Allegedly, 1933’s King Kong was based on a vivid dream mega producer Merian C. Cooper had about a giant gorilla attacking New York City. A more likely origin story is that Cooper had always been fascinated by gorillas and hired Ernest B. Schoedsack to bring his script to life, as the duo had worked on a number of documentaries (with nature and anthropological themes). For Kong, since their styles differed greatly, they worked separately. Schoedsack directed the live-action scenes, while Cooper filmed the miniatures and special effects that made Kong a groundbreaking work of art.
Singin’ in the Rain
One of the greatest musicals ever created, MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain is an example of collaboration done right. Star Gene Kelly had been writing and directing his own films since his days in the Photographic Section of the U.S. Naval Air Service making documentaries. He had to fight to get a director spot when he wound up in Hollywood, but eventually made his mark in 1949’s On the Town. Stanley Donen was his assistant choreographer, but Kelly gave him a co-director credit, as he believed the relationship wasn’t “boss-assistant anymore but co-creators.” They put the same formula to work for Singin’ in the Rain — which also featured co-creators in the music and writing departments — and a new kind of musical movie was born.
Horror fans have spent a lot of time debating just how much of 1982’s supernatural horror classic Poltergeist was actually directed by Tobe Hooper — the co-writer and director of the terrifying Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Credited as a co-writer and producer on Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg’s contract with Universal Studios prevented him from directing another film while E.T. was entering production. But Spielberg seemed to have a hand in most of the production, including the storyboards, camera set-ups, and more. This left the authorship of Poltergeist in question by the press and even several cast and crew members, who stated that Spielberg was without a doubt the driving creative force behind the camera. Comments from Spielberg didn’t help matters: “Tobe isn’t… a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of our collaboration.” Spielberg wrote a letter to Hooper during the film’s premiere that acknowledged the ongoing directorial debate, which is still largely in question to this day:
Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me… a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully. Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project.
Everyone’s favorite new Disney movie Frozen was co-directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (the film’s sole writer). Frozen has a few cool “firsts” to its credit, as Lee is the first woman to direct a feature-length Disney film, the first writer at any major animation studio to step behind the camera, and the first female director of a feature film that earned more than $1 billion at the box office. “We wanted to see if true love can mean something other than a kiss from Prince Charming,” Buck said of the duo’s development of Frozen.
Menace II Society
When we talk about sibling director teams, the Wachowskis and Coen brothers are two sets of kin who are always discussed. The Hughes brothers, twins like the Quay brothers, not so much. Their contemporary reception is somewhat perplexing as their debut film Menace II Society was one of the urban dramas that found critical acclaim (after its Cannes premiere) following John Singleton’s influential Boyz n the Hood. Albert, who focuses on the technical side of filmmaking, and Allen, who prefers to work with the actors, have been making movies since the age of 12. Roger Ebert wrote of their most recent collaborative effort, The Book of Eli, defining some of the brothers’ stylistic appeal:
The Hughes brothers have a vivid way with imagery here, as in their earlier films such as “Menace II Society” and the underrated “From Hell.” The film looks and feels good, and Washington’s performance is the more uncanny the more we think back over it. The ending is “flawed,” as we critics like to say, but it’s so magnificently, shamelessly, implausibly flawed that (a) it breaks apart from the movie and has a life of its own, or (b) at least it avoids being predictable.
Husband and wife team Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman discussed the making of American Splendor with BOMB Magazine — their biopic about underground comic book legend Harvey Pekar. The film is based on American Splendor and Our Cancer Year, the latter also a husband and wife co-creation between Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner.
BG How do you guys work together? You’re a team from way back. Did you meet at Columbia?
RP Yeah, Shari produced my short film. I edited her short film. And then we started writing together.
SSB Yeah, and then we got married.
BG How do work and marriage play out in your creative lives? Do you find you’re co-directors and co-writers, or does somebody write more than direct?
RP We never really sit down at the computer together; you know, one person will push forward and the other person will then sit down and take over, rewrite . . . and then we fight and fight and fight—
SSB Fighting is part of the process.
BG And fighting makes for more drama both in and outside the work. (laughter)
RP Exactly. With documentaries, we have multiple cameras. I’d follow one story and Shari would follow another. Then we’d meet up and say, What did you get? We would talk through each other. American Splendor took a little adjusting to. I would focus more on camera and Shari would focus on the actors, then we’d switch.
The City of Lost Children
Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro have written and directed multiple projects, including Delicatessen and the fantastical City of Lost Children. Jeunet works closely with the actors, while Caro tends to focus more on style and design.
Richard Donner originally intended to direct the first two Superman movies back-to-back for a speedy release. But production on Superman II was halted due to conflicts on set between Donner and producers, eventually forcing Donner off the project temporarily to focus on the first film. A Hard Day’s Night’s Richard Lester was brought on to help produce the original Superman, but became Donner’s replacement on the second film after an unceremonious firing. IMDb explains (below) how the project was reworked, much to the chagrin of several cast and crew. Later, Donner’s original footage was re-edited into Superman II, dubbed “The Donner Cut.”
Director Richard Lester was not sympathetic to the epic look that Richard Donner had given the original Superman (1978), saying that he didn’t want to do “the David Lean thing’. Lester decided to scrap most of Oscar-winning cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth”s footage, and hired director Michael Winner’s cinematographer, Robert Paynter, to create a style that would evoke Superman’s roots in comic books. Lester, Paynter and camera operator Freddie Cooper replaced Unsworth’s gliding camera with horizontal panning and static framing to evoke comic books and comic strips, with static frames crammed with people and objects. Similarly, the composition of shots the trio developed for Superman II (1980) had objects and people crammed into the frame. To further emphasize comic book composition, the action was photographed from one angle, to give the film a desired flatness. Harkening back to the techniques of the early sound era, Lester’s films had always been shot with three cameras filming the action simultaneously; two cameras for close-ups, one for the long shot. Lester’s technique added to the friction on the set caused by Donner’s firing. Margot Kidder particularly disliked him.