A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Jessica Bendinger, screen writer, director, and now author. Her best-known work, at least in my age demographic, is writing Bring It On. Jessica also wrote and directed Stick It, with Missy Peregrim and Jeff Bridges, and last December she published her first novel with Simon & Schuster, titled The Seven Rays. It’s a young adult caper into karma and destiny and love and teenage hilarity, and I got the scoop on her inspirations, intentions, and more in our conversation…which you can read below!
Elena: I wanted to start by asking you about the soundtrack for The Seven Rays that’s on the book’s website. Did you have anything to do with that?
Jessica Bendinger: Oh, yeah, that was me. I did the entire thing, that’s me—I am the soundtrack. I started a record label just so we could do it, and I approached the artists with the help of a little ragtag team. In fact, I co-wrote the last song on the soundtrack, “Written in the Stars” with Meredith Meyer, who’s an artist who’s on the soundtrack—“Videogame Girl” is her song—and she is really a critic’s darling in Los Angeles. So, yeah, we were songwriting partners, and that song is on the soundtrack. And Mycale, who’s the singer of that song, is from Houston, and she was on American Idol—the season David Cook won, she made it to Hollywood Week. Randy Jackson introduced me to Mycale. She was one of those girls who just fell through the cracks on the show. I started working with her, and we were doing demos. She’s so brilliant, and we did that song, and when the soundtrack came together—it was for a different project, and I was like, “Meredith can we just use it for this?” and she was like “Yeah,” so there it is.
Had you done any songwriting before?
“Written in the Stars” was my first time jumping in with Meredith, but yeah…my parents are both musicians, and my dad’s a jingle writer, and I grew up kind of immersed in songwriting, but I didn’t take it seriously until much later in life. So I started goofing around with it about 5 years ago, and then started getting more serious about it about 2 years ago. This is Meredith and my first song together, but I’ve got about 4 or 5 songwriting partners now. We’re getting material together for one of my next movies, which is going to take place at the Berkeley school of music, and I wanted to write all original material for the students to be working on and playing and writing in the movie as we went. For clearance issues, copyright issues…it just made a lot of sense.
And for veracity?
Exactly. We get to really see the narratives of each character, not like too musical theater where it’s really on point, but just have it really infuse the DNA of the songs. It’s been really amazing, and hopefully we’ll have more stuff to announce this year, you know in the next 6 months.
You said your parents were songwriters. Was that what got you writing?
My dad was a copywriter, and he was in the days of the 70s when you could kind of be a jack of all trades in the ad industry, so he wrote commercials, and he wrote jingles, and then he started writing books. So I saw that you could make a living as a writer through him. And then my grandmother used to write children’s books, so it was definitely—writing was something people did in my family. And they did it pretty well. And I was like, that’s so cool, you can have a career making stuff up. Awesome. That was kind of how I looked at it as a kid. I think being an only child of divorced parents, your imagination becomes a safe place in the chaos of the back and forth. But, you know, so many little kids go to their imagination, and I was definitely one of them. So, yeah, I just loved making up stories and filling in the spaces in my life with my imagination when I was a kid. It was really natural for me to write as an adult. It was hard, I mean it was hard to get my confidence up; I think it is in all writers, a bit of neurosis and fear that we’re not good enough…But, yes, I had the advantage of examples that made it a little easier. So writing’s in the bloodline.
How did you get into writing screenplays, and did that make it easier or harder to come into writing a novel?
(laughs) Ha, that’s a great question. I first wrote for Spin Magazine. I was an intern there; I started covering hip-hop, believe it or not, and while I was working there I started working at MTV and did a little music journalism, and then I slowly made the transition into writing scripts. It was a slow and excruciating process of getting my confidence and getting the connections I needed. But screenplays—movies were my love. That was my place, my thing. My parents had their thing, and movies were my thing. And so I finally wrote a script idea in 1996—that was the idea to Bring It On—and then I kind of worked very steadily pretty much for 10, 13 years straight just doing screenplays, getting things done. I’ve worked on a lot of movies where I don’t have credit on them, but I worked on them. And so when I wrote Stick It, directed Stick It, I was really tired at the end of that process, just kind of needing a creative recharge. Simon and Schuster offered me a book deal, and I was like okay—I was stupid enough to say yes. And once I got into it I was like, “Oh, my God, this is so much harder than a screenplay, what was I thinking?” I kind of got beat down by the reality stick a little bit, you know? I mean, I’d never written fiction before, I just hadn’t done it. Screenplays are such a different form. Screenplays are a real economic, tight, lean form, and novels are not. You have to explain everything and every faith and every breath. So I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages that you have been spared. No one was harmed in the writing of the novel, except me, and hopefully nobody will be harmed in the reading of it. (laughs) But, yeah, it was an excruciating learning curve for me, I humbly admit. And I wrote it with a movie in mind, I wrote it kind of with the idea of a series. I kind of wanted to do a real healthy, fun, comic book series, but grounded in the reality of what I’m into, and my girlfriends are into. And I played with a new hybrid and a new canvas for myself. Does that sound too patanche, artiste? But that was the motivation, and I paid dearly for the motivation—it was intense. But I’m glad I did it, I think the book is kinda cool, a real cool interesting little gem.
One of the things that stood out to me about the book, and I don’t know if it was intentional, was that it seemed more realistic compared to most of the other young adult paranormal stuff out there right now. Like, take Twilight and bitch-slap it with what teenagers are really like, and that’s what you came up with. So, were you intending it to be that kind of foil to the rest of the genre?
Yeah, that’s very good of you, very high praise for me. I wanted to do that, I wanted to take it that direction. When I started writing it, I was obsessing with Paramore. They were just coming out, and you know their lead singer, Hayley, is this little teenage redhead, and I was just like—why doesn’t someone write Harry Potter meets Paramore? That’s the book I want to read! So that’s really what I did. You’re right that it was intentional. It absolutely was. I wanted to take all this obsessive stuff that me and my girlfriends would pore over, tarot cards and, you know, The Secret, soul mates…girls go to such a crazy fun, self-help, metaphysical hodgepodge place. I hate that there aren’t kind of any answers in the book. I always want answers. Is there a god, or not? Is there a meaning behind it? Give me the shortcut! So I wanted a book that kind of had explanations from all the years of looking up my own butt and thinking about stuff. The emotional explanations I wish I’d had about why people behave the way they do. And so often things are so much more than they appear to be, there’s so much more going on than you can ever comprehend, but when you’re teenage you have that expanded and contracted self, that psychotic state of expansion and contraction we remember so well of being young and stupid and full of hormones and insanity. You know, I just wanted to give some answers, maybe some perspective, from that point of view.
So how much of your own teenage experience went into it?
Well, you know, I definitely had an insane last year of high school. I was anxious. I was in the middle of a lot of turmoil in my home in my life with my parents. It was a very fraught period. I was a sleepwalker, I had nightmares, I could not—my public life in school and my private life at home could not have been more different. And it was really honor student by day, completely stressed out teenster living a double life by night. And I think living a double life is kind of the natural state most teenagers are in, because they can’t figure out what’s going on, and they’re scared. Nobody’s really taught them to be whole yet. And that it’s okay to be yourself. At least that was my case. I hope this younger generation is better about it. (laughs) It was very split. And I live with the pain of that split. And so for me, I love that teenage era, I’m constantly going through and trying to heal what was broken and make it all right for myself. I keep going back, I can’t resist it, I have so much compassion and empathy for that age group, and it’s kind of my way of having compassion and empathy for myself, you know? What I didn’t have then, I have now.
And maybe the hope is that you can give that to someone else who doesn’t have it, what you didn’t have at that age?
Without a doubt. Without a doubt that is my hope and my dream. Absolutely. I hope I can give some solace, because I needed it, for sure.
You said that Simon and Schuster had approached you about writing a book. Was this story something you’d already had, or was it that when they approached you and you said yes you were like, “Oh, God, now I have to think of a story”?
They said I could write whatever I wanted, and I said if that’s real, then I will do it. Let’s do the contract, and get the terms hammered out—if it wasn’t, it’s not personal, contracts being what they are—but sure enough, they stuck to their word, and I could write whatever I wanted. I really wanted to try a different genre, really try and build—I like these new hybrids, I like to try new things. So they gave me the deal, and I went away and worked on the idea and went back and pitched my editor the idea….I’d worked on a movie idea in 2002, about a person who sees things and starts coming to grips with that, and I couldn’t figure out the script. I had hundreds of pages of research and I couldn’t figure out how to tell it as a movie. And so when the book opportunity came up, I went, “I know where I’m going,” so I went to revisit that idea, because I knew I’d have much more space to explore it. And you can really get into the first person of it and really dig into it. So it was originally a movie idea that’s now a book that will hopefully be a movie some day. Full circle.
How much of the story, the big overarching story that would run throughout the series, did you have in place when you went into this one?
I didn’t. It all came while I was writing the first one. It got bigger as I was writing it. I knew I wanted to try for a franchise, but I had no idea what it would look like or the mechanics of it, and then it started to take shape as I was writing it. So I was very unprofessional. You know these people who map things out and outline it—I was definitely more organic than that. So, yeah, I have prequel ideas, I have many sequel ideas just kind of blurbed out, but it’s pretty embarrassing.
I’ve tried my hand at fiction, and I would definitely not want anyone to see my first thoughts on something.
If I hadn’t have cashed the check I probably would have joined you in that. Too far down the road to walk away. It’s not for sissies. Fiction is not for sissies, that’s for sure.
What other ideas do you have? Are you likely to follow Beth, or are you going to explore some of the other characters you introduced?
I think the sisters are all worthy of spinoffs. In a perfect world, I’d write a book for each of them, telling you their genesis stories and kind of follow-up stories. I think for the next book it’s going to be a bit of a time-traveler, part sequel and part prequel. You’re going to go back and forth between the Beth and Richie story and then back in time to the Sarah story. And see how Sarah dealt with this, or didn’t deal with this, and what happened to her as all the poop started to hit the fan.
So we’ll get to see the parallel, or non-parallel, depending on how Beth reacts to it all?
Another question about what’s up next for Beth. At least in this one you present the idea of destiny. I don’t know if you have much choice, if it’s destiny, but is that an idea you might explore, that idea of fighting destiny? The “I’m going to hold onto Richie, I don’t care if he drops dead…”?
Yeah, definitely. In the case of Beth and Richie, I think there will be a frantic search for loopholes; let’s put it that way. They are going to really, really try and figure out if they can get in front of this thing and stay alive. And who knows? You know, who knows, there might be a loophole. Loopholes, loopholes, loopholes—that’s kind of my fun thing, it’s going to be the fun of the next book. Seeing where Sarah didn’t dodge certain bullets and seeing where Beth is going to try, once she recovers from the shock of finding out what’s going on. She is going to try to really…she’s an honors student, she’s going to try and figure it out.
Well I’m very curious to see whether she does.
Thank you. She’s going to have fun
Speaking of destiny, it seemed to me there were a couple Eastern themes. Destiny being one, and the anti-materialism, and the reincarnation—if you can call it reincarnation, when it’s a power getting reincarnated not a soul. I was wondering if that was a personal point of view or if you were just trying to make it as different from what a kind of normal Western teenager would think as possible?
What I wanted was to ground it in real stuff you could Google and find. I wanted to really ground it not just in the real world of spirituality but the real world of—of Google.
You wanted to write a book people could make a research paper on.
That’s ri-i-ight. And research for their own lives. You can look into Kabala from this, you can look into Buddhism, you can look into Hinduism, you can look into the theosophical movement. There are so many different traditions that I pulled from, and I’m hopeful that it will spark interest. I remember seeing a Reader’s Digest poll from many years ago where they asked how many people in this country believed in reincarnation, and it was just an astonishing number. I mean, reincarnation is such a foreign concept to the religion in the United States, and yet everybody just kind of embraced it. The idea of karma…you have Alicia Keyes, all these people have songs about karma, and I thought, “Gosh, what would that really look like? At the most basic level if you had a visual symbol for a concept, what would that look like?” And so I got really into the idea of drilling into these ideas and making very simple visual symbols for them that Beth is seeing, because we talk about them so much. You’ll say, “Oh, he feels like my soul mate,” or “Oh, we had past lives together”—we hear it all the time, but we don’t really scratch past that. And so I thought, “Well, let’s scratch past it, what’s there?” It seems interesting to me; I want to know.
It certain appeals to a lot of people. I don’t know if it’s appealing to our basic humanity or if it’s something that we subconsciously find lacking in the default religion of our country, but it’s definitely an idea that has valence.
Yeah. And we live in such a D-I-Y—do it yourself—culture right now, try this, make this, watch this show, and I kind of thought it would be cool to kind of have a DIY, tool primer that people could really use to look into themselves if they wanted to. I’ve had fun over the years dipping into all these things with various degrees of depth…and shallowness, as the case may be.
Your bio said you used to be a model, and certainly you’re lovely in your pictures. I was wondering if you feel like it’s made a difference in your career as you’ve gotten into more serious things like writing, like do people take you less seriously because you’re a beautiful woman, or does it open doors, or…?
You know, I think other than damage my self-esteem—I was not a very successful model, so I like to say, “Failed models unite! Let’s form a union”—I get more play off the former model line, it really makes it seem like I was quite successful. I was okay, but I was very much like a level C or D catalog model, just a couple little moments here and there, but nothing big.
How many rounds would you have made it through on America’s Next Top Model?
I have no idea. I have no idea. I know that in the modeling world, it was such a beating for my self-esteem that it did prepare me well for Hollywood, because it’s so random. You can’t be a confident person going through that, thinking, “It so has nothing to do with me”—there’s only so much you can control, either you look good or you don’t, and most of the time I didn’t, but those things were kind of a genetic thing at the end of the day. But it gave me a real sense of being bulletproof; I got very bulletproof in modeling. When somebody has a problem with you, annihilating the way you look on a daily basis…it’s like, “You don’t like my writing? Okay. Somebody’s already told me that my jaw is fucked up and that I’ve got these things I cannot correct about myself that are permanently flawed. My writing I can correct.” Modeling, oddly enough, gave me a real sense of empowerment. Because I didn’t want to have people controlling my fate over the way I looked, and writing seems to give me hope, if I can just get better—it gave me the sense of being in the driver’s seat of life a little more. So that helped me. Although I’m sure some people would say that my looks certainly didn’t hurt me, but I think more importantly than that, if you look deeper beyond the modeling, at what I had to do at a young age, meaning do go sees, make rounds, I was getting trained, I was getting a real good training for meet and greets in Hollywood, and taking meetings. Because you had to walk in and in five minutes have an exchange, make an impression, and leave. And I got really good at that. It was a great teaching ground for me in terms of trafficking well in the superficial social stuff that is the currency of Hollywood when you’re starting out. Hollywood is a very social business, this weird social, diplomatic—you have to have diplomacy skills, and social skills, and weave together all these different points of view to make it cohesive, and I think in a way modeling, meeting all these crazy people like stylists and hairdressers and makeup artists and agents and photographers and assistants and clients—I think being exposed to a high volume of that, at a young age, really served me well. I think for me it was all a proving ground, it was part of my learning curve. And I certainly had the sensitivity—I became funny in response to my discomfort at being treated as an object. So I think my humor…I got really mouthy, very sassy, in high school, because I was threatened by that kind of attention, and that kind of cut everything, it cut the tension, and it helped me feel that I was likable, that I wasn’t threatening, and, again served me well. I understand the energy that gets directed, for better or for worse, when we’re judging people by appearances. But I also know that if you can’t’ read a room and you don’t understand human psychology, you don’t understand the basics of human interactions and how to have a good meeting, it doesn’t matter what you look like. All that stuff is useless if you don’t have the tools to navigate some pretty complicated psychological barriers in Hollywood, some egos. All the looks in the world aren’t going to help you if you don’t have street smarts, so that’s kind of what I figured out. And as a writer you’re never the most powerful person in the room, so you better make peace with that and figure out what you’re going to do. You may be the cutest, but you’re not the most powerful, so figure it out.
Was that different when you were in the director’s seat for Stick It?
No, the studio is always the most powerful piece of the equation on a 30-million-dollar movie, but I think I was a very compassionate director, and I think my empathy for people auditioning, my empathy in the casting process was enormous. Once you get on set and everybody has to do their jobs it’s different. And I was learning. But I think I had a good blend of being really, really humbled, and grateful to be working, to be able to do that movie and to be able to see my dream made manifest, and a sense of pure panic, and learning, of swimming in the deep end as fast as I could. But you have so much support, a movie is such a beautiful collaborative process.
How was it different seeing your vision from the script staying under your control versus giving it over to someone else and seeing what they did with it?
It’s great. It’s very different. They say there are three different projects for every movie. There’s the movie you write, the movie you shoot, which is all the film in the camera, and the movie you cut, which is the final edited version. And they’re three pretty different movies. It’s just a process, it’s such an unruly, unwieldy process with so many contingencies. It takes the resources and the power of like a Scorsese to really have that kind of accuracy where everything is exactly as you planned it on the screen. I think that’s really rare. Movies are just an unwieldy thing at the end of the day. So, yeah, I was definitely on this learning curve. One of my friends, he wrote and directed Dodgeball, he warned me—the most humiliating moment for any writer/director is the moment you see your first cut, because it’s like five hours, and it’s got everything in it, and you’re like, “Oh, my God…” I mean, you just want to kill yourself. But I survived. I survived my first cut, but it was pretty—I needed a margarita immediately afterwards, that’s for sure.
Do you want to direct again?
Oh, yeah, definitely. That’s the music movie I’m writing, I’m writing it to direct. Yeah, I will do it again, eventually.
If any of your novels make it into movies would you want to direct them?
Well, actually, I’m having meetings right now with some financiers, and the deal would be to adapt and direct it, so we’ll see. We’ll see.
Well, definitely best of luck with that. Is there anything else you have on your horizons you want to mention?
Oh, God, that’s a lot. I’m pretty busy. I feel pretty good about what I’ve been working on. I’m writing and directing the music movie, and writing all the music, and writing the script and correcting it, and writing the sequel to The Seven Rays and then possibly adapting it, so I’m pretty overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed with my good fortune.
Very special thanks to Jessica for taking the time to answer my many questions!
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.