July 2003

DGA/WGA: The Art of Collaboration

Directors and writers on the creative partnership.


Writers David Diamond, David Weissman, director Brett Ratner, writer Andrew Kevin Walker, director David Fincher and Mark Rydell, writer Steven Zaillian and director Edward Zwick (moderator) at the DGA/WGA Art of Collaboration Event

As the first symposium on the art of collaboration began, WGAw president Victoria Riskin shared with audience members what she claimed was Hollywood's "big, dark secret."

"The truth is that writers and directors sometimes get along, and even collaborate very well."

DGA Third Vice President Paris Barclay, who pointed out he was a "dual card holder" of both the WGA and DGA, agreed with Riskin, adding, "If we can shift the tone, the emphasis and the focus onto collaboration between writers and directors — the positive things that come out of that — I think we can go a long way in the right direction."

Riskin and Barclay introduced the evening's panelists of writers and directors, who shared first-hand accounts of creative partnerships that worked.

"Sometimes when collaborations are good, the resulting movies are no good — they reflect too many personal creative compromises, and become too watered-down," said moderator Ed Zwick, award-winning director of films including Glory, Legends of the Fall, Leaving Normal, the forthcoming Last Samurai, and TV shows Once and Again, Relativity and thirtysomething.

Director Brett Ratner, writer Andrew Kevin Walker, directors David Fincher and Edward Zwick (moderator) discuss the art of collaboration

"But sometimes the most contentious collaborations result in brilliance," added Zwick, "because each partner forces the other to raise the level of their work."

Among the panelists were director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour 1, 2, and 3) who joined writer duo David Diamond and David Weissman to create Family Man.

"When the director comes to you with notes on the script, you're duty bound to work with them," said Weissman. "You have to acknowledge that this is a person whom you respect intellectually, and address those needs."

"The great thing about our collaboration was that nobody ever said, it has to be this way or that way," agreed Weissman's writing partner David Diamond. "Brett never insisted that we had to do anything exactly as suggested, and this allowed us to approach a somewhat conventional subject in a very non-traditional manner."

Director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond, The Rose, The Cowboys) recalled the words of former employer and mentor Elia Kazan.

"He told me that movies are a collaborative effort — everybody collaborates with the director," Rydell laughed. "Ultimately there has to be one person in charge, but everyone's contributions must be respected. When you step onto the set, your attitude has an impact on everyone, and what you create, hopefully, is an atmosphere in which each participant can flourish. All of the fences disappear when you express the fact that you respect your collaborators' work."

Director Mark Rydell makes a point to writers David Weissman and David Diamond at the DGA/WGA Art of Collaboration event.

Writer-director Steven Zaillian, whose screenplay credits include Gangs of New York, Hannibal, Mission: Impossible, Schindler's List, and Searching for Bobby Fischer, believes that while flashpoints inevitably arise, focusing on respectful communication can help everyone reach their creative goals.

"It does wonders to remind people how much you appreciate them," said Zaillian, "that's the real secret to collaboration."

Honesty is an equally critical component of any creative partnership, according to writer Andrew Kevin Walker. He teamed up with director David Fincher of Propaganda Films to create Seven, which Walker jokingly refers to as his "love letter to New York."

"I've had good experiences and really bad ones," said Walker. "If the director and I do end up coming to loggerheads, a creative split shouldn't be seen as personal indictment. There doesn't have to be a villain. There can be good and honest intentions and things still may not work out.

"To leave anything you've invested time and energy in is painful," Walker said, "but you do people a disservice if you really don't believe in what you're doing."

"I think one thing we can't get around is that failure is inbred in the creative process," Zwick remarked. "Most films don't work, and that's frustrating. But with writers and directors, can the guilds do such a thing as legislate behavior when it comes to who gets to come to previews, etc.?

"The irony," Zwick concluded, "is that writers and directors are often able to exert power over the studios when they become allies and form a cabal."

According to Rydell, the most masterful directors nurture their teams toward a common target.

"Why should this be thought of as adversarial? We're there to do something together, so that concept should be thrown out — it's counterproductive," said Rydell.

"This is where we're going. This is the one shot we have. I want everybody to want to go there — that's what a leader conveys, and that's part of any successful exercise in teamwork."


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