Sunday, May 27, 2018
  • Monday, Oct. 30, 2017
Up-and-Coming Directors: The Fall Collection
Sonja Sohn
Promising talent poised to make mark for many seasons to come

SHOOT’s fall ensemble of up-and-coming directors includes a noted actress who’s making her directorial debut with an upcoming HBO documentary, and a music video/spot/short film helmer who has diversified into longer form via a Netflix TV series he co-created.

Also in the mix is a still photographer who has successfully diversified into moving imagery, directing spots, shorts and branded fare on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another filmmaker brings agency creative chops and BBC production experience to her first production company affiliation in the U.S.

And rounding out our coterie of talent is a director at one with nature, adept at the deployment of drones, and who made a major mark with a short film that scored on the festival circuit.

Here’s our fall collection of several promising directors to watch:

Sonja Sohn
A passion project uncovered an unexpected career passion for Sonja Sohn, best known for her starring role as Detective Kima Greggs on all five seasons of the acclaimed HBO drama The Wire. The project she pursued, the documentary Baltimore Rising, is set to debut on HBO next month. The film, which marks Sohn’s directorial debut, follows activists, police officers, community leaders and gang affiliates who struggle to hold Baltimore together in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year-old African-American who was arrested by the police in April 2015 for possessing what was alleged to be an illegal switchblade. While being transported in a police van, Gray fell into a coma and was taken to a trauma center. He died a week later due to injuries to his spinal cord.

Grey’s hospitalization and death triggered a series of protests. After his funeral, civil unrest intensified, with a state of emergency declared by Governor Larry Hogan as the city waited to hear the fate of the six police officers involved in the incident.

Baltimore Rising taps into different perspectives on Gray’s passing, shedding light on the incident, its impact on different segments of an already damaged community, and the long simmering issues involved.

Sohn felt a compelling need to tell Baltimore’s story, one that she felt hadn’t been told relative to the Gray case. Sohn’s work on The Wire in a sense informed her. The Wire after all was set and produced in Baltimore, a community for which she developed a strong affinity. “Playing a character, being in the city, I got a whiff of the under-served communities of Baltimore. I got a sense of what folks are dealing with there.”

When The Wire cast went on a voter empowerment tour in 2008 with the National Urban League, Sohn saw the impact the show had on people, including those who were living in impoverished neighborhoods. She enlisted the support of cast and crew on The Wire to devise ways in which they could use their creative resources and media access as a force to help those in need. When the series ended, Sohn remained in Baltimore where she started the nonprofit Rewired for Change which works to help at-risk youth, families and communities.

Delving into how Baltimore was coping with the Freddie Gray case was important enough for Sohn to take a leap of faith, jumping over to the other side of the camera to direct. “I had a deep intuitive sense that the time was now to tell this story. Directing had seemed a bit intimidating to me at first but my belief in the story was enough to override any fear or hesitation.”

That trepidation has given way to the aforementioned, unanticipated career passion as she now sees directing “as a path for me,” while she continues to be active as an actor, and returns to her early roots as a writer. Sohn was one of the writers and cast members on Slam which won a Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination in ‘99 for Best Debut Performance. Sohn’s recent acting roles span such series as Hulu’s Shut Eye, Marvel/Netflix’s Luke Cage, and Showtime’s The Chi.

The executive producers of Baltimore Rising are Sohn, Marc Levin (writer/director/producer on Slam), Anthony Hemingway, George Pelecanos and Mark Taylor.

Tony Yacenda
The latest new wrinkle in Tony Yacenda’s directorial career is Netflix’s American Vandal, a tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek parody of crime dramas.

Yacenda teamed with Dan Perrault to create the mockumentary series which investigates a prankster crime in a high school parking lot—27 faculty vehicles are spray painted with images of giant male private parts. A high school student appears guilty of the crime and is left to prove his innocence by exposing the conspiracy that landed him in hot water.

Yacenda, who’s directed all eight episodes of American Vandal, describes its premise as “absurd” while embracing a prevalent reaction he’s received along the lines of “I can’t believe this is a TV show but it’s way better than I expected it to be.”  The show has garnered a stellar 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Indeed the satirical comedy is much darker and subtler than one might suppose, and it underscores Yacenda’s penchant for finding ways to get laughs that aren’t telegraphed ahead of time. “There are certain rhythms that audiences have become accustomed to over the years,” he said. “I look to play off of that, and to occasionally land a comedic beat in a place where the audience doesn’t see it coming.”

Yacenda has been making movies since he was a kid, creating his high school video yearbook, among other projects. He went to film school at Emerson College in Boston and began his career doing some production assistant work, and then fashioning some comedy sketches for consumption on YouTube. Generating millions of hits, the comedy content he created and directed got noticed by College Humor, Comedy Central Digital and Funny Or Die, generating some freelance directing gigs.

He also became active in music videos, with one in particular, “Save Dat Money” for Lil Dicky and featuring Fetty Wap, gaining the attention of The Directors Bureau which recently signed him for commercials and branded content. The Directors Bureau is the spotmaking home of such notables as Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Gia Coppola and Sofia Coppola.

On the strength of another Lil Dicky clip, “Pillow Talking”—an existential rant on the military, dinosaurs and God—Yacenda earned a slot in Saatchi & Saatchi’s New Directors Showcase earlier this year.

Yacenda’s slate of quirky commercial content includes projects for such brands as Hyundai, Lammily, NBC Online and Nexium.

American Vandal marks Yacenda’s first foray into longer form fare. He has secured UTA as his agent for theatrical features and TV.

Leonn Ward
SheSays and The Voice of A Woman this year staged their inaugural VOWSS event at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. VOWSS screens a selection of the best short films—commercials, branded content, dramas, documentaries, art/experimental-films and music-videos—created by women internationally. Among the work showcased was Irish director Leonn Ward’s Daily Threads short, part of Nowness’ The Way We Dress series.

Produced by RSA Films in 2016, Daily Threads marked Ward’s directorial debut, a successful diversification extending her creative reach beyond still photography. In the short, women are asked about how style impacts their sense of self. “The more I spoke to the girls I filmed, the more we all realized it really doesn’t matter how much a piece of clothing costs—whether it’s cheap or expensive,” related Ward. “Clothes are the armor you put on to face the world, and you really can’t put a price on that.”

Further underscoring Ward’s meaningful plunge into filmmaking is her current directing of an ongoing undisclosed project via RSA for Wieden+Kennedy, Portland, Ore. She has already helmed her first full fledged TV commercial but is not yet at liberty to publicly discuss details of that assignment. Additionally, Ward recently directed an online ad for Isabel Marant.

This flow of directing credits that began last year reflects a continuation of Ward’s ongoing relationship with RSA which began back in 2014 when the London office took her on for print/still representation. Susie Babchick of RSA’s photographic division was drawn to Ward’s body of work spanning fine art, editorial and ad photography.

Conversely, Ward was immediately drawn to Babchick upon meeting her. “I felt a comfort with her. I lost my mom when I was a teenager. It was an empty part of my life. Susie fell into that role for me. I knew she would look after me.”

Prior to that, though, Ward exhibited her own measure of self-sufficiency, continually shooting and experimenting. Sought after for her affinity for capturing a vibrant intimacy that puts individual style and character at the heart of fashion photography, Ward worked for the likes of Vogue, Topshop and Stella McCartney.

Ward’s experimental endeavors included extensive work street casting youngsters and teens, lensing them in London, working with her stylist Luci Ellis, an ongoing collaborator to this day. “She’d get clothes, I’d get the film and we hit the streets, dressing kids up who seemed interesting, making up editorial,” recalled Ward. “We were street casting while others were using models.”

Adidas saw this work and was favorably impressed with the fresh look, talent and authenticity that Ward had captured. Adidas awarded her a global campaign, Ward’s first big break on the ad front.

More print ad work came Ward’s way but she felt the need for caring representation, a search which eventually led her to connect with Babchick.

Ward and Babchick were deliberate about diversifying beyond still fare into moving images. Ward had opportunities to do so but resisted until she felt the time was right. It was almost as if she were trying to recreate a spark akin to what got her into still photography when one day she just picked up a camera and started out in earnest. A visit to Los Angeles yielded that moment for moving imagery and soon Ward went everywhere with a video camcorder. She was continually shooting for herself, building experience on both sides of the Atlantic. Splitting her time now between L.A. and London, Ward has made inroads into commercials, branded content and shorts, sometimes in tandem with her also shooting the print ad portion of campaigns.

Mary-Sue Masson
Having recently landed her first commercial production affiliation in the U.S.—coming aboard the roster of CoMPANY Films—director Mary-Sue Masson is already making an imprint on the stateside ad market as her HARIBO “Kids’ Voices” campaign from London agency Quiet Storm has hit American television. The funny series of spots features adults funneling their inner child when expressing delight over HARIBO’s Gold Bears gummy candy. In the commercials, we see adults talking about Gold Bears but only kids’ chatter comes from their lips. Masson recorded the children, completely unscripted, as they shared what they liked about the candy. Their joyful utterances then pass through the lips of grown ups in different scenarios helmed by Masson.

Masson additionally had a creative hand in the work, helping to sell the concept to the client with a test film in which her own kids were recorded—voices that were then passed on to adults. This helped the campaign to get the greenlight in the U.K. before being adapted for viewers in the U.S. American kids’ voices were recorded in Chicago and the work was then lensed in Toronto for the campaign’s stateside launch.

Masson brings much more to the U.S. than the HARIBO package. She has strong conceptual/creative chops, having earlier in her career been an agency creative, including serving as an art director at DDB London. Her broad-based experience also extends to a tour of duty at the BBC, initially editing content and then writing advertising and promos for the network. Seeing her talent, BBC execs sent her to Elstree Studios to hone her producing and directing skills.

“Coming up with ideas on the ad agency side and making something every week at the BBC where we were in production all the time made for some fantastic learning experiences,” said Masson. The lessons learned have served her in good stead as a director where she is also repped in the U.K. by HunkyDory and in Canada by Sparks Productions.

Besides the HARIBO fare, Masson’s reel includes a darkly comedic spot for Nokia as the plight of a man held captive in a remote location by a somewhat offbeat woman makes a strong case for having a smartphone with satellite navigation; a “Seafood” commercial for Young’s Gastro fish entrees in which a cat is jealous of the fresh catch meals being enjoyed by her human owners; and a Compare The Market insurance ad in which a couple of kids help create noises—including those associated with gas-emitting bodily functions—for electric cars. The latter applies a comedic premise to a serious problem as electric cars make no engine noise, meaning that pedestrians who can’t hear them are thus more likely to be hit by the vehicles.

Robin Benson, who heads CoMPANY along with fellow executive producer Richard Goldstein, described Masson as “a fresh new voice. We can’t wait for people to have the chance to work with her; she’s talented, charming and funny.”

Masson said she was drawn to the caliber of CoMPANY’S work as well as its directorial roster, which includes representation of the Coen brothers for commercials and branded content. Also attracting Masson to CoMPANY is the fact that “its roster isn’t vast. I had been approached by an international company earlier this year with a massive roster where I felt I could get lost.” Masson feels CoMPANY is by contrast poised to provide strong committed attention to each director in its lineup.

RC Cone
Director RC Cone finds it “humbling” that someone like Rhea Scott pays attention to him. Scott, who has a track record of building directorial careers, is at the helm of production house Little Minx. She brought Cone into the company fold, drawn to his work, most notably The Accord, a documentary-style short about surfers in Iceland who brave the North Atlantic wind—personified by Cone as a temperamental drunk—to find good waves. Their relentless battle against the elements pays off when the wind cooperates and they find the perfect waves, captured by epic drone footage shot by Cone himself.

Premiering at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival, The Accord went on to win awards at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, the Kendal Mountain Film Festival, Santa Cruz Surf Film Fest, and the Vancouver International Film Fest. The short is a smart, breathtaking chronicle of a thrill-seeking journey, moved along by a strong comedic sense, making for an atypical combination of genres.

Cone grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, yearning for wide open spaces which prompted his move to Missoula to attend the University of Montana where he earned a degree in environmental studies with a concentration in photojournalism.

Cone worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a lookout overseeing the Bitter Root Valley in Montana. He spent three summers in a cabin in the woods looking out for fires. During his solitude there he would read, learn how to play the banjo and take photos. “It was a cool, inspirational turning point,” he recalled. “You could go a little crazy up there but it was for the better. My first kind of play with motion imagery came with stills. I made a stop motion film called Look that chronicled my time up there. It was before I knew how to take time lapse photography. It was stop motion time lapse but done manually. I learned from that experience that you have to commit to something, stay with it and that it’s all about story.”

In the winters, Cone would snowboard. He moved to the Rocky Mountains to snowboard and was offered an internship with a production company in the region where he learned digital cinematography from the ground up. Cone then applied their model in the ski and snow world to fly fishing.

Cone’s filmmaking pursuits grew, working with companies such as Patagonia, Redington and Howler Bros. on a collection of adventure documentaries. This reinforced Cone’s love for outdoor cinema and how it connects audiences to the natural world. To help facilitate that connection, Cone became adept at the deployment of drones. “It’s a great piece in the toolkit, being able to access aerial imagery,” said Cone. “But drones need to be used to push story instead of just showing beautiful landscapes.”

This past summer Cone spent a couple of weeks in Iceland and Greenland, continuing his nature quest and along the way directing a film for Yeti Coolers.