Two longtime writing teams discuss collaborations that paid off
In the best relationships, one plus one equals so much more than two. That’s also true in the best screenwriting partnerships, where one plus one can mean not only deliverance from the solitary terror of the writing process, but a mutual, multitiered journey of achievement, awards and even Oscar recognition.
Or as Jim Taylor, one-half of the duo that created “Sideways,” puts it, “Collaborating is fun and productive; writing alone is miserable and slow.”
For Taylor and his co-writer, director Alexander Payne, the productivity part recently yielded the wine country comedy about mismatched buddies on a last-hurrah road trip that has generated much awards buzz. So far its kudo credits include a picture nom for an Independent Spirit Award and best picture recognition from the National Board of Review. The team co-wrote the critically hailed “Citizen Ruth,” and then expanded their writers trophy case with WGA winner (and Oscar-nominated) “Election” and Golden Globe winner “About Schmidt.”
They began collaborating 14 years ago in Los Angeles, having met through a mutual friend when Taylor lost his development job. Payne, who was finishing up his thesis film at UCLA, needed a roommate. Taylor says, “It was a low point in my life, but very fortuitous.”
Partnership was an organic outgrowth of the friendship. “It almost wasn’t a choice,” says Payne, “which is what characterizes good relationships.”
While some writers collaborate by email, this team truly writes together, to the point of hooking up two monitors and two
keyboards to the same computer, taking turns hanging their hats on the other’s coast for months at a time. (Taylor moved to New York in 1992.) Both favor personal, character-driven stories, and eschew a conventional approach to dramatic structure. “For us, it always has to stem from character,” says Payne. “Since we’re thinking about people first, our structural ideas come from that. Structure for us means, ‘What’s the next thing that happens?’ ”
Their approach might flummox a typical development exec, but that’s of little concern to this self-contained unit. Payne says they generally get few studio notes on their projects, but accept them when script-doctoring.
Taylor says before hooking up with Payne, he wrote detailed outlines, a practice gone by the wayside. “Even if we do an outline, it’s not complicated. We never discuss act breaks or terminology (used) in screenwriting textbooks. We might say, ‘Oh, that feels kind of like the climax,’ just whether or not the story is working, not whether it’s adhering to some principal about storytelling.”
And as much as they credit novelist Rex Pickett for providing “Sideways” with its source material, as well as a unique voice that meshed well with theirs, they make no apologies for an outcome that’s significantly different. “As much as we love a book, we don’t even feel we need to be true to the spirit of the book,” says Taylor. “It’s not against the book, it’s just for the movie.”
Longtime writing partners Alejandro Amenabar and Mateo Gil, whose Spanish-language “The Sea Inside” chronicles the true story of quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro and his legal quest to end his life, worked from interviews, the public record, and Sampedro’s published books to craft their character-driven screenplay, which is considered original rather than adapted.
Because Sampedro was confined to his bed, their major hurdle was to transcend such a static, interior situation. “We never meant to write a play; we wanted to write a movie,” says Amenabar of the film, which won the grand jury prize at Venice and the National Board of Review’s award for foreign film.
Rather than concentrating the action in the story’s other arena, the courtroom, they decided to de-emphasize the trial and concentrate on Sampedro’s “imaginary journeys, along with a few flashbacks and various characters, some fictitious.” Resulting scenes, such as when Sampedro (Javier Bardem) seems to burst from his window and rush through the air to the sea, are some of the pic’s most affecting.
Both born in 1972, the Spanish-born Gil and Chilean-born, Spanish-reared Amenabar have been collaborating for 14 years, since they met at Complutense University in Madrid and served as two-man crews for short films shown only to to family and friends. Gil says their first short is “under some furniture somewhere.”
Amenabar, who wrote and directed “The Others,” deemed Gil “the ideal person to work the dreamlike realm into (Sampedro’s) story,” although the two had their differences. Gil was enraged by Sampedro’s fight with the legal system and the injustice of it all.
He says Amenabar’s more rational view tempered his. As a general rule, creative fireworks subside quickly between the pair, basically because Gil acquiesces — “Ultimately, (Amenabar) decides since he is the director.”
The team had previously collaborated on “Thesis,” and “Abre los ojos” and the English-lingo adaptation of that film, “Vanilla Sky,” receiving co-credit with Cameron Crowe.
In contrast to Payne and Alexander, Amenabar and Gil craft their stories in painstaking detail before writing a script, including what happens in each sequence, what happens to each character and how a sequence begins and ends. They sometimes each take a stab at writing the same scene, then decide which one is best. It’s a system that works, considering they are still collaborating.
Amenabar composed the music for Gil’s feature debut, thriller “Nobody Knows Anybody.” They started collaborating on “The Sea Inside” after they stopped sharing an apartment. Gil’s next project is adapting Juan Rulfo’s classic Latin American novel “Pedro Paramo.” It will hew closely to its source, which Gil says works beautifully as a film. He adds, “You have to read it in Spanish because it’s pure music.”
A frequent contributor to Variety, Allison Robbins is also a WGA member and writes about wine.