Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Collaboration: Why The Ship Sank

About six months ago, Cake Man, Zombie, and I decided that we wanted to collaborate on a script. We were pretty gung-ho about it, and it wasn't long before we were exchanging ideas and nominating three concepts from a list of fourteen ideas that spanned several genres. The plan was to have this featured segment where I would report on our weekly successes and failures with the project. It was going to be informative, and hopefully inspiring. Half a year later and all I have to report on is why I think the project didn't work.

I'd first like to mention why I think collaborating is important, even though I have little experience with it. In my circle of writers we mostly envision a career where the concept is born in our mind, put to page by our hand, and sold with our name alone. The fantasy might be something along the lines of getting a call from an agent and finding out that two studios are in a bidding war for your script. Rarely do we fantasize about being commissioned to write an idea that isn't our own, or better the pages that another scribe already wrote, which is the more common reality of a working screenwriter. Collaboration is only a part of the equation, but I think you have to be trusting, flexible, and more detached than you normally would be with your own project because you don't have sole ownership. It's the flexibility that I'm most interested in, because looking at myself and my friends, I wonder how many of us could succeed if a concept was suddenly dropped on our table and we HAD to write that and not one of the ideas that we'd been toiling with in our heads for years. I don't think we'd manage very well, at least not right now. But the more versatile we are the easier it would be, and I certainly think collaborations could help in that regard.

So what happened with our project? The first thing that comes to mind (no particular order of significance) is the script concept. Not to say that we didn’t have a solid idea. We spent several meetings making sure that the concept was right for a first time collaboration and that we weren’t going to be using fluff for a first go. If we nailed the script we wanted it to be something we could push. The one thing about the script idea was that it was a balanced creature, designed to be manageable for different writers with varying interests and styles. We were all interested in giving it a go, but I think we lacked the sheer excitement that comes with starting a new script of our own. We didn’t absolutely have to write it like Cake Man had to write his Post-Apocalyptic spec, or like how I had to write my Action/Horror Western. The idea felt just right for all three of us, but not absolutely right, which I think it needed to be, especially given our differences as writers.

The question has to be brought up as to just how compatible the three of us were as collaborative writers. I’ll admit that between our trio there are some major differences in terms of style and interests. Sometimes Zombie and I seem a world apart, while Cake Man is more of the bridge. On paper we probably don’t amount to the ideal writing team, but part of me has to believe that as three trained writers we can successfully collaborate on a screenplay despite differences. A script is so skeletal, and though our time at NYU saw screenwriting students hone their creative abilities in different ways, our technical abilities were being developed the same. I anticipated that we’d be able to lay a functional foundation, and scratch and claw over the layers that we put over it. Unfortunately we never got that far. In Cake Man’s latest writing week he discussed the possibility of writing becoming a chore. I think the collaboration was a bit of a chore for all of us and several factors contributed to that, one of the most significant being the blessing of a steady 9 to 5.

Employment, as beautiful as it is in our current time definitely played a role in terminating the collaboration. But whereas the idea and our level of excitement may change, the reality is the factor of our day job will always be there (fingers crossed) through personal projects and collaborations until we find greater success as writers. It's something that just about all writers will have to deal with. In the end it boils down to our discipline and determination outweighing the fatigue of a 9 to 5 and other obligations. Our discipline was there with room for improvement, but the determination to get the job done faded fast.

2009 is still young and I hope that by year’s end I’ll be able to log some collaboration time. I expect that Cake Man and Zombie have their eyes set on round two as well. Even if it’s just pulling hairs over a first act, or simply banging out a few sub-par pages, it’s still a start, and writing tends to have that snowball effect where all you need is a start. I'm determined to give this process a go again, and I'll admit that it got the better of me as I'm sure it has many writers. What are your collaboration experiences like? Do you think it’s necessary, or even worthwhile?


Cake Man said...

I think you're right - we're all still in the stage where we're writing uncommissioned specs with the intent of selling them. A collaboration (on anything other than the "best" idea in the world) was more of a chore than we thought it would be. It's unfortunate, but not the end all and be all of our collaborating efforts. I'm sure of that. The plan to work on something as a team also happened to come along during a summer of slumps. We were all sitting on projects, growing dust, and unable to write. We were stumped, each and every one of us. And in that, we were frustrated. We wanted to crack our "own" projects, and I think working on a collaboration was too much of a distraction to really focus on. The writing juices weren't flowing, and that was a large part of the problem.

Megs said...

Hey guys!

I've been thinking about the process of collaboration a lot too lately; about how you can find a balance between having your own voice and your own ideas while writing something with other people.

I think it has a lot to do with how you try and write it. Were you actually trying to write it together, in the same space at the same time, or were you piecing it together one at a time, in person and remotely?

I imagine that making progress and maintaining motivation is easier if you're all writing in the same room (which is nearly impossible to coordinate with 9-5ers). Do you think trying to work with a trio instead of just two was a hindrance or an advantage?

Do you think having to work on something that isn't your "baby" is a worthwhile way to train yourself to relinquish control and be able to write those commissioned scripts in the future, or maybe not worth the time involved to get it done if it takes away from the few hours you have to work on your own stuff?

Onyx said...

Is that Megs, as in Megan from DDW? If so, thanks for chiming in and great to hear from you. If not..thanks for chiming in and great to hear from you.

Yeah, the how of the matter has been thought of much, but unfortunately we didn't even get that far. But from the way things were going I think most of the writing will be bounced around and added onto rather than written together in the same room. That's probably how it will go when we give it a second shot, but who knows, would be good to try a little of the in the same room method as well.

Your question about the trio is very interesting and I go back and forth on that answer from time to time. When we get to banging out some pages as a trio I hope that the three minds will be able to identify the story's needs more effectively, kind of like two heads are better than one. But when it comes down to getting everyone organized and motivated, the trio could present a problem. If you manage to get two people on board and ready to write, you're still not working as long as you're being faithful to the arrangement. But who knows, maybe those who have the juices flowing should just write knowing that the third will catch some steam eventually.

As for your last question, I definitely think stepping out of the comfort zone of writing your baby can be beneficial. I personally would like to develop the ability to latch on to an unfamiliar pitch, outline, or character skeleton and be able to write something that becomes my own and becomes something that I enjoy. My hope is that the project wouldn't be accomplished from a raw passion for the story as much as a greater understanding of how those unfamiliar materials best translate into the ideal story.

Megs said...

hey! yeah, it's me. I'm back in NYC--

I could see how writing with three people could present even more challenges than writing with just two, especially when you think about establishing a consistent voice for the script and the characters. In my mind it would require an extra step back in order to allow room for everyone's input. But, like you said, this could be a really good way of writing a script that has a much more tightly crafted structure.

Were you planning on divvying up the roles? Do you think that would even be possible? Having one person work mainly on story development, one on writing, one on rewriting? (or something like that) I'm not sure that would work very well, but at the end of the day, are you all going to agree on every choice someone makes? Is there going to be a final authority?

I think writing as a trio is a really cool experiment to try, and I'd be interested to hear, if you start back up again, how you find the writing process to go and how it changes everyone's own personal process when they go back to their own projects.

Anyway. I hope you're doing well, we should catch up sometime! I'd love to hear what else you're working on!