Pictured: Myself with half of the crew of “How We Were”, a short film I had the opportunity to co-direct.

On My Experience Being a Co-Director

By Paul Costa


As an aspiring director, I have looked for opportunities to direct as many different types of projects as possible. So when my friend and colleague asked me to co-direct his short film, I was excited for the opportunity to have a new experience.

“I feel it is important to have a personal connection with any film that I work on.”

First, a little bit about the film. “How We Were” is a bittersweet story of high school love won and lost, and shows the first and last day of a six month relationship (for full info, check out the Indiegogo page here: http://igg.me/at/FTV6AljBSKw/x/6069388). This story was of particular interest to me because I have experience with many of the conflicts that the characters face. I feel it is important to have a personal connection with any film that I work on, in some way.

The main reason my friend Drew asked me to co-direct his project, was that he said he wanted someone there that he trusted with a different perspective on the script, and on the story he was trying to tell. He also worked as the writer and Director of Photography on this project in addition to directing it. Because of this, he wanted to make sure that there was someone there to guide the actors if something went wrong, and he had to give being DoP his full attention.

“Establishing a system of how we would work together… was essential.”

I mentioned that Drew wanted me there because I was someone that he trusted. As it turns out, I found that trusting each other was the key aspect of working together as directors. The first step we went through in navigating the challenges of directing together was establishing a system of how we would work on set. This was essential, as the alternative would have been two people trying to be in charge with no clear idea of how they would differ to each other.

We agreed that we would talk to each other before making major directorial decisions, such as blocking, or general direction for the actors in each scene. However, once we really got into each scene, we would take turns giving direction. If one of us had an idea or a thought to tell the actors, we let each other roll with it. This allowed us both creative freedom to adapt to any given situation, which resulted in a lot of good on set changes and ideas.

Still: Main characters Tim and Ella, on their first date.

Granted, this system wasn’t perfect. There were several occasions where our on the fly creative decisions were contradictory. The clearest example of this I can recall happened the second day of set. We were on the set of the abandoned house location, where roughly half of the film takes place. We built this set in a basement, and because of space restrictions, we ran the monitor to directly outside of the room where we were shooting. Drew and I took turns, one of us standing next to camera, while the other sat at monitor. This way we could each get a different look at the actors performances. After the second take of a single on the lead actress, I told her to say a certain line more matter-of-fact, to be surprised the lead actor didn’t know a certain piece of information. We shot the next take, and she performed the line in this manner.

After the take was done, Drew came in from looking at monitor and told her to say the line, and I quote, “less matter of fact.” I should emphasize that he had not heard the direction I gave. The actress looked at me, understandably confused, and I told him I had just told her the exact opposite thing. We laughed about it, had a short conversation about why we disagreed, and had her perform the line the way he wanted. We were both satisfied with the takes we had gotten, and agreed to move on because it wasn’t worth the time arguing about who was right. However, while the crew was setting up the reverse shot of the lead actor, we had a discussion and decided how she should play that line for the rest of the scene.

“What was even more important then the work we did on set, was the work we did before hand.”

Outside of that one instance, there were not many times that we had definite disagreements. We would usually bring up our separate ideas to each other before we said anything to anyone else, or we would often start with a definite place that we both wanted the scene to get to, and would each try various ways to get it there. I am glad that this system worked, and that we had no mishaps on set (at least not that we could control). However, what was even more important then the work we did on set, was the work we did before hand.

Still: Tim and Ella, the last time they see each other.

I felt that it was necessary for both of us to be on the same page in terms of the overall character arcs, the overall tone of the film, and the central themes, as in what the film is really about. I also felt that it was necessary to know all of this intimately before we got to set, even more so that when I am directing by myself. Because we could have disagreements about how to accomplish certain goals, such as the specific angle of a shot, or how to direct performances. But the one thing that couldn’t be in question was exactly what the story needed to do. That is something we needed to be in complete agreement on.

“I found joy… bringing someone else’s story to life.”

I found that because of our planning, and because we had worked with each other so often before, Drew and I worked well together as directors. It was a great experience to learn how to share the responsibility of being a director, and it came with its own challenges.

However, I think I have a greater take away from this experience then just the change of pace that came from being a co-director. The biggest change for me with this project, is that it is the first time I was able to direct something that I did not have a large part in writing. I had some input with the final script, and with dialogue, but the key is that it was someone else’s idea. I found joy in being able to help someone else’s story come to life. I found that, because the idea was not my own, I was able to more clearly see the characters goals, and was able to find who they were on a deeper level then I have with films I have written myself.

Because of this, I am beginning to see the job of being a director much differently then I have before. I never really understood how satisfying it was to not be the originator of a story, but rather the one in charge of seeing it get made. As a writer/director, you are really still just a writer. You are the one who created the story, and you are going to tell it the way you wrote it. As a director, you are a storyteller, and can more clearly see the way a story should be best told. And it’s not always the way it’s written.

This is all of course my personal experience. It may be that when you are more experienced (look at some of Hollywood’s writer/directors) you can more clearly separate these roles. However, for me personally, I cannot wait to find a story — someone else’s story — that I can relate to, connect to, and help bring to life.

Written Jun. 2, 2015