Friday, June 23, 2006

My process

From reader Beth C: “If you have time or are so inclined, could you delve a bit into your process? How long does it take you to write a script? What IS your process? That sort of thing.


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, that bastard.

We’re also not afraid to throw stuff out – a line, a run, a whole scene. And scripts can ALWAYS be trimmed. No matter how long our rough draft is we always look for and find cuts.

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 assistant, 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.


Maybe I should start my own on this comment page. If you're looking for a partner leave your contact info, a little about yourself, what you're looking for and who knows? A few of you might hook up.

You must thank me if you ever win an Emmy however. And I mean before your spouses and certainly agents.


John Reha said...

My first full-length screenplay was written with a partner, and I gotta say, Ken's right on. Having someone else there to validate your work (or invalidate, in certain cases) helps move the work along. At our peak, we were both writing about 10-15 pages a night (four hours work).

The writing seperately thing got old, but working out the idea, beats, and treatment together is a lot of fun.

Beth Ciotta said...

Waving to David. So glad you and Ken found one another and congratulations on the longtime relationship!

Thank you for answering my questions, Ken. I couldn't imagine and now I don't have to. :) I'm always intrigued by another writer's process, especially when they work with someone else. I wrote my first three novels with a partner. Cyndi and I checked our egos at the door and had a fabulous time. As we live three hours apart, the head-to-head approach was only possible for initial brainstorming. I must admit I'm envious of your speed. Although I don't have 33 years experience under my belt yet. Maybe there's hope!

As for a successful partnership, wouldn't you say a lot relies on chemistry? How are you going to work that into your LOL

Anonymous said...

Beth's comment brings up something I've been wondering about, difficult was it for you and David to work together, while you were going all over the country calling baseball games? Did you use phones or fax machines? Did David have to fly out to where you where regularly? (I do believe most of your behind the mike stint was before high-speed Internet was common, so I can't see you sending e-mails with a full script as attachment).

By Ken Levine said...

Since most of the season was in the summer and most of our TV work was done in the Fall-Winter, we were able to pull this off. A few times we split scripts up. A few times David met me on the road and we worked together. But you're right. No internet. I would make a floppy disk of the script I was working on and FedEx it to my secretary.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ken! Very informative.


Kristen said...

Thanks Ken!

You should do a match service for us reclusive writers,,, it would be good! SWF right here!

Here's a question for you-- What advice do you have for recent TV writing graduates? How do I balance writing and trying to get an agent and all of this stuff while slogging away at a PA gig? What do you know now that you wish you knew at 22?

Thanks man!