The 36-year-old director got into filmmaking almost by accident. As an NYU grad with a philosophy degree—"a lost soul" he says—he found himself in the marketing department at the Columbia House record club just as grunge was turning the whole world "alternative." "When I got there, I was documentary-obsessed, and I was like, 'I feel like this is an experience that's unique, and I'm going to try to document it in some way,' " he says. "And it made the workday seem a little more novel." He shot some 200 hours of footage at Columbia House, all of which went into a drawer when he went off to Cal Arts for film school. Ultimately, however, it became his thesis, 2000's The Target Shoots First, a Gen X meditation on selling out and buying in that won awards at Slamdance, SXSW and elsewhere. And while he says Target was a "great calling card," the gates of Hollywood (or Madison Avenue) didn't exactly swing wide. "As great a run as it had, it was shot on Hi8 video and it was this modestly made essay film," he says. "It's not like people made the immediate leap that I should be directing spots and features."
It did kick up opportunities, however. Wilcha shot promos and a news special—The Social History of the Mosh Pit—for MTV. He created a pilot, Second-Hand Stories, for PBS, which was greenlighted but never funded. He worked on the Mr. T vehicle I Pity the Fool and he bid on the American Legacy Foundation's documentary-based "Whudafxup?" campaign, out of Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Arnold, which ultimately went to Vice Films' Eddy Moretti. Finally, through an acquaintance at the radio show, he was hired to develop a pilot for This American Life. "It was a giant act of speculation," he says, since no network was committed to the project and the producers of the radio program weren't even sure they wanted to be on TV. "It was a very real possibility that that was just going to end up on my bookshelf."
It didn't, of course, and Wilcha found himself competing for an Emmy with the likes of Spike Lee and Rory Kennedy, thanks to a visual style that combines documentary filmmaking with meticulous composition and an off-center sensibility. Wilcha says he set out to explore the idea "that a documentary could be just a little more graphic and a little more studied, and that the photography could have a sort of beauty and integrity to it. That it wouldn't be about running around and chasing people with cameras, but about making images that magnify the stories." Along with veteran spots DP Adam Beckman (who also earned an Emmy nomination for TAL), he largely succeeded in translating the tone of the radio show to the small screen, complete with Ira Glass' distinctive narration, which the host now delivers, John Cleese-style, from a desk in the middle of nowhere.
"The thing about This American Life is that it's not journalism," Wilcha says. "They make the stories. They hammer those stories into shape. Those stories are not just things they go out and report. In terms of making a documentary version of it, it was like, 'Well, we're not making a documentary. We're going to tell this story and we can make these images do what we need them to do.' " Still, Wilcha hopes to see narrative films—and spots—in his future. "At this point, having more and more control over what I'm shooting and how I'm shooting it is much more appealing," says the director who started out lugging a handheld camera around the offices of Columbia House. "I love documentaries and I consume them, but at the moment I was doing This American Life I really wanted to get past so many of the conventions of documentary: the notion that the content was everything and that any kind of style was suspect. I would like to do things that are more visual and conceptual, and the burden is on me to get some of that stuff on my reel so that the only things on my reel aren't real people telling stories."
And good year or not, he says, "the uncertainty does not disappear. Nothing feels inevitable. We were joking today that this is probably the peak, and I should get ready for my horrible downfall."