A former screenwriting student, Tom Kurzanski, e-mailed me one day.
I just wanted to thank you for planting the seeds of writing with a partner. The seeds took root and I partnered up with a good friend and colleague of mine (Michael Young). Now here I am with a T.V. pilot that, I feel, is some of the best writing I've ever done.
Tom isn't alone. I've seen the interest in co-writing scripts rapidly rising among writers and students. And I'm not surprised: Each year the list of script partners and their successes grows longer (in 2002, half of the scripts nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar were co-written by ampersands, the industry designation for writing teams). Why? Because as Tom and Matt Stevens & I and so many others have discovered, collaborative writing is one of the most productive and successful ways to write short or long scripts. So if you're interested in writing with a partner, I strongly suggest that you give it a try.
Mind you, script partnering isn't easy; in fact, it's one of the most difficult relationships in the world because it's really two relationships—a personal and a professional one—and both must be nurtured and maintained for the partnership to work. If the personal relationship goes south, so does the writing.
"It's hard to fake a working attitude when you're disenchanted," Larry Gelbart (Caesar's Hour, Mash, Tootsie) told Matt and me when we interviewed him for our book, Script Partners?
And writing with a partner is a big time commitment. Nine-to-fivers Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood; The People vs. Larry Flynt) only half-jokingly compare it to being in prison. Most other script partners compare it to marriage, but Gelbart disagrees. "It's harder than marriage!" he told us.
"Why?" we inquired.
He laughed, "Because there's no sex! There's no way to kiss and make up!" (Unless, of course, you and your partner are married or otherwise romantically involved.)
But Matt & I—and the twenty script partners we interviewed—have found that the advantages of writing with a partner far outweigh the disadvantages (the most obvious being sharing the bottom line). There are so many advantages, in fact, that Matt & I compiled a list of the ...
TOP TEN REASONS TO WRITE WITH A PARTNER
1. Writing is lonely. It doesn't have to be. And it isn't if you co-write your scripts.
2. Writing with a partner doubles your chance for success.
3. Filmmaking is a collaborative art, and co-writing scripts gives you a head start on mastering the collaborative process.
4. It's a dog-eat-dog business—and vice-versa—but when you write with a partner, there's always one person in town looking out for your interests.
5. A writing workout partner helps you stay motivated, focused, and productive in the face of countless rejections (and it's cheaper than anti-depressants).
6. Two imaginations really are better than one—better brainstorming and creative breakthroughs.
7. Yin, meet Yang. Complementing (and complimenting) each other can lead to stronger scripts.
8. A partner helps you work through writer's block, if only because it's embarrassing when both of you are staring at a blank page.
9. Collaboration not only improves mental health, it makes you a better writer—and a better person.
10. And, as Shrek's co-writer Ted Elliott (who writes with Terry Rossio) said, "As you struggle as writers to perfect your craft, schlepping from studio to studio trying to make that elusive sale or capture that dream assignment, as you wend your way over the freeways that link Hollywood to Burbank, and Beverly Hills to Century City, there is a final, overwhelming way in which a writing partner can be beneficial. Two words: Carpool lane."2
Personally, I never want to write scripts solo again. As Phil Hay said when we asked if he would ever write scripts without his ampersand, Matt Man-fredi (crazy/beautiful, story for The Tuxedo), "It would be very lonely and upsetting."
Andrew Reich & Ted Cohen, head-writers of Friends, have continued to co-write their scripts even as they've risen to the rank of Executive Producers. "We both know on some level we could do this by ourselves," Reich said, "but we're better together and we prefer it that way."
Harold Ramis has co-written scripts with different partners, from Douglas Kenney & Chris Miller (Animal House) to Peter Tolan (Analyze This, Analyze That). "It just adds so much to the work," he said during a break from editing Analyze That. "Peter, for instance, will add just tremendously funny things and great scenes, great dialogue. And there's this synergistic benefit—it makes my work better, and together we're better than probably either of us alone. I can enjoy writing alone, but I think I've never been as good as with other people. If I were limited by my own ability, my own imagination, I would be probably less than half as successful as I am," he confessed, laughing.
But for my money, Jim Taylor, who writes with Alexander Payne (Election; About Schmidt), said it best when he told us, "Writing with Alexander at my side is much more pleasurable than working on my own." Or as he told Scenario Magazine, "Just the writing process itself, of writing on my own, is very unpleasant and unproductive, and it's just no fun."
Fun is the reason Harold Ramis started writing with others.
"Here's the secret," he said. "When I was in college, there were things I was interested in academically, but nothing was as much fun as sitting around a room with really funny guys and laughing all the time. I couldn't think of anything better to do ... and it occurred to me that people actually make a living doing this. My very good friend in college was a guy named Michael Shamberg, who is Danny DeVito's partner in a company called Jersey Films. And Michael and I literally shook hands and said, 'Let's never take jobs we have to dress up for, and let's only do what we enjoy.'" He laughed. "You know you're gonna struggle anyway, you might as well enjoy it."
FINDING THE RIGHT WRITING PARTNER
But you won't enjoy writing scripts with a partner unless you find the right person.
Okay, you may be thinking, but how do I do that?
It's a question many writers have asked Matt & me since we started our collaboration, and a question we've asked many collaborative writers. And while there's no one-size-fits-all answer, there are some strategies that can help, whether you're looking for a partner to co-write a project or someone to share a writing career.
Collaboration is such an intimate creative relationship, it's best to begin looking for a prospective partner among the people you know. You have a greater chance of working successfully together if you've worked out the bugs of being together.
"We knew each other so well, and that's crucial," Reich said of his collaboration with Cohen.
It's no surprise that most of the teams that we talked to evolved out of close personal relationships—friends or family or lovers. Like Reich & Cohen, Alexander & Karaszewski and Manfredi & Hay were best friends before they began writing together. Fay & Michael Kanin (Teacher's Pet; The Opposite Sex), Nicholas Kazan & Robin Swicord (Matilda), and Lee & Janet
Scott Batchler (Batman Forever) chose each other as spouses before they chose each other as writing partners. Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau (Adventures of Felix; Jeanne and the Perfect Guy) fell in love before they fell into their collaboration. "It was for us, first and foremost, a relationship as lovers," they explained.
Then there's brotherly/sisterly love. That's not to say other familial combinations aren't possible, but the sibling collaboration is far more prevalent— the Ephron sisters, and the Coen, Wachowski, Farrelly, and Weitz brothers, to name a few of the more famous teams. Consider the amazing success of one of my former students, Matt Chapman and his brother Mike with their charming and wildly popular Web page, homestarrunner.com, which features the flash animation short short short films they've created together. Not only do they receive upwards of 300,000 hits every Monday when they add new material (and 5,000 e-mails a day), they are receiving rave reviews all over the country, including The New York Times which described homestarrun-ner.com as a "seamless, richly nuanced universe."3
But what if you don't have a partner-worthy friend/spouse/lover/ sibling? If you're in film school, look among your creative colleagues: Who has strengths that would complement yours?Who shares your sensibilities about what makes a good story? Your sense of humor? This is all-important if you want to co-write comedy. As Gelbart advised, "Say something funny to your prospective partners and if they don't laugh, run don't walk to the next candidate." In fact, the same sense of humor may predict, as nothing else can, a closeness and compatibility in your writing life.
The right partner, however, may not, at first glance, be an obvious choice.
True story: When Matt & I met over a faculty lunch at Florida State's Film School, we hated each other. It's too long a story to tell here (we tell all in Script Partners), but suffice it to say that by the time lunch was over, I'd decided that Matt was a moral derelict, and he'd decided that I was a self-righteous—well, rhymes with rich. After lunch, he actually crossed the street so we wouldn't have to share the same sidewalk. Which was just fine with me. But as the year went along and we worked together on student scripts, we discovered that we agreed about what makes a good story, character, scene, saying to each other for the first of countless times, "Get out of my head!" And we cracked each other up. Let's face it—it's impossible to hate someone who laughs at your jokes. Humor studies show that this is one of the most powerful ways to reverse a bad first impression (which is why, as Matt says, he laughs a lot on first dates). Such is the power of humor in creating human connection—and good collaborations.
If you're in college but not in film school, enroll in film or screenwriting classes. Join a drama or comedy group. And if you're not in college, nil des-perandum. Take classes anyway. Attend writers' conferences. Join writers' organizations. Socialize. If you still can't find a collaborator among contacts and colleagues, you can post notices—as many do—in any number of places on the Internet (see Chapter 2 of Script Partners for a list). You can also place ads in publications such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Backstage (and their online versions as well).
Whatever venue you choose—finding the perfect partner among people you know or among perfect strangers—it's essential to find someone with shared sensibilities, complementary strengths, someone who plays well with others (especially you), and above all, someone you respect and who respects you—and your work. Exchange writing samples. If you don't respect their writing (or vice versa), run don't walk to the next candidate. Because Aretha was right—respect matters the most. Hey, we ought to know. We went from zero to sixty on this one.
But in the end, collaboration—like love, friendship, or film—is experiential. No one, not even close friends or spouses or family members, can know if writing together will work until they try it. As Reich described brainstorming the first script with Cohen:
All of a sudden, Ted said something, and I said, "Then we could do this." And he said, "We could do this and this." Funny ideas started flowing, and it just felt like wow, this is really a good idea! And boy is this more fun than I've been having sitting by myself trying to write. With Ted it just clicked.
So choose the most promising partner and see if it clicks when you work together. See if you say, "Wow." That's the real acid test. The journey of a collaboration begins with one script.
THE SPACE-TIME CONUNDRUM, THE SEQUEL
Once you've found the right writing partner, you'll have a new problem to solve: Where and when will the two of you work? As I said in Chapter 3, the right place and time are crucial because they influence how well you write. But it's trickier for a team to make these decisions because you have two busy lives to consider, two sets of creative habits, and two circadian rhythms.
Blessed are they who have the same circadian rhythms, but often script partners do not. Matt & I don't. He works best at night and thinks mornings are "heinous." I work best in the morning and I'm a drooling zombie by 10:00 p.m. We respect each other's rhythms—we're talking hard-wiring here—so we compromise and work during the six hours that seem the least heinous to both of us, from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. We'll work a little later or earlier if we have a tight deadline, but never too early in the morning or too late at night. And we've discovered that there's an advantage to our cir-cadian incompatibility: I'll go over the script in the morning and have some notes or ideas by the time Matt drags himself out of bed. And he'll do his own version of mop-up after I've crashed at night, often leaving a Post-itTM Note on the screenplay for me to find the next morning: There's a problem on page 15. Fix it!
Where you work must work for both of you, too. Like many writers, you might like writing in restaurants. Matt & I enjoy developing our characters and stories over a meal (our collaboration started at a greasy-spoon in Tallahassee) because there's something about the clatter of dishes and conversations swirling around us that fuels the back-and-forth of brainstorming. Not long ago when we started a play/musical and we had nothing but an idea, we were amazed to see the characters and story miraculously materialize over a series of five lunches. But when we get down to the actual writing, we need a more private space, preferably the porch at a friend's beach cottage on St. George Island or the porch overlooking the meadow at Claudia's farm. That's where we do our best work (that's where I'm writing this now). These two places are, for us, "that most magic place of all places where the work goes better than it has gone before," as Tennessee Williams said.
You and your partner, of course, have to solve the space-time conundrum yourselves. You might prefer drafting your scripts in restaurants, or like the nine-to-fivers we interviewed, in a more neutral office space. The key is finding that time and place where you both can relax and write well together.
I said in Chapter 3, too, that no one can tell you your process. This is just as true when you write with a partner. You must work out a way of working that works for you both. As Nick Kazan said, "Deciding your process is part of the process."
This may mean co-writing every word, as Matt & I did when we wrote our first script, but this can take a great deal of time—eighteen months in our case. Depending on your deadline (or age), this may not be practical. Sitcom writers, for example, have a week, sometimes less, to crank out a script. Once "the room" (of writers and producers) has "broken" an episode (into scenes) for Friends, Reich & Cohen divide up the scenes and write the first draft solo. They don't like writing solo, but it saves time, and they work together to rewrite the script.
Like Alexander & Karazsewski and Manfredi & Hay, Rob Ramsey & Matt Stone (Life; Big Trouble; Intolerable Cruelty) co-write every word (they call themselves "the Vulcan Mind Meld"), but many of the teams that we talked to divide up the scenes, each in their idiosyncratic way. Some divide up the acts, and some, like Peter Tolan and Harold Ramis, will split a script right down the middle, as they did with the remake of Bedazzled. Tolan wrote the first half, Ramis the second, then Ramis, who directed the film, put them together and polished the script. He and Tolan have also divided the drafts. "That's what Peter and I do—kind of sit in the room and outline and brainstorm, and then I let him do the ice breaking, which is probably the coward's way out." He laughed. "I let him do the heavy lifting. Then I rewrite him." And that's fine with Tolan.
Matt & I found co-writing every word a real pleasure, but when Matt moved to Los Angeles in 1997, we decided to divide up the drafts on our next two scripts, both broad comedies. Matt flew back to Florida, and we worked together for several weeks co-creating the characters, story, and structure, and wrote a detailed scene-by-scene, then Matt flew back to Los Angeles and blasted out the first draft. When he finished, I rewrote it, then we worked together on the third ... and the fourth... and the fifth. If you try this approach, I recommend working closely together co-creating character, story, and structure, to make sure that you're on the same page. And it only works if one of you wants to write the first draft, as Matt did with our comedies and I did with most of the chapters of Script Partners. The first draft is heavy-lifting, and the last thing you want is resentment and possibly ownership issues rearing their ugly heads. Nothing will wreck a partnership faster. You're better off dividing up scenes or acts or co-writing each word. Remember, too, to give the heavy lifter permission to suck. This is essential. We tell ourselves it's okay to bang out big, bad, bloated first drafts—"loose and baggy monsters," we affectionately call them—and that freedom allows us to get the words down on paper.
Your process will more than likely evolve over time, maybe even in the course of writing one script, as Tom Kurzanski discovered:
We tried to work together on the first scenes, agonizing over every line, role-playing to get the dialogue we felt worked the best—and it just took too long. We finally got our sea legs when I suggested we map it out like big studio animators do. We assigned ourselves to certain characters, and would write scenes according to which major characters were featured (e.g., I write the character of Ben, the scene features Ben predominantly over other characters, therefore I write the scene). Once we did that, things worked out great.
For those phases when you do co-write—or rewrite—your script, you'll need to figure out the best way to work together. Who types, who paces? Or sprawls on the couch? With Manfredi & Hay, the one who's most crabby that day gets to lie on the couch while the other one does the typing. Ramsey & Stone sit at two desks facing each other, with Ramsey typing while Matt rules the mouse. Talk about Vulcan Mind Meld! And on some occasions Taylor & Payne both do the typing (hi-tech Taylor has figured out a way to rig up two keyboards to the same monitor). When Matt and I are together, he and I sit at a table, and he does the typing, not because he types faster (I do), but because he's trained as an actor and reads our work aloud while I listen (and applaud appropriately). But sometimes we have to co-write long-distance, which involves endless e-mails, phone bills that rival Visa, and compatible software—always, always use compatible software. And we've just started using software designed for collaborators (Final Draft 7/CollaboWriter) that allows us to work on a script at the same time when we're in different places.
Again, it's what works best for you both. As we say in Script Partners, "How you work is not as important as how well how you work works for you. And how well you work together, even if you're working apart."
At a book signing for Script Partners at Drama Books in New York, a young man said to me, "I'd like to write scripts with my wife, but she's reluctant to try because she's afraid we wouldn't be able to handle the disagreements." And Matt & I heard the same fear expressed by others at the Creative Screen-writing Expo in Los Angeles.
It's a common concern, and it should be because disagreements do happen.
"All the time," said Alexander & Karaszewski.
Disagreements are an inevitable, integral, and invaluable part of the collaborative process. Even the most compatible, peace-loving script partners disagree occasionally when they co-write a script. Matt & I have a very amicable collaboration, but we've had a few doozies—and they've led to some of our greatest breakthroughs. So don't worry about having disagreements; you and your partner will have them. What matters is how you deal with them. If you handle disagreements destructively, this will create a disconnection between you both—the last thing you want or need when you're working together. But if you handle disagreements constructively, however heated they may get, they can make your script—and your partnership— stronger.
Learning to handle disagreements constructively is so important to collaboration that Andrew Reich recommends writing with "someone you've had arguments with or you know you can settle things with without throwing tantrums." I second the motion. But if you and your partner do not yet know how you'll handle disagreements—or even if you do—here are a dozen partnership-saving strategies that can help you keep it constructive:
First and foremost, as I told the young man in New York, and Matt & I told others in Los Angeles, you and your partner need to agree that your relationship comes first, especially if you are friends or lovers or spouses. Articulate this to each other. Shake hands on it. You might even put it in writing. Agree that no matter how the writing goes, your relationship is your highest priority. When you agree on this—and act on it—you'll find that it's much easier to navigate the emotional white water of disagreements and write successfully together.
Second, agree that the script comes second, placing it in importance below your relationship but above your individual egos. Resolve to make creative decisions for the good of the script, not yourselves. This means that the ideas you come up with have to stand on their own merit, regardless of who suggests them. Ted Elliott & Terri Rossio call this "egoless arguing."
Tom Kurzanski & Michael Young have taken this advice to heart. "If we ever disagreed or contradicted each other we'd discuss it, presenting our case and decide what was best for the script and the story. The first draft ended up being more than we'd even hoped," Tom said in his e-mail.
Three, check your ego at the door. And, hey, this ain't easy. Ego is one of our driving forces as writers. And we're all, in our way, closet control freaks; didn't we become writers, at least in part, so we could create (and rule!) our own universes? As Marshall Brickman (Annie Hall; Manhattan) says in his Introduction to Script Partners, "It's an enormously powerful feeling, not to be underestimated: the seductive, infantile omnipotence with which someone alone in a room, though he appears to be staring off into the middle distance, is in fact inventing people, starting a war, perhaps, or if it's been an especially rotten day, destroying an entire planet."
But when it comes to collaboration, as Nick Kazan cautions, "Ego is the great destroyer."
If you or your partner can't set yours aside for the sake of the script—and your partnership—you both would be better off as solo writers.
Four, keep it fair, whatever that means to both of you. This is crucial. Why? Consider the case of capuchin monkeys:
Researchers at Emory University reported in September 2003 that capuchin monkeys have a sense of justice, at least as applied to themselves. They trained monkeys to trade pebbles for food. If a monkey saw a researcher giving her neighbor a grape in return for a pebble, but she herself received only a slice of cucumber, she would signal her displeasure by slamming down the pebble instead of handing it over, or refusing to eat the cucumber.
If a sense of fairness exists in a capuchin monkey, it probably developed early in the primate line, and the genes that promote the behavior are likely to be present in people, too.4
In short, we're hard-wired for fairness, so you can't fake this any more than you can fake your circadian rhythms. You must both feel that the division of labor is fair. This doesn't always mean equal. Matt wanted to write the first draft of two of our screenplays, and I wrote the second draft, but I also know that writing the first draft is heavy-lifting, so I offered to write the first draft of most of the chapters in Script Partners. Even so, we had our sticky moments. When we finished interviewing twenty script partners or teams for the book, we had an Everest of audiotapes to transcribe. Before I left Los Angeles for Florida, I sifted through the tapes and selected the ones I wanted to transcribe.
"Hey," Matt said, "why do you get to choose?"
I started to counter with a quote from Annie Savoy ("Actually, none of us on this planet ever really chooses . . ."), but I knew he was right—we both needed to have a say in the matter. We needed to find a way to divide up the cassettes that would be fair to both of us. And, lo, the answer was right there in our interviews: Reich & Cohen told us they sort the scenes they have to write based on difficulty (hard, medium, easy), then they take turns choosing the scenes they want to write. Inspired by their example, we sorted our tapes by length and difficulty and took turns choosing the ones we'd transcribe. We also agreed if either of us hit total burnout with our transcribing, we could pay a transcriptionist to finish the task. In the end, both of us did.
Five, don't take it personally. This is easier said than done in the heat of an argument, especially considering that "everybody's neurotic and writers are more neurotic than most," as Gelbart said. The key is to keep your arguments about the work, not each other, then you'll be less likely to make your criticisms personal or take them personally.
Six, don't keep score. When one of your ideas or jokes or great lines of dialogue gets into the script, resist the urge to remind your partner who came up with that brilliant bit (okay, I'll admit that Matt & I occasionally do this, but it's usually more for laughs than for ego gratification). In the best collaborations, a third voice emerges, and partners are hard-pressed to tell you who came up with what.
Seven, show don't tell. If you're convinced that you know the best way a scene should be written, write it and show it to your partner. We've done this many times. When we're disagreeing about the way a scene should go, one of us will say, "Let me play a minute," and type out the scene. Then the other can see that person's vision—and version—on paper. The proof's on the page. But if you still can't agree, you'll have to ...
Eight, bargain. Cut back room deals. Let your partner have that line you can't stand if you can have that line that you love. Chances are good that neither line will make or break the script.
Nine, defer to passion. This is one of the most common and successful strategies script partners use. In the midst of a creative disagreement, they'll ask, "Who has the most passion?" and defer to that partner. Matt & I have taken this a step further—before we defer to passion we like to explore it. Why does one of us feel so passionately? What's behind it? This has led to cosmic transmissions or at least convinced the less passionate partner that the passionate partner is right.
Ten, defer to the original writer—or to the director. If you've divided up the scenes, acts, or drafts, and you simply cannot agree about some aspect of the script, defer to the writer who first drafted that section. Or, if one partner will be directing the film, defer to that person's vision."The final say has to be his," Jim Taylor said about Alexander Payne, who has directed their scripts for Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt. "He will be the one who is on the set trying to make the scene work, so he's the only one who can really say if the scene is working. I'll fight him on certain things up to a point, but then I have to defer to his opinion."
Eleven, create rules to repair the relationship. Unlike love, collaboration means always having to say you're sorry, especially if there's no way to kiss and make up. That is why successful non-conjugal partners like Ramsey & Stone follow rules recommended for conjugal couples:
We have a couple of little rules that aren't really written down. We don't really leave the office mad. (Laughter.) Seriously, if we've had an argument that day, usually we solve the problem anyway by the time we go. But we'll say like, "I'm sorry, Matt; I was out of line when I said that," or "I didn't mean that,"or whatever. It's not just by rote because you want to come in the next day and work, and you know you're gonna have these problems.
Twelve, maintain perspective. At the end of the day—or a long argument—it's only a script. Your relationship is more important. Which brings us full circle to number one—the relationship should always come first. Because, as I said earlier, if the relationship goes south, so will the writing.
When all is said—or shouted—and done, you're not just dealing with collaborative disagreements constructively, you're constructing a successful collaboration. You're finding ways "to feed it and keep it running," as Peter Tolan said, "to evolve with it as opposed to evolving apart."
If you do evolve apart, be honest with each other about it and move on to different partners or try writing alone. Your time won't have been lost, because even if the partnership doesn't work out, you will have gained invaluable insights into collaboration, which is the heart of the art of filmmaking, even for solo writers. As Hanif Kureishe (My Beautiful Laundrette), said so beautifully:
As a writer, I don't have to work with other people, but I do. In a sense, you don't want too much control, you don't want to be omnipotent. You can feel yourself going mad if you do it entirely on your own terms. The point is to have them change you. It's like getting married—you're going to find out who you're going to become after a bit.5
It's another one of art's rich paradoxes—by working with others, you find out who you are.
1. These quotations and many of the insights in this chapter come from Script Partners: What Makes Film and TV Writing Teams Work, written with Matt Stevens; Michael Wiese Productions, 2003.
2. Elliott, Ted. "Me & My Ampersand." Wordplayer 12 October 1999 <http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp18.Me.and.My.Ampersand.html>
3. Neil Strauss, "Kindred World in Animation," nytimes.com, August 28, 2003.
4. Nicholas Wade. "Play Fair: Your Life May Depend On It," The New York Times, Sunday, September 21, 2003.
5. Jed Dannenbaum, Carroll Hodge, and Doe Mayer, Creative Filmmaking From the Inside Out, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2003, p. 98.
FIVE (NOT SO) EASY SCREENPLAYS
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