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Yours, Mine & Ours: When Couples Are Also Co-Workers

By Michael Galinsky

Filmmakers Michael Galinsky (left) and Suki Hawley, with their daughter, Fiona. Photo: Sam Abramson

Working with one's domestic partner can be tricky--especially when the couple has an infant. Five minutes after finishing our documentary Horns and Halos, my partner, Suki Hawley, who edited the film, went into labor. I got to go the premiere and she got to stay in the hospital. Needless to say, it was a bit of a struggle to get our subsequent projects off the ground. Now, in addition to arranging a shoot, we also have to arrange a sitter. When our daughter was a year old, I went out of town for a week to work on a film, leaving my partner (and child) behind. It put some serious strains on our working and domestic relationships. Not only did my partner feel left out, but the baby refused to sleep, and if the baby doesn't sleep the mom doesn't sleep.

Working on documentaries as a couple, however, has been a hell of a lot easier than working on narrative features. After having a great deal of success a few years ago with their doc The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, Aiyana Elliott and Dick Dahl jumped into making a narrative film. They're now on draft 72 of the script. "We've spent most of the past four years writing and trying to get a narrative film off the ground," says Dahl. "It's taught us two beautiful things about making docs. First, you don't have to wait for nothin' but a hot idea to get off your asses and start making a doc. Second, you can pretty much carry a doc on your own shoulders from start to finish without having to involve or depend upon the cooperation of so many others to reach fruition."

Elliott and Dahl are certainly not the first filmmaking couple to become entangled romantically while working on a film. DA Pennebaker explains how he began working with his partner, who later became his wife: "Chris Hegedus came in looking for a job, and I hired her right away," he recalls. "And right away she began making films with me--first in the editing room and within a short time, with a camera in the field. Our ideas about filmmaking were similar, and immediate. It was a lucky day for me. And since I had equipment for filming that she soon put to use, it was a good day for her as well."

While it's true that fewer people are needed for a documentary than a narrative, Pennebaker points out that it's worthwhile to work with others. "The great advantage in having a partner is that there's always someone at hand," he maintains. "You grow so dependent on that nearby hand that if it shouldn't be there you are somewhat helpless, and it takes a bit for you to collect yourself and manage to go on alone. In the early days of filmmaking, one required a partner because either one held and shot the camera or one held and took sound with a microphone and recorder. It was later that the union saw trouble if there was only one chair at the editing machine. Now with the new video cameras, which have microphones attached, and the easily operated computer editing, one can make a film singlehandedly. But you might find that it's a lonely old town and your quest for a partner might take you down less productive roads."

In addition to simply not having to rely on other people, couples often know each other's strengths and weakness and can communicate without talking too much. Robert Hudson and Bobby Houston began their collaboration in the mid-1990s when working together on a film called Rock the Boat, which follows the efforts of an HIV-positive crew that enters an extreme sailing race across the Pacific Ocean. Hudson was the organizer of the trip and Houston filmed it. Since then they've made a number of films and have moved from a producer-and-director partnership to a co-director one.

"When I was the producer and he was the director there was a fairly clear line of responsibility," says Hudson. "Then we began co-directing on the set. We thought there would be a blood bath, with 300 extras as witnesses."

Things went better than expected. "I had a camera in my hand and a wireless talking to Bob; he would be doing a shoot down the street and I would be doing something else," Hudson explains. "We had two crews running parallel, and the only two talking about what was going on were us. Because we had worked together for so long we were able to do it. The benefit of living and working together when it works out is genius; it's just magic."

Elliott and Dahl also rely on good communication and playing to each other's strengths. "I tend to have more of the ideas about what direction we should be moving in or how we might go about doing things, while Dick is better at thinking through the details necessary to execute our vision," Elliott notes. "I can get so focused on certain details that I might be oblivious to others, whereas Dick is very observant of everything that's going on. I can also be too serious and uptight, while Dick is much more relaxed and laid back and playful­­--which often helps to put the people we're working with at ease. Being a couple and being very comfortable with each other helps to do that as well."

Pennebaker echoes this sentiment. "Well, of course you have all sorts of complications, and I would say that no matter how often I declare my undying love, we consider divorce at least once in every film we do together, but that doesn't lead to our making them separately. My favorite thing in the whole world is sitting with Chris and working on the problems of a film. There is nothing so sustaining as having made a film that you can hardly wait to show to your children or to whomever you both have ties."

Being a couple also has its drawbacks. "When in the middle of a film we can see each other's weaknesses more clearly," Hudson admits. "Bob worries about me doing too much, that I'll get exhausted during production. I have a vision that's unstoppable and he recognizes that and will take steps to help me. He can be more emotional and I'm more direct and he depends on my bull-like nature. He's strong-willed, too, though.

"At times it's intolerable to be partners," Hudson continues. "We can be like two attorneys staking out our positions. When Bob and I first got together and some of my ideas were flowing into the movie, he and the staff thought I was insane. It would cause friction, but later he would see that my ideas had value. We came up with a rule saying, You can't say it's insane anymore--we have to try it."

A high level of tension at work can spill over into home life, so Hudson and Houston have learned to be aware of the division. "We have an ongoing joke when we come into our house, which is next to our studio," Hudson relates. "We walk in to make dinner and say, 'Hi, honey, how was your day?' You look at the other one and growl a little."

Sometimes tension can overwhelm a relationship. After a decade of making award-winning films together, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato realized that either their working relationship or their domestic one had to change. "A couple of years ago we were having some personal problems with our relationship," Barbato reflects. "We did the LA thing of going to couples therapy and realized that our lives were completely merged. We were both workaholics. We'd go to the office early, work late, come home drink a bottle of wine and talk about work. Our therapist wasn't intending to break us up, but when he suggested the concept of de-merging, it became very appealing to us. It was psychobabble that got the train rolling."

When partners begin a romantic relationship at the same time as a work one, things tend to be extremely complicated. "There's a weird kind of relationship that co-workers have that is unique to other personal relationships," Barbato points out. "A certain kind of compassion and understanding goes with it. Fenton and I weren't even aware of that distinction for the 20 years that we were working and living together."

"We met in college and worked on each other's student films," Barbato continues. "Then we progressed to setting up a business. We never really discovered how difficult it can be, or was, until we stopped being a couple romantically. Ever since we stopped living--but kept working--together, we have come to appreciate each other on a whole new level." He laughs and sums it all up: "I strongly advocate that people who work and live together break up and keep working together."

Just as Barbato and Bailey were de-merging, Elliott and Dahl were meshing their lives even further. They married last year and they've been considering having a child, but they also have a great deal of trepidation as their lives as artists feel so unsettled.

"As a filmmaker couple it's been enough of a struggle to keep our heads above water," Dahl admits. "But the fact that her clock is ticking and it's only getting louder as we run out of prime fertility time has forced us to confront a new and scary reality--trying to make it as a filmmaker couple with a baby on its hands.

"When we realized that this baby question was one that most of our friends and peers were also struggling with, the idea developed of documenting our own decision-making process of whether or not to reproduce," Dahl continues. "Well, it's by far the most personal thing we've ever attempted, where if we wake up in the morning and Aiyana's had another baby dream or I'm covered in sweat from a nightmare about it, we'll turn on the camera right there, bad breath and all, and hand the camera back and forth as we discuss whatever it is and try and capture the moment."

"Maybe through it all, or when we're looking at it all in the editing process, we'll gain an outsider's perspective of ourselves and our relationship," Elliott notes. "Who knows, maybe hidden in the rubble of it all we'll discover the gleaming key to beautiful symbiosis, to a world where we can coexist as both filmmakers and a happily married couple."

As for Suki and myself, our child just turned three and now she's in day care full time. It has been a struggle to balance work and family, and work has definitely taken a back seat. Nevertheless, we finished our latest film, Code 33, in January and premiered it at the Miami International Film Festival, where our daughter Fiona was the star--such a star, in fact, that our next film will be a narrative with Fiona as the lead.


Michael Galinsky is a photographer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY.