Earlier this year, I got a call from a friend of a friend—a former executive producer of a children’s television show. He asked me, “Are you interested in writing for television?”
The truth was that writing for television had never been one of my goals, exactly, but the idea of emerging from my isolated writer’s office and interacting with other human beings—not to mention making some serious cash—was tempting. I had visions lifted from the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” or Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”: a joyous group of writers joshing around in a room as comic genius unfolded. So I told him yes and asked if he was working on a new show.
He answered no.
He was looking, I realized, for a writing partner, not a writer-for-hire. So I met him for coffee, understanding that I was being auditioned for a part. We got along well—chatted excitedly, talked about everything except writing. When it was time for me to leave, I felt elated. It was like the best date I ever had.
Over the next two months, we played out an entire 20-year relationship —from the honeymoon to the divorce—all without writing a word together. We talked on the phone. We wrote long emails. (None of this was romantic; each of us lived with our respective smoochies. But it was strangely intimate—an artistic love affair.) When he finally told me his idea for a show, I was a little surprised, maybe the teensiest bit disappointed. Because I have no poker face, my reaction—shrugging my shoulders and saying, “Errr, it’s okay, I guess”—was the beginning of the end.
He went on to find another writing partner, and I went back to writing alone. In that short time I learned that while it’s great to have a similar sensibility, there are many other ingredients that are just as important to a writing partnership.
A screenwriting partnership is a kind of marriage. It requires relationship skills and the screenwriter’s equivalent of a pre-nup to avoid a painful separation.
“It’s harder than marriage, because there’s no sex,” says Claudia Johnson, co-author of Script Partners: What Makes Film & TV Writing Teams Work. There are always horror stories—folks suing one another, friendships ended, bad blood boiling up. But the pros can far outweigh the cons. “The biggest advantage of working together is moral support,” says Matt Stevens, Johnson’s writing partner. “You have somebody by your side and somebody on your side,” Johnson adds.
“The great thing about collaboration is that you take out the hardest element of writing, which is isolation,” says Joe Stillman, who co-wrote both Shrek movies. Because, as Bill Lundy, former chairman of the Screenwriters Network, says, “everything that comes out of your head isn’t going to be gold,” a partner can bring much needed feedback and perspective.
The key to a successful partnership, say Johnson and Stevens, is to find the right writing partner, which is not as obvious a process as it may seem. “Look among people you know and know well,” Johnson advises. “It’s easier to work together when you’ve worked out the bugs of being together.” If you know someone socially, you already know a few important details: do they make you laugh? Do they laugh at your jokes? Can you recover gracefully from a disagreement? Siblings and spouses make good writing teams because they’ve already established a pattern of interaction.
“We had to share food from day one when it came down the pipe, so we’re pretty good at sharing,” says Mark Polish, who co-wrote and directed several films with his identical twin brother Michael. The duo are now also co-authors of a new how-to book, The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking. “We kind of toss things back and forth—it’s almost like a tennis game.” (Not sharing properly might look something like that memorable scene in the Polish brothers’ Twin Falls Idaho (1999), in which conjoined twins attempt to wrestle one another.)
After establishing sensibility and compatibility, there is what Johnson and Stevens call the essential commandment of a screenwriting partnership: “Friendship first.” This means valuing the relationship above money and occasionally backing down when a conflict is wreaking havoc. In Script Partners, Johnson and Stevens reveal their own guidelines: “defer to whomever is more passionate.” One team they interviewed said they’d transferred all their marital rules over to the writing partnership, including, “Never leave the office angry.”
“It’s not about turf,” says Richard Walter, professor of screenwriting at UCLA’s School of Film, Television and Digital Media. “It’s not about territory. It’s about making the best movie you can make.” He adds, “It’s not about being generous, either. You want it to be the best movie for your own sake. The point is not to have no ego, but to get into the collective ego that is represented by the movie.”
But surrendering to the collective ego is no easy task. As Stillman says, “It’s like shiatsu massage: You either give in to it or you scream in pain.” You also have to resist the urge to keep score, tallying up who’s responsible for which great lines or plot twists. “Once it’s in the script, it belongs to the team,” says Stevens. “Keep financial tabs; don’t keep creative tabs.” Even if it’s your brilliant idea, Stevens says, “You probably wouldn’t have thought of it if it weren’t for your partner.”
Every member of a screenwriting team will say that mutual respect is the foundation of all healthy partnerships. “You have to compliment each other and complement each other,” says Johnson. This means that in addition to heaping your partner with praise, you have to make sure you have compatible writing habits. “There’s nothing worse than trying to work with someone whose habits are so out of sync with yours,” says Lundy.
It’s also good to choose someone who has strengths where you have weaknesses and vice versa. The Duplass brothers, whose film The Puffy Chair was a hit at Sundance this year, say they’ve had almost no disagreements, and that’s because they balance one another out. “I like to barrel forward. I’m sort of a charging bull,” says Mark. While Jay says, “I’m the dude who puts on the brakes.”
The way partners work depends not only on the partners themselves, but on the project. Occasionally partners share a space, though rarely the same room. Married screenwriting teams sometimes have offices in the same house. With the Duplass brothers and the Polish brothers, often one person will tackle the first draft, and the other will give notes or revise. Sometimes, after the story is outlined, scenes are divvied up and pasted together later. “If we don’t conceive of the idea together, or we’re not hot on the same thing at the same time, it’s a matter of including each other and getting the other up to speed,” says Jay.
One way to maintain partnership bliss is to put your agreement down on paper. “You can say you’re friends and you can say nothing will ever come between us, but the minute money gets involved, people change,” says Lundy. The Writers Guild of America offers a standard screenwriting collaboration agreement so that you and your partner can be on the same page from the get-go. Ask yourself: Are you partners? Or is one person just giving notes on the other’s project? Is one responsible for the story and the other for the screenplay? Your writing relationship needs to be honed, demystified, and put down on paper. This also ensures that the script will be an original one. “Every scriptwriter has some yahoo who says he stole [his or her] idea,” says Lundy. “Robert McKee takes credit for every film made in Hollywood, just because they took his class.”
Collaboration can also be facilitated by software. One program called Final Draft has a CollaboWriter feature, whereby writers in different locations can instant message notes back and forth while working on the same document. And Movie Magic Screenwriter, perhaps the most popular screenwriting software, has a similar internet collaboration (iPartner) feature, which connects disparate computers via internet, turning the machines into virtual phones. “This pretty much takes out the distance between [partners],” says Chris Huntley, vice president of Write Brothers, which produces the software.
Animation features like Shrek are perhaps the most collaborative projects—storyboard artists often rewrite passages or sketch out plotlines, becoming de facto screenwriters. But this, like a more traditional partnership, can balance strengths and weaknesses. “Storyboard artists are great at finishing moments and finding tidbits to define character and beginning to unfold plot,” says Stillman. “You still need somebody who takes in the big picture and can not only track to story, but can bring further background to the characters.”
For screenwriting partners in Hollywood, partnership is not just an emotional and temporal investment, it’s a vocational commitment. In the studio system, once you start selling screenplays as a team, you are known that way and even paid that way. “Studios like it because they get two brains for the price of one,” says Lundy. “You’re considered to be one writer,” says Stillman. “If the writers split up, it’s going to be much, much harder to get work.”
Studio collaborations in general can be quite different from partnerships formed in the independent world. Writers often work in teams-for-hire rather than forming their own team, and very often other folks will poke their noses into your creations; it’s less about personal vision than group vision.
“I compare it to restaurants,” says Polish, who has worked as a writer-for-hire on studio scripts in addition to his collaborations with his brother. “You’re trying to feed a lot of people, trying to find the taste of a lot of people. Independent film is more like a specific cuisine: You can appeal to particular tastes.”
Although some claim collaboration is less common in the independent world, where the auteur mentality reigns, there are certainly examples of great indie teams: Sideways’ (2004) Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the Polish brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen (The Big Lebowski, 1998; Fargo, 1996). Many of these teams try to stay together after a box office success. For the Duplass brothers, who are on the verge of hitting the big time, protecting their collaboration is top priority. “We’re really into creating a Duplass brothers stamp on our style,” says Mark. “Everything is discussed between the two of us. Everything is conceived and visualized by both of us. We’re interested in staying together.”
The Duplass partnership is enviable. In fact, the more I talked to all of these great teams, the more I longed for a scriptwriting partner. I’m even tempted to take out an ad myself (anyone?) or try to ingratiate myself to the television fellow (he is now a close friend even though he doesn’t want me scribbling on his pilot script). As Polish points out, “Collaboration will always take you to a higher level than what your singular vision would be.”