Updated: Apr 12
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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.
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.