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Couples podcast: Creative collaboration

David and Debra Tolchinsky met in film school, and they love to talk about their projects, but there’s one thing they don’t allow each other to say after the sun goes down

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Debra Tolchinsky is an associate professor in the School of Communication’s Department of Radio/Television/Film and the founder and director of the MFA in Documentary Media program. For more information about Debra, her current work and her production company, click here.

David E. Tolchinsky is a full professor in the School of Communication and chairman of the Department of Radio/Television/Film, as well as the founder and director of the MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage program. See more about David’s work on his website. For more information about "Cassandra" - his new film, referenced in the podcast - click here.

Deb and Dave met at USC School of Cinematic Arts and were married Feb. 10, 1990. They’ve been making films, curating gallery shows, teaching and traveling together ever since. They have two children, Raisa and Zane. 

davedebwedding(David and Debra Tolchinsky, married Feb. 10, 1990) 


Podcast transcript:

Welcome to Northwestern Now and another chapter in our couples podcast series. In this episode, we focus on David and Debra Tolchinsky, a creative couple whose relationship evolved from a partnership in film school. Coming up, the reason they say they love talking about work, plus the one thing they don’t allow each other to say after the sun goes down.

David: I’m the founding director of the MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage, and I’m the chairman of the Department of Radio/Television/Film.

Debra: I’m an associate professor here, and I’m the founding director of the MFA in Documentary Media program.

David and Debra both work in the School of Communication. One of Debra’s most attention-grabbing films is based right here at Northwestern.

Sound from film

That’s Northwestern’s debate team gulping for air as they try to cram as many words into their arguments as they can. It’s a skill known as “fast talk,” and Northwestern excels at it. Northwestern has won 15 National Debate Tournament titles. That’s more than any other university. Debra captured the adrenaline of this jaw dropping debate in her documentary “Fast Talk.”

David is perhaps best known for the film “Girl,” which was recently released on iTunes. It features big name actors like Selma Blair, Sean Flannery, Tara Reid and Dominique Swain.

Sound from film

David and Debra are currently working together on a project, just like they have so many times in the past.

David and Debra met long before they came to Northwestern, when they were both film students at USC.

David: I saw Debra the first day of film school, and I said, ‘That one.’ I just saw her, but we didn’t even know each other for another year.

Debra: That sounds about right. You have to remember that film school, at that time, the ratio of men to women was different. There were probably three women to every 10 guys.

David: Debbie, you’re underselling yourself.

Debra: I’m not underselling myself.

David: There were crowds of hundreds of women, and I saw her.

Debra: We met there, and we made films together. We started working together. That is the origin of our collaboration.

David: Yes, we’ve been romantically involved and creatively involved for a long time.

davedebinprague(Traveling in Prague shortly after graduating from film school)

David and Debra got married in February 1990, and they’re still working together today, both at Northwestern and on creative projects. Right now, David is an associate producer on Debra’s latest film, called “True Memories and Other Falsehoods.”

Debra: That’s what I’m in the midst of – a new documentary that’s looking at criminal justice and contamination of memory and how that happens.

The documentary features three stories about the strange ways memory works. One of the most notable stories is about Penny Beernsten, whose misidentification of Steven Avery played a prominent role in the hit Netflix docu-series “Making a Murderer.” Steven Avery was falsely convicted and later exonerated for raping Beernsten in the 1980s.

David is helping Debra with that documentary about how memory contamination influenced the case, and he’s also working on his own fictional film about memory. It’s called “Cassandra.”

David: I’m mostly a screenwriter, so it’s a ‘what if’ thing. How does memory work, but what if some of these stories, where people supposedly recovered memories, either were true or weren’t true? How could I see that in different ways? Mine is much more a musing about illness in the mind. Debra’s is that but also, ‘How is this affecting the world as is?’ But yeah, we talk about all our works together.

David and Debra have worked on dozens of projects together in the past, from films to art shows.

David: Debra is an inspiration for me because I feel like what she works on is always asking the question. It seems so important. It feels like we have to get this information out there because people are being affected and wrongly convicted, and it has to be changed. I think about that with my fiction work. How is my work important? How will it affect people? It raises the bar for me as a screenwriter, being married to her.

David and Debra say they constantly discuss their work at home, sharing ideas and critiquing each other’s projects.

Debra: It’s hard for me to imagine not having that because, as I said, our work is so much about who we are. It’s not just work where you punch the clock. It’s what you’re thinking about, what you’re dreaming about. You’re trying to figure out the pieces. It’s like an evolving puzzle, constantly. Not having someone involved in that process would be different.

David: I can’t imagine not having her to talk to. When I’m writing something, it’s all consuming. Even if I didn’t share it with Debra, she knows what I’m thinking and that I’m not present. Better times is when I talk to her and ask advice. Worst time is when we’re in our own things and not connecting at all.

goinguplarge(On the set of their elevator installation for "Going Up?")

But having that constant connection to work brings its own set of difficulties. Like any married couple, both artists have to learn when to draw the line and cut the cord on work talk.

David: If it’s late at night, she can’t say, ‘Dave, how is your screenplay?’ Because she knows I’ll start thinking about it and can’t sleep. We have a joke that you can’t do it, but it’s also great to talk about it.

Debra: Of course I’m a night owl. I love to talk at night. That’s always interesting. That’s my best time for thinking and being articulate and coming up with ideas.

David: I’m a morning person, but Debra is so fun at night. I like to stay up late and talk to her.

Debra says there was a time when she and David were out of step on their art, right when David started working at Northwestern.

Debra: When Dave came here originally, I really was a trailing spouse. We had a little kid, so I stepped out of the workplace for a bit. That was harder. It was much harder to feel pulled out.

But soon enough, Debra earned her own position at Northwestern, and she and David have been battling it out in the carpool lane ever since.

Debra: We have had one car for many years. We fight about who gets that car.

David: We fight the other way too – who gets to walk to work and who has to take the kids.

Debra: We ride our bikes to work together.

David and Debra have also traveled the globe together, all in the name of promoting the arts at Northwestern.

Debra: I feel extremely fortunate. We’ve been able to travel together. We went to India; we went to Qatar; we went to Cuba last summer.

All for work.

David: It’s really fun to be a married couple to do that together and have those opportunities.

davedebthebahamas2(Traveling in the Bahamas for 25th wedding anniversary)

Even though David and Debra love being so involved in each other’s work and creative process, they say they do feel the need to maintain some individuality, especially in the workplace.

Debra: You don’t want to always be blocked together. Just because we are married, and we have worked creatively together, people see you as a unit, and we’re not a unit. We’re two individuals who think differently about things, who might vote differently on things.

David: I think that’s a fear being in a department. ‘Oh there’s two people who are married or involved.’ You want people to feel like we’re individuals and that shouldn’t affect things. We don’t want to be seen as this unit couple, and we’re not. We definitely have different opinions about things sometimes.

They say those differing opinions are what keep both their marriage and their work interesting.

David: That’s why it’s inspiring to be married to her. She’ll tell me what she thinks of my work, and sometimes it’s really hard to hear, but it’s amazing feedback, and it makes my work better.

Debra: And vice versa. David sings my praises, but, absolutely, he’s incredibly quick and smart.

Debra says they just have very different approaches to their art.

Debra: I tend to be slow, painfully slow. I’ll have an idea, and I can’t articulate it. I’m a visual person, so I feel it or see it and can’t come up with the words, but he’s just ‘snap,’ he’s got it. It’s really great to have someone that you bounce ideas off of or can talk about things that knows you so well.

David: Debra is really articulate. She has a depth of thoughtfulness. I have the ability to puke stuff out and work on it once it’s puked out. I think we actually complement each other.

Debra: You have great ideas in terms of structure. Super smart.

David: You’re smart too.

davedebcake(Cutting the cake, Feb. 10, 1990)

They say they can’t imagine not having each other at work.

Debra: I think for some people, you need that separation, and it’s good to have your own life. Some people need that, and they need the solitude of that and the independence, but again, when it’s so consuming, and it’s so much a part of who you are, it would be hard to have that for me, to have someone that I couldn’t share the creative process with. It’s fun.

Collaboration is the foundation of David and Debra’s marriage and has been ever since film school.

David: We enjoy it. We’re not talking about administrative stuff. We’re talking about creativity.

Debra: It’s so much a part of our lives and has been from the get go. Maybe that’s part of it. We started out creatively working together.

This has been Kayla Stoner reporting a Northwestern Now podcast. To check out more of David and Debra’s films, just click on this podcast on our website, You’ll also find links there to the rest of our couples podcast series, featuring inspiring stories of Northwestern couples who help each other raise the bar on collaborative work and research.

Music courtesy Kevin MacLeod and Incompetech.

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