The Greatest Sibling Filmmakers: Keeping Cinema in the Family

sibling filmmakers miller's crossingJohn Michael McDonagh’s new movie Calvary is quite good. And quite difficult. I intend to write about it in some detail in the near future, but I often find it better to think about difficult things for a while before committing fingertip to keyboard. So, in the meantime, I’m using McDonagh as a springboard to go in a much different direction.

McDonagh’s brother, Martin, is an accomplished playwright, who had a huge breakthrough with his first film, the darkly comic crime story In Bruges. The two brothers are early in their film careers, with only a few credits to their names, but In Bruges and Calvary make for an auspicious start. While we wait to see what the future holds for the McDonagh brothers, here is a countdown of the five most important sets of siblings in film history.

As with any list, I’m defining my terms to suit my preferences. The siblings must have had careers primarily associated with the creative aspects of cinema – directing, writing, photographing, etc… After all, if historical significance across any job title were the standard, it would be hard to keep the Brothers Lumiere and Warner out of the top two spots. The Lumieres were as instrumental as anyone in the very creation of moving pictures as an art form, while the Warners made them talk. And while I’m mentioning siblings of this nature, let me at least give a bit of love to Washington, DC legends Ted and Jim Pedas, of Circle Management Company – more on them in a bit.

Siblings have played a key role in the development of cinema. Warshowski, Hughes, Pang, Soska – all current sets of siblings who direct films together. The Scotts, Ridley and Tony, working independently of each other, directed some of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of the past thirty years (Ridley is still going strong while Tony’s tragic suicide two years ago ended his career). Open the list up to writers and producers and cinematographers and the list grows quite long. Delia Ephron has written successful films with her director-writer sister Nora. And who can forget everyone’s favourite, Donald Kaufman, who co-wrote the film Adaptation with his brother Charlie despite the fact that Donald doesn’t actually exist.

But none of them crack my top five. So here, counting down, are the most important siblings in film history (discounting the Lumieres and the Warners, as I said just two paragraphs ago – but I know how you all read these things, skipping the prelims and going straight to the list – don’t get me started…):

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes

The Belgian brothers burst out of the world of documentaries with La Promesse and have gone on to become darlings of the Cannes Film Festival. Two subsequent movies, Rosetta and L’Enfant won the Palme d’Or, while their latest effort, Two Days, One Night won the 2014 Sydney Prize at the Sydney Film Festival. Their stories focus on the daily struggles of the poor and working classes, and they achieve a remarkable intimacy with their subjects. The movies are not easy, but they are consistently compelling.

Albert and David Maysles

Among the most often mispronounced names in the business (it’s “measles” with a long A), the Maysles career grew out of the revolutionary documentary work being done by Robert Drew at Time Magazine in the late 1950s. Technological advances freed the cameraman and sound recordist and a whole new type of documentary was born. Alternately referred to as “free cinema”, “direct cinema” and “cinema verite”, this new brand put the subject at the forefront and attempted to offer non-biased portraits of all types of life. The Maysles were right in the middle of this movement, and their celebrity profiles of the Beatles, Marlon Brando, and the Rolling Stones throughout the 1960s were very successful. But it was their poignant examination of bible salesmen struggling to get by – Salesman – that best showcased their immense talent. They were also instrumental in helping move documentaries off of television, where they had been ensconced for several decades, and back into theatres, a fifty-year battle that is ongoing. (as is Albert – David died following a stroke in 1987, but Albert received the 2013 National Medal of the Arts, and is still filming movies today, at age 87.)

Joel and Ethan Coen

It’s hard to assess any career while it is still at its peak, but the Coens’ body of work up to this point is substantial enough to secure their place in film history. Working together to write, direct and produce more than a dozen features over the past thirty years, the Coens have applied their darkly comic vision of the world to a wide range of genres. More than any other filmmakers during that time, they have been able to marry indie film ethos with mainstream American cinema. They won the Best picture Oscar for No Country for Old Men (2007), the Cannes Grand Jury Prize for Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and the Independent Spirit Award for Fargo (1996). True Grit (2010) and A Serious Man (2009) have been among the AFI “Movie of the Year” selections. That’s a pretty good resume for significance in the modern era. And I’d watch Miller’s Crossing (1990) or O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) before any of those.

I promised to mention the Pedas Brothers again – assuming you didn’t jump straight to the list – but here’s another reason for their influence. They rescued the Coens’ first movie, Blood Simple (1984), from post-production hell, and went on to help produce their next three movies.

Alexander, Zoltan, and Vincent Korda

The first threesome. The oldest brother, Alexander, is the key player here. Unlike the aforementioned siblings, the Kordas had careers independent of each other, though they did often work together. Alexander was born in Hungary, but he came to England and established London Film Productions with the lofty goal of challenging the extravagance and high technical skill of Hollywood. The Private Life of Henry VIII was one of the greatest films of the early 1930s and he would become recognised as the leading producer in all of England by the end of the decade. Zoltan, more liberal-minded than his brother, would direct a number of strong epics, including The Four Feathers (1939), while Vincent would have a long and distinguished career as a production designer and art director, working on such masterpieces as To Be or Not To Be (1942) and The Third Man (1949).

Denis, Mikhail, and Boris Kaufman

Denis Kaufman, known to the film world as Dziga Vertov, is among the most influential filmmakers of all time. He was front and centre in the formative era of film aesthetics, making movies for the Soviet Union throughout the 1920s. As an editor and theorist, he, as much as anyone, helped establish the ground rules of film editing and montage, formalising the instinctual innovations of pioneers like Edwin Porter and D.W. Griffith. He also argued for an aesthetic that moved away from fantasy and toward reality, becoming one of the earliest documentary artists. His triumphant The Man with the Movie Camera is considered by many historians to be one of the most important movies ever produced. And if that were all the Kaufman family had done, it would have been pretty good. But consider that brother Mikhail was a distinguished cinematographer who made several strong movies on his own, and appeared, as himself, in The Man with the Movie Camera. And that youngest brother Boris would go on to become arguably the greatest black and white cinematographer of all time – photographing all four of Jean Vigo’s movies before coming to Hollywood to film such stand-outs as On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, and Twelve Angry Men. Not a bad family business.

My friend Ken scolded me for leaving the Mankiewicz brothers, Joseph and Herman, off my list.  I suppose writing Citizen Kane (1941), directing All About Eve (1950), and combining for five Oscars should warrant some attention, so I’ll make them honorable mentions.  Thanks Ken.

There you have it. I no doubt overlooked some and undervalued others. And in the area of full disclosure, I should note that had any of my five brothers made a couple of great movies, instead of going into careers in things like law and medicine, I could have included myself on this list. But alas, they let me down.

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

4 thoughts on “The Greatest Sibling Filmmakers: Keeping Cinema in the Family

  1. Thanks Pete. We ever very proud of the Pedas Brothers here in DC. The epitome of old school Indie producers/distributors who have helped a foster a lot of young talent. Makes you wonder about all the unsung people who work behind the scenes to make a movie happen.

  2. Great post, Jon! This definitely shows the wealth of talent that runs in the same families. I’d like to nominate a a duo as well: the Zucker brothers, Jerry and David. Their pictures may not be masterpieces, but they do have a habit of making me laugh.

  3. Another good idea Jon, and I am not about to dispute any of your suggestions.
    ‘Blood Simple’ is still my favourite Coen brothers film, so I was interested to read about the story behind that. And I always read the text before the list myself. Doesn’t everyone?
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

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