Harnessing the Hydra: How to Be a Better Collaborator, by Southbound Director Roxanne Benjamin

Good collaboration happens when a film’s creative heads move in unison.

We hear over and over that film is a collaborative art form. At the same time, we place the creative onus upon the director as auteur, the primary vision behind the machine, steering the ship. What does that contradiction mean for how we work?

I’ve worked as a producer, director, writer and even actor on two different anthology series—V/H/S and this winter’s Southbound—with a sum total of 22 directors, 23 writers and a whopping 44 producers between them. (And that’s not even counting V/H/S: Viral, which I was peripherally involved in.) How do you create one cohesive vision with that many voices, all equally a part of the creative process, and all with their own individual visions at stake to protect? In a series of mixed metaphors, allow me to tell you the most important lessons I’ve learned about creative collaboration from my time as an anthology moviemaker.

1. Pick Your Team With Care

Working with people whose visions you trust to complement yours is a big key to success. The V/H/S and Southbound teams challenged each other constantly to explain why we wanted something a certain way or how a decision would affect the overall film. We wouldn’t have been able to do that if we didn’t already have a common ground in terms of creative tastes or a respect for each other’s work.

“It’s more important to work with people whom you’re fans of than it is to work with people you’re friends with,” says Simon Barrett, writer of You’re Next and The Guest, and a V/H/S/2 director. “You might be working with the nicest, best communicator on the planet, but if their work doesn’t induce excitement and respect, the collaboration will be a disaster. [Frequent collaborator] Adam Wingard and I started out as fans of the films the other person was making. We then discovered that we got along, but that ‘Hey, you’re good at this; let’s work together’ spark is what makes us good collaborators, even when I’m infuriating Adam by singing ‘Hey Ya’ while he’s editing.”

Articulating the whys and hows externally helps you focus those ideas and cement them internally, as well. You should be able to answer those questions and explain what your vision is—the better you do that, the closer the final film will be to what you set out to make.

There’s also less pressure knowing you’re not holding up the whole feature alone—you can bounce ideas off of each other to come up with something even better than you could alone. Debating notes in a group always led us either to a new, better solution or to a better understanding of the choices we made.

Lastly: When we’re first working with a creative partner, we tend to walk on eggshells and be more lenient than we should be with our feedback. But, as Hobo with a Shotgun and V/H/S director Jason Eisener says, “You have to be honest with each other to get to the truth and heart of the story you’re creating.”

The benefit of resuming a creative relationship is that you can be brutally honest right from the get-go and avoid this phase altogether. (On Southbound, those notes would usually be followed up with kitten videos for good measure.)

2. Yeah, You Can Sit at Our Table

On a low-budget set, people feeling appreciated, heard and respected is even more important than normal. Foster inclusion rather than exclusion. Everyone on a film is working in a creative capacity, even if they aren’t considered one of “the creatives.” Problem-solving requires creativity, and all of moviemaking boils down to problem-solving in one way or another. Anyone can have a better idea of how to do something. Reward those better ideas. Remember that the script is a template; there’s’ room to move around in there. Give people permission to play around in the sandbox you’ve created and the results could be way better than you imagined.

Sometimes all people need is a little encouragement. “People may throw out a half-cocked idea and then no one responds, so they give up,” Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, actor-writer-director (V/H/S, Southbound). “It might have be a great idea that just needed to be better explained. I think the best ideas are usually one idea that plays off of another idea.”

There’s a fear of regression to the mean when you’ve got a lot of input coming in from different directions—an idea that having too many voices in on the creative conversation leads to a lack of vision, a muddled mess of a movie. Well, here’s the big secret: Not all ideas have to be implemented. Hearing ideas costs you absolutely nothing, and you decide what to take from something.

“Hear everyone out fully,” says Jess Calder, my producer on the feature Faults, “but the best idea should win for the film. If everyone involved doesn’t feel that same way, the collaboration isn’t going to be a good one.”

Many inexperienced writers don’t know how to interpret notes. They take them very literally, or they take all of them, even if those notes disagree with each other. Then they end up with the mess movie.

Roxanne Benjamin on the set of Southbound, a horror anthology she co-directed

Roxanne Benjamin on the set of Southbound, a horror anthology she co-directed. Photograph by James Cathcart

3. Make Sure You’re All Drawing the Same Dog

Communication is the key to a successful creative endeavor. Building the big picture together means making sure everyone has a clear idea of the direction of the project before you get too far down the road. Get everyone talking to everyone. And do it now. You shouldn’t find out weeks into prep that someone on your creative team thinks you’re drawing a cat, i.e. that you’re making an intense, serious thriller, while everyone else has been envisioning a black comedy.

Keep checking in with each other the further along you get. Still a dog, right? And we’re all drawing a dachshund? Not a Saint Bernard? Get on the same page. And stay on it.

4. Go Outside the Bubble

There may come a point where you’re all so on the same page and in love with what you’re working on that you run the danger of living within your own positive feedback loop. That’s when you bring in even more opinions. On Southbound, we reached a point with our edit where we felt we were in pretty good shape and couldn’t see any further major changes. So we brought in a test audience—trusted friends and colleagues, other filmmakers, editors and the like.

You’ll find you do have more changes to make. And then you’ll test it again, and again.

5. Nobody Knows Everything

Another big secret: “Faking it ’til you make it” is a big fat lie. We’re all faking it, and no one has “made it.” Once you have that epiphany, everything is easier. Don’t put anyone on a pedestal. Respect experience, but don’t discount your own opinions. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something or don’t understand someone’s opinion. If you don’t speak up, you don’t learn anything, and you don’t get a better understanding of that idea, that person or that process. Don’t be afraid to look like a fool.

Alternatively, there’s a belief that the director should always be “right,” or at least unyielding, or the crew will doubt that he or she has a clear vision. That’s total bullshit. Asking for another perspective shows you’re confident enough and have a clear-enough vision that outside opinions can be heeded—or not heeded—to further that vision.

After six years of moviemaking, I’m still texting and calling other filmmakers almost every day, asking, “What does this mean?,” “How have you dealt with this before?” or “How did you get that shot?” And then maybe I’ll be able to return the favor next time, and say, “Well, here’s what we did when we were stuck in the desert and the generators blew…” when I get that text from someone else. MM

Southbound opens in theaters February 5, 2016, courtesy of the Orchard. Featured image courtesy of Estúdio Horácio Novais. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2016 issue.

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