Greg Kwedar and Clint Bentley are writer partners who have worked together for 10 years. Their first feature film was Transpecos, a frontier thriller starring Clifton Collins Jr., directed by Kwedar. Now Bentley sits in the director’s chair for Jockey, on an aging jockey (Collins) who supervises a young rider (Moises Arias). Bentley’s father was a jockey when he was young, and at his funeral Bentley saw a window to a world he hadn’t seen explored in other racing films. In this article, Bentley and Kwedar discuss what goes into a healthy co-writing partnership.
Greg Kwedar: Finding a writing partner is not a strategic thing. You’re just like, I love being with you. If two people are exactly the same, one is unnecessary. In the beginning we had very distinct strengths, and over time the strengths of the other helped develop the weak muscles of the other.
I am someone who thinks architecturally – I have an endless well of ideation. If I was alone there would be 1,000 things on the wall – none of them are really finished or very deep. In Clint’s work there is this incredible depth of following, of layers of richness, that gives such a special voice to the things we write. What I bring to it is this adventurous and propulsive ambition. These two things go well together.
Clint Bentley: Most of the things Greg and I write together are for one of us to do. And so, whoever ends up leading the project is usually the person who guides what’s in and what’s left. But with these scripts and also the things that we wrote on mission, we have a real “best idea wins” policy.
Kwedar: Because there are two of us, the sketch is not a gospel. When we write a plan, we try to write it in prose and simply tell the story. This process can take a very long time, especially since a lot of what we do has almost this journalistic approach – we like to raise the curtain behind worlds. Sometimes there’s a multi-year discovery process before we’ve even written a draft, as we’re trying to uncover the essence of the story we’re trying to tell and the specific details.
But once we get to that point, and we’ve written that plan, it then goes into a Google document as a live document. And it turns out that every paragraph is almost like a scene, or a few scenes. Once it’s there, we decide who feels something, or who has input and energy. It can be several scenes that follow an idea, so that there is consistency and consistency. We’re just starting to cut it. Then the independent scenes go to a Dropbox that we share.
Clint Bentley: We’re still reading the scenes, just because you’re excited to see what the other person did. And you also want to see what they’ve done so that maybe you can use something from there in a future scene. And if there are some big issues or big changes that we need to discuss, then it’s like, okay, we need to talk about it. But at the same time, we’ve learned not to get into the editing process too early.
Usually, after one of us writes a scene, the other then goes through that scene first and does an edit. And then it comes and goes until it becomes, hopefully, a nice final version of Frankenstein.
Greg Kwedar: I immediately read new scenes. It’s just a delight. It’s a little cheesy, but you have to find something to celebrate every day because it’s so hard to get to make a movie. We’ve had a few scripts that we’ve written over the past few years that haven’t turned into movies. They sort of live like PDFs in a cloud somewhere. But we have always had joy in the act of writing them. Learning to appreciate this is important in the life of a writer. Because so much is beyond our control. We have to go behind the curtain and learn more about this strange world, or this strange profession, or institution, or system, or character, and we are doing better. The things we learned from writing other scripts, we definitely applied to Jockey and helped make it better.
Once we’ve gone through all of the scenes, we put them together into one master draft. Now that we’ve been doing this for over 10 years, it’s crazy that this draft is almost always the length a feature script should be. It’s not too insanely crazy shaggy, and it feels like he has a consistency of vocals. It’s a weird sort of witchcraft that happens once this project is finally put together.
It’s normally when I say to myself, OK, I’m fine. Let’s send it. And that’s where Clint’s strengths really come in, like, now the real work begins.
Bentley: Go through it like 40 times.
Kwedar: For first-time feature film writers, the computer can be really intimidating. We wrote the first draft of Transpecos normal writing. It’s really cool: you get a large notebook, and on the right side, write in script format, but by hand. And then the page on the left would only be notes.
Then at the very end, you had something tangible.
Bentley: Whatever you can do, whatever trick you have to come up with, get that shitty first draft. Each writer must find their own tip. It’s enormous. Whether it’s our first script, or whether it’s the one we’re writing now, how do you come up with that bad first draft, that you can work on something better?
You learn to write by revising. Neither of us went to film school, so we didn’t have any formal training in how to write a screenplay.
Clint Bentley: Jockey came from a personal world, and Greg knew next to nothing. It became a huge asset, as Greg seeing him with new eyes revealed things that I never thought were interesting.
Greg Kwedar: Often times, novice filmmakers are given the advice: take whatever you have at your disposal. And it’s almost like the advice is to think small. And I think there is an element of over-ambition that should come from a first film. Let it feel a little bigger and out of your reach and a little scary – it’s important to listen to that.
But then the question is how to accomplish it in a very clever and very guerrilla way.
We went down to the track in Houston and slept during a severe storm in a tack room where all the racing gear is, and we were almost inundated from that place with inflatable mattresses. When we woke up in the morning the sun was rising and we could hear the loudspeaker. He was saying a morning prayer in English first, then in Spanish, and there was like a layer of mist on the trail. And we headed for the rails and there were these jockeys moving like a symphony in all directions. Outriders were on the station, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and talking shit – it was so alive. It was obvious to us that we had to pursue him.
Bentley: We probably went through five or six different endings that we wrote. Okay, this is the one. And then someone would still be like, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem quite normal. It was a group effort to get there. We knew he was coming on schedule, and he was constantly fine-tuning it a little bit, to get to that place where he landed.
Kwedar: Often, filmmakers will be on the defensive and feel like they have the answers. We always say that if we only achieve our vision, we have failed. But opening the doors to contributions from the world around you and the team you have assembled can only make the movie better.
Jockey, written by Greg Kwedar and Clint Bentley, hits theaters this Christmas.
Main picture: Clifton Collins Jr. in Jockey. Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.