Neil Simon’s Felix and Oscar have nothing on today’s top screenwriting teams.
The best are almost never a pair of like-minded souls. They’re two writers of differing temperaments, strengths and interests, combining those traits for optimum results. The results can be outstanding, as evidenced by two hopefuls for this year’s writing Oscars: “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain.”
Canadian Paul Haggis had written for television with former actor Robert Moresco since 1995. Some months after the pair collaborated on Oscar-winning script “Million Dollar Baby,” Haggis sent along a 20-page character outline for a story about racial conflicts across class lines in L.A.
“Paul said, ‘Nobody’s ever going to make it, but it’s a great story to tell,’ and I agreed,” Moresco says.
When Larry McMurtry first met Diana Ossana at an all-you-can-eat catfish restaurant in Tucson, Ariz., in 1985, McMurtry, author of “Lonesome Dove,” was at a low ebb. As a result of open-heart surgery, he says, “I kept getting the messages scrambled, I couldn’t really think.”
He recuperated at Ossana’s house, she says, and “for two years he sat staring out the window, so depressed. He had to get back to writing.” Then came the offer to write the mini “Streets of Laredo.”
Ossana had been managing a Tucson law office and had only written for pleasure in the past, but “I started entering his typewritten pages into the computer to help him, sort of editing it as I was inputting it, and at one point I questioned something one of the women characters was doing. He was kind of amused by that, but we discussed it and he liked what I had to say, so we continued on.”
They went on to collaborate on a screenplay called “Pretty Boy Floyd,” which became a bestselling novel, and miniseries offers rolled in. Then Ossana read Annie Proulx’s story in the New Yorker about a same-sex love affair in the 1960s West. “It haunted me, I couldn’t forget it. I brought it to Larry,” she says.
Each team works differently. Moresco drives to Haggis’ Santa Monica office for daily 12- to 13-hour sessions. In the end “nobody knows who wrote what,” according to Moresco, “because it’s a 100% partnership.”
By contrast, says McMurtry, “we live at opposite ends of a large house. I do five pages by 9 o’clock on my manual typewriter, and I give them to Diana and she has the day to work on those.”
Usually McMurtry doesn’t see her work until the draft is done: “I’m a great believer in momentum in any narrative art. Even if it’s really imperfect, it’s better to move along every day, little steps, than to stop and have to start up again.”
Each member of the team brings distinct strengths. Haggis calls Moresco “more patient than I am, and more thoughtful. He has great instincts and a nose for the truth.”
To Moresco, Haggis “is the hardest-working man I know, relentless in rewriting and making it better.”
Ossana calls McMurtry “a skimmer, he skims through life, and I’m almost obsessive about detail. And he has such a gift for dialogue.”
McMurtry replies, “Well, I’m an old-fashioned realist. I know the country and I know how people talk. She brings the ability to structure and expand and collaborate. And she’s much more movie literate than me.”
The “Crash” partners would surely agree with McMurtry’s sentiment that “I want to do things that I think have a chance, things that matter.”