Finding the Right Writing Partner

by Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens

Some of the greatest movies and TV series have been written by script partners, from Billy Wilder’s legendary collaborations with Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond to the Academy Award-winning work of the Coen Brothers. Each year the list of script partners and their successes grows longer. Why? Because collaborative scriptwriting is one of the most productive and successful ways to write.

If you find the right writing partner.

Okay, you may be thinking, but how do I do that?

It’s a question many writers have asked us since we started our collaboration, and a question we’ve asked many collaborative writers. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, there are some strategies that can help, whether you’re looking for a partner to co-write a project or someone to share a writing career.

Partners May be Closer than you Think

Collaboration is such an intimate creative relationship, it’s best to begin looking for a prospective partner among the people you know. You have a greater chance of working successfully together if you’ve worked out the bugs of being together.

“We knew each other so well, and that’s crucial,” Andrew Reich says of his collaboration with Ted Cohen, head writers/executive producers of Friends.

So it’s no surprise that most of the teams that we talked to evolved out of close personal relationships – friends or family or lovers.

Like Reich & Cohen, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood; The People vs. Larry Flynt) and Matt Manfredi & Phil Hay (crazy/beautiful) met in college and were best friends before they began writing together.

Fay & Michael Kanin (Teacher’s Pet; The Opposite Sex), Nicholas Kazan & Robin Swicord (Matilda), and Lee & Janet Scott Batchler (Batman Forever) chose each other as spouses before they chose each other as writing partners.

Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau (Adventures of Felix; Jeanne and the Perfect Guy) fell in love before they fell into their collaboration. “It was for us, first and foremost, a relationship as lovers,” they explain.

Then there’s brotherly/sisterly love. That’s not to say other familial combinations aren’t possible (the father-son team of Sherwood & Lloyd Schwartz springs to mind), but the sibling collaboration is far more prevalent – the Ephron sisters, and the Wachowski, Farrelly, and Weitz brothers, to name just a few.

But what if you don’t have a partner-worthy friend/spouse/lover/sibling? If you can’t find a collaborator among the people you know, get to know more people. As the group of writers you know expands, so do your chances of finding the right writing partner.

If you’re in college, wake up and smell the collaborations! Enroll in film or screenwriting classes. Or join a drama or comedy group. If you’re not in college, nil desperandum. Take classes anyway. Attend writers’ conferences. Join writers’ organizations. Socialize.

Desperately Seeking Someone

If you still can’t find a collaborator among contacts and colleagues, consider this option:

Writer/director seeks scriptwriting partner. Goal: funny movies that are completely original and totally unlike Hollywood’s endless parade of remakes. Ideally your forte is solid character development. Please contact me. Are we a match? – Ad posted on the Internet

Hey, if you can find Mr./Ms. Right with an ad, why not the right writing partner? You can post notices – as many do – in any number of places on the Internet (see Chapter 2 of Script Partners for a list). You can also place ads in publications such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Backstage, Los Angeles Times, Screenwriter Magazine, and Hollywood Scriptwriter (and their online versions as well).

Whatever venue you choose – finding the perfect partner among people you know or among perfect strangers – it’s essential to find someone with the following qualities that we and the writers we’ve talked to consider crucial to a good partnership:

Similar Sensibilities

We have to be honest – we hated each other the first time we met on the faculty of the Florida State University Film School (a long story...). But as we worked together on students’ scripts, we discovered that we had similar sensibilities about what makes a good story.

And perhaps more important, we had the same sense of humor. We cracked up at each other’s jokes. Let’s face it – it’s hard to have contempt for someone who laughs at your jokes. Humor studies show that this is one of the most powerful ways to reverse a bad first impression (which is why Matt laughs a lot on first dates). Such is the power of humor in creating human connection. And good collaborations. In fact, the same sense of humor between you and your partner may predict, as nothing else can, a closeness and compatibility in your writing life.

And if you’re looking for a partner to co-write comedy, “Say something that you think is funny, and if the other person doesn’t laugh, run do not walk to the next candidate,” suggests Larry Gelbart (Caesar’s Hour; M*A*S*H). “The same rule applies to a pair of writers who want to do drama, action, whatever, except without the laughs. What do you like? Who do you like? Which movies? Which this? Which that?”

Complementary Strength

“I think collaborations are much more successful when people have different strengths,” say Peter Tolan (Analyze This; Analyze That). “The best collaborations are when you shore each other’s weaknesses up.”

It’s important to keep this in mind as you search for a partner.

“You’re looking for someone hopefully with complementary strengths,” Janet Batchler says, “but that means that you have to have an understanding of your own strengths.”

Or to quote the Oracle at Delphi, “Know thyself.”

“I think you have to be remarkably self-aware to say, ‘I can do that and that; I just can’t do that,’” Tolan says. And in a successful collaboration, partners play to their strengths. “They understand how it works, and they’re able to feed it and keep it running.”

Marshall Brickman & Woody Allen (Annie Hall; Manhattan) certainly understood their complementary strengths. “I tend to be somewhat more bound by logic than Woody Allen,” Brickman explains, “and I say that as a criticism of me rather than of him. His approach to a problem or material in general is more intuitive than mine. I like to kind of back into things logically; he seems to have a genius for making some kind of intuitive leap which defies logic but solves the problem.”

This complementarity gives each collaboration its unique richness and range of experience, knowledge, and talent to tap.

Plays Well With Others

Even the most compatible, peace-loving partners will argue occasionally as they co-create scripts. And that’s not a bad thing. Disagreement is an integral and invaluable part of the collaborative process.

It’s so crucial that Andrew Reich recommends looking for “someone you’ve had arguments with or you know you can settle things with without throwing tantrums. If you’re casual friends, how are you going to deal with each other in an argument?”

This may sound like a minor thing to consider when choosing a partner, but it’s intricate interpersonal stuff that comes from knowing your partner. Your relationship. And yourself.

Peter Tolan can’t argue. He can’t even say, “No, that’s not good.” And he considers this his greatest weakness as a collaborator. “You’ve got to be able to say, ‘Here’s why this doesn’t work.’ And you’ve got to hope, too, that the other person is open to hearing that.” He doesn’t mind when people argue with him (he can take it, but he can’t dish it out); in fact, he admires writing partners like Harold Ramis who argue with grace and wit. “We had a very playful collaboration,” Tolan says.

A Writers You Respect (and vice versa)

Aretha was right. Respect matters most.

We ought to know. We went from zero to sixty 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,” Ted Elliott (Shrek; Pirates of the Caribbean) says on his Web site. “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. Request a writing sample and offer one of yours. If you don’t have respect for their writing (or vice versa), run don’t walk to the next candidate.

Just Duet

In the end, collaboration – like love, friendship, or film – is experiential. No one, not even close friends or spouses or family members, can know if writing together will work until they try it.

Like Andrew Reich & Ted Cohen when they brainstormed their first script.

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 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. The journey of collaboration begins with one script.

About the Authors

Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens are the co-authors of “Script Partners,” the marriage manual for collaborators. Claudia is also the author of “Stifled Laughter,” nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the inaugural P.E.N./Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, and the popular film school text, “Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect.” Other awards include the American National Theater and Academy West Award and the Warner Brothers Scriptwriting Award. Matt is a writer/producer who has sold both fiction and documentary projects. He currently writes film reviews for E! Online and contributes to other new media outlets. As a director, his short films have screened at national and international festivals and won numerous awards, including the Student Emmy for best comedy. Two of their co-written scripts were finalists for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

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