Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett know a thing or two—or more—about navigating writing partnerships.
Writing partners—and real-life partners—Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett have been collaborating together for nearly 30 years, including co-creating the animated series Big Mouth (with Nick Kroll & Andrew Goldberg). With plenty of experience under their belts, the pair offer six tips for making the most of a writing partnership.
Question: How do you make writing partnerships work? What advice do you have for writing partners?
Mark Levin & Jennifer Flackett: Writing can be lonely sometimes. Writing with a partner can be the antidote to that. We have loved being able to share Hollywood’s peaks and valleys over many years with someone whose creative journey is in exact alignment. It’s hard to overstate how comforting it is to leave a meeting with an exec and being able to ask, Did you hear her actually say that note was from her 9-year-old? Being able to laugh about the bad stuff takes away the pain surprisingly quickly.
We have been collaborating for nearly 30 years—about as long as we’ve been married. We each had individual writing careers for a few years, but back then, when one of us stared into space distracted by their work, the other felt left out. So we took the leap of faith that we might be happier living in a shared imagination. Now, when one of us is staring blankly into space, the other can think to themselves, Oh good, I hope he’s solving that problem in the third act.
We must qualify any advice by noting that we are insane, wildly codependent outliers who prefer spending all their time together—we even share a single email address. And we know this is not for everyone. But in spite of us being such anomalies, here are a few things we’ve learned about making partnerships and collaboration work:
- Choose your partners very carefully. Make sure you understand your reasons for collaborating. We’ve had experiences where we were put together with other writers by a studio (and those didn’t work out so well). But other collaborations have grown out of real friendships and shared passion for the material. Those have been the most successful. We have a simple but strict “only work with people you like” rule and it serves us very well.
- Collaboration is about trust. You must be able to trust that you can tell your very worst ideas to your partner, and together you’re going to (hopefully) shape them into even better ideas. About 20 years ago, we took something called “the vow of honesty,” which meant that in all interactions we were going to be honest—never mean, but honest—about that which we don’t understand or agree with. Simple honesty can be very disarming, whether it’s with your partner, your director, your producer, your studio, whoever.
- For a partnership, you have to surrender your ego. All writers have egos, but the process of becoming successful partners means sacrificing the individual ego to the ego of the team. It is not important who wrote a line or came up with an idea. Everything you create is a product of the team, and that’s all that matters. (Twenty-five years ago, this was challenging for us. For Mark, writing had been a solitary exercise that was about communing with the characters and the page. It took a few years to evolve a new process where ideas and stories and dialogue could grow from conversation as opposed to that solitude.)
- Listen. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is listen to what the other person has to say, before arguing why your idea is better. Really listen—then the other person will listen in return. (Confession: we could still get even better at this.)
- Give compliments. This is something we probably could do more with each other as well, but when you are working with others, don’t forget to tell your collaborator how much you appreciate them. We have great collaborators on our show Big Mouth and we try to express gratitude whenever possible. It turns out people really appreciate hearing compliments.
- The most passionate person wins. This has been our guiding light since we started working together. We have disagreements all the time, we fight over stories and ideas and lines, but we always reach a point where it becomes apparent that one person cares more than the other. We always let the most passionate person win. This has gotten us through a lot of hurdles.
Maybe a good writing partnership and a good marriage have more in common than we even realized. As we look back at our headlines here, it seems much of this advice could apply to both. For us, writing together blurs the line between work and play. Sharing one imagination has allowed us to make every day we work together into a conversation, a ping pong game, a drive up the coast. We’ve been very lucky to have a partner to share the journey with.
*Footnote: It’s the children who suffer most. A few years ago, our son instituted a strict “no talking about work” rule when we’re driving with him. But he’s at college now and we can talk about work whenever we want and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Mark and Jen have collaborated as writers, directors, and producers for decades. Their recent collaborations include co-creating Big Mouth and its spin-off Human Resources, and the screenplay for The Adam Project (written by Jonathan Tropper and T.S. Nowlin & Jennifer Flackett & Mark Levin) starring Ryan Reynolds. Read the 2019 Written By feature with Big Mouth co-creators Nick Kroll & Andrew Goldberg & Mark Levin & Jennifer Flackett.
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