If We Can, So Can You: How We Co-Direct Feature Films as a Married Couple and Stay Married

When we say, “We are married and we direct films together,” the first question most people ask is, “How do you do it?” followed by, “Why do you do it?” and finally, “I would kill my spouse/significant other/boyfriend/girlfriend/etc. if we tried to do that.”

There is an inherent tension to the process of making films (especially independent films; most especially independent documentaries), and an inherent tension to being married. Add the two together and it can seem like a ticking time bomb, especially since Hollywood couples notoriously go through Hollywood breakups.

Well, it ain’t always easy, but it is possible to make films with your spouse or partner and stay together. But not without some uncomfortable conversations and a really big mutual commitment.

We’ve been directing and producing films together for a decade and, amazingly, we still like each other. (In fact, we are more in love than ever before.) Sappy? Yes. But it is Hollywood, after all, and you secretly wanted a happy ending, right?

For us, the idea of making films collaboratively is what initially created the spark that brought us together. (It’s also killed the spark a time or two, but more on that later.) By the end of 2018, we will have made nine movies together, including Fuel, The Big Fix, Pump and our latest release, Good Fortune. We’ve won awards at Sundance, premiered at Cannes, signed our wills as we prepped for high-risk filming situations (e.g. the Niger Delta and favelas of Sao Paulo) and managed, in the middle of all of that, to produce two adorable children (and no, they weren’t both produced during the production of Pump).

Rebecca and Josh Tickell shooting their 2014 documentary, Pump, in Shanghai, China

Husband and wife partnerships aren’t anything new. The benefit that comes from the division of labor and the stability brought by “until death do us part” has been the bedrock for many a mom-and-pop business since time immemorial. In fact, you could even say that our mere existence is a result of that eternal dance between the masculine and feminine. The cliche is that men do the heavy lifting and women manage the home or the money. Or men are “the head” and women “the heart” (or “neck,” in a certain indie film). Yin and yang. Men and women have carefully navigated these partnerships as they have evolved through the ages.

We have only ever known a world where women have been subjugated and considered the lesser sex. And in film, since it’s dawn in the early 20th century, we’ve seen many actresses married to their favorite director, producer or writer. That is certainly a form of partnership, but not necessarily one where everyone is on even footing. Considering women now make up about 15 percent of film directors, editors and writers, we are inching towards equality in Hollywood. But the fact that we are writing this article is a testament to the fact that there haven’t been many husband-and-wife co-directing teams, and few women have had a seat at the head of the table in Hollywood.

We’ve seen many successful siblings in partnership: the Coen brothers, the Farrelly brothers, the Wachowskis. There is a second language that having this familial relationship brings, an edge of having been through it all together before. But you don’t have to have shared the same womb to be a successful filmmaking duo.

The Tickells at the premiere of their 2016 documentary feature, Good Fortune

It’s hard to find a good example of a co-directing, co-producing husband and wife team. So here’s the answer to the bewildered question that we are so often asked: “How do you do it (without killing each other)?”

We both have very different perspectives about… well, you name it, and there is a lot of ground we could cover between directing, producing, parenting and marriage. The first thing we have going for us is that we are generally able to align on the big issues, i.e. beginning, middle and end of our stories, what movie we want to make next, where we live, how to raise our kids, division of labor, etc.

Rebecca wouldn’t attempt to manage the color correction and Josh wouldn’t try to manage the budget. Josh is a better front man, Rebecca is the better closer. Josh is in charge of what Josh is in charge of and Rebecca is in charge of what Rebecca is in charge of. It took several years for us to identify our individual strengths and weaknesses. This presented the greatest challenge to our personal relationship during the first few years.

Even with our established domains within our partnership, there is still plenty of crossover, but we defer to the person whose strength is in that area to lead. And with everything that needs to get done, we don’t waste much time debating it.

We do, however, take time for what we call “constructive arguing.” This is not your typical argument with name-calling and insults. When we don’t align on something, we work really hard to fully understand each other’s perspective. And sometimes it gets intense. Often what one person needs to say is not what the other person wants to hear. Our secret is that we respect each other through the process (often with kids dangling from our necks), and we refrain from reducing ourselves to insults; after all, we do have to live with each other and ourselves at the end of the day. We make sure that the other person knows that what she or he thinks and feels is fully understood. As long as we do those three things, we can recalibrate our individual wants and needs so that they are aligned with the other person.

At the end of the day, it’s all about commitment. If we can get underneath what is being said and the feelings we are experiencing in that moment, and get to the constructive place of articulating what each of us is committed to, usually there is common ground. If emotions start to run high, sometimes we have to literally stop and repeat what the other person has said, so we are sure that we really understand each other. More often than not, upsets stem from miscommunication.

It also helps that we’ve taken lots of workshops and seminars (as well as occasional and very targeted therapy) to have breakthroughs in our communication. We recommend it. If you don’t have a healthy model for something, create one. Albeit at times cheesy, these workshops keep us growing and expanding. We go in with a clear intention that it will bring us closer together and help us to remove the obstacles that we can’t seem to remove on our own.

For us, this constructive arguing is helpful. We’ve all been on sets where people lose their shit. What a waste of time. The drama is better on the screen than on the set. And besides, there are films to be made!

Tickell and Tickell with cinematographer Martin DiCicco filming upcoming doc Beautiful Nonsense in Nigeria

We bring different and unique perspectives to the table, and from that comes this third thing, a third dimension—the film.

It’s a takes a lot for one person (or two people for that matter) to create that third dimension. And honestly, if we didn’t make our films together, we would rarely see each other. It is time-consuming and somehow we make it all work as a family affair.

When we disagree, sometimes we do A/B testing (i.e. this shot or that one?). Often there’s a third way that comes from an editor or writer, or the movie itself draws forth the solution.

Lastly, we would have failed you if we did not mention that, for us, the thing that keeps us going is that we are committed to something big. Bigger than ourselves, bigger than our success, we want to make films that make a difference. Our petty disagreements are manageable when what we have put at stake is the survival of the human race, for instance.

As we wrap up the three films that we are currently directing, we will embark on a new adventure together: directing narratives. We’ve written the script and we have made the declaration that our first fiction film will shoot in 2018. We’ve been doing things the hard way for 10 years; documentary filmmaking is only for the truly bold (or truly insane). Surely making narratives can’t be harder than what we’ve been doing. Right?

Whatever challenges lie ahead, we are excited to tackle them together, constructive arguing and all. And if we can do it, you can do it too. Ever hear of the hundredth monkey theory? If not, you might check it out… and then make a movie about it with your partner. MM

Good Fortune opened in theaters June 23 and is available on iTunes starting August 1, 2017, courtesy of Lionsgate.

 

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