Thursday, May 21, 2015

Development Hell 1 – The Purpose of a Screenplay

Today I present the first in an occasional series of posts about screenplay development. The series is titled “Development Hell,” which is the industry term for when a project gets stuck in development – an endless series of rewrites are commissioned from one screenwriter after another, and yet no movie is forthcoming. It can, indeed, feel like you’re being punished for your sins.

If you haven’t experienced development then chances are you haven’t worked in Hollywood. If you are just starting out, there may be a temptation to bury your head in the sand and ignore this aspect of the business. And no wonder – it’s so much nicer to think of the pure creative process of imagining your dream movie on the page. But that also suggests why you shouldn’t ignore the realities of development. And that brings me to today’s topic.

There’s an obvious truism about screenplays that most screenwriters seem to forget at one time or another:

A screenplay is not a finished product.

No, a movie is a finished product. A screenplay is simply a step in the process of creating a movie. A screenplay that does not get turned into a movie is a failure by definition. Sure, the writer may learn something by writing the screenplay. They may get an agent and/or meetings using it as a sample. They may even earn money optioning or selling it. But the ultimate goal of any screenplay is to be turned into a movie… or at least that really ought to be the goal.

As writers, it’s easy to forget that the screenplay is not the finished product. After all, it’s usually the final thing we produce. We must remember that we are creating a plan for the making of a movie. This has certain consequences for our writing, some obvious, some not. For example:
  • We must write in proper format. Much of the weirdness of screenplay format is designed to aid production. For example, the production manager uses the slug lines to schedule the shoot. They need to have each scene identified by slug line so that they know how many pages are to be shot in each location. They need to know whether it’s an interior or exterior scene, and whether it requires a night shoot or day shoot (which is why you should not use things like “afternoon” or “3 p.m.” in your slug lines).
  • We can only write what can be seen and heard. Prose can tell us what’s going on in a character’s head or what they smell or what something feels like, but a movie can’t. We should only write what can be communicated on film.
  • More subtly, some things work better on the page than on screen and vice versa. For example, every scene looks the same in a screenplay – black words on a white page. But in the theater, we usually want visually interesting settings. Good screenwriters think about how the scene will look, not just how it reads.
  • Similarly, your dialogue must actually be spoken by actors. Something may read well but be very difficult to say.
  • Your decisions carry production implications. Every 100 words cost the writer the same as every other 100 words. But for the producer, the content of those words has serious budgetary impact. “He makes a sandwich” is not equivalent to “He blows up a bridge.” And producers have to worry about legally clearing things like hit songs or brand logos that screenwriters blithely write into the screenplay.
A screenplay is often compared to a blueprint, and that is really an excellent analogy. Just like an architect’s job is to provide the plan for the construction of a building, the screenwriter’s job is to provide the plan for the construction of a movie.

This does not mean you tell everyone else how to do their jobs, though! The architect doesn’t tell the electrician what kind of wire to use or the decorator what color the drapes should be. Those professionals bring their own expertise to the project. Similarly, the screenwriter should not be telling the director how to stage the scene or the cinematographer what kind of shot to use. This is why actors hate parentheticals like:

I hate parentheticals.

They want to decide how to play the line!

Instead, the screenplay should capture the vision of the final film to allow the other creative artists to make good decisions. You don’t describe each character’s wardrobe in detail, you provide a clear vision of the character and environment so the talented costume designer can create a better wardrobe for that character than you could imagine.

Many screenwriters get annoyed when their script changes throughout the production and post-production process. But this is actually what’s supposed to happen! You want all the other artists to bring their valuable contributions to the final product. Film is a collaborative medium after all. In the best cases, the rest of the creative team makes your work better. All too often, however, the opposite happens. But the solution is not slavish devotion to the screenplay.

So to review, I’ve discussed two major purposes for a screenplay:

One, through proper formatting, provide the basic technical information for the planning of the production.

And two, carry the vision of the story so that the rest of the creative team can make good decisions.

There is one final important purpose of a screenplay: Give the studio, producers and financiers a clear idea of what the film can be so they can decide whether they want to make it or not (and movie stars can decide if they want to play a part, and directors can decide if they want to direct it, etc.)

This is really what we talk about when we talk about development. Development is the process by which the movie is repeatedly made and remade on paper (or pdf) until everyone agrees it should be made on film – or until they agree it should remain forever on the page, never to be seen by an audience!

If you think of it that way, development is a good thing. Even though it often feels like hell.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Some Thoughts About Tone

Tone is a tricky concept. It’s something we all sense, but when we try to define it, it can get slippery. Most screenwriters approach it on an instinctive level. But sometimes that can cause problems.

Imagine a movie that followed a gritty, violent scene with a sentimental comedic scene. It would be jarring and distancing to the audience. It might even strain suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, you don’t want to be two one-note. A relentlessly depressing or relentlessly cheerful film will become tedious and wear on the audience.

I think it’s best to stake out a tonal landscape where your story will live. This will put your audience in a specific mood, which will help you land certain elements of your story.

I divide tone into three axes: Comedic to Dramatic, Light to Dark, and Fantastic to Realistic. Each is a range. Your story will probably fall toward one end or the other of each. You can visualize them as a three dimensional graph.

(Note that it is hard to represent three dimensions with a two dimensional image. Imagine the dark/light axis extending out toward you and back away from you.)

Comedic to Dramatic

People often talk about comedy and drama as genres, but they are really more of a tonal continuum. At one end is broad, slapstick comedy. As we move toward the middle we have wittier, character based comedy. When we get onto the dramatic side of the range, we first have realistic drama and move out to melodrama on the end.

Light to Dark

This axis relates closely to the rating of your film. Is it more toward the gritty and disturbing end, or more light and fluffy? On the dark end we have graphic violence and sex, and disturbing themes. Adult popcorn movies are mostly somewhere in the middle. On the light end we have children’s films.

Fantastic to Realistic

Some films live in the real world, the world we’re familiar with. Others are in completely fantastic realms. Between these poles are films that mix some fantasy into the real world.

Let’s place some specific examples at each corner of our three dimensional graph (the size of the dot/text indicates whether it is closer (larger) or farther away (smaller) on the dark/light axis):

Not every film is going to be at these extremes. For example, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is not exactly realistic, but not as fantastic as Star Wars. So it might be in the middle on the realism range. And Imitation Game lands somewhere between Theory of Everything and Requiem for a Dream in the darkness scale, though like those films it is dramatic and realistic.

(In fact, even these movies probably aren’t at the very corners of the graph – Theory of Everything has some darkness in it and Sweet Home Alabama is probably not all the way to the left on the comedy scale.)

As you start considering where films fall on this graph, you might notice the most popular films are not evenly distributed. Movies that fall in the dark/comedic range (whether realistic or fantastic) tend to be niche cult films. I find hits tend to be light/comedic films (whether realistic or fantastic) or dramatic/fantasy films (whether light or dark).

MPAA ratings are not assigned based on tone, of course, but the things that get a movie a more restrictive rating tend to put a movie further on the darker end of the light/dark scale. This may explain why hits tend toward the lighter – a more open rating makes it easier to market a film and allows for a broader audience.

So how do you use this information as a screenwriter? First it might help you get a sense of how commercial an idea is. Place it on the graph and then try to identify movies that would fit in a similar area. Were they hits?

Second, it can help you identify scenes that might fall wildly outside your tonal range. If you are doing a light, realistic comedy, is a huge slapstick set piece appropriate? Is a rape scene appropriate? Note that tone can be pretty flexible (check out The Apartment for a light, realistic comedy with some very dark sections). But you must handle the transitions deftly.

Also be careful to set up the proper tone at the beginning of your screenplay. Once a certain tone is established for a story, it’s difficult to get the audience (or a reader in the case of a screenplay) to accept a significant shift in the tone.

Sometimes writers will put something into the early part of the screenplay specifically to establish where the tone might go. For example, the prologue with Trinity at the beginning of the Matrix establishes there are fantastical elements to a story that might otherwise seem realistic. The creepy scene where all the kitchen cabinets open in The Sixth Sense establish both a fantastical and a darker element in a movie that will otherwise take a while to get either fantastic or dark.

Where does your story fit on these axes? How far does it drift?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Two Software Tricks for Screenwriters

There is a lot of software out there targeting writers in general and screenwriters in particular. I, like most professional screenwriters, write my scripts in Final Draft. And I use Microsoft Word for treatments, outlines, and the like.

Otherwise, though, I’m pretty old school. I like to make notes on paper (often I recycle the backs of old script pages for this purpose) because I like to be able to draw arrows between things, circle things, highlight and so on. There is probably software that would let me mimic that process, but I also like the tactile feel of writing on paper.

Sometimes, though, one finds little software tricks that make life a lot easier. Here are a couple I’ve discovered that you might find helpful:

Tip #1 Create a hyperlinked “bible” for your project.

Many projects require research that can generate a lot of information to manage (what is that thing the scientists use to sequence DNA called again?). Or sometimes the story generates data – characters, locations, etc. – that you need to track (what were the names of the crew of the boat the hero chartered back in Act One?). Science fiction or fantasy projects can require a tremendous amount of record keeping (what was on the coat of arms of the prince of the neighboring country?). It can be a challenge to access the information quickly when you’re in the midst of writing a scene.

Television shows have “show bibles” with all of the information writers need to write an episode of that show. I often create similar “bibles” in Microsoft Word for my scripts. For example, for a novel I’m working on now, a thriller about cold-water divers in Antarctica, my bible has the following sections:

Story Outline
Character Information
Ship Information
Dive Research
Antarctica Research
Scientific Research

Here’s the tip: I’ve discovered creating a hypertext linked table of contents can make quickly navigating the document a lot easier.

I use Word for Mac 2008 (don’t make fun of me – it works just fine). This is how to do it in my version of Word – if you’re running different software you may have to poke around a little.

First create bookmarks on all your section headings. Highlight the heading and then click Insert -> Bookmark. Then in the window that pops up, name your bookmark and click “Add.” Your bookmark can’t have any spaces, but it doesn’t really matter… it just has to be something you can associate with that section.

Then, create a table of contents by typing out all your section headings. Highlight each heading in turn and click Insert -> Hyperlink. Choose “Document” as the source of the link, then next to the “Anchor” field hit “Locate” and you should get a list of bookmarks. Select which bookmark matches that entry. I also do a “Back to Top” link at the bottom of each section that sends me to the Table of Contents (which I bookmark as TOC).

Now, if I need to go to Dive Research, I simply click that link in the Table of Contents and Word take me right there.

Once you get the hang of this it can be really powerful. You can add links within your outline to specific pieces of research that apply to that scene, for example.

Tip #2: Using Final Draft’s Speech Function to proofread

It can be hard to catch your own typos and spelling errors. When you read the work, your brain tends to subconsciously convert mistakes into what you meant. Using spell check and grammar check can help – and is highly recommended – but those don’t catch everything. If you misspell a word as a different word, spell check won’t catch it. You can – and should – ask a smart friend to proofread, but they will probably still miss a lot.

Final Draft has a nifty function you might not know about. You can have it read your script to you -- out loud! Under Tools, you can use “Assign Voices” to assign each character and the action/description to one of a small selection of voices. Then under Tools select Speech Control and click play on the box it brings up. Voila, Final Draft is reading your script.

The computer voices are pretty limited and don’t know how to act. But, they also won’t correct your mistakes. Typos and spelling mistakes will jump out at you when you hear them pronounced. It’s a great way to make sure your script is in tiptop shape before sending it out. And it’s kind of fun.

Got any software tips of your own you’d like to share? Post in the comments!


Check out my novella Aftermath: Kodiak & Dawn, currently available as an ebook.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Become a Prince in Another Land

A couple years ago I attended a Writer’s Guild retreat where J. Michael Straczynski spoke. Mr. Straczynski is known for creating the television series Babylon 5, doing runs as writer on the comic books The Amazing Spider-man, Thor, and Superman, and writing the movie Changeling. And that is only a sampling of his television, comic book, and film writing!

A major topic of Mr. Stracynski’s talk was his “Prince from Another Land” concept. He believes writing in different media boosts his career, because people are more impressed by accomplishments in a different field, one they don’t know as well. So comic book people are impressed that he worked in television, movie people are impressed that he worked in comic books, and TV people are impressed that he worked in film. The prince from another land is more impressive than the local prince.

Mr. Stracynski may have been prescient in his career approach. The screenwriting business is changing fast. When I entered it, there were firm walls – screenwriters didn’t work in television and television writers didn’t work in film. You picked one and if you were lucky enough to be successful, you stayed there. But today, many screenwriters are moving to television, and several television writers I know have made movie deals – and both are finding jobs in videogame and comic book writing.

There are many reasons for the shift. One thing that has broken down the barrier between film and television is the improving quality of TV. When I started out, television was considered creatively inferior to movies. Writing for TV was supposedly beneath screenwriters, and television writers were thought to lack the skill to write movies. Now, of course, most people regard television, on average, as creatively superior to feature films… and the wall has come down.

But there’s a bigger change at work here – a technological paradigm shift. Not only has the snobbish judgment collapsed, the divide between what is television and what is film is blurring. And you can add “web series” to that blur.

In the past, we defined media largely by delivery system. Television came in over cable or through the air to your TV set. Movies played in movie theaters (and then on television and DVD, but that was considered secondary). Anything on the Internet was a web series, something you watched on a computer.

But now we’re moving to a world where television series and movies are being created by websites like Netflix and Amazon – and winning Emmys. Web series are streamed to your television while television shows are often viewed on a computer. Widespread day-and-date releasing of movies in theaters and on-demand at home seems inevitable. And the new buzzword in movies is “story worlds” – a fictional universe that can generate multiple movies (e.g. the Marvel, Harry Potter, and Star Wars story worlds), changing the perception of what a movie story is.

So today, the difference between “television” and “movies” is simply whether something is serialized or self-contained. For screenwriters, it means that we must become increasingly versatile to sustain a career.

And that can be harder than it sounds. Narrative works differently when it’s serialized vs. when it’s self-contained. That’s another reason film and TV writers didn’t cross over much in the old days – their skill sets were different. Movies are all about beginning-middle-end. Television is all middle. Story worlds are a new form entirely – a world that can generate multiple self-contained stories that are yet interconnected.

Let me get back to the “Prince from Another Land” idea. You may have noticed another shift in the film industry. Almost everything is based on something else – a comic book, novel, videogame, etc. There have always been a fair number of studio movies based on underlying material (historically novels and plays), but now it’s newsworthy when a studio actually greenlights an original screenplay.

Television isn’t immune to this trend. Many recent television shows are based on comic books (Daredevil, Flash, iZombie, Agents of Shield) or movies (About a Boy, Fargo, Parenthood, the upcoming Rush Hour).

This is posing a challenge for newcomers breaking into the business and for established writers trying to reinvent themselves. It used to be you would do both of those things by writing a spec script. Spec scripts got a lot of attention and showcased what a writer could do. But the spec market is waning in the era of “underlying material.” It’s actually a little unclear how the industry is going to find new writers in the future. Specs are certainly still part of the equation, but it looks more and more like if you want to write for movies and/or television, you ought to showcase your skills in another medium.

To that end, I just self-published an ebook novella based on one of my favorite spec screenplay that was never produced. It’s an action-adventure story called Aftermath: Kodiak and Dawn. The logline is: After America is devastated by a deadly plague, a world-weary trucker who’s lost his family searches for a runaway teenage girl in a wilderness controlled by a gang of vicious hijackers.

It was an interesting process turning a screenplay into a novella. I’ve written prose before, but converting a screenplay to prose really emphasized the differences in the mediums. Much like the difference between serialized and self-contained stories, there are differences in the way film and prose function. It was sometimes challenging to deal with those differences – but also a lot of fun to try something new.

If you’d like to read the ebook of Aftermath: Kodiak and Dawn, it’s available for a mere 99 cents at Smashwords, Barns and Noble and in the iTunes store (use the search function from iTunes) – with more outlets to come. Let me know what you think!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Action vs. Decision

(Spoilers: The Matrix)

Last week I read short treatments for feature film projects from my screenwriting students at Art Center College of Design. I discovered that I was giving a lot of feedback relating to the issue of action vs. decision, so I decided to address the topic in this week’s blog post.

The easiest way to illustrate the difference – and the potential pitfall it creates – between decision and action is in loglines. (I won’t use actual student loglines as that would violate their privacy). So, let’s say you have a logline like:

A lonely cop starts dating a criminal and must choose between his girlfriend and his job.


When an ambitious man from an impoverished family discovers his boss is embezzling from the investment company where they work, he must decide between alerting the SEC or blackmailing his boss.

Both of these might sound like viable movie premises – and they could in fact be turned into viable movies. But as they stand they are problematic because they both focus on decisions instead of actions. The trouble is, a decision is transitory – it takes only a moment. What will occupy the rest of the movie? Words like “choose” or “decide” should raise red flags in your log line.

It would be slightly better to say the character “wrestles with” their choice or decision. That could take time. But what will we see on screen? Will they be looking out the window in contemplation for an hour? Maybe they’ll make a pro and con list. Neither is visual or filmic.

In a logline, you need to indicate some kind of action that could plausibly fill at least an hour of the movie (the set-up will usually account for 20-30 minutes of screen time, and your ending – not typically part of the logline – will fill some additional time.) What would the above loglines look like if they focused on action? Let’s try the cop romance first:

A lonely cop falls in love with a criminal and must protect his girlfriend from his partner’s investigation.

Now we have a sense of what the main character will be doing through the movie – trying to secretly foil an investigation. It implies scenes and plot points and, most importantly, ongoing conflict. It’s an idea that can be developed. Now let’s try the embezzlement story:

When an ambitious man from an impoverished family discovers his boss is embezzling from the investment company where they work, he uses the information to gain power, but is threatened when the SEC investigates.

Now we understand what the action of the story will be. Our main character will be blackmailing his boss while avoiding the SEC investigators. To illustrate why this is important, let me show another way you could develop this idea:

An ambitious man from an impoverished family fights discrimination to work his way up to an executive job at an investment firm – only to discover his mentor is embezzling from the company.

The action in this version is focused on the main character fighting discrimination and working up through the company. The embezzlement is phrased to suggest it’s a twist that comes near the end. The action element in a logline usually tells us what act two will be about. In the first active version of this idea, act two will be about blackmailing, while in the second version it will be about rising through the ranks of the company. (You may think one sounds more dramatic than the other – all action is not created equal. That’s part of the point. Make sure the action of your logline suggests the most dramatic version of your idea.)

It’s not that decisions can’t be part of the logline, it’s that they should set up ongoing action. So you could rephrase the cop logline as:

When a lonely cop falls in love with a criminal, he chooses to hide her identity from his partner. But as the investigation continues, he must make greater and greater moral compromises to protect his girlfriend.

In this version we've added back in the internal struggle the cop is engaged in – his decision(s) – but we’ve used it to set up ongoing actions – protecting his girlfriend, making moral compromises.

Let’s move on from loglines now and consider the role of action and decisions in developing the full story. Decisions are great tools for writers because they reveal character. Often, we illustrate the character arc by showing the character making different decisions in similar situations. On a most basic level, consider all the romantic comedies that involve love triangles. In the beginning, the heroine may choose one guy (the wrong guy), while in the end she chooses another (the right guy), thus showing that she has learned something about love.

In a way, most stories could be said to consist of characters making decisions that lead them to taking action, which puts them in a situation to make a new decision, which will lead to more action. Your story needs both. Decision points change the direction of the story (often they correspond to act breaks). Action provides the material for the scenes that follow.

We can see this clearly in The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski):
  • Neo makes a decision not to listen to Morpheus’ instructions over the phone. As a result he is arrested and interrogated by the agents (action).
  • Later he chooses to take the red pill – a different decision than he made earlier. This leads to the action of his awakening in the real world, his training, and his visit to the Oracle.
  • After Morpheus is captured and the team narrowly escapes Cypher’s betrayal, Neo makes the decision to try to rescue Morpheus rather than pull the plug on him. This leads to the action of the rescue attempt.
  • And then Neo makes the decision to turn and face Smith despite all the advice he’s received to the contrary. This leads to the action of the final confrontation and Neo becoming “the One.”
Neo makes other decisions in the movie, of course, but you can see how these big choices lead to action that is the actual content of the movie.

You usually don’t want a decision or choice to end the conflict. Rather, it should introduce new conflict. So in a romantic comedy, just because the heroine chooses a different guy at the end of the movie, that choice shouldn’t immediately give her happily-ever-after. Typically she then has to win that guy over. She has to take action based on her decision. And that task should not be easy.

So decisions and action work together to create story. The most common problem in early story development is the writer identifies the decisions but not the action. Decisions can sound dramatic in a logline or short treatment, but if you don’t identify the action that follows, then you may discover nothing is really happening when you try to develop your concept into a screenplay.

EDITED TO ADD: Other dangerous words are "realizes," "learns," and "discovers." All are transitory - what action do they lead to?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Paul Guay on Writing Partners

Over the last two posts I've interviewed Matthew Federman and the writing team of Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer on writing partnerships. Today, I'm continuing that topic with an email interview with Paul Guay (Liar Liar, Heartbreakers, The Little Rascals).

Before I get to Paul, I noticed doing these interviews that the writers often brought up working with partners on pitches and in meetings. This points to one of the truths of being a professional screenwriter - it's about more than just writing screenplays. Something to think about if you're considering a partnership. And now with a few more things to think about, here's my interview with Paul Guay:

Q. You’ve worked with different writing partners...

A. Guilty.

Q. ...and also done some writing on your own. How did you find your writing partners, and how do you decide who you want to work with?

A. I’ve had about four and a half writing partners.

One and a half were friends from high school, one was an upperclassman whom I probably didn’t meet in high school but whose name I knew, one was a friend of two of my college friends, and one I met on the WGA picket line.

I knew all of them socially before we began writing together, except my fellow picketer.

The high-school friends were improvising comedy sketches into a tape recorder and had written a couple of comedy sketches when I joined them. I loved their writing, loved their performing, and joined because I wanted to write and perform with them. Later the three of us wrote a comedy-sketch screenplay together, and I partnered with one of them on three non-sketch screenplays and a teleplay.

The friend of two college friends approached me with the idea for a screenplay and suggested we write it together. I liked the idea and was interested in getting serious about screenwriting, so I agreed. The partnership eventually led to The Little Rascals, Liar, Liar and Heartbreakers.

The upperclassman mentioned an idea for a screenplay. I loved the idea, and one of us (I forget which) suggested we write the screenplay together.

While we were picketing, my fellow picketer mentioned a movie idea he had. I was so drawn to the idea that I began pitching bits and characters and scenes to him. I eventually proposed that we write the story together and, if that went well, the screenplay. He agreed.

Q. What process do you prefer? Do you sit in the same room or do you send material back and forth?

A. Most of the collaborative work has been done in the same room, which has its costs and benefits.

Q. What happens when you disagree with your writing partner? How do you make decisions?

A. I learned through experience that the answer(s) to this question, and to all other questions regarding a writing partnership, should be spelled out in advance in a written contract.

Subsequently, I have collaborated only when there is a contract in place.

Here’s a pertinent clause from a recent collaboration agreement:

“During the writing and any rewriting thereof, whether on spec or under contract, when there is a creative disagreement between Writer A and Writer B, they will explore good-faith ways of resolving the disagreement. Such methods may include:

(i) Reasoned argument;

(ii) Each party’s making a good-faith estimate of the importance he places on the issue, with the party giving the issue less weight conceding to the other;

(iii) Alternating concessions; and

(iv) Flipping a coin.

If these methods, or any others the parties attempt, do not satisfactorily resolve the issue, or if in Writer A’s opinion the issue is too important to subject to one of these methods, then Writer A’s decision will control, but only after giving due consideration to Writer B’s position.”

Q. What are the advantages of working with a partner?

A. You cut your taxes in half.

If you have the right working arrangement with the right partner (and keep in mind, that’s two big ifs):

Having a partner provides discipline; you will show up and put in the hours.

Having a partner makes brainstorming easier; two minds can spark each other better than one mind can spark itself.

Having a partner provides a sounding board to choose between and organize various ideas.

Having a partner with complementary strengths can make the screenplay better.

Having a partner puts someone in your corner, which can be helpful in meetings.

And having a partner means someone is sharing the responsibility, which can be helpful during moments of self-doubt and the dark night of the soul.

Q. What are the disadvantages?

A. You cut your taxes in half.

If you want to protect your solo voice (at least in the spec or first-draft phase), writing with a partner is probably not the best choice.

If you find you and your partner are not compatible, because of personality (you’re too different, or too similar) or any other reason, things can go south in spectacular ways.

Q. Any advice for a writer contemplating entering into a writing partnership?

A. Don’t... unless the benefits outweigh the costs.

In that case, do.

Discuss the nature and conditions of the partnership in advance, and put the conclusions of those discussions in a contract written or vetted by an attorney or two.

Then: write!

Answers (c) 2015 Paul Guay. All rights reserved.

* * *

Paul Guay’s movies have grossed over half a billion dollars. He conceived and co-wrote Liar, Liar, at the time of its release the sixth-highest-grossing comedy in history. The screenplay received an Honorable Mention (along with Fargo, Million Dollar Baby, The Full Monty and Catch Me If You Can) in Scr(i)pt magazine’s list of the Best Scripts of the Past 10 Years.

Paul co-wrote The Little Rascals, Universal's second-highest-grossing film of its year, and co-wrote Heartbreakers, starring Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Gene Hackman and Jason Lee, which opened #1 at the box office, and the rights to which he co-licensed to MGM for production as a stage musical.

Paul teaches screenwriting at Art Center College of Design and through The Film Connection and is a sought-after Script Consultant.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Matthew Federman on Writing Partnerships

Last week I interviewed Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer about how they work together as writing partners. But not every partnership works in the same way. Today, I’m interviewing Matthew Federman about his writing partnership with Stephen Scaia. They have written together on many television shows, including Human Target, Jericho, Warehouse 13, and Judging Amy. Recently they’ve been working in the feature film world. And, they have been writing the comic book Dead Squad, published by Darby Pop. Watch for the trade paperback coming soon.

Q: How did you meet? How long have you been working together?

A: We met as Script PAs on season 4 of The West Wing. (That’s right, before everyone had email and a printer, young whippersnappers were paid less than minimum wage and 33 cents a mile to deliver scripts and script pages all over LA at all times of the day and night.) Working closely together in a double-wide trailer for hours on end while we waited for those pages to come out, we got to know each other and found we had similar sensibilities. We decided to write a West Wing spec together. That spec went on to win the Austin Film Festival Drama spec category and launched our writing career. It’s been about 12 years, give or take—we’re not good at math.

Q: What’s your process? Do you sit in the same room or do you send material back and forth?

A: We break new ideas by walking around a lot and talking, which has greatly helped us reach our 10,000 steps a day. Once we have the general shape of a story and the characters, we go to a white board and break it down more specifically into scenes. For the rest of the process we don’t need to be in the same place—though we carpool to meetings and work out story problems in the car, so the brutal L.A. traffic is now a part of our process as well. After the whiteboard we start an outline that we pass back and forth and fill out and eventually that turns into a script. For the script, each of us takes different scenes, then pass them back and forth. In the early going things are slow as we work out character voices, etc. Usually there is a slowdown period around the midway point of the script as well, as we realize it’s running way too long or something isn’t working and we reassess.

Q: How do you make decisions – both creative and business? What happens when you disagree?

A: Our agreement from the start was that both our names are on the script so it needs to represent both of us, which means we can’t steamroll each other or just go rogue and do what we want with a scene. As our communication has gotten better (partially a function of us maturing) we don’t tend to fight about a lot of stuff. We can hear each other’s points of view and trust the process. So if one of us isn’t seeing something at the moment we might say, “Okay, you seem really passionate about it and I’m not seeing it so we’ll do it your way for now.” That always comes with a caveat that the point can be readdressed later. So we rarely get bogged down now in arguments and trying to be right but instead realize that when we both are happy with it, that means it’s the best version.

As for business, we tend to want the same things big picture so it hasn’t been a big issue, but if we do get stuck making a decision we have a team (agents, manager and lawyers) to help clarify our options and give arguments for or against a course of action.

Q: What are the advantages of working with a partner?

A: External motivation, greater skillsets and knowledge base to work from, and of course you can write much faster (and it tends to be a stronger first draft because everything has already gone through two filters).

Q: What are the disadvantages?

A: Obligatory first answer: half the money. Though arguably we work more than either of us might individually. Also, you don’t always get to do 100% what you would want to do because compromise is so much a part of the process. But since compromise will happen anyway as TV and Film are so collaborative, you’ll need to be prepared to compromise anyway.

Q: Any advice you have for people entering into a writing partnership?

A: A writing partnership is one of the most important relationships in your life as it is a creative relationship and a business one. So it shouldn’t be entered into lightly. Just as they say 90% of directing is casting, making the right choice of partner at the start is the single biggest decision. As with any relationship you need to have complementary personalities and values. You don’t go in hoping to change the other person but with the goal to be improved by them. Additionally, communication is of prime importance so everyone feels like they are being heard and resentments don’t build up over time.

Thanks Matt!