Welcome. Great to be back after our Memorial Day break here in the US. This week, you’re invited to have a virtual drink with the immensely talented music video and commercial director Jeff Stewart. (You may already feel like he’s a drinking buddy by now; Jeff’s been supplying our Friday drink recipes. Perhaps I should have said immensely multi-talented.)
When I first met Jeff, I was already impressed by his work. Then he showed me his director’s look book for the indie feature “Exit 166,” written by James Tonin, and it blew me away. His look book perfectly captured the look, feel, tone, and mood of his approach to the material. He conveyed his passion and plan for the film so clearly, it felt like he could start shooting immediately. I thought, “This guy’s got ‘it’” – that “it” where talent, intelligence, and confidence come together. And while many of Jeff’s talents are innate, he says he owes a lot to another impressive director, Marc Webb (“The Amazing Spider-man,” “500 Days of Summer“).
With “The Amazing Spider-Man” coming out this summer, Marc Webb has leaped onto the directors A-list. It didn’t happen overnight. He directed more than 100 music videos, everyone from Green Day to Fergie, before his 2009 feature debut with “500 Days of Summer.”
“When I was in film school, this director nobody had heard of, Marc Webb, took me out to lunch and we talked music videos,” Jeff said. “He invited me to spend a lot of time on his sets and ask him whatever I wanted. He was an incredibly generous guy.” Marc was more than generous – he helped Jeff land his first music video, Squad Five-O’s “Bye American.”
“The band, Squad Five-O, were these punk rock guys,” Jeff said. “They were really political. I thought their video should be about youth voting. I had the idea. I pitched the idea. The band and the label loved it. I got to do whatever I wanted with it. That was just fantastic. To be able to do something for television for the first time and make a political statement was a high.”
Jeff’s Squad Five-O video gained fans quickly. MTV embraced the video as part of its Rock the Vote campaign, and it played on the network constantly during the 2003-04 U.S. election cycle.
Jeff learned a lot on the Squad Five-O production. “I was so inexperienced, but I had Marc backing me up,” Jeff said. “Marc would read my treatment and ask me, ‘How are you going to show that?’ Sometimes I had thought about it. Sometimes I hadn’t. I’d say, ‘I’m going to do this, this, and this.’ Marc would say, ‘OK, that sounds good.’ Having him to go over everything with me in preproduction helped me understand how to plan more thoroughly.”
The Squad Five-O music video ended up being Jeff’s master’s thesis project for USC film school and launched his career. His mentor relationship early on sharpened his ability to convey a clear visual treatment before a shoot, execute his plan during his shoot, and deliver a stellar cut to the record label in post. Beyond the directing skills, Jeff learned the subtle art of negotiation.
“Figuring out how to negotiate quickly and easily to get what you want, that’s really the job,” Jeff said. “On every project there’s always some challenge. You always learn something new.”
After shooting one of his videos, Jeff anticipated a particularly tough negotiation with the label. He went into the edit bay and cut the music video exactly the way he wanted it. Then he asked the editor to find six of the worst camera errors in the entire shoot. Jeff had the editor insert those shots at random intervals in the video. Jeff shipped that cut to the label. The label came back with nine notes. Of course, six were the fouled selects Jeff wanted to cut anyway. He conceded to those notes, which gave him more leverage to resist the three notes he found unpalatable. Thrilled to have those awful shots out of the video, the label let their other notes go. Jeff turned in his true first cut. The record label went away happy and so did Jeff.
In 2006, Jeff directed a video for Powerman 5000‘s “Wild World,” which got nominated for an MTV2 best video of the year award. Off this video, Jeff started booking commercial work.
“Commercials and music videos are a totally different mind set,” Jeff said. “Music videos are the cult of the director. Directors pitch the idea. They create the treatment so they know exactly what they want. Everybody has agreed to it. The band, the record label, the managers – they’ve all signed on to do this thing the director has envisioned. So if you’re directing a music video, you have a lot of power. You still have to negotiate, but it’s largely about what you want to make.
“Commercials are really different. An ad agency has come up with the concept. They’ve written the script and they’re handing it to you as the director. They aren’t really interested in your creative input. They want to make sure what they’ve given to you translates from the page into a motion visual,” Jeff said. “The production books for commercials are massive. Literally, I’ve gotten them where there are 100 still photos I need to replicate.”
One of the most difficult aspects of commercial directing involves trying to help the ad agency when it doesn’t know it needs help. “They’re arguing from an emotional standpoint,” Jeff said. “They’re thinking, ‘I pitched this idea to the client so we’re going do it exactly like this.’ And sometimes they’ll stand their ground even if it’s not working. I’ll say, ‘Why don’t we try it this way one time.’ Then I know I’ll have footage for later when other people are watching it and there are more voices involved. You always want other options.”
“Mad Men” aside, I can’t help but wonder about negotiating with music artists. We’ve all heard stories of the bands who leave hotel rooms in shambles and have extravagant riders in their contracts for particular lilies or Red Bull chilled to a specific temperature in their dressing rooms. So I asked Jeff for his take on notorious rock stars like Tommy Lee.
“Tommy Lee is a giant teddy bear of niceness,” Jeff said. “We met a bunch of times before we shot his video.”
Tommy Lee and Jeff hit it off so well, Tommy asked Jeff to come to house and hang out. From this gentle invitation, the two came up with a not-so-gentle way to use Tommy’s pool in the video. You can see for yourself below. The bond Jeff forms with artists helps him create unique videos designed to showcase the artists and evoke emotions with striking visuals.
“I like to meet with the artists before shooting,” Jeff said. “I like to see a live concert because you get a sense of how they perform, what their fans respond to. Some bands are very static. Others jump off equipment or the stage. You need to know who these people are. And they’re just going to like you after all these meetings. They’re going to be on board for whatever you want to do. They’re going to trust you.”
I believe this Jeff’s strongest gift. From Marc Webb to Tommy Lee, Jeff’s approach helps people to genuinely like him. Sounds simple, maybe. But in this town, getting folks to truly like and trust you can seem insurmountable, especially when you’re just starting out. Having an established director take you under his or her wing is rare.
Jeff also fosters a similar relationship and trust with his crew. “On the Powerman video, we were going to go over by 30 minutes one day,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t in the budget. I was literally being paid nothing for that particular job. I just really wanted to do the video, so there was no way to pay the crew more. Everyone who was there I’d worked with before. So I got everyone on the floor and said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. We aren’t going to make this day. If you guys are willing to stay an extra 30 minutes, I’ll buy you all drinks later. We can’t afford to pay you anything extra, and I get it if that doesn’t work for you. You’ll still come back to tomorrow and do this shoot, but I’d love it if you could stay.’ Every single crew member stayed,” Jeff said.
“People are willing to put in that extra effort if they like you,” he said. “They’ll come up with ideas they’re willing to share with you. If you’re mean to people, they aren’t going to give you that brilliant gem of an idea because they’re afraid they’re going to get yelled at just for talking to you. It defeats the purpose for being in this collaborative, creative industry.”
Now, Jeff is collaborating with Atlantic Records on his next project, a reality TV show. The show combines two of his passions – music and cooking. I’m reminded how many directors love to cooking and food, including the legendary Francis Ford Coppola. A major part of a director’s task is bringing the perfect elements together at the same moment so an audience can enjoy them. Cooking seems a natural extension of a director’s passions.
An aside – Mr. Coppola’s also known for his wine. As I mentioned, Jeff has been Glass half-full in Hollywood’s marvelous bartender. If you’ve tried any of his recipes, you know his drinks are sublime. The son of two scientists – Jeff’s father is a nuclear physicist and his mother is an lunar geologist – he mixes the perfect chemical combinations to create rock star cocktails. Check back on Fridays for more drinks.
Back to Jeff, who remains inspired Marc Webb’s generous spirit. When I asked Jeff if he had anything he wanted to promote, he said without hesitation: “Being willing to mentor people at any level of the industry. Whether you’re really successful or not, you can take a newer person and help him or her. I believe giving back to the industry is really important.”
I pressed him on it – why is it important?
“People did it for me,” he said. For Jeff, it’s that simple.
Finding a mentor can be one of the best ways to stay positive in this town. Also, realizing your mentor doesn’t have to be an A-lister – yet. Anyone and everyone you meet could be on the rise so don’t dismiss someone because he or she isn’t a household name – yet. Learn from each person you meet.
With Jeff’s request in mind, Glass half-full in Hollywood will feature “The Art of Mentorship: Getting One and Being One” this summer. So stay tuned.
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