How did it all start, and how did you got to where you are today?
It’s a big question. Filmmaking and directing is what I always wanted to do and I was lucky that I had a family that wanted to support all that. I was making feature films directly out of college and in my late twenties, early thirties I really started to make work that I was proud of, that got a good amount of attention and helped me get repped by William Morris Endeavor. One was a micro-budget feature I made for less than 70k (Supporting Characters) and another was a higher budgeted indie that starred Jen Aniston, John Hawkes and Tim Robbins (Life of Crime).
When did you join Process?
Last year, after Tim Perell saw Life of Crime, he asked to have lunch with me and explained his vision for the company. The conversation really excited me. I wanted to work more, direct more, in different mediums, and Tim’s vision was to make filmmaker-friendly, innovative pieces in the world of advertising. I was easily convinced and on board.
Which projects that you’ve been involved with, are you most proud of?
Our first project was a really successful trailer of sorts for a cook book and internet brand called “Thug Kitchen.” The creators had a funny script that lampooned pharmaceutical commercials that I really responded to, and then I think the trick was to make it unlike the scores of other spoofs that already existed. We’re very proud of the final result and the book catapulted to #1 on the NYT Best-sellers list. We also did a spot for LendUp.com with Leo Burnett Limited that featured a Boston Terrier that I think ended up being a really endearing and humorous ad.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced directing, editing and producing commercial spots and films? How do you overcome them?
Films are an excellent training ground for making commercials. And by that, I mean indie films, which put you under such enormous time and financial constants that virtually anything else is like running with the weights off. Compared to my last two features, I’ve found the schedules of my commercials to be a delight (which I suspect also has a lot to do with the producer, Tim Perell, and his team.) But there is such an abundance of talented crew-members and acting talent in the industry, that if you have a reasonable budget to accomplish your concept, it should be smooth sailing with the right team. So far I’ve been very fortunate.
Do you have a preference for what you like to direct? More films or commercials, or are they too different to pick one over the other?
Too different. Each has great advantages over the other and doing both to me is “the dream.” I’ve found that each can inform and improve the other, and I’m somebody who’s always looking to add to my team of people I want to work with, so its lovely finding new people to collaborate with as well.
What is the biggest and most important thing you’ve learned throughout your career so far?
Their are “Yes People” and their are “No People.” It’s crucial to surround yourself with people who have a positive attitude, short of being naive (but even that can have its advantages over someone who has become jaded.) “No People” are afraid to look foolish, are often bitter and/or are lazy. Yes People accomplish so much more and save you so much money because to a Yes Person, “No” is a last resort. “No” costs more money than “Yes” in the end, its just hard to see that. “No” stops you from going to that bigger actor, asking for the tough location, getting that brand to sponsor your shoot, seeing if that post-house would do a favor, if a band would give you a song, if that DP would be willing to shoot something. And Yes People also happen to be so much more fun to work with.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Be nice, to everybody. Even if it feels over-the-top, it never hurts to acknowledge everyone’s hard work on a set.
If you could work with anyone on a project, who would it be and what would you do?
Their are so many directors I would want to shadow, so many actors I would want to collaborate with, so many writer’s whose words I would want to bring to life, I don’t know where to start. How about… I think working with HBO on a series would, to me, be the ultimate experience… but I don’t have that show in me yet, or perhaps the life experience yet.
Tell us something about yourself that not many people know?
I’m an avid poker player, but not a very good one.
Who or what have had the biggest influences on your work?
Filmmakers, novelists and show-runners I love: Woody Allen, James L Brooks, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, David Chase, David Simon, David Milch, Quentin Tarantino, Elmore Leonard, The Coen Brothers… People who capture authentic life experience and know how to make it highly entertaining and re-watchable without compromising its integrity.
Can you share what is the importance of maintaining a polished aesthetic and top-notch acting films?
First of all, if you ever have bad acting in your film, it’s entirely the fault of the director and never the actor. As I said before, there is such an insane embarrassment of riches of acting talent in this world, that the amount of sublime actors available far exceeds the amount of work we can provide. Casting is the best part of the process for my money. As for a polished aesthetic: there’s no excuse for something looking unintentionally raw anymore. At any budget, the technology has made virtually any visual style possible. Just like with actors, throw a rock in NY and LA and you’ll find an insanely talented cinematographer, eager and qualified to deliver your vision. I find when these qualities lack, its on the producers and directors, who didn’t push themselves hard enough.
What are the differences and similarities between developing and directing films vs. spots?
In my experience, film is much more a dictatorship, and though I love it, a lot of one’s ego and self-esteem are tied up in the final products, as they seem to represent your identity. Spots give me the feeling more of being on a team that I really enjoy and I find excites me creatively. I feel in some ways less like the coach and more like the quarterback eager to score.
Can you share what it is like to adapt well known novels into movies?
The book I adapted was based on Elmore Leonard’s “The Switch,” which was an extremely adaptable book. I’ve worked on two book adaptations since that have been far more difficult. But I revere Leonard, whose work is very spare and cinematic to begin with, and his book to me was almost like a terrific draft of a script that I just needed to further craft into a film.
I’ve fully written every other film I’ve directed, so it was a lovely pleasure to have both a story-telling partner in the process (with Leonard) but also more objectivity than I was used to because I wasn’t necessarily evaluating my own story, dialogue and characters. The entire process of making that film was a dream.
More commercial work with Process, and I hope to direct my next indie film in spring, with Tim Perell producing for me. It’s a small New York romantic comedy of sorts, and I’d like to work with some of the actors and crew I’ve worked with in the past again, if I’m lucky. The devils you know…