Greg and I both have ties to China. My Mom is a Chinese historian. She speaks Chinese and travels to China all the time. I also lived in Beijing for a year when I was young. So I grew up with China as this backdrop in my life. Greg shot some stuff there when he was in grad school, and when I met him he was completely obsessed with Asian culture. We were both just enraptured with Chinese stuff, so we had that unique bond. We also liked the idea of people hearing about us before seeing us and thinking we were two Asian boys. I don’t know. We thought it was funny and mysterious at the time.
Greg and I were students at NYU film school together in the graduate program, and we collaborated together as a pair. Greg was in a class for commercial directing and he invited me to co-direct something like 15 random, quickly inspired spec spots. We didn’t have much of a plan what to do with them. We were working with a producer who knew a little bit more about the industry, and she submitted them to the AICP awards unbeknownst to us, since we didn’t have much of an agenda or know what the AICP was.
We ended up winning the student category basically sweeping that category with our spec spots. That got us a lot of attention and eventually got us signed at Station Film.
Our first professional shoot was for Discovery Channel’s I Love the Whole World campaign. We were hired to shoot just one tiny, little segment of this really massive commercial that was being directed by another director. For our segment we had to shoot Dean Kamen, the guy who invented the Segway, riding his Segway through a classroom of kids and singing a line from this song. (laughs) I think the segment we shot amounted to about two seconds of this larger commercial.
A lot of our creative back and forth happens before we get on set. A director’s job has a lot to do with preparation. Once you are on set you are basically going through the motions. A lot of our work is done in the planning, so the push and pull and arguing happens during the prep. On set Greg has shot a lot of the stuff we have made together. He is behind the camera, and I am the mouthpiece that communicates with the actors, but most of the real directing decisions are made beforehand. We have been working together for so long we kind of have evolved naturally with the way we operate. Creative collaboration is always more impressive than just one man’s brain.
It was kind of gradual. We did some favors for agencies and things where we were testing out the waters. I guess our first big commercial was for Toyota. It was a big production with real actors and fifty people on the crew. That was a totally different experience for us compared to most of our shoots up to that point.
For Greg and I it was a matter of finding a way to be in command of a whole set and maintain a creative freedom and openness while being the captain of the ship. We prepare very carefully, but we also like to be sensitive and aware of our intuitions and creative momentum. With a lot of our early shoots we were nervous just trying to be directors and be professionals, and we were being very careful. When you are focused on that you lose a bit of your creative rhythm or mojo, but we figured out how to navigate that fairly quickly.
We learned that commercial work is very different from the way that we work on our personal projects. What is expected from you is very different. On commercial shoots we realized how important it was to be thoroughly prepared and have a very clear outline, plan, and path of what we want and how to execute it so we don’t waste people’s time. There is a specific deadline and a lot riding on the decisions you make when directing a commercial. The beauty of our early spec work is that we didn’t have much of a plan and we were riffing, but we quickly learned that we couldn’t approach commercials in the same way.
We don’t really have any unusual rituals before a shoot. We do have a ritual when we actually shoot and that is to shoot the scene as boarded but allow some additional time to have the actor do the scene without the same lines we have written and just riff and see what happens. If we have time, we try to capture a scene with a completely different spin just to have it.
Our first shoot was basically shooting a two second piece of this larger commercial, and we had never worked with a very large crew before. The budget was quite large and that was surprising to us. The excessiveness of the commercial world was pretty shocking to us when we first started out. We wanted to do more than what was required of us as directors for that first shoot.
We just finished this incredible campaign for Skype where we profiled a political refugee from Uganda who is now living in America. We went to this tiny little town in northern Uganda and we shot his conversation simultaneously with his family in Uganda and with him in America. It was a really exciting project to be a part of.
I think just letting your subconscious lead most of the time. That’s the kind of comedy that we usually like. I think the more absurd the notion, the better. Having confidence to explore silly tangents or impulses is key for us.
I think there is a great opportunity to explore and have fun with commercials. It is not a place where Greg and I feel a catharsis with every job. It is a great job but ultimately, you’re serving the interest of the client who’s paying for it. If you think you can go off and do something on a creative whim you’re fooling yourself. (laughs) The commercial industry is really niche oriented. You get a job based on the exact type of work that is on your reel.
We are writing a feature film now that is in the spirit of our short film The Kook. It’s a noir about a swindler that has some supernatural twists to it. Our hope is to shoot it this year. I have been down here in New Orleans writing with hopes to finish a draft and line up a producer and actors. We will probably shoot it in upstate New York where we shot The Kook, since I have a place there where I write a lot and get a lot of creative inspiration.
We wrote the film in the interest of having fun. We wanted to write a really fun story that was really strong where we didn’t deviate from that and where everything had a narrative purpose. We wanted to have fun writing it and have fun making it. When I say fun I don’t mean rollicking good times. I mean every scene is charged with something meaningful and there is something exciting about it and not have any throw away scenes or any throw away moments. And that was a great lesson we have taken with us from that experience. In our earlier films we might have been more focused on specific shots and indulging on tangents asking questions like “Is this honing it all in?” and “Is this shot serving the story?”
My advice is just shoot as much as you can, and don’t hesitate when you have an inspiration. That’s what Greg and I did. When we had an idea we would just grab a camera and make it, and we are still like that. Creative paralysis is a big problem when you first get out of film school. We witnessed this firsthand. Even though they might be confident, there is still an insecurity about the work, and a symptom of that is feeling too precious about your projects creatively and wanting them to be perfect, which keeps a lot of young filmmakers from finishing their projects or spending too much time and making their projects overwrought. I tell a lot of young filmmakers to just get through it and finish it and let it go, because your next film is going to be better. You learn so much by tying a bow on it.
Hmmm, if we had to pick one we would have to say Rosemary’s Baby.
Peking - Nat Livingston Johnson / Greg Mitnick
New York, NY
Directors - Station Film