recognition, I was still going for deferred gigs. I wasn’t getting paid yet, but I was getting some festival wins. I applied for this gig online, it was a deferred gig, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get the experience. I still had to compete with ninety other writers for a deferred gig that wouldn’t pay. That’s insane, for something where you’re not even making money. But then it turned out to be a total scam, which is some of them are.

Jess: Oh no.

Geoffrey: Oh no, I didn’t get scammed.

Jess: Oh okay, gotcha.

Geoffrey: It was just something where I was like, “See ya! It’s great that I beat ninety other people out for a scam!”

Jess: I also have some guides online about how to pick out the scams. So if you guys wanna see it, it’s on my YouTube channel, “This Is Jess Paul”.

Geoffrey: “This Is Jess Paul” is fantastic! I watch it a lot.

Jess: Thanks!

Geoffrey: I want to finish up with one more thing. You had mentioned this earlier, and this is really important for any actors who are writing. It’s about how being a “forever student” is really the key here.

Jess: I’ve said that many times in my own life, for sure.

Geoffrey: That’s how I am, too. I’m always trying to learn. I have a writer’s group where we meet locally. I sit with these writers and they’ll say things that make me think, “I never even realized that.”

I’ve written a book, but I’ve also read some great stuff. Being a “forever student” is something that I preach, but what do you think? I think it helps keep the ego in check.

Jess: Oh my god, does it ever! I always want opinions on my work, both acting, and writing. And to be honest, there are probably a lot of writers listening to this podcast, and they know how it feels to have your first draft just annihilated by a note-taker.

Geoffrey: So true.

Jess: There are different things in my life, both being online with my original series and Wrecked Radio, my first YouTube show which ended being somewhat of a hit in its genre when I was nineteen years old. That plus getting notes from my first draft, it made me the toughest performer and creator ever, to know that I could do better. If there are some beginner writers out there, I’ll give you my tips for how to take notes, because I’ve struggled with it. I have this innate ego, which is akin to having innate selfishness. My ego is going to destroy me one day if I don’t get a handle on it, but that’s what I’m trying to do. I always accept my ego and then I try to add logic on top of that, “What is my place in this society? How do I overcome this? How do I be a better civilian?”

When you’re taking notes for the first time, or you’re a beginner and you’re trying to figure out how to do that, it’s going to sting so badly. What you do is you sit down, you take all your notes; you can explain things, if you feel like you must, to the note giver to start a discussion to get more in-depth with the notes. But don’t negate anything until you’ve got your notes, go to sleep for a night and wake up in the morning, and really start to understand.

Geoffrey: You sleep on it.

Jess: Yes, sleep on it. Literally, give it an entire twenty-four hours because the initial sting hurts. Because you have to understand that when somebody gives you notes, even if you don’t think the notes are particularly correct for your story, it’s so valuable for you to see that outside opinion.

Geoffrey: I’m going to have to bring you back on to talk about notes because I could go on for another hour. But I’ll tell you one thing about notes, you have to decipher between a good note and a bad note. A good note, when it comes down to story notes, is important.

Jess: Yes, I read one of your recent articles where you were talking about this, and I really loved your take on it.

Geoffrey: Thank you. A good note is about the story, it’s about character, it’s about the impression of the story. A bad note is when it’s hitting personal, when they start directing it at you, the writer, it’s not a good note. That’s someone who’s either jealous of your work, or they don’t understand your work. I had this guy who gave me notes and he laid into me about what happened to my characters after the story was over. He went into this whole thing about why my character would make this decision [after the ending], but he was talking about parts of the story that I had never wrote. The story was over, but I knew it was successful because I hit an emotional component with this guy. He was so invested in my characters; he was concerned about what happened afterwards. But I think if someone was newer to writing and didn’t understand that, then they’d probably think, “this guy hates my story.” You have to be able to pull yourself way from the notes and think, “What is this guy’s perspective? Is this actually making the story good, or is he just being a mean writer?” Which you’ll just run into, sometimes.

Jess: I always give the tip, as well, to give [the script] to two or three different people to understand what notes are valid. Because if you hear a note come up two or three times, you know that something has to change about that part of the story because there were enough people that saw the problem with it. You really have to think about it seriously and, most likely, think about a change in some form.

Geoffrey: Absolutely, that is a solid thing to do. Get multiple perspectives and piece together similar notes. Jess, thanks for coming on! I love seeing you!

Jess: This was amazing! I love seeing you too, man!

Geoffrey: I really appreciate it! And we’ll get you back on here to talk even more. Guys, be sure to visit “This Is Jess Paul”. She has a couple movies coming out, Galatia and Fang.

Jess: Honestly, all you have to do is Google me. I’m the first one that comes up, so you don’t have to remember anything else.

Geoffrey: I’m glad to know I’m not the only person that says, “Google me!” That makes me feel a lot better.

Jess: It was a joke that me and my friend have had for a long time, but honestly, I was just trying to make it easier for people because nobody brings their business cards anymore.

Geoffrey: I’m the same way.

Jess: Honestly, if you just want to make it as easy on yourself as possible, that’s all you have to do and you’ll find me.

Geoffrey: There’s nothing better to feed your ego than to say, “Just Google me.” Alright Jess, you take it easy. Thanks for coming on.

Jess: Thanks Geoff!

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