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!

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