Worship Media Arts

Hollywood Writers’ Series – Part 3 with Matthew Federman and Stephen Scaia

 

Matthew Federman and Stephen Scaia are a dynamic duo of awesomeness.

These writing partners of eight years have written and produced many series including Judging Amy, Jericho, Warehouse 13, Human Target, and Charlie’s Angels. They’re currently in development on a cable pilot as well as a Zorro re-boot for Sony.

They are highly respected by their peers, and their talent has kept them consistently working from the early days of their partnership.

A few years ago I got to know Matt and Steve when they were working on the episodic television series Jericho. A couple of years later I got to work with them as a designer on a pilot they had in development, and I must say, it’s truly exciting to experience their collaborative process in real time.

On a side note, and to further reinforce the notion that it is indeed a small world, Steve grew up only a short drive down the interstate from where I grew up, and while we didn’t know it at the time, we competed in high school marching band competitions. Anyway, on to more interesting things!

1. Guys, thanks for agreeing to participate in this series. When breaking a story in the writers’ room, the writing staff has to come to a consensus. Does being a writing team give you any advantages when breaking a story? I know you don’t take a vote, but do two voices help if you’re on the same side as an idea? Or do you really function as individuals in the room?

Matt: We function as individuals but tend to find ourselves on the same side of an argument. The main advantage for us is during staffing since we are packaged as two for the price of one, which helps in an increasingly competitive environment. In terms of story breaking, when it is going to be our episode, we tend to break a lot of the story on our own to take the weight off the room. We come in with a fleshed-out take. That seems to be appreciated.

Steve: Another plus to being a team in the room is that we both know each other so well that if one of us needs to be writing, or on set, we still have a presence in the room. Comes in handy, and saves time on catching up on what we missed if one of us was elsewhere that day.

2. You’ve worked together for a long time, and I’d assume you literally finish each other’s sentences sometimes. What does your process for writing together look like? Do you each do drafts and combine the ideas? Does one of you take the lead, and the other edit? Does it look different every time?

Steve: When pitching, it’s surprisingly theatrical because you need to give the person on the other side of the table (and with the checkbook) the best show to convince them to take a chance on your idea. So yes, we literally finish each other’s sentences when we’re “selling the sizzle” of a story. An advantage to having a partner in that room is that it becomes more of a show than a monologue.

Matt: As for writing process, we break the story together, work it out into beats, build an outline, etc. When it’s time to write, we split it up so we each take different scenes, then pass them back and forth and rewrite each other as we move forward.

3. Creative collaboration with a partner can be invigorating, but also can create conflict and tension—especially when you’ve worked together for a long time. When conflict arises, how do you deal with it? Do you have any rules about how to deal with major creative disagreements?

Matt: Our process has gotten a lot smoother as time goes on as we learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses and develop our rules for working. The most important are:
1. We each have a veto over everything. It’s both of our names on it. Nothing should get forced on anyone.
2. If one of us feels the need to completely rework a scene from the ground up, stop and talk to the other. There is probably a big difference in vision that needs to be sorted out.
3. If we reach an impasse about how something should work, and neither of us likes the other’s version, we’ll find a third way. We need to trust that each of us is tuning into something that isn’t working, and the third way ends up being the one that makes us both happy.
4. Know the difference between a 10% problem and a 90% problem. By this I mean sometimes at the start we would argue vehemently over a scene to discover that the real issue was a line of dialogue up top. Now we know to check in: is this issue a small, easily fixable one or something at the core? It makes it easier for us both to know how to approach fixing it.

Steve: I completely disagree!!

4. What does the timeline look like for a network television show from breaking a story to shooting it? How many days are involved, and how do you divvy up the work since you co-author?

Matt: Every show is its own beast. Episodes have taken weeks to break, to a week, to a couple days. As far as writing goes, we’ve never had more than a week for a first draft and have had as little as four days. Some scripts play more to one of our strengths or the other, so for that script one or the other may do more writing for the first pass, but we always rewrite each other, and it all works out in the end.

Steve: By the time we’re to the point where we’re divvying up the work, we’ve been living with the story for quite some time—in fact, a lot of times in TV, writing is the quickest part of the script process. Since we’ve been breaking and pitching over and over, it’s usually the case we’ll have a good idea which scenes each person is excited about when we go to type, and how to divide it up.

5. You’ve written for sci-fi series such as Warehouse 13, and Jericho (which is sci-fi-ish), and also for shows set in a more “real-world” setting such as Judging Amy and Charlie’s Angels. Is it more or less difficult to write for sci-fi, or does it really not make much of a difference?

Matt: Every genre has it’s own difficulties. Judging Amy meant finding interesting stories, but working within a legal institution that is real so you have to tell stories in a certain way. Jericho meant telling stories in a world that starts as real and becomes more a thing of our creation, and how to make that transition interesting and believable. I think we like the more heavy genre stuff because it allows for more imagination, but we also like to ground things so they always seem real.

Steve: We also love that anyone would consider Charlie’s Angels a “real-world” setting. And how a grounded approach to big ideas helps sell that you “could” believe that there’s a government warehouse full of magical treasures, or three 100-pound girls in six-inch heels could beat up a dozen giant Russian dudes.

6. With the genres you’ve written for, I’d imagine research is often required. How much research do you do? How do you go about it, and is it something you split up or do together?

Steve: Research can be one of the most interesting parts of our job. Partly because we were both raised by educators (Matt’s mom’s a teacher, mine is a librarian), but also to tell the best story, it helps to have firsthand knowledge. And there’s nothing better than HAVING to take a trip to Paris or drive a racecar in service of a story. Tough life.

Matt: And there’s different kinds of research. Sometimes you get to sit down with interesting people, like in the Defense Department, and ask them all kinds of crazy questions, and see what you can trick them into talking about, or learn something you didn’t know that you can then apply to what you are writing. And some research is looking up what a city comptroller does (or something else that makes my head hurt), and it’s like taking medicine. In either case we both do research, partially based on our different interests, and partially based on what we are taking a first pass at writing.

Thanks guys! I can’t wait to see what’s next for you two.

 

Read part 1 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Carol Barbee here
Read part 2 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Jonathan E. Steinberg here (1748)

1 Comment so far »

  1. Sheri R Sullivan said,

    Wrote on February 6, 2012 @ 10:35 pm

    Awesome interview, Jason! One of my favorite parts of the Jericho Event in L.A. was the writer’s panel. I’m fascinated with the “behind-the-scenes” information that they provide. These two had me in stitches. Great combination of talent and personality!

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