Thursday, April 2, 2015

Writing Teams: Interview with Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer

Many writers in Hollywood work with writing partners. I’ve done a couple projects with partners, but for the most part I write alone. However, since writing teams are so common, I wanted to deal with the topic on this blog. So over the next few weeks I’ll interview some writers who work with partners about the finer points of the process.

The one big piece of advice I’ll give myself, though, is to have a writers’ collaboration agreement between the partners. You may think, “My partner is my friend and we’re just going to split everything 50-50 so we don’t really need an agreement.”

Wrong. What happens if one of you gets divorced – will the ex-spouse get 25% ownership of all your projects? If one of you dies unexpectedly, will the heirs get 50%? And does that mean they could veto any possible sales? What if after five years Partner A decides to quit the business and become a lawyer? Can Partner B still shop the material they wrote together? If they sell a script but the buyer wants a rewrite, does Partner A have to help? If they don’t, does Partner A get 50% of the rewrite fee?

There are many ways to resolve these questions, but you want them to be decided by the partners before the issues arise, and not by lawyers and judges later. Fortunately, the WGAw offers a standard collaboration agreement on their website.

Now to the first interview. Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer have written such TV movies as Undercover Bridesmaid, Pete’s Christmas, Santa Switch and Northpole. I emailed them the following questions. In true writer team fashion, they collaborated on their answers.

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

A: We met at USC Film School, back in an era after grunge but before selfies. We collaborated on our student films, then after graduation began writing together-- first a Simpsons spec, then a bunch of film scripts. We also shot a lot of short films during this time, mostly to use as pitch trailers for our various projects. It was a long time-- 5 years-- before we sold anything, but we've tried to always be generating new material.

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

A: We usually meet for brainstorming in person, then bounce an outline back and forth over email, refining it. Then we'll divide up the scenes and write first drafts of them individually, and assemble it all into a first draft, which of course needs a ton of work but is a start. Often we'll then modify the script to the point that most of the original draft is replaced, but that is a good way to get started. Some writing teams we know will be in the same room in front of the computer writing dialog, but this has not been our process.

If we're working on a pitch rather than a script, we'll meet in person a lot, to get our patter down. We'll practice the pitch many times a day in the weeks leading up to the pitch, to the point where it's easy and we don't have to struggle to remember things. Then we'll completely let go of whatever verbiage we're trying to remember and just talk in the actual pitch in a spontaneous way, but this is far easier having prepared ourselves.

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

A: We'll discuss decisions at length and give ourselves as much time as we can to think about them. And we try to learn from our mistakes. In the cases where we disagree on a course of action, we'll argue, and whoever feels strongest about the decision usually wins out. It's a sort of Darwinian process but one we find works.

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

A: For comedy especially it's great to have a collaborator to judge if jokes are funny, if ideas are good, and just to motivate to move forward with our work. Also for some reason there are a lot of comedy teams-- though we're not wisecrackers in the room, we like pitching and are able to divide things up in a pitch to play to our strengths.

Q: What are the disadvantages?

A: I supposed lone writers might be able to work faster sometimes, ironically, because there's no time spent arguing the merits of a choice. But for us this is far outweighed by the benefits of having two brains.

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

A: Try a small project first, and one you're not hugely invested in, to see what the dynamic is. Liking the same stuff doesn't necessarily mean a good collaboration. You'll want to find a writing partner who delivers on 50% of the work-- we've taught a lot of screenwriting classes and seen a lot of cases where one of the duo ends up doing more of the work, and this does not lead to a good dynamic. Also look for someone who is both strong in their opinions (this is needed so you get the full benefit of the added perspective a collaborator can offer) but not so stubborn or inflexible that they're not open to new ideas.

Thanks Gregg and Brian!

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