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Screenwriting Partners: Yes or No?

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Coen Brothers

Joel and Ethan Coen: Brothers, Screenwriting Partners and Oscar Winners

You’ve heard — it’s been said — many times that film is a collaborative art form. We in the business like to illustrate this concept by talking about working “off” our co-creators. For example, a director should and will meet for months with the Director of Photography (DP) to plan shots or will sit in the editing suite with the editor when a project is in post (post-production) or an actor in a scene will work with her scene partners — whatever they are bringing to the shot — to create a jointly-developed reality.

Another way of understanding the collaboration required to make a film is to sit through the very end of a movie and watch the credits roll, see the hundreds of people without whom the film would not have come to the screen.

Given that the writer, too, hands off her work to the director and producer, why don’t more writers work collaboratively inside the screenwriting process itself?  Should writing be an exception to working off a co-creator? Should writers sit alone in their garrets (coffee shops) and draw lonely inspiration from the Muse?

A lot of screenwriters think so. But many, many more work with writing partners.  These partnerships can range from consulting another writer for fresh eyes once the first draft is done to sitting next to a co-writer daily for months and months cranking out every line of dialog, every slug line, together.

Where do I fall on this co-writing spectrum? Probably because I’m an actor and as such, hardly ever work without a raft of scene partners and a director, not to mention taking direction from the cinematographer and hitting marks made for me by the AC, or the gaffer or maybe because I don’t believe in the theory of divine inspiration of genius, or possibly because there really are no new stories — just new ways of telling them — I like to work hand in hand with a co-writer when developing a screenplay.

In later columns I will share stories of the writing partners I’ve had over the years and how each of these collaborations was different from every other one.

Michelle Shyman is an actor, comic, screenwriter, filmmaker, corporate video producer and film journalist. She’s appeared in 35 films and stage plays and has won regional acting awards. One of her screenplays placed in American Gem Screenplay Competition and Script Nurse Screenplay Competition, and she’s produced or assistant-produced a number of independent films, three of which won festival awards. Michelle executive-directed the Lake2Sound Youth Film Festival and serves as a judge for several student film festivals nationwide. She coaches actors, teaches directors how to work with actors, and presents seminars on directing actors. She’s a former Board member of Women in Film Seattle chapter. Michelle also consults on product strategy for entertainment startups. In addition to her Reel Life With Jane column, Michelle writes “Balancing Act,” a weekly column for Reel Grok, named one of MovieMaker Magazine’s top sites for working filmmakers. Follow her on Twitter @michelleshy.

Michelle Shyman has written posts on Reel Life With Jane.


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2 comments

  1. Michelle – Interesting thoughts. I wrote one of my screenplays myself, and two with a partner. They’ve all either sold or optioned, so I guess both models work. I find that breaking story with a partner is in some ways more fun, and we create more interesting twists and plot points. But the actual writing can be slower… partly because of conflicting schedules, and partly because of a struggle to get momentum going. Writing with a partner (not just breaking story) definitely works best for me with a strong outline / beat sheet — keeps us moving.

    Ultimately tho, I think breaking story w a partner, then writing independently off the outline we create, is fastest for me. Then I throw it back to him for feedback and edits. Maybe we end up with a shared “story by” credit, and just my name on the script.

    BTW The Coen’s are heroes. Brilliant artists. Love them.
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