Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the 10-hr limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, CS Expo Finalist, the Second Round of Sundance Episodic Lab, and as a PAGE Awards TV Drama Finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.
In less than a week, I’ve had four separate screenwriters ask me advice on collaborating with friends, each one’s horror story worst than the last.
Can friends work together and still love each other in the morning?
Since there’s nothing politically correct about me, I’m going to shoot straight from the hip on this one: While you may love your friend as you belly up to the bar, you probably won’t love her after collaborating together. In fact, you could seriously want to bash her head in with a baseball bat.
Before launching into any project, remember filmmaking and screenwriting are businesses, not kumbaya lovefests. Of course we’d all love to work with our best friends, but we also want leprechauns to bring us pots of gold while we sleep. Good luck with that.
Having experience in the relationship-disaster walk of shame, I have a few rules that now keep both my friendships and projects intact.
1. The project comes first.
When a conflict is on the table, always ask, “What is best for the project?” That one question will almost certainly kill the conflict, and make the choice clear. The goal isn’t to win the battles; it’s for the final product to be the best it can be.
2. There’s no room for an enormous ego in business.
Working together shouldn’t be a pissing contest. While creating art is fun, it’s a business first and foremost. Get over yourself or get a therapist. See rule #1.
3. You need to earn a place on the team.
Just because you’re friends doesn’t mean you are owed special consideration. Even if you’ve worked with this friend on a previous project, don’t assume you have a secured spot on his next one. You still may need to audition or be interviewed against other talent to get the gig. Don’t get pissy about it. Be professional and do what it takes to get the job the right way: by proving you deserve it. See rule #1.
4. Start with an open marriage and an open mind.
Don’t cling to someone just because you started out together. You are not bound for life and don’t owe them your firstborn. Every project is different, and each project requires a different set of skills. I’ve had four writing partners for feature specs and am now working on three separate teams to develop new TV series ideas. Each one of those writers has other projects with other people that don't include me, but if we're in a pitch meeting and the question, "What else have you got?" comes up, we welcome the pitching of projects that don't include us. We may get around, but we support each other. I learn something new from each partnership that has improved my skills. Being a writer slut has its benefits. See rule #1.
5. Be honest about your limitations.
Even if you owe a friend a favor, don’t commit to a project you aren’t jazzed about. You must have something of value to bring, and you can’t do that if you aren’t passionate about the work. Find a project that is a good fit for your own style and capabilities, even if it means working alone for a little while. See rule #1.
6. Clearly define expectations.
One of you may want to only focus on feature releases, while the other would be comfortable with TV or developing a project as an indie. Those are very different worlds and an entirely different business plan. Know what your ultimate goals are before you start the script. If you don’t, the project will suffer, especially in the marketing stage. See rule #1.
7. Under-promise and over-deliver.
If you signed on to write something and a friend is directing and editing it, do what you promised, and make it clear you expect her to deliver on her promises as well. If you not only consistently keep your word, but also hit it out of the park, you’ll always find people who want to work with you. Conversely, if you fail to deliver on your promises, your credibility will be in the toilet. Actions speak louder than words. At least they do in my world. See rule #1.
8. A real friend wouldn’t piss on your flame.
Jealousy is not attractive. It happens in business, but it happens more often when a friendship existed first. To watch someone rise and leave you behind isn’t fun. If you are the one on the rise, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for working hard and achieving. You have earned where you are. If you’re the one watching your friend surpass you, then get off your ass and work harder. Your success is entirely up to you. You should be celebrating your friend’s achievements, not pissing on her flame. See rule #1.
9. Know when to walk away before you’ve burned a bridge.
No matter how badly you want something to work, sometimes it just doesn’t. Cut your losses and bow out. My goal when working on a team is to make myself invaluable to the players. My presence must add value, not detract from the team’s efforts. If I can’t figure out how to up my game to the quality the project needs, I will be the first one to admit it and either ask for help or walk away in order to honor both the friendship and the project. I expect the friend to do the same. See rule #1.
10. You will lose friends. It’s inevitable.
Even if you try to do the right thing, you can’t control the way other people react. You also can’t own their poor judgment. Release it. That is their issue. All you can do is what is best for you and your future. So politely say goodbye to those who distract you from your goals with their selfishness or negativity and find a group of writers and filmmakers who offer support, love, and talent. Your light will shine brighter than you can ever imagine.
If there are still any questions, see rule #1.
Bottom-line: This is business, not a popularity contest. If we can build a community of friends while doing it, great! But if you choose the people who just want to ride your coattails, you'll end up with a hot-mess of a product that serves no one, not even your so-called friends.
Don’t misinterpret my advice. I’m not advocating disloyalty or selfishness. On the contrary. I’m stating if you do have a friend who chooses you for a project, your job is to reward that trust by bringing your A game.
Never take the opportunity for granted and never ride on anyone’s talent but your own.
Every single member of a team should bring something unique to the table, something only that writer can bring. If the project isn’t better because you are on it, then maybe you shouldn’t have been on the team in the first place.
Above all, if a friend asks to be on your project and you politely say “no,” he should be supportive of your decision and want you to succeed in your career, because that is what is at stake here – your career. And if your career does takes off, you might have a future project that would be perfect for him. That’s where loyalty comes in. I never forget someone who has supported and helped me, and I will absolutely pay it forward when I find the right opportunity.
Think about it this way: If you just had a fun, engaging pitch meeting over drinks with a really cool studio executive who ultimately said “no” at the end of the meeting, my guess is you'd humbly say, “Thanks for considering me; maybe we can work on something else in the future.” Why should you treat your friends with any less respect?
Yes, I have lost friends.
Does it make me sad? Sure. Do I regret my actions? No, because I learned valuable lessons.
The choices I made were for the betterment of not only the projects in question, but also my overall career. I will probably lose more friends before I take my final breath in this world, but hopefully I won’t, if I choose the right ones to collaborate with in the first place.
Because that is the key – the choices we make. After all, who your friends are says a lot about who you are. I have some incredibly talented friends who I am honored to be working with and who could fire my ass in a New York minute. But that doesn’t scare me; it challenges me to stay on my toes and deliver my best. It is precisely because I respect them, I wouldn’t dare give them anything less than that.
I like to keep the bar high for myself, and I expect my friends to raise that bar even higher. There is no walk of shame in over-delivering. It only makes the team unbeatable.
Please share your stories or advice in the comments below. Any tips you have to help us all navigate the industry, while still having some friends left to attend our funerals, are appreciated!