Tuesday, August 01, 2006

How do you guys write?

I’ve been lucky enough to be in the same partnership for 33 years. Some time ago I got a letter from a young writer named Ken Levine saying, since we had the same name, could I give him any advice? I said, “Yes, find a partner named David Isaacs.”

Writing teams all work differently. Here’s how we work and it’s a tad unusual. A lot of teams will split up the script – one takes one scene or act and the other takes the other. Then they switch. We write head to head and we dictate the script to a secretary who takes great shorthand. We never actually see the script while we’re writing it. This forces us not to obsess over a line. It frees us to pitch out a whole run knowing we can just go back and clean it up. We can juggle beats, move things around more easily. This process also allows us to volley lines back and forth. When people ask if a particular joke was mine and I say I don’t remember I’m not being coy. We shape practically every line together.

It now takes us four or five days to write a half hour. Two or three if we have to. When we started it took two weeks. That’s where 33 years of experience comes in handy.

We work off of an outline, talk out what we’re going to do then just take a shot at it. Next day we see the typed version of what we wrote, proof it, blame the medication, and keep going. After the rough draft is finished we each take a copy, make notes, joke suggestions, cuts, etc. and reconvene for one more pass. Once that’s completed, more often than not we turn it in.

Do we have arguments? Sure. But we never let them get personal. And if we ever have a disagreement over a particular joke and can’t reach a consensus quickly we just toss it out and write something else. It takes less time to come up with a new line than to argue and have one of us ultimately pissed.

And you can't be defensive. The best idea wins even if its the other guy's.

We’re also not afraid to throw stuff out – a line, a run, a whole scene. And I mentioned last week, scripts can ALWAYS be trimmed.

Although the head to head process works well for us (which isn’t to say it works for everybody) early on in our career we began a practice whereby once a year we took an assignment and divided it up. The purpose was to feel confident that we could write on our own if we had to. We’re partners out of choice not dependency. And it’s amazing – we’ve been writing together so long that when we do split up a script I defy anyone to tell who wrote which act. They’re equally in need of major work.

There are many advantages to having a partner. The obvious ones you know. It’s more social, you have someone to share the burden/blame with, and it’s nice to get feedback (especially in comedy) – in our case not only from each other but our secretary, Lana. On more than one occasion we’ll laugh uproariously at a pitch, I’ll say to Lana, proudly, “Put that in” and she’ll say “Really???”

But here’s the biggest advantage to being in a team -- when you have to bring your car into the shop you know you can always get a ride.

A good partnership is like a marriage except you give up half your money before you get divorced.

2 comments:

Jeff Marcum said...

I will put aside my gushing over how much I love your work (okay most of it) for now and focus on a question I have. Namely, I’m an enterprising young man who has worked in media for near ten years now, but I’ve never thought about tackling television. Two of my clients have brought me very interesting and commercially appealing pitches for new television shows. They provided outlines for the first season’s worth of shows and scripts for pilot episodes. How would I, without connections in the television industry, go about pitching these ideas to networks and cable? What is the process (step by step) of getting a new show on the air? Thanks for the time and the highly entertaining site.

Hollywood blond said...

Teaming up with a partner would be a fun and challenging approach to writing. Clients are sometimes partners as far as squeezing in their input for the final product. It doesn't affect the pay rate and there's less of a chance to really work over a concept; but at times it's an interesting give and take.