By Emily J. Weitz
Bill Collage compares his screenwriting career to a football game, constantly in motion. He pushes the ball down the field, he invests energy and time into a specific piece, and sometimes it’s only to have the ball intercepted at the five-yard line. But other times, he gets a touchdown. Either way, he keeps playing.
Collage has written dozens of screenplays with his longtime writing partner, Adam Cooper. For the Sag Harbor resident, there was never really anything else he wanted to do then be a screenwriter.
“I grew up loving movies,” says Collage, “and there are so many ways to get involved in the movie-making process. But I always liked writing, so I thought, ‘Why not just do that, and become good at it, as opposed to always wanting to do something else?’”
It was lonely work, typing at his computer. So when Cooper and Collage teamed up in the early 90s, it took away the solitary aspect of it.
“It was the last piece of the puzzle that made it okay,” says Collage. “Between being insecure about what you’re doing and the loneliness.”
Collage will share his experiences as a screenwriter on Wednesday, February 27, as part of the Writers Speak program at Stony Brook Southampton.
From Sag Harbor to Los Angeles, there is a constant thread of ongoing conversation between the partners. They reflect on what they’ve done, brainstorm what they will do, and eventually one of them begins.
“We plan out ahead of time what the characters will be like,” explains Collage. “The voice of the characters has to be unique. We try to have a point of view and a voice for each character.”
This is complicated with some of the characters that they work with, said Collage, because many of them are not entirely fabricated. Currently, they are at work on “Moses” with director Ridley Scott and “The General,” which is based on the life of George Washington. These are loaded characters, said Collage, and the audience is going to view their work with their own sets of expectations. It raises the stakes.
“You have to have a lot of courage to want to do this stuff,” says Collage. “When you say you’re going to work on the George Washington story, people laugh at you. You have to fight through the resistance and the preconceived notions and stay true to what your vision is for those characters.”
As they developed the script for “Moses,” Collage and Cooper were committed to representing the idea of God, to not trying to debunk what people perceive of as myths. They believe in miracles.
“We worked with Rabbi Leon Morris at the synagogue and many others to make sure it was right,” says Collage. “We had to have the courage to stay true to what we wanted to say in the material, and to not get distracted by what the marketplace says.”
As much as screenwriting was a lonely pursuit, it’s also a collaborative effort. Many hands get dirty in the making of a movie, says Collage, but the screenwriter is the first set. In a way, he breathes the first breath into a piece that will grow and change and, perhaps, bare little resemblance to the original script. This is just part of the game.
“Rewriting is a part of the process,” Collage says, “and being rewritten by others is a part of the process. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be happy.”
Collage and Cooper will research a story, they will invest in it and they bind their hearts to it. And then, they let it go. Sometimes they watch it blossom and sometimes they watch it fade.
“Sometimes you stay involved,” he says, “and often you don’t. So as it begins to have this other life, you stay tuned in to it and you care about it, and you want to watch it grow up. You let it go into the process, and let other talented people do what they do.”
“Tower Heist” came out in 2011 featuring Alan Alda playing a Bernie Madoff-inspired villain. When they first began the project, Collage said he and Cooper thought they were writing what was suppose to be a black “Ocean’s Eleven.” It didn’t turn out that way, and that’s the way it goes. Now on IMDB, there are five people with writing credits for Tower Heist, including Collage and Cooper.
It’s a different world when the screenwriter steps away from the silver screen and into television, as Collage and Cooper have done for current projects “Doc Holiday” and “Cleopatra.”
“In TV, you never have to let go,” says Collage. “It’s more of a writer’s medium. Directors will shoot the pilot and leave, and the writers stay around to shepherd that show. You write those characters over and over through the seasons. In a movie, that’s not the way it works.”
Collage will be speaking about the way the game works to many who have been on the sidelines, waiting for their turn to play. Annette Handley Chandler, Director of the Screenwriting Conference at Stony Brook Southampton, will interview him next Wednesday at 7 p.m. as part of the college’s Writers Speak series. The evening is free and open to all.