Chad and I are often asked how we share directing duties. Honestly, he functions more as a figurehead than anything else. He shows up at festivals, makes a couple of jokes and gives us indie music cred. He also makes cookies.
I jest, of course.
Our partnership is one that has evolved over the years. There are certain things I am terrible at that Chad is great at—for example, I rarely comment on any setups or shots during interviews. Chad pretty much has those on lock. As he is also the editor on our films, it could be tricky to make sure both of our visions are represented during post, where our docs are shaped, but we’ve happened upon a way of working that has resulted in our shared vision ending up on the screen.
Before we shoot anything, we craft an outline of the potential story. Sometimes, this step is easier. For example, for WE MUST GO, our documentary about the Egyptian national team’s effort to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, the story is fairly linear. There’s a natural narrative. For I AM BIG BIRD, our documentary about Big Bird/Oscar the Grouch puppeteer Caroll Spinney, it’s a bit more of a challenge. How do you tell a story about a career that’s still unfolding? Regardless, our outline stage is a critical one: it guides what we shoot, who we interview and our general course of action for the duration of production. It’s a flexible narrative, of course, but at least it gives us a plan (something we didn’t have on our first shared credit, BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT).
When we get to post, we take stock of what we shot and how closely it adheres to the outline. How do we do that? The first step is transcribing every single interview. This task can certainly be tedious, but it’s one I insist on doing myself. As the editor, Chad will log every clip we shot—in other words, he knows our footage inside and out. Without transcribing it, I’d be working in the dark, so while Chad digitizes and logs the footage, I’m typing out what everyone says.
Chad and I go back to the outline and put all of the scene names (ie. WHEN CAROLL MET JIM HENSON) on notecards. We also include a brief description of the scene (ie. Caroll meets Jim Henson at a puppet show that was a complete disaster) and who from our interviews might be a good fit for that scene (ie. Caroll Spinney, Jane Henson, etc). This step is important because though the scenes that appear in the pre-production outline are still the building blocks of the film, their content, tone or order typically changes. Once we’re on the same page with the notecards, we pull out the transcripts again.
I’m credited as the writer on our films primarily because I put together a paper edit of the whole movie. Using the notecards as our template, I go through each scene and take a crack at arranging selects from every interview to craft a scene. So, in the case of the “When Caroll Met Jim” scene, I might suggest we start with Caroll saying that he went to a puppet show, then we go to Jane Henson talking about why Jim used to go to such shows. I typically give Chad more selects than he’d ever use so he has options. What I’ve given him is only a starting point that represents what we believe the scene should be about. Once Chad gets the paper edit, he drops the selects into his timeline and then taps into his own artistry to arrange them to capture the essence of a scene.. He also pulls footage that mirrors that tone and creates a first pass of a scene that he then shares with me. I make notes, we tweak things and movie magic occurs.
I have no idea how other directing partnerships function, but for Chad and I, the constant communication—and occasional knock-down-drag-em-out creative battle—is key to making it work. It’s hard to draw lines between whose idea is whose, which is the way it should be. Six years into our partnership, we can’t even agree on who came up with the name Copper Pot.
For the record, it was definitely me.