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Filmmaking in Pairs: The Benefits of Directing Movies with Another Person (or Other People)

Clockwise from top left: Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale, Brian Wilson and Amy Browne (Photo courtesy of Tony Hale)

Filmmakers don’t get to be moody loners. If you’re a painter or a writer, you have the option to go it alone. Sit in your room, bang out that first draft. Or, lock the door, stretch the canvas and go to it.

Film is different: It’s rarely a solo pursuit, especially at the feature level.

As filmmakers, we’re forced out of isolation and compelled to rely on others: producers, editors, sound people, lawyers, distributors. We’re team players, whether we like it or not. Paradoxically, though, at the end of the day we have an “auteur-biased” rewards system. With many films delivering little more than glory, a single credit becomes, perhaps, the ultimate prize: “Directed by…”

But with the current funding and distribution numbers at all-time lows, what if that credit isn’t enough? What if the artistic credibility and ego boost it provides don’t properly reward all the money and time spent and risk taken?

For many independent filmmakers, that traditional way of working — a single auteur with secure financial backing, acting as a de facto employer for the rest of the production team — simply isn’t an option anymore. Is there a way to re-imagine this role?

In my last article for Filmmaker about second jobs, director Ross Kauffman mentioned that by entering into a directing partnership, he had created consistency and schedule flexibility that made the hard work of directing much easier. It struck me that perhaps new working arrangements might yield unforeseen benefits. The time had come to look more closely at sharing the big reward. This is a look at directing partners. (Notice we don’t use the term “co-director.” Argues Kauffman, who now directs with Katy Chevigny, “I don’t like the term ‘co-director.’ I feel like once we start using that word, there is too much room for misunderstanding the nature of the relationship.”)

We started by viewing how some of these partnerships function: If working in partnership is an effective way to get films made, what are the nuts and bolts of this strategy? What are the rewards, and what are the drawbacks? Can arrangements like these provide useful insights for the rest of us as we struggle to get our films made?

We spoke to seven working groups (with 16 filmmakers total; see sidebar for their credits) who work in structured partnerships with others, from informal two-person teams to established production partnerships to seemingly complex multi-partner director/producer outfits sharing credit in unusual ways. We tried to find a range of experience and practice. We spoke to first-time filmmakers, established filmmakers, long-time partners, one-off partners, married, just friends, directors who switch off project by project and directors who share directing all the way through.

Some clear things emerged:

Directing partnerships as a natural extension — For many of the folks we corresponded with, partnerships didn’t seem like a stretch. For better or worse, filmmaking is already a collaborative process, so the notion of extending those partnerships into directing felt very natural to our interviewees. As the filmmaking duo Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck and Robert Machoian neatly summed up in an email, “We like each other, and in the end, film is a collaborative medium regardless. It’s rarely one person doing everything, so why not team up?”

A number of the partnerships we examined trace their roots to film school or early projects, capitalizing on chemistry and common interests. And a different sort of chemistry is a factor in some cases — a number of our teams are couples whose domestic partnerships extend into the professional sphere. As Farihah Zaman noted about her partnership with husband Jeff Reichert, “The partnership happened pretty organically. I was working on a script, and Jeff was developing a doc, and we were both so up in each other’s business it seemed silly not to make it official. [Partnering professionally allowed us] to lean on that [other] person and share the responsibility, and it would be completely fair from a personal and business standpoint.”

Complementary skills. The sum is greater than the parts. It’s pretty easy to understand couples or film-school friends ending up in business together. But even for those folks, and uniformly across all the interviews, a bigger motivator was the value of merging complementary skillsets: knowing that someone else’s strengths might balance your own weaknesses and recognizing the ways that working closely with disparate partners can help you learn and grow.

Writer/directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer: “Filmmaking is so tough, and the right partner can really make a huge difference. But it has to be someone who you are creatively in tune with, otherwise, it would be an unworkable nightmare. Richard and I bring very different things to the table. He has a background in literature, I come at it from a more visual place, so the whole is greater than the parts. When it’s going well, your ideas inspire the other person, and they inspire you back, so together you are able to push the ideas out further — to get to a higher place than you would alone.”

A number of the teams call out the advantage of being self-reliant — that the team gives them far more skills to draw upon than they would have access to if going it solo. Ojeda-Beck and Machoian go so far as to say, “As a team, we can make a project and follow it all the way through because between the two of us, we can cover all the required jobs, even all the way to a DCP.”

But it’s not just skills, as Kauffman and Chevigny elaborate; it’s also the ability to advance the project no matter the cash situation, to experiment more and stay flexible. “Ideally, you can advance your project more effectively with two people involved,” they write. “For example, Ross can shoot, and Katy can do sound, and we don’t have to pay outside people to do that when money is short or nonexistent. You can experiment with different ideas in the early days with the only expense being sweat equity. We also both had babies during the making of the film, which made things even more interesting. One of us could step in while the other was handling family stuff.”

Partnering can also allow you to embark on projects that would otherwise be unachievable. Brad Gray and So Yong Kim hit on this with Gray’s first feature, Salt. The first-time directors needed to move to Iceland to make the film happen … not exactly an investor siren song. “We only had each other,” they write. “We couldn’t find anyone else who would support the project … and who would take a risk on a first-time filmmaker? And we just thought, why not? Off we went …”

Isolation. We all know it, the feeling of a stomach in free-fall. The “failure voice” in your head begins to murmur. Suddenly everything feels beyond impossible, and you are very alone. This is a state every filmmaker lands in from time to time. We heard from a lot of disparate voices, and a lot of different takes on what makes partnerships a winning strategy. But every team agreed on one advantage: avoiding isolation.

Having someone you trust at your side can mitigate the very real toll of working your heart out on projects that take years to complete and often fall apart before they reach the finish line. Write Chevigny and Kauffman, “Part of the reason we liked the idea of working with each other is that making an independent film is a long and sometimes lonely process. This way [it’s] more feasible and fun during the long slog.”

Concur Westmoreland and Glatzer, “Emotionally, it’s great to have someone to share the ups and downs with. After Quinceañera, we had a long dry spell, and we would often have painful discussions about why we had chosen this insane career … No one gives you a silver medal and says, ‘You worked so hard and didn’t quite get to go into production.’ It’s not something you can put on your CV. That time is just gone … You both saw the film in your mind’s eye. You can both talk about how great it would have been and how bad all the films in current release are in comparison.”

Add documentary directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, “It’s really nice to bounce ideas off each other and act as real sounding boards. A lot of filmmakers tell us they long for that.”

Productivity. One surprising insight from our interviews is how much faster established directing teams seem to be at making a movie: an average of just over two years between features for the long-term teams that responded to our survey questions. By comparison, the rate was four to five years between large-scale signature works for the solo directors we spoke to in our recent “Second Jobs” article. While this hardly counts as a scientific survey, the apparent difference is striking.

Perseverance. You have to keep going. Momentum begets momentum. And yet the pressures of daily life, not to mention the pressures of an under-capitalized film system, can bring even the best projects to a near standstill. Finishing a film can feel like rolling a very big rock up a very steep hill for a very long time. Several of the people we spoke to credited their partners with helping them stay on track and motivated for the long haul. Write Ewing and Grady, “Getting through an entire project is incredibly hard and can seem overwhelming. We each have someone who cares as much as we do, and that we can’t give up on. It’s extra pressure to make it through.”

A surprising number of filmmakers cited the notion that it’s also easier to fight on someone else’s behalf. The collective of Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale and Brian Wilson write, “For some people, it is easier to fight for their friends, or at least easier to keep perspective when their friends’ rights are at stake. For a first-time feature director, when asking for screening fees or dealing with contracts or asking people to pay for a ticket or DVD, it can be difficult to remain mindful that the years of often low-to-no-pay work were an investment that is deserving of compensation — that one’s work has real value. Sometimes we can be much better at defending artist friends than ourselves … And in a partnership, those friends are your partners.”

For many, the value really seems to lie in getting confirmation that one is on the right track. Ojeda-Beck and Machoian: Most of all, we just stick together. There is a lot of doubt that comes to making films, taking on such a huge endeavor; there are times where you question what you are making and having a teammate that simply says, ‘no, we are doing the right thing,’ is so emotionally important.”

Spreading resources, Spreading risks

This is where the multiple director status can really assist. If many of the resources that come to a film come through the filmmakers’ networks, then having multiple networks can add real value — including cash. But it also works for opportunities outside the film, second jobs or jobs for the company that can help keep the team afloat in lean times. A pervasive note in our conversations for this article was the role of partners in securing the dollars needed to make projects happen.

Write Browne, Kaplan, Hale and Wilson, “More people means a more diverse distribution and funding approach. We each had different strengths, contacts and proclivities for where to pursue funding and later distribution.” “When there’s no money, two heads figuring out how to make the money [is helpful],” add Chevigny and Kauffman. ”[We have] twice the contacts for fundraising, and we tag-team. When one person is in the field, the other can follow up on leads for funding or production.”

This isn’t just true of direct fundraising; working in pairs also allows one member to keep a second job or income stream while the other advances the film. Write Westmoreland and Glatzer, “A lot of independent filmmakers are independently wealthy. A surprisingly large number. Really, it’s so hard to make any real money from [independent film]. So, if you are without means, as they say in Henry James’ novels, it’s advisable to have another gig running in parallel to your filmmaking. But that can take up so much time and energy, so a partnership allows you a greater latitude to balance money-earning work with passion work.”

But there are also other ways for the money to come back around, write Zaman and Reichert: “Depending on your individual skills, you may also have to hire less outside help. Jeff has a long history of doing marketing for various distribution companies, so Cinedigm, the company distributing Remote Area Medical, is hiring him to do our marketing plan. Which means the money is coming back to our team as opposed out to someone else.”

Trust capital. This ties in with the ideas of risk distribution, countering isolation and fostering perseverance, but it’s also a benefit of its very own — the notion that, in an active partnership, you’re banking trust. Building a contract that says, no matter the shifting sands that may underlie filmmaking in the modern age, somebody’s got your back, and you’ve got theirs. And it radiates outward; a number of our interviewees had strong things to say about the ways trust from outside parties — investors, potential partners, distributors and more — seems to gravitate toward teams with a track record of successfully realized projects, more so than if any of the separate individuals involved were up for consideration.

Write Ojeda-Beck and Machoian, “The investors that have invested in our films, they find comfort in investing because they know we can finish a film, we have a history of finishing work, and we do that because the two of us pull together.” And Ewing and Grady add this provocative spin: “We have a sneaking albeit unprovable theory that it’s easier for women to get projects funded as a duo instead of one … It’s just a hunch.”

Downsides

It’s clear from these conversations that sharing the load in a structured way can make the daunting business of filmmaking easier in all sorts of ways. But for all the strengths that working in a partnership can offer, there are some downsides, too.

Introducing yourself as directing partners. Auteurism isn’t just a critical school of thought debated by film theorists. For the public at large, it’s accepted wisdom, too: films are directed by one person. “Presenting ourselves as a directing team can get wildly confused reactions,” Chevigny admits. “I think some people are just fixated on the idea of the individual artist as paramount, and they really don’t want to let go of that idea. Why is that? I’m not sure, but I think it’s partly the failure of the auteur theory to acknowledge the prominence of the collaboration in film. And it’s partly just how our society loves to lionize the individual.”

Life/work balance. If you share a household in addition to a film partnership, your personal life is inextricably tied to the economics of filmmaking. Report Gray and Kim, “We honestly cannot think of one economic advantage to working in partnership with your spouse because it’s extremely risky. We don’t have a fallback plan. It’s just not practical … I would say being two siblings in a partnership may be less risky, and if you are a couple, don’t do it unless you are ready for an all-consuming lifestyle of filmmaking. We really don’t have much of a life outside of our children and our films. Economic risks are extremely high, especially if you are in the arthouse indie world; the pie is so small. But for us, it’s worth the struggle, and we take it a day at a time, or hand to mouth, as they say.”

And Zaman and Reichert point out the obvious, “Again, if time is money, you’re reaping the rewards of constantly problem solving because you’re never off the clock. The flipside, of course, is that it can feel like there is no respite, especially on an intense shoot when at a certain point you should probably just close your eyes and stop thinking so you’re fresh for the next day.”

Creative conflict. And then, of course, there are tradeoffs with artistic process. As the sole director, what you say, goes, and there’s efficiency in solo decisions. Gray and Kim, who work as a team but trade off the director position, prefer this distinction: “Our policy is that whoever finishes his/her script first and gets financed, gets to shoot first. We always separate the support role from the lead role; in this way there’s no confusion as to who makes the final decision. If Brad is the writer/director on a film, then I support his vision as a producer. We don’t co-direct, but we have co-written and edited together, which seems to work smoothly.”

But for others, the distinctions weren’t as clear. Many of the teams we spoke to said that managing conflict was a challenge. As Ewing and Grady put it, “It’s hard to co-direct films when we don’t agree on something. Especially in the edit room. Fights can be intense.” When we asked how they resolve conflict, they answered, “Creatively, we get a third voice from our longtime editor Enat Sidi. But so far we have been able to resolve 90 percent of our conflicts on our own, face-to-face, in [animated] conversation.”

Chevigny and Kauffman concur, “You have be willing to compromise and bend. There are times in the filmmaking process when you don’t want to do that work, you’d rather be despotic, but you don’t have a choice if you’re co-directing. You have to be in thoughtful communication most of the time.” Their advice? Be deliberate about your whole team. “Hire a great editor and a great producer. Hire great people in all aspects of filmmaking that can serve as a possible third vote and help to make it a team effort.”

But our teams also found that managing conflict, while a burden, could also be a source of strength. As Westmoreland and Glatzer summarized, “The films are, in a way, products of mediated conflict.” Echo Ojeda-Beck and Machoian, “You mediate conflict by letting go of your pride and listening to your partner. I highly recommend sitting side-by-side or going on a walk when conflicts need to be resolved. ”

Browne, Kaplan, Hale and Wilson take this one step further: “We have each found that working in collaboration is a wonderful way of keeping egos in check. And it’s a great thing for moving forward on solo projects to work with a humble ego. One pitfall to working alone is that it can sometimes create a sense of authority that can lead to making unchallenged creative decisions. Continually having to make compromises and see other people’s perspectives and defer to their ideas helps greatly in getting past one’s own creative blind spots.”

Defining co-director responsibilities. One way to alleviate director partnership conflict is to define job responsibilities. Indeed, it can be a necessity when dealing with the outside world. Simply put, how do people know who does what? Who do the actors listen to? Who directs the d.p.? Replies Ewing, “We don’t go on location together almost ever, so who to take direction from during a shoot is not an issue!” For her and Grady — who don’t divide neatly into a “one does production, the other post” split — it works on a project-by-project basis. “We often switch off who goes shooting so the person who stayed back has a more objective view of the material,” she writes. “On short films, one of us will do all the shooting. Last month we did two shorts, one for We the Economy and one for Stand Up to Cancer. I managed the economy film, did all the shooting in Haiti and oversaw the edit, and Rachel did the same for her project. It’s on the longer films where we switch off.” Do the two argue over the division? No, says Grady. “[The split is] totally organic. Sometimes it’s because of scheduling, sometimes it’s because of interest, sometimes it’s because of a connection that’s been forged with a subject. We always do whatever works for us as filmmakers, as busy people and for the project.”

For others, the division of labor is a more fluid, less-defined one. Writes Chevigny, “Sometimes, when it’s busy, it’s like a relay race, handing off a baton. And other times. it’s like we’re two musicians in a jam session. And sometimes it’s like ‘too many cooks in the kitchen.’ But hopefully not too often.”

Fees. Of course, when you direct in pairs, you have to split the fee. This was a disadvantage each team brought up. When we dug deeper, though, we found it wasn’t usually a 50 percent downgrade in fee. Most teams were able to charge a higher fee than for one director — just not double. As Ewing and Grady explain: “We don’t charge double as a fee but more than as a single director, of course. Networks and financiers are getting all we both have to offer and an excellent final work, so nobody seems to have minded so far.” But, she goes on to say, “All our films run through our company using our gear, staff, edit bays, etc., so the profit isn’t about the fee alone. ”

The credit split. Finally, what about the issue of credit posed at the start of this article? Do director teams ever feel pangs of regret at sharing their title card with another? “We need to be honest with ourselves,” write Chevigny and Kauffman. “It’s not that there’s a sense of diminishing authorship, but there is the knowledge that you are not the single individual author, or auteur, of the piece. Coming to terms with that can be difficult in moments of insecurity. But one of the keys of collaboration is to be generous — generous with not only one’s talent and ability, but generous with praise, generous with time, generous with your knowledge and generous with people.”

With regards to her and Ewing’s shared credits on projects where one or the other may have had the dominant role, Grady is even more direct: “No one is trying to be uncool, so it works well that way.”

Takeaways. There are as many ways to make films as there are filmmakers to make them. From benign dictatorships to communal collaborations, there are multiple methods to combine the basic components into a whole that gets the job done. How you build your team is a very personal choice, but for the filmmakers we spoke to for this article, the benefits of working in structured partnerships outweigh the efficiencies they might gain from working as solo auteurs.

Despite the drawbacks noted above, partnerships can bring real gains in breaking cycles of isolation, increasing productivity, spreading resources and risks, and enhancing trust capital in your filmmaking life.

And in an economic environment where slices of the pie keep getting smaller, these filmmakers’ experiences shine a worthwhile light on the ways a structured approach to sharing — sharing cash, credit, workload, rewards, frustrations — can shift the risk-return paradigm for all concerned. This sort of partnership might not work for everyone — we didn’t interview any failed partnerships or divorced directors! But there are ways to be inspired by how these filmmakers have managed the complex collection of moving parts, personalities, expectations, and risks and rewards that go into making every film. Just don’t look to Uncle Sam for those rewards — at least if you’re a couple. “When we used to go out for meals together and happened to talk about our films,” write Glatzer and Westmoreland, “we tried putting them down as a business expense but our accountant said that was somewhat questionable.”

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