Maddy: How many times does he get squished by the couch? Michael: Not as many times as I've watched this music video. #Jamiroquai10 hours ago
Me in dumpling formation, c. 1986. Photo credit: My mom
I was born in Kansas City in 1985.
My mother is a neurologist and my father was a neurologist. He died when I was 17, I never met him. When I was a child, I wasn't allowed to play outside because I might get kidnapped. I would draw and paint and read and write stories. I liked to read books about the American Civil War, World War I, or World War II. I also liked reading fairy tales. I also subscribed to Nickelodeon Magazine. My favorite TV show was Ren & Stimpy. My favorite video games were Super Mario Bros. 3 and Donkey Kong Country.
When I was a teenager, I watched a lot of AMC, TCM, and MTV. I listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and anything that was put out by Decca records in the 30's and '40s. My favorite movie was Rebel Without a Cause, and my favorite books were written by Colette. I was the Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine and school newspaper. I studied opera, and played the saxophone and piano. I took myself very seriously. I lived in Racine, Wisconsin. I spent a lot of time on The Internet.
I went to college at The University of Chicago. I studied history, philosophy, and aesthetics. I thought I wanted to become an actor. I studied Greek Drama and Chekhov. I discovered clown and what Americans call "physical theatre," but what the rest of the world just calls theatre. I finished school early to train professionally with Double Edge Theatre, a small ensemble theatre company located on a 105-acre farm in rural Massachusetts, where I learned to do things like walk on 6-foot wooden spools and run barefoot through the snow singing Medieval Spanish Madrigals.
2007: Production still from my University of Chicago thesis performance "AGON", based on Aeschylus' Oresteia. Photo credit: Yi Zhao
Then I went to Italy to train in mask and mime with a commedia dell'Arte company called Teatro Punto. Then I went to South Africa to teach at an international theatre conference. I came back to Chicago and won some awards. I started curating little art exhibits in my apartment. Then I curated a big public festival. I performed in other people's dance and theatre pieces. I studied Butoh and Tae Kwon Do. I produced a play, it got horrible reviews. But I didn't care. I only wished it had premiered in Cracow or Paris or somewhere where the local theatre critics had some fucking respect for avant garde performance! I was maybe a little bit sour about it. I decided to stop making theatre and do something else.
2008: Production still from an original play I produced, "ANGELUS NOVUS". Photo credit: Emma Bee Bernstein
I started teaching myself how to make websites and videos. I made only animated videos at first because I couldn't afford a camera. I became good at making websites, people started paying me money to do it. I made a business out of it. I had a lot of clients. It was better than working at a bakery, or maybe not but it paid better. I started watching a LOT of Vimeo. I started studying Muay Thai (kickboxing) because I wanted to KICK ASS. I incorporated my website business into a real company - an LLC.
While I’d already been experimenting with video since I was 15, it wasn’t until this point - almost a decade later - that I began seriously considering a career as a filmmaker. I’ve always loved film, but up until this point I assumed it was already “too late” for me, since I’d already wasted my formative college years investigating something other than film. I assumed I was so far behind the learning curve that I would never catch up.
I was cast as the protagonist in an indie feature directed by a friend from college. It was my first experience working on a feature film, and while I’d already felt the impetus to switch gears (from theatre and live performance to video and digital media), it wasn’t until working on-location for 2 weeks that I realized how rewarding, challenging, and accessible the process could be.
2009: Still from feature film "Schizcago", dir. Ben Kolak.
Shortly after wrapping on the feature, I bought a camera and started posting shorts to Vimeo, a social website for filmmakers. I bought a nice camera, the same one everyone else on Vimeo was using. I was so intimidated, it took me 6 months before I finally found the courage to start using it, because I didn't know how. I taught myself how to use the camera by watching tutorials on the Internet.
My videos never got more than a few sporadic views, until I participated in and won a contest held by an established DSLR guru who was also a prominent Vimeo user. My video got thousands of views and hundreds of likes and comments. It seemed like everyone on Vimeo was watching me. I started gaining followers en masse. So I made more videos. And I gained more followers.
Fueled by this response, I decided to dedicate myself seriously to the craft of filmmaking, and began producing videos more deliberately and methodically. I moved to LA.
2010: Still from "What Does Your Moustache Say About You?", part of a very popular series of videos I created for the Movember campaign.
I got an email from a producer saying that she’d been following my work and wanted to produce a feature. I said I didn't think I was ready for a feature yet, and was already in the process of developing a new narrative short. She offered to produce that instead.
What I experienced over the course of that year was a crash-course in filmmaking from people who were way more experienced and knowledgeable than I. Aside from the technicalities, the most valuable lesson I learned was that the act of writing and directing are inextricably linked. I had co-conceived of the project with a first-time screenwriter; I had naively volunteered to direct a screenplay which hadn't yet been written, and which, by the time production rolled around, wasn't quite finished - we couldn't agree on an ending! So, naturally: there was no ending. The fatal weakness of this film was its narrative. I learned this the hard way. I decided I ought to take responsibity for this by writing my own material from then on.
2011: Still from "The Animals". The rain was a big surprise but contributed a lot to the tone of this scene, much of which was improvised.
Another important lesson I learned was that I lacked the vocabulary and experience necessary to effectively collaborate with a skilled cinematographer. Though I had been an agressive picture-taker my whole life, I didn't really know how to properly operate a camera. I was just faking it. I realized how audacious I had been to try and direct a cinematographer when I could barey appreciate what it meant to frame and capture a photographic image with my own hands.
2011: Behind-the-scenes of the "No Perch "shoot. The fact that I was stupid enough to try this proves how absolutely clueless (and reckless) I was.
I decided the next step was for me to master basic photography techniques. I asked my mom to send me her broken 35mm SLR (c. 1985) so I could fix it and learn to shoot fully manually - on film. I learned a lot through trial and error, but film stock and processing was so expensive that I felt I could only afford to shoot on "special" occassions - the obvious one being travel. I progressed very slowly.
A few months later, a friend persuaded me to join Instagram, and something amazing happened: I started shooting every day. I began to focus very intensely on composition and content. I also finally learned, thanks to the limitations of shooting on my smartphone camera, how to work with light. Most of the photos in my portfolio are Instagrams. Some photographers may think shooting on an iPhone is very amateurish and diminishes the quality and value of an image. I disagree. Now I know what to look for and how to get it - on everything from a $50K professional cinema camera to a drugstore disposable and everything in between. Most importantly, I'm now much more confident when it comes to articulating my vision to another photographer.
2011: Behind-the-scenes for the "OCCUPY: Citizen Journalist SuperSuit" shoot - trying to keep my arm in the shot as I whack the talent with a plastic bat.
Today I'm in development for a narrative feature titled LUZON and in production for a documentary webseries called WOMEN OF THE FUTURE. (Thats's a fancy way of saying I'm in the middle of writing a screenplay and shooting a TV show.) Both of these projects are taking a really long time, which is not something I am used to. The estimated timeline for conception-to-completion of both of these projects is 3-5 years: by far, the longest I will have ever worked on a single project. Another thing I am learning is patience.
2012: Here is a drawing a made of some words of encouragement I've received from some really influential people in the film industry.
After a year-and-a-half in LA, I realized that most people there see cinema as an industry and not as an art. So I moved to Oakland, where I lived in an historic 100-year-old Victorian house with three Node.js hackers, five chickens, and a coonhound. After six months in Oakland, I realized that the overwhelming majority of my collaborators and friends were in NYC and not in the bay. So I moved to Brooklyn, where I now live and work as a professional filmmaker, photographer, and writer. When I'm not working on my two main projects, I cook food, read books, play music, and work towards achieving my lifelong dream of becoming a bona-fide polyglot.
2012: Hangin with my coonhound, Coco, at Shadetree, on the Oakland waterfront. Photo credit: Olivia Wright
The moral of the story is that I am still learning, and that with time and effort, anyone can learn how to do or make anything if you put your mind to it. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Brooklyn, New York, USA
Last edited: July 23, 2013
3rd edit: June 3, 2013
2nd edit: August 1, 2012
Originally published: September 21, 2011