You directed the emotionally charged PSA “The Epidemic” for Monica Lewinsky’s antibullying campaign with BBDO. What were the unique opportunities of mixing the mediums of video and text? Anything that makes the viewing experience more immersive is exciting to explore. But it will always come back to the same question: Does it make the story better? In our case, that’s what excited me the most about the concept. Mixing the mediums was not only innovative, but also had real storytelling value.
How did you discover your passion for filmmaking? I had a simple childhood. I grew up in the country with five brothers and spent a lot of time outdoors. But we also loved cinema, and by that, I mean mostly lowbrow stuff, but great films nonetheless. My dad loves westerns. My grandma was really into ’90s action movies. Commando is still often quoted when we all get together. I don’t remember when, but at a certain point, I saw a making-of show. I was smitten. I started making films as soon as I could get a camera, which was around my freshman year of high school.
How would you describe your style, and how did it evolve? I certainly think my work has evolved over time, but the consistent thread is that I’m interested in simple humanity. I’ve tried to explore complex styles, but I continually go back to simplicity. While I’m incredibly inspired by filmmakers like Ian Pons Jewell and the Daniels, I’m always drawn back to a minimalist approach to capturing a story. I’m not sure if that’s my own fear of failure or my innate style, but I know it’s a film language that continues to excite me. I look at the work of Alfonso Cuarón in Roma or Joanna Hogg in The Souvenir, and I’m incredibly moved. There is nothing to hide behind. I love the quiet, confident storytelling. I’m anxious to continue evolving my voice and finding ways to use this language to propel character and story in a way that makes my audience feel empathy. But damn, sometimes all you need is a face and a locked-off camera to make me cry.
How do you stay inspired? I try to see a lot of films! I try to spend time outside. I try to connect to people outside my normal social groups. I try to serve other people as part of my faith system. I run an email thread with peers where we discuss current and past media. Sometimes, I just disconnect. I listen to podcasts. I wish I read more. I go to the gym and sweat. I try to live a full life. I try new hobbies. I recently took up mountain biking. I have a lot of family responsibilities outside of my career. I try not to keep the two separated. Something I’m still learning is load management. I can tell when the work starts to suffer because I’ve tried to take too much on. Sometimes, a month-long recharge is the most inspiring.
Which films have had the greatest impact on your work? 2001: A Space Odyssey, 8½, Dog Day Afternoon, It’s a Wonderful Life, Ordet, Pather Panchali, Se7en, The Godfather Part II, There Will Be Blood, Tokyo Story and Y Tu Mamá También. How can I summarize the impact of any of these films into a few words! Even this abbreviated list would be a great introduction to the power of cinema.
How do you use light to help tell a story? I love when the light underscores the beauty of the natural world. I love its metaphorical qualities. There are a thousand ways to use light, and it really depends on each project, but it has to be accounted for. It’s one of the most important things in our toolbox as directors.
What is the inspiration behind your upcoming feature film Among Lions? I love films that wrestle with the paradox of good-hearted people making bad decisions and traditional villains making good decisions. This film rolls around in that mud. Set in a Latino neighborhood of Tucson, Arizona, the film follows a Sofia, a young mom—whose immigration status is unclear—who is raising an autistic son. One fateful night, she acts out in protection of her son and must confront the effects of this truly violent act. Will she be discovered? Can she bring herself to do the same thing again to ensure her son’s safety? The film wrestles with the question of how far we’ll go to protect the ones we love, and at what cost.
How has your personal work influenced your approach to commercials, and vice versa? I’m always trying to connect to something honest. Of course, some scripts I’m offered for commercials do that better than others, but that’s always my goal. I can say that commercials have negatively affected my instinct to let the camera sit and observe. Why? Because we have to cut so much to abbreviate storytelling. However, in that same way, it has pushed me to be more economical in my storytelling, which is not a bad thing. My approach to both long-form work and commercials remains pretty singular: immerse the audience through character and story. For me, character is priority. What’s the point of plot if you don’t have someone you want to watch?
What excites you about filmmaking today? The way in which long-form story presentation is evolving. And I don’t mean the slow demise of the theater experience, which is a tragedy. I mean, we’re in a new golden age of episodic filmmaking. The platforms and rush for content has led to the discovery of some inspiring voices and given us hours and hours of our favorite filmmakers. I’m looking at you, David Fincher. I’m sure there will be some self-correction, but can we possibly keep producing this much content? Nonetheless, I grew up dreaming only of making a film. Now I can expand that to include an eight-part miniseries, or more. What’s not exciting about that?
What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career? Just go and do. I’ve been the recipient of great parenting, an amazing wife, and mentors and family who have always empowered me to do just that. I’m a White, male, middle-class kid. It’s from an obvious place of privilege that I say do your best to just do. It’s your voice we want to hear. Follow your instinct. Don’t take too many notes. The more your work reflects your individuality, the more meaningful—for all of us—it will be. To my peers, it’s on us to help open doors.