Team-Directing: What We Learned By Making Our Feature Drama Claire in Motion as a Pair

Many years ago, two friends who had been film school classmates decided to make something together.

We were at a holiday party in New York. Maybe it was film-related, actually; just the kind of party to make you feel like everyone else around you surely has a project that will be off and running any second now. We both had features in the works with strong producers and cast on the way… but those projects were moving slowly, as they do.

“Let’s make something together soon. Like, next weekend.”

What resulted from that conversation was the web series Sparks, which was picked up by the Sundance Channel’s website and led us to writing and directing our first feature (with characters inspired by the series), called Small, Beautifully Moving Parts. A few years later, we began writing Claire in Motion, in what The Hollywood Reporter called a “breakout” performance from an actor who is already a star. She plays a woman whose husband has gone missing on a camping trip, and who discovers things she hadn’t known about his life in his absence.

Betsy Brandt plays the bereaved Claire in Claire in Motion

We have been growing our collaboration since we first began making the web series almost nine years ago. We’ve found that a “no-rules” organic approach, one that features a long prep period to really wrap our heads around the tone and feel of the film, is an important part of what makes the collaboration work.

Here’s more about how we make it work, especially this particular film.

Plan Together, Then Write Apart

We have been using the same writing process for a long time now: We never write together “live,” in the same room, but instead do a lot of talking on the phone, Skyping and emailing (and mad texting), and agree upon particular writing “assignments,” and then pass those to the other person for revision. Those chunks are typically around five pages long.

Have At Least One Person “There”

Or, we should really say, one city and one town. Claire in Motion is set in Appalachian Ohio, in the college town of Athens, in the Southeast corner of the state. Annie lived in Athens from 2009 to 2015 (she and her husband and kids moved back to New York two months after we finished filming), working as a film professor in the MFA program at Ohio University, a hidden gem of a program that offers great assistance packages for grad students (a shameless plug). The writing process therefore benefited from having one person on the ground who could stare out her window at the actual landscape.

Annie J. Howell, Lisa Robinson and Andreas Burgess on the set of Claire in Motion. Photograph by Kramer Ditty

Keep One Person Objective

What was really exciting about this particular writing process was that we were writing for the location, but working with two pretty different perspectives. One was deeply inside the town, where Annie was snapping photos while walking to work and getting ideas for casting the supporting roles when working with her colleagues in the theater department. The other perspective, Lisa’s, was coming from a more removed place in New York, where she was able to view these photos with more artistic objectivity, and use her imagination to take the material even further. Since we were utilizing Annie’s immediate resources, literally shooting in her back yard, Lisa and DP Andreas Burgess could see the spaces with new eyes, and with a sort of bold, “we have to shoot here!” urgency. That was very helpful overall.

Make All Major Decisions Together

For us, it comes down to trust, friendship and prep. It’s important to laugh and crack jokes. We both like all parts of directing, so we don’t divide the duties, but instead use the moment organically to decide, right then, who is going to do what. If we feel differently about how to shoot something or how a beat might work best, we get it both ways. If the project demands someone’s skills in a specific way, we fill that need. We spend a lot of time conferring and that back and forth is for the most part a creative and fun process of discovery.

Cast and Hire to Build a Sense of Place

While Annie was working on the ground, Lisa was busy in New York meeting with potential department heads. We were lucky enough to find amazingly talented people: Jenny Deller to produce, Andreas Burgess to shoot, Naomi Wolff of Blue Bloods to design costumes (she drove a van full of clothes to Ohio, in addition to pulling sweaters from her own collection, one of which was her grandmother’s) and Emmeline Wilks-Dupoise on production design.

Emmeline truly fell in love with Athens and the people there, and the film has a great sense of place due to the fact that she went to all kinds of local businesses and nonprofits, spoke to students and professors and local artists and historians … and created a specific texture for the way Athens actually feels. We then of course worked hard to pull away from realism and create the darkly dreamy tone: through color, shot design and detail.

Brant and Zev Haworth, as Claire’s son Connor, in the film

Possibly the most tricky role to cast was Claire’s 12 year-old son, Connor. We knew we needed someone who could not only really focus during the many quiet moments in the story, but also carry the weight of grieving, albeit in a particularly adolescent way. Zev Haworth was a friend of the family whom Annie had known since he was in second grade. She had a hunch that he could play the role, so much so that we even wrote in details from Zev’s life before approaching him about auditioning for the part. (Zev knits and is a mean pogo stick-er.) When Lisa met Zev, she saw that he had a wise, measured quality that would really work on screen. Zev and Betsy also hit it off spectacularly, and their on-set playfulness really helped this kid who had never had the experience of putting in day after long day on a set before.

Also, local actors played pretty much all of the supporting roles. Those people, plus the local crew and our support system rooted in the Ohio University community, was a great context for all of the actors to work within, as they were also of the place—a grounding force.

Try to Survive Post While Handling Your Lives

Our post period had to roll with what was unfolding in life! Lisa returned to work after a sabbatical, Annie had just moved back to New York with her family, and our editor, who was new to fiction (Jim Isler, who has a great career in documentary—and now in fiction as well!), was balancing our film with other work and a new baby. We handed the cut back and forth as well as gathered on weekends, and were lucky enough to keep this going more or less through an entire fall and into the winter.

When we were accepted into competition at South by Southwest 2016, we knew the work had paid off. MM

Claire in Motion opens in theaters and On Demand January 13, 2017, courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures.