What was your first shoot?

I was a promo producer at MTV producing interstitial pieces for the channel. The other production assistants in the department and I started to produce and direct music videos on the weekends on the side. The medium was taking off, and it was inspiring. We all knew bands and artists and stuff like that. Deep 6 were friends of mine. They had their first record coming out so we shot some videos with a Bolex. We shot some super 8, single frame pixilation, and some 16mm of the band singing with atrocious lighting. It was a collage of all these elements. It felt pretty good. I made it for a total of $1,500 out of pocket. A guy named Paul Rachman, who was a pioneer in music video editing, edited it. It premiered on Night Flight on USA Network in 1986. I think I still have the VHS of it.

What was the first shoot where you were paid to direct?

There was a song blowing up in the summer of 1986 in New York City called Silent Morning by an artist named Noel. Noel was this skinny Latino bus boy who wore a white wife beater and his gag while performing on stage was that he would take a lit cigarette and flick it into the crowd of girls. That was his shtick. The song was a huge latin pop crossover hit that summer. They had a $10K budget, and we shot him on a rooftop on the Upper West Side. That was like the first real music video I did. I produced it, catered it, and directed it myself. It did well and got a lot of airplay. That was like my first real job for a label, and that song became a huge hit. That opened the door to doing more videos.

You were pretty young when all this was happening.

I think I was twenty-four.

Who gave you your first shot?

Noel’s manager managed Information Society. So, my next video was for Information Society who were also on Warner Brothers. By this point I had a rep, Peter Lipman. After Information Society I was legit.  This led to the PM Dawn, Crystal Waters, and De La Soul videos. All of those I did when I was still working at MTV.  John Beug at Warner Brothers was the commissioner on the Information Society videos and Rod Houston at Tommy Boy with De La Soul. That was the 80’s – all pop and dance stuff.

Did you have any rituals back then?

I was a fuck load more prepared then than I am now. I was prepping heavily and shot-listing everything, and now I kinda wing it. The confidence just comes from age and experience. You know what I mean?

What stands out to you when you look back at the earlier work?

I look at those videos now and they seem so less cutty. There are long chunks of ideas that run for ten seconds or more. When I look at videos I did in the 90’s the cutting got a lot faster.

Do you have any treasured memories that stand out in your mind?

God, they are all treasured, because I was younger. I was just in New York showing my retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image. It felt really good to see the work after all these years. God, they are all good memories, man. I remember cutting on the RM440 and leaving in the flash frames, then cutting shots on top of that and developing a style. I was cutting over the mistakes and I remember thinking “That’s kinda cool. That feels good.”

Do you think it’s easier to break in as a director now or when you first started directing?

I think back then because there was more structure. The record companies were the ones who paid for the videos, and MTV was the central place where the videos played and were seen. So if you wanted to direct you knew you had to get your work seen by the commissioners for the labels, who then would hire you to do the job. Now it’s so decentralized. It’s all just so much more fragmented now. Now with distribution you have Vimeo, YouTube, Video Static, Vevo, but where is it seen on TV? VH1? There’s just so much content now. How the hell do you find anything? Now you can shoot some visuals over a song, put it on YouTube and say it’s the video. Everyone can do that now. Is it artist sanctioned? Did somebody pay you to do it?

What’s more important talent, connections or luck?

Talent. You need the other two, but without talent I don’t care how well you’re connected. Although, I should say there are tons of directors who started in music videos who weren’t great filmmakers yet had good connections and luck so…I will leave it at that.

Who influenced your collage style of shooting and editing?

Honestly, no one person. I think when I was working at MTV I discovered things while shooting their promos. For instance when the film in the camera rolled out, there was this texture I liked, and I would use the shapes and scratches as iconography beyond the narrative of the objects I was shooting. I was always interested in the power of an object. I can’t point to one thing where I said ‘Oooh, I like that.’ Maybe punk rock flyers and the collage and scraps of different elements they used. Initially, my job was editing other people’s images to create my own meaning. I think the Jeremy video for Pearl Jam was the first video where I combined my own personal conscious and unconscious. It was a time where everything could be used as source material. I always apply three elements – object, performance and animation. Then I would add those elements over a natural landscape.

What do you think of the current state of the commercial & music video industry?

It’s an overwhelming, huge pot of opportunity, with image-makers all fighting for the same scraps. If you dovetail MTV’s decent, when it became less meaningful, I’m sure it would be crossing paths with the ascent of the Internet as the engine to screen, entertain and view videos. Before the Internet it was television. Cable was the first niche, fragmented, channel for music videos, for nature shows, and then reality television starts to take over as the Internet starts to explode. Therefore the technology changed the music business. When the business goes to a certain place, the distribution goes to a certain place. Then the way the product is created, exhibited, and seen changes with the technology and the distribution systems. Now it seems to be a world of no consensus, an ephemeral, transparent culture where nothing really lasts, sort of like TV news. Like who fucking died today? What’s the tragedy today? You have all these websites, like what’s the hot thing, and websites that curate videos, short films, and design – there is just so much shit. You’re just consumed, and you can never watch all the crap that’s made. So, that changes your vibe as a creator. You have to ask yourself what is it you really want to do.

What do you think of the Canon 5D?

I think the Canon 5D is the look of the Internet. There are some great looking music videos shot with it. Some amazing shit. Haven’t heard of any of the directors or any of the bands, but I’ve watched some videos that look pretty rad. I’m pro-5D.

You liked the camera enough to shoot your feature film, I Melt With You, with a Canon 5D. How did the actors react when your DP pulled out a DSLR?

They all loved it. We shot the whole film in sequence. It enabled the actors to just act and be very free in their process.

Is your first music video your only “first shoot”, or did you feel like you were starting over when you moved into feature films?

Totally starting over. When I shot my first movie I was like wow, this is a totally different ball of wax. It’s not the same. A feature film has its own set of hierarchy, politics, and rules. You can always break the rules, but first you have to know them to break them. It was new, it was a challenge, and it was definitely different.

Any advice for up-and-coming directors?

When you shoot a TV commercial, a video, or a movie you’re basically an interpretive artist. You’re being paid to interpret the script, song or the storyboard. You’re being paid to bring your vision to life. You have to work in the balance between art and commerce. Again, each medium has its own kind of politics, restrictions, and freedom. There are career arcs in all of them. I feel blessed that I am able to work my way between them. Technology changes, life changes, you change, and all of a sudden you’re dead and you look back and say ‘What did I make? What did I leave behind?’ When things are going great and you’re hot you have to take it with a grain of salt, because you know that’s temporary. So you neither judge successes or disappointments too harshly. You just roll with it. Somebody said to me one time ‘Every artist has their prime.’ Anywhere from a six to ten year period where they are vital, where they matter, where it’s really just like boom! Doesn’t mean they don’t do good work the rest of their career. Doesn’t mean they are not consistent, but there was a time when they really came into the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. It’s the same for athletes. Your prime is sort of like your late 20’s to early 40’s. If you go back and look at some filmographies you’ll see. They were it, and then you’re like ‘What happened?’ Sure everyone’s career takes different paths. Look at Steven Spielberg or Soderbergh. It’s like wow, how has somebody like that been doing a consistent output for so long? And then with some people you’re like ‘Where did they go?’ There were fifty percent fewer movies made in the last five years by studios, tons of independent movies made, but how many got distribution? The stats are staggering. There are so many channels and avenues, and content, so everybody has to find out what matters to them and just do it.

What’s a director’s most important tool?

Director Elia Kazan gave this DGA speech about what is a director, and it’s such a valuable tool. It can be found online. He said it’s about understanding history and architecture and there are so many other forms and aspects of culture that you should try to learn about. Be broad-based in not only your visual sense, but emotionally and psychologically as well rather than focusing so much on the business. I meet too many young filmmakers who know more about the box office and forget what the art is about.

Any final words of wisdom?

Passion isn’t enough. Talent isn’t enough. Contacts aren’t enough. You really need to be resilient. Look, I’m 51, and I’m in the same competition with 25-year-olds. Sometimes experience isn’t always a good thing. It’s a young man’s game. Look who’s running the studios. They want the new guy. To the studios it’s about the business. Don’t lose sight that it’s about business and making money for people too. So stay artistic and try to smuggle in your personal expression. Be informed and be aware of the world you’re in. And be prepared for rejection, and have tough skin.

What is your next project?

I’m in pre-pre production on a film called Clang. It’s a murder mystery about memory and dementia. It stars Kurt Russell and Aaron Paul. I’m gathering the financial support for that as we speak.

What’s your favorite movie?

I have to pick one??? I’m on a desert island, and I only get to watch one movie the rest of my life?? That’s a really hard question to answer. (long pause) The Wizard of Oz.

Have you seen anything lately that blew you away?

Django Unchained. Just saw it. Fucking unbelievable. It totally inspired me.

Name

Mark Pellington

Place of Birth

Baltimore, MD

Occupation

Director / Wondros