What is your background? Did you go to film school?

I went to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and then went on to graduate school at AFI. I just started doing everything and anything I could do to learn about production, but more importantly to make money so I could shoot my own stuff. For my own projects, I was doing most everything myself – producing, shooting, props, and editing. I worked at Sandbank Films with Henry Sandbank and Jon Kamen. I was working as a production “everything” person when I started out.

What was your first shoot?

My first shoot when I got paid as a director was for a company that manufactures chainsaws and weed wackers. Your first shoot with an advertising agency is a much different scenario than when you’re shooting your own stuff – you have to let them in on most everything you have in mind. It was a collaborative effort but something that I wasn’t used to. I wasn’t familiar with having people sit in on the casting and having people watching every set up that you’re doing. That was a big adjustment. Still is (laughs).

How confident were you on your first shoot?

I was actually really confident. Honestly, it felt like a breeze in that sense. I had a crew and a nice budget, and I didn’t have to scrounge around for equipment. You have a 35mm camera with a shitload of film, and you have all these crew guys, and you have all your locations cleared. That was a cakewalk. The things you really weren’t use to though, as I was saying, is communicating your vision and communicating your execution in detail to a client.

What was the easiest aspect of filmmaking when you first started out?

The easiest part was the actual execution. Designing shots, and communicating with the actors, and making adjustments on individual shots was easy. For me, that was like the really terrific creative side. That was a breeze in many ways. The real learning curve were the partners that you were never used to having before, which are your agency and also your client. That’s something that really not  prepared for until you actually jump in there, do it, and get used to it. I’m still getting used to it, actually.

Who gave you your first shot?

I would say Jon Kamen at Radical Media. He knew me as a production person and sort of rabbi’d me through the transition into becoming a commercial director. He was really kind and generous to me in terms of providing help and facilities, as all I had done at that point was a couple of spec spots. He saw talent and a way to capitalize on it, as any good producer will do.

Were there any unusual rituals you had when you first started?

No. I didn’t have a talisman or anything like that, I didn’t wear the same t-shirt everyday. (Laughs) I guess the ritual was more of a cerebral exercise. Before going to sleep the night before a shoot I’d close my eyes and visualize the whole edit in my mind. I’d see how the cut would piece together, and by doing so, I knew what I needed from a particular shot. You become very aware as a director that time on a shoot day is quite expensive, so you try to hit a place where you find the magic in the most efficient way possible. I was forcing myself to know exactly what I wanted from a shot, so that I knew what the run up was, what the “in” and “out” of the shot was and have the confidence to say “Okay. I got it. Let’s move on.” I guess that was the extent of my ritual. Besides that, no, I didn’t have the same kind of instant coffee in the morning. Well actually, I had to kiss my wife. Whenever I would leave for my shoots, I would make sure to kiss her (still do actually), make sure she was up –  her eyes had to be open, which pissed her off a lot (laughs).  I guess that’s the closest thing to a ritual.

Are you a structured type of director? Do you use storyboards, or do you just wing it?

For commercial shoots, storyboards are used to show the clients how you intend to film the scripts. They definitely have a useful purpose, especially on more technically complicated shoots. But for the most part, I really look at them as a template.  I’ve found that when you’re so rigid and adhere too tightly to your storyboards, you sometimes shut down to better possibilities that invariably present themselves to you on the day of the shoot. The reality on the day of your shoot is rarely going to be the exact way you imagined it. In the beginning, you want to hold on to those boards so tightly and feel like you must get the reality of your (storyboarded) vision onto what you’re actually getting so that you might shut down to seeing better ways of filming. When appropriate, I think it’s important to let go of the boards and avail yourself to the reality of the moment to inspire you. With experience, you start to feel more confident about yourself, and confident in your craftsmanship that you can incorporate the spontaneity of the moment into the singular, unified vision that you’ve had all along for the piece.

Do you have any advice on how to get a great performance from an actor?

Yeah, cast them well. When you cast a project, well, that’s 90% of your work right there. I always find when I cast the right actor, they become my closest collaborator, so I’m doing everything I can to create an environment where they work best in. And that varies to a certain extent for each actor.  Certain actors don’t need much fussing and explanation – they just get on with it. Others want things explained, so you do that. Sometimes, you have actors that have the physicality of a shot correct, but they don’t have the emotion right, so you have talk it through and guide them. With experience, I think I’ve learned to be much more accommodating to work in ways that best suits the individual actor.

With digital capture we have lost the anticipation of seeing dailies the next day. What was your reaction when you saw your first film dailies?

Oh yeah. When I first started out it was all film. You had that lag. You’re not seeing anything until the next day, and then at night you’re agonizing. In the beginning, I was shooting all my own stuff so as the film was in the soup, I’d be sweating if I got the exposure and contrast ratio right, will the film be scratched, will there be any image at all on the film. I’d stay up late and call the lab at around 3AM, praying that there are no disasters. Next day you see the transferred film, and because they’re unsupervised dailies, it looks horrible, and you’re thinking, “I’m so f*cked…that’s it, I’m done for..” But then you get into a proper telecine room and you start to massage it and the film now looks great and you can breathe once again.

Did you get to where you are now because of talent, connections, or luck?

No, I had no connections at all. I actually had one connection in the industry, and that connection landed my first job in the industry, which was literally shoveling elephant shit on a shoot. That was my job all day. Obviously the job sucked, but I was getting paid, and I was in the industry that I loved, and I was able to watch and observe. That was nearly topped by next job where I drove around Manhattan buying up every barrel of pickles with a production designer named Mel Bourne. Mel was a great guy, took a liking to me and hired me to work on a few features that he was working on.  But no, my connections sucked. I made my own connections. I think the equation is: talent and perseverance equals luck. In this business, if you have the connections but you don’t have the talent, that’s only going to go so far. If you have the talent but no connections, it’s gonna be a harder road to climb. If you have the talent and connections, but no perseverance, well that’s not going to work either.

Do you think it was easier to break into the business

when you first started,

or is it easier now?

I don’t know if it’s ever easy starting off in the sense that in the beginning there are always going to be a lot of uncertainty and struggle. It’s easy to go out and shoot right now. There weren’t HD cameras when I first started shooting. When I first started out you had big, heavy cameras, and Steenbecks and Moviolas, and you had to rent them. It cost a lot of money. You had to figure how to get the machine up to your apartment, and you couldn’t rent equipment, because you had no insurance. Those were a lot of things to deal with. I think in many ways the mechanism of the work is easier now.

Any comments on the current state of the commercial industry?

I think that we are in the midst of huge paradigm shift, but don’t see the full implications of it yet. If you were able to go 5 years into the future and look back upon where we are right now, you’d realize that right now is a revolution. Commercial production relatively speaking hasn’t changed that much – yes we’re shooting HD now, and it seems like we are doing more with less money and time, but nothing too crazy. The big game changer is the shifting of distribution and broadcast platforms. And because of this, the way content is delivered and viewed is not only different, but it has also changed the very form of ads. And this will continue to evolve at a much faster pace than in the past.

What do you think is the most important quality of a director?

I don’t think there is one single quality, as directing is so expansive. I saw an Elia Kazan documentary a few years ago that sort of summed it up: A director is someone who can keep things functioning under intolerable tensions and stresses. He must be kind like a mother and stern like a father. A hypnotist. A con artist. He has to have the cunning of a trader in a Baghdad Bazaar, and the elusiveness of a jewel thief – someone with thick skin and a very sensitive soul.

Which directors were your greatest influence?

Stanley Kubrick, and Vittorio De Sica.  Kubrick absolutely blows me away, because he completely immersed himself in every aspect of the art and craft of filmmaking.  He knew more about any particular thing than any other person involved in his projects and this enabled him to exert complete control and influence on every aspect relating to his films.  He had enormous stylistic range, and created masterpieces in different genres. And besides being a great stylist, he got powerful iconic performances from his actors. With Vittorio De Sica, it was something much different. What blew me away was the emotionality of his films, the profound level of humanity of his art that was communicated in a relatively unsophisticated way, in terms of the structure of his films and their execution. De Sica was made his greatest films right on the heels of the World War II, with minimal equipment, with very small amounts of film that was found piece-meal, so you know his shooting ratios were ridiculous, and mostly with non-actors. But the performances he got from the non-professionals, the emotion and the humanity that he got out of them, was incredible.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming directors?

Just keep your interest broad. Be interested in as many things as possible. Be interested in architecture. Follow fashion trends. Know about cars, different types of music, carpentry, plastics.  That’s what’s great about directing. You need to know a little about so many things. Directing exposes you to things you would never have to deal with in your lifetime. So that’s really cool. The other thing is to work with your friends.

What is your latest project?

I’ve just wrapped a shoot for NY Lottery out of DDB NY. On the longer form side of things, I’ve just been commissioned to adapt a TV series that I’ve written into a stage play, so that’s something I’m really excited about.

How would you describe yourself in one sentence?

I’m a storyteller.

What is your favorite movie?

Uggh – that’s impossible. How about just a few: The Bicycle Thief, Babette’s Feast, Being There, Sawdust and Tinsel, The Big Lebowski, Andrei Rublov, Barry Lyndon, Shane, It’s A Wonderful Life, La Strada, American Beauty, Forrest Gump. The Searchers.

Have you seen anything lately that blew you away?

My daughter just got a really short haircut and she looks incredibly adorable.


Lenny Dorfman

Place of Birth

Brooklyn, New York


Director / O-Positive Films