With the success of movies like Couples Retreat and Date Night, it seems there’s a new kind of romantic comedy in town — the one where the guy and the girl are already married. Brothers writing team, Jim and Brian Kehoe got comfy with this newfound niche when they came up with the concept for their latest script, You Complete Us. The romantic comedy is the story of a married couple who runs into problems when the couple they always hang out with decides to get a divorce. The story is about relationships, the dynamic of which, these two brothers know well. “We argue constantly,” says Jim, who’s four years older than Brian. “Because you have so many bad ideas,” says Brian. They continue to spar with a playful cadence throughout the interview. According to them, fighting is what makes it work. Sounds just like a good marriage – agree to disagree. Script sat down with the Kehoe brothers to discuss how they sold a spec in Hollywood’s sluggish market and why a writing team is a lot more like a marriage than one might think.
SCRIPT: How did you come up with the idea for You Complete Us?
BRIAN KEHOE: When I first moved here, we lived very close, about a quarter mile apart. We used to spend a lot more time together and our wives would spend a lot of time together. The four of us would go out. Then, Jim moved about 25 miles away. My wife and I stopped going out. I don’t really know a lot of people.
JIM KEHOE: We work with each other so much. It’s the way it is. Brian only had me.
BRIAN KEHOE: My wife actually tried to set me up with some guy who was dating a friend of hers at work. She literally said, “He really wants to meet you.” I told Jim about that and he said, “You’re dating other couples? Is he cute…?” We thought, now there’s an idea for a script.
SCRIPT: How did you develop the project?
JIM KEHOE: We didn’t talk to our managers (H2F) much about it. We briefly said, “Do you like this?” But there wasn’t a whole lot of development of the idea. We did it very quickly. From the seed of the idea to the sale, it was two and a half months. In fact, we had heard of a competing project, but because we’d been preempted so many times before, we got this out very quickly. We worked around the clock. We were half way through when we heard about the other project, of couples dating other couples. We generally don’t tell people our ideas. But we had a good friend who we told, and he said he knew of someone writing that same idea. It’s all about the race to the market. We worked seven days a week. We were not going to be preempted this time. We decided that we were going to knuckle down and really work like crazy. But it was worth it.
SCRIPT: How do you work together?
JIM KEHOE: We argue constantly. About everything. Lines of dialog. Character. Story. But really, the longest arguments we have are about what to work on next. If we get into a riff, then we generally deal with our managers Chris Fenton and Chris Cowles. And that’s the deciding vote. But, it’s not usually about character motivations that we have to go to Cowles. It’s usually about what we think is funny. I think something is funny, but Brian doesn’t think it’s funny. He thinks something else is funny. Usually, we’re on the same page with character motivations and what the character arcs are. Dialog is subjective, and it’s difficult. When we’re working our best, we’re laughing hysterically and my wife or his wife will come in and say, “What is wrong with you guys?” We’ll be in tears.
BRIAN KEHOE: When we come to a big issue, or a big point where we need to happen next, usually, that’s when we get together. Otherwise, we do most of our writing over the phone and on instant message.
JIM KEHOE: Because we’re brothers and we grew up together and we have a similar world view, a lot of the things we come up with, we agree on. We’re never afraid to float an idea, and we’ll fight to the death for it. Something fairly unique in our writing process is that when we have an idea that we really like, we don’t outline it all the way through. Instead, we write an act one. Then, once we have a good first draft of it, we do a quick outline of the second and third acts. The reason we do that is because outlining is boring and kills creativity for us. We are much more interested in writing the script than an outline. We get more excited about the material that way and we write much faster and get a better sense of the characters and story right out of the gate. We try to have laughs on every page. We’ve been told by a lot of people that we should write sit-coms. Even in dramatic scenes, we try to end on comedy. That is often difficult, but our goal in writing our comedies is for people to walk out of the theater laughing.
SCRIPT: How did you become screenwriters?
JIM KEHOE: I was an attorney practicing in Manhattan, and a friend of mine was taking a screenwriting elective at Harvard. I never thought of it as a career, but when she told me she sold her screenplay, I thought, “That’s amazing.” I thought “I always liked to write. I’m creative. I can be funny.” So, I started writing that day. I wrote a script by myself. It was a horror comedy like Scream. It was called The Student Body. I sent it to Brian and he thought it sucked.
BRIAN KEHOE: No, I thought it was pretty good. I was an environmental science major at the time. I worked in that field for a year after college. Once Jim told me, “I am going to start writing,” I said to myself, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I had had so many different bad jobs. I worked at a crematory, on fishing boat, delivered pizzas. I had the free time to write, so why not?
JIM KEHOE: The second one, we wrote together. It was called Taking Liberty. It was about three guys who steal the Liberty Bell. That was the first script we wrote together. I got a Syd Field book and followed the three act structure. We thought it would be fun. We wound up getting it to a guy at AMG in 2001. He read it and flipped. Loved it. This was right before 9/11. After that, the script was dead because people mistakenly thought that the script had terrorist overtones. I had moved to LA to pursue screenwriting. Our next project, after that was The Matchbreaker, which is about a guy who breaks up couples for money. His world is shaken when his girlfriend calls to have him break them up. We worked with Todd Garner on that and sold it to Lionsgate.
SCRIPT: What’s your advice to writers wanting to work in a team?
JIM KEHOE: (Laughing) While we love it, my real advice is, “Don’t do it. It’s not worth it!”
BRIAN KEHOE: He was an attorney. I used to get free pizza. It’s not the same if you leave a good job to be a screenwriter.
JIM KEHOE: If you have to do it, I would tell people to try to come up with ideas that are topical. Concept is king. If you have a great idea and you’re a terrible writer, you still might sell something and then be re-written. It’s sad to say, but it’s the case. There are a lot of scripts that sell that aren’t great scripts. It’s hard to deliver a high concept idea. The higher the concept, the harder it is to execute a good script. It’s really hard to pull off a script like Liar Liar, which is a great high concept that has a good character. But make no mistake about it, this is a brutally difficult business. You shouldn’t be going into it blindly.