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Tandem Writing on the 'Open Road'

Chicago-based writers Rocco Cataldo and Amy Guth discuss how they collaborated on their script, Open Road, which recently earned Best Screenplay honors at the 2021 Los Angeles TV, Script & Film Festival.

Writing partnerships require total honesty and the ability to give—and more importantly, accept—constructive criticism. Chicago-based writers Rocco Cataldo and Amy Guth discuss how they collaborated on their script, Open Road, which recently earned Best Screenplay honors at the 2021 Los Angeles TV, Script & Film Festival.

Paula Hendrickson: It sounds like Open Road started with Rocco’s story. How, when, and why did you two decide to collaborate on the script?

Rocco Cataldo: I originally started the script in 2013, and, you know how it goes, you start, you stop, you pick it back up, you hit a wall and set it aside and work on something else and so on. But then, earlier in the pandemic, I picked it back up and looked at it again. I gave it to Amy to read, and she had some great ideas on what the script was missing. I had the foundation in place, and she brought her superpowers to it.

Rocco Cataldo

Rocco Cataldo

Amy Guth: Once I read it, I immediately saw some structural pieces to add in terms of where to go with it next and how to accomplish some of the goals he had with the story.

Paula: Rocco, was it difficult to entrust another writer with your story? Or did you welcome having someone else to bounce ideas around with?

Rocco: I’ve long been a fan of Amy’s writing, and we communicate really well. For example, she edited an essay I wrote a couple of years ago about my story of immigrating to the U.S. from Italy, and she pulled the heart of what I was really trying to say in the essay forward without changing the voice or tone of it. So, once I heard her thoughts on Open Road, the collaboration was quite natural and easy. She’s a natural storyteller, and that translated well to this.

Paula: What skills or strengths did you each bring to the project?

Amy: Given Rocco’s depth of experience as a director*—I mean, the guy’s got an Emmy, for crying out loud!—he brought so much technical and visual expertise into the mix. I enjoyed watching him think through each step with both his writer brain and his director brain. As a filmmaker, he thinks big, and he’s already thinking a few steps ahead in the production process as he’s writing.

Amy Guth

Amy Guth

Rocco: Amy’s an unconventional thinker, so she’s always going to think outside the box and go for the unexpected. As a writer and journalist, she is great at making stories tight and concise in order to hit the points that need to be hit while cutting out the fluff. She’s always thinking ahead to what needs to happen next to set up the next step and keep the story moving forward. Like, I’ll be envisioning some big chase sequence to get the characters from point A to point B and she’ll be like, “Yeah. Or, they could just turn left and already be at point B.”

Paula: Once you decided to co-write the script, how did you proceed?

Amy: We made a schedule and spent a fair amount of time in those sessions both talking about the characters and literally acting out the scenes together. As we wrote, we kept a little running list of details to call back in or revisit as we went.

Paula: Speaking of software and tools — what did you find worked best for you?

Rocco: Final Draft, all the way.

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Paula: Writing a script solo is challenging, but coordinating with another writer must have pros/cons, too. In what ways did working with a writing partner make it easier—or more fun, or less daunting—and what things proved more difficult? Scheduling, perhaps?

Rocco: I’d been living with this story idea for so long, getting the scenes out of my head and literally acting them out together made them flow together really well. What was challenging was operating from a place of non-attachment; I had these ideas in my head and collaborating often meant being open to changing them for the better, even when that meant letting go and sacrificing one of my proverbial darlings.

Amy: I mean, I walked into the project with a huge advantage in that he had the rough draft finished, so there was already this great story idea in place. And I know I don’t need to mince words with Rocco, so I can be straightforward without needing to sugar-coat anything. But as far as challenges go, nothing about it was really daunting at all; it was just a matter of doing the work. Other than the fact that I need a pretty constant supply of crunchy snacks.

Paula: How long did the writing process take?

Rocco: Eight years? I joke, but while I started it in 2013, then had it in a state of start-stop-start-stop for a while, once Amy was involved it came together really quickly. It really flowed once we started to work together.

Paula: What were your favorite parts about collaborating on Open Road?

Rocco: For me, it was acting out the scenes as we went. Basically, every day was a table read.

Amy: Same. It helped us to fine tune the pacing, plus it allowed some random commentary and joking around to make it into the script because it felt natural.

Paula: How important is trust when writing something in tandem?

Amy: It’s everything. We respect and are clear on the skills we each bring to the table, and that’s essential to the process. But, in the few moments we found ourselves stuck in a scene or seeing things slightly differently, trust allowed frank and productive discussion to get it resolved quickly.

Rocco: Trust is everything in the creative process, for sure. Especially when collaborating, you have to be able to let your guard down to get to the good stuff. If you don’t trust the person you're working with, then feedback just lands differently and isn’t as effective.

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Paula: How does it feel now that your Open Road script is out there and earning awards?

Rocco: The toughest part about doing anything creative is usually just finishing it. So, to be able to submit it to film festivals, get selected, and even win awards, is a meaningful reward for getting it across the finish line.

Amy: Absolutely. Plus, we’re so enthusiastic about this script and about pushing it further out into the world so it’s great to see that same enthusiasm from film festival juries and judges.

Paula: What tips would you offer readers who are considering starting a tandem writing project?

Amy: In all the types of writing that I do, I have found that it’s important to relentlessly question why you’re collaborating. Because often, people collaborate because they, deep down, want someone else to take the heat with them if it all goes badly. My general rule about collaborating is to collaborate only when it makes sense—when you fill a knowledge or skill gap for each other, for example. Then, it’s important to make sure you have trust and enjoy working with each other.

Rocco: Definitely. It can’t just be a collaboration for collaboration’s sake. You have to both be clear on the story you want to tell, and want to tell the same story. Often, people want to work together, but deep down have different visions for what they’re really each trying to say. Once you have the fundamentally same end goal, it’s very seamless.

Paula: What have you learned about writing, work ethics, and yourselves from collaborating with one another?

Rocco: Naturally, I’m more of a visual storyteller, so I write better when I have somebody to bounce ideas around with.

Amy: I’m generally a solo-work kind of person, but because we each brought something unique to the table, I felt like I wrote much faster and more productively than I would have solo.

Paula: Will, or are, you contemplating another tandem writing project?

Amy: I have the privilege of collaborating with author and travel writer Pam Mandel to adapt her memoir "The Same River Twice: A Memoir of Dirtbag Backpackers, Bomb Shelters, and Bad Travel" into a script. I was really drawn in by her book and envisioned it as a film right away. Rocco and I are also working on another script together that's more in the psychological genre that I'm incredibly excited about.

Rocco: In addition to that, our next goal with Open Road is to make it into a film. I’m eager to direct this story that I’ve carried around with me for so long. Amy will be on as producer and my longtime business partner and friend, Mike Kwielford, as director of photography. The next step is finding the right partners and key cast members. Given how well we all work together, I’m nothing but optimistic about it moving into the next phase.

*Rocco directed Emergence, which won the 2017 Chicago/Midwest Emmy for Outstanding Achievement for Arts/Entertainment Programming – Program/Special/Series (shared with producer Mary Kay Cook, dancer Emily Sarkissian, and cinematographer Mike Kwielford)


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