Five important questions to ask before you start working with a screenwriting partner…

July 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

hemingwayScreenwriting is usually a solitary endeavor as we primarily sit alone at our keyboards, sometimes late at night, and peck away at our precious screenplays. It can get lonely because a writer must get away from the constant distractions of the day and escape alone into the world of characters on the page. Many times you’ll throw around ideas with a friend and end up saying, “That’s a great idea. Let’s write the script.” Your excitement may cloud your better judgement and cause you not to ask the serious questions before you both sit down and type FADE IN. You have to remember that it’s a creative and business relationship—both writers will sink or swim together. This is why you need a fully engaged partner on your team and not someone who half-asses their way through the experience.

If you’re thinking about working on a project with a screenwriting partner and never had one before, you have to ask yourself some important questions first.

1.  Do you both share the same work ethic and seriousness about the craft?

This is vital to the success of your screenplay and your collaboration. You might find that your “writing partner” allows everything else in his or her life to get in the way of your writing time. If both writers are not “on the same page,” it’s going to be a bumpy ride and you’ll waste your time. It’s not fun and games. Time is precious and there are plenty of screenwriters out there who are serious and can the job done.

2.  Is this partnership for one project or are you becoming a writing team? 

You should have a talk about your situation before you begin. You could work on one screenplay to see how you like or dislike the experience and later decide to go off on your own. Either way, always know each other’s intentions before you start on the journey together.

3.  Do you both have the same creative sensibilities?

This is vital to a successful collaboration. If you’re writing a thriller and your writing partner doesn’t know anything about the genre, why are you working together? It’s a team, but you work together as one voice. When agents, mangers, executives, and producers start reading your work, you will have one voice—the team. If you’re doing all of the work, why are you writing with a partner? Each person will have strengths and weaknesses and you both should compliment each other with regards to this.

4.  What happens if your project sells? Is your partner willing to collaborate with producers to make changes and execute notes? 

You don’t want to finally make it into “the room” and learn that your writing partner is difficult and combative with producers when they want to make changes. This will lose you the job faster than anything else.

5.  If you decide to become writing partners on all of your projects, what happens if you don’t sell anything right away? How much time will your partner give to “make it?

This is important because you don’t want to find out that after three screenplays, dozens of meetings, and no writing jobs offered, your partner decides to quit and leaves you dangling alone. The screenplays that you wrote together will become useless for you to show as an example of your talent because producers, agents, or managers will not be able to read your particular “voice” not knowing who contributed what in the script. Now going forward alone, you’ll have to start over and establish yourself as a solo screenwriter. It’s definitely a major blow to your forward movement.

Remember… this is serious. It’s not just fun and games. You must stick to a writing schedule and share everything fifty-fifty—especially the work.

If you decide to become a writing team, you both must also share a bigger vision about where you both see yourselves as business partners.  It’s also a business relationship and you both must agree on every decision because it now affects both of your careers and your finances. You’ll both either swim or sink together and during the rough times, you’ll need a partner who will do everything he or she can to save you and back you up as you would do the same.

My overall experience with having a screenwriting partner was very positive, but I’ve heard stories where friendships have ended because egos and the business got in the way.  I’ve had a handful of writing partners over the years and together we worked on spec TV pilots and features, but my last and longest writing partner worked with me for nearly eight years. We met working together as waiters in a restaurant — he was an actor with credits and I was a screenwriter who graduated film school and a few feature specs under my belt.  We shared the same comedic sensibilities, work ethic, and were both extremely serious about pursuing a career as screenwriters.  We were blessed to have crossed paths when we did.

When he asked me to join a brand new sketch comedy troupe, I jumped at the opportunity and it gave me the chance to also become a live performer.  It was our invaluable experiences together writing, performing, and producing the live show and subsequent pilot that helped to solidify our writing and business partnership. We also became closer friends as a result.

After our live show ran for many years, we co-wrote and co-produced an independently financed feature film that starred an Academy Award acting nominee and that experience brought our working relationship to an entirely new level.  After that successful experience, we both decided that we wanted to focus on writing feature screenplays. We landed a literary manager who then found us an agent at a mid-level agency and we were off to the races. During this period, I also sold a spec script of my own that went into production the following year.  But now they sold us to Hollywood as a “writing team” and our handlers constantly sent out our specs and set up dozens of pitch meetings.

As a writing team, we laid the foundation for producers to get to know our work and consider us for writing assignments or rewrites. Our scripts were always “high concept comedies” that were heartfelt and uplifting. This was perfect as the producers we were meeting made those types of movies and wanted to read our scripts. Many times, these producers brought our scripts to the studio level for consideration and we always felt with every positive step forward we moved closer to our big breaks. It always seemed like just one script away.

We knew each other so well that it was like having my other half with me in the pitch meetings. And trust me, I’ve pitched alone and when it goes badly, it’s nice to have your writing partner there to back you up and vice versa. We were mature enough to know our weaknesses and both allowed each other to use our creative strengths to help the overall project. We took all ego out of the creative relationship.

As a team, it felt like family and we were like brothers looking out for each other as family. We always seemed on the same page with regards to the bigger picture. He always had some vivid wild dream and would come to me and pitch it, we’d work it out, and it would become our next project. I’d instantly see it in my mind and we’d structure the story, pitch it to our manager, and then write it. We’d usually complete a spec in a month and take notes from our handlers and quickly execute those notes. They liked that we worked fast and were so productive with multiple solid projects they could inject into the marketplace.

sullivans-travels-052After our live sketch show ended, as a writing team we co-wrote and co-produced a feature film, completed seven feature scripts, took dozens of pitch meetings, and co-wrote and did voices for a Showtime pilot. We had a good run. He eventually decided to start a family, leave the film business, and open three very successful restaurants. I soldiered on alone.

For me personally, I’m so thankful to have had a writing partner during those creative years and I know we had more output together than if I had worked alone. Remember that when managers and agents send you out, you will be a writing team and from then on it will be difficult for you to work on your own as well. If you become successful and hook a writing job together, they will want the writing team and no just you alone. At the time, I recall my manager not really wanting to push my solo projects, as I was part of a writing team now and that was her focus.

If your writing partner is a friend and your business relationship goes sour, you could lose your friend and the project in the process. What if your partner decides to go another direction and quit the writing team because you aren’t selling anything? What if your partner hates to execute notes and doesn’t get along with producers?  Be sure about the person you decide to include in your own career path. Also remember that any money you make will be split between you as well. That big $100,000 script sale really means $50,000 each minus agent, manager, lawyer, and taxes. It’s half the work, but also half the money.

A writing partner needs to be the right fit for the long haul because the team’s every success and failure will affect both of your careers. Like any relationship, it’s a give and take, so you have to seriously weigh the pros and cons of having a writing partner or choosing to go it alone. Choose wisely my friends.

Here’s a classic example of writing partners not working out from ‘Billy Wilder: The Art of Screenwriting No. 1’. Interviewed by James Linville in The Paris Review, 1996.

INTERVIEWER
I understand your collaboration with Raymond Chandler was more difficult?

BILLY WILDER
Yes. Chandler had never been inside a studio. He was writing for one of the hard-boiled serial magazines, The Black Mask—the original pulp fiction—and he’d been stringing tennis rackets to make ends meet. Just before then, James M. Cain had written The Postman Always Rings Twice, and then a similar story, Double Indemnity, which was serialized in three or four installments in the late Liberty magazine.

Paramount bought Double Indemnity, and I was eager to work with Cain, but he was tied up working on a picture at Fox called Western Union. A producer-friend brought me some Chandler stories from The Black Mask. You could see the man had a wonderful eye. I remember two lines from those stories especially: ‘Nothing is emptier than an empty swimming pool.’ The other is when Marlowe goes to Pasadena in the middle of the summer and drops in on a very old man who is sitting in a greenhouse covered in three blankets. He says, ‘Out of his ears grew hair long enough to catch a moth.’ A great eye . . . but then you don’t know if that will work in pictures because the details in writing have to be photographable.

I said to Joe Sistrom, “Let’s give him a try.” Chandler came into the studio, and we gave him the Cain story Double Indemnity to read. He came back the next day:  “I read that story. It’s absolute shit!” He hated Cain because of Cain’s big success with The Postman Always Rings Twice.

He said, “Well, I’ll do it anyway. Give me a screenplay so I can familiarize myself with the format. This is Friday. Do you want it a week from Monday?”

Holy shit, we said. We usually took five to six months on a script.

“Don’t worry,” he said. He had no idea that I was not only the director but was supposed to write it with him.

                                            Double Indemnity (Directed by Billy Wilder)

He came back in ten days with eighty pages of absolute bullshit. He had some good phrases of dialogue, but they must have given him a script written by someone who wanted to be a director. He’d put in directions for fade-ins, dissolves, all kinds of camera moves to show he’d grasped the technique.

I sat him down and explained we’d have to work together. We always met at nine o’clock, and would quit at about four-thirty. I had to explain a lot to him as we went along, but he was very helpful to me. What we were doing together had real electricity. He was a very, very good writer—but not of scripts.
One morning, I’m sitting there in the office, ten o’clock and no Chandler. Eleven o’clock. At eleven-thirty, I called Joe Sistrom, the producer of Double Indemnity, and asked, “What happened to Chandler?”

“I was going to call you. I just got a letter from him in which he resigns.”

Apparently he had resigned because, while we were sitting in the office with the sun shining through, I had asked him to close the curtains and I had not said please. He accused me of having as many as three martinis at lunch. Furthermore, he wrote that he found it very disconcerting that “Mr. Wilder gets two, three, sometimes even four calls from obviously young girls.”

Naturally. I would take a phone call, three or four minutes, to say, Let’s meet at that restaurant there, or, Let’s go for a drink here. He was about twenty years older than I was, and his wife was older than him, elderly. And I was on the phone with girls! Sex was rampant then, but I was just looking out for myself. Later, in a biography he said all sorts of nasty things about me—that I was a Nazi, that I was uncooperative and rude, and God knows what. Maybe the antagonism even helped. He was a peculiar guy, but I was very glad to have worked with him.

film stockScriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 written by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.

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“Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye. Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

“Writing is very hard work, and having done both writing and directing, I can tell you that directing is a pleasure and writing is a drag… but writing is just an empty page—you start with absolutely nothing. I think writers are vastly underrated and underpaid. It’s totally impossible, thought, for a mediocre director to completely screw up a great script.”— director Billy Wilder

You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.”—Ernest Hemingway

“Most directors do not want to rewrite the script. They have more pressing commitments on the sound stage. The writer’s best insurance against a rewrite is to have an understanding of the directorial problems. Write a scene that can’t be played, no matter how beautiful the words or thoughts, is begging for a revamp.”—Jerry Lewis

“Life in the movie business is like the beginning of a new love affair. It’s full of surprises and you’re constantly getting fucked.”—David Mamet

“The time we have alone; the time we have in walking; the time we have in riding a bicycle; are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.”—Ray Bradbury

PILE OF SCRIPTS

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