We talked previously about collaboration and the art of creative disagreement. That means finding collaborative partners who will not be yesmen, who will challenge you, and push the project to a new level.
I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful collaborative relationships, both in theater and film. I started in theater writing plays for my brother Chris’ theater company, igLoo, in Chicago. Having a brother as a collaborator can be tricky, but early on my brother and I were seeing it the same. I would take it to script level and he brought it alive for me on the stage, directing or producing about a dozen of my plays. He was also producer/actor to my writer/director on Jane Doe. We’re Sicilian so people mistake our conversation for arguing. We will be screaming at each other and agreeing on a point. People don’t get it, but we do. Though it doesn’t always work out smoothly…
He recently asked me to co-write an adaptation he was working on, The End Of It All by Ed Gorman. It’s the story of a geeky high-school loser who gets into a traffic accident, has a revolutionary plastic surgery, and comes back to his high-school reunion looking like George Clooney. Complications ensue when he meets the woman he lusted after in school, and as she falls for him, he falls for her 18 year-old daughter. This leads to murder and various assorted nastiness. Chris had written a 55 page first draft. It needed fleshing out. He saw this as a neo-noir drama.
I saw it as preposterous. It could never play straight up as a drama. It was clearly a black comedy/thriller. It had a BLOOD SIMPLE feeling, maybe with a touch of FATAL ATTRACTION. I outlined the piece and got the ok to proceed from Chris (which he later denied). It is far better to work out the kinks in the outlining stage before you start writing the thing. Yes, it means more time up front but it pays off, back end. Outlining took a few weeks, writing it took no more than a month. It was vastly different from Chris’ draft. 90% of his dialogue was dropped. The genre, the tone, and world were changed. I called it Skin Deep. Remember now, these changes were exactly as outlined. The same outline that was approved by my brother Chris.
Chris read it and sent back an email. He was disappointed. To the max. He didn’t understand my take on it. Why had I abandoned the drama? I pointed out that his approval of my beat sheet. He didn’t remember the email (being the busy HBO producer he is) and just didn’t see my direction. Which made sense, being as he was seeing a drama and I was seeing a black comedy/thriller. When you can’t even agree about the genre with your collaborator… well, you’re pretty much fucked. He took a second pass at it. While I cut 90% of his stuff in Draft 2, he cut 90% of mine in Draft 3, changing the world back to his drama. Skin Deep and The End Of It All, both drafts, now sit, a terrific idea, shelved.
My brother and I had creative differences. Meaning he was seeing a pretty tree and I was seeing the fire plug with the dog pissing on it. Or I was seeing the tree and he was seeing…
You get the point. Doesn’t really matter who was “right”… or if there was a right… at all.
Recently I’ve worked more with Boris Wexler. Boris, co-writer of our book SURVIVING OUTSIDE HOLLYWOOD, is an ex-student who has come a long way very fast. Based in Chicago, he’s produced and directed multiple films, with budgets from $2,000 on up to $200,000. We’ve collaborated on three movies. The first was a short film called The Group inspired by a Saturday writing group I once led. Boris wrote the first draft, I wrote the revise. We shot it in two days and it was edited very quickly. The whole process may have taken a month. The collaboration was smooth.
Our second project was his semi-autobiographical feature, Roundabout American. I had helped him workshop his first draft (co-written by Thomas Elgin) for months. Boris worked on multiple levels, fundraising, budgeting, and writing the script. He needed some help and brought me in for a dialogue pump up. From my POV, this was an easy collaboration. This was a passion project for Boris, but I was essentially a mercenary, in and out in a month. I took the script from 124 pages to 85. I wrote dialogue for half the scenes in the movie. It was up to Boris to decide what he would use and what he wouldn’t. My credit was Additional Dialogue and I’d be paid deferred (yeah, right) when the movie made money (yeah, right). Another smooth collaboration.
The latest project was Chat, our 44K micro-budget feature which I’ve frequently talked about here at Script Gods. The collaboration is still unfolding. A rough sketch of roles was established early: Boris-Producer and Director. Paul-Producer and Writer. November, 2011 we started talking story. February, 2012 the script was outlined (a 15 page “beat sheet” sketched out). April, 2012 the first draft of the screenplay was finished (Boris with detailed story notes, me writing the script). August, 2012 (three drafts and thousands of note-filled emails later) the shooting script was finished. November, 2012, casting commenced. We “crewed” up. I wrote copy for our Kickstarter campaign and Boris shot and edited the pitch video. We were successfully funded 30 days later. March, 2013. Fully into pre-production. Script locked. April-May, 2013- Principle photography. Multiple production drafts (Blue-Green-Yellow). Changes to the “locked” White Draft necessitated by set conditions, actor improvisations or “director imperative” (meaning Boris, as director, with the ultimate power for what makes it to the screen or not, availing himself of that power).
By this point, 2+ years later, Boris and I know each other rather well. R a t h e r. I’m guessing poor Boris wishes he didn’t know how I’d react even before he sends me one of his dozens of emails. I’m predictably Southern Italian. That means generally loud, overly detailed (15 pages of single-spaced time code notes? When no one else even gives a page?) And, of course, I’m always right (ok, 95% right) warning Boris of the grave consequences should he not use every one of my notes.
Boris, God help me, is French. He groans when folks point that out. He also likes Chipotle, his golden retriever, cigarettes, and scuba diving in Asia. After two years with him on this project, I know A L L about the dude. And in all seriousness, the collaboration is, for my money, succeeding. We work well together because we are both workaholics, perfectionists, passionate, patient, pragmatic. Bottom line: Boris sees Chat much the same as I do. If he didn’t, we would never have gotten to this point. One of the two of us would have walked.
When we talk about micro-budget, we talk about making this movie not for the profit motive. Sure, money would be nice, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because of the level of control you have over the final product. You do it because the people you’re making the movie with see it being the same thing you do.
With Chat, Boris has the final cut power of a director. But he’s not a Dictator. He’s also pragmatic enough to gather opinions of an inner circle. Many times he’s reversed his initial instinct based a correspondence of opinions. This is his greatest strength. For me, I surrendered the ultimate final say of Chat because I trust Boris to make the right choice in the end, not succumb to power trip movie politics. He’s really a very sweet guy.
And now that you’re buttered up, Boris… can we p-l-e-a-s-e cut 90 seconds off the first five minutes of the Rough Cut?! You know I’m right. You KNOW it!