Then punch it out on a storyboard. Talented and successful director, Pascal Leister, shares how a successful viral video got started from a frustrated creative. Get to know LA’s filmmaking scene, and more.
Hometown: Somewhere in the Black Forest, Germany
Current residence: Los Angeles, CA
Areas of Focus: Commercials/Web Video
You were invited to participate in Katalyst Films by Ashton Kutcher. What was that experience like? Did you get a chance to meet Ashton?
At Ideajam, I met 47 of my peers over a weekend. We were divided into six teams and within 48 hours, we had to come up with a pitch and a video for a new media concept. Ashton was very involved in the process, consulting with the teams all weekend long. He is a really smart guy with great insight into the current new media landscape. I was very impressed and inspired by him.
What made you want to become a director?
I grew up watching tons of movies and TV and at some point, I knew that’s where I wanted to work. The narrative genres especially combine all my favorite things – music, visual arts, interesting characters and great stories.
As a director, you are in the middle of this magical process of taking an idea from its inception to a film set and through post production to becoming a reality; and along the way you have to apply a lot of different skill sets to make it work. I saw that when I was working with other directors and I figured that’s exactly where I want to be.
As a renowned film editor, director of web-videos, viral and commercials, what is your opinion on Internet video sharing and content creation? Are there any changes or trajectories that you observe likely to radicalize the way people view film and video contents?
It is true that the Internet, in its current form, democratizes film making. Anybody can put anything out there and find an audience. And in that way I think it makes the entire community more innovative and creative. You can try anything and see if it works. And if it doesn’t, you try something else. The traditional gatekeepers (e.g. studios, networks, distributors) have less power these days.
Even if convergence will bring the classic power players back to dominate the Internet, it is still the only true mass medium that enables two-way communication and true interactivity for the individual. The Internet has enabled short-form content to make a massive comeback. I think that will stay around, but we are also already seeing more and more people watching long-form content on the web. There are really interesting experiments out there, like people telling stories through Twitter, but, in the end, we are all still human (until we become bio-mechanically engineered cyborgs, of course) and humans have been drawn to the same principles of storytelling since the beginning of time. We need archetypes, heroes, villains, mythology and so on, to be truly engaged in a story.
So while I’m excited about new developments like Augmented Reality, I am also excited about being able to draw from thousands of years of storytelling to engage my audience.
How did you start out in this business?
I studied at AFI and then started my career as a terribly overworked and underpaid P.A. on low-budget features. Luckily, I was able to quickly move up, produced commercials and then wanted to work more creatively and became an editor and director. I’m still overworked and underpaid, but I absolutely love what I do and I’m having a lot of fun along the way.
Pascal, I loved your viral on Iphone Vs. Evo. It was absolutely hilarious. I used to work for a cell phone company and we actually had tons of customers who came in asking the same exact questions as the customer in the viral. Where do you get your stories, ideas or scripts? Do you write your own scripts?
Well, Iphone vs. Evo is a live-action remake of the famous Tinywatch Productions Xtranormal cartoon. Legend has it that one of their guys actually worked at Best Buy and wrote this video to deal with his frustrations. Apparently, they fired him for that, but his video became a viral sensation and now they make commercials.
I saw the video back when it became viral and thought it was one of the funniest things I’d seen in a long time on the web. It took me a while, but it finally dawned on me that it would make a fantastic scene for two actors. So I grabbed my friends Tom Choi and Steve Wright and we shot the whole thing in two hours in a cell phone store in L.A. – just as an experiment.
I posted it as a video response to the original and the guys at Tinywatch sent me a comment that they really liked it. That was such a great validation. It’s been going strong since.
I also write my own scripts, and more and more, I partner with writers and actors to come up with a good story. This collaboration is very fruitful and I have a bunch of projects in the pipeline.
Can you tell us more about the production process? How long does it take for your team to turn a script into a film or video production?
That completely varies. I started doing a screening series called 7 Day Shorts at The Second City, where on Friday morning, they give you an audience suggestion and then you have until Wednesday night to write, shoot and edit a short inspired on that word. That’s a seven day turnaround for the whole thing. Other projects take weeks or months to get into the right shape. And when you get into the feature game, which is what I am working on now, it can take years.
How did you get to work on La Torcedura starring Wilmer Valderrama?
When I did my first short, “La Torcedura”, I wanted to come out with a splash. So we wrote this incredibly twisted script and then wondered who we could put in it to give it some visibility. My producer really liked Wilmer Valderrama and we sent the script to his manager. He actually called us and said that Wilmer is really interested, he wants to meet you. We had lunch with him and it went great. We told him we have no money, no trailer for him, no giant craft service or creature comforts and he was totally game. He even brought along his sister Marilyn who we cast as a limo driver and his uncles and friends who were extras in the party scene. He was really fun to work with and perfect for the role.
Do you have any advice you would give to people who want to get into the film industry? Any obstacles they might have to face along the way, concerns, recommendations on how to get their foot in the door?
I don’t think there is one proven way to get into the film industry. What is most important is getting to know people in the industry and finding somebody who will give you a chance. Ultimately, I think you have to know what you want and go for it. And never give up. If people tell you no, move on and find somebody who says yes. If you really want it, you’ll get there.
You describe in SHOOT Publicity Wire, regarding spec spot for Jack in the Box called “Sleuth,” that the biggest production challenge was finding the right combination for actors that make for a believable group of friends. How did you guys end up with the resultant casts? Were there any special technique to it? Did you guys sit them in groups and made them sing Kumbaya together to see if they would get along?
That’s funny! Well, see in this case we were not doing a documentary, so these actors just had to act and look like they were friends. Some call it movie magic… But in all honesty it was a really interesting and fun process. We had gone through two days of casting, seen probably about 100 people and narrowed it down to a few contenders.
I picked my favorites and presented them to Dan Sorgen, the creative director, on the agency side. He then picked totally different favorites, except for the lead. I have a somewhat odd sense of humor and like very quirky characters. So my group of friends was more like a scene from a Coen Brothers or Judd Apatow movie versus his group of friends, which was straight from a Budweiser commercial.
So we discussed what we really need for the spot and put different groups of “friends” together by combining different photos and video of each individual on a web page I created for it. In the end, we came up with the group that’s in the spot. A very believable and likeable group of friends that fits within the context of a Jack in the Box commercial. I’m really glad we did it this way, because i think it made the spot a lot stronger.
What is your next project? What are you working on now?
My next goal is to direct a feature. I wrote a psychological thriller called “Gringo Bay”. I was invited to present the script at IFP’s Emerging Narrative Program and won a Panasonic Digital Filmmaker Award. Now I’m looking for financing. I hear there are some people in Silicon Valley who might be able to help with that. Maybe you can put in a good word for me?