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Thanks to the auteur theory, as advanced by upstart French theorists at the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinéma in the ’50s and ’60s, we’ve fallen into the habit of viewing movies as the work of a singular artist. Of course, this theory is sound when we’re discussing the work of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Ingmar Bergman — they had an identifiable visual style and revisited the same themes from film to film. The same applies to Boomer directors like Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, or modern masters like Quentin Tarantino, Kelly Reichardt, and Spike Lee.
On the set of a film, the director is king, and the Directors Guild of America has fought hard to make sure the moviegoing public understands this. The director is the final name in the opening credits and gets a prominent placement on the poster. Sometimes, if they so choose, they get possessory credit. But it’s almost always one name. At least it used to be until an upstart generation of filmmakers decided to buck the system and insist on being credited as duos.
So while the Daniels team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert became only the third filmmaking duo to win best director at the 2023 Academy Awards for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” they might be kicking off a new trend, one the DGA has spent decades trying to curb.
Two Daniels Are Better Than One
Daniels (it’s not “the Daniels,” it’s just plain “Daniels”) linked up at Emerson College in the 2000s and made their bones directing music videos for Lil’ John, Foster the People, and The Shins. They had a natural chemistry and a unified vision, which cohered brilliantly with their second feature “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
The same could not be said for the first duo to win best director. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins were at loggerheads throughout the filming of 1961’s “West Side Story.” Robbins, who’d directed the Broadway musical, was a filmmaking neophyte, and thus lacked the skills to deliver the type of grand cinematic spectacle producer Walter Mirisch –- who died last February and was honored during this year’s “In Memoriam” segment of the Oscars –- sought to provide. Wise was an editor-turned-director with a rhythmic sense of cutting. He was the right artist to make visual sense of Robbins’ revolutionary choreography. And when Robbins’ perfectionism knocked the film several weeks over schedule, Wise took control of the production. Still, Mirisch knew they’d be nowhere without Robbins’ vision, so he was given a co-director credit alongside Wise.
Forty-six years later, Joel and Ethan Coen became the second duo to win the best director Oscar with “No Country for Old Men,” and only because they’d lobbied for joint credit on their 2004 disappointment, “The Ladykillers.” Before that, Joel used to take director credit, while Ethan went with the producer. However, they were always a tandem and satisfied the DGA rules, which stipulate that both directors must communicate the same vision. I interviewed the Coens once, and they speak — and mostly giggle — with the same voice.
Let The Duos Have Their Day
Daniels have now kicked down the door for a growing group of duos that includes such major talents as Joshua and Benjamin Safdie (“Good Time,” “Uncut Gems”), Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (“The Endless,” “Moon Knight”), and Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie,” “21 Jump Street”). Anthony and Joe Russo were integral to stewardship of the back half of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Thanos saga. Matt and Ross Duffer are instrumental to “Stranger Things” as creators and showrunners, but they have also directed more than half the episodes.
The DGA is evidently not crazy about the development, but do they really want to discourage up-and-coming artists from taking wildly successful risks à la Daniels? “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was one of the most remarkable surprises of 2022, and delivered an ecstatically moving story that people have taken deeply to heart. It’s a kind movie — just the thing we desperately need more of in these hateful times. Who cares how many people are literally calling the shots behind the scenes? We need the magic any way we can get it.
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