To collaborate or not to collaborate…that is the question

I’ve been writing screenplays for a long time.  Without dating myself, well over 20 years, but in all that time, I’ve only collaborated once on a script.  Well, that is until recently.  Truthfully, I don’t think it’s something  you just “do” for the heck of it.  It has to be for “all” the right reasons, and there are definitely pros and cons to working collaboratively on a project.

Unless you are working with a writing group on a television series, then first and foremost, you must pick a writing partner that you can trust.  In addition to trust, you both need to have similar writing styles and similar goals.  Once that’s established you absolutely MUST sign a contract first, no matter what.  There are a number of things that need to be established, such as:  Who is writing what?  How much responsibility each of you share?  Will it be 50/50? What are the particulars you’re looking for?  Even if you are writing with your best friend, all the more reason to have a contract between you; if not, it could cost you your friendship.  About now, you might be rolling your eyes, assuring me (under your breath), “that will never happen.”  You know the old adage… “Never say never…”

So, as I was saying…Until now, I’ve only used a writing partner once.  It was when writing a comedy, and it was a great experience.  I do think that comedy lends itself to partner collaboration much more than drama.  Partly because comedy is so subjective.  What one person thinks is funny, another might not, and this is an important reality that can be easily explored when writing comedy with a partner. It’s a great way to test dialogue.

The truth is, collaborative writing is an intimate venture.  You have to be willing to be completely transparent, and sometimes brutally honest with your writing partner.  You also have to be able to accept criticism too.  There are a lot of odd little irritations that surface when working on a project with a partner.  However, it can be incredibly fun and rewarding, especially for the partners that have worked through all the initial kinks and established some preliminary ground rules.

So, I am now on my 3rd collaborative screenplay, and it’s (of course) another comedy.  We’ve really been having an amazing time.  It’s a lot of fun watching a writing rhythm develop with your partner.  We’re mid-way, and in a really good place.

One of the things that has really made our process productive is using the new online screenwriting program WriterDuet.  I must say, I’m IMPRESSED!  This (free) program allows us to write collaboratively, whether we’re together or apart, and we can see all of the edits immediately.  In addition to the edits, the program saves a history of all of the changes we’ve made, so if we decide we liked something previously written, we can revert back.  Another wonderful perk…WriterDuet has a page for outlining, story-boarding and creating index cards. With the flick of a finger, using the command key, we can go back and forth between our notes, and insert right into the script!

If you’re considering writing with a partner (or even alone), please check out WriterDuet.com.  It has my endorsement.

Check it out!

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Reeling your audience in with good characters

There is always controversy when it comes to plot-driven plots, or character-driven plots. When a story is character-driven, the protagonist will drive the movie’s progress, and the audience will focus more on what’s happening with the character than the storyline. The protagonist’s true self will shine with each obstacle (whether internal or external), and the audience will watch conflict managed through his or her actions.

In Kenneth Lonnergan and Peter Tolan’s situation comedy, Analyze This (1999), the audience is reeled into the plot as the credits roll and made aware that something “big” is about to happen.  With the understanding the plot and character are tied together, Lonnergan and Tolan use the emotional and external need of the flawed protagonist, PAUL VITTI to push the plot forward—this is a character-driven screenplay.

Vitti has a problem (here comes conflict).  The once “feared” mobster has seemingly gone soft, and not just in his ability to function as a mob leader in New York, but in his love life too (when it rains, it pours).  For the first eleven minutes in the script, Lonnergan and Tolan take us back in time and reveal the followings:

  1. Dominic Manetta [who is dead] narrates as a montage of news photos flash over the screen.
  2. A big meeting is about to happen between all of the wise guys [Carlo Gambino, included].
  3. Manetta’s voice over continues [who is he talking to?]. “Your father and me, we were goin’ up with Tommy D., Fat Tommy.”
  4. The F.B.I. closes in and gangsters are running for their lives.

The big meeting never happened.  Time spans forward, and Manetta [now in his 70’s] Manetta tells Vitti that times are changing and that he would make a great leader.  The two men are in a restaurant having a meal together. Vitti sarcastically says, “What are we gonna get, a fuckin’ web site?”  However, it is not just about the changes ahead, Manetta made a promise to Vitti’s father before he died—to watch over Vitti.  The mob is going to have another meeting, and Vitti does not want to be a part of it. History repeats itself, because just as he and Manetta start to leave the restaurant, Vitti goes back inside to get a toothpick.  The minute he does, a round of gunfire hits Manetta and his bodyguard, and once again, the meeting never happens.

Twelve minutes into the script and the audience/reader is set up for the introduction of BEN SOBOL, the Jewish psychiatrist that gets pulled into Vitti’s journey of self-discovery.  Sobol’s character brings more conflict into the plot by boldly confronting Vitti while at the same time bringing understanding to the emotional side of his character.  The flawed Vitti does not really get what he wants, he gets what he needs, and this is paramount for his transformation.  For example:  When Vitti cannot perform sexually for his young mistress, he begins to panic (imagine his frustration).  In fact, he ends up at the emergency room, fully convinced that he is having a heart attack, when in fact the doctor assures him that his heart is fine.  He is having a panic attack.  At the same time this episode is going on, Sobol is on his way to a birthday party with his 14-year-old son, Michael.  Sobol is not paying attention and he rams into the back of the mobsters limo, being driven by two henchmen, JELLY and JIMMY.  What Sobol does not realize, is that they have a guy tied up in the trunk.  Naturally, they are not concerned about a fender-bender, especially when Sobol suggests that they call the police!  Obviously, that is not going to happen, but Sobol, who accepts full responsibility for the accident hands Jelly his business card.  This scene sets up Vitti’s need for a therapist, since he is dealing with anxiety.

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Every scene in this screenplay is a comedic situation that continues to move the plot forward.  Vitti is not the only one with problems in Analyze This.  Sobol is a therapist that does not get a long with his parents, he hates his ex-wife, and his son Michael is an eves-dropper, as he continually listens to his father’s sessions with patients through the air-conditioning vent.  The tension only heightens when Jelly shows up unannounced during a session with his patient, CARL ANDERSON.  Suddenly the door opens, and Jelly enters:

JELLY

Dr. Sobol?

BEN

Excuse me!  I’m in a session here.

JELLY

Yeah, I know, I’m sorry.

BEN

You’re … You’re one of the guys

I rear-ended the other night.

JELLY

Bingo.

(to Carl)

Get outta here.

Jelly takes Carl by the elbow and lifts him off the couch.

JELLY

Upsa-daisy. You got a coat, nutbar?

It is an amazing boldness that comes on Ben, as he tells Carl not to leave.  However, the old saying, “Money talks” holds true as Jelly pays him off.  Once Carl leaves Vitti shows up, and this character [though he does not realize it yet] is on a comedic journey to redemption.

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