How was it to grow up with hippie parents on a farm?
There was no TV, and there was lots of time. My lasting memory of childhood as opposed to adulthood is having vast stretches of time; time spent making paper dolls, miniature worlds, bows and arrows, teepees in the forest and reading – endless hours of reading. I was and still am, a huge reader. I was either reading or wandering around imagining myself in a movie – the heroine of my own life.
Books were my TV, I read and then reread. I fully escaped into the worlds of The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie. I read them over and over again. But even more profound were the movies. Going to the movies blew my mind. I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered from the way seeing Mary Poppins and then E.T. affected me as a child.
I was obsessed.
Considering your involvement in design and photography, was it always your intention to direct at some point?
It wasn’t at first. When I moved to New York and started working at MTV, I was a bit of a country bumpkin – I really had no idea that directing was something I could do. I was so blown away by the whole industry and being allowed into it that it took quite a while before I found the confidence to think “this is something I might do.” I was lucky enough to work at MTV at a time where we were really encouraged to make things. I bought the first prosumer Sony video camera, started shooting things, then I learned how to edit. So in a way, it just caught up with me.
You once said “You don’t need to make stuff up. You only need to observe it.” Are there any particular real-life stories that have inspired you creatively?
I grew up with a mother who LOVES to watch people, and who does it quite shamelessly and rather publicly – definitely embarrassing when I was a child. But, I learned from a pro. A lot of what I do when making commercials is filling in the details – the details that make a script come to life. I still maintain that if you keep your eyes open, and look at the small, funny and unusual things people do, wear and say, it’ll often be weirder, better and funnier than anything you can make up or find on the internet.
I almost always end up bringing a part of me and my personal experience to everything I do. I had a great English teacher in secondary school who always pushed us (even though we all thought our lives were so boring at that point) to bring a part of ourselves to what we were doing. Filling in the back-story and figuring out why people behave the way they do is what makes a great character. I bring some small story from my life or the lives of my friends or family to most of the things I do. Of course, the short film I made, “The Early Birds,” is an example that immediately springs to mind. The film is about a set of parents who sleep in one morning… meanwhile their kids set off on a morning adventure unsupervised by grown-ups. I made this when my children were very young, and most of my waking hours were spent, firstly wishing for more sleep, and secondly watching children roam, and thinking about their independence and freedom. So yes, it’s all there, and as a filmmaker, the subject matter I always gravitate to are the small details of everyday life, skewing them into a story that people will want to watch is the challenge.
You started out working in on-air promotions for MTV and developing characters like “Chunky Pam” and the “Intro Guy.” What are the biggest benefits or negatives of doing both ideation and directing versus directing someone else’s creative ideas?
Well, both of these projects came about in very organic ways. With “Intro Guy,” I filmed my friend Clay doing this crazy dance for a VMA promo – he was always an inspired dancer and my assignment was to create a 10-second piece for Best Dance Video. From there, the project grew and turned into “Intro Guy.” It was a great collaboration and my first directing job… after that, it’s all I wanted to do.
“Chunky Pam” was an office joke – we used to sit around in the depressing windowless break room, eating M&M’s and drinking flat stale diet coke from the soda machine talking about “Chunky Pam.” Then my friend Geremy, an amazing musician and writer, wrote the song, and I pitched the idea of bringing it and the character to life for MTV. They went for it.
I have such fond memories of both of these projects, I loved this way of working and I think the constant back and forth, right up to the minute you shoot, generally makes for a better creative. Having said that, I’ve recently had the opportunity to do just this in a more traditional advertising setting. On a couple of jobs recently, I’ve continued to work on the script with both the advertising agency and the client right up to the last minute.
Wes Anderson once cited Star Wars as an early influence of his. Do you have any surprising sources of inspiration?
I’m going to have to go back to Mary Poppins and E.T.
Have you encountered any ‘happy accidents’ or serendipity in your work, and do you think there is anything that you can do to foster more of it into your creative process?
That’s a funny question. The whole process of making a commercial or a film is so much about prep. Everything is talked about and planned and prepped until you’d think there is no stone left unturned – there’s a whole production staff whose jobs are to make sure nothing unexpected happens, and then inevitably something does. You lose your location (this happened to me in Mexico City and the second place we found was so unbelievably much better), you lose your actor (they booked a movie) or something equally unplanned crops up. It’s a good life lesson: You can only plan so much, and then come the happy (and sometimes unhappy) accidents. It’s important to me to keep an open mind. When the prop you thought was six inches tall arrives on set and it’s four feet tall – you figure something out, and sometimes the thing you figure out is even better than the original idea.
As a director, there’s nothing more fun than being on set with a great actor. You try something out that was never even in the script, and it ends up being in the final cut – those are the happiest accidents. In fact, I’m often reminded when I’m on set or in post production of what a privilege it is to be working with all these amazing people, who are working so hard and bringing all their talents to bring your ideas to life.
Also, I met my husband on set – does that count as a ‘happy accident’ or serendipity?
What kind of films do you feel like you draw on the most?
My taste in movies is not that sophisticated. I love a good story. As I’ve mentioned above, it started with E.T. and probably went directly to the John Hughes movies. I have excellent taste in books and am actually fairly well educated, but when it comes to movies, I like thrillers like the Bourne movies, and newspaper movies (in particular, Spotlight), but I also have a real soft spot for Bridget Jones. I love a Mike Leigh movie, and, in more recent times, I’m a huge fan of Jill Soloway’s Transparent – I find it to be such an amazing glimpse into a particular section of modern day life. I don’t know how funny it’s supposed to be, and when I showed it to my mother she was slightly appalled, but it totally cracks me up.
What are the most significant or exciting changes you’ve witnessed in the industry since you began working? What do you see happening in the future of commercials, or what do you hope happens?
It’s exciting for me that people are talking about why there aren’t more women directors. I’m a comedy director, true-to-life, art directed comedy – that has a heart. But for a lot of years, I’ve seen kids, food and cleaning products. I have shot in more kitchens than I care to mention – and while I’m happy to do this work and very lucky to have been working, it’s had an impact on my reel. When I started doing this, there was still an idea in the industry that women aren’t that funny. I think that idea is finally gone, so now I’d like to be considered for the scripts that often go to men, the funny ones… and I’d take a look at beer and cars too. If the conversation that’s being had right now about women directors opens up a few more possibilities for me, I wouldn’t say no to that.
Who’s your favorite movie star from another era?
If you were advising a young Lena Beug, what survival advice would you give for what seems to be an increasingly competitive field?
I think I would probably say, “Go for it, but get a thick skin, get used to rejection, get used to fighting for what you want and don’t lose your sense of humor.”
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