"Name any museum in Europe and I'll tell you where you can fall asleep," quips Henry-Alex Rubin on the subject of growing up with art historian father James H. Rubin. "I was so fucking bored on road trips to museums. When you're a kid you just shrug at Caravaggio, when in reality his work is completely radical."
Fast-forward to Columbia Film School where Rubin drew meticulous storyboards before making his own films. "I love the process of planning out the image-film language is everything," he says. After graduation, Rubin's professor, director James Mangold, asked him to storyboard on his films Cop Land and Girl, Interrupted but Rubin ended up directing second unit instead. "There I was in a helicopter pulling off DeNiro and flying under the George Washington Bridge," he reminisces. "That's when I got bitten by the directing bug."
Since then, Rubin has produced Freestyle, a doc about improvised hip-hop rhyme (released by Palm Pictures) and co-directed the highly acclaimed quadriplegic rugby doc Murderball, which collected this year's Documentary Audience Award at Sundance. "I fell in love with documentary film because it feels so intensely real to me," says Rubin. "The idea of making a movie that's a great story but actually real is the ultimate expression."
Murderball has gone on to garner widespread attention for its honest portrayal of quadriplegics, who are never defined by their handicaps. "Murderball was all about being positive about these guys, being in the protagonist's perspective for as long as possible, getting real moments, then deconstructing that footage to make it more engrossing. The film is actually a hybrid of documentary and fiction, and their interaction is something that fascinates me."
Rubin's knack for using cinematic movement to film unguarded performances and pure human emotion is about to be seen in the commercials arena. Recently signed to Smuggler, Rubin has wasted no time getting into action. He's wrapped his first PSA through JWT/New York-an anti-meth campaign (frame seen at right) that packs a punch. Each spot is an individual's testimony on drug addiction. Beginning tight on a photograph of a child, the camera creeps back to reveal that child as an adult after meth addiction has entered his life. Rubin calls the camera effect "Hitchcockian" in nature. One spot pulls back from a framed photo of a boy as he recounts his desperate plight with the drug. He talks about putting a rifle under his chin and blowing his face off. The end reveal punctuates the spoken word as the man's disfigured face stares directly at the camera.
"Each end reveal was created to punch people in the stomach," says Rubin, who enlisted DP Fortunato Procopio (The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Grand Jury Prize-winner at Sundance) to lens the work. "I didn't want the look to be stylized. I wanted graceful camera work but extremely real performances. It's all about trust and comfort. Then your subject opens up and blooms. You're trying desperately to grab a piece of their soul to put up on the screen, perpetually looking for those moments of unguarded intimacy, waiting patiently for it to happen."
Rubin is now looking to slap the stupor out of ad viewers, and he says Smuggler has been nothing less than inspiring as a production company partner in that endeavor. "Smuggler has a strong batch of auteurs with strong opinions and I'm proud to be part of their stable. They treat advertising as an art form and understand that work has to be visually arresting. There's so much stimuli bombarding people out there. You have to slice through that smog and cut through the static to reach them and shake people awake. I feel like I have a chance with this unit."
On Murderball's success: "There was astounding media coverage when we released the film. It could have been a tiny flick; it happens all the time where people just don't give a fuck, but when Jackass wants a piece of your action you know you've made an impression. Get this: Jackass had a reunion and went up against the Murderball guys with cattle prods-cattle prod wheelchair jousting! Now that's fucking funny..."