How They Did It: The Hughes Brothers’ Gentle Art of Collaboration

After being in the film business for more than 18 years, the question we’re most often asked by reporters and people on the streets is still: “So how do you two work together? Who does what?” Tired of answering the question again and again, one of us usually smirks and throws out some smart-ass line like, “I do all the work and he’s just along for the ride.”

The truth of how we work together seems very simple to us. It has, of course, been refined over the years, but no matter how much it gets polished, there are still some problems with it because you have two people doing what is traditionally a one-person job. Very few letters separate the word “dictator” from “director,” and we’ve never seen a two-person dictatorship.

It goes like this (and let’s hope this clears it up once and for all): On the set, Allen handles the actors and I handle the camera department and lots of the physical production. In pre-production, Allen handles the casting, rehearsals and anything having to do with the actors; I handle set construction, storyboarding, scouting locations and hiring production heads (with Allen’s approval). During post-production, we split our time in the edit, Allen doing an acting pass, while I do a technical pass. Allen usually takes the lead in the sound mix and music at this stage.

This style of working came more from personality than by choice. We both are introverted people by nature, but Allen is the more extroverted one. I generally have little patience for people, endless talks about character motivation and all the coddling involved; Allen takes real joy in this. He specializes in using his verbal skills to get things done while I’d rather be in a room by myself, planning everything out with shot lists and storyboards.

The problems start when the actors show up and I have to adjust all my planning. Allen wants to see what the actors do naturally; I would rather they go to a preferred spot for lighting or for the best angle. This is when the sparks begin to fly and the bickering starts, sometimes appearing very vicious and heated.

From the outside looking in, people may see this as something far worse than what it really is. But the fact is, we’re just two brothers fighting over something very simple. And not just two brothers, but twins, which adds a whole other element of mutant freak shit to the show. We usually get over it in seconds, but when we were younger the bad blood would last for weeks.

In our younger years, while working on our first three films, we would live in the same house during production. That made things even worse. We now live separate lives—something that needed to happen with us working so closely together. Which brings us to the second most popular question: “Where the hell have you guys been?”

That’s a very complicated answer. First off, when you live the life of a two-headed mutant monster, you both must agree on one thing before you can do it. That said, these mutants really needed a break from each other and, figuratively speaking, we went to the doctor and were surgically removed from one another. We’ve both led different and separate lives since that point, working apart for a bit and, in general, finding ourselves without the confusion of people lumping our personalities together. This sometimes is the most difficult thing about being a twin.

I eventually moved to Prague because of my frustration with this great big baby in diapers shitting and throwing up all over the place, teething on whatever it could find. This baby’s name? America. Allen remained in the town in which we grew up from age eight. Now that I am 6,000 miles away, the collaboration had one more hurdle to get over: I am into computers and technology; Allen is not.

I still don’t know if Allen could navigate his way through a simple search on Google, but he loves his Crackberry. So even now, with all the technology in the world (web cams, Skype, etc.) I still have to talk to my brother the old fashioned way: By phone. And with the international two-second delay that causes silly arguments because we both think the other is trying to talk over us (after eight years, you’d think one of us would have figured it out by now.)

The unsaid thing that most people don’t realize about twins is that they have a shorthand and most times words do not need to be exchanged for things to work properly. On the set, sometimes I see a take with an actor doing two or three things that I think need to be corrected. I just look at my brother and he nods. Take two begins to roll and every note is corrected without fail. Part of being a twin is knowing what the other is thinking, and also generally thinking alike. But that can cause problems, too.

When we were younger, growing up in Detroit, the inevitable yearly Halloween fight would take place: Who was going to be Gene Simmons, “the Demon” of the rock band KISS, that year? We would fight and fight until one of us folded or our mother would settle it by making both of us Gene Simmons. Great! Two half-breed Gene Simmons mutants walking down the block with pillowcases filled with candy. Yeah, Mom, thanks. That’s really going to help with the confusion of being a twin.

I do recall that one year one of us folded and went out as Peter Criss’ “Catman,” black and white make-up running down our cheeks from the tears of disappointment, settling for the lesser known, less exciting member of KISS, who possessed none of Simmons’ powers—bloody-mouthed, fire-breathing, serpent-sized, cunnilingus-dazzling tongue!

Even without these hurdles, we both like to take our time with projects, never rushing into them. Between our second and third movie, five years passed; between the third and this latest one, about eight years. This has more to do with trying to get it right than anything else. We both need to be passionate about a project before going into battle. We would rather go broke than put out a shitty movie. If we do happen to make a shitty movie, at least we tried to make it right and didn’t rush it. We both wish we had the career and talent to use the Kubrick excuse, but that’s not in the cards for now, and as far as I can tell, we don’t suffer from any type of OCD.

But the business is changing, and the studios are suffering from what I call the McDonald’s Economic Model: Put out as many shitty burgers as quickly as possible. Suffering from the herd mentality, people will flock and buy it, never taking the time to look at the mom-and-pop place across the street, who put time and care into making their burgers. Throw in that every creative decision is influenced by the studio marketing department’s mathematical algorithm for what the audience wants, and you end up mostly with a watered-down product.

If you have the inclination as a director to work by committee, this may suit you just fine. If not, it’s very painful. Before you ask us to bend over and grab our ankles, could you at least kiss our necks or whisper sweet nothings into our ears? Even whores need love and sensitivity sometimes.

Sometimes we both feel like the Elephant Man on stage, being poked, prodded, told to turn around and expose the English muffin-sized deformities on our backs as the audience members cover their mouths, shrieking in horror or laughing while pointing. The life of mutants is not easy and mutants in the Klieg lights are far worse.

As directors, we have slowly started to realize that it should be more about the movies and less about the people making them.

The mystery seems to be gone now. Someone living in Iowa now knows the weekend box office grosses before they even hit print and is generally savvy to the people behind the movies.

In recent years, we have even had to be forced kicking and screaming into our directors’ commentary for a DVD release, something that used to be a very special thing back in the laser disc days. On our first movie, because the mutant freak show factor was threefold—young, black and twins—everyone wanted a photo shoot or a talk show appearance. With the dreaded fourth element—our big fucking mouths (which sometimes get us into big trouble)—this is not a town built for opinionated people without filters on their thoughts.

Honesty is a rare disease in this town. Whether right or wrong, at least you know where we stand. Yes, we have calmed through the years, but we love saying what’s on our minds, no matter how stupid it is. We find it refreshing to see other people in this business do the same. Unfortunately, we’ve had to adjust a little and think a bit before we speak (most people just don’t realize that a lot of our statements are in jest). I suspect this is also a reason why we never moved to L.A. or became a part of that circus. But to be fair to the city, it’s the business itself that changes the people, the way they think and act, not the geography.

More time between projects means we also get to live a real life and not be treated differently. This town can do strange things to people’s heads. And if I hear that phony phrase “huge fan” one more time in this town, I’m going to chain that fucker to the back of a trailer hitch and drag him through the streets. MM

The Book of Eli is in theaters now.

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