Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens co-authored Script Partners: How to Succeed at Co-Writing for Film & TV. Their latest feature, Ruby, has been optioned by Invitation Entertainment. Follow them on Facebook.Full bio.
Similar sensibilities are crucial for you and your potential partner, but your differences—the creative yin-yang—are just as important. It is this complementarity (what writing teams call “complementary strengths”) that gives each collaboration its unique richness and range of experience, knowledge, and talent to tap.
“I think collaborations are much more successful when people have different strengths,” said Peter Tolan, who co-wrote Analyze This and Analyze That with Harold Ramis. “That way, nobody has everything. Nobody brings everything to the table. The best collaborations are when you shore each other’s weaknesses up.”
“You’re looking for someone hopefully with complementary strengths,” agreed Janet Batchler, who co-wrote Batman Forever and Pompeii with husband Lee, “but that means that you have to have an understanding of your own strengths.”
Or to quote the Oracle at Delphi, “Know thyself.”
“It takes remarkable self-awareness to get into a collaboration,” Tolan said. “I think you have to be remarkably self-aware to say, ‘I can do that and that, I just can’t do that.’ Partners understand this is how a successful collaboration works, and they’re able to feed it and keep it running.”
Fay & Michael Kanin (Teacher’s Pet) kept their successful collaboration running by playing to each other’s strengths. “Michael was an artist, and you can see he was very good,” she said, pointing to his paintings and sculptures around the living room. “So his strengths in terms of movies were the visual. And I was a people person. I really liked the characters and the dialogue and all of that. Not that he couldn’t write dialogue, but I loved it. He did it.”
Like the Kanins, we’re different genders, though not married. But male/female is only the beginning of our differences—pessimist/optimist, pop culture/literature, actor/playwright, no children/children, good dancer/bad dancer, neurotic/Zen (Matt’s suggestion).
We complement each other too with our individual strengths as screenwriters—visual/verbal, dialogue/description, comedy/drama. This doesn’t mean we don’t share the work, but we often defer to each other’s expertise.
“I think that’s really, truly what a good collaboration is—knowing where you do best in that collaboration,” Jack Epps, Jr., said when we interviewed him about his longtime collaboration with Jim Cash (Top Gun; The Secret of My Success; Legal Eagles). “For us it became what we later were able to call ‘words and music.’ That’s what I called it. Some people are better at the lyrics, and some are better at the melody. I’m music, Jim’s words, that’s how it worked out. And that’s why I think we were a good collaboration—because we were able to blend without competing. We layered each other very well.”
Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Manhattan Murder Mystery with Woody Allen, described their complementary strengths in similar terms. “I tend to be somewhat more bound by logic than Woody Allen, and I say that as a criticism of me rather than of him. His approach to a problem or material in general is more intuitive than mine. I like to kind of back into things logically. He seems to have a genius for making some kind of intuitive leap which defies logic but solves the problem.”
So before you start searching for the right writing partner, you need to know thyself and thy strengths and weaknesses. Then seek and find someone who brings complementary strengths to thy writing table.
And as we’ll explore in post #9, be sure your prospective partner plays well with others.