Writing with a partner is like being married, without the sex… unless you’re married to your writing partner. And then I’m guessing the sex is off the table when you reach an impasse anyways, so I stand by my original statement.
I usually write with a partner and the one question I always hear when sitting across from an Executive or a Producer is, “How do you write together?” Not an odd question. I’ve known writing teams that work in the same room on the same scene at the same time and I’ve known partners who live in different states and e-mail scenes back and forth. Charles Fleischer, the actor and voice of Roger Rabbit, once summed up my relationship with my first writing partner while we were sitting in an executive’s office at Disney pitching a story. He took one look at my partner and me and said, “Let me guess, you’re the Jew and he’s the goy. He types, and you tell him what to type.”
Yeah, something like that.
There’s a great dichotomy in writing with a partner. On the plus side there’s always someone there to bounce your ideas off of; someone who will tell you when your work needs just a little more refining. On the down side, there’s always someone criticizing every little thing you write. In my career I’ve written with four different partners. Each relationship was different except for one constant; that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you’ve read what the other person has written and really, really hate it. Depending on the type of relationship you have with your writing partner responses usually range from a polite discussion to a knockdown, drag-out, beat the hell out of each battle royale. I’ve run the gamut on that one. I’ve also sold projects with all four writing partners, proving that there’s really no right or wrong way, just whatever works for you.
With that in mind I asked writing partners Matthew Federman and Stephen Scaia how they work together as a team. Matt and Steve have written episodes of E-Ring, Jericho and the soon to be released Warehouse 13. Here’s that they had to say.
Jeffrey Berman: Collaboration is such an intimate creative relationship. How do the two of you work on the same script together? Do you write in the same room at the same time or do you assign scenes to each other and then hand the pages back and forth?
Matt Federman: We conceive the story and major beats together. Then "break" the outline into scenes. Once we have the specifics to go off and write we take different scenes (it's fairly organic, we tend to want to write different scenes) write them individually and then email the scenes back and forth, compiling them as we move through the script until both of us are happy with everything.
Stephen Scaia: It's funny, sometimes I think our writing experience is shaped by us both having grown up with older brothers. That means we work really hard to be as specific as possible in our outlines, allowing us to luxury of not being stuck in a room together for the actual writing process.
JB: What are the benefits of writing with a partner? Are there any downsides?
MF: Creatively, you can sometimes have a broader vision as a team than one would individually since you're having to please two people just to move forward with an idea. Also our first drafts are usually pretty solid because of our process which is essentially writing and rewriting simultaneously. Personally, writing can be very lonely but being a part of a team you have support. Also, left to my own devices I can get into a paralysis of wanting an idea to be perfect before getting started but Steve is always pushing to get started faster. As for downside, teams split a salary which is the reason many people will avoid it. But my response to that is: 1) It's still a great salary; and, 2) We seem to work more consistently because we are a "bargain" so it all works out.
SS: Another big bonus comes during meetings. We've heard many writer friends talk about how they sat for 20 minutes, sipping their complimentary water with nothing to talk about. But with two of us there, Matt and I can play off each other to loosen things up, and if the meeting is completely a bust at least we've entertained ourselves. Downside: all our good war stories are shared...so not only do we have to take turns with who gets to tell what story (unless it's how we met...we're BOTH tired of telling that one) neither of us lets the other embellish too much.
JB: Take me through one of your episode from Jericho. How did the two of you work on it from beginning of the script up to the last draft?
MF: We wrote four episodes of Jericho: Rogue River, Semper Fidelis, Condor and Sedition (with our boss Carol Barbee). Rogue River and Sedition had in common a placement on the schedule that meant we were coming off of a specific story and feeding into a specific end point. Semper Fildelis and Condor were slightly freer floating. The difference there is that for one type of episode, (i.e. Rogue River) you have on the white board something to build off of (in R.R. the words "Medicine Run") and in another you're constructing a story from scratch and selling the pitch to the room (the other writers/producers). Steve and I tend to prepare a lot, we come up with as much as we can together, even the basic structure, themes, etc of the episode, then pitch it. If the pitch is accepted we go write the outline, etc. The process is basically the same as described above except now we are not just making ourselves happy but the other writers/producers/actors/executives/etc. Story elements can even change based on locations and other production issues. So the
rewrite process goes all the way through shooting and editing. The constant for us is keeping in mind what first got us excited by the idea so in a long and highly collaborative process you never lose the story you first wanted to tell.
SS: All true. To add to that: we really like to pitch. A good pitch is a bit of theatre. Done right, your pitch makes people ooh, ahh, aww--and the most important part--send you off to write the script. Once you have a script, another great part is the "damage control" aspect of production...a favorite story we tell (telling it now will therefore means that next time, Matt gets to tell it) is of the first season finale of Jericho. We had a huge final scene featuring a Cobra attack helicopter. Now, most of the staff being 13 years old in the body of 30 year olds, we went to location to watch. We got there, only to find out that: a) The helicopter broke down in Barstow and wasn't going to show up; b) We had 20 minutes to re-write the entire scene (which, by the way, was helicopter dependent--and pivotal to the entire show). Loved that. It was just like Apollo 13...well, minus the saving three
men marooned in outer space.
JB: How do you resolve a situation where you both absolutely disagree with each other over a scene or a plot point?
MF: Remember the end of Rocky II when Rocky and Apollo hit the mat and Rocky gets up first? It used to be like that. We'd pummel each other until someone relented. That was bad. What we have learned over time is to start with questions like "What are you trying to get to?" Not to get caught on the specifics but to step back and look at the big picture. Generally we find agreement there. So now it becomes a question of "does this accomplish that?" What happens now pretty much 100% of the time is we either tweak something or find a third way that both of us agree is better than either of our options from before.
SS: I'd prefer to think of it more like Rocky III, as Mr. T was way more bad-ass than Carl Weathers...but I defer to the guy from Philly. See?! We've clearly grown a lot.
JB: Is it necessary for a good writing team to have similar sensibilities in order to create a good story or are writing partnerships more successful when people have different strengths and perspectives?
MF: I think it's helpful to think of it like any relationship. A certain overlap of values and vision is simply necessary. Otherwise you're not even talking the same language and you'll never find agreement. But if that overlap is total...if you are completely alike then you never learn or grow. Maybe that's okay for some people in a relationship but as a writing team that's death. Also, the lifeblood of story is conflict so the fact that Steve and I come at things from different angles frequently gives a scene an inherently dramatic conflict. So as with anything, it's a question of finding the right mixture.
SS: Again, agreed. We always know when we're on the right track creatively when we're both excited about the same thing for different reasons. Every great scene from TV and movies is a multi-tasker. By yourself it's very easy to fixate on one thing in script/scene/line of dialogue, the other guy keeps you thinking about how much more it could be.
JB: What advice can you offer a team to help them establish a successful career as writing partners?
MF: Assuming that talent and ambition are already a given, a team --as does a single writer--has a brand. But with a single writer the brand is organic to what one person writes. So the team needs to agree on their brand and establish themselves as, say, action/adventure/genre writers and stick with that at the beginning. The town needs to know what you are before you get to branch out over time. Otherwise I think the advice is the same as for everyone else....work hard, be smart, and keep writing.
SS: Also, move to Los Angeles. There's no better way to learn the business than to immerse yourself.