My mother took me to the art cinema all the time when I was a kid, and that got me really hooked on art films. That was the beginning. I went to film school at NYU, started at the bottom in NYC as a PA and worked my way up. I wanted to be a director and a cinematographer, and I learned early on when I picked up a camera that I had a knack for it. Then I circled back around seven years ago and became a director.
My very first paid shoot as a DP was for some regional clothing store. I don’t even remember what it was. I was probably 25 years old. Oh wait, my very first DP job was actually on a film called Ratchet. I was 24 years old. It was shot in Nantucket. I was definitely in up to my eyeballs in terms of what I could handle. A lot of my career has been that way – in as deep as I can handle in terms of challenges.
I had been shooting commercials for years as a DP. I was asked to direct this humongous Nike commercial. So that was my first real job as a director. I was suddenly in charge of everything, and I realized I really liked that. The Nike spot is called Defy and it’s still on my reel. After I shot that spot I decided I did not want to go back to being a DP. I’ve worked with a lot of really good directors like Mark Romanek, and we’ve become good friends, but I remember him yelling on set “There’s only one director!”, because I would just start directing. I didn’t even know I was doing it. So it was a relief when I finally got to make the decisions myself. I made the leap most people don’t get to make, because I was already far enough in as a cinematographer. I had a reputation and had the experience to deal with large-scale jobs. That’s probably why I never wanted to be a director, because I saw how hard it was. But I like the pitching and the calls and writing treatments. I like that whole process, which I didn’t think I would.
Well that was Wieden+Kennedy. It was an incredible experience. I spent three days at Wieden+Kennedy in Amsterdam, just talking about the commercial and brainstorming, which is rare. Luckily, I started right before things really got bad in terms of the level of fear that’s in our industry. So I was able to get some good stuff under my belt before budgets got so tight. Now it’s a battle to do anything really good. You have to fight for the good boards, and you have to fight once you get them.
It was a combination of people. My producer, Lalou Dammond, whom I had worked with when I was a cinematographer, is an awesome producer. I got this gig, and I used her. She suggested we use Park Pictures to produce it, and I said yes of course. I used to gaff for Lance when we were first starting out. I found out later, because I was so surprised I got this job, that all the director reels they were looking at were spots I had shot, and that’s what got me the job. It was a funny stroke of luck.
Well as a DP you kind of show up and blow up everything everyone thought was a good idea during pre production. As a director, you’re not coming in at the last minute. And especially as a Director/DP I know what the shots will be. I take a lot of photographs during prep and my storyboards are based on photographs. I also have a very good storyboard artist who understands optics and space really well. I also pre-edit, which really helps when you are working with thirty seconds. I know where the lights are going to go, what location doesn’t need any lights. I pick locations based on lighting a lot of times since I know all the logistics very well. Part of directing is managing logistics of shoots with vast resources or the very limited resources you have at your fingertips. I am very prep-oriented because of a really awesome director I worked with for six years named Mike Mills and he was hyper pre-planned. So that is still with me. I still draw diagrams and eliminate as much guess work as possible. I’m very rigorous about the thirty-second commercial. I will tell actors ‘I love all the beats that you just did. Every emotional beat you hit. But I need this now to take two seconds, because this is advertising time. And actors get that and can compress what they just did. And that’s something that not everyone understands. When I was a DP I was like ‘No, we’re not going to dolly.’ The dolly never makes the cut. It never ever does! You can’t tell the story in three beats. You have to tell it in one, because it’s going to be edited down. Figuring out the mechanics of what it takes to tell the specific story I am trying to tell in thirty seconds is my usual ritual.
I got to pick the location and the location totally made sense. I was no longer screwed by somebody else’s decision. Only I could screw myself, and that was so great! That was a huge sense of freedom, and that’s why I wanted to be a director. I do not want to deal with someone else’s bad decisions. I only want to deal with my own. The best part for me was to be able to talk directly to the actors and shape the scene myself and not have to wait. And to be able to direct them from the camera was such a relief. It was fifteen years of holding my tongue.
My career really started in ’98. That’s when I started as a DP and making a good living and working with Mike Mills. Before that, I was making indie features and then suddenly I was working in advertising. I was working on these giant jobs where the money was unlimited. Some people said you should have been around in the 80’s when they were really spending serious money. During the dot-com boom all people wanted to do was dazzle. They wanted to do something more outrageous than the last thing they did. So the creativity was unleashed, and I was there at the right time. If I wasn’t doing something completely new I was bored. That’s how good it was at that moment. I accept how things are now, and I love my career, but the 90′s were an amazing time.
Because I was a cinematographer I am good at collaboration. I’m good at hearing the agency and hearing what their needs are. I’m good at bending an idea that’s not working to an idea that works. I did that as a cinematographer often and as long as everybody is still smiling and feeling supported and that’s what I learned from my first few shoots and I feel that’s now my job to collaborate and figure out a way to enforce my vision without it feeling like I’m a bully.
I think the one that goes above all of these is perseverance. I would put perseverance, rigor, the total willingness to bust your ass, unbelievable work ethic – those things matter even more than the other stuff. The list that you gave, all of these things are essential to making it and to continue having a career. You have to have talent, and you have to have your own voice that’s distinctive especially in advertising. You have to have a very distinctive voice, and you have to fight for that voice. Connections? You build those over time. If you’re hard-working and you have talent and you are politically savvy, which is another thing that needs to be on the list of essentials, you will get there. You slowly build them and you build a reputation over time, which I slowly did.
I think it’s always getting harder. This business continues to get more challenging, because it’s more dispersed and everyone is confused about what it is and whether or not television advertising is going to exist. Network television seems to be imploding. It’s all getting harder for advertising. The opportunities to do something good and distinctive are harder, because there’s not as much good work out there. The business is crushing financially in terms of what’s offered now compared to when I started and compared to when I started as a cinematographer. When I started as a cinematographer, we made music videos. There was a lot of fun work, and you could play around and experiment and mess up, and it did not matter, because the medium allowed for that, and there was a place to see the videos. That was a whole genre that just got wiped out. I mean it’s still there, but it doesn’t mean anything now. Maybe it does, but it doesn’t seem like it. It’s not a business model. Most definitely I think the industry is harder now to break into. I think I was very lucky like I said. I jumped the line completely because of where I happened to be at a moment in my life and my career. It’s a little easier for a cinematographer maybe than others.
The work of Gordon Willis in the 70’s had the greatest influence on me and my cinematography. Manhattan, The Godfather films, Alan Pakula’s films like All the President’s Men, Klute, The Parallax View. If you look at all of Woody Allen’s films from the 70s, they were all shot the same. He wouldn’t move the camera. He’s a rigorous minimalist. His lighting is highly expressive, naturalistic, hard to figure out. Genius. Gordon Willis was a brilliant cinematographer and his films were all brilliant. So I would say he was the most influential to me in terms of cinematography and in terms of visual style. Also Mike Mills whom I worked with for six years. He’s also very rigorous and a minimalist and breaks a lot of rules, was hugely influential on me.
What’s interesting is that the thirty-second commercial and the sixty-second commercial are surviving. I think no matter what you do, it’s still the way to get the most eyeballs. The funny thing is that the general audience actually really loves a good advertisement, but there are hardly ever any on TV. The last Super Bowl commercials were not that great, and that was really disappointing for me, because it’s the one time when an audience actually wants to watch the commercials, and I think that indicates something. The climate of fear is always there. When I was a DP, back in the day, the climate of fear among the agency and client was obvious, but it’s more intense now. There’s also this thing now where clients have a lot more creative input and creative control than they used to, and they don’t trust the agency to be the creative ones to come up with the idea itself. The way the client treats the agency sometimes is shocking. The result is that they beat the commercial into mediocrity, and it’s no longer interesting, and then no one cares when they watch it. So, that’s what’s happening now. Part of it is that they’re afraid. But part of it is just that the culture in America for corporations is shaving every dollar and hoarding money that they’re actually killing the whole eco-system.
I shot several features before I started shooting commercials. Commercials are easy after you’ve done features. I think the relevant question for me is when I switched from being a cinematographer to being a director, did I feel a difference. Being able to control everything meant that the location was perfect for me, it’s perfect in terms of aesthetics, what I need from it, what the whole production needs from it. The flow is better, because I’ve picked it. So that was a big change. The really scary thing that was totally new was talking to the actors and non-actors like the athletes I worked with and trying to get performances out of them. I had all this technical skill, because I was a cinematographer, but I didn’t know how to do the other stuff. I had all these disproportionate muscles and even today I try not to rely too much on my cinematography skills. I try to lay back and get more engaged in the other parts of directing, because I know that those muscles can get too strong, and I never want them to overwhelm what I’m doing.
The next official commercial after Nike was for Nissan, which was a giant riding a car like a skateboard. Nike taught me that I was a director. I was like okay. This is it. I am a director now. So by the time I got to do Nissan, which was like four months later, I learned that I knew what I was doing. That was a transformation of my identity. I no longer considered myself a cinematographer, and it definitely took a level of confidence and knowing that my vision was working. I took that confidence to the next spot.
Vision. Specific vision. Understanding that you have a vision that is yours alone, that is your voice and to always be very aware of your voice and aware when you’re deviating from it. Because any piece of film needs to be singular in vision, and everyone needs to understand that including the agency. They hired you for it. Their opinions matter, but you’re the filter through which their idea is being filtered. You need to figure out how to have your imprint on every choice made as much as you possibly can, through the edit, through the music. You need to imprint yourself on it. Then it’s yours. Then it counts. Then it’s specific enough to may be worth watching and worth noticing.
I have two totally different opposing pieces of advice. One is take incredible amounts of risk in terms of what you express and try to get to the essence of what you wanna say. And say it as clearly as you can. What’s the most interesting to you to say and boil it down to a thirty-second spot. Don’t make them too long. If you’re making stuff for yourself, making stuff for spec reel, I don’t want to see a three-minute short on a reel. I have no interest in it. So keep it tight, but find the expression that is closest to you so that there’s something to distinguish in you. The other thing is just to stick it out and also get some experience like working on sets. I worked on sets for years in camera, grip and lighting. That experience of being on set and seeing other directors working was incredibly useful, and I highly recommend it. See how they do it and see how they deal with the politics and how they deal with making decisions, it’s all incredibly useful. I recommend being a director’s assistant. That’s another really smart way to go.
If I could count The Godfather and The Godfather Part Two as one I would say that. Okay, The Godfather Part Two or Down by Law, or ugh that’s so tough, man. I would claw my way into a stack of the works of P.T. Anderson and the works of Gordon Willis and maybe I’d be happy with that, but I don’t think one movie would do it for me. When I saw Down by Law, that’s when I realized I wanted to make films.
Director / MJZ