Jeff Chan is the co-writer/director of Plus One, a wedding rom-com starring Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid, which won the audience award at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. He recently sat down with HtN to share some of what he learned as half of a dynamic directing duo…
Co-Directing is a weird, unnatural mission to embark on with someone. It’s always made sense to me when siblings do it, because I presume siblings share some degree of psychic alignment if not a telepathic connection. Those who were raised together, grew up in the same home together, argued over the same toys on Christmas together, surely know how to shape a story together. But what about friends? What about two people who just like hanging out, but are completely different people? What happens when they take on the task of directing the same film?
When Andrew Rhymer and I made the decision to co-direct Plus One, I was quite nervous. Everything I’d directed up to that point had been on my own. I had a solid amount of experience directing commercials and had done a handful of episodes of TV. I knew how I liked to run a set, so bringing one of my best friends into that equation to take on my first feature film was incredibly daunting.
The experience ended up being extremely positive, but it wasn’t without its challenges. Co-directing is very different than solo directing, and so I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned from my experience making Plus One with Andrew. Though this is formatted as an advice list, I want to make it clear that results may vary.
1. Shape Your Dynamic
Every duo is going to be different. The chemistry that comes out of you and your co-director working together is going to be unique to the two of you. It’s best to figure out what that is as early as possible. If you plan on taking on a big project, like a pilot or feature, then make a few short films first. Rhymer and I co-directed two short films in the year leading up to Plus One, and that experience was critical to priming us for the feature. By the time we were stepping onto set for the movie, we knew exactly how we liked to work together.
During Plus One, Andrew and I carpooled to and from set every day. On the car ride to set, we would discuss the plan for the day and go over any anxieties or new ideas we had. This was a great way to get on the same page, as we didn’t have a lot of time to confer once shooting started. Once you’re in it, you’re in it; so make sure you both know what the game plan is at the top of the day so that you don’t get into the very awkward situation of debating a choice in front of the entire crew.
When we were driving home from set, we would debrief the day. We discussed mistakes we thought we’d made, go over the next day’s work and just discuss the big picture of the film and how we felt it was going.
3. Talk Out Problems Quickly
The biggest mistakes I’ve made as a co-director are letting frustrations fester unaddressed. Those frustrations always end up cropping up in other ways that can damage the alchemy of the shoot. If you’re being passive aggressive with your co-director, everyone will feel it, and it can be devastating to a crew’s morale. It’s up to you and your co-director to put those fires out quickly so that they don’t spread.
If you and your co-director are arguing over a choice, and you can’t seem to agree, zoom out and see if there’s a middle ground that neither of you have considered. Don’t get bogged down in Option A versus Option B. You might like red drapes, and he might like blue drapes — so run that discussion by your production designer and see what they say. The answer might be purple drapes.
And if you’re feeling like you’re caught in a spiral of miscommunication and disagreements, have a bigger state of the union conversation to work it out. Even get a couple’s therapist if you need to. It’s absolutely vital that you work out your differences, so do whatever it takes to find harmony with each other.
4. Divide & Conquer
The best part about co-directing, obviously, is that there’s two of you. Use that to your advantage! Decide if you both need to be in the same room at the same time. If not, figure out who should do what.
Sometimes I’d be finalizing wardrobe choices, while Andrew was going over set dressing with the production designer. That boosted efficiency can be extraordinarily valuable. If you lean into it appropriately, you’ll buy yourself more time for rehearsals and takes.
5. Don’t Get Competitive
This is probably the most important item on this list, and it applies to most creative collaborations.
It’s very easy to keep score when co-directing. If ideas you’re having are getting positive feedback from your cast or crew, you might start to think, “I’m the more crucial co-director!” Do your best not to go there. The truth is, your co-director is impacting you and the shoot in ways that go far beyond surface level choices. Never forget that.
Once you make the decision to co-direct, you must stand by that decision. Your job as a director is to do everything you can to make the best possible film. There will be many times when you have to put your ego aside to achieve that goal, even if it means going completely counter to a choice you think will make the film better. If that seems like a catch-22, don’t worry; it’s not. I was humbled repeatedly making Plus One. There were scenes I thought I had an incredibly clear handle on, but Andrew would present a different angle, and though at first I’d fight against it, eventually we’d reach a compromise that was ultimately way better for the film.
Directing can be a very solitary, even lonely experience, but with a co-director, you’re in the trenches with someone who’s sharing the stress, anxiety and pressure with you. Lean into the benefits of having a partner alongside you through the experience, and the whole ride will be a lot smoother.
Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?