Claudia Johnson and Matt Stevens co-authored Script Partners: How to Succeed at Co-Writing for Film & TV. Their feature Ruby has been optioned by Invitation Entertainment, and they recently finished the screen adaptation of their published novella, A Christmas Belle, a sequel to A Christmas Carol. Matt also works as a Senior Copywriter and Digital Content Specialist in L.A. Author of the widely adopted Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, Claudia taught at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Follow them on Facebook.
We could write a book (and we did!) about all the advantages of writing with a partner, from better brainstorming and stronger scripts to the all-important moral support. Collaborative writing truly can double your chance for success. But like any good relationship, a writing partnership requires care and feeding so it’s healthy, productive, and successful.
To quote Woody Allen (“My Speech to the Graduates”), “It is clear the future holds great opportunities. It also holds pitfalls. The trick will be to avoid the pitfalls, seize the opportunities, and get home by six o’clock.”
In order to avoid pitfalls, you need to know what and where they are. So after interviewing 36 successful Hollywood script partners, we’ve compiled the consensus top ten ways to destroy your creative relationship.
TOP TEN WAYS TO SCREW IT UP
1. Allow your ego to get in the way.
2. Don’t respect your partner.
3. Keep score. (“I wrote that.” “No, I wrote that.”)
4. Take it personally.
5. Be dishonest or distrust your partner.
6. Refuse to compromise.
7. Don’t keep it fair (whatever “fair” means to you and your partner).
8. Harbor resentments.
9. Be an asshole.
10. Forget that the relationship comes first.
All of these will undermine your relationship, and the relationship has to come first.
“It’s really a marriage,” said Hal Kanter (Move Over, Darling; All in the Family). “And you’d better make sure you’ve got the right woman or the right man, depending on whether you’re a woman or a man—but not necessarily today!”
Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H TV series; Tootsie) waved the marriage metaphor away. “It’s tougher than marriage because there’s no sex! [Laughter] There’s no way to kiss and make up.”
Unless you and your partner are married or otherwise romantically involved.
Still, Gelbart agreed in spirit with Kanter. “You really have to love the other guy/girl. You really have to.”
Because you’re going to be spending a lot of time together. Especially if you’re “nine-to-fivers”—working all day together in the same space—like Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood; The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story).
SCOTT: What we do is like being locked in a prison cell with one person. You can just see that one person every day of your life, and you don’t see anybody else. It’s a very strange formalized relationship. There are probably very few analogies to it except prison.
LARRY: [Sarcastic] The glamour of movies. We’ll just say it once in a while—“Isn’t making movies great?” Ha! We’re usually locked in some anonymous office building, looking at each other, having to deliver pages at the end of the day. That’s what making movies is.
SCOTT: But it seems to work.
LARRY: Yeah. We like the material. We’re very proud of what we do. And strangely enough, we’re still friends.
SCOTT: I mean, I see you more than I see my wife.
SCOTT: You just do the math.
And a writing partnership is harder than marriage because it’s really two relationships—a personal one and a professional one. If the personal relationship isn’t working, chances are you and your partner won’t be either. Conversely, if the professional relationship isn’t working, the personal relationship will be negatively affected as well.
Andrew Reich & Ted Cohen, head writers and executive producers of Friends, were right to be concerned when they started writing together.
ANDREW: Our worries were not, Is this going to get us a job? It was, We’re friends, and now we’re working together—are we gonna be able to make that work? You disagree with each other more than you would if you’re just hanging out. How do you get past those moments, and how do you really listen to and respect the other person?
TED: Strangely, you’re the only friend that I have left. [Laughter]
Their initial concerns were assuaged because they were able to make it work. And you can too, with the help of the following strategies:
TOP TEN WAYS TO MAKE IT WORK
1. Check your ego at the door.
If your creative relationship is going to last, each of you has to find a way to set your ego aside.
“Ego is the great destroyer,” said Nick Kazan, who wrote Matilda with his wife, Robin Swicord.
“I think part of it in collaboration is getting rid of the ego,” said Jack Epps, Jr., who wrote Top Gun and Legal Eagles with Jim Cash. “Really taking the I out of it. With Jim it was always we—we were doing this, we were doing this. And once the I comes into it, that kills it.”
Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone (Life; Intolerable Cruelty) agreed.
ROBERT: You don’t have to surrender your ego to everybody on earth, but you do have to, to some degree, surrender your ego to that person.
MATTHEW: I hear a lot of people say, well, mostly I hear novelists say, “I could never work with somebody else. The purity of the voice.” Well, if you can subjugate your ego to the partnership, it is your voice. It’s your voice as a partnership.
The brotherly bond between identical twins Chad & Carey Hayes (The Conjuring; The Conjuring 2) usually trumps ego.
CHAD: We’re very fortunate—because we’re brothers and siblings and we love each other—that there’s just not a lot of ego involved in the process.
CAREY: Well, there’s zero on my side. [Laughter]
2. Respect your partner.
Aretha was right—respect is essential. And in writing partnerships, mutual respect is the key.
“Don’t think of the other person as the one who types,” Gelbart said. “Don’t think of the other person as the one who fills in what I don’t have. Just think of yourselves as one and give them the same respect you give yourself. And you can be that honest about their shortcomings too, since any writer jumps at the chance to downgrade himself or herself.”
Script partners who respect each other create a safe environment where their creativity can flourish. They also have more constructive and productive arguments (we’ll deal with dealing with disagreements in a moment).
Respect, like trust, may take time to develop. So if your collaboration is new, trust that your mutual respect should increase as you work together.
3. Keep each other’s best interests at heart.
Many partnerships like Reich & Cohen have grown out of close friendships, or in our case, a close friendship has developed (we hated each other the first time we met, but that’s another story). Though this doesn’t mean that you and your writing partner must be best buds.
“I have always thought of Woody Allen as a friend,” said Marshall Brickman, who wrote Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Manhattan Murder Mystery with Allen, “although I would not expect him to bring me chicken soup if I were in bed with a cold, nor, I assume, would he expect that of me. The relationship has always been cordial but not intimate. We do not discuss personal problems. But I feel he has my best interests at heart, as I have his.”
That’s the key. Cordial or close, you must have each other’s best interests at heart.
4. Don’t be competitive and don’t keep score.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we writers are competitive (“Are not!” “Are too!”). Granted, a healthy competitiveness can be a good thing. It can bring out the best in you and your partner.
The two of us often write better because we’re trying to impress—and amuse—one another. The same is true of Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (Shrek; Pirates of the Caribbean franchise).
“I want him to be jealous,” Elliott said at Wordplayer.com. “Just a little, but jealous all the same. And that prompts him to write a scene that impresses me, floors me, makes me jealous.”
But competitiveness can corrode your creative relationship if you start keeping score about your respective contributions to your scripts.
The truth is, the longer you work together and the more you meld your voice and aesthetic, the harder it is to know who wrote what.
When we asked Marshall Brickman about his and Woody Allen’s individual contributions to their co-written scripts, he said, “It’s not really possible to answer with any accuracy or insight. One person moves the conversation in a direction in which the other person can have an idea or think of a joke or plot twist that would not have been possible without the conversation. So who takes credit for what?”
Or as Matthew Stone said about working with Robert Ramsey, “I think that by the time the thing is finished, it’s so completely both of ours that I would be hard-pressed to remember who came up with a certain moment, a certain scene even. It just doesn’t matter because that’s not the point.”
5. Keep it fair.
Resentment caused by a sense of unfairness will corrode or even end the creative relationship. To prevent this, you and your partner will need to agree what “fair” means to you. Fair does not always have to mean equal, but however you decide to divide up the work, both of you need to feel fairly treated.
For example, we often take turns writing the first drafts of our screenplays. But Nick Kazan considers one partner writing the first draft of a script a risky approach. “Those partnerships are really fragile because one person is doing all the writing essentially,” he said. “The other person is certainly contributing but not doing the writing. So then it comes to divvying up the credit and the money, and you say, ‘Well, maybe you should just get story credit with me.’ ‘No, no, no, I’m used to getting screenplay credit’ and ‘That’s not fair’ and so forth.”
In other words, keeping score.
When all is written and done, you want to be able to say, as Renee Longstreet did after decades of writing with her husband, Harry (Fame TV series), “I feel we’ve kept it fair. Oh yeah, I’d say we have. And it’s been pretty damn fun.”
6. Don’t take it personally (keep it about the work).
Not taking it personally is easier said than done, especially when you consider that “everybody’s neurotic and writers are more neurotic than most,” Gelbart said.
Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor (Election; Sideways) “never take any criticism personally,” Taylor told us, but he conceded that the level of insult is greatly reduced if they argue about the work, not each other. “I’m happy to say that our collaboration is very amicable. I think we’re both good at keeping our disagreements focused on what’s best for the story.”
But even arguments focused on the work can get personal, according to Matt Manfredi & Phil Hay (crazy/beautiful; Clash of the Titans).
PHIL: Our arguments are about creative issues. They’re about, “I think this is a wrong choice for this character.” That kind of thing.
MATT: So it’s productive. You just consider it part of the process, and it doesn’t get personal.
PHIL: Yeah. Some of them— It gets personal.
MATT: It gets very personal. [Laughter]
PHIL: But a lot of them are creative, and a lot of them are just venting frustration and rage. It’s a very frustrating business.
We asked Alexander & Karaszewski how they’ve kept the peace, kept the friendship.
LARRY: What peace? What friendship? [Laughter] I don’t think either of us takes it personally anymore.
SCOTT: I’m here, ain’t I?
Writers can be headstrong mules, some of the world’s worst control freaks. We want things the way we want them. That’s one of the reasons we turned to writing—to create universes where we do have control. Still, to succeed as a collaborative pair, you must learn to let go. And compromise.
Compromise can be humbling, so some partners prefer to pretend that they’re not compromising. As Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau (Adventures of Felix; Côte d’Azur) told us in an email from France, “Jacques always starts out by grumbling and saying that he’ll never ever do what Olivier is asking, and then he does it, but in his own way.”
Compromise is also humanizing, as Andrew Reich said. “I was used to directing things and just forcing, and I think working with Ted has been a good process of learning how to work together.”
8. Find constructive ways to deal with disagreements.
Even in the most compatible, peace-loving partnerships, disagreements happen all the time. Take it from Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski.
SCOTT: All the time.
LARRY: Yeah. All the time.
Disagreements are not only inevitable—they’re a crucial part of the creative process. The challenge is to keep them constructive, or your collaboration could self-destruct.
But hey, writers are creative, right? So it’s not surprising that the script partners we interviewed have come up with wildly resourceful strategies for dealing with disagreements. Their strategies can be a source of inspiration for you and your partner, so check them out in full detail in Chapter 4 of Script Partners, 2nd edition.
9. Create rules to repair the relationship.
If it does get testy between you and your partner, and—in spite of your best intentions—you both say things you regret, you’ll need to find ways to repair the damage. This is especially important if you’re not lovers or spouses because “there’s no way to kiss and make up,” as Gelbart said.
So non-conjugal collaborations like Ramsey & Stone have followed relationship rules recommended for conjugal couples.
MATTHEW: 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, 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.
ROBERT: I’m probably not as good at marriage as I am at being a partner.
10. Maintain perspective (the relationship really does come first)
Last but not least, don’t lose perspective.
SCOTT: It’s just a screenplay.
LARRY: It’s just a screenplay.
Harry Longstreet agreed. “There’s an old joke: ‘We’re not curing cancer. It’s not brain surgery. It’s more important than that.’ But that’s bullshit. It’s not more important.”
It’s certainly not more important than your creative relationship. So do whatever works best for both “to feed it and keep it running,” as Peter Tolan (Analyze This and Analyze That with Harold Ramis) so beautifully put it, “to evolve with it as opposed to evolving apart.”
Get more tips on writing partnership in Claudia and Matt’s book
Script Partners: How to Succeed at Co-Writing for Film & TV