Writing Partnerships

On my website discussion board, someone asked me about the pros-and-cons of writing partnerships…. so I dug up this article I wrote on the subject a decade ago. I thought you might enjoy it:

Screenwriting Partnerships

The meeting with the TV series producer was going very badly. We were going to lose the writing assignment until, as a joke, I suggested we add a dozen scantily clad models and a psycho killer to the plot. Bill grimaced in embarrassment. The producer thought the idea was brilliant. We had a sale.

At that moment, Bill probably was torn he was glad he had a partner… and wished his partner had died in a car crash on the way to the meeting.

Perhaps that is the nature of partnerships. Everything is torn in half: emotions, responsibility credits, and., worst of all, paychecks.

When I was a kid, and dreamed of my name in lights, the name I saw was MINE, and mine alone. I saw it on book jackets, TV screens, movie posters … a “shared credit” never entered my mind.

But now, most of the time, I share the credit with William Rabkin Not just the credit, but the money, the work, and everything that goes along with it.

So I’ve revised my dreams a bit. When I see my name in lights, there’s another right next to it. And that’s okay by me.

It’s not that I don’t like writing alone, I just like writing with Bill better, for some simple reasons. For one, I like the company. I like hashing out the idea, developing the story, and overcoming the obstacles of actually writing the script with someone else. Like sex, writing is a lot more fun with a partner than doing it all alone. It’s also motivating. We nag each other far better than our individual consciences would

Of course, we argue a lot. But out of those fights actually come better ideas. It shakes us out of complacency, out of going the easy way, out of using those same tired cliches. And it scares the hell out of our assistants, who are convinced that we are killing each other behind our closed doors.

After one such row, our assistant came into my office, gravely concerned. He wanted to know if we were “okay.” Sure, I said, we were just brainstorming. He didn’t buy it. So he went into Bill’s office, and asked if him the same question. Bill said, are you kidding? We’re on a roll! The assistant decided we were both in extreme denial and that our partnership was doomed.

Of course, the arguing isn’t restricted to our offices. We were once on a series with a small staff, four writers in all, including us. The executive producer was a kind, fairĀ¬individual who felt everyone had an equal say in the direction of the series so he warned us he didn’t want us to always present a united front, to use our partnership as a blunt instrument to cram ideas down his throat.

We left his office, and thought to ourselves, what a brilliant idea! We had never thought of being a power block before, much less a blunt instrument. So, we decided to give it a try. We would always agree publicly, and argue privately. So the next meeting we went in, I presented a story idea, and Bill promptly said “that is the single dumbest thing I have ever heard in my entire life.” So much for the power block idea. If he hadn’t done it, I probably would have. Such is partnership. It can’t be locked in an office.

I’m also a better writer with Bill than I am on my own. We are hard on each other. We force one another to go beyond “good enough” and to try for something better … and usually harder. And we are good at different things, we compensate for each other’s weaknesses and enhance each other’s strong points. Sometimes it can be confusing.

We work differently on different scripts. For example, on one script we divided acts. I did Act One, he did Act Two, and then we switched. I was enraged to discovered he had created a subplot that didn’t exist before. How could he do that without talking to me first? Probably the same way I added a new character in Act One and forgot to mention it to him. As it turned out, both changes helped the script enormously.

On those occasions when a script is due next week, and I wake up without the creativity to write a grocery list, it’s nice to know Bill is there to pick up the slack. And vice versa. It’s especially nice when one of us has to leave town two days before the deadline we know the other poor schlub will do the work. Of course, the downside is schlub duty is shared, too. It’s also great when it comes to pitching, and later story meetings, too. I tend to dive, roll, and come up firing literally when describing an action sequence. Bill, on the other hand, will discuss the thematic, symbolic, metaphoric and religious implications of a scene, and how it relates to great scenes in film history. We know whatever the sensibility of the executive, one of us can deal with it. On one weird occasion, we were facing producers whose partnership was frighteningly similar to our own. At casual moments, Bill would discuss with one producer how our project evoked Faulkner, while I would debate with the other which actor was the best James Bond.

On another, abortive, project, Bill was so frustrated by a producer’s indecision, that when he tried to tell the guy off, he couldn’t find the words. So, I said, “what Bill wants to say is that you change your mind constantly and have no idea what you want. Call us when you get a clue,” and I walked out. Finding words for one another often extends, we have learned, beyond the keyboard.

We have strong egos, but that doesn’t seem to get in our way, either. We view the finished product as /our/ script not HIS lines and MY lines, but /our/ lines. Our styles are so alike, and we work over the scenes so many times, who did what blurs.

It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m just as proud or our shared credit as I was of my single one.

I just wish he didn’t get half of my money

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