How We Started Co-Directing And Why We Would Do It Again

How did two people who had only directed solo end up co-directing?

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time in 2016, East Stream Studio had come to the place where we were ready to produce our first project as a company. Up until this time, Stefan Liner had spent his time acting, producing and directing solo, including 3 years producing and directing commercial projects for Bclip Productions. He still fills in for them from time to time. BTWIf you are in need of a high quality commercial or corporate video give them a look – they are outstanding! Meanwhile,  I had been writing, producing and directing theater productions. When we decided it was time to join forces (something we had discussed for nearly a decade) we assumed our projects would use one of them to direct at a time. Little did we know that we would soon be using a co-directing model.

WFMF Grand Finale
Robin and Stefan Liner at the showing of “When Fact Met Fiction” Season 1

After we decided to greenlight When Fact Met Fiction as our first project, it became clear that we would share in the various roles of pre-production and production. Cooperatively, Stefan would focus on technical aspects (such as location scouting and putting together the production team, etc.) as well as directing, while I would focus on creative aspects (Creating print props and setting up craft services, etc.) and writing.

But as the famous quote states…

The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”

This proved to be true due to having the lofty goal of shooting 105 pages of script over just two weekends. The final count was 105 pages in 54 hours.

3 Production Dilemmas 

  • We only had access to the set on the weekends so we had to create the set, light it, shoot our scenes then tear it all down each weekend.
  • Stefan was tripling up as Producer, UPM, and Director, as well as overseeing set construction.
  • I was managing on-set rewrites, set dressing, choosing wardrobe, and managing craft services.

The first weekend found both of us seeing their proposed ideas concerning how the directing would happen for When Fact Met Fiction thrown out the window.  Instead, they created a completely new workflow on the fly.

Because of the small indie-crew, many of those having little experience on-set, as co-creators, we had no recourse but to spend the first day allowing for a learning curve and ensuring everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing. Thankfully, the DP and camera operators had previous production experience under their belts making Stefan’s job more manageable.

The first day of shooting was a bit rocky.

Stefan was only able to get half of what he had planned accomplished. The crew had never worked together and Stefan was busy smoothing things over and setting a standard for the atmosphere on set. But this left him less time to work with the talent. He turned to me to block master scenes that were to be shot almost like a play. My background in theater came in handy, although I hadn’t planned on overseeing this, I was able to make it happen. Our evolution into co-directing had begun.

Robin and Stefan discuss script changes.

We made it through the first weekend, miraculously coming close to shooting everything scheduled. We say miraculous because the first day ended with only half of what was scheduled in-the-can. But Stefan and I regrouped that night and had a plan to make up for lost time. Some shots ended up sacrificed but we were back on track.

Then a major stressor happened.

We had scheduled to shoot the final scene of the entire web series in a different location. The style of both the production and acting was a departure from what was shot on the other set. After watching the footage and editing together a rough cut, it became clear that something had to be changed. We attempted to rewrite the ending, but when we showed it to the leads they didn’t like it. This doesn’t always matter, but frankly, we didn’t like it either. So, I proposed to Stefan a different approach to directing the rest of the scenes. Stefan approved of the plan.

I stayed up most of the night finding the places in the remaining scripts where we could adjust the directing style to make the final scene believable. I rewrote some places to add the dynamics necessary. Then I met with the lead actors the night before shooting  and put our co-directing into action. I went over every section where we wanted to see their relationship building to the intensity portrayed in the final episode. It paid off. We were able to keep the great performances from the final episode and finish on schedule.

Robin, Stefan and team discuss rewrites.

What made co-directing work for us?

  1. Flexibility – Unexpected things happen in the telling of a story. You can let it throw you into a panic or you can figure out how to fix it. We actually get a rush out of figuring out how to fix it. It’s a part of what we love about production. Stefan’s grandfather once told him, ” Never let someone tell you it’s never been done that way.” There is a first time for everything and even if someone else has discovered a new way before, it’s okay to discover it for yourself.
  2. No egos  in the way – For us, it didn’t matter who was directing or calling the shots at any given time. What mattered was the story. What mattered were the amazing people we were getting to work with. What mattered is that we finished well. We didn’t worry about who would get credit for what. We focused on telling a compelling story. See below a list of tips from what we learned about making co-directing work.
  3. Big egos paving the way – We are crazy confident. We are insane enough to believe we CAN figure out how to make things happen, how to handle surprises, how to finish what we’ve started AND do it without making our troubleshooting a  stress for everyone else.

4 Tips For Making Co-directing a Success:

  1. Don’t step on each others toes. It worked best when the talent only had to listen to one perspective. The first weekend they got in each other’s way a bit. After that I held back. Even when being asked directly by one of the actors if there were any suggestions I held back, and said, “No” because Stefan was primarily at the helm that night.  This was good because it helped keep focus, but it was bad because there were some things I would have likely mentioned. That leads us to the second tip.
  2. Establish an attitude of respect for the other director. The cast or crew will not hear a negative remark from either of us about the other. We are clear to reinforce their trust in each others individual styles of directing. And regardless of which style the actors may prefer, they are expected to respect the directing team’s decision for how they want that scene approached. Our cast was amazing. We never felt a preference of one over the other.
  3. Take time as a directing team to determine who is directing which parts. If we had done that before the aforementioned situation we may have had a stronger outcome. But when you don’t even realize you are evolving into a directing team you miss some things.  Because Stefan was busy working with the DP and we were crunched for time, passing the baton to me during those instances would have made sense. For Season 2, we plan on knowing in advance who will direct which sections.
  4. Accept your strengths and your weaknesses. Between us, we each have distinct strengths. Stefan has an incredible knack for pacing and comedic timing. I am better at how characters relate to each other and enjoy building chemistry: whether it be romantic, sentimental or adversarial.

Finally, we realize co-directing isn’t for everyone.  We also still enjoy being the only hands holding the reigns when the project calls for it, but should you find yourself with too many hats on your head and a need to share the load, it is possible to successfully team up and benefit from a tag team approach. Follow-us into Season 2 of When Fact Met Fiction to see how we do. Thanks for reading!