I got an internship from one of my teachers, Justin Hooper, when he was at Ogilvy. That internship at Ogilvy really opened my eyes to filmmaking. I was working in the tape vault making dubs of director reels, so I was constantly consumed with this large body of work. I really just fell in love with a lot of it and started teaching myself Final Cut Pro and After Effects in that AV room. They ended up hiring me for a job there. I was 20 years old, and that’s when I knew that I found something that I really loved. I think more than being a director or a filmmaker it was the editorial side of things that really got my heart pumping. It was the first time this world opened up for me.
I don’t think I’ve experienced that yet. (Laughs) I constantly feel like I’m uncomfortable with calling myself a director or owning this position, because it comes with a lot of weight. Before I signed with Uber Content and before Last Minutes with Oden, there wasn’t a moment where I was like, yeah now I own this, I know who I am, now I’m a director, and this is my calling.
There was one film called Five Hours with Woody. It was about friendship and love and just some of the guys we were hanging out with at the time. It wasn’t necessarily my directing debut, but I think it was the first time I had captured something that felt substantial. There was something there. There was an emotion there. There was vulnerability within the subject matter where I felt that the partnership in the story, or at least my role, had brought to the surface some very powerful content or conversation. I think that’s where the idea of directing a story and being a filmmaker became even more illuminated.
My first commercial project was out of McKinney. It was for Gold’s Gym. It was just three stories. They had seen Last Minutes with Oden, and they said they wanted their stories to embody the same narrative structure. The spots were about three people who had overcome odds, who were unique in their perspectives on working out and why they were working out. It involved traveling out of the country, capturing these stories, and creating four to five minute short films.
Preston Lee has been a mentor of mine. He’s the one who reached out to me on Facebook when I had no clue how the commercial world worked. He had several lunches with me after seeing Last Minutes with Oden and believed I could play in the commercial space. I was never headed that way with my career. I think the opportunity was probably a correlation between Preston Lee believing that some of my work could translate to the commercial space and the creatives at McKinney who wanted to work with me because of Last Minutes with Oden.
I think first and foremost my question is whether or not I can actually add value to the project. Will my sensibilities and what I know I can do very well add to the story or project, or is it me just being greedy and wanting to make money? I know there are better directors for different jobs, and many times I’ll pass on a job, because I think that there are other directors who can do it much better. When storyboards come across my desk I really try to figure out how to purify the intentions of the project and the perspective of the brand and of the agency. Many times I think we get caught up in trying to sell and trying to push product, and rightfully so, because that’s why we get paid to do what we do. I’m a big stickler for authenticity. That’s the one thing I try to take the time to figure out – what mechanisms have been built, why this story works a certain way, or why it doesn’t work a certain way, or how will this resonate. If we are looking through a filter of authenticity, then what makes something true? What makes something authentic? When I have the opportunity to be more immersed in the relationship with the subject matter, or take part in the casting process, I get deeper and more immersed and surrender myself to that space and make myself vulnerable to that space and to the people of that story. I don’t necessarily become part of the story, but I make myself open to the experience. I see myself as a partner rather than an observer or someone who is trying to capitalize on the event or the individual to win.
As a documentarian and someone who takes my subject matter very seriously, it was seeing four chairs and a huge monitor being set up right next to the subject. (Laughs) I had never seen that before. The agency sat right next to me staring at the talent on this big monitor playing feedback from the camera. That was my introduction into a space that would become a different way of telling a story and engaging content. It was a surprise to me, because I felt this was interrupting and destructing the way I do things. I still fight tooth and nail to achieve my vision, but working this way adds a different element to the experience, and I need to strategize the way the production is built and how immersive I can actually be. As naive as that sounds, the fourth wall was a shocker to me, because I always worked with such a small crew just running around and not worrying about being tethered or where the monitor and fifteen chairs were going to go. That was an aha moment for me. I think that began to transform the way I perceived filmmaking within the commercial space.
It was on the Gold’s Gym project. I was riding in a car, and it was a serious subject matter, and I had all my friends including the DP in the back seat, and another close friend who was a producer was driving. We turned up the music very loud, and started shaking the car and sort of releasing our anxiety from the day. But laughing hysterically, I looked over at the two guys, I think it was in Washington somewhere, I thought wow, here I am, completely liberated and free. I’m making this film that I love with people that I love, and the impact of such a blessing it was really came upon me. SInce then, everyday I’m pinching myself with gratitude. Before then it was me struggling figuring out who I was and what I was going to do and how life was going to shape out. It was a moment where I was doing what I love and loving the people around me, and it was enjoyable. I struggled a lot my whole life, but at that moment it was a celebration of life, and it just felt really good.
When I first came into the world of directing I was really young and naive and I think maybe a touch narcissistic and egocentric, and I believed my way was the only way. I tried bulldozing my way through ideas that I had, and what I found is that it’s better to listen to all the opinions and really absorb the people around me, even if I think they’re a fool. They have an important voice within the process, whether that voice challenges me to prove the point that I have or if that voice adds to the project in some way. I think that everyone, down to the PA’s on a set, are equally important to the success of a project, and when I can embrace them and truly look at each one of them as valuable, including the agency or client side, I see it as a valuable addition to the project. It makes it not only an enjoyable process, but it actually enhances the concept itself.
When I was younger I would try to contact my favorite directors, and I wanted to know the formula. I wanted to know the five-step program to get where they were at, because all I wanted to do was do what they were doing. There is a lot of talk about formulas or about the shifting of the digital space and the commercial space and how to gauge it, how to place yourself, and how to create a personal brand. When I was younger I made business cards and DVD reels and passed them out, and I hustled to get my own work. I worked my ass off to get to my dream. It’s being at the right place at the right time. It’s luck. It’s hard work. If I opened up a sketchbook of my childhood and I was drawing something in that sketchbook just for me and for God and for no one else to see, it was me working out my demons. It was me trying to figure out life through this medium, and so it was purified for that reason.
I just wanted to honor my friend who was putting his dog down. I wanted to create a small video to give to him so that he could always remember his dog, and somehow the film became largely successful. How I choreographed the film or my intention behind it was the purest expression of love for my friend. There is something very valuable using the mediums we have available to us to purely work out life, to work out your own truths privately. I think a lot of kids are doing it because they want to make money, or they want to create a career. I think it’s righteous and a good intention, but it begins to convolute the very essence of the power they have to speak from a deeper place. I think when we begin to think about selling and when we think about what’s going to win awards and what’s going to advance my brand and what’s going to make my career, it somehow has the tendency to distort truth in film. If I go back and look at my own trajectory, the pieces that have become successful weren’t tainted by any specific intention.
The accessibility is definitely much easier now. What’s harder is that there is such a large body of content now, and so many filmmakers out there. I think the idea of “making it” has been redefined. What does “making it” actually mean? One would argue that making it is making a bunch of money doing what you love, and another would argue that making it is being true to the artist that you are and not being confined by the money that is in front of you. I’m not really sure who wins. Is it the young kid who continues to make the films that he loves and he changes the community around him? Or is it the kid who creates a short film that gets into Sundance, then he gets an agent and ends up making commercials the rest of his life? By our country’s standards it’s the guy making more money and doing bigger features. I think it’s all been flipped on its head, and what I get excited about is the young kids who have redefined what making it actually means for them.
I think when I was 19, Alejandro Iñárritu created a short film for BMW Films. It was like the first branded digital content that had been done, and a friend of mine at Ogilvy showed it to me, and I just kept watching it over and over again. At the same time, I watched Amores Perros and shortly after that 21 Grams. It was the power of Alejandro’s filmmaking that began to open up my eyes to a genre or a sensibility that he had. Just a real visceral, rich, gritty cinema style, and an emotional depth he explored with his actors and it was cathartic and transformative for me as a kid. I’ve recently been able to thank him and talk to him about it, but I think that he was someone whom I really fell in love with. He became the director that I stalked, and I just absorbed myself in all the information that was available about him and where he came from and who he was and why he was writing the films he was writing. I would absolutely say that he was the one inspiration, and when I started making docs my intention was to try to bring the emotional depth and power that Alejandro explores in his films to the doc world. Then I would feel like I was living up to the dreams that I had for my own career.
The pressure is on me for sure. I am in development for one now. Some managers are big believers in that being the next step for me. I have that dream of maybe doing it one day. What drives me more than anything is just story. There’s a story I have fallen in love with that has been with me the past two months. I’m not sure if that’s going to become a feature, a short film, or a documentary. I’m just not sure if it will evolve into a feature film. I’m craving to just knock it out very quickly and do a short six-minute film and move on to the next thing, but people around me seem to think that this idea is worth spending a lot of time on and developing into something bigger. It’s a tough one, because I think that I do really want to do it, but maybe I’m just scared to say that I do, because if I don’t do it then I’m a failure.
I think it’s a big deal. When you hear people talking about it, I’m like “Do you realize what a commitment it is?” I’m three months into development on an idea, and already I’m completely insecure about it, and don’t believe in it. It’s like the behind the scenes to Apocalypse Now and Coppola is losing his mind on set, and he thinks his film is going to tank and he is going to lose all his money. I think that kind of risk-taking is probably like that for directors all along the way. It’s this deep vulnerability and insecurity that you get when you spend that much time on just one thing.
I think for me and the work that I’ve done it comes down to life experience. When I am living life fully present, away from the job I do as a director, and I’m able to draw on relationships and be a good friend to individuals and keep my ear to the street and really be an observer of life, an intentional human being, more than a filmmaker, from that space and from that experience I’m able to draw a lot of inspiration and filter it into my work. I would say that some of my films that have been the most successful have come only because I went through seasons of drug addiction, or depression, or lived with certain fears. I was fully vulnerable in those experiences and fully present in those seasons of life. I think it leaks into my craft and into my sensibility. When I’m looking for inspiration, or even when I need empathy or compassion for a subject, it seems to help.
I think the exchange is different, and that’s the thing I’ve had troubles with. I was making the observation of other people’s lives based off Facebook or Instagram, and I think it’s a challenge, because if I’m thinking about someone, I can just go on there and look at their pictures and make an assumption about how they are living life or what they are doing. We don’t really represent our full selves online. It’s only a fraction of who we are, and usually it’s just the good side. I guess it becomes challenging to really get engaged on how actually people are doing. I was born and raised in a Greek family where we were spitting and punching one minute and then kissing and hugging the next as we actually spoke to each other. You don’t get that opportunity to work things out online. You offend people, they get the wrong idea of who you are and your character and all sorts of things. It’s a slippery slope. I think it’s useful for people who use it for networking, and I think that’s what it is intended for. It should just be that. It shouldn’t become a place where you are doing all your social engagement in life.
I have a lot of friends who came out of USC Film School who are really vying for this position to make films. Many times I think it’s the better route, because they’ve learned a structure to filmmaking. They have such a body and depth of wisdom, and they can then go out and break it, and they understand the universal sensibilities of film. They’re better educated and more articulate, and they’re able to draw on other films that they love. I think all of that is great, but our era really needs unique voices, and voices in film and storytelling that rise to the top. I don’t know if that comes from studying what has been done before and trying to replicate things that have won in the past for other people. Maybe it works for certain individuals. Tarantino is an individual who has done that specifically. There needs to be some sort of visionary who rises because he has seen life differently and he has looked deep within himself. His filmmaking is not necessarily fresh or different but purified – something that comes from deep within his soul. It comes down to being really honest, being really transparent and vulnerable to life, being really fucking human, and being humble, and realizing you’re but a speck of dust in this big cosmic space, and being open to what life brings you. There are a lot of people who are trying to win right now. I’m not sure if winning is what we need as a culture in the arts.
I befriended a young kid named Will Mayer. Will is just 18 years old right now. I met him when he was just turning 16, and he was directing things and shooting with the RED package. He is one of the most driven young kids I’ve met in my entire life. He eats and breathes all of this. We spend a lot of time together, because I love picking his brain and just sort of seeing where he is going with all of it. I think Will is getting to a point right now where he’s coming to realize how restrictive Facebook and Instagram are and what is happening to the millennials and how they are being squeezed of their creative juices because of some of the ideologies that are being sold to them. I think he has such talent and a depth of wisdom and technique. He is beginning to let go of all these pre-conceived notions that he’s had. He is allowing himself to be vulnerable to life and to just be fully present as an eighteen-year-old. He started when he was twelve years old and has six to seven years of such rich experience and technical experience. His Father passed away, and he has been through some real rough shit, and he’s able to grab a hold of some of the depth of his soul in correlation with the technique and talent he has. I think he is going be a really big voice in the market.
American History X
Director - Uber Content