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He Said, She Said: How to Work with Your Spouse on an Indie Film and Not Kill Each Other

He Said, She Said: How to Work with Your Spouse on an Indie Film and Not Kill Each Other

When I was in film school, my teachers, who were also often reasonably “successful” filmmakers with careers outside of the academy, would often carp about what a pain in the ass it was to be a filmmaker. The less successful they were, the more bitterly they’d bewail, but they all bewailed fairly bitterly. Occasionally, my teachers would invite a guest speaker to class, often an even more “successful” filmmaker than they were, and we’d have to listen to the said filmmaker gripe also. 

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Said filmmaker would complain about how it took them ten years to get a single film financed. Said filmmaker would moan that when they did get their money, it was less than they hoped for and, not only that, they had to cast somebody who was wrong for the part because the producer wanted a “name.” Said filmmaker would whine about how the “name” turned out to be a drug-addicted egomaniacal psycho who destroyed the film, refused to do press, and ruined said filmmaker’s life. Sure the film had received a decent review in the Times, maybe even a good one somewhere else, but it didn’t matter because nobody really went to see it. “Anyway,” said filmmaker would add, “even if the movie does end up making money, the distribution company will only cook the books ensuring that I, who of course, waived my salary to do this labor of love, will never see a dime regardless.” 

Finally, said filmmaker would conclude by explaining that they’d be returning to Dayton straight after they were done discouraging us. After moving back into their parents’ basement at age 40, said filmmaker, planned on applying for disability, claiming that they were too psychologically scarred to ever work again, which in fact, they truly were.

I hated said filmmaker — 16 grand a semester to listen to this shit?! Before I even knew how to make a film, they were telling me not to. These assholes were probably just to trying frighten away the competition. They were either pricks or whiners; either way, they weren’t worth listening to. Whatever happened to me, I would never be one of them.

BOY WAS I WRONG! Today, I stand before you, as said filmmaker! Not only that, but I see said filmmaker for who he or she truly was — A WARNING, AN OMEN, A FRIEND! Said Filmmaker was only trying to HELP! Everything said filmmaker uttered was the deepest and most profound truth! Listen to me carefully — DON’T MAKE FILMS! The world doesn’t need them and you don’t need the aggravation. 

But if you insist on being schnook and feel you must make films, don’t think it’s going to be any easier to make films with your wife, particularly if she’s an actress! 

If you refuse to heed my warning, which you do at your own peril, below are three tips to get you through your shoot with actress wife:

1. Make her the lead. 

You can’t cast your wife in a bit part. If you cast another actress in the lead, you’re going to be paying attention to some other woman all the time. If your wife is playing a bit part, she’s going to show up on set, even if it’s just for a day and see what’s going down. She’ll be jealous and she’ll probably be right to feel that way. Male directors tend to fall in love with their leading ladies. Often leading ladies fall for their directors, but dump them a few months after the shoot when they have a new director showering them with affection. You don’t want to be that guy. You’ll lose your wife and get your heart broken just to make some movie that, as I mentioned earlier, the world doesn’t really care if they ever see. If you love your wife and she can act, cast her.  Probably, if you do this, the reverse thing will happen where you’ll fall out of love with each other for the shoot, but afterward you’ll love each other more than ever, which leads me to my next tip…

2. Don’t expect casting your wife to be romantic during the shoot.

During your shoot, you will not have sex or have any peaceful quiet moments together. Your wife will be grateful that you cast her and, consequently, she will be highly motivated to do a good job. This will make her anxious. Film sets are already stressful, but your wife will know that you poured five years of your life into this film. She’ll know you mortgaged your house. She knows that if things go badly, you’ll whine for years to come and she’ll have to listen, or, worse, you’ll blame her. She’s gonna be FREAKING OUT. She will not be horny. But that’ll be fine, because you’ll be too stressed to feel randy yourself. Don’t worry, it isn’t like after you’ve been taking anti-depressants for years, the sexual urge will return shortly after the film is wrapped. 

3. Don’t expect her to listen to you. 

For a lot of people, making a movie is an ego trip. They picture themselves on a giant crane or whatever with a megaphone bossing people around. The second you cast your wife, you can check that dream at the door. You might be able to fool the other cast members into thinking you’ve got your shit together, but your wife knows you’re schmuck. She remembers the time you tried to build shelves and brought the whole wall down. She’s smelled your farts and morning breath. Who the fuck are you? That’s why I suggest giving your wife very few notes. She knows what you’re going for. She’s great. Just give her as many takes as she wants and call it a day.

4. Don’t give her any other jobs on set.

The most common job I see spouses do for each other is “produce.” On a low-budget indie, this means deal with all the stuff nobody else is willing to do like take care of the garbage, drive people around, haggle with vendors and fill out forms. You see a lot of spouses doing this job because they are the only idiots in the world willing to do it. That’s because they’re in love. Don’t even think about letting your wife produce your film if she’s going to act in it. You don’t want you wife being the one to tell you that you are out of time before you feel you’ve gotten your scene or that you don’t have money for that dolly you can’t make your movie without. As I mentioned, she’s gonna be stressed out enough as it is. Give her as little as possible to do besides act, leave her alone, let her do her job and wait until the shoot ends. At that point, you’ll both return to your life having done something challenging and cool together.

And now, my wife would like to weigh in here, with a few tips regarding acting for your director husband should you find yourself in that position. She passes on writing an intro because she was also the producer of our new film and is busy filing out forms for our distro deal. 

1. Make him feel like the most important person in the world.

Your husband is probably pretty nervous. He’s about to make a movie. Probably he wanted to make movies his whole life. Maybe he even tried a couple of times but now he’s getting older and he’s worried he has nothing to show for himself. It’s not true and you know it but he’s filled with all these masculine ideas of success. So you encourage him to make a movie. Don’t let him give up. Make sure he feels like he’s the most talented director ever and make sure you tell him how much you love him and believe in him. Even if telling him that sometimes ends with you yelling at him and telling him to just shut up and make the movie already. 

2. Don’t let him cast Anna Kendrick instead of you.

Maybe people tell you that you look like Anna Kendrick. Or maybe some people think that Anna Kendrick acted in “All the Light in the Sky” when really you did. And maybe some people suggest to your husband that Anna Kendrick could do a great job in the part that your husband wrote for you on account of the fact that she’s famous. Don’t let that happen. It won’t be as much fun for you if you just watch your husband directing your more famous lookalike. Even if casting her might mean that the movie will make a bajillion more dollars. 

3. Don’t expect him to miraculously get good at the things he has never been good at before.

Your husband doesn’t like filling out forms. He doesn’t like making lists and he doesn’t like listening to you complain about how long it takes the AD to poop while you’re waiting to start shooting after lunch. He never liked those things and he never will. He won’t help you deal with those stupid things. He can’t tell the AD to hurry up and poop faster, for one. And why would he suddenly be able to figure out how to e-sign things on the internet if he can barely work a cellphone? Or fill out all the dumb forms you need to fill out to deliver the movie. He’s just not going to and the more annoyed you get about that fact that more you’ll forget about all of the great things he does! 

Because he really will do some great things. He’ll be a really fun director to work and he will believe in you enough to cast you instead of Anna Kendrick. He’ll push you harder because he knows you can do better and he will be patient when you’re annoyed that you’re not getting it right. He will, after a 15-hour day, hold you in bed when you’re crying because you think you look weird in a ponytail in that one scene. And he will love you after the movie is over even if you fail. So why get annoyed that he didn’t fill out the lab access letter + schedule A properly?   

Lawrence Michael Levine wrote, directed and starred in the feature film “Wild Canaries,” (SXSW ’14), which is distributed by Sundance Selects beginning February 25 and “Gabi on the Roof in July” with Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil and Lena Dunham. He also starred in and produced Sophia Takal’s “Green” (SXSW ’11). Other acting credits include Joe Swanberg’s “The Zone” and “All the Light in the Sky”, Keir Poliz & Damon Maulucci’s “Detonator,” Onur Tukel’s “Richard’s Wedding”  and Simon Barrett’s “V/H/S/2.” Most recently, Levine wrote, produced and starred in Sophia Takal’s “Always Shine” opposite Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald, currently in post-production.

Sophia Takal wrote, directed, edited and starred in “Green” (SXSW ’11), which won the SXSW/Chicken & Egg award and was nominated for a Gotham Award. She also produced and starred in Lawrence Michael Levine’s “Wild Canaries” (SXSW ’14) and “Gabi on the Roof in July.” Other acting credits include Ti West’s “V/H/S”; Joe Swanberg’s “All the Light in the Sky,” “The Zone” and “24 Exposures; Michael Bilandic’s “Hellaware,” Dan Schechter’s “Supporting Characters” and John Slattery’s “God’s Pocket.” Takal was one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Film in 2011. Most recently, she directed “Always Shine,” starring Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald, currently in post-production.

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