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FINDING THE RIGHT WRITING PARTNER: Collaboration Happens, Part 1

Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens explore the best ways to find the right writing partner—and the crucial qualities to look for in a prospective co-writer.

Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens co-authored Script Partners: How to Succeed at Co-Writing for Film & TV. Their feature Ruby has been optioned by Invitation Entertainment, and they recently finished Scrooge In Love, the screen adaptation of their published novella, A Christmas Belle. Matt also works as a Senior Copywriter and Digital Content Specialist in L.A. Author of the widely adopted Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, Claudia taught at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. They’re available for workshops about collaboration. Follow them on Facebook.

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In our workshops about collaborative scriptwriting, the first question people ask is, “How do you find the right writing partner?” That’s the million-dollar question—or the multimillion-dollar question if you and your partner hit it big.

So when we interviewed 36 outstanding script partners for our book Script Partners: How to Succeed at Co-Writing for Film & TV, we asked them all this all-important question—because collaboration is such an intimate creative relationship and finding the right person is such a mysterious process. It’s a little like asking how you find a friend or a lover or any significant other.

As Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) says in Bull Durham, “There are laws we don’t understand that bring us together.” We certainly don’t understand the laws that brought us together as script partners, especially since we hated each other when we met on the faculty of the FSU Film School (a story we tell in the book).

However, during our mind-numbing faculty meetings, we began to notice we offered the same notes about student scripts and had similar sensibilities about what makes a good story. It was there we said to each other for the first of countless times to come, “Hey, get out of my head!”

We gradually let our guard down, and Matt felt comfortable enough to share a problem he was having with a feature he was rewriting for a producer. Claudia gave Matt some helpful notes—another beat in our improbable connection.

We decided to co-write a screenplay inspired by Claudia’s experience as an expert witness for the defense in a criminal obscenity trial. Over a series of lunches of deep-fried everything, we outlined and draftedObscenity (a finalist for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab). We discovered how much we liked working together—and each other. Our long, happy collaboration was born. The last thing we expected to happen.

But as Fay Kanin told us, “Generally, [collaboration just] happens.” (Her co-writing career with husband Michael included Teacher’s Pet, an Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay.) “Or someone puts you together with someone, and it works.”

The collaboration of Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman began when their managers suggested they give writing together a whirl—and boy, did it work. They co-wrote material for Allen’s standup act, then tried a few TV specials. As Brickman told us over brunch in Manhattan, “Woody had already done a few movies, collaborating on the scripts with his old friend Mickey Rose. I’m not sure what happened—this might have been around the time Mickey moved to California. So we tried a screenplay, which nobody loved, which is in a drawer somewhere—don’t ask me about it because I’ll never tell. And then we wrote Sleeper.”

The rest is film history—Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Manhattan Murder Mystery.

But most of the writing teams we’ve interviewed were not put together. They’ve evolved out of close personal relationships. Friends and lovers and family. All great places to look for the right writing partner, as we’ll explore in subsequent posts.

More articles by Claudia Johnson and Matt Stevens

Get more tips on writing partnership in Claudia and Matt's book
Script Partners: How to Succeed at Co-Writing for Film & TV