SXSW 2021 was packed full of an astonishing trend: the rise of co-directing. Why?

We profiled five great films at the fest to find out how it works.

It might be as simple as the fact that sometimes, two brains are better than one. It's a collaborative art form, after all—if you can dare to share the credit!

Film:Plant Heist

Unnamed_56Evidence of poacher stealing Dudleya farinosa from California cliffside in 'Plant Heist' co-directed by siblings Chelsi and Gabriel de Cuba.

Film synopsis: The film follows California's fight to protect valuable native succulents from an international poaching ring.

Co-Directing Team:  Chelsi de Cuba, Gabriel de Cuba

Why does co-directing work for them?

“I found co-directing to be extremely helpful, and I think the documentary format lends itself to co-directing,” Gabriel de Cuba told No Film School. “I think when you share the responsibility of telling a story through a visual medium like documentary filmmaking, you can lean on each other‘s strengths and bounce ideas off of one another. In the case of Chelsi and I, my strengths are in the technical side of filmmaking; lighting, camera work, audio recording, using Adobe Premiere to edit, Adobe After Effects for motion. Chelsi has a keen sense of story and structure and she's also an adept interviewer able to make people feel at ease.”

Similarly for Chelsi de Cuba, having her brother as co-director was all about playing off their strengths.

“Being siblings, we are very familiar with what those are and how to work with them,” said Chelsi de Cuba. “There were so many moving pieces throughout the production process, so communication really became the key factor in how we collaborated and making sure we were aligned with how we were going to tell this story.”

How did co-directing work on Plant Heist?

"Plant Heist was a skeleton crew,” said Chelsi de Cuba. “It was just Gabriel and I most days, so I think both of us being able to hold the vision as directors was really important in bringing it to the finish line. If you can find someone that has that same vision as you and is as excited as you are in getting it done, it can really drive the project from start to finish. For me, co-directing Plant Heist gave me the confidence that if I missed something in an interview that Gabriel was there to fill in the gap.”

 Gabriel de Cuba concurred.

“The key is that the vision of the film is agreed-upon in the early stages, as well as what the film is not,” said Gabriel de Cuba. “Of course, always leave room for flexibility and changes stylistically along the way. I think in documentary filmmaking, it’s a balancing act between your original treatment for the film and leaving room for new approaches and techniques. Having a co-director with you during this process takes conversations that otherwise would’ve been internal and allows them to be external conversations. For me, that was super helpful.”

Film:I’m Fine, Thanks for Asking

I-m-fine-thanks-for-asking-198011Kelley Kali as Danny in 'I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking)' co-directed by Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina.

Film synopsis: When a recently widowed mother becomes houseless, she convinces her 8-year-old daughter that they are only camping for fun while working to get them off the streets.

Co-Directing Team: Kelley Kali, Angelique Molina

Why does co-directing work for them?

Both Kali and Molina are first-time filmmakers who built strength in numbers to make their micro-budget feature a reality (and bag actor and EP Deon Cole in the process). Listen to the directors here.

Film:Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

Who-we-are-a-chronicle-of-racism-in-america-201073On the set of 'Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America' co-directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler.

Film synopsis: ACLU lawyer Jeffery Robinson’s shattering talk on the history of U.S. anti-Black racism is interwoven with archival footage, interviews, and Robinson's story, exploring the legacy of white supremacy and our collective responsibility to overcome it.

Co-Directing Team: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler

Why does co-directing work for them?

Siblings Emily and Sarah Kunstler first broke onto the documentary scene with their film about the much-loved and much-hated American lawyer in William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. He also happened to be their father! In making the film, the two sisters had a unique sensibility to tell the story, and simultaneously created an important co-directing relationship that would color their future work.

How did it work on Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America?

First, it started with the co-directors putting their proverbial heads together.

“In the very least, we knew we could make a beautiful version of [Jeffery Robinson’s] presentation,” Emily Kunstler said at SXSW 2021. “But we had bigger dreams than that. We brainstormed how to make it a bigger cinematic experience.”

Both filmmakers use their collaboration to decide together how to tell the best story. But this doesn’t mean that they have to do everything together. In fact, it’s quite the opposite when it comes to editing.

“Emily is the editor,” said Sarah Kunstler. “I come into the editing room, and I participate. But to me, it's a lot like surgery. There’s a patient on the table, there’s blood all over the floor. When I would walk in and it seemed like a complete mess, and think we might not save the patient, I would panic and say, 'How are we going to make this work?' Emily knew how to enjoy and be comfortable in the mess that got us our story.”

Listen to more from the filmmakers here.

Film: Recovery

Recovery-195476_0Blake (Mallory Everton) steels herself to exit the car during a pandemic and handle a sticky gas pump in this still from 'Recovery' co-directed by Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek.

Synopsis: Two directionless sisters brave a cross-country road trip to rescue their grandmother from a COVID outbreak at her nursing home.

Co-Directing Team: Mallory Everton, Stephen Meek

Why does co-directing work for them?

For starters, because Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek made it in the middle of the pandemic. And in addition, both Everton and Meek starred in the film, so co-directing allowed for the collaboration of the team to successfully wear all the different hats!

Check out our interview with these filmmakers for more about their process!

Film: Alone Together

6ft-apart-199391_alone_togetherA still from 'Alone Together' by co-directing duo Bradley & Pablo.

Film synopsis: Charli XCX, a pop star in quarantine, embarks on a whirlwind creative and romantic journey while making an album in 40 days that unites a community around the world.

Co-Directing Team: Bradley & Pablo

Why does co-directing work for them?

The British directing duo has spent years working on their co-director collaboration. In past productions, it was about the two of them maximizing control on every frame of their highly stylized music videos and pop-culture profiles, including of Charli XCX.

“Before this, we worked in animation, which is controlled to the decimal point,” Bradley Bell said at SXSW 2021. “As filmmakers, what we got out of this is having control, and for Alone Together, losing control. We let the story speak for itself.”

How did it work on Alone Together?

“In the very early days of quarantine, we, like everyone else, were suffering,” said Bell. “It was very uncertain. It was anxious times. We caught wind of this LGBTQ party. Charli XCX did a guest set, and we joined that night. It was a heartwarming experience.

Bradley_pablo_instaAn early pic of directing duo Bradley & Pablo, who have been collaborating for a decade.Credit: B&P on Instagram

Pablo and I had a talk about it; we thought it would be great to do a film about it, because it encapsulated a new way of being creative and connecting with people in this new time.”

Pablo Jones-Soler added that collaboration is very much at the heart of the filmmaking process, so working together is only natural. And for this film, it was necessary to have the pre-existing relationship with his co-director to take bigger risks.

“It was scary,” said Jones-Soler. “We started this project once the public was seeing it. We weren’t prepared, we were three days late. We weren’t able to attend the shoots. We would get a dropbox link of new footage. It was a lot of information to take in and wrap our heads around, but the story had a lot more depth and richness than we were ever expecting.”

Thank you, co-directing teams!

Now if only you could find the right co-director! If you have thoughts on successful co-direction, share in the comments.

For more, read our ongoing coverage of the 2021 SXSW Festival.