Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, John began his career in still photography in 1982, shooting advertising campaigns that would appear in Vanity Fair and Esquire. In 1986, an art-director friend suggested he move into television commercials. One of his first commercials won the prestigious Bessie Award in Canada, and his directing career was launched.
I was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia. As a kid, I really got into photography, and that led to me having my own dark room. I just loved it. I never had a formal education. I went to high school to learn basic photography, but I’m mostly self-taught. I also did a few art shows, and then I got into advertising. One of my first big jobs was the Kodak campaign in Toronto. I remember being a kid and making a billboard. I just kept sticking with it, and it eventually led to an art director friend of mine, Howard Olson, saying that I should direct. That hadn’t even crossed my mind. At that time I had my own studio, employees and reps, and I was having a lot of fun. But, then I started directing. I mean it was really that simple. Howard had put the bug in my ear.
That would be a guy by the name of Boris, who worked at an agency that I’m not sure the name of. This was so long ago. This was back in the day when there was more work than there were directors, and opportunities were golden. It’s not like that now. I was given an opportunity to do this public service announcement for CPR. I got the gig, and the funny thing was I had no idea about how anything worked. I had never been on set before and had never seen how TV worked. I started to get a sense of it when I was going to these meetings at this production house called Partners in Canada. When the day comes to shoot, I got a cameraman and a room full of people that I didn’t know. I was used to working with one or two assistants. Then some dude yells ‘Action!’, and I was like whoa! What’s going on? It started like that – getting paid to get an education in making films.
I guess the aha moment that I had was realizing that this is a team sport. I had people who could help. I also really liked the fact that I could move the camera, because I loved capturing things in motion. That was really cool.
Actually, what everyone said to me when I started was ‘Oh, you missed the glory days.’ But I gotta tell you, I loved it then, and I love it now. To me it’s just a matter of adapting to the times. The great thing about Canada was that everyone knew everyone, so it wasn’t like America where it’s this big marketplace. We all hung out in bars, drank together, partied together – we were all young together.
I would be lying if I said it was just skill. I think it’s everything. I think it’s timing. I think it’s luck. I think it’s delivering the goods. What I do know is how to stay working – you adapt and you grow. Now it’s just a matter of the added value that you bring to a shoot – what skill sets you have, what you bring to the team, because it’s a team sport.
For me, it was mostly photographers, because I got my start in photography, and I didn’t go to film school. My work is small and intimate. It comes from where I come from. Those are the sensibilities that I have, and those are the sensibilities that I’ve grown around. If I had been brought up under different circumstances then I would reflect that. I can certainly watch television and notice things that I like. I tend to like things that look a bit more raw. I love watching things that just tend to happen. I always have.
I don’t think it’s just my methodology. I think there are people out there who ought to shoot some more stuff and maybe even shoot better. My methodology allows me to come up with the stuff that you see on the website. I do storyboards. I certainly plan it out. But then again, the way I work, I tend to want to work rather fast. So, I work in chunks. For me, it’s about the actor. How does the actor want to do it? It’s not so much about directing. It’s about finding that person and letting them be – letting them go. Then it’s like yeah, let’s document it!
I don’t know. It’s a fun business, and if they can succeed and get into it, they’re going to have a blast. I have been doing it for over twenty years, and I still love when I book a job. I think what is different today from before is that you must be able to do more than just direct. And it’s not just if you’re into commercials. The same goes goes with film or any of that stuff. You have to be able to write. You have to be able to direct. You have to be able to shoot. You have to be able to edit. I’m not saying it’s about being in a one-man band, but it certainly helps – understanding all of it. If you can stay focused on what your passion is, my theory is do that, and people will respond to what you do rather than you responding to what the marketplace wants. That’s the mistake.
I would say ninety-five percent of projects are won before you even get on the phone. They know whom they want to hire. When I hire a painter, an architect, or something like that, I pretty much know whom I want. I just have to do a couple of visits to make sure I’m not getting ripped off. So to me, it’s the same thing in advertising. The agency knows whom they want in the director spot. They have to protect themselves with whoever gets booked.
Right now I’m doing Ford Canada, and then after that I’m doing Publix Tampa.
Raging Bull stuck with me as well as Trainspotting, for some strange reason. One of my favorite feature directors is Clint Eastwood. See, there’s a cat where I look at his stuff and I go wow! Awesome choices – simple, but awesome storytelling.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Director / Argyle Brothers