Up-and-Coming Directors: Spring Collection Hits The Runway
Jess Coulter of O Positive
Filmmakers poised to make their mark for many creative seasons to come

SHOOT’s spring ensemble of up-and-coming directors includes a former agency creative director with comedy improv experience who’s landed her first production company roost and already some noteworthy helming gigs.

Also in the mix is a filmmaker who’s made an auspicious debut in the U.S. market with a Grammy-nominated music video and an atypical Super Bowl spot.

Next we have a director whose recent endeavors span 2nd unit work on a major feature, his first TV series assignment, and a mix of ad fare that includes sponsor tie-ins to major Marvel theatrical releases.

Another new talent brings a stellar family filmmaking lineage and an accomplished track record as an illustrator to the table, translating into an impressive directorial debut on a short that takes us on a sojourn back and forth between reality and imagination.

And rounding out the field is an artisan whose “film school” consisted of a global real-people documentary campaign, eventually leading to a commercialmaking career and a recent string of branded entertainment viral hits.

Here’s our spring collection of several promising directors to watch.

Jess Coulter
Informed by an extensive agency creative pedigree, Jess Coulter firmly settled into the director’s chair when she came aboard the roster of O Positive in late 2018. However, at that juncture of landing her first production house roost, Coulter was hardly inexperienced as a director, having taken the helm of personal projects as well as real-world ad fare through BBDO New York, where she served with distinction as a creative director, occasionally directing select projects for the likes of agency clients such as FedEx and Twix.

Coulter was also able during those directorial gigs to gauge the work cultures at different production houses through which each respective job was funneled. And while serving strictly as a creative, Coulter observed directors and production companies, gaining an invaluable education. “I found myself inching closer to directors over the years, learning, observing.” And among those she watched and learned from were O Positive’s directors, ultimately deciding to make that house her directorial home. 

Already that has yielded tangible results, including a comedic IKEA campaign for Ogilvy NY. And at press time she was about to embark on a Dunkin’ job for BBDO NY.

Focused on developing her directing career, Coulter also has an eye on the bigger implications of establishing herself in the comedy market. She recalled on the agency side having the privilege of working with adept comedy directors--none of whom was a woman. A woman director in comedy has been a relative rarity, something she hopes to change by gaining a foothold at O Positive, a shop known for its humorous chops, and hopefully serving as a catalyst for other women to join the fray.

Coulter grew up in Portland, Ore. She worked for several years with agencies in the Pacific Northwest before moving to New York and joining Saatchi as a senior copywriter, then moved to BBDO in 2010. Coulter began directing in 2016 while still a creative. BBDO championed her move to the director’s chair from the start, her first job being a FedEx spot.

During her tenure as a creative, Coulter had the chance to work with assorted directors, forging a kinship with O Positive director Jim Jenkins, starting with their collaboration on the first two rounds of the Progresso Soup campaign--written by Coulter who was at Saatchi at the time--in which people call into Progresso’s kitchen headquarters, connecting via a phone hotline made of soup cans and string. 

Coulter considers Jenkins--who too has agency creative roots--among her mentors. Independent of that, Coulter’s comedy acumen was honed not just as an agency creative and director but also by her involvement in improv and sketch writing/acting/directing with NYC’s Upright Citizens Brigade, and then The Pit ensemble. She further developed people observational skills, helping her to tap into truths and human behavior that brought further dimension to her comedy. That’s reflected in part in her aforementioned debut as a staff director at O Positive--IKEA’s “Morningmorphosis” campaign depicting people enjoying the newfound benefits of becoming a morning person, with great comedic effect. They’re now morning people due to getting a good night’s sleep, thanks to a comfortable bed and bedroom set from IKEA. 

Coulter’s affinity for comedy is complemented by her agency experience. “I have a holistic sense of the process, like the directors at O Positive who were once agency writers. I know what it’s like to work on a script, to have something floating around for two years that you don’t think will get made--work that has a history and some baggage. When you finally get that idea off the ground, a director can come in at the right moment and provide a new burst of energy that will push it forward and help you realize what you wanted, adding something you never intended in the beginning. I’d like to be the kind of director I wanted to hire--talented and collaborative, normal, kind and nice to work with.”

Emma Westenberg
Emma Westenberg, who first established herself in Amsterdam as an artist and director, recently made an auspicious debut in the American market where she’s handled by production house Partizan. First she directed Janelle Monáe’s “Pynk” music video which earned a Grammy Award nomination. Then she landed her first U.S. ad assignment, Michelob Ultra Pure Gold’s “The Pure Experience” starring Zoe Kravitz, which aired during the Super Bowl. From agency FCB Chicago, the spot registered with viewers by departing from the loud Big Game norm as Kravitz whispers into two microphones and softly taps on a battle, techniques meant to stir autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), which some claim helps to elicit a tingling euphoric feel. The commercial not only gained exposure on a mega broadcast platform but also has generated millions of viral hits.

Westenberg said the Michelob Ultra spot appealed to her because it “talks to the senses, communicates rather than yells.”

“In my dream world, I’m involved in TV, longer form narrative, commercials and music videos,” related Westenberg whose work is driven by a love of people, storytelling, offbeat characters, absurdity, humor and film aesthetics. She is repped for TV and film by talent agency WME.

Dutch director Westenberg is no stranger to the U.S. She was born in Berkeley, Calif., and through an exchange program studied art for a stretch at The Cooper Union in NY. Westenberg got her formal education at Gerrit Rietveld Academy, a school for fine arts and design in Amsterdam. There, she recalled, “the world opened up to me” as she became immersed in drawing, painting, performance and film, discovering “video as the best medium for me,” leading to her gravitating to the school’s A-V department. Westenberg graduated with a short she wrote, directed, produced and art directed, The Still Life of Estelle, which gained recognition at a Dutch film festival.

This was followed by Westenberg’s first commercial for VPRO Dorst, a brand video for Models at Work, and a Regal Degal music video. In 2016, Westenberg earned Best New Fashion Film distinction for Blue and You at the Fashion Film Festival in Milan. Her commercialmaking endeavors began to multiply and she continues to be repped by Amsterdam production house Halal for spots and branded content. But Westenberg’s prime focus is now stateside where she lives.

Westenberg welcomes new experiences. In some respects, it’s the hallmark of her work. “I never want to do the same thing twice,” she stressed. “There are new things in every story, every narrative, every character. I’m also very interested in the collaboration aspect. Film becomes magical when you can all align.”

Anthony Leonardi III
Anthony Leonardi III has steadily gained momentum as a director in recent years, to the point now where he has a hand in commercialmaking, feature films and series television. On the TV score, he directed an episode of the SYFY network series Deadly Class. His season one episode debuted earlier this month. 

On the feature front, Leonardi was 2nd unit director for Disney’s much anticipated Jungle Cruise. And his ad/branded content exploits include tie-ins for the Infiniti QX50 and Quicken Loans with Avengers: Infinity War, for Audi (a short film starring Brie Larson) with Captain Marvel, and at press time he was about to direct Google commercials linked to Avengers: Endgame. Leonardi has also directed stand-alone spots for the likes of Chevrolet, Harley-Davidson and Dodge.

Leonardi said that integral to his career has been Bullitt, the commercial/branded entertainment shop formed by filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo, Justin Lin and producer Todd Makurath. Bullitt, said Leonardi, has provided an ideal nurturing environment for him to grow as a director. “It is a collective where the directors help each other,” said Leonardi who was brought into the fold by Makurath. The two first met at the American Film Institute (AFI) as students and developed a lasting bond. At AFI, Leonardi shot a short film for Makurath who in turn produced Leonardi’s thesis film. 

At Bullitt, Leonardi has formed a bond with the Russo brothers, whom he regards as mentors. In addition to his spot and branded content directing exploits, Leonardi has been a storyboard artist and/or character designer and concept designer for such films directed by the Russos as Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Leonardi’s multi-discipline experience prior to connecting with Bullitt some five years ago at its inception laid the groundwork for him being able to take on the broad range of work he’s enjoying today. The first positive influence was familial as Leonardi’s great grandfather, grandparents and parents were all in the entertainment industry in one form or another. His dad, for example, served as a scenic painter turned stand-by painter. In the latter capacity, he’d be on set to paint in a shadow at a DP’s request--or in Jurassic Park change the color of a cow before it was dropped into a raptor cage. As a lad, Anthony Leonardi III would hang out, watch his father at work and “see how the sausage was made” so to speak. He developed a deep love for the arts and crafts of filmmaking, which he felt almost led him invariably to the director’s chair.

Early on in his career, Leonardi connected with director Gore Verbinski, for whom he drew storyboards and conceptual art. Over the years, Leonardi helped to design sequences for various Verbinski films including Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Rango.  Meanwhile Leonardi diversified into directing, taking on music videos, most notably Imagine Dragons’ first clip, “It’s Time,” which went on to earn an MTV Video Music Award nomination for Best Rock Video in 2012. Leonardi also served as a storyboard/concept artist for such series as Game of Thrones and Cosmos. 

All this helped to hone Leonardi’s visual sensibilities as a director, in tandem with a light-hearted comedic touch as evidenced in such work as the Infiniti QX50 tie-in with Avengers: Infinity War in which the SUV’s hyper speed run is interrupted by an elderly woman crossing the street. “Bullitt has helped me develop my voice as a director and storyteller,” said Leonardi who affirmed that the Russo brothers have “stood behind me, giving a level of support unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” 

Cuba Tornado Scott
Last September during the Toronto International Film Festival, Cuba Tornado Scott saw her first foray into filmmaking make its world premiere. Titled 9 ½, the inspired short she wrote and directed for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, was screened at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto. The short served as the centerpiece of the Fairmont Loves Film exhibition, underscoring the hotel brand’s longstanding association with cinema, playing host to the filming of some 250 features around the world over the years, including such iconic movies as Breakfast At Tiffany’s and the Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo. The latter was lensed at the Fairmont, San Francisco, as was Scott’s 9 ½.

For Scott, an accomplished illustrator who long resisted settling into the director’s chair, the Toronto rollout of 9 ½ was a bit of a surreal experience. Her parents were each premiering their own projects at the concurrent Toronto Film Fest--RSA Films director Jake Scott with the feature American Woman and executive producer Rhea Scott of Little Minx with the A.V. Rockwell-helmed short Feathers.

The Fairmont Loves Film exhibit, with stills, interviews and screenings of 9 ½, has since embarked on a global tour, including London last month and potentially another event in the Asia-Pacific region later this year.

The opportunity to create the shortfilm--with a brief consisting of only the theme “Fairmont loves cinema”--inspired Cuba Tornado Scott to finally embrace a directorial assignment.  Scott’s vision for 9 ½ bridges adult and childhood, reality and imagination, as we see a grown woman in today’s world, dealing with appointments, business and the like in the Fairmont San Francisco lobby. As she’s about to be whisked off in a car to a biz engagement of some sort, she looks up at the Fairmont, leading us to a window which illumination shines through, taking us to a girl whose curiosity and imagination run unbridled as she follows a trail of flickering light from a projector. Brief glimpses of scenes from Vertigo grace the screen. It’s as if we’re sojourning through two worlds, the responsibilities of an adult, and the wonderment she earlier experienced as a child, with the Fairmont playing host to both.

Scott brought her art acumen to the short, fashioning a detailed storyboard akin to others she’s done over the years for varied projects, including a New York Lottery commercial directed by her dad. Her illustrations and drawings range from spot storyboards to portraiture, whimsical studies of animals, even distinctive tattoos. In 2017 she created a study on the brilliant painter Francis Bacon. Scott said of the work, “I conducted a photographic study on Francis Bacon through makeup, light and set design to blend the boundaries between subject and painting; ‘a tightrope walk’ between figuration and abstraction.”

Scott’s extensive illustration experience informed her initial directing gig. In fact, she doubts she would have been able to segue into helming 9 ½ otherwise. Whether that’s true might be subject to debate due to the power of heredity. Her family filmmaking lineage even extends beyond her parents, reaching back to her grandfather, the legendary Sir Ridley Scott, and her great uncle, the late great director Tony Scott.

And while she may have spent much of her early adult life seemingly averse to directing pursuits, 9 ½ has proven to be the catalyst needed to spark her commitment to diversify into filmmaking. At press time, Cuba Tornado Scott was about to join RSA Films’ directorial roster for special projects as she looks to build her reel and apply her talent and vision to a wider range of ambitious projects.

Bryan Rowland
Bryan Rowland didn’t initially have directorial aspirations. In some respects, he kind of fell into the director’s chair. But the filmmaker--whose home for commercials and branded entertainment is Escape Velocity Content--has proven that his ultimate career choice has been serendipitous, marked by inspired visuals, good-natured, self-deprecating comedy and a brand of storytelling that evokes emotion and laughter.

Rowland’s roots are in editing as he became expert in the postproduction arena with tours of duty at local post houses in Utah. He then got in on the account/business side for a startup involved in streaming full HD content. Then the mortgage meltdown/recession hit, bursting the bubble he was on, sending Rowland scrambling to make a living to support his family. He sought to improve his skillset, picking up digital cameras (the Canon 5D, RED) and learning the ropes, developing an incisive eye for visuals and an affinity for telling a story. The latter took shape in particular when he got the gig to direct, lens and edit work for the Latter-day Saints (LDS) Church, working with agency Bonneville International on the global “I Am A Mormon” campaign. The brief was simply to meet various people and capture who they were so that audiences could connect with them.”

The campaign took Rowland all over the world, making little documentaries which showed what everyday members of the LDS Church did and how they lived. “I’d go to Japan and meet five people, have no background on them,” recalled Rowland. “I’d show up for a day, get to know them and then interview them. Finding out about people, interviewing them became my passion.”

Lasting a couple of years, the campaign--done on a shoestring budget--served as Rowland’s film school, as he evolved into becoming a director/DP, eventually taking on commercials and building a reel. One such reel-building exercise entailed his shooting his daughter, then 10 years old, cavorting about and simply being a kid. Through a mutual acquaintance, actress Blake Lively saw the piece and it struck a chord. This led to Rowland directing a brand video for what’s now her former lifestyle and ecommerce company Preserve. In turn this project sparked other assignments.

EP Alec Eskander saw Rowland’s potential and brought him aboard Escape Velocity Content where the caliber of projects has ascended for the director, including a recent AdventHealth Xmas spot for agency 22squared which brought to life the power of new beginnings for cancer survivors, chronicling a one-of-a-kind event in which patients of all ages, from across the AdventHealth system around the country, came together to form the Survivor Bell Choir. Together, they perform with synchronized bell ringing a moving rendition of “Silent Night.”

During production of this spot, Rowland received an email out of the blue from agency creative George Dewey. “It was a random email from George which said that Ryan Reynolds thought I’d be perfect to direct a brand video for Aviation Gin,” recalled Rowland. 

Actor Reynolds of Deadpool fame (and Lively’s husband) starred in what turned out to be a tongue-firmly-in cheek-film for his Aviation Gin. In the piece Reynolds “explains” how the gin is made and what goes into every bottle. The comedy became a viral hit, setting the stage for a return engagement directed by Rowland and starring Reynolds along with Hugh Jackman. In this two-minute piece, Reynolds and Jackman produce commercials for each other’s drink brands--Reynolds’ Aviation Gin, and Jackman’s Laughing Man Coffee--thus signaling an end to their social media feud. The twist is that judging from his spot for Aviation Gin, Jackman didn’t know the feud was over.

This so-called Jackman/Reynolds truce film not only showcased Rowland’s deft handling of humor but also his visual sensibilities as Reynold’s commercial within the commercial for Laughing Man Coffee is a beautifully shot location piece, extolling Jackman, his social conscience and progressive activism overseas.

Rowland continues to collaborate with Reynolds, directing multiple commercials and branded entertainment fare. Reynolds, Dewey, an ex-McCann veteran, and Rowland often brainstorm, conceptualizing, developing and executing creative ideas. “I’ve learned a lot from that process with them,” related Rowland whose latest released work born out of that creative relationship is a mockumentary ad for the upcoming film Detective Pikachu starring Reynolds, with a cameo appearance by Lively. The comedy promo shows how thoroughly Reynolds has immersed himself in the Pikachu character--to the point of obsessive ridiculousness. Lively even complains that Reynolds didn’t pick up their kids at school because Pikachu has no children. Like the Aviation Gin fare, “Becoming Pikachu” has proven to be a viral sensation.

Now Rowland is in development on some other entertainment properties. “I feel fortunate to have found a place as a director, getting the opportunity to work alongside talented, creative people at agencies and in entertainment.”

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