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The art of collaboration

When interviewed about “The Bet,” I was asked what it was like to write with a partner. I thought I’d take a minute and explain the process Chris Smith and I go through.

It’s not the way many people might imagine, where we discuss and ponder and brainstorm in between turns at the keyboard. Actually quite different. And that’s not to say our way is the right way, only our way.

Before any writing was done, we had lunch to discuss the story, the characters, etc. I had emailed him prior with a very rough idea of the story to see if he was interested in collaborating again. When he agreed to tackle this thing together, we had lunch and discussed the story, the characters, etc. Once we were both pretty much on the same page (as it were) in regards to those elements, I banged out a very rough first draft – actually, the second draft as the first was abandoned a few pages in when the location changed from a cabin in the woods to a suburban home.

I sent that draft to Chris. He read it and we, again over lunch, discussed it. I went back with our notes and made changes. This process continued through the fifth draft. That’s when Chris really went through and overhauled huge sections of the script. His sixth draft had dropped a number of scenes between the two main characters which I stripped back in for the seventh draft. From there, only minor changes were made to create the final draft. Anyone who knows about writing spec scripts knows regardless of how many drafts are gone through, the final draft of the script is actually the first. So, now we have a finished first draft. This is what will be going out into the world.

Although the process took 19 months, which may or may not be a long time, it was a necessity. He and I both have real jobs outside of writing scripts, so the majority of our day is spent earning a paycheck. We also both have families, so a lot of our free time is spent there. The good thing that came out of the drawn-out process was that it gave us time to think about the script. Even if we weren’t at the keyboard working on the script, our brains were, sorting through things.

I felt the fifth draft was pretty much done. Just some minor tweaks. Then, while it was in Chris’ hands for just over two month, I started to see major flaws. I sent my concerns to him via email – sometimes two or three times a day – and he took it all in. This lead to a nearly perfect next draft.

The thing I like about having a collaborator is that all the pressure isn’t on me. I don’t have to stress that every word is perfect, that every scene flows, that every motivation works, that each arc is being handled. In fact, there are many times I would simply write something like “We need something to go here” and leave it for him to deal with. And I knew that if something I wrote sucked, he’d catch it and call me on it. This sort of check and balance works for us.

The other thing I really like about it is I get the chance to read the script as if it were new to me. When I was reading Chris’ sixth draft, there were moments when I was in complete suspense, not knowing how things were going to resolve – even though I knew pretty much everything that was going to happen. Reading it through someone else’s words is like rediscovering it, and it helps point out where the script is good and where it’s failing.

Chris and I have very different backgrounds, different ideas, different views. When he introduced the newscaster puppets in “The Bet,” I didn’t like the idea. But I stayed with it, respecting his vision, and it worked. There are some bits like that in Detox, where I’m not completely sold. I’m sure there are for him as well. There’s some compromise, some hard decisions, but ultimately we agree that if it works for the story, it stays.

I’ve tried to write a few scripts myself, but, ultimately, if I decide to pursue them fully, Chris will have a go at them. I don’t him to do the same, but I like what he brings to my ideas. This is the kind of collaboration I thrive on. If I was deadset on my way of doing things, I would’ve never been able to get “The Bet” made – nor would it have turned out half as good as it did. Some might think I’m lazy; some might think my “vision” is being watered down. I don’t. I think it works perfectly.

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