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by Cressida Greening
July 19th, 2011

Come see Two’s a Crowd this Thursday in Long Island City.

Two’s a Crowd is a charming insight into the relationship and lives of two native New Yorkers; Allen and Collette, a wonderful couple who wouldn’t be out of place in a Woody Allen movie. We spoke to Tom Isler, who directed the film with his brother Jim, about how he got to know the couple and how he went about creating this light-hearted look at the the dimensions of modern relationships.

Rooftop Films: Describe the film for someone who hasn’t seen it.

Tom Isler:Two’s a Crowd“ is a comedic documentary that tells the story of Allen and Collette, two classic New Yorkers who were married in their fifties but decided to maintain separate apartments 20 blocks from each other in New York City. After four years of marriage and living apart together, the economy tanked and forced them to cohabit in Collette’s rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment in the West Village. The film is a humorous look at romance and rent control, and the couple’s fears about how to make a “real-time” marriage work.

RF: How did you meet Allen and Collette? What initially made you want to make a film about their relationship?

TI: I used to write for a business trade magazine and Allen was the managing editor. So he used to be my boss. I started working there about two months before Allen and Collette were married in 2005, and Allen was such a funny, charismatic guy I wanted to find an excuse to make a movie about him. I used to joke with him that I would make a movie about him, but only if he ever moved in with his wife, which was unthinkable at the time. When that became a reality in 2009, I knew the story of their relationship, living arrangement and quirky apartments would be of interest to a wide audience.

Although I knew Allen well, I had never met Collette before we started shooting. In fact, the very moment we met her is in the film: when we follow Allen down the hallway to her apartment. But because I had known Allen for years before we started production, we were comfortable with each other and the filmmaking process went smoothly.

RF: What do you think the film says about the nature of the modern relationship/marriage?

TI: All we wanted to do with this film was to create a humorous piece of entertainment, but I think the film does illustrate the fact that marriage can mean different things to different people, contrary to the popular rhetoric today that tends to frame marriage as some monolithic, homogeneous institution. To me, the film shows that couples need to figure out for themselves how to make things work. More than anything, I think the film invites us to question assumptions we hold about how a marriage is supposed to work, what it’s supposed to look like and how couples are supposed to act–what marriage means in the first place. Allen and Collette would say they hold a traditional view of marriage, but in their ideal world, it just wouldn’t involve cohabitation.

RF: Allen and Collette’s decision to be apart together is reminiscent of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s relationship. Although this is clearly unconventional in many senses, they appear to be very happy together, do you think this kind of situation could be the key to a lasting marriage?

TI: I wouldn’t make the comparison to Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, particularly in light of how their relationship fell apart. But Allen and Collette believe that it’s important to maintain a sense of independence and individual identity within a marriage, and certainly do credit having their own spaces as one of the many keys to their successful relationship. At the same time, they realize it’s not for everyone. For instance, they wouldn’t recommend living separately to couples trying to raise children, and they think too much distance between residences can also be a problem. So it does seem to be a better solution for urban couples.

Although Allen and Collette’s relationship might look unusual, a surprising number of people apparently think relationships can survive and thrive without cohabitation, or at least are willing to live apart. Census data from 2006 shows about 3.6 million married individuals live separately from their spouse, not including people who were separated. And the New York Times reported last year that nearly one in four couples sleep in separate bedrooms or beds, and that the National Association of Home Builders expects 60 percent of custom homes to have dual master bedrooms by 2015. So maybe personal space is a key to a lasting marriage.

RF: Living in New York we are constantly surrounded by other people yet at the same time we all live essentially detached lives in our own small spaces. Do you think the close living conditions in New York City has impacted on the way in which we form relationships and live our lives generally?

TI: We’ve heard from, and read about, couples from all over the country (and the world) who have some variation on Allen and Collette’s living arrangement. (I’ve collected some media coverage of similar stories on our website.) But New Yorkers tend to take things to extremes. The apartments some New Yorkers put up with are truly astounding. Cramped living does require sacrifices of all kinds and certainly can affect relationships. Although I never thought about it that way, I suppose you could look at Allen and Collette’s relationship as metaphor for New York City, in that we share our isolation with millions of people and that we are all living apart together as citydwellers.

RF: Allen and Collette essentially decide to move in together not through a desire for greater ‘intimacy’ but rather out of financial convenience and necessity, owing to increasingly high rents. Do you think the high cost of living and the economic downturn has impacted negatively on the extent to which we are able to dictate the nature of our relationships and the terms of our (non)-cohabitation?

TI: There have been stories in the media about divorced couples continuing to cohabit out of financial necessity, or an increase in unmarried, cohabiting couples. And of course money constrains our residential options and is a factor that prohibits some couples from living as they would otherwise choose. But what makes Allen and Collette’s story funny is how they set their priorities. Most people in their situation would prioritize personal space above all else, and probably be willing to pay for a bigger apartment in a more remote corner of Manhattan or in one of the outer boroughs. Although Allen and Collette clearly value independence, they subordinate that to apartment location and hanging on to the rent-controlled apartment, despite the difficulties it brings. So it’s not just financial reality that makes this story so interesting; it’s the interaction of finances with other priorities.

RF: What’s your next project?

TI: We’re still searching for a new project. Jim and his wife just had their first child, a beautiful little girl, a few weeks ago, and I’m a full-time law student, so this might be our last film for a little while.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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