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Co-directing! How does that work?

July 30, 2015

"Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg?" has been co-written and co-directed by myself (Tim) and Danny. That simple fact, that it has been co-directed, has been the cause of many questions from fellow film makers. Co-directing is rare. Rare enough to warrant head-scratching and puzzled faces from people in the business. How does that even work?

 

That's what this blog post (and accompanying video) is all about. It is true that most films do have one director, or at least one person officially listed as director. And sometimes when films have two directors it is a clue that there were creative difficulties behind the scenes - aka, the first director got fired but had directed half of the film by that point and the contract said their name couldn't be taken off!

 

But it doesn't have to mean that vision of disaster, far from it. There seems to be three kinds of co-directors or co-directing methods.

 

1 - Siblings. The most famous co-directors are siblings - Coens, Wachowskis, Farrellys. Usually they start off working together from a very young age and just keep going!

2 - Specialists. Did you know "Singing in the Rain" was co-directed. Stanley Cohen and Gene Kelly. It is easy to see Stanley doing the more technical aspects and drama. Gene working on integrating the songs and the choreography. Each brings something to make the film more.

3 - Creative partners. These are people such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro (Delicatessen) or Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) who are working together already and then move into films. I suppose this sums up our situation too.

 

There is a fourth kind of co-director that is a bit different. If you look at Slumdog Millionaire you will see that Danny Boyle is director and Loveleen Tandan is co-director for India. This is where a main director needs a lot of support at a directing level. Another place this occurs is in action movies where you have a special fight / action / chase co-director.

 

IS IT WORTH IT?

 

When we started out on the film, we thought co-directing would work well. Now we've done it, we think about it in even more positive terms. We had concerns that actors or crew may struggle to get their head around it or may even try to play us off against each other - "Danny said it would be okay..." - but they didn't.

 

We saved a lot of time by sharing tasks. We could shoot scenes faster. We could bounce ideas off each other in the shot list / blocking stages. This made scenes simpler, better and more effecient to shoot. Just speaking out loud about ideas helps. Stress was less overall also. From a production point of view risk is shared also (in case of illness etc). One can watch the monitor, one can watch live performance. So there was very little downside.

 

Most opposition to the idea of co-directing seems to come from people who favour the philosophy of a central key figurehead that oversees the film - the auteur. Myself and Danny have always seen film making as a collective task. Funnily enough, those that dislike the vision of co-directing are somehow fine with co-writers or co-producers - surely a story should always have a singular vision and so should a film industry business plan!

 

Back to that main question then - HOW DOES IT ACTUALLY WORK?

 

Here's some advice on how we made it work. And this isn't some lame advice that is 'nice to have'. If you feel you couldn't sign up to these points, don't co-direct.

 

One - Don't focus on taking the credit
Agree up front that this is a joint effort - 50/50, equal billing. Sometimes you may feel that you are doing all the hard work. Sometimes the other person will feel that (you won't notice that of course, as that's human nature). If you are solid in the fact you are doing this together, it will work out. If you feel the other person can't bring 50%, it won't work out.

Two - Know your strengths and weaknesses
Simply put, I'd say I'm more technical and Danny has a better grasp of story. We are both okay with working with the actors. That gives us a lot of strength to be doing two directing tasks at once. One person can be rehearsing actors, the other can be looking at lighting set ups or making art direction choices. In the "Singing in the Rain" way slightl, but maybe less specialist than that.

Three - You plan and create the film together
Personally I feel all this can only work if you've created the story and worked things out together from inception. Why? Because you have already crafted a world together, you both know it inside out. Co-directing from someone else's spec script would be harder as you may disagree about the interpretation or look / style or even the meaning. This isn't an issue if you've created all those elements together. Also co-directing from a script only one of you has written could also be slightly tricky.


Four - Start this project together too
Bringing in someone after day 1 is not good. Crew will say "Person x was the original and proper director, ask them". Crew and cast must be able to ask any question of either director and feel they have spoken to a person who has the answer.


Five - Have done other things together already
Myself and Danny had already been doing the UK Scriptwriters Podcast together for four years when we teamed up. And we'd written together too. Two people coming together for the first time to work together as co-directors seems high risk.

 

 

Conclusion - it worked for us, it could work for you. Consider ways of working that help your film, in your location and with the resources you have. Don't go along with ways of working that could hinder you.

 

Links to the good stuff.

Our twitter

Nelson Nutmeg twitter

Nelson Nutmeg facebook page

YouTube page with lots of cool behind the scenes stuff.

Don't forget - you can pre-order the film today!

 

 

Thanks to Suki Singh and Peter Stanley-Ward for the behind-the-scenes footage.

Further reading on co-directors here.

 

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