The Polar Bear and the Giraffe, or How We Collaborate

The directors of Mean Girls, who are partners in both art and life, share how they have learned to bring out the best in each other.

A polar bear and a giraffe peering at each other through glass at a zoo. That’s how I described Arturo and I after we first met 10 years ago. After our first argument, after our first make-up, after stumbling to find our footing toward better communication – and ultimately, to the most fulfilling collaboration. We’re two animals from different planets. You see, Art’s from Mexico City: loud, vibrant, colorful, spicy, hot, alive! Me, well, I’m from South Jersey. I won’t try to arrange an exotic bouquet of adjectives. But when Art and I first met, there wasn’t a thought in our minds of how our worlds were different. We had to be together. And not only that, we had to create together. We just felt it.

Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne in relaxed mode.

But creating together meant communicating. It meant learning the biomes of each others’ zoo habitats. I’m an introvert, he’s an extrovert. He thinks on his feet, I step away to ponder. Creatively, my work had always been so insular – I’d write and figure out puzzles quietly in my mind. Art had directed live music videos, in the moment, spontaneous; his ideas, his vision. So what happens when these two completely different species put a ring on it and move into a tiny apartment? It means you need to figure shit out quick. We needed a roadmap.

You’d think we’d realize this right off the bat, but don’t give ourselves that much credit. It was a tough first few years. Not only were we learning just how differently we were built, we also figured that creating work “together” meant, well, together. Lock-step. Every bit of the way. Oh, we’re writing a short film – let’s write it together. Like word for word. Together on the couch. “Can you change–”/ “Ugh YES, I’m about to.”/ “You spelled this wro–”/ “It’s a TYPO.” / “OH MY GOD, STOP.” We were driving each other crazy. The things we loved to do suddenly felt hampered, strenuous. It took blowups and tears and huffy walks and conversations to finally realize the very basic truth that became our first rule of collaboration: We both have different strengths. Use them.

“We both have different strengths. Use them.”

Art has a keen sense for pacing, for story beats, what happens when. Bird’s eye views that overwhelm and exhaust me absolutely exhilarate him. Conversely, I love characters and how they speak. How they joke. I love dialogue and descriptions and the mouthfeel of words. To Art, those things felt like minutia; chores to get to the good stuff. AHA! So maybe “together” doesn’t mean identical. And so we tried doing it differently. He’d lead us through conversations on the story beats. It would be energetic, in the moment, spontaneous creativity. We’d beat it all out, bullet points in a doc. And if a funny bit of dialogue came up, we’d voice memo it for later. Then I’d take those bullet points and voice memos, go off into my little corner (specifically a corner of the couch, by the window ledge, where I can put my tea and snacks. All the snacks – so many snacks) and write up a first draft. I’d figure out the puzzle quietly in my mind. And when I was done, or stuck, or spiraling into a deep, dark pit of self-doubt, I’d share it with him. And we’d go from there – and do it again, and again, until we were happy. When we did it this way, the whole process got fun. We got our self-confidence back. He was able to do what he did best, and I was too. We both were bringing the best of ourselves to the table – and we could surprise each other with it. We had figured it out!

Except we hadn’t figured it out. Not yet. Because what happens when one person feels strongly about their idea? So strongly that they see it as the best solution, the only solution, and why on earth can’t you just see how great it is?!? It was in those moments that we had stopped listening. And when the listening stops, it halts everything – the trust, the teamwork, and most importantly: the fun. So what now, I’m going to stomp off and angrily write some light, quippy piece of dialogue? (I tried. It didn’t work.) And so we developed our most important rule of collaboration – something that sounds unbelievably simplistic, a preschool tenet, but is truly the hardest thing to do: listen.

Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne on their wedding day.

And by listen, we don’t mean casually listening – nodding and pretending to listen while you’re off having your own thoughts, forming your air-tight argument as you wait for the other person to finish up already. We’re talking fully listening. Art calls it violently listening. And when you violently listen – without inner V.O. rambling on, without ego puffing up at the first thing that bumps you – something beautiful happens. You fully take in what the other person is saying. You hear not only the words, but the themes and thoughts flowing beneath them. And you realize, almost always, that there’s at least a nugget of gold that you agree with in there. Or something that sparks an idea you hadn’t considered. And maybe that idea isn’t “the one,” but it’ll lead to “the one.” And you wouldn’t have been open to it if you hadn’t violently listened to begin with. We started to call this “The Yes Bus.” It’s a bit like, “Hey, hop on my bus and I’ll tell you my idea. Don’t worry, I’m not kidnapping you, I’ll drop you right back off where I picked you up.” And then you’ll hop on their Yes Bus. And you’ll Yes Bus to infinity and beyond, until you arrive at what feels like the *perfect* creative solution. It isn’t me against you – it’s a ride we’re on together. It’s respecting each other’s minds and what we can each bring to the collaboration. And most importantly, it’s fun.

Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. on the set of Mean Girls. (Photo courtesy Jojo Whilden/Paramount Pictures.)

These two simple rules: focusing on our different strengths and violently listening have become the foundation of our collaboration over these past 10 years. It’s the roadmap we use for not only our creative projects, but in all aspects of life. And sure, we slip up and have to remind ourselves of it. But it’s a practice. And in the practice of working this way, the most profound thing I’ve learned is that having a partner doesn’t mean you’re only half of what you’re trying to be. It means you’re bringing your whole self – the totality of your experiences, your vulnerabilities, your strengths – and combining it with those of someone you deeply respect to create something you never thought you could. Who would’ve thought a polar bear and a giraffe could have so much fun?

Featured image shows Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne on the set of Mean Girls; photo courtesy Jojo Whilden/Paramount Pictures. All images courtesy Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne unless otherwise stated.

Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.’s latest film as directors, Mean Girls, debvuted at the #1 film at the U.S. box office and is out now in theaters. Jayne and Perez are previously known for their work on the critically acclaimed FX shortform series Quarter Life Poetry, which Jayne wrote and starred in and Perez directed. The series originally premiered in 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival, where Jayne was named one of Indiewire’s “14 Breakout Stars of the Festival,” and was based on Jayne’s book Quarter Life Poetry: Poems for the Young, Broke & Hangry, which has sold around the world. Perez is a veteran music video director who has worked with such artists as the Killers, the Lumineers, FINNEAS and Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, and received an MTV Video Music Award nomination for Best Director for his work on Justin Timberlake’s “Say Something” video. Perez and Jayne currently reside in California. (Photo via Jojo Whilden/Paramount Pictures.)