Can siblings work together creatively?

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My sister and I could never see eye to eye as youngsters, and became entangled in a progressively elaborate series of pranks designed to publically humiliate the other. This reached an apex when my sister went online and requested a series of erectile-dysfunction pamphlets in my name. Eagerly opening a rare postal arrival during a family breakfast, I was mortified and not a little confused by what the NHS was adamant I’d requested. I was eleven.

However, as we’ve grown older, my sister and I have collaborated successfully on a number of pieces of writing. (It’s difficult to say whether the vicious-prank cycle would be re-established should we take on larger projects together.) After all, since siblings so often spend their childhood vying for adults’ attention, isn’t it inevitable this dynamic will resurface when siblings attempt to work together?

There are many examples of successful creative sibling-partnerships. Just look at the Brothers Grimm, who overcame a deprived childhood to translate and adapt over 200 folk tales. Reportedly wilfully obtuse and provocative as individuals, Jacob and Wilhelm lived under the same roof all their life, sharing property and working together to craft tales which have been greatly influential in storytelling ever since.

Since filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen first pooled their pocket money to buy a Super 8 camera, the brothers have jointly written, directed and produced 14 films, alternating top billing (and sharing editing credits under a pseudonym). Their writing process sounds so idiosyncratic that surely only those as connected as siblings could maintain it. Writing together, never individually, rather than first mapping scenes or planning their context within a film, they dive straight into dialogue. A starting point will frequently be a striking image or set-piece, from which they’ll work out the events that could lead up to or result. Examples include Tim Robbins’ character falling from skyscraper in The Hudsucker Proxy or, in The Big Lebowski, The Dude receiving a severed toe in an envelope: cinematic moments that have proved resolutely memorable.

For all the success stories, there have been more calamitous collaborations. The music industry is particularly rife with examples, whether it’s The Everly Brothers’ 10-year separation following an on-stage strop or the Gallaghers’ acrimonious and hugely public falling out. But it’s The Kinks that most boldly raise the question of whether creative achievements can be worth the fracture of a sibling relationship.

Ray Davies began to write and perform with younger brother Dave in 1964. When Dave gained attention for self-penned numbers, however, their childhood bickering resurfaced. Ray once interrupted Dave’s performance of hit ‘Death of a Clown’ by pushing his brother out of the spotlight and launching into ‘Sunny Afternoon’. Worse still, at the height of the band’s fame in the ’60s, Ray stabbed Dave in the chest with a fork, for eating one of his chips.  Although the brothers reconciled in the aftermath of Chipgate, Ray’s highly symbolic act of putting his boot through Dave’s 50th birthday cake was the last straw. They now only communicate about business matters, by email.

So while some siblings manage to work together amiably, as the old adage goes, familiarity so often breeds contempt. And it wouldn’t surprise me if, between shoots, even Joel Coen sneaks off to order Ethan the odd embarrassing pamphlet.

Originally published as part of IdeasTap‘s DISCUSS series, in which members debate issues surrounding the arts.

Ever worked with a sibling? Leave us a comment below to add to the discussion.

Image by Crimfants, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

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