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Attention, Filmmakers: Here’s the 12-Step Guide to Co-Directing

Attention, Filmmakers: Here's the 12-Step Guide to Co-Directing

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson work so closely together that they are known as Moorhead&Benson. In that capacity, they have co-directed the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival favorite “Spring,” as well as the sleeper hit “Resolution,” that wowed the film festival circuit in 2012. Recently selected as one of Variety’s “Ten Directors to Watch in 2015,” Moorhead&Benson’s latest film, “Spring,” a monster romance like you’ve never seen before, will be released theatrically on March 20. Indiewire asked the duo to write tips for how to successfully co-direct a movie. Their 12 tips are below:

READ MORE: Watch Trailer for TIFF Horror ‘Spring’ Starring Lou Taylor Pucci

1. Pick the right partner.

Aaron Moorhead:  You ready for an easy analogy, an analogy that is more low-hanging-fruit than the tired “film is like a blank canvas” analogy? Boom, here it is: Choosing a co-director is like choosing who to marry. Before meeting Justin, I tried co-directing a few times before. The strangest thing happened with other co-directors: although we got along great, we didn’t add anything to one another. The end product turned out bland, “good” at best. However, when I work with Justin, we constantly challenge each other to do better, go further, be weirder, but one key thing remains: despite being extraordinarily different people, we have the same taste. We both like the same movies, and hate on the same movies, and for the same reasons. And that is the absolute key to our relationship. We’re always building toward the same end-goal, but finding different pathways to do it. It’s something I didn’t even know would work until we did it a lot, so just be really careful to not say “yes” to anyone who wants to co-direct with you. Remember, some people have married serial killers.

2. Tag-team stuff.

Justin Benson: There used to be a job called “director” where in pre-production, principal photography and sometimes post-production, you would direct many departments and actors until the producers were happy and then you were done. You would express yourself, hopefully very clearly, and answer approximately several million “yes” or “no” questions until it resulted in a film with your name on it. Luckily, we still get to do this, but uniquely, in 2015 to be a director — at least an indie director —  usually means you also produce, finance, write, shoot, edit, locate props, shop for wardrobe, schedule, run the film festival strategy, submissions, print traffic and travel, visual effects, sound design, color grading, publicity, casting, operating the monster tail when the SFX department is spread thin and the list goes on.

As technology has advanced, distribution has become less profitable, and budgets have gotten smaller, this is what you do to make a living as a “director” today. This is also the reason why Aaron and I have careers. We’re among the first generation that learned filmmaking via the highly DIY approach available to us, and we love doing all these jobs. That said, as projects slowly get bigger we become more the communicators than the executors in many of these tasks. But the fact remains, two people (who get along — see tip #1) can divide and conquer better than one. And not one traditional job in the making of a film is any more important than the next — not the “director,”  not the DP, not the actors, not the producer. So when Aaron or I are doing the tasks of a production assistant, we’re just grateful to be directing,” and that’s how we’ve made a bunch of films that people like.

READ MORE: Drafthouse Films to Release Monster Romance ‘Spring” as BitTorrent Bundle

3. Make sure you complement each other.

Aaron: Analogy #2: Puzzle pieces fitting together or something. Look, if the only thing we ever had to do together was direct, we’d probably just run out of stuff to do and make half the money and that just sounds like crap. But we have skillsets that overlap a bit without being completely on top one another. For example, Justin is the best writer on this planet. I’m not, but I have an eye for it and develop scripts with him, but don’t write myself. He’s a brilliant visualist, but on set I hold the camera and light the set as cinematographer. We both edit, so we divvy it up, trade project files and revise each others’ work, and back and forth till it’s gleaming. I’m able to do visual effects to pay back all the time Justin spent in the writing room. See how it works? Our skills intersect just where they need to, and ultimately, it results in a ton of work getting done really efficiently.

3.5 Secret Bonus Tip: Share the credit.

This kinda goes with the previous thing, so: Early in our co-directorship, I think I had trouble accepting that I was one half of a team. In interviews for example, I’d stumble and use the word “I” instead of “we.”  Look, share the credit, always. Even if it was JUST you doing one particular aspect of it all, just say “we.” Bury your damn ego in the Mojave desert, because you will never be solely responsible for your artistic accomplishment ever again. You know why? Because you aren’t. You owe everything to the fact that you’re complementary people, and the ways in which you fail as a director, your co-director succeeds, and vice-versa, and thank god for that.

4. Argue without ego.

Justin:  Interviewers often ask things like “who wins when you two try to decapitate each other for disagreeing over the color palette?” We all grew up hearing the romanticized lore about “difficult” directors and celebrate their behind-the-scenes stories of screaming, narcissism and even gun play. So when people picture two of these mysterious director creatures trying to decide which T-shirt a supporting actor should wear in a scene, they’re envisioning nunchucks are involved. This is sort of an ineffective “how to” topic for Aaron and I to go into, as we were working together in so many filmmaking capacities before there was any discussion of co-directing. That is to say (again see question #1), sometimes you don’t seek it out and it just works. We’ve always been after the same stories, and our body of work has increasingly become a unified, progressive vision. If you sat in on our shotlisting sessions for “Resolution,” “Spring” or our upcoming Aleister Crowley movie, you’d think they were a continuous franchise of sequels. And luckily, there’s a lot of ideas between two people. Some of those ideas grow into movies or music videos or TV shows or embarrassing self-serving promo videos, and some are quickly struck down.

Oddly enough, these aren’t arguments and that’s why we work well as partners — ideas are infinite, and the stubbornness to follow one often isn’t rooted in a sincere belief in its genius, it’s rooted in one person’s ego. We’re basically a self-contained filtering system with a built-in mechanism for growing the stuff that doesn’t get disposed of. Most of the “arguments” in my life I can look back upon as “I was tired” or “I was upset about this other thing,” and every single discussion I’ve ever had with Aaron about our films I know, without the tiniest doubt, was about “how can we make this film better?”

5. Never compromise.

Aaron: Okay, this is important, almost as important as the other 11.5 tips on this list. Listen closely, because a lot of people probably think being a co-director is like being in a marriage, I don’t know where they got that analogy from but it’s not true. You’re making art here, and everything about art is important, so here;

Never compromise.

One more time.

Never compromise.

Why am I repeating this? Because some people assume that being a co-director means constant compromise. You know what comes of compromise? Boring, bland, middle-of-the-road projects. Neither of you want that, but that’s what you’re gonna get. If you find yourself compromising constantly with your co-director, you’ve found the wrong co-director.

The real answer to “well what if we have to compromise?” is answered in #4, but to expound a bit: if you’ve selected the right co-director and you have the same taste, then there is only one right answer to any given question. It’s up to you and your partner to find that right answer, and by the end of it, both be completely convinced that it is the right answer. I’m sorry to tell you, there’s no middle ground here.

And get that shit worked out before you hit set. If you hit set and the clock is ticking and the actors are confused and the crew is waiting for you guys to figure out the lamest compromise you can each live with, you’ve failed and your partnership has failed in that moment. Like any other part of being on set, figure out where one of you might head left when the other goes right, learn to predict it, talk it out, and come to set with one answer only.

The good news is, you’ll never be more certain of your decision in that moment, because the smartest person you know (your co-director) has agreed with it, and you no longer have to live on that ocean-liner of constant self-doubt that comes with being a lonely director in an ivory tower.

READ MORE: Drafthouse and FilmBuff Grab Lou Taylor Pucci Starrer “Spring”

6. Say “good job” occasionally (and only occasionally).

Justin: If Aaron and I sat around constantly saying how rad the other dude is, no one would be asking us to write articles on co-directing. Aaron’s got notes on my writing, I’ve got notes on his cinematography and VFX, and we’ve got notes for each other on the edit. That said, I’ve been known to run into an audience at a film festival Q&A so I can geek out and ask about the AMAZING cinematography in “Spring” and “Resolution.” A sincere excitement about each others contributions makes the work more enjoyable, which actually benefits an audience and even moves the business needle faster than running solo — if acclaimed director Aaron Moorhead says the script is good, there are very few approvals more prestigious than that.

7. Match each other’s work ethic.

Aaron: One of the first things I noticed when I started working with Justin is that like me, he had no life whatsoever and absolutely adored his work. We would make giant funeral pyres of our social lives, and burn it with midnight oil. Whether or not that is healthy is up for debate, but what I did know is that he constantly challenged me to work harder, do more, and be better just by knowing that he was also doing the same. He never had to ask me to do more work, and vice-versa; it was implied. Whether or not you are both hard workers is besides the point — if you love spending four days a week tripping on acid in Joshua Tree, that’s totally cool, just make sure your co-director is the same way. In some ways, the marathon of keeping up with your co-director is some of the most rewarding parts of it (“I did it! I slept just as little as he does!”) and will inspire quite a bit of personal growth even outside of work.

8. Make sure you can spend a lot of time together.

Justin: I’ve lost track of how many countries Aaron and I have closed down bars in. This one time in Paris we were almost arrested breaking out of the catacombs with some rebellious Parisian “Catophiles.” We’ve done 24-hour location scouts to Serbia, been boo’ed off the stage in Basque country, and won audience awards a couple countries adjacent a week later. We’ve pulled post-screening all-nighters with audiences in nearly every country in Europe, including the Baltics, done 14 shots of Cachasa on stage in Brazil, and stumbled through press in South Korea.

Train station and airport memories are a hung-over blur of dividing and conquering (See: #2) work e-mail responses while we have a free internet signal. Our shared hotel rooms on festival runs, and apartments/cabins for several month long location shoots, have become these sort of open door communes for collaborators. Script meetings are frequent and with these we can expect something like 12-13 hour sessions. Same for shotlisting, prep days, actor rehearsals, locations scouting, casting, being on-set, edit watch downs, general meetings and marketing brainstorms. Then there’s the being friends part which requires doing stuff that’s not work on occasion.

The point here is, if you’re 1.) not friends, and 2.) not easygoing, someone will murder someone probably about 6 weeks into the partnership. Food for thought.

9. Fight each other in Mortal Kombat.

Aaron: This isn’t an analogy or metaphor. Go out and buy a copy of Mortal Kombat and fight each other with it. I’m way better than Justin because I always basically cheat by being Noob Saibot who is the best, and also because I am writing this segment I can just say that I’m the best and no one can question it.

Let me try to turn this into a useful lesson.  One time while shooting a short film, halfway through Day 1, a young actor literally got bored and just walked off and left the set forever. We didn’t know if he was coming back until the wee hours of the morning of Day 2. When the realization dawned on us that we no longer had one of our actors for four more needed days of shooting, Justin and I rode to set together that morning and arrived hours early, and walked around the block just the two of us over and over, giving any and all ideas for how to solve this insane, movie-breaking problem a trial by fire. By the end of it, we had a strong game plan (believe it or not, one that turned out to make the film even better) and we greeted the crew with big smiles and a single, solid vision of how to deal with the new challenge. Man, this analogy really doesn’t work with Mortal Kombat, I can’t tie it back together, but you get the idea, and I’m the best at Mortal Kombat.

10. Dispose of a body for each other.

Justin: I hate haggling with vendors when we’re in prep on the smaller stuff where we handle all the producer tasks ourselves and our super producer David Lawson is off somewhere making way more money. Aaron doesn’t mind it, so he, “disposes of a body” for me — one of the less offensive invented expressions we use to communicate with each other (developing your own shockingly offensive vernacular is another important part of co-directing). Similarly, Aaron hates being locked up in a room 14 hours a day doing re-writes on the 27th draft of a script he’s been staring at for a year. I am disposing of a body for him when I engage with this task. Another way to say this would be give and take.

11. Go back in time, become your co-director’s father, never tell him/her, reveal it to him/her in Indiewire article.

Aaron: Sometimes people say we’re really similar, and now you know why, Justin. Our brotherly relationship and is now and always has been a father/son relationship. I did the ultimate alpha move, “bro,” and now any disagreement we have can be soundly settled with “because I’m your dad and I said so.”

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

12. Trust your co-director.

Justin: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards don’t talk any more because someone dated someone’s girlfriend like 45 years ago, and some miscommunication over endeavors outside the Rolling Stones. I watch a lot of band documentaries and great bands never break up because the quality of music or audience numbers are in decline. They break up because members doubt the intentions of other members. In short, they stop trusting each other. Someday I’ll probably end up leaving my puppy golden retriever and infant child with Aaron so me and my future wife can go to that smaller island off of Ibiza because summer time in LA is hell’s armpit and since she’s Eva Green she’s more into European Islands. Or maybe Ashley Benson as we already have the same last name. Regardless, if when I get home the golden retriever is gone, my daughter has been accidentally swapped out for a son, and Eva Green (or Ashley Benson) has told me she would now prefer to be Aaron’s wife, I’ll know there was no malice involved. The point: you have to trust the intentions of your partner in any business, and if Aaron said it, did it, or even thought it, it’s to ensure two friends make a better movie.

Aaron Moorhead, known as Moorhead&Benson, are the co-directing team behind the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival favorite “Spring” as well as the sleeper hit “Resolution” that took the film festival circuit by storm in 2012. Both films have been wildly acclaimed by critics and audiences for their naturalistic performances and avant-garde approach to story structure and cinema.

Drafthouse Films and FilmBuff will release “Spring” on March 20. For information, visit  http://drafthousefilms.com/film/spring.

READ MORE: ‘Cheap Thrills’ Director E. L. Katz’s 12 Tips for First-Time Directors

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