Thursday, September 19, 2013

HOW TO GIVE NOTES (that people actually want to listen to)

Some creative people are quiet.

Some are outgoing.

Some are jerks.

Some are nice people.

The one thing all truly creative people have in common however, is that they care deeply about their work and how others perceive it.  Whether you are a director who is unhappy with the way an editor has cut something together, or a wife who is unhappy with how her husband painted the living room - you need get your point across.  You are in a disagreement, and you want it solved with as little headache as possible.

So how do you get them to see it your way without resorting to physical threats or force?  Here are my thoughts...

Consider this:

Why should somebody else (who has no knowledge of what is inside your head) believe that you know better than they do?  While you were away doing lord knows what, this other person has put countless hours into perfecting their work.  From there perspective there is no way you could understand what they are doing as intimately as they do.  To them, you are just a person who came in to judge something that you know nothing about.

Assuming you just know better is a very easy trap for any creative to fall into and nobody wants to take orders from somebody who knows less than they do.

So how do you overcome the trap?


The person who tends to have the most authority on a project also tends to be the person who knows it the best.  Take the time to allow your collaborator to show you their work and explain their inspirations/ideas.  Ask questions.  Get deeper and keep your opinions to yourself until they are fully finished giving their side.  By doing this you are allowing 2 wonderful things to happen:

1) You are absorbing everything that they have to offer and adding it to your arsenal.

2) You are demonstrating to your collaborator that you are listening to where they are coming from, you are taking the time to understand their point of view, and you deeply care about the work they have done.

Once your collaborator feels that they have given you all that they can, you are now in a position to make critiques.  You have earned this authority because you have absorbed everything they can offer you.  You now have both your experience to draw from, and theirs as well - meaning you have the most understanding.  You have the authority.

Now is the time to engage them on their level.  Remember what was important to them, what worked for them, and what did not.  Use this knowledge as your main tool to communicate your changes.  During the times when you just don't see eye to eye, it is helpful to tell them in detail what you like about their approach before telling them why your approach is a better fit.

Take the time.  Sometimes you will come out of the meeting with the exact same conclusions you had in your initial gut reactions.  Other times you will come out with something even better than what you had in mind.

It works.  I swear.

So next time you need to give notes and that urge to immediately rattle off everything that is wrong starts to bubble up - remember to listen first.  You will get your way in the end, and your collaborators will be happier for it.

Friday, March 29, 2013


Heads up - This post is NSFW and has a really immature internet clip embedded (for education I swear!)

I was having a conversation with some young people who are training to become actors recently.  One surefire piece of advice for any actor is to become best friends with the editor.  Whether that person leaves a frame or two in or cuts a fraction of a second out changes everything.

A single shot selection can completely alter the context and thus perception of a performance.  No matter how great a performance you give, the way an audience perceives it will be reshaped by this person and the director sitting in a dark room figuring out how what was shot works in the larger context of the story.

The embedded clip is a perfect example of how one image can completely reshape a performance.

If you watched The Amazing Spiderman you don't need to read these next few sentences - just watch the clip.  In this scene Peter Parker has gotten a clue from his (presumed dead) fathers hidden briefcase.  Peter goes to visit his fathers former science partner Dr. Connors in hopes that this equation he found can teach him something about his disappearance.

So there it is.  In my opinion comedy gold, but here is why this clip matters.  With one edit both of these actors became totally different people.  In my mind it works like this:

In the original movie where he writes an equation - the performance of Peter Parker reads as somebody who was lost but on an emotional level needed answers.  You could tell that he knew he was not telling the whole truth and that this is not the kind of thing he does normally, but was trying to cover up his nerves with bit of charm.  The performance of Dr. Connors reads as somebody who is intrigued by this kid, but not totally comfortable with the fact that he tracked him down and knocked on his door.  He is not really sure why he is here or what he really wants.

As for the edit where he makes a penis drawing - Peter Parker is now a special needs teenager who has not developed even the most basic social skills.  Because of past interactions with Dr. Connors, Peter feels that giving him a crude drawing will earn his approval.  Dr. Connors is now a creepy older mentor figure, who is making an effort to take advantage of Peters trust so he can molest or even murder him.  "The Tower" is clearly not a place Peter should go because just the name brings up all kinds of horrible mental images and possibilities.  Did he lose his arm in some freaky sex-torture device, or was it a past victim fighting back?

Two totally different scenes and the exact same performance is perfect for both of them.

So remember actors:  Always be nice to your editor, and do your director a favor by knowing your lines and showing up on time and not hung over.  You never know what may come out of the edit room.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


I gave a talk today to some High School students who will be going to film school in the fall.  Besides making me feel old, talking to them crystallized what was the hardest part of being a young creative.  When I was in film school the question that ruined the most collaborations, lowered group morale to new lows, kept me awake in a cold sweat most nights, and gave me dry heaves on the first day of production was:

When do you change your creative to accommodate other peoples criticisms and when do you ignore them completely?

On one hand, every innovative and truly great thing ever done starts out with one person going against the grain.  On the other hand, you do not know everything and unless you have put in your 10,000 hours there is no way you have even come close to establishing your own creative voice and compass yet.

So what to do?  You need a lighthouse to get you through the fog.  So what is that lighthouse, and where did I find mine?

My Junior year of college was a really important year for me as a filmmaker.  The work I did that year is really what opened the door for me to direct professionally.  At the time though nobody would have ever guessed that.

I was writing a short film that I was going to direct.  It was a dark comedy about an insecure teenager who steals the popular girls stuff.  Nobody liked my script.  For a story that was only 10 pages long I had to revise it over 50 times (all major overhauls too) over a 5 month period.  Every time I applied the latest feedback I could not please my teachers, my peers, or myself.  I was a week away from shooting - and nowhere close to a shootable script.  In fact the story was getting worse.  The time-crunch forced me into a corner where I had to pick my cast and locations even though I still had no idea what I was shooting.  This was the biggest blessing in disguise from my education.

Without the luxury of thinking about what was right or wrong, my cast and I were forced to just shoot what we felt was right.  Whenever the cameras were not rolling we were rewriting.  After 3 days of trial by fire and a few near-mutiny situations I had footage.

In the edit room there were no laughs to be had in the early edits.  I kept working and decided that since the film can't get any worse I mine as well just make it the way that felt right to me.  What made me laugh?  What made me care?  By the time I handed in the final cut the criticism that I had been hearing about the project was as loud as ever, but I was happy to hand it in and move on.

A few weeks later, that film ended up winning the award for best film.  The COO of AMC networks was on campus to premiere a new episode of Breaking Bad, and the school played my short before the episode in front of hundreds of people.  For whatever lucky reason - that short on that night went off like gangbusters and got a better audience reaction than what I feel is the best show on TV did.  The man from AMC introduced himself to me after the screening and invited me to meet with him in NY.

So why was this whole experience so hard for me?  It is really simple.  I forgot what I was making.

I was making a comedy about a high school boy who wants a high school girl.  Everybody around me was making artistic dramas.  Despite their good intentions, by me trying to please my peers I was violating my story.  Now if I was making an artistic drama, or I was getting negative feedback from a classroom full of teenagers that loved comedy then I should have taken it very seriously.  Because as Dita Von Teese would say:   “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there's still going to be somebody who hates peaches.”

When you have to decide if a criticism is valid always remember what story you are telling.  That means know who your character is, what it is that they want, the audience you are making this for, and what are the genera rules (to fulfill or to break).  Then weigh that against your own tastes.

In the end it is not about if you were right to trust your own judgement or somebody else.  It is about serving something greater.   A story will reveal to you what it needs.  You have to allow it to become what it wants to be and the only way to learn that is with experience.

That is my lighthouse.  If you have a different one I would love to hear what it is.


Here is the film I talked about in this post.  I have noticed that this short plays really well in front of huge crowds on a big screen but doesn't quite work so well on the internet.  Anybody have any ideas why?

Friday, March 15, 2013


David Fincher once talked about directing as trying to describe a brush stroke to a painter with 100 people between you and him.  The idea of the auteur is a myth because a director never has total control.  Even on jobs that I wrote, produced, directed, shot, edited, scored, and colored myself - it would be dishonest and insulting to everyone else involved to say that I did it all.

Making a project come together is as much about achieving the vision in your head as it is about working with what is around you and elevating your material and situation to the highest level possible.   Finding that balance between what is in your head and what is physically infront of the lens is something that nobody can teach you - you have to figure it out for yourself.  I have found that the best ideas can come from anywhere and my biggest pleasure in my work is when an idea comes from somewhere you never predicted (perhaps an accident) and it turns out to be far better than anything you could have imagined.  When that happens it feels like god is on your side.

It is important to create an environment that lets these moments reveal themselves, but it is also important to know when to put your foot down and say "I respect where you are coming from, but if you and I are going to complete this project together we are doing it this way."  If you have the attitude of "my way or the highway" with every little decision your work will suffer and nobody will ever work with you again.  In some cases though, you need to be ready to risk it all in order to stand your ground.

Here is a real world example of what I believe to be a hill worth dying on.

Last fall I was hired to direct a commercial for The Boy Scouts.  The budget was small, but it was a great opportunity to write and direct some excellent creative for a (mostly) great organization.

I knew we would not have the budget for outdoor lighting, but this is a situation where we could compensate for a low budget by spending more time.  Instead of doing a 1 day shoot we planned the shoot over 3 half days with a smaller crew.  It was all about being at exactly the right place at exactly the right time so we could capture that beautiful back-lit photography no studio could ever match.

We were using real scouts instead of actors.  This choice was made because we needed to show kids performing tasks with confidence and proficiency (no need for any heavy dramatic performances).  Who better than real scouts?  On my third trip out for location scouting I was informed that the scouts would only be available from 11:00am-4:00pm each day.  Any DP's reading know that this is exactly the time you do not want to be shooting outdoors if you can help it.  I told them that those times would not work for the production, and they told me I had to make it work because of a dozen or so very good reasons why getting the scouts at those times would be impossible.

I was stuck.  This spot was written with a very aspirational feeling and I knew that bad / flat cinematography was not going to inspire anybody.  Nobody has ever stopped their car and gotten out to take in the beauty and wonder of the afternoon but I know plenty of people who have dropped whatever they were doing to take in a stunning sunset.

I calmly told them that I understand where they are coming from, but if they want me to to direct this spot with this budget than we are shooting from sunrise to 10:30am and again from 4:00-sunset (basically the exact opposite of what they were offering).  I made it very clear that this was a deal breaker for me.  They took pause and went away for a couple of days during which I had no idea what would happen.

I got a phone call and found out that they had moved mountains in order for us to have the requested shooting schedule.  They were not happy at the time, but in the end they thanked me for being a thorn in their side because they got some of the best work the BSA has ever done.

In an alternative universe, I could have put my foot down and gotten thrown off the project.  But here's the thing.  That would have been a victory too because it is far better to spend a little time on a job that would have turned out badly than spending even more time to finish a project that nobody will want.

Elevate at all cost.

Boy Scouts "I Can" :30

Monday, March 11, 2013


There is an epidemic in young creative people looking to become professionals - and it is a disconnect between strategy and creative. It's not our fault.  We have grown up in a time where everybody is special and we are led to believe that the highest form of expression is self expression.  But in an age where everyone's 15 minutes of fame has been reduced to 15 seconds you have to make every nanosecond count.  Making a creative decision just because it feels right to you is not good enough anymore.

In art school I saw this play out everyday with students pouring themselves into achieving their vision without ever asking to what ends.  You would be surprised how often clients in the real world are essentially doing the same thing.  Everyday you hear from clients that their desired outcome is to "get our message out" or "go viral."  That may be a goal to reach - but it is not a strategy.

Working for Mtv has been an education in strategic thinking.  I could talk for a month straight about this topic, but instead I will tell you about a real world example of good creative that had bad strategy.  Recently I have been working on a campaign to encourage college students to finish college.  With the rising cost of education, the crushing employment numbers, and the small but growing club of buzz-worthy .com billionaire dropouts - people have been rethinking the value of college.

The numbers on this are very clear - people do better in life with college degrees by a lot.  But sending the message to the public "You are not the exception, you are the norm so play it safe" is not nearly as compelling as "You are too smart for the system, drop out and you can become a billionaire."

So why not flip the script?  The Gates Foundation were partners on this initiative - and I discovered that because Bill Gates does not have a college degree he is not qualified for an entry level position at Microsoft.  Who would not want to be the young 22 year old who beat Bill Gates at anything?  I wrote several versions of the idea of Bill Gates losing out on a job at his own company because his resume did not even get looked at.  I handed in the creative to my Senior Producer knowing that this idea was a winner that would become viral.

His first sentence crushed my entire case.  "So what happens when this becomes a national talking point and the tech industry takes our side so they lift the college degree requirement?"

I never thought of that and it is absolutely a plausible outcome.  When you are spending millions of dollars to get your message out - there can be no chance that it will lead to your own downfall.  My creative cart got ahead of my strategic horse so it was back to the drawing board to further hone our strategy.

If you want to learn more about how this kind of strategic thinking has come to rule our world with the invention of PR, take the time to watch the BBC documentary "The Century Of The Self."  It covers the many triumphs and downsides of the system that we are all working in today and so much more.  I think it should be required viewing for any young creative professional.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


No matter your industry - there is a good chance you are living with more competition right now than ever before.  I often hear stories of how when I was still in diapers a director could buy a new home in The Hamptons for doing one MCI job.

Things are different now.

With the rise of digital technology there are more people fighting for smaller and smaller pieces of the pie.  On one hand things have never been worse, but on the other we have never had more opportunities.

The A-listers are taking jobs that a few years ago would have been below them, which in tern makes it harder for everybody working all the way down to the high school kid who saved for two summers to buy his first 7d.  With that many desperate creative people willing to do anything to get work it puts the bean counters into a position of power.  So where is your power in all of this?

The ability to pass is in your power.

Creative people live one job at a time - and in this environment just figuring out which job to say yes or no to can feel like almost as much work as the job itself.  Through many years of getting it wrong (and occasionally right) this is what I have learned:

Why am I doing this job?

There are only 3 reasons to say yes to a job.
1) This job is creatively challenging / fulfilling.
2) This job is financially rewarding.
3) This job opens doors that otherwise would be closed.

In my experience getting all three at once doesn't happen every day.  When that happens say yes right away and never look back.  If you get two of the three you are still in pretty good shape.  You will often encounter a job where there is only one reason to do it.  In that case it better be a pretty big reason, and you better make sure that the projects downsides don't come back to bite you.

To survive you need all 3.  You just may have to get different parts from different jobs.

Thursday, February 28, 2013


This post will help anyone trying to make this big life decision.

Recently I got an e-mail from another creative person asking me if he should drop everything and leave for NY or LA to try directing commercials.  Such a huge question - I needed a few days to think about it.  My two year anniversary of moving to NYC is coming up and I remember when I was in his shoes asking myself the same thing.  This is a copy of my response:


Hey (name omitted) - glad you reached out.

So whats next for you?  That depends.  What you are really asking is if taking on steeper risk to try and get bigger rewards is worth it.  Moving to LA or NY it will take a while for you to find your footing.  You will spend a lot of time not working and when you do it will likely be on PA jobs.  It will take you at least a year if you are lucky to build up enough favors before you can even think about working on your own stuff again.  On the flip side - your network will grow more and you will be surrounded by more talented people and competition which will make you grow yourself.  You may even meet some people that can look at your work and point you a good direction.

The best way to get work in a city is to do work in a city.  LA and NY are big towns but you will be surprised how tight nit the production community is.  Everybody knows everybody.  If you don't know anyone working there already then your best bet is to hit up craigslist or the local production listings and offer your services for free.  You will have to spend at least 6 months making no money doing the kind of jobs that nobody else wants to do before people trust you enough to hire you.  There are also a lot of people who will be very eager to abuse your time so you have to always be asking yourself whether it is worth it to you.  

If you are going to direct commercials in NY or LA you will need a more targeted reel.  When it comes to directing national spots nobody gets any points for diversity.  So what is your speciality?  A good reel is considered to be 3-5 spots that showcase your special talent.  Also - don't choose to do specs for Budweiser, Nike, or whatever because they stick out like a sore thumb as spec work.  You want to target smaller brands that don't have iconic marketing already in place.

It sounds like you want to do a lot of things - and if you are serious about directing national commercials you need to let all that other stuff go because it will be more than a full time job getting your reel together and once it is together it will be a huge uphill fight to get it into anyones hands.  It can be done, but there are maybe 60 directors in the country that are working at that level so even if you do everything right there is still a chance you won't get where you want.  

If you find yourself currently happy living in (city omitted) and think you can keep growing there I would stick around.  If you find yourself being suffocated and are compelled to drop everything in your life to go after a long shot than go.  Just know that it's tough and even in the best case scenario competing on that level means living without security.  On the flip side - working in a smaller market can be hard too.