Episode 4: Screenwriting With Jordan Roberts
Now you probably know Jordan from his his work writing the 2005 Oscar winner for best feature documentary March of Penguins, or perhaps you’ll have watched his 2014 Best Animated Feature Film Oscar Winner Big Hero 6. Either way, Jordan is a master of his craft.
As with most of my guests, Jordan’s journey to finding passion and purpose was an arduous one and I’m excited to share his story with you today. In this inspiring conversation, you will learn:
- How Jordan was initially turned off by the entertainment industry
- The impact of critics on an artist (this applies to us all!)
- How a simple act of changing his password resulted in directing a movie with Michael Caine.
- What he recommends to aspiring artists.
SOME QUESTIONS I ASK JORDAN:
- What advice do you have for someone who has yet to find their passion and purpose?
- What is your definition of passion?
- What advice would you give to someone who knows their passion but has yet to embrace it?
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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Click To Read The Full Podcast Transcript
Richard Janes Commentary: This week the world celebrates the motion picture industry at the Academy Awards, and today’s guest has written not one, but two films whose producers grace the stage to accept a shiny gold statue which we know as Oscar.
It was once said that to experience the reach of the imagination as a writer, to delve into that arena of language and to gain a sense of the shape and texture of human personal experiences, writers need to spend time in the house of mirrors, for if they do not understand themselves, they will have trouble understanding and connecting with anyone else. For today’s guest, his journey to understanding himself, to spending time in that house of mirrors is one that was wrought with the dangers of self-doubt and crippling temptations.
When we talk about purpose, it’s often thought that a true purpose needs to be grander than one’s self, to serve a bigger cause. But what could set a greater example to the world than the compassionate healing of one’s own soul so that it may shine bright for others to experience, that is the domain of the artist. That is the domain of the screenwriter-turned-director Jordan Roberts whose work has impacted millions of people all over the world with, as one film critic put it, a compassionate and healing voice for those who are suffering or going through tremendous struggle. She said of one of his movies, it’s like he’s giving a huge hug that can be felt through the skin.
From the 2005 Oscar Winner for Best Feature Documentary ‘March of Penguins’ all the way through to the 2014 Best Animated Feature Film, Oscar winner ‘Big Hero 6,’ the world has benefitted from the hugs Jordan has given us all as he struggled to hug himself.
Now, I must warn you that this episode has a good amount of adult language and covers some pretty adult themes. So if there are any little ears present, you might want to listen to this episode on headphones. But with that said it’s time to sit back, pretend you have a bag of popcorn by your side as the lights dim and the main feature begins, and I dive right in asking Jordan about the moment that he first found passion and purpose in entertainment.
Jordan Roberts: I dropped out within 8 weeks of going to college and that happened because I tried out for the school play. I auditioned and I got called back and I didn’t get cast. And that was a reason to drop out of college because the combination of somebody cracking their finger at me and saying “Ooh, you’re good. Come back,” and then rejecting me was just so delicious that I immediately jumped out of college. Because that was my romantic life and when I found out in that moment that it could actually be my professional life as well which is the life of an actor, I was intoxicated and hooked. So the success of the callback and the failure of the rejection, that one-two punch of that was just f***king delicious for me at 18. And I was out of college within 2 weeks.
My mother was an actress and my father was a writer but I had no interest in that kind of pursuit. I thought their friends were creepy and weird. So I think it was probably percolating and being fed and being nurtured without my being aware of it, and as soon as I was out of the house, off I went.
I don’t think my parents would have wanted me to pursue showbusiness, so they were just as shocked as I was when I called and said “Hey, by the way I dropped out of college and I’m going to join the local theater and stick beside women.”
All very intoxicating, all very alive, all very titillating and exciting. It was thrilling. And my life looking back from now was all a series of neurotic choices like Chicago was a wonderful place to live and the theater community was so vibrant and so healthy, and it still is, you know. When I go there I’m amazed at how healthy these actors are. They’re so different from us in some ways.
Richard Janes Commentary: Having lived in Los Angeles for 13 years, I know firsthand the difference that Jordan is speaking of and we can see it in professions across all industries. Those that are there because they love what they do versus those that are there because they love the idea of the outcome from that which they do. Those focused on the outcome would inevitably burn out as the goal is always a shifting target whose appetite can never fully be satisfied. But to those willing to fall in love with the process, they’re able to return to the table over and over again. For Jordan, his early years were consumed with achieving that heightened reality and he found a quick way of achieving it.
Jordan Roberts: I was using drugs in high school, I was using in Santa Cruz, I was using drugs back in LA after Santa Cruz, and I was using drugs in New York, yeah, and alcohol. Drugs gave me a sense of an altered reality. Suddenly I smoked weed and… there was some color orbs and the bass sounded different and the guitar was not two-dimensional but it was three-dimensional and it was internal and external. You know, just broadened by capacity to feel and experience, and that was a good thing. And I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. I was always a little dissatisfied with life.
So drugs opened up this possibility that there was a deeper way to experience life and a lot of people in recovery and a lot of people not in recovery have that experience. What also happens for many of us is what happened to me in that I kept chasing that original sense of boundlessness and could never get it. And it stopped being fun really quick and then I kept doing it for about 10 years.
So I can’t fault it in the beginning but shortly after the beginning it started to be a problem, but I was utterly unaware or unwilling to look at it as a problem. That didn’t begin until my brother died and I recognized the possibility of my ending up in the same boat. I come from a long line of intravenous drug users and that was not something I did. So as long as I didn’t have a needle in my arm, I kind of thought I was okay. And when Scott died, I recognized that (A) heroine was very, very possible and (B) it didn’t really matter that I wasn’t needling drugs. I was a drug addict. So the process began with his death pretty quickly after I had stopped using drugs then began drinking, then drinking to excess, then I finally got sober.
Richard Janes: And what was the contributing factor to then getting sober?
Jordan Roberts: A sailor was standing behind me. Well, my fiancée and I were watching the fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge. I guess it must have been the centennial fireworks in 1986, it was July 4th. The sailor who was probably 3 inches or 10 inches taller than me kicked over my Beck’s Dark beer. And two things that are important for you to understand is, one, is I actually thought I could take him and I was like a 12-pound macrobiotic actor, okay; and the second was that my fiancée was a topless stripper, probably sex worker. It was not a great casting choice for a wife and the inability to keep a job, etc. etc. etc. There were a bunch of reasons. But for whatever reason, that thought that I was going to try and beat up a sailor, the next I was like “Why don’t you just quit instead?” And I did.
Richard Janes: And that was it.
Jordan Roberts: That was it. I had to be vigilant about seeking and finding, so I do still chase that. But what I find is that when I find it, well it is far longer lasting though it’s not perpetual but it’s longer lasting than whatever I found, when I would light up the bong which would take me somewhere. But I wouldn’t stay there and whatever benefits I found there didn’t linger and I told myself I was engaged and all sorts of deep spiritual work. But for me, it just was not accurate. There was nothing really going on except an increased capacity to feel cool sensations.
Richard Janes: What on earth made you say “Okay, I’m stopping the acting, the one thing that my mother did and I’m going to go and do what my stepfather did,” which is writing, and stay within this industry?
Jordan Roberts: Watching yourself is exhausting and judging yourself is exhausting. And I vividly recall that if this weren’t the case, I probably still would be an actor but this is not the case. When you would do plays in New York City or in regional theater and you were an alcoholic, you would do the play. The curtain would come down, you’d bow, and you’d go to a bar, and you’d go to the bar with lots of people who were in the play and lots of people who had come to see the play. I had no capacity to sit at those tables and drink or not drink and not wait for you to tell me what you thought of me. And it was excruciating because sometimes you didn’t and sometimes you did and you didn’t think very much of me.
But the need for you to love and admire me or tell me I was good was insatiable, and one compliment would have been too many as they say because it would have triggered the appetite for more and a thousand wouldn’t have been enough. And it was excruciating. And if that hadn’t been the case, I might still be an actor or might not have given it up for 29 years or whatever. But it was excruciating. I was so neurotic. My self-esteem is in the toilet. And so if everyone in the bar did say I was fabulous, the next day was a better day because that was the only medicine I knew. Some sort of manipulated ego inflation. It worked. It was just exhausting and it didn’t always work. So if you didn’t say anything or if 25 of you did and that 26th motherf***er in the corner kept giving me the hairy eyeball because they just didn’t care for what I did or didn’t want to take the time to come over and tell me, that’s the idea.
And this I shared with Marlon Brando and thousands of other artists, I remember him writing in his autobiography about the same idea of like the person that mattered to him was the person who thought he sucked. So it was exhausting but realizing that actors who hadn’t achieved success by 45 or 50 but were still pursuing it had a kind of just excruciating, painful low self-esteem. Scared the s*** out of me. And I’ll never forget it. Scared the s*** out of me. And I identified that that’s where I was headed because my esteem was in the toilet and I was expecting success to handle my esteem and passion which was artistic and true and deep and soulful, which existed or co-existed simultaneous with a neurotic need to succeed and be a movie star.
“And the Oscar goes to…”
So they were distinct but simultaneous. They were two tracks of a train, right? And sometimes the process, the artistic soulful work was dominant but frequently the neurotic ambition and need for success was dominant.
Then when I became a writer, a lot of that need for success went away. I was much more comfortable in the artistic process. There was not as much hubris or ambition or need to impress. And I cannot act and write at the same time because acting satisfies the same itch and I became a writer because whatever it was that I was looking for as an actor in that experiential creation of imaginary intimacy because that’s what it was for me, the creation of relationship and contact in an imaginary context that was very satisfying to me. Whatever other problems acting has but that part of it, the process was satisfying. And I missed that so I began to pursue that as a writer and I found that I could, and it was interesting because until very recently I would go off in the middle of nowhere.
Or I would go to cities: Moab, Utah; outside Tulum, Mexico 30 years ago before it was Tulum and anybody knew about; Billings, Montana; Bozeman, Montana; Idaho. I would go to a city that I had never heard of and hole up as long as I could all by myself away from my fiancée or then wife. In that loneliness I would write relationship and I would create intimacy through isolation and loneliness. And that’s a real thing, I know I did that and even here, there were times when I was stuck I would go to the airport Hilton at LAX. On multiple occasions I would lock myself in a hotel. Not for quiet but for isolation and I would deprive myself of human contact. And as a result, I would create it like I would create a three-dimensionality to the relationships I wrote about that were more alive and nuanced. There was more intimacy shared because I was trying to stay alive, stay human.
I’ve been paid to write 66 screenplays in 27 years, and they’ve made virtually none of them. But I’ve written for my own and I made all of them. So I have a much better betting average at figuring out what’s a story that will eventually get made or maybe I was just more tenacious with my own material. I don’t know, but those are the facts of the 63 that I had written for them. Big Hero 6 is the only one that I was the first writer on that I created the template of that got made. But all of my original material was made and I thought, “Oh, you know what, dude? You should stop writing for them.” And I have, you know, now I write originals.
Richard Janes Commentary: And herein lies the purpose part of the equation. Now in most cases, art is primarily focused on self-expression because artists have to feel strongly enough about their subject to try and put it in a form that they and others can come to terms with. But in today’s society especially in mediums where there is a lot of money to be made or there’s a lot of money at stake such as with movies, the parallel tracks of ego and expression can be seen to rear their head once more. And this isn’t just for artists; the same can also be seen for entrepreneurs driven by satisfying a market fit versus starting with a burning passion. So I asked Jordan how as an artist he deals with a studio coming to him with a purpose of writing a blockbuster versus writing something that was born from his own passion.
Jordan Roberts: If I can’t find my way to turn that piece of business into something I care about, I have to say no especially. Now it’s a prerequisite. I’m in a situation where we’re not loaded but I own a house in Venice and my son’s in college and it’s paid for. I’m comfortable, I’m extremely comfortable and I’m taking advantage of that comfort by absolutely refusing to do anything I’m not extremely passionate about, which is a great luxury. And I’ve not been able to do that. So it was always important. Like I said, I never fumbled in, ever. Not once.
I’m that guy who will fall in love. You give me the thing and I will eventually be in love because I don’t know how to do it in the other way. I really don’t. I suspect that maybe one or two times when not for lack of trying I was able to quite pull off love, but I usually do. You can absolutely fan the fires of passion and once you recognize what the story and once you identify with it, either in yourself or in people you know or are close to and when I say fall in love, that’s what I’m talking about. I start to care about the characters and I start to care about they care about. And I start to invest myself in both challenging them to achieve what they’re going for and rooting for them to achieve it.
Richard Janes Commentary: Life being life that will always be things that we have to do, the do not hold an immediate sign of fulfilling passion and purpose. But rather than simply trudge through it putting our head down and persevering, what have we looked at how we bring our unique passion and purpose to any task at hand? What have we looked to identify the threads no matter how small they may be that connect to our own soul?
In scientific study this approach falls under the positive psychology where we approach thoughts, feelings, and behavior with a focus on strengths instead of weaknesses, building the good in life instead of repairing the bad. And in Jordan’s case finding something that he can truly – well and truly – fall in love with. Where focus goes, energy flows. And as Jordan found out, this didn’t just work for him in falling in love with screenplays.
Jordan Roberts: When I came home from Sunday in the late ‘80s, my buddy Peter had just directed a film, Pieces of April, and it was at Sundance and I was carrying a suitcase. He took me to the airport and he said, “You know, Jordan, your envy and jealousy is just delicious. And I really enjoyed feeling your longing to have what I have, and you can do this so you got to go do that. You have got to go make a movie.”
When I left Sundance and I came home, I immediately changed my password to director. I just was typing director every day. And any time I had a password, the password is director. And I’m just going to leave it at that, but 10 months later I directed a movie at Warner Brothers. Just because I typed that? Probably not but it didn’t hurt me to give myself a purpose, give myself a destination or a goal. And, you know, it’s not unformidable that a guy who had done nothing was directing a movie at Warner Brothers 11 months after he was green with envy watching his best friend do it. So, I had some skill and I had some ambition, but I also had a goal.
I didn’t need you to like my plays and I didn’t really even need you to like my screenplays, but f*** you if you don’t like my movies. I don’t understand it. It’s very personal to me if you don’t like my movies. And I can handle it. I mean, now I can. At the beginning, it was very difficult and it was a very difficult process, but I was very surprised. I was a writer for 10 years before I directed. I mean, I would prefer you to like them and I would get notes from studios and we all don’t like that, but it wouldn’t take the wind out of my sails. It wouldn’t feel like a gut punch. But you not liking my movie felt you didn’t like me in the same way that you not liking my acting felt like you didn’t like me.
Richard Janes Commentary: So Jordan gets his break directing around the bend for Warner Brothers starring Michael Caine and Josh Lucas. But it was his next movie that got the world talking and showering him with praise.
“This is the incredible true story of a family’s journey to bring life into the world. March of the Penguins.”
Jordan Roberts: I heard Morgan’s voice very quickly. I knew from the moment I saw it, it would be a beautiful bedtime story. That was the only direction I was able to give Morgan. He didn’t want anything to do with me. Nothing to do with me because, as he said, on several occasions that day, Clint Eastwood was the best director alive because he hires actors and leaves him the hell alone. And I kept wanting to talk to Morgan because he was very stiff. We all had many voices but Morgan has a college professor voice and he’s used it in several films. You can hear that voice in War of the Worlds. It’s a very deeply intelligent, highly educated, sophisticated voice.
“No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st Century that our world was being watched by intelligence that’s greater than our own.”
And that was not the voice I wanted because that didn’t make any sense with what I had written. I wanted, for better or worse, a Shawshank Redemption Morgan. And so there was a debate about that and he didn’t really want to do warm fuzzy. And there was real tension and so I had no power. I was the writer and I had made a film that I was a coward almost every day. But this is the day I say I became a director because I did something that was absolutely terrifying and I knew I had to do and I didn’t want to do but I was going to do it, but I didn’t want to do it.
Then I went up to him and I finally said, “You know, sir, I respect you and I like Clint Eastwood by the way. And, you know, you get his scripts months in advance and you got this one last night because I’m the guy that I dropped it off at your hotel and you’re just getting it and please let me help you. And this is a bedtime story. This is bedtime story. It’s not a lecture, it’s not a college discourse. It’s a bedtime story and you need to tell it to your favorite child.”
And there was this 8-hour pause where I just was dying and he turned to me and said, “Son, you did that very well. What would you like to do?” And we did it again in one take. The whole thing. Because he told a bedtime story.
Richard Janes: So this brings me to the question of passion and purpose in an environment where so many people are trying to put their own purpose on stuff and their own passion. Here you have Morgan Freeman, to all intents and purposes he comes across as a passionate man, he loves his acting. And he comes to that 80-hour session with a clear purpose in mind, and you have to say “Hang on, hold on your horses. This is my purpose and we’re going to do it my way.”
Jordan Roberts: Well, my way was so different from his that I offered an opportunity to look at it from a different perspective, and he understood that and it sparked something in him. From that moment on, I don’t think I said a f***ing thing. Do you know what I mean? He just was turned on. And so that’s what a director is supposed to do. We don’t do anything. We don’t do a thing. We inspire every single person on that film to do their job but we don’t do anything. We don’t shoot it. We don’t act it. We don’t score it. We don’t light it. We don’t write it. So what do we do? Well, we get in their heads, we communicate. We inspire.
And with their participation and cooperation, they yield something that’s in our heads. So the man or woman that is directing this piece has a bunch of people helping that man or woman, puts something on a screen that he can’t put on or she can’t put on by themselves. And like I say, I don’t care that it offends other directors when I say that because I’m still going to say it again. We don’t do anything. We inspire other people to do our work. Again, some directors find that the way to do that is to not inspire them to do the work but to just bully and pummel and scream and yell and demand and insist that they do what’s in my head. I prefer to collaborate with you, share what’s in my head, but sometimes change what’s in my head if you can convince me that that’s the more alive way to go.
Richard Janes: So with all that, do you have a purpose as a screenwriter?
Jordan Roberts: Well, I think that I pursue humanity and, well, I chatted with you about these three words. But, you know, vulnerability, I’m interested in. It’s in everything I do. Boldness is increasingly in everything I do. And generosity. And generosity, both the giving and the taking of generosity. There is a tremendous energy and generosity, something that gets short shrift but we tend to understand that word only from one perspective. Or acts of generosity, acts of service. But I find to be the recipient of generosity is a fascinating space.
So I’d prefer those, for sure. And then sometimes my job literally is to satisfy the expectations of the people who hire me. And so I’ll try to apply boldness, generosity, vulnerability and any other qualities as I’m trying to fulfill the vision of a director or studio work producer.
Richard Janes Commentary: Now as these three words of boldness, vulnerability and curiosity that Jordan developed to represent the core of his authentic personal brand and who he was an artist after attending one of my workshops in 2017, these three words tied together his life’s story and the vision for what he wanted to lean into in the future both as an artist but also as a human being. And I was keen to understand how having access to these three words has had an impact on his life.
Jordan Roberts: In every way. Like in every way they affect how I behave with other people. They certainly affect the choices of movies I take to write. They help me make decisions about what to and not to do professionally regularly like if there is not an opportunity to explore all three of them or at least two of them, I won’t even consider it. Lately, it’s been that I want all three. Yeah, they just sort of again provided a purpose like I’m pretty spontaneous and pretty improvisational, which isn’t always good so they give me an opportunity to not necessarily just jump but take a look at the landscape and see if that landscape is the right place for me to plant generosity, boldness and vulnerability. And if it is, then I’ll probably head that way.
Richard Janes: So Jordan, as we come to the end of the interview, I’m enormously struck by the fact that you’ve overcome some pretty serious odds to write at the top of what is arguably an extremely competitive. Industry. What advice would you have for someone looking to do the same?
Jordan Roberts: Well, if you have a drinking problem, stop. That’s first and foremost. You know if you have a drinking problem. Any of you who have a drug problem, stop, because it’s not going to help you no matter what anybody says. And practice your craft. I’m really, really good at my job right now and I’m really good at it because I’ve been doing it for a long time and I wasn’t really good at any of the things that I did in the beginning and you shouldn’t be either. So practice and annihilate perfectionism. My first mentor gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten which was about this kind of thing. He said, “You know, Jordan. You know what a professional is? You know what an amateur is?” I said, “No. What’s a professional? What’s an amateur?”
He goes, “An amateur insists on 100 percent and a professional accepts somewhere around 65 to 69.” Took me a long time to give up perfectionism. But perfectionism is hell, perfectionism is prison. That’s the best advice I can give a young person. Do not create while simultaneously holding the dagger of judgment. That’s the worst thing I did. I did it for decades. And I don’t do it anymore.
Richard Janes: What does passion mean to you?
Jordan Roberts: I think it means humility, weirdly. I think it means connectedness. Passion is connectedness, which we makes sense. We think of passion with making love. But what is making love? It’s removing the boundaries between me and another person. Ideally, my wife. I mean it’s been that way for 31 years. That’s passion. Passion is to be present fully and wholly. It is passion to me. We can do that onstage. You can do that at a computer in front of a final draft with your little fingers clicking. You can create wholeness and intimacy and union. Passion has to do with connection.
Richard Janes: And what does purpose mean to you?
Jordan Roberts: Purpose to me means destination, goal, target, the place I’m headed.
Richard Janes: Jordan Roberts, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. It has been an absolute pleasure to sit down with you.
Jordan Roberts: And you, sir. Thank you for having me.
PODCAST HOST: Richard Janes
Richard Janes is an Emmy winning personal brand expert with a passion for storytelling. His unique approach to personal branding has launched, revived, and catapulted the careers of many actors, athletes, musicians, television hosts, executives, and entrepreneurs.
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