DIRECTORS;FOR FOUR EYES ONLY;ONE IS THE LONELIEST NUMBER; OR IS IT? EXPLORING THE CREATIVE BOND OF DIRECTING TEAMS RAISES POSSIBILITIES GALORE AND THE SPECTER OF DISCONTENT; TEAMING IS TEEMING

By Published on .

WHEN CHARLIE MULLEN, A COPYWRITER AT Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, recently scouted around for a director with a "human, visceral" sensibility to shoot a TV campaign for Schering Plough Animal Health, he ended up with two: Allen Weiss and Jerry Stifelman, co-directors who call themselves Nomad. Never having worked with two directors at the same time, Mullen still marvels at the way that Weiss and Stifelman were in lockstep with each other. "The two of them retreating to the corner to talk over a shot took some getting used to at first," he admits. "But they really seemed to be on the same wavelength, like this binary unit joined at the hip."

While Mullen points out the improbability of legends like Joe Pytka or Bob Giraldi scratching their chins and offering a polite, "Sure, I see your point of view" to a partner sharing their lens, for an increasing number of directors, it seems, the collaborative process makes sense. Even Steve Horn, to mention another legend, has somewhat gotten into the act; Horn now shares directing credit with his wife Linda, and has renamed his company to reflect that. The idea of co-directing isn't all that new anyway-back in the 1980s, Jeff Gorman and Gary Johns worked as a directing team for a year after leaving Chiat/Day. Other teams, like the Los Angeles-based trio Bliss and Britain's Molotov Brothers, were also visible, with the Molotov's Steve Lowe and Kevin Moloney (two-thirds of a directing trio that also included Jimmy Fletcher) winning the Cannes Grand Prix in 1990 with a quirky Maxell campaign. Nevertheless, for various reasons, all three teams eventually split up.

Perhaps, as Mullen suggests, the reason co-directing is flourishing now is simply that "it's a more polite, congenial process for the '90s." That, and the fact that, to some, the pairs process is simply seen as a more practical way of working. Typically, teams, many of which come from music video, documentary or agency creative backgrounds, talk about agencies getting two for the price of one-the ability to attend two meetings at once, the feeling that two people can better handle difficulties or conflicts on the set, as well as a duo's ability to more efficiently attend to technical details during shooting.

However, many partners, particularly former agency creatives with no real directing experience, admit to the insecurity of going it alone. When Johns & Gorman partners Jeff Gorman and Gary Johns first left the agency to direct, Gorman says, "Gary and I took advantage of the hand-holding because neither one of us knew what we were doing. Plus, there was this premeditated feeling of being known as a team since we'd done work at Chiat that lots of people were familiar with."

"When there's two of you, there's this idea of mentally being able to divide and conquer," adds Rino Liberatore, who co-directs with Ron Lazzeretti through the Chicago-based Two Olives. The two had previously worked together at Eisaman Johns & Laws in Chicago, and Liberatore says their history together provided "an inherent confidence and trust in one another."

Despite the insecurity, agency creatives-turned-directors say that making the leap has its inherent advantages. "When you come from an agency background, the idea tends to come first," explains Scott Burns, whose year-old partnership with Los Angeles-based Tool of North America co-director Erich Joiner includes the baseball strike campaign for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. "We don't have this private filmmaking agenda where we're worried about some cool look. And we know what it's like to have directors beat us up and take away our idea. One of the reasons we started Tool was to make a place that people could work in without getting beat up."

Adds Bryan Buckley, who co-directs with Frank Todaro (see story on page 30), "What's great about working as a team on the set is the same thing that's great about working as a team in an agency. Ideas can always be improved upon with two, and together you might push an idea that might not happen with one; conversely, you have that extra bullshit meter to keep bad ideas in check." College buddies from Syracuse University, Buckley and Todaro worked together at New York's now defunct Buckley DeCerchio, and as a directing team they've shot more than 100 spots for Wieden & Kennedy and ESPN alone.

Those who've worked with Buckley and Todaro, like Wieden copywriter Hank Perlman, claim the pair is so unified on the set that they are often collectively referred to as Bry-Frank. "They've managed to make the process so seamless that you really don't think you're working with two people," notes Perlman, "and this is probably because they're complementary; Frank's kind of the craftsman and Bryan's spontaneous." About the co-directing process in general, Perlman adds, "I guess you can look at it two ways; you can have a big star like Eric Lindros put the puck in the net by himself, or you can have Wayne Gretzky setting up Jari Kurri."

But try telling that to an agency, at least in the beginning. Steve Wax, president at Chelsea Pictures, has worked with a number of directing teams, including Kevin Godley, a former member of Godley & Creme; Vaughan Arnell and Anthea Benton; Larry Libman and Leslie Williams; and most recently, the Schell Brothers, who last year won an Oscar for their student film. Over the years, Wax has become familiar with agency creatives' co-directing concerns. "*'Who's the creative one? Who do I talk to? Who does what?' Every creative that hasn't worked with a directing team asks these questions, and I think there's always this initial period of being threatened on the set," Wax says.

Most teams are mindful of that concern, and whether or not they're aware of it, follow what Wax believes is the "good cop-bad cop" formula; "one director acting as a sort of maitre d' who welcomes you to the restaurant, and the other delivering the check. Most teams pretty much switch off these duties, depending on the job, but rather than try to explain that idea in detail to the agency, I usually let them find out how it works on the set. Normally, the agency person finds out who's friendliest, talks to him, and then the director talks to his partner and comes back with an answer."

No team describes the arrangement in quite those terms, but, as with Buckley and Todaro, there are natural roles that occur among teams. Explains Sue Worthy, who co-directs with Brendon Norman Ross under the name Red Herring, "Brendon is more vocal and I'm the quiet watcher. This difference gives us the ability to discuss and argue more effectively." In the case of Johns & Gorman, Johns says the two had an arrangement in which they'd take turns as the "director" and "whisperer"; in other words, one would stand behind the camera and the other would literally whisper ideas alongside him.

Because it is physically impossible for two people to be behind the lens at once, many teams, like GMS co-directors Austin Smithard and Jason Farrand, work as what Smithard calls a "tag team," with one person at the camera and the other focusing on the talent and set technicalities. This method also addresses issues of practical expertise; with Nomad, for example, Weiss, a former still photographer, claims to be more of a natural behind the camera than Stifelman.

However, in the case of co-directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, documentary filmmakers best known for their award-winning feature "Brother's Keeper," the occasional commercial project is approached with equal consideration of their individual interests. Normally, Sinofsky, a former film editor, deals more with the technical aspects of preproduction and editing, while Berlinger, a longtime producer, is more the schmoozer.

As to how the subjective issues of friendliness, lead interviewer and proximity to the camera lens actually figure into decisionmaking on the set, again, it's different for every team. Many co-directors, like Simon Cole and Adam Cameron of London's Joe Public, claim that agencies need just one voice of approval to sign off on a shot, and as Cole puts it, "We both answer to the name of Joe." The team of Big TV, on the other hand, works as co-directors in the "literal sense of the term," according to Andy Delaney, who is partnered with Monty Whitebloom through Palomar Pictures in Los Angeles and Spots Films in London. Delaney says that he and Whitebloom always make joint decisions, even if it means conferring via walkie talkie.

What is unanimously agreed upon is the increased importance of preproduction when two people are involved. The more detailed the preparation in terms of working with the agency and hammering out issues regarding wardrobe, casting, art direction and a timeline for the shoot, the less chance for confusion on the set-at least in theory. Yet there's always that extra person involved, and as Mullen points out, "You just can't get the same immediacy working with two directors, because there's always an extra step in the decisionmaking process, a huddling in the corner to talk things over. At some point, you need a boss."

"For me, there's a certain comfort level in working with Erich and Scott because Erich was my old partner," notes Bob Kerstetter, a Goodby copywriter who's worked with Joiner and Burns on several of the baseball spots. "And we've all been in the same shoes and understand the same client concerns. But maybe if I didn't know them, the process would seem a bit weird."

Weird, if not at times confusing. What if an agency calls and asks specifically for one or the other director? Gorman says that he and Johns used to flip a coin; most others claim it simply never happens. However, according to Burns, he and Joiner have recently become sensitive to this issue of who's the boss, so much so that, aside from certain work for Goodby the pair now simply take turns on the set. They both still meet with the agency, collaborate on ideas and edit together, but when it comes to directing, Burns says he and Joiner now feel that "dealing with one person gives the agency a clearer sense of advocacy."

Then there's the issue of money. Agencies don't pay double for two directors; the team splits the fee, another nonissue, according to most teams, though Buckley jokes that he and Todaro have turned down so many boards lately, at some point it makes business sense to split the work. And then, as with any relationship, there's the inevitable breakup and all the ugly complications that come along with it, like dividing up the property-the intellectual property, that is. Essentially, who gets to put what on the respective reel?

"Whenever I hear about people doing it, I always wonder when they'll break up," comments former Bliss member Baker Smith. "It's just inevitable, and I don't mean that in a bitter way; directing is just a singular thing." And Smith, now directing through Tate & Partners, has no reason to be bitter, and neither do his former partners; Charles Wittenmeier, who went on to join Harmony Pictures, recently joined Quentin Tarantino's A Band Apart Commercials, while Scott Bibo, according to Smith, has a thriving commercials career in Europe.

When Smith, Wittenmeier and Bibo split in '91 after working together for two years, the trio simply divided up their work according to who'd taken the lead in each project. It was a very civilized process: "When it seemed fair that three or two of us did more, we agreed to list those spots as 'co-directed' on our indi- vidual reels," Smith recalls. "It was really quite amicable."

Likewise, when Johns and Gorman broke off, creating their separate reels was a process of "subjective idiocy," says Gorman, though theirs is certainly a special case since they continued as business partners. "It was just, 'OK, you take this and I'll take that,' though we certainly thought in terms of our futures. For example, because Gary had been an art director and was more graphically-oriented in peoples' minds, he might have gotten an extra comedy spot."

The Molotov Brothers, on the other hand, went through a much messier divorce, not amicable in the least; one that Steve Lowe recalls as being "quite nasty." Besides accusations of embezzlement and not speaking to Moloney for three years, when Lowe split with Moloney, co-director Jimmy Fletcher and producer Martin Brierley, the Maxell campaign ended up on Brierley's reel when he decided to direct a few years later. Even so, Lowe, who's been directing solo through RSA/London for the last five years, has started a separate collaboration with director Jason Gray and former Molotov Fletcher. The three plan to direct videos and commercials through a London company called Alpha Getty. "I found it lonely on my own," says Lowe, who claims to have matured in the last few years. "And it's fucking hard work, too. It's easier to be innovative with other people."

Maturity seems to be the key to successful partnerships; well, maybe more to the point, the key is a well-balanced ego. "When attention is the motivation, it won't work," notes Joe Public's Cole. And forget about the steal-a-reel game: "If you're going to fight over who did what, it won't work either. Adam and I both believe we could be highly successful independently, and that enables us to work together. It's a relationship built on strengths."

Of course, it's also nice to be able to direct only work you've created and not deal with any of the agency politicking, which has been the strategy of partners Erik Kessels and Johan Kramer former Chiat/Day London creatives who recently opened up shop in their native Amsterdam. The pair, who most recently worked together at Gold Greenlees Trott in London, had a tidy arrangement that allowed them to work at the agency while doing their own solo projects (see story on page 32). The main advantages of directing only work they've created, says Kramer, "is that you don't you have 30 people running around the set with ideas. You can keep things small, and you know you'll keep to the idea because you created it."

No matter whose idea they're shooting, it appears that co-directors, much like lovestruck couples, can't imagine ever being alone. "Look, people assume there's something mystical about the commercials process, that it's this special gift that only operates in the trauma of some solo creative genius thing," opines Cole's partner, Cameron. "The fact is, directing can be a rather lonely, tyrannical experience on your own. Working together helps retain a sense of humor about what you're doing; besides, it's just easier with two and it's a lot more fun."

ILLUSTRATION BY BETH KATTLEMAN

=========================================================================

"THIS IS BY FAR THE BIGGEST GROUP of teams I've ever seen," says Pamela Maythenyi, dominatrix of directors lists and head of The Source Maythenyi, the commercial production database service, based in Boca Raton, Fla. Maythenyi has been tracking commercials directors for years, and she ought to know a trend when she sees one-and the apparent growth of this one is a little hard to explain, she concedes. "A lot of them are from music videos, where there's not as much ego involved" in the production process, she suggests. "I don't think those guys are as opposed to sharing the glory as your more egotistical commercials director."

Regardless of the roots behind this trend, The Source's current list of directing teams is chockablock with names, some familiar, most largely unknown. Still relatively rare in the features world-aside from Panama & Frank (remember Danny Kaye in "The Court Jester"?) the Coen Brothers ("Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona" et al.) and those Hughes twins ("Menace II Society," "Dead Presidents"), how many can you name?-co-directing seems primarily to be a music video and commercials phenomenon.

But even in the short-form arena, where both the Coens and the Hugheses have dabbled, it's also one that, while posing lots of compelling questions, has yet to generate a tremendous amount of ad agency interest. Says Maythenyi, "I don't think the agency community has wrapped itself around this concept yet." When she does steer an agency toward a directing team, she adds, "I usually have to explain exactly what the team concept is and how it works."

For those readers who are wondering just how many dynamic duos are out there these days, here's a loosely-assembled listing of active directing teams and their respective U.S. production companies, published with apologies in advance to any and all omitted from this accounting, which, furthermore, is presented in no particular order:

Big TV/Palomar Pictures

Vaughan & Anthea/Propaganda Films

Buckley & Todaro/Radical Media The Brothers Quay/The End

Liberatore & Lazzeretti/Two Olives

Nomad/Bedford Falls

The Douglas Brothers/BFCS

Libman & Williams/BFCS

The Schell Brothers/Chelsea Pictures

Red Herring/Director's Chair

Jason & Austin/GMS

The Coen Brothers/GMS

Joe Public/Headquarters

Berlinger & Sinofsky/Industrial Artists

The Hughes Brothers/The Oil Factory

ScottNTom/Optic Nerve

Erik & Johan/Spots Films

In this article:
Most Popular