IFP Script to Screen - Writers in Collaboration - March 7, 2009
March 7, 2009
New York, NY
Ira Sachs, Writer/Director, Married Life
Ryan Fleck, Writer/Director, Sugar & Half Nelson
Todd A. Kessler, Co-Creator, “Damages”
Daniel Zelman, Co-Creator, “Damages”
Sachs: How did you start working collaborators?
Fleck: (Anna Boden and I) started working together in film school…I started helping her with her projects, she started helping me with mine, giving me notes on the scripts that I was working on…I directed Half Nelson, but she was always there, very much involved with that. On Sugar, we co-directed that together.
Kessler: Daniel, Glenn and I, Glenn’s my brother so I’ve known him for a long time. Daniel had been a friend of ours since college…Basically, we’re writing and producing television. That’s something an individual can’t do alone…We do 13 episodes a season so that’s 13 scripts. Sometimes scripts are written in a week…one person can’t write that much…The core of our collaboration was that we wanted to work together and not have to bring in other people. If anyone has seen Damages, you’re aware that there’s a lot of betrayal and manipulation and narcissism…all the things that we experienced working with other people. So we wanted to limit some of that and the three of us got together.
Sachs: How do you work in the writing stage?
Zelman: There are two different phases. There’s the writing that begins prior to the season’s beginning…the first season was the pilot…The three of us sit in a room and just talk a lot and discuss what we’re interested in. It really begins with a character. Damages began with the character played by Glenn Close (Patty Hewes)…We began by discussing her and what it was we wanted to explore through her. It really just becomes a brainstorming session…Once the season is up and running, that’s the second phase…We divide up the script and we all write pieces of that script and then we pass our pages back and forth…There’s a lot of re-writing of other people’s materials. We kind of create a factory mill where every scene goes through every writer. We feel that by the time it goes through that process, it’s better than it would be than with any one of us.
Sachs: How are each of the collaborations you’ve worked on different? What’s worked best for you?
Kessler: On The Sopranos (for which Kessler wrote during seasons 2 and 3), David Chase is the creator of the show and was kind of infamous for having very long stretches of time between each season…The more time you have, the better off you are because you have more time to think about the stories and the characters. Because you had to generate so much material so quickly, you’re able to read books and live lives and see what’s going on in the world that you can bring to the work…We would start with David coming back. He’d have these long sheets of paper, episodes 1-13…He would have these mileposts in the season, the second season for example, the character of Big Pussy, would die by the end…There were these long arcs and it was our job as writers to help fill in those spaces. That’s something we’ve put to use on Damages, what we call tent pole scenes.
Sachs: One of the things I realized collaborating with co-writers on screenplays is you get systems into place. How can those systems be helpful and how can they also inhibit creativity? How did you work together with Anna?
Fleck: When we started writing Sugar, we needed to get out of the city. It was really distracting. The McDowell Colony (where they went) is a great place to go…If you don’t have the luxury of going away somewhere, just start writing…When Anna and I worked together, there was no science, no pattern…We typically separate…We come up with an outline…come up with the main beats and then we’ll separate and start writing the scenes…We’re usually not writing together until we’re re-writing.
Audience Question: How do you avoid legal problems amongst collaborators? What degree of trust do you need to have?
Fleck: I think when you’re first starting, there’s a degree of mistrust…I think that’s healthy to have…You don’t need a lawyer to get everything worked out on paper. Ultimately, that’s not going to matter…unless there’s millions of dollars at stake, you’re not really going to go sue them.
Zelman: I totally agree with what you’re saying that at the end of the day, a lawyer for contracts are not going to protect what most needs to be protected…It’s almost like a spiritual question…There is so much time and energy put into doing these projects, that it’s like a marriage. If you just don’t feel a fundamental trust with the people you’re collaborating with creatively, it’s a leap of faith…You just have to be committed to each other and understand that you’re going to splice through those moments. If you don’t have that faith, it’s a very dangerous place to be.
Audience Question: How did you work with your co-writer on Forty Shades of Blue?
Sachs: I worked with a co-writer named Michael Rohatyn, who was not the co-writer on my next film (Married Life) who was Oren Moverman. The process for me is generally I have an idea for something that I’m interested in. I often take a good stab at a first draft myself just to try to get as much of the instinctual things that are personal. The more autobiographical stuff tends to come out alone. I think that’s true for my co-writers as well. I send them off to go write at certain times…For me it’s very important as an artist and I project this as well for my co-writer, that they have the space at a certain time where they are just playing with their own memories and ideas and that they don’t need to verbalize everything to me for it to become something that I want to see on the page…One of the biggest challenges of collaboration is, and it’s the same with an actor, I try to talk very little to the actors, except when I need to…I want to see what they’re going to bring me. That’s a very good part of collaboration, trying to tap into what that person has that you don’t have.