Whooosh! A red bowling ball hurls down a glossy wooden lane.
Crack! The ball smashes the pins in a perfect strike.
Flamenco music explodes and a man in a purple bowling unitard swivels his hips in a victory dance.
“F*cking Quintana,” drawls The Dude. “That creep can roll, man.”
It’s the opening shot of John Turturro’s scene as Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski.
Like a lot of Lebowski fans, I watch this scene repeatedly, sniggering again and again no matter how many times I see it.
But I’m not watching the movie just for fun. I’m working.
See, I believe John Turturro—like all great artists—can teach me lessons about my work as a copywriter. What’s more, I think he can do the same for you.
In past posts, I’ve explained why I think actors and acting training can help you write stellar content—copy that’s more vivid, evocative and emotionally connected.
John Turturro gives you a master class—solid insights that inform and improve your copywriting. I’ll detail how and why in a moment, but first watch the clip.
7 ways John Turturro’s work can improve your copywriting
What does Turturro—playing a lowlife, local bowling champ and convicted pederast—teach you about copywriting? Tons. But 7 key lessons stand out for me.
Turturro’s work improves your writing by showing you…
- “There are no small parts, only small actors.” (Konstantin Stanislavski) No matter how small your project or ordinary your client, you need to put 100% of your creative effort into your work. In The Big Lebowski, John Turturro has less than three minutes onscreen. But his turn is among the most memorable in a movie packed with scene-stealing performances. How does he pull it off? Turturro prepares as meticulously for the bit part as if it were the starring role. As a copywriter you need to commit totally to the work—whether you’re writing a 100-page website or a ten-word tagline.
- Do your homework. Fine actors make performance look spontaneous and unrehearsed. But actors actually spend countless hours researching, ruminating and rehearsing before setting foot onstage or in front of a camera. In an interview at NYC’s New School, John Turturro explains how he prepared for the role of Jesus Quintana. Turturro learned to bowl, and noticing other bowlers polishing their balls—heh—made this action Jesus’ “psychological gesture.” His research also inspired Jesus’ hairnet, manicured pinkie nail and scores of other character-driven choices. Copywriters benefit from doing similar spadework for projects. Before I start writing, I ask at least 20 questions that will inform my work. Likely you’ve evolved your own process to help you dig deep and uncover details about your client, her product and customers. Don’t be a slacker like The Dude. Do the work.
- Take risks. The purple unitard. The hairnet. The cocktail rings. The accent. The tongue flickering on the bowling ball. As Jesus, Turturro goes over the top—and way out on a limb. And while he pulls it off brilliantly, truth is, his performance might as easily have bombed. Turturro knows you have to take risks: Breakthroughs don’t occur when you play it safe. And how does artistic risk-taking apply to copywriters? In an era when robots write content, copywriters are under tremendous pressure to turn out more—not necessarily better—work, faster than ever. To meet deadlines and juggle multiple projects, most of us fall back on a handful of copywriting tricks and formulas. Well and good in a pinch. But when formulaic writing becomes habitual, it’s time to do some soul searching. Maybe you need a break, time to refresh yourself with nature, art, literature. Or maybe you want to cut back on projects and build in more downtime—hours to ruminate, free associate, daydream. Or take a writing class. Or set aside time for your own creative projects. Whatever helps you take creative risks with your work.
- Listen. On first viewing, you might think Turturro performs a monologue—as if this character talks in a one-way flow. But watch closely and you’ll see Turturro listening: his lines are motivated by other characters’ words, expressions, actions and reactions. Like all great actors, Turturro knows listening is as important as speaking. Copywriters also benefit from listening and responding to—rather than talking “at”—customers. And you don’t need interactive media to make copy interactive. For starters, when you sit down to write, imagine you’re speaking to a real person. Some content marketers create full customer personas to help with this imaginative work. Imagine your customer is sitting close to you—on a café banquette or across a kitchen table. Now write your copy. When you’re done, read it aloud. Do your words sound sincere, personable and friendly? Is the copy responsive to your customer and her challenges and needs? Keep “listening” to her, and let her responses inform your copy.
- Connect emotionally. Why do audiences sympathize with a flamboyant, foul-mouthed sex offender? What connects us to this lowlife? We’re drawn to Jesus because of the humanity Turturro pours into this outwardly repellant person. In acting school, our teachers taught us to “look for the love in the relationship”—the emotional need—in every scene. Turturro doesn’t even need words to convey Jesus’ inner life: watch the scene in which Jesus knocks on his neighbor’s doors, mandated by law to inform them of his sex-offender status. To connect with your readers, your copy needs the same kind of emotional intelligence and empathy.
- Give your project the time it needs. Some plays and parts stretch actors and require major preparation. Others roles fit like a glove and require less time. In either case, good actors carve out time to prepare their work. In his New School interview, Turturro explains how the Coen brothers—the creative duo behind The Big Lebowski—planned the Jesus scene. They knew Turturro would “come up with stuff,” so they built in extra time to shoot the scene. Good copywriting needs the same respect for process. Whether you’re a fast or slow writer, realistically schedule the time you need for the project.
- Work with like-minded people. To assure the above factors, you need to work with clients who share your work ethic and commitment to quality content. In the New School interview, Turturro explains why he likes working with the Coen brothers. “We have a nice relationship. That’s a good example of collaboration and good friendship…I’m very relaxed with them. I feel like, if I show them something they won’t say ‘no.’” Of course, as a freelance copywriter, you’re unlikely to feel “relaxed” with all your clients. But if you find yourself consistently feeling rushed, underappreciated and underpaid, you may want to think about cultivating new professional relationships. Instead of taking on yet another low-paying project, make time to meet and market yourself to new, more like-minded prospects.
What do you say? Can you apply John Turturro’s art to your copywriting work? Please share in comments.
Photo of John Turturro courtesy of mretaoin