Where did you grow up?

I was born in San Francisco, so I’m a California native, and I’ve lived here for pretty much all of my life.

Did you go to film school?

I went to the Academy of Art in San Francisco. My dad was in the military, so this trajectory of doing art and film was not in his first interest. We had a written contract that I had to sign that said if I didn’t succeed at film school and make a career, I would have to immediately sign up for the Air Force. I never got straight A’s until I went to film school, but it was because nothing academic ever motivated me before then. I wanted to prove my father wrong, but for the first time I also had this inner drive to keep making stuff and never fall behind. I would’ve hated the military. I had piercings and bleached hair growing up. There’s nothing wrong with the military, but I just never wanted to conform to someone’s idea of what I should be. I moved to LA in 2005 after film school.

What did you do when you moved to LA? 

I started as a film loader and worked my way up to second AC and then eventually become a focus puller. I spent six years assisting. The whole time I was just trying to absorb everything and learn from my peers. I was trying to shoot still photography and DP at the same time. Then in 2008 when the whole economy kind of tanked, a lot of companies were looking for somebody who could shoot motion and stills. It also happened to be around the time when the 5D came out, and that was a real game-changer. They used to always hire two people to do the two different roles, but then people started looking for that kind of Swiss Army Knife kind of person, and I just happened to be able to do both. So, that was kind of how I made a name for myself. I started shooting for clothing brands and doing lookbooks and music videos.

Tell me about your first shoot. 

I was working at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. They’re a huge ad agency in San Francisco. I moved back to San Francisco, because they hired me to help develop and create web content, because YouTube and Vimeo were kind of the new thing. Web content was totally taking off, and the second screen experience was totally on the rise. But I would say my first national TV spot was for Specialized bicycles for the Tour de France. So, during the tour it aired all over. It was a crazy experience, because there was this huge media buy, but we didn’t have a lot of money or resources to shoot it, so I had to direct and DP myself, and we had to get creative and resourceful with a very small crew to tackle that. That was shot in Northern California Wine Country. It had to double as the French countryside.

What did you take away from your first shoot that informed the next one?

What I learned is that you can be nimble without sacrificing quality. I like working small, and I like working with people I can really trust. I think having essential people is necessary. I like having a big crew, but it has to be an essential crew. I don’t like unnecessary things. I like as few layers as possible. I think that was the biggest takeaway, was being able to work small.


Were there any other obstacles?

Well, like I said we didn’t have a lot of budget, so we couldn’t do a pursuit vehicle, or a Russian arm with a camera to shoot this young cyclist. The whole spot is about this young cyclist dreaming about being in this race, and he’s racing against one of the top competitors, but it’s all in his head. What we had to do was grip-rig this motorcycle sidecar, and we had a steadicam operator who would hang off the back. So we created this kind of a makeshift camera car out of a motorcycle, a sidecar, and grip gear to make it work. And the style looks great, it looks super steady, and it’s got a lot of production value, but it was just one of those problem solving projects. I think some of the lower budget projects can be so rewarding, because it’s a team effort to problem solve and get creative and resourceful. So, when you do have a bigger opportunity and you keep that mindset, I feel like the possibilities are endless, because everyone is willing to work hard and not get comfortable. Everybody is always looking for a new angle. That’s probably the other takeaway, is just how can we do this in a way that won’t break the bank, and we can just think about it in a more nimble way that doesn’t sacrifice the quality or the story.

Did your first shoot lead to a lot more work soon after?

It did. That job opened up a lot of doors, because it just proved I wasn’t just the web content person. When I first started at Goodby, I didn’t have a lot of support, because it was a guinea pig position. They just knew I had this production background, but I kind of fell into advertising. They just kind of took this leap of faith, because they just saw that this guy has value, and he can shoot stills and direct, but we just don’t know where he fits in a traditional TV agency kind of model. So, they gave me a lot of space, but not a lot of support in the beginning. I used to have to shoot and cut my own projects. It would go off for finishing, but ultimately I had a lot of creative freedom, and that work kind of evolved into bigger budgets. The budgets kept getting bigger over time, but at a certain point, I just felt like I needed to expand, and that’s when I signed to an actual commercial production company, BRW.


What do you think is more important when starting out – talent, connections or just plain luck?

What really got me signed into the company that I work at now wasn’t the work I did while I was at Goodby – it was the personal work that I did on the side. I used the money I made from doing the commercial work and poured it into some of my personal documentary projects and side projects. Those were the ones that people were actually talking about and had more hits and views. I forget where I heard it, but there’s this saying where you can’t win the lottery unless you buy a ticket, and that’s what it is. You really just have to keep making stuff and you increase your chances of visibility. There was definitely a little bit of luck and connections on my part, because working at Goodby opened up doors, but I still had to put in the work. So, I think it’s a balance of all three, but if you don’t continue to output stuff that’s important to you, no one is really going to care.

Who influenced your directing style?

I feel like I’ve cherry-picked from a few different people. Luc Besson is one. I just re-watched Léon: The Professional. That’s one of my favorite movies. There’s a certain style of movie that makes it feel like it’s grounded in real life. Even if it’s sci-fi or fantasy, it feels like it’s rooted in reality. And lots of contrast and moody cinematography – that’s the stuff I really do love.


What’s the best part about directing?

I think it’s two things. I love working with real people, so I get excited when I get to meet someone new and love their story. The second thing is just the problem solving. Every project is a different puzzle to crack. A lot of the work I do is documentary style, so it’s about meeting real people and having a genuine responsibility to get their story right.

What’s the most difficult part about directing? 

Doing real stories about real people, because I think the hardest part is the fear that I’ll miss the mark – that it won’t live up to what it could be. I think the hardest part about being a director in a general sense is having a knowledge of everything that’s going on all at once. So everything from the wardrobe, to the talent, to the locations, to what cameras you’re going to use, what the agencies and the clients think, and being spread really thin in a short amount of time – that’s the hardest part, but it’s also the part I love about it. You have to be everywhere at once.

What do you think about the current state of the film industry?

I think the industry in general is just saturated with content, so it challenges directors to keep evolving, and stay with the times, and make sure they’re doing great work. There are so many screens out there that are competing for your attention. It’s so easy for anyone to have a camera these days, so really it’s a matter of taste. People can have a camera, but is the content good? It all comes down to subject matter and the story for me. As far as commercials go, I think the work needs to be more honest. Everybody these days is leaning toward the story-driven stuff. It’s not about all this polish and flash anymore. It’s really about connecting with people, and that’s what brands are trying to do. So, that can be a good thing. You have kind of this independent feeling from the Vimeo and YouTube crowd that is rising out of the DSLR realm, and they are making great work. It really challenges everybody else to do better work, even if you’re top-billing. If you can tell a great story, everybody wants to latch onto that right now. I think that’s what brands are really moving toward on the commercial side. For media and entertainment as a whole, I’m actually really excited to see where it goes, because I’m a huge gadget junkie, so when I think of virtual reality, Oculus Rift, and any augmented type of experiential stuff, the sky’s the limit once you can get someone into a 360 degree movie.

What’s your favorite movie?

I straddle this line between narrative and documentary. The Matrix is one I really love, and The Fifth Element, and Léon: The Professional. Those are great films, but you connect with documentaries in a different way. They not only move you on an emotional level, but they also move you to take action and inspire change in yourself and other people. Some of the good ones I’ve seen are Blackfish and Gasland. That’s eye-opening to what these huge companies are doing right in our backyard.

Have you seen anything recently that blew you away? 

Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina. The Jinx miniseries is also really good. Robert Durst is a crazy character, and that’s what I love about documentaries. Sometimes when you watch a documentary you just can’t believe that they’re real people.


Marcus Ubungen

Place of Birth

San Francisco, CA


Director - BRW Filmland