In a just a few years, Miles Jay has quickly become one of the freshest and most celebrated young commercial directors. Hailing from Vancouver, BC, Miles grew up in a filmmaking family and found that he had a natural knack for storytelling. Taking pride in presenting pure, human stories in a stunningly cinematic lens, Jay’s films evoke a genuine sense of awe, while always rooted in a strong sense of reality.
I was born in Vancouver, Canada. I come from a film background – my dad is a director, my mom was a set decorator, and my sister is a director. So, I kind of grew up on set. It feels like I didn’t really have a choice!
At first I wanted to be a lawyer or something that had job security – something boring. But then I had this great TV production program in high school. The teacher cared so much about making student films he would get emotional when people wouldn’t take it seriously. We were like 15. He taught me how to step up my game. There was basically no story to the things we were making, but they looked cool and always had Radiohead soundtracks!
Yes, it was. When I was 16, I felt I had to commit to film. I was spending my vacations reading Final Cut Pro manuals. I was an athlete, and during a soccer game, a ball struck my eye. When I opened my eye, my pupil was completely gone. The doctor said that all the blood vessels popped in my eye, and my pupil was not going to open until all of the blood drained out. If it didn’t drain properly I wouldn’t be able to see out of my eye again. I had to lie still for several weeks. It had a dramatic effect on changing the course of my life. The first thing I thought about was how would I operate a camera with one eye. Suddenly, all of the things that were important in my life came to the forefront. So, the next thing I did was quit all sports, and I fully committed myself to film.
Two and a half years ago when I started getting U.S. work and was spending a lot of time working in LA. Then I went back to Toronto for several months and decided that New York was my home. It has the right vibe and more of what I want to pursue in my career with the right balance of commercial and indie film. In New York, I love that no cares what I do. Most of my friends aren’t in film. I think that’s a really healthy thing to have or else your life gets so single-minded that you can become really boring.
I was in my fourth year of college at Ryerson University in Toronto. It was a time when you had no idea what the fuck was going to happen when you get out into the real world. The US economy had just crashed. Jobs shooting up in Canada had just shrunk dramatically and I thought directing would be years off. I was doing assistant camera work, because I felt that it was something I could fall back on. I made two projects – a music video and a short film. The short film went on to win Best Student Film at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the music video was short-listed for the Young Director award in Cannes. I didn’t win in Cannes, but I made it my goal to go back and win the following year. The next year, I did go back and win at Cannes. I had a lot of meetings with a lot of companies afterwards, but everyone was still like ‘You’re 21. You’re a kid.’ Luckily, my favorite company in Toronto, OPC, decided to take a risk on me and gave me all the support I needed to start my career.
Yeah. I remember going to meet them and feeling like I was lying when I told them I was a ‘director’. They decided to take a risk and believe me. I can’t say how much work has gone into my career from people who just believed they were going to see the benefits of their investment later. Being a director can be a terribly isolating experience. You work at home alone when you don’t have a job, and when you do have a job you are usually surrounded by strangers. Then in you’re in your hotel room with a mini bar. I am very grateful to have amazing people who have supported me and have become life-long friends.
I feel like I had two rites of passage. They were each a trial by fire and painfully tough experiences, but yet I came out the other end. I’m a lot more at ease and confident with my instincts now. The first project was my first real job in Canada, and the second one was my first job in the U.S. They are both very different. The first job in Canada was a PSA for john st., one the best agencies in Toronto. One of the owner’s of the agency’s daughter has nonverbal autism. For her whole life they thought she was never going to develop a mental capacity beyond a young child. Her family spoke in front of her like she didn’t exist. And then one day, a laptop was sitting open, and she wrote ‘help teeth hurt’ on the laptop, and everyone there was like ‘what?’ How does she know how to spell? How does she know how to use a laptop? They gave her a computer, and suddenly she started learning how to type and communicate. It was like they discovered a person they never knew existed. They had a daughter who was vibrant and bright. She ended up writing a book with her dad called Carly’s Voice. The agency hired me to do an interactive film called Carly’s Café, which outlines her experience in a coffee shop.
I remember showing up at the agency and Carly’s father was like ‘When is the director going to arrive?’ I replied, ‘I am the director.’ He was like ‘Oh, I figured you were a PA or the driver.’ I love telling stories about real people. There is so much pressure, because you can’t fuck it up. You’re talking about a real human being and telling their story, especially Carly’s story as she has gone through so much. This was a high profile project, not because of its scale, but because of the emotional weight behind it. It was an interactive project, and we were creating something that had never been done before. I remember going to coffee shop trying to visualize how to do it. How do I match coverage from five POV angles that were supposed to be in sync with only one camera while hand holding the lenses out of the camera? It was insane, but it went on to win the Young Director Award at Cannes. and a Silver Lion, and I won a slew of other awards, because it was a really simple emotive story. It was a super gratifying experience for everyone involved. I feel lucky I got to be a part of it.
My first job in the U.S. was a project for Samsung with the production company, B-Reel. B-Reel was my first company in the U.S. and really put their neck on the line me right out of the gate. The job was awarded six days before the shoot. It was a 14-day shoot in 10 different countries around the world. I got the job, and then all of a sudden I was on a plane to Hong Kong shitting my pants. It was a tough one. It was a big budget, we had a celebrity involved, and then it all got really complicated. The job kept changing and evolving, so I had to think on my toes and roll with the punches. I came out pretty battered and bruised, but we were able to capture some really beautiful and honest material that I’m proud of.
When I first started I was mostly driven by aesthetics. I was obsessed with Aronofsky and Fincher. I was really into form and the look, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a cinematographer or a director. I really just loved making images. I am a total nerd, so I was really technical driven. Everything I made was beautiful, but the characters were shit, and there was little depth to the stories I was telling. Everything felt superficial looking back at it. Now, my favorite filmmakers are more docu-performance driven, like Derek Cianfrance and Carey Fukunaga. Those are probably the two directors I look up to the most right now. They do their independent work, and they have their own commercial careers, and they’re just badass. For me now, performance is important paramount when I’m shooting. When I first started, I would light a close-up for an hour and a half. My priority was for the shot to look great and then capture the performance. Now, it’s the other way around. Story and performance are everything. I now feel like I have to fight against my instincts of making images too beautiful, because then they don’t feel real. I like to find beauty in imperfections and flaws.
I think it’s more of a cultural shift to wanting something that feels real. Social media has made everything more immediate and raw. We now have an intimacy with peoples’ lives that we want in the stories we digest. I think that’s a really positive thing. I think the formalism of the 90’s is definitely over, and the big visual effects style of the 2000’s is really starting to get boring to people. Technology has obviously allowed anyone to go out with a camera and put something on Vimeo, but I think the move to a more documentary style has more to do with a reaction to the films of the 90’s and 2000’s.
A friend sent my work to Smuggler, and then I got a phone call from one of the owners an hour later asking if I wanted to come in for a meeting. I was like sure, be there in fifteen minutes. Then he invited me to have a beer that night. I had an impression of Smuggler as being this giant, but after that beer I discovered honest and humble people run the company. That is super important to me. I like a no bullshit approach and I need to believe in who is steering the ship. I feel like if you can’t enjoy having a beer after a long shoot with the people you work with then life is too short.
I think the best advice someone gave me was that you have to do something original. There are just so many people making similar things that I felt like I had to do something refreshing, because how do you break through? I strongly believe that if you know what you’re doing then it can’t be original. If you go into a shoot thinking I know this, I know how to do everything, than you really haven’t set yourself up for something that is pushing any boundaries. I feel that you have to go in unsure of how it’s all going to turn out. If you make something that is refreshing, it’s going to put you on the map, and that’s what will get you work. I strongly believe the director who stops developing stops working.
Writing is the most important aspect of any project – the idea is always king. I used to spend eighty percent of my time making something, and twenty percent of my time writing, and that is obviously the complete opposite of what it should be. You should be writing something for ninety percent, then making it for ten percent of the time. Ideas are everything. My job on a commercial is to elevate an idea – to find the core of that idea, build upon it, and then execute it. I think writing your own stuff is what pushes your career forward the fastest and in the direction you want to go. Even if you made a poorly shot film on an iPhone, if it’s a great idea, it’s going to get you a lot farther in your career than spending 200k on a bad idea shooting on 35mm.
I have been directing predominantly commercials for the past two years. I didn’t want to be an indie filmmaker living in my basement hoping to make a movie one day. I have worked a lot on other peoples’ sets and that just isn’t for me. It made me feel like I was dying. I want to be shooting and honing my craft, but in commercials there is no opportunity to fail. When I’m working for a client, I need to deliver every time. I feel like now I needed to push myself to fail, so I decided to make this short film. I was in a relationship that ended and plagued me. I kept overthinking and wondering what happened? How did we disconnect? I read this short story on Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. It examined relationships and analyzed them through statistics. I felt like it was such a simple, funny idea, because it conceptualized how I viewed my own relationships. I felt like my over-analysis of relationships often created complications that lead to their demise. Seventy percent of people are single in New York, and yet we think of it as one of the most romantic places in the world. That is such a daunting stat to think about. I feel that in a relationship you have to just trust your gut, and forget about all the numbers. So, I wanted to make a film that played with that kind of irony. It took a while to create; it was a pretty aggressive project. It had 40 locations, and we shot on film. The irony is that the girl from Toronto whom the film is about, is now going to NYU, and we got back together. She was at the premiere. A lot of the story is inspired by her, so the premiere at Tribeca was pretty intense to watch in front of an audience for the first time sitting beside her.
I felt Tribeca was a good home because the film was shot in New York. I think festivals are fun, and they’re really great for people who worked on the project. They can feel like the film actually screened somewhere and what they did had meaning. For me, I just want people to see it. I guess I’m not really looking for validations from festivals. I have production companies repping me, great agents, and all that stuff. I don’t really have much strategy there. I’m super appreciative to be a part of Tribeca. It was so much fun. It was a creative investment. Make something good and people will want to hire you. You should always invest in your own career.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That movie is a perfect collision of content and form. Its balance of heavy dramatics and lightness of being are very true to life. It is a true story that is beyond belief.
Director - Smuggler