Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens explore the best ways to find the right writing partner—and the crucial qualities to look for in a prospective co-writer, the most important being respect.
Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens co-authored Script Partners: How to Succeed at Co-Writing for Film & TV. Their latest feature, Ruby, has been optioned by Invitation Entertainment. Follow them on Facebook. Full bio.
Aretha was right. Respect matters most.
We ought to know. We went from zero to 60 on the issue, from contempt to respect. And only when we hit respect, only then, could we write together.
“That’s the most important thing about a writing partner,” says Ted Elliott (Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean franchise with Terry Rossio) on Wordplayer.com. “Find a writer you respect, whose abilities you envy—and hope he or she feels the same about you. You should both feel like you’re getting the better part of the deal.”
We’ve emphasized the importance of knowing yourself and your prospective partners, but it’s equally important to know their work. If you don’t, read something they’ve written. If your prospective partners are strangers, request a writing sample and offer one of yours. If you don’t have respect for their writing, move on to the next candidate.
But if you do respect the work, even before you have a relationship, there’s a better chance a good one will develop.
Marshall Brickman & Woody Allen (Annie Hall; Manhattan; Manhattan Murder Mystery) didn’t know each other that well before their managers put them together, but Brickman told us he already had great respect for Allen’s work. The future partners met while Brickman was a member of a folk music group called the Tarriers. In 1963, the group headlined at the legendary Bitter End in Greenwich Village, and Woody Allen was the opening act.
“Woody went on for his 20 minutes to usually a confused reaction from the audience,” Brickman said. “They weren’t sure what to make of him.” But Brickman stood in the wings and marveled at Allen. “It was like discovering a great novelist or poet you never knew existed. Even at that early date his stuff was wildly brilliant, though as yet unfocused. He experimented with a variety of material in addition to the personal/psychoanalytic/relationship stuff.”
Brickman, of course, was no slouch himself. He too was damn funny, which was why their managers thought Brickman & Allen would make a good team.
“Don’t think of the other person as the one who types,” said Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H TV series; Tootsie). “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.”
In the end, collaboration—like love, friendship, or film—is experiential. No one, not even close friends or spouses or family members, can possibly know if writing together will work until they try it.
“I remember going for a walk at Zuma and talking about our Simpsons idea,” said Andrew Reich (Friends). “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, there was that moment of wow, this is so much better. 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. Because the journey of a collaboration begins with one script.