You speak of the value of having a great loyal crew – for sets, make-up, styling etc. How does the collaboration work – are they executing your vision or is everyone contributing ideas for the bigger picture?
When I work I usually have an idea or a vision of what I want to create in my head. I sometimes think of these ideas for months and may have sketched them out or written detailed visions of them on paper. I believe in working with a great team. My team is almost a family to me as most of us have worked together for years and are all very dear to each other.
Although I know pretty much what I want to achieve I am a good listener and a great collaborator. I’m not the type of creative visionary that it’s my way or no way. The team is there to create something moving and emotional together with me.
The set is a respectful, no ego, almost spiritual vibe when we are shooting. We treat the subject whether it be a huge celebrity, sports star or someone from the streets with the utmost respect. I’m usually asking my sitter to give me a bit of a secret of themselves and to achieve this they must feel safe. Every crew member I work with has a very easy, peaceful manner about themselves, we are all very confident in our roles. All of us also understand we get no second chances, we are here for the now and we make it happen now.
How does the creative process work between John Malkovich and yourself? Your work together speaks of a mutual understanding of the absurd, the outrageous, with a good dose of amusement. Do you work on projects together evolving ideas and narratives before the shoot?
I have been so very fortunate to work with such a super actor and human being as John Malkovich. I met and first worked with John about 15 years ago for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company out of Chicago. John and I hit it off well. We created some iconic black and white portraits, he liked the way I worked and we became friends.
A year into the relationship I was given a huge campaign from Nikon for whom I’m now an ambassador. It was a portrait campaign in which I hired John to be my subject. We went off to Croatia and shot in Europe’s oldest children’s theatre. We achieved amazing portraits with John being open to everything that I posed to him.
John has been back into the studio four or five times since then and we continue to work on a body of work that will begin to make its rounds in the gallery world in 2014. So far John hasn’t said no to any of my requests which I must admit can get pretty absurd, risky and down right freakish. What amazes me so much with John is watching him transform himself into every character I have asked for. He is so damn brilliant in his skills that he has had the whole set in complete awe in the way he transforms himself.
Effects often become part of the concept and narrative in your films – do these evolve after the shoot in post-production or are they a key part of your story-telling from the outset? Do you storyboard everything in detail?
In my motion work I use effects to generate emotion and feelings, whether it be grotesqueness, fear, or just plain strangeness. I usually have an idea of the effect or application I want to see in my films. I work closely with a dear friend and editor Josh Bodnar of Whitehouse.
We usually have a discussion about the film and what I want to achieve in the film. I give him a direction or an idea of where I want this thing to go often using examples from horror films or comic book scenarios. I may jot a few things down and send them out to Josh. Josh is a powerhouse visionary and brings so much to the feel of the film. He listens well then goes to work. We may have a few conversations along the way.
Josh also has a great pool of VFX people that he loves to work with, he brings them in and it all gets very collaborative. Magic happens also when you get a chance to work on a piece that John Malkovich has offered to work on. Everyone steps up about 100 degrees and gives so much more to be part of these short films. It’s all a give give, win win situation for all of us. How often are we given carte blanche to do whatever we feel like doing? Mundane or mediocre just isn’t part of our vocabulary when we get the chance to work together. Many of the effects evolve in post but are spoken of prior to post getting started.
It’s all about collaborating and letting great talents do what they know best. I almost always storyboard spots and short films, it just helps to make a clearer picture for everyone working on the set. It also makes it so much clearer for what I need to shoot to make sure my editor has everything he needs to tell the story.
Dream Bigger Dreams with Nick Cave is in a completely different style and tone to the Malkovich films. How did this production evolve?
My short film Dream Bigger Dreams came out of directing eight art films for the wonderful, great artist Nick Cave for the Lille France Arts festival. Nick is a visionary genius. He had these ideas and it was my job to listen and to translate these ideas to film, to tell his vision and put them into story form, giving them a beginning, middle and an end.
The films were brilliant, fun and entertaining if you were at a museum but for me they were just a bit too long to watch if you didn’t have an afternoon to pass the time away. I worked closely with my art director friend Will Perry and Utopic editing house and we edited them down to a two-minute short film. It’s whimsical, crazy journey through the mind of Nick Cave.
Was it an easy transition for you from shooting stills to making films?
I have been a stills photographer for nearly 35 years now. It’s something I do with deep love and passion. Making pictures is what I do, it makes me happy to make pictures. I’m a visionary, I see things then I create what I see in my head. In some ways it’s easier to tell a story in motion because I have a minute, two minutes, five minutes to tell that story. With stills it’s one shot and it had better be good.
As in working on a huge commercial stills campaign, motion is all about collaborating with a great team and delegating the right job to the right people. It takes an army to make motion and you either run that army harshly or as I prefer I use a soft tone and make everyone heroes on the set. You get the best from everyone that way. Love wins when creating great work.
Would you like to direct a feature?
I know without doubt that I will do a feature in my life time but I must be ready for the commitment. I can’t even think of going forth with a feature without knowing that I will need at least a two-year period to dedicate myself to the film. I just can’t imagine doing anything mediocre or that doesn’t move people emotionally.
I have been looking at a few scripts that people have been sending me and just haven’t felt moved enough to carry on the responsibility to direct the story. I must have a deep emotional tie to the story, something that will make people sit and think about our purpose here and hopefully how we can change something here for the better.
I don’t see myself doing comedy or fiction, I want to tell the truth as bad and as ugly as it may be. A social documentary that kind of fucks us all up in the head and gets us to make a change or a stance or just to maybe realize we have the resources to make a difference. Blah blah blah… you know the same as everyone else, we all want to do something that changes the world to make it a better place for our families to live and to give everyone the same chance to live well.
How would you describe your creative process – are you thinking technically and creatively at the same time or does one follow the other?
I’m much more of a creative beast and leave the technical to crew. I have never been a huge equipment geek. I understand what I need to know about my equipment, its capabilities, its strengths and minuses but I don’t need to be the guy behind my motion cameras. However, in the stills world I’m always the guy behind the camera. I see the shot in my head and I need to execute it.
Testing is a huge part of getting what I want from my head to the print or the take. I love testing, playing and experimenting. Yes I can loosen up and just let the creative juices flow and let magic happen, I can be very spontaneous but this usually happens after I know I have the shot in the bag. I do not do things by chance in my professional world, in my own world that’s a whole different story.
Do you ever separate from your camera. Are you always framing and observing life?
I live in a very sick world of constantly framing things up, looking for the shots all the time. I wander constantly in my own little world looking at interesting people and real life situations. I love to see how people act, react, be, and how their emotions are effected. I use much of what I learn from observing people or just recognizing it in myself. If I can get in touch with how I would feel under any circumstance I can probably get my actor or model to feel the same emotion.
I do carry a camera with me most of the time, I love to document life around me. My camera also acts as my ticket into a situation, it gives me access. It’s very funny to me the amount of times I get asked by strangers to take their photo with out them knowing that’s what I have done for my 35 year career. I usually chop their heads off in the frames or I crop it in a way that will make them think they had a monkey take their photo. I’m terrible on vacations as I never record what everyone else records on vacation. My beautiful wife is the subject I shoot on vacation more than the environment itself.
John Malkovich, Butterflies
Director – Sandro Miller
Editor – Josh Bodnar / The Whitehouse
Composer – Matt Hutchinson
Design – Scholar
Nick Cave Project
Client: Nick Cave
Director: Sandro Miller
Production Company: Utopic
Creative Director: Will Perry
Editor: Jan Maitland
Music: Yessian Music
Composer: Mark Chu
Sound Designer: Jeff Dittenber
CCO: Brian Yessian
Head of Production: Michael Yessian
X Box Kinect, KO
Executive Creative Director: Geoff Edwards / DOJO
Creative: Chriss Masse
Producer: David Verhoef
Editor: Jay Herda / David, Inc
Production: Cap Gun
Nikon, Joy Ride
Editor: Alaster Jordan / Whitehouse
Production: Cap Gun
View the Behind the Scenes Video shot by the Nikon Crew – https://www.vimeo.com/36306101