BALLS OF STEEL: Collaborating with Friends – The Walk of Shame

Collaborating with friends has always been a tightrope act. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman gives tips to help you not lose the friendship over the course of a project.

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the 10-hr limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, CS Expo Finalist, the Second Round of Sundance Episodic Lab, and as a PAGE Awards TV Drama Finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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Collaborating with friends has always been a tightrope act. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman gives tips to help you not lose the friendship over the course of a project.

“The only way to have friends is to be one.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

In less than a week, I’ve had four separate screenwriters ask me advice on collaborating with friends, each one’s horror story worst than the last.

Can friends work together and still love each other in the morning?

Since there’s nothing politically correct about me, I’m going to shoot straight from the hip on this one: While you may love your friend as you belly up to the bar, you probably won’t love her after collaborating together. In fact, you could seriously want to bash her head in with a baseball bat.

Before launching into any project, remember filmmaking and screenwriting are businesses, not kumbaya lovefests. Of course we’d all love to work with our best friends, but we also want leprechauns to bring us pots of gold while we sleep. Good luck with that.

Having experience in the relationship-disaster walk of shame, I have a few rules that now keep both my friendships and projects intact.

1. The project comes first.

When a conflict is on the table, always ask, “What is best for the project?” That one question will almost certainly kill the conflict, and make the choice clear. The goal isn’t to win the battles; it’s for the final product to be the best it can be.

2. There’s no room for an enormous ego in business.

Working together shouldn’t be a pissing contest. While creating art is fun, it’s a business first and foremost. Get over yourself or get a therapist. See rule #1.

3. You need to earn a place on the team.

Just because you’re friends doesn’t mean you are owed special consideration. Even if you’ve worked with this friend on a previous project, don’t assume you have a secured spot on his next one. You still may need to audition or be interviewed against other talent to get the gig. Don’t get pissy about it. Be professional and do what it takes to get the job the right way: by proving you deserve it.  See rule #1.

4. Start with an open marriage and an open mind.

Don’t cling to someone just because you started out together. You are not bound for life and don’t owe them your firstborn. Every project is different, and each project requires a different set of skills. I’ve had four writing partners for feature specs and am now working on three separate teams to develop new TV series ideas. Each one of those writers has other projects with other people that don’t include me, but if we’re in a pitch meeting and the question, “What else have you got?” comes up, we welcome the pitching of projects that don’t include us. We may get around, but we support each other. I learn something new from each partnership that has improved my skills. Being a writer slut has its benefits. See rule #1.

5. Be honest about your limitations.

Even if you owe a friend a favor, don’t commit to a project you aren’t jazzed about. You must have something of value to bring, and you can’t do that if you aren’t passionate about the work. Find a project that is a good fit for your own style and capabilities, even if it means working alone for a little while. See rule #1.

6. Clearly define expectations.

One of you may want to only focus on feature releases, while the other would be comfortable with TV or developing a project as an indie. Those are very different worlds and an entirely different business plan. Know what your ultimate goals are before you start the script. If you don’t, the project will suffer, especially in the marketing stage. See rule #1.

7. Under-promise and over-deliver.

If you signed on to write something and a friend is directing and editing it, do what you promised, and make it clear you expect her to deliver on her promises as well. If you not only consistently keep your word, but also hit it out of the park, you’ll always find people who want to work with you. Conversely, if you fail to deliver on your promises, your credibility will be in the toilet. Actions speak louder than words. At least they do in my world. See rule #1.

8. A real friend wouldn’t piss on your flame.

Jealousy is not attractive. It happens in business, but it happens more often when a friendship existed first. To watch someone rise and leave you behind isn’t fun. If you are the one on the rise, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for working hard and achieving. You have earned where you are. If you’re the one watching your friend surpass you, then get off your ass and work harder. Your success is entirely up to you. You should be celebrating your friend’s achievements, not pissing on her flame. See rule #1.

9. Know when to walk away before you’ve burned a bridge.

No matter how badly you want something to work, sometimes it just doesn’t. Cut your losses and bow out. My goal when working on a team is to make myself invaluable to the players. My presence must add value, not detract from the team’s efforts. If I can’t figure out how to up my game to the quality the project needs, I will be the first one to admit it and either ask for help or walk away in order to honor both the friendship and the project. I expect the friend to do the same. See rule #1.

10. You will lose friends. It’s inevitable.

Even if you try to do the right thing, you can’t control the way other people react. You also can’t own their poor judgment. Release it. That is their issue. All you can do is what is best for you and your future. So politely say goodbye to those who distract you from your goals with their selfishness or negativity and find a group of writers and filmmakers who offer support, love, and talent. Your light will shine brighter than you can ever imagine.

If there are still any questions, see rule #1.

Bottom-line: This is business, not a popularity contest. If we can build a community of friends while doing it, great! But if you choose the people who just want to ride your coattails, you’ll end up with a hot-mess of a product that serves no one, not even your so-called friends.

Don’t misinterpret my advice. I’m not advocating disloyalty or selfishness. On the contrary. I’m stating if you do have a friend who chooses you for a project, your job is to reward that trust by bringing your A game.

Never take the opportunity for granted and never ride on anyone’s talent but your own.

Every single member of a team should bring something unique to the table, something only that writer can bring. If the project isn’t better because you are on it, then maybe you shouldn’t have been on the team in the first place.

Above all, if a friend asks to be on your project and you politely say “no,” he should be supportive of your decision and want you to succeed in your career, because that is what is at stake here – your career. And if your career does takes off, you might have a future project that would be perfect for him. That’s where loyalty comes in. I never forget someone who has supported and helped me, and I will absolutely pay it forward when I find the right opportunity.

Think about it this way: If you just had a fun, engaging pitch meeting over drinks with a really cool studio executive who ultimately said “no” at the end of the meeting, my guess is you’d humbly say, “Thanks for considering me; maybe we can work on something else in the future.” Why should you treat your friends with any less respect?

Yes, I have lost friends.

Does it make me sad? Sure. Do I regret my actions? No, because I learned valuable lessons.

The choices I made were for the betterment of not only the projects in question, but also my overall career. I will probably lose more friends before I take my final breath in this world, but hopefully I won’t, if I choose the right ones to collaborate with in the first place.

Because that is the key – the choices we make. After all, who your friends are says a lot about who you are. I have some incredibly talented friends who I am honored to be working with and who could fire my ass in a New York minute. But that doesn’t scare me; it challenges me to stay on my toes and deliver my best. It is precisely because I respect them, I wouldn’t dare give them anything less than that.

I like to keep the bar high for myself, and I expect my friends to raise that bar even higher. There is no walk of shame in over-delivering. It only makes the team unbeatable.

Please share your stories or advice in the comments below. Any tips you have to help us all navigate the industry, while still having some friends left to attend our funerals, are appreciated!

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21 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: Collaborating with Friends – The Walk of Shame

  1. Captain

    I have learned A lot reading this and thank you all, but I got another sports analogy for you.
    You know a pitcher winds up and throws that ball. The catcher knows more about pitching than a Pitcher ever will, because he watches them and can spot their mistakes, so he throws it back with a few comments.
    The pitcher could never be a catcher, but he has a few comments on what would make them better. In the long run it is a team that does not blame one another for mistakes and points them out in a constructive way that excells.

  2. Everette

    I was apart of a writing team once. It did not work because one person just took over the task and wrote the script himself. Then, he brought it back for our, the other two members, comments. I backed off.

    In another project, I was given an idea to write a script. I wrote the script and client absolutely hated it. He wanted to story told just as it happened. Every boring every day detail had to be included. No matter how I attempted to impress upon him that only the exciting details are embellished for a story, he could not understand that. Finally, I told him that he had to write that script himself.

    He did. It is fourteen hundred pages.

    Sometimes when your value on a team is not appreciated, you simply have to move way.

  3. Nate

    Let the lovefest continue! Great insights, as usual. I collaborated with a peer on my first script straight out of film school due to our similar experience and chemistry (I mean we’d spent a couple intensive months together, right?).

    I knew immediately I’d made a terrible mistake, but my partner’s contributions inevitably tied him to the story and I stayed the course. I ended up writing the screenplay on my own and, honestly, his influence hindered the story and character.

    Sometimes a relationship isn’t worth saving and you need to check your pride and cut bait to save a project. I learned this the hard way.

  4. Captain

    Dear Jeanne,
    Thanks for your wisdom. In school I was an athelete. On the same football teams we competed against one another with all we had during the week, but we never lost sight of who we played friday night.
    I consider You and Anne friends. You both have said kind and supportive things to me. You both have been irritated with me. Hey, On friday night, we are going to be there because we get stronger for knocking each other around.
    On time in a class, I was mortified by Jeannes humor at the expense of a dead cat and voiced my opinion. It is so funny now and I’m going to use a wooden cat in my latest script.

  5. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Thanks, Geoffrey. I wasn’t only referring to writing partnerships. The collaboration advice also applies to any type of business with fellow artists, like gathering a team for your short film and having to choose actors, etc. Anything really. Glad you enjoyed it.

  6. Fey1IsleofSkye/Sidney Peck

    Everything you’ve said is — as usual — spot on. I have been blessed to have some amazing collaborations and a couple that were not so much. All have left me a better writer and a better friend. Like they say, hindsight is 20/20 and for me, what I took away from both the positive and negative experiences is that it is best to do some clarification up front. Like, what is the motivation to collaborate? What is expected by both parties. How are we going to handle issues that are encountered along the way? What collaborations were we involved with in the past that ended in a parting of ways and what did we learn from them? Collaboration IS a marriage, at the very least you’re living together, and it’s best to be up front from the beginning. Last word is CONTRACT. Foresight beats hindsight every time. Peace!

  7. Ingrid

    Get a contract. Because when they turn into Satan incarnate (mental imbalances come out eventually) and you tell them you can no longer work with them, and they threaten to sue you & break into your house, and remove your earned credits, you will realize trust is a lovely dream but it doesn’t belong in reality.

    Also, listen to your damn instincts. If you wouldn’t feel safe dropping acid with that person, that’s valid alarm bells you MUST NOT ignore.
    Take my charred and jaded self as an important cautionary tale.

  8. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Lisa, excellent point on using your freelance magazine writing experience to compliment your writing partnership. I too am used to editors asking for changes or directly changing my words in print articles. But it’s a valuable lesson for all writers to let go of their ego. I’ll do a future post at some point on the all freelance has to offer screenwriters… including a way to finally write off your writing expenses! I’m really glad you’ve found a mentor and partner who is helping you grow as a writer. Brava!

  9. Lisa Clemens

    My partnership is an interesting one in that my friend is a lot more experienced than I am and while we are very good friends and have been for a while, it’s really more of a mentor/apprentice partnership at times but there’s also a lot of give and take between us. He’s teaching me the ins and outs and I’m helping him with ideas and a woman’s POV. While we have similar tastes in films and a lot of the same likes/dislikes, I think the difference in our backgrounds (he was born and raised in Hong Kong) and experiences makes our brainstorming sessions really work. When we bounce ideas off each other we always manage to delight and surprise each other with ideas and “wow” moments. I guess so far there’s no ego issues because when I used to write for magazines I got used to writing for someone else and having parts of my work changed or dropped by he editors so if I start working on a script and my partner says, “You need to change this, they got a younger actor interested,” I have no problem with changing focus to another character or even starting from scratch. I never “fall in love” with my work. I can always use ideas in another script later!

  10. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Michael, great advice regarding a contract. I debated putting that tip on the list, but decided against it, as Doug and I didn’t have a contract for two years, and it didn’t harm our process. But that’s not true for everyone. Thanks for adding that perspective. See, this is why I love the comment section… it’s a continuation of the rewrite process, and a whole other way of collaborating!

    Penny, absolutely the same advice regarding novels. In fact, it can be applied to businesses as well! I know we use these rules on our Scriptchat team when Zac, Jamie, Kim, Mina and I are discussing our vision for the chat. The needs of the Scriptchat community always come before our own personal needs.

    Wookiesgirl, thanks so much for reading, retweeting, and for your support 🙂

  11. Michael Cassidy

    Just as “good fences make good neighbors,” a good contract AND a good goal/strategy statement will make for a great writing team.

    The contract is for the money and rights issues.

    But you’ll never get there if there’s no common vision for what the project will or should be. Take the time to lay out each person’s goals for the project and how you plan to get there (process).

    This won’t prevent every conflict, but it might identify where the stumbling blocks might come.

    Nicely done as always, JVB! Looking forward to next week.

  12. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Princess and Unk, my sincere thanks for the compliments and for adding your thoughts. I absolutely agree with both of you! Everyone has to bring something of value, or there’s no reason to let them in on the party. One of the things that surprised me about working on someone else’s project was how much I enjoyed being a part of bringing another person’s vision to life… and the challenge of achieving THEIR goals, not mine. When Doug called me after reading the first draft of Slavery by Another Name, he said, “You nailed exactly what I was hoping to achieve.” Bringing his vision to life was much more rewarding than I anticipated. But I couldn’t have done that if I had been a egotistical jerk during the process. 🙂

  13. Unknown ScreenwriterUnk

    I really like what you wrote here. I sincerely mean that. And if everyone can get in line with it all, OUTSTANDING! Unfortunately, egos being EGOS, collaborations are at best… Difficult.

    May I add one more possibility to the mix?

    What does the other party bring to the table? This one lone question has saved me from having to implement numerous head bashings. In other words, don’t just jump into ANY collaboration especially If the collaboration is based on your own idea.

    Seriously evaluate what the other part of the prospective team has to offer to the team. Is it humor? Is it an amazing work ethic? Is it bottles of tequila?

    Just make sure whatever they bring to the table is worth it before jumping into a collaboration.

    Great article as always you Sicilian head basher…


  14. Mike C.

    Just as “good fences make good neighbors,” a good contract and a goal/strategy statement will make for a good writing partnership.

    The contract is for the money and the rights issues. But a good outline your goals for the project and how you will both work to meet them is more essential.

  15. Princess Scribe

    Dead on, Missy.

    A writing partnership is a relationship, no doubt about it. However, it’s a relationship that may or may not benefit from monogamy. Taking a Friends with Bennies approach helps keep balance in the equation, equality of workload and limiting ego overgrowth which can bloom like yeast in a bakery. Great article, as always. Smooches.