READER QUESTIONS (#4): COLLABORATION!



Q: I don’t think I can write a script on my own. Should I collaborate with another writer?

A: First, ask yourself why you need a writing partner. Is it because you’re lazy and don’t want to do any of the work? Is it because you can’t come up with any ideas of your own? Is it because you’re good with dialogue but not good with story, or vice-versa? If you’re basically just lazy and don’t want to do any work, or if you can’t come up with any ideas...then why on earth do you want to write screenplays? If you’re good with dialogue and not story, or if you’re good with story and not dialogue, then finding a collaborator who compliments your lack of proficiency is a great idea. Problem is, finding an adequate writing partner is a very tricky thing. I’d say it’s akin to finding the perfect mate—and we all know what the divorce rate is, don’t we? Actually, I’d say it’s probably even higher for writing partners. I’ve had the misfortune—er, pleasure—of collaborating with a few writers over the years. (The term “writer” is used very loosely here.) For the most part, these collaborations boiled down to me tossing out all sorts of plot points and visual imagery while my partner sat there nodding and saying, “Yup, good, I really like that.” Then I’d come up with more plot points and visual imagery. Again, my partner would nod, “Love it, Jim, really cool!” Gee, pal, how ‘bout a little feedback, a little embellishment, a little discussion? I don’t need a “yes” man—I need a collaborator! Then, if you’re successful enough to actually get a story laid out, how do you divide the actual task of getting it down on paper? Does one do the typing while the other paces the room dictating? Do you take turns typing and pacing? Does one write the first ten pages, then the other writes the next ten? Who edits the pages? Believe me, it can get awfully complicated, if the two of you are not in perfect synch with each other. But some people do it—and they do it very successfully. I remember a conversation I had with one particular collaborator many years ago—and it went something like this:

ME: I think we need to pump up this scene...add some more tension.
HIM: So how much you think we’ll get for this script?
ME: Huh? Oh, I don’t know. Now, about this scene...
HIM: C’mon, you must have some idea.
ME: Nope. No idea. HIM: C’mon, ballpark it.
ME: Really, I have no idea.
HIM: A hundred grand? Two hundred grand?
ME: Sure, I suppose it’s possible. Now, about this scene...
HIM: More than 200 grand, ya think?
ME: Read my lips: I...don’t...know.
HIM: I’m gonna buy me a new car. A Porsche! What’re you gonna do with your half?
ME: Can we just write the script first?
HIM: I really think we can get upwards of 500 grand if we play our cards right.
ME: We ain’t gonna get nothin’ if we don’t write the script!!

Needless to say, this “collaboration” lasted for a very brief period of time.

Q: My writing partner wants to write a serial killer script, but I’m just not into that type of story. Should I keep my mouth shut and write it anyway?

A: Unless he’s going to pay you (which I highly doubt), then I’d pass on the collaboration. Do yourself a favor and write scripts you feel passionate about. No, you don’t necessarily have to think it’s the greatest idea that must be told at all costs—but it should be something that you’ll look forward to living with and working on for, most probably, several months. Another story: I was once hired to write a script. A comedic thriller. I thought the initial idea was decent, but it certainly wasn’t anything overly special. At least not to me. The story just didn’t feel like it had enough of a comic element. So I rolled it all around in my noggin for a couple days and came up with a new angle. I kept the basic idea, but tweaked in a new direction. Now it was a dark, sort of sexy thriller. I pitched it to the producer and she loved it. I had a story I could grab hold of and run with. I made it mine. If you can do that with your own work—whether a spec or an assignment—you’ll be a much happier person.

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My book Q & A: THE WORKING SCREENWRITER has been available as an e-book for a while now...but now it's available as an even lower-priced e-book edition!

What some folks have said about Q & A: The Working Screenwriter:

“…highly recommended to any budding screenwriter…"
“…a very instructive yet entertaining read…”
“…filled with great insight and honesty…”
“…valuable and practical…”
“…a must-read…”
“…inspirational…”
"…a phenomenal book…”

From David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible:

“…I enjoyed reading Q & A: The Working Screenwriter. The content became a discussion in my mind. Years ago when I began my own writing career, it was a book of interviews that inspired me the most. I felt as though established writers were talking to me and giving me their personal advice. I learned from them and improved my craft. The same was true when I read these interviews…”

If you want to stir your creative juices, bolster your confidence, and gain a better understanding of what it takes to become a working screenwriter in today’s film industry, you’ll find Q & A: The Working Screenwriter essential reading!
Also available in low-priced paperback!

WHAT THE PROS SAY: "REWRITES"



From my book, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter:

How do you approach rewrites?

Katherine Fugate (The Prince and Me, Carolina, Army Wives):  Rewrites are necessary, but can be difficult.  Only the first draft is really yours.  It’s pure.  But once you hand it in, it becomes a group effort, and you have to let it go.  It becomes a collaboration where you must learn what you can live with and what you can't.  If you're working with good producers, the script can get better than you might have written it on your own.  Unfortunately, if you're working with so-so producers, the script can also become worse.  The moral of the story then is to be careful who you get into bed with.  Choose wisely.  My goal is to stay on the project as long as I can and hopefully see it through to the end.  Unfortunately, that isn't common in this business.  Loyalty to the first or original writer isn’t something many practice, so you have to be prepared that the first pure draft will undergo many changes, including writers after you.  So I tend to remember we all have the same goal—to get the movie made.  That helps me keep focused. 

Rolfe Kanefsky (There’s Nothing Out There, Tomorrow By Midnight, Shattered Lies, Pretty Cool, Corpses,  Rod Steele 0014, Jacqueline Hyde, The Hazing) : I like to walk away from a script for a little while before I start a rewrite. If you’re too close to the project, it’s impossible to judge it properly. I like to distance myself from it for a few weeks and then look at it fresh. Now, if you’re forced to do a rewrite based on someone else’s notes, that’s a whole different story. If you agree with the notes and they make the script better, you are very lucky. Most of the time, I’ve found the notes to be of little value and can make the script much worse if you’re not careful. Destroying a good script from bad notes is a horrible situation, and I’ve been through it. Very frustrating. If it gets too bad, I try to walk away. I had one script that I was hired to write based on a comic book that the producers owned the rights to, but hated. I pitched an idea and they hired me. They wanted to read the script as I wrote it (ten to fifteen pages at a time). I hate to work this way but was forced to comply. Anyway, they’re reading the pages and are very positive. When I finally turned in the last pages, they tell me that they want the script to be less E.T. and more The Crow! I was shocked at this meeting and excused myself to put money in the car meter to stop myself from blowing up at them. They liked the characters and situations but wanted the tone and mood to be darker. Basically, my rewrite was adding a lot of adjectives to the script to emphasize dark and gloomy. It was a joke. The script was never produced.

Steve Latshaw (Invisible Dad, Crash Point Zero, U.S. Seals: Dead or Alive):  By and large, I enjoy the rewriting process...the editing and honing.  The only time it becomes a pain is when you’re being asked to make massive structural changes.  On assignment gigs, the first draft is yours and the rest are theirs.  Budget issues trigger rewrites...casting issues.  I did a movie in 1999 called Rangers.  At the 11th hour, literally one day before shooting started, the producers wanted a new character created for what’s known as a “geezer” part.  This is basically a walk-and-talk part for an established name actor to give the movie a little more sheen and sales value.  Donald Sutherland on the park bench in JFK is a good example.  In our case, we put Corbin Bernsen (who’s no geezer) into our park.  I wrote ten pages that night and they shot him out in, I think, half a day.

Brent Maddock (Batteries Not Included, Tremors, The Wild Wild West): If I’m rewriting myself, I show myself no mercy.  If I’ve been hired to rewrite someone else, I approach the job gingerly.  The goal should never be to change anything that works.  It’s not about putting your fingerprints all over somebody else’s work.  So, you need to approach the task of rewriting by first understanding what it is about the script that works.  Then be sure you don’t destroy that in the process of making things “better.”  Too many screenplays have been rewritten to death in Hollywood.  The irony is often that when a studio is spending money on one writer after another it gets difficult for the studio executive (i.e., the worried person giving all the script notes) to admit, or even realize, that the script may have gotten better from versions one through four, but then proceeded to get worse from versions five through whatever.  Hard for the desperately upwardly-mobile executive to admit, “Oops!  I just spent a million bucks on rewrites that have made things worse!”  So, instead of going back to the version that works best, they commit the studio to pouring its 100 million bucks into making yet another stupid movie that could have been good.  Steve and I wrote The Wild, Wild West.  The difference between our script and the sad, muddled, rewritten thing they actually shot tells you all you need to know about why the studio system is so dysfunctional.

John Rogers (Rush Hour 3, Catwoman, The Core, American Outlaws): Very methodically.  I have a physics degree I don't use much, but it taught me to parse out components of problems.  What is the problem that needs to be rewritten?  How can you accomplish that in the most effective way (often while trying not to damage the rest of the script you like)?  To tell you the truth, when I do a first draft, I usually reread and rewrite the entire script as written up to that day.  So, as my manager jokes, "Your first draft is most people's eighth draft."  As a result, I rarely go through a formal rewrite process except when dealing with notes.

David J. Schow (The Crow, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3):  Many of my screenwriting jobs—probably half—have been punching up or rethinking prior drafts by others.  I've been on both sides of the Writers Guild arbitration process for credits, which is an ugly and medieval thing.  You must "marry" the project emotionally in order to do any good at a rewrite, and that's the same level of commitment you bring to an original.  So the emotion is the same.

Neal Marshall Stevens (Thirteen Ghosts, Hellraiser: Deader): Well, in respect to my own work, I do very few rewrites because, as a general rule, if something isn't working, I can't move forward on a draft. I need to see the whole thing laid out, working, from beginning to end. This business of “just get to the end, then go back and fix it”—I've never been able to do that.  I don't even understand how you can.  I mean, if the problem is that something needs to be set up and it's not there, how can you simply write out something on page sixty as if the earlier set up is in place without going back and putting it in? Or, if a character needs to be adjusted, what do you do?  Just change the character half-way through and proceed on to the end without going back and making the change from the beginning? How can you do that? At any rate, I can't.  So, if something needs to be changed or adjusted, I have to go back and make those changes from the start—even, on occasion, I've thrown away whole incomplete drafts because things weren't working. I did that twice on “Slow Man.”  I threw away, I think, forty pages.  Then I threw away sixty pages.  It wasn't working. Something was missing. It wasn't right.  Finally, when I figured out what was missing, I was able to write the final version in ten days—and, I think, I did one small polish on that —and that was the draft that sold.

Stephen Susco (The Grudge): I approach them with as “Zen” an approach as possible.  When I’m rewriting my own work—on my own—I don’t really consider it rewriting.  It’s when the rewrite is “formal” (e.g., incorporating producers’ notes) that things get delicate.  The best way to deal with it is to leave your ego at the door, and be as collaborative as possible—but to never betray yourself or your vision for the project.  If you and the producers don’t see eye-to-eye on critical issues, it’s probably better if you moved on...saves both of you the time and aggravation. 

* * *


What some folks have said about Q & A: The Working Screenwriter:

“…highly recommended to any budding screenwriter…"
“…a very instructive yet entertaining read…”
“…filled with great insight and honesty…”
“…valuable and practical…”
“…a must-read…”
“…inspirational…”
"…a phenomenal book…”

From David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible:

“…I enjoyed reading Q & A: The Working Screenwriter. The content became a discussion in my mind. Years ago when I began my own writing career, it was a book of interviews that inspired me the most. I felt as though established writers were talking to me and giving me their personal advice. I learned from them and improved my craft. The same was true when I read these interviews…”

If you want to stir your creative juices, bolster your confidence, and gain a better understanding of what it takes to become a working screenwriter in today’s film industry, you’ll find Q & A: The Working Screenwriter essential reading!

WHAT THE PROS SAY: "THE DOLLAR OPTION"

From my book, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter:

Should new screenwriters ever seriously consider giving producers free options (a.k.a "the dollar option")?

Allison Burnett (Autumn in New York, Underworld: Awakening): If you really like the producer, and he shares your vision, and you think he will work as hard selling your script as you did writing it, then it’s fine, when you are starting out.  Once you are established, however, it’s not a good idea, except as a last resort.  You will often find that people do not respect or value what they get for free.

Katherine Fugate (The Prince and Me, Carolina, Valentine's Day, Army Wives): It depends on the producer, his/her success record and how much you believe in them.  A general rule of thumb, though, is if no money has been spent, there is less motivation to get things done.

Rolfe Kanefsky (There’s Nothing Out There, Shattered Lies, Rod Steele 0014, Jacqueline Hyde, The Hazing): It’s hard to avoid the “dollar option” when starting a career. I’ve done it a number of times. If some producer is willing to take your script around town, the trade-off is worth it. Just make sure to get the rights back after the six months to a year is up. I would avoid giving a free option to a script for more than a year. If they need more time than that, they probably can’t do much for you. This is also a good reason why you have to have more than one script available when starting in this business. You don’t want your only script optioned and unavailable for a year with nothing else to show people. From my own experience, none of my dollar option scripts ever wound up being made into movies, but I feel many were still worth doing. They opened up some doors and I made some connections because of it.

Neal Marshall Stevens (Thirteen Ghosts, Hellraiser: Deader): I've never done it, because my position has always been that the option money is money that a producer will get back, in the event that he gets a project set up—so that, in essence, the option money represents how much a producer is prepared to bet that he'll be able to sell your project. If he's prepared to bet nothing—that should tell you something. The only circumstance where I think it's justified—and it came up a few times when I was working at Laurel—is when a project came along where, for whatever reason, there were really only one or two places where we felt we could legitimately take it.  So, for us to lay out a lot of money to option it—and then have only a couple places to take it—really didn't make sense financially. But in a case like that, the deal should really be for a short free option. The deal for two or three months—long enough to send the project to those couple of places and get an answer back.  If the answer is no, that's the end of it and the writer gets his project back, and all he's really being asked to give up is a few months, so that the project can be taken to a few places. Other than that exception, I wouldn't go along with it.

Stephen Susco (The Grudge): It depends on the circumstances.  If there’s something to be gained—if the producer is well known, or very passionate and aggressive, and has a real game plan—then it’s worth considering.  And always, always, always put everything on paper.  Always.

* * *


What some folks have said about Q & A: The Working Screenwriter:

“…highly recommended to any budding screenwriter…"
“…a very instructive yet entertaining read…”
“…filled with great insight and honesty…”
“…valuable and practical…”
“…a must-read…”
“…inspirational…”
"…a phenomenal book…”

From David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible:

“…I enjoyed reading Q & A: The Working Screenwriter. The content became a discussion in my mind. Years ago when I began my own writing career, it was a book of interviews that inspired me the most. I felt as though established writers were talking to me and giving me their personal advice. I learned from them and improved my craft. The same was true when I read these interviews…”

If you want to stir your creative juices, bolster your confidence, and gain a better understanding of what it takes to become a working screenwriter in today’s film industry, you’ll find Q & A: The Working Screenwriter essential reading!