Jessica Bendinger is expanding her horizons. She made it big in the film industry by writing the screenplay for the successful teen cheerleading comedy Bring It On. Since then, she’s written the screenplays for First Daughter, Aquamarine, and Stick It, the last of which she also directed. Now she can add “novelist” to her resume; her teen novel The Seven Rays comes out on November 24.
Bendinger took the time to chat with MovieMaker about the difference between writing a screenplay and a novel, her plans for the movie adaptation of The Seven Rays, and her “Script-a-Scene” contest, where participants will adapt a scene from The Seven Rays.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): Tell me a little bit about the contest you have going with Final Draft. Are people writing adaptations of The Seven Rays?
Jessica Bendinger (JB): It’s called the “Script-a-Scene” contest and what is it is basically a contest for people to adapt a scene from the book. The best scene is going to win a one-on-one script consultation with me, where they can give me basically any script they have that they want me to look at, and I will read it and give them notes. The first chapter of The Seven Rays is available for download right now on TheSevenRays.com and the book will be available in stores November 24. We’re running the contest through WithoutaBox.com. So that’s basically the contest, pretty straightforward.
MM: What have you done to get the ball rolling for the film adaptation?
JB: Well, I always like to build a lot of ancillary materials before I make a movie or do a project, so what I’ve created is an archive of inspirational materials. There’s background material, there are little scene studies—[things that will give] people who are coming on board the project a real sense of the scope and the visual style of the movie. I’ve been creating that and archiving those materials over the course of writing of the book. I’ve actually been thinking of the movie while I was writing the book. Obviously, my “muscle memory” is much more in movies than in novels and it’s been a really great part of the process to be able to sit down with producers and studios and walk them through this visual archive of the story. I think it’s been a really great process for me and for the studio. So I’m doing that and I’ve been meeting with a lot of buyers and have a lot of interest and we’ll see what happens.
MM: So you’re getting a jump start on the whole process.
JB: Yeah, I’m in a position where I can really choose who I work with. So that’s a really nice position to be in when you’re working with a labor of love like this has been. You really want to make sure that you are creatively aligned with your partners, because this project has a whole different landscape of meaning for me than it would if I was just script-doctoring somebody else’s material. It has a very different creative DNA than a traditional project, so I’m very excited to see it grow into a movie. But I’m also like any concerned parent: Very aware of what the environment has to be for the child to prosper and thrive.
MM: Are you planning on directing the film adaptation to ensure that it stays close to your original vision?
JB: I think that would be a natural progression for me to adapt it. I intend to direct, but it’s very effects-heavy. The reason I did the movie was really to explore the inner workings of a completely new genre and see what it was like to apply my sensibility as a filmmaker to a different form, because I’m a creative seeker and I always want to push boundaries and explore new ways to tell a story. So even though a novel seems like a really old-fashioned way to do that, for me as a writer and a director it was an unbelievable opportunity. I would love to be able to direct that and bring it to the screen. That said, if an amazing filmmaker who I really am inspired by and would want to work with and partner with as a producer [was interested], I’m not disinclined to do that. It would just have to be the right visionary.
MM: Which do you find more difficult, writing a screenplay or writing a novel?
JB: Oh my goodness, writing a novel is so much harder by one million percent. Screenplays are recipes for an audiovisual medium; they don’t have a finished experience. Basically a good screenwriter is working very economically to make sure they are providing a perfect recipe for the actors, the director, the entire crew. A novel is the exact opposite experience. We’re speeding up time in a movie, in a novel you’re slowing down time. In writing a novel I have to bring you into the moment, I have to bring you into setting. A setting in a film script is “INT. BEDROOM — DAY.” In a book it could be a page or it could be three pages. It’s a completely different animal, but what a great opportunity as a writer to just explore different ways to keep myself engaged and hopefully keep the reader engaged in telling a story with a lot more meat on its bones.
Screenplays are super minimal and there’s a real economy in that form that you have to master in order to be a working screenwriter. And novels are not that. So I was on a huge learning curve and I really floundered for the first year on the book. I floundered through drafts that were just too much like a screenplay in book form. Writing a novel is very self-confronting because you really come up against the limits of your own abilities pretty darn quickly. So it was painful school but it was good school.
MM: You wrote your screenplays for Bring It On and Aquamarine before you directed your first film, Stick It, which you also wrote. Did your approach to writing Stick It change when you knew you were going to direct it as well? I’ve heard other writer directors say if you’re both writing and directing you write the screenplay differently because you don’t have to translate to somebody else.
JB: That can be true, but by the same token you are conveying it to your cast and your crew and your financiers, so you can’t be too indulgent. That would be wonderful if you’re financing it yourself and making it yourself and you don’ t have to be accountable to anybody, but when you’re managing a $28 million asset, unfortunately that’s really unrealistic. You have a high degree of accountability. You’d better be pretty articulate about exactly what you want or at least be able to articulate what you’re going for to hire the people who can help you articulate that, because it is a monumental undertaking.
MM: I’ve read that your screenwriting technique goes back and forth between writing things down as they come to you and really going with your inspiration, and then having a more disciplined approach. Has your process changed at all from when you started out and maybe now that you have more experience.
JB: Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve been working steadily for the last 13 years, so you definitely grow and learn tricks of the trade. You know where your strengths are and you know hopefully how to write around your weaknesses. In the case of script-doctoring you take the patient, this screenplay that is usually broken and/or suffering, and you have to stitch together multiple points of view into a cohesive whole to get it made. So that’s a very different art form from generating an original piece of material.
Script-doctoring is when you’re stitching together five different viewpoints: The studio, the producer, the development executive, the director, the star. You’ve got to take those five opinions and kind of put a hierarchy on those opinions, and then stitch that together into a cohesive whole that works for them. That’s a very different skill set than writing an original script where you don’t have to worry about all those points of view. I’ve definitely learned over the years. I’m much better at stitching together seemingly non-cohesive perspectives and making that a unified whole, so Frankenstein doesn’t look like Frankenstein. It actually looks like a movie.
MM: Have the skills that you’ve gained in doing script-doctoring transferred over to writing your original material, like when you’re going back and doing second and third drafts?
JB: Absolutely. You learn what’s affordable and realistic in terms of budget. If you’ve been in on pre-production meetings and development meetings, you know what’s going to be heavy lifting. If you are pragmatic, and I consider myself to be a pretty pragmatic lady, you’re going to take that into account, because making a movie is such a process of heavy lifting to begin with. If there’s a pragmatic way to do something, why wouldn’t you want to benefit from that? When it comes to moviemaking, for all the excess of mistakes that we see and hear about, I’d say there’s a lot of smart cookies and if you keep your eyes open and your ears open, you’re going to learn a lot. So I’ve certainly learned a lot from studio executives, directors, producers and actors alike. Jeff Bridges was an amazing teacher on the set of Stick It. He was incredibly generous and the net of his years on films are that he knows what works for him and he knows great shortcuts. I was certainly the benefactor of that, as was the movie. I will apply what I learned with Jeff in all the movies I direct from now on, because it was just so unbelievably helpful.
MM: You’re working now on a sequel to The Seven Rays, is that correct?
JB: I’m actually working on my next movie. I have the sequel to The Seven Rays outlined, but I definitely needed a little break after three years. I think writing the novel was the equivalent of doing about 16 screenplays back-to-back in terms of the sheer volume. I definitely know what the sequel is going to be. I’m really excited about it but I also need to take a creative break for a second. So I’ve been working on my next movie, which is kind of my genre of filmmaking. I jokingly call it “comma”: Comedy with a little drama. It’s set in the world of music. I’m really excited. We’ve been working on this project pretty steadily the better part of the last year. We should have a screenplay and a deal set up shortly.
For more information on The Seven Rays, visit TheSevenRays.com.