Directors Roundtable 2008

Published on .

Participants: Lance Acord, Park Pictures; Hobby aka Oskar Bard, Hobby Film; Kevin Connolly, HSI; Patrick Daughters, The Directors Bureau; Jim Jenkins, O Positive; Kylie Matulick, Psyop; Mark Mylod, Tomboy Films; Henry-Alex Rubin, Smuggler; Aaron Ruell, Biscuit Filmworks; Rupert Sanders, MJZ; The Vikings (Bjoern Ruehmann and Joakim Reveman), Paranoid Projects/Paranoid U.S.

Creativity: There are a lot of crossover talents here, who have come from different fields--creative directors, actors, photographers. How do your other jobs carry over into your directing?

Kevin Connolly: As an actor, you spend a lot of time sitting around, sitting in a trailer waiting for these guys to set up their shots. I've had the pleasure to see a guy like Mark [Mylod], who is so good at what he does on the show [Entourage]. At the end of the day, you don't learn much talking, so I try to watch, listen and ask questions whenever one pops up.

Actors are so sensitive, you say one wrong thing to them and you can send them spinning into dark places of insecurity. I think there are certain ways to talk to actors, I worked with Nick Cassavetes, and he said the greatest thing, making the actor feel like it's their idea by asking them, "Is there any value in doing it this way?" Then the actor kind of feels like, it's kind of my idea.

C: Lance and Aaron, what about you guys? You're both photographers and Aaron you're an actor too.

Aaron Ruell: I'm not really an actor. I fell into that [role of Kip Dynamite in Napoleon Dynamite]. But as a photographer, I get a lot of agencies asking me to shoot the print campaign while I'm shooting the commercial. What's pretty mind blowing though is that their initial approach will be, "In between set ups just snap some stuff" and this is work that's going to be in magazine and billboards? I have to talk them into setting up a different week for shooting stills. The really great thing is having an extremely cohesive TV campaign that works really well with print. Very rarely will an agency have money to do it both ways.

Kylie Matulick: As an animation/design-based company we see a lot of extensions of that into print. A lot of the directors at Psyop are designers--I come from graphic design--so whenever we see a potential print campaign coming out of a TV campaign we jump on it because we can really create the full vision of how this plays out.

Lance Acord: I've been involved in the opposite. The print happened first. Then they wanted the television to look somewhat like the print, but we evolved the idea a little further and then the client circled back around and pulled still frames from the spot and started running those as the print. Ultimately the way they interrelate is really important.

C: The Vikings--why have you chosen to remain creatives too?

Joakim Reveman: We are control freaks. If we aren't in control we get kind of nervous, emotionally nervous.

Bjoern Ruehmann: To be in control of things. Once you have ideas and then you give it away to someone, you kind of feel like somebody is taking your vision away from you. And we feel like we have such a strong vision already, why don't we just go for it and do it. For us, it's always important to start from scratch with a good idea and then it becomes something interesting. We see a lot of commercials that are beautifully filmed but the idea is not [great].

The Halo 3 campaign, it's a great idea, but how did you approach that project? Did it start as something different?

Rupert Sanders: I hope most things start out as something quite different. Otherwise you're just a pretty picture painter, which I'm definitely not. With Halo 3, they wanted it to be CG and I fought very hard that everything should exist for real. So we set up certain laws--it had to exist in a static place, a museum, and then we'd film it; there was no post whatsoever. Those big explosions, they are all done with cauliflowers with gels inside and little fiber optic explosions, muzzle flashes.You could walk around the 3000-square-foot set. And what blossomed from that was the whole campaign really. I wanted to do something where you create the same emotion that you do in cinema. I don't get that emotionally attached to CG and animated worlds. I like things to be very real.

C: For a big ambitious campaign like that or "Whopper Freakout" or "Happiness Factory," what are you looking for in the agency?

Rupert: People willing to take risk. Scott [Duchon] and Geoff [Edwards at T.A.G.], who I did the Halo 3 campaign with, said they were putting their jobs on the line to go that route. I'm much more scared of being in a position where you're with a creative team that you should have not worked with. It's like being on a really long blind date, knowing this is going really wrong and there is nothing you can do about it.

Jim Jenkins: With a fearful client and a nervous agency, it never goes well.
Henry-Alex Rubin: [Crispin's] Rob Reilly, that guy has balls. In "Whopper Freakout" you're telling the client to be mean to people, so that took a lot of balls on Burger King's part too. But that was a situation where the creative director was just so strong minded, and he gave me complete control: "Harass the people as much as you want." At one point he wanted to take everything off the menu except the Whopper.

Patrick Daughters: About the blind date analogy, in retrospect, is there a way to tell if it is going to be a bad blind date?

Rupert: You have to be the interviewer. I used to think, "I hope they hire me." But now I use the conference calls to figure out. You can just tell when these little panicky words start to creep in.

Jim: I even kind of throw ideas out there that I don't think they even like, just to see how malleable they are because it's such a collaborative thing.

Lance: It could be coincidence, but lately with very large teams, what I find troubling sometimes in conference calls is that sometimes there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of clarity amongst the team. That for me is a bit of a caution flag too. Like there's no agreement on ideas.

Kevin: Now that you guys have reached the level you're at, do you feel any pressure from representatives or friends to go do movies? Halo 3, it's so much work and such vision. How are they not banging down your door to go do a big studio movie? How does that work?

Rupert: I think you make a film when you're ready and it's right for you. Obviously a lot of people with reels that have cinematic potential are getting calls, but they're usually the slightly more frightening [movies]. To me, commercials are a stepping stone. A friend of mine was a talented commercial director and he died. It made me think that I didn't want to leave a legacy of commercial showreels. Maybe it's a little arrogant to want to leave something behind, but if I got hit by a truck tomorrow I want to leave something that was mine and had heart.

Jim: It's hard enough for me to stay good at this. I don't jump from job to job, I'm not that smart. It's hard for me, it's work. And I love it.

C: Lance, how do you look at it?

Lance: I'm in the fortunate position of being able to step out of commercials and still be able to make films as a cinematographer. The last film I did was close to a year and you come back to commercials invigorated and interested to get into the different aspects of it. Even good films, you're still with that same group of people day in day out. Even when they are your friends, after the 70th day you don't really want to have breakfast with those people anymore. To work on a really commercial movie and not have your heart in it, I can't imagine the pain.

Jim Jenkins (left) and The Vikings
Jim Jenkins (left) and The Vikings
C: Does anyone see that one day you'll be able to make films for the marketing realm that will be pieces of content with their own artistic integrity? You guys [The Vikings] did the ramp film for BMW. What was that process like?

Bjoern: It's much more complex and you have to really put your heart into it. To really create tension and emotion, it's so much more complicated than commercials. What we did is still advertising. We tried to create a story actually, around an idea.

Joakim: We had complete freedom to do what we wanted, but in a really limited time, with a client that was really brave. Those are the projects we really like. Because the budget was so small we really had to be creative. When we watch it, we definitely see some weak points, but we had two weeks to write that story, five shooting days for 35 minutes.

Henry-Alex: The idea of what motivates us all constantly fascinates me. Making documentaries is such a labor of love. You work for years filming people that nobody cares about or knows about, no stars, and you hope that maybe someone someday will see it and care. And as you start making commercials and making these fees, your mind definitely starts distorting from where it was originally. Now I find that I convince myself on every job that this story needs to be told. When I pour myself into a treatment and I don't get it, I am crushed. My friends who have been doing this much longer than I have say it will get better. But I almost don't want it to. I love to get all knotted up inside and neurotic.

Kevin: As somebody trying to get my foot in the door, if I look at a commercial spot and it's not my dream idea of what I'd love to be doing visually or conceptually, should I try to get this so I can get closer to that? Or do I say, "That doesn't mean anything to me, I don't know what this is, so I'm just going to wait for something to come along that speaks to me?"

Jim: I don't subscribe to that "do it for the relationship" idea. Cause if you do a lesser job for the relationship, whoever you do it for will always remember you for this crappy spot you did.

Oskar Bard: I've been doing it for two-and-a-half years, and the last half year I got really nice scripts with bigger budgets. Everything is about building a good reel. I haven't always been doing good scripts but I've used the money and invested it in other projects. I did a Nokia stop-motion thing with 1,000 extras and we lost a lot of money on that project. But we got a lot of attention for it and it's good on the reel.

Rupert: Kevin is in a slightly different position, he's famous. So when he does something, people go, "Why is he stepping out of that to do that?"

Kylie: When we were starting out there was a real balance between jobs that would help us fund some of the smaller commercial projects that had really cool ideas, but we had to invest our own money or maybe our own personal films. I guess our philosophy was to just make the most of every situation.

C: Jim, you've directed Martin Scorsese twice now, right? How was that?

Jim: On Amex, he was supposed to direct the thing originally. All he said was, "Make it funny." The trick is to lead the cast opposite him. It has to be somebody who looks like they could crumble but they don't. And it's hard. I got the vibe when he first met with the woman (in the AT&T spot) that he didn't like her. But he ended up putting her in a movie. She lucked out. The thing with Scorsese is, if this sucks, it's me, it can't be him.

C: What are the keys of working with talent? Mark, you've worked with Kevin and Ali G [Sacha Baron Cohen] and you've also directed commercials. What are the keys to getting the best performances out of people?

Mark Mylod: There is that balance to strike between being confident and putting forward a consistent, solid vision, but at the same time you need to be open to collaboration to get the best out of actors. But I think there is a danger, maybe the actor, DP or whoever might think the director knows exactly what he's doing, so then part of them switches off and you're not getting the best out of them. If I was bold enough, I'd like to do a shoot where I went completely for the chaos theory--I don't really know what's happening, here's the frame, therefore everyone has to push something. I think it can work in comedy, particularly. I'm guessing that's how it was in Napoleon Dynamite? There seems to be a lot of setting up a scenario and letting chaos happen within it. Is that true?

Aaron: No, it was actually extremely controlled, completely the opposite. There was no ad-libbing, the director [Jared Hess] would actually go into character for your character and deliver the line. It was that controlled.

Patrick: Doing a documentary, how do you reconcile the idea of integrity and spontaneity and not influencing the events that you are shooting with your storytelling needs?

Henry-Alex: I operate under the theory that you never ask someone to do something twice, ever. You try to get at least two shots, something to cut together. To me, it's really always about the emotional reality. Sometimes my heart beats faster or I'll cry in the viewfinder and if that happens, I'll try to make sure that somehow I'll try to get enough images and get the music just right, so that it gets that same reaction from the viewer.

C: Patrick, you've made a huge name for yourself in music videos and at the moment, that form is in a weird place. What's your experience with that?

(from left) Patrick Daughters, Mark Mylod and Kevin Connolly
(from left) Patrick Daughters, Mark Mylod and Kevin Connolly
>Patrick: It feels like a sinking ship. I haven't done any in a long time, which is probably telling. I was fortunate to have one that launched me into commercials. Then again, it's a nice balance to have. When you have less money, in theory, you have more control. It's a labor of love, but a nice offset to something that's typically done by committee and is overthought. It's a nice antidote but it's not viable as a means to earn a living.

C: Everyone's talking about the end of the commercial. How has that impacted you?

Jim: It's obvious that budgets are being slashed in television but why does it have to die? Clinton and Obama between them had spent $120 million on TV alone. Who's more reactive than a political campaign? There's something in the medium, there is a communal experience that's not going to die.

Mark: Didn't we think that about record labels? The real structure of the music industry in has completely fallen apart. Is it not logical to presume that images will go the same way?

Rupert: I don't think I've seen anything I've done on TV ever, in America. I don't know where it goes.

Oskar: 95% of TV advertising works as spam. And that doesn't work on the internet. I work a lot with the interactive agency Farfar. The client comes to them and Farfar tells them a very stupid, funny story and the client says, "Oh I don't know if we can do this." Then Farfar says, "If we don't, it's not going to work on the internet and the client says, "OK." Rupert, your Halo project, that's what the future is. It's like an interactive experience--or not, but it's massive.

Jim: There's so much work that leaves me cold, but you and Noam [Murro], I feel a lot of the work from you guys. It's rare actually.

Rupert: I like people to emotionally respond to stuff. I don't wanna do stuff that just looks good, but a lot of the time you can't choose what you do. I want to do something funny--"Sorry, mate Jim's doing it." It's hard to break out.

Jim: Yeah, I want to do a diorama.

C: What are you all inspired by these days?

Oskar: I'm inspired by other directors. It's interesting to see what they're doing. I get a happy feeling when somebody is doing something really good.

Jim: My friends make fun of me because I only like to read books about Stalin. I don't know why.

Lance: I'm constantly inspired by writers and I'm in awe of the process of inventing worlds and characters with writing. I'm reading East of Eden again and I'm incredibly inspired by the relationships between the characters.

Bjoern: We just saw a movie Panic in Needle Park.We are inspired by movies from the '70s, they were authentic, pure and in a lot of ways more inspiring.

Henry-Alex: I've been writing about these two friends competing for a spot on the Olympic team for the 800 meter. I've never seen a good movie about running. There are a lot of sports that get filmed in slow motion like football and baseball, but I haven't seen the agony of running and the high you get after a mile or two and you forget your body.

Mark: Embarrassingly, Betty Boop cartoons lately. I find them terrifying. The odd repetition and the shimmer of the movement and the tinny soundtrack and caricatures of any racial minority is all a very strange nightmarish world. If one could translate that into a live action film and make it disturbing but also funny, that would be a very interesting.

Patrick: I've been watching Lukas Moodysson's films again I just saw Lilya 4-ever for the first time, and it was devastatingly good, and devastating. He works with deceptively simple means and gets you to empathize with these characters so quickly.

Aaron: French Kicks' new album [Swimming].

Rupert: It would have to be Joan Rivers' face on the plane last night. Staggering. It's quite a feat of science.

Kylie: I saw a short film the other day that reduced me to tears. It was called Father and Daughter by an animator called Michael Dudok De Wit. I found that inspiring, the unexpectedness of being transformed emotionally. In four minutes, I was bawling my eyes out. It made me realize, in terms of what we do, that there is potency to a visual narrative, if you put your heart into it.

Read directors weighing in on their hidden secrets in another portion of the June Special Report.
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