Up-and-Coming Directors: Unveiling The Fall Collection 
Rayka Zehtabchi
Promising, already accomplished helmers look to extend their reach into the branded arena

SHOOT’s fall ensemble of up-and-coming directors includes a Short Subject Documentary Oscar winner who recently landed her first production company roost for commercials and branded content.

Also in the mix is a directorial duo whose first feature film won the SXSW Narrative Spotlight Audience Award.

Another filmmaker diversifies into the ad discipline while continuing to be a supervising producer and in-house director for an Emmy-winning show on HBO.

And rounding out our coterie of talent is a director who too is extending his reach into commercials and branded fare. He was nominated for a DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Variety/Talk/News/Sports Specials.

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

Rayka Zehtabchi
Despite earning recognition for her initial directorial efforts, Rayka Zehtabchi still had to make day-to-day financial ends meet as an aspiring filmmaker. While serving as a P.A. to further her industry education, Zehtabchi back in the day occasionally shuttled folks about as an Uber driver. A student of people, she would strike up conversations with passengers, one example being a receptionist getting a ride to her place of employment, production house PRETTYBIRD. It was the first time Zehtabchi heard of PRETTYBIRD and her paid fare invited her to send a resume over to see if there was any work to be had at the company.

Zehtabchi never got around to following up but a year later she landed a job as an assistant to a producer who maintained an office on the PRETTYBIRD premises where she got the opportunity to see the inner workings of the shop, gaining first-hand exposure to top-drawer commmercialmaking and branded content production. Zehtabchi liked what she saw and even more so what she experienced there, recalling that the people at PRETTYBIRD--most notably VP/executive producer Ali Brown--were supportive of her. Brown took an interest in Zehtabchi’s point of view and talent well before it became fashionable to do so. In fact, Brown helped land Zehtabchi’s first branded content assignment--for Netflix’s “What I Wish I Knew” campaign.

The attention from Brown came before Zehtabchi’s short film titled Period. End of a Sentence gained public recognition. That recognition eventually included assorted high-profile honors including winning the Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar. Zehtabchi thus became the first Iranian-American woman to receive an Academy Award. The short chronicled the impact of The Period Project, which was responsible for installing a manual feminine hygiene pad machine in the rural village of Kathikhera, located outside of Delhi, India. The machine not only manufactured affordable, biodegradable pads for the girls and women of the village, but it also produced a microeconomy, enabling young women to use the funds earned to further their education. 

The Period Project originated from a teacher, Melissa Berton, and her students at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood, who were inspired to take action after learning about the taboo surrounding menstruation in developing countries.

In her Oscar acceptance speech, Zehtabchi thanked Netflix for giving an empowering platform to Period. End of a Sentence. A couple of months after her Oscar win, Zehtabchi gravitated back to PRETTYBIRD and Brown, coming aboard the company’s roster for spots and branded content globally. This marked Zehtabchi’s first career representation in the ad arena where she continues to show a penchant for human interest stories just as she’s done in her short films Period. End of a Sentence and her directorial debut, Madaran, which followed an Iranian mother deliberating whether or not to spare the life of her son’s killer. The bold film was shot entirely in Farsi and won honors  including a Jury Award for Best Director at the 2016 HollyShorts Festival.

Since joining PRETTYBIRD, Zehtabchi has again demonstrated her talent for evoking empathy through human-based storytelling, directing a mini-documentary centered on nine Special Olympics athletes gathered for a three-day workshop in Orlando, Fla., where they teamed with professional designers from ad agency Publicis Seattle to create a logo and look for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. Zehtabchi’s film captures the positive impact of the creative process as well as the spirit and talent of the athletes.

Pete Kearney, ECD, Publicis Seattle, shared, “We’ve always felt this was never our logo to create--it was the athletes’. We embraced that idea and empowered the talent, vision and passion of these spirited artists. We’re in the business of changing perceptions, and with this work, we’ve shown that creative power exists in each and every one of us.”

Zehtabchi said the Special Olympics piece underscores why she joined PRETTYBIRD. “Aside from being an incredible company producing meaningful, cool work, PRETTYBIRD understands me as a filmmaker and where I want to go. They don’t go after just any job. They tailor it to you and your voice as a filmmaker. I’m looking for a larger message, something with some sort of activism behind it. If I’m directing commercials or any work as a filmmaker, it has to be for projects that mean something, that matter.”

Zehtabchi added that she’s gratified not just to be at PRETTYBIRD but to be joining the company at this particular industry juncture, citing the progress being made by Free The Bid and its expansion to Free The Work to open up opportunities for talented women in the commercial world. There’s a movement for women to take ownership of their work, to collaborate with agencies and directly with brands as well, she said. “A lot of these things didn’t exist before. I’m entering this industry at an interesting time, reaping the benefits of the work that so many women have done before me.”

Nilson Schwartz
Writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz--aka the filmmaking duo Nilson Schwartz--won the SXSW Narrative Spotlight Audience Award this year for their debut feature, The Peanut Butter Falcon, which tells the story of Zak (portrayed by Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a student at the professional wrestling school of his idol, The Salt Water Redneck. Zak hits the road where he meets with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) who becomes an unlikely coach and friend. They are joined on this life’s experience-rich journey by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a kind nursing home employee.

The film reflects Nilson Schwartz’s talent for striking an emotional chord, blending comedy and pathos to great effect--story and filmmaking sensibilities that should translate well in the agency and client sector, prompting RadicalMedia to bring the duo aboard its global roster for commercials and branded content. RadicalMedia becomes Nilson Schwartz’s first career roost for ad representation.

Nilson and Schwartz are no strangers to ad exploits. Nilson was once a hand model while Schwartz came up the editorial ranks, eventually becoming a full-fledged editor at Nomad where he cut assorted spots. When Schwartz began learning to edit, he met Nilson who was a neighbor in the same apartment building. In fact it was Schwartz who turned Nilson onto hand modeling, the first working gig being in commercials and then Nilson found himself doubling as the hands of actor Brad Pitt, soccer star David Beckham and NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Nilson and Schwartz began dabbling in their own projects together, initially what the former described as “a 32-minute rambling nothing that was terrible.” But it led them to more seriously explore writing and narrative structure over the next year, ultimately yielding The Moped Diaries, a short they wrote and directed that went on to hit the festival circuit while going on to drawing considerable viewership online. 

Next came directing a pair of short films with rock climber Alex Honnold, who later became the subject of this year’s Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo (directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi). Nilson Schwartz’s work with Honnold consisted of Urban Ascents and At Home Off The Wall, both pieces of branded content for Stride Health. All the while Nilson and Schwartz became one, getting on the same wavelength and developing that telepathic connection essential to a directing team.

However, Nilson Schwartz’s venture into narrative feature filmmaking was quite improbable--but not as seemingly improbable as the earlier alluded to Gottsagen becoming a movie star. It started before Nilson Schwartz got off to their successful short film start. Some six years ago, Nilson and Schwartz  met Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, during an acting workshop for disabled people at a camp in Santa Monica, Calif. Gottsagen, who was working as an usher at his local movie theater in Florida, told them he wanted to become a movie actor. 

Schwartz and Nilson told Gottsagen that there weren’t many opportunities for people with Down syndrome to break into the movies. Gottsagen then came up with an inspired idea, saying, “Well, let’s just do it together,” recalled Schwartz.

The two filmmakers were so inspired by Gottsagen’s drive and emotional sincerity that they took his advice, delving into longer form script writing which over time developed into The Peanut Butter Falcon. The well intentioned good heartedness of the story helped draw a notable cast that included not only LaBeouf and Johnson but also John Hawkes, Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church.

Nilson and Schwartz applied their do-it-yourself short film approach to call attention to their prospective feature film so that it could attract financial backing and that enviable cast. Nilson Schwartz put together a proof-of-concept short. The five-minute trailer elicited industry response, piquing interest in the story and its characters. Armory Films, the company behind such films as Mudbound, financed the project which was released theatrically back in August by Roadside Attractions.

Nilson Schwartz is also extending its reach into TV, creating, writing and set to direct The Wildest Animals in Griffith Park, a show in development with Lucky Chap, Margot Robbie and Warner Bros.

Christopher Werner
Also recently picking up his first career representation in the ad arena was director Christopher Werner who joined Moxie Pictures for commercial and branded opportunities worldwide.

Werner is best known for his work as an in-house director and supervising producer for HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

Last Week Tonight has won multiple Emmy awards, with many of Werner’s segments having a hand in being nominated and winning the award. He was also part of the Last Week Tonight ensemble that won the Producers Guild Award in 2018 as Outstanding Producer of Live Entertainment & Talk Television. 

Werner describes himself as blessed to work with some of the best and brightest comedy writers, adding that he loves being part of a team. His work on Last Week Tonight has given him the opportunity to direct both unknown comic talent, as well as high profile performers such as Bryan Cranston, Michael Keaton, Tom Hanks, Richard Kind, Helen Mirren, Russell Crowe and the infamous Wax Presidents.

Besides Last Week Tonight, Werner has also worked on Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas for HBO, as well as producing for Funny or Die.

Werner has long been intrigued by spot and branded content filmmaking. “I have directed a fair amount of commercial parodies for the show (Last Week Tonight). It’s a world that has interested me, being able to tell a story in a short period of time. Even if the pieces I do for the show are sometimes two, three or four minutes, keeping people engaged in this shorter attention span era is challenging. You need to give them a reason to keep watching--through a new element, an aspect of a character--and that also applies to 15 or 30-second formats. I’ve felt like I was already subconsciously working in this shorter content space even if I was doing content that was slightly longer for the show.”

Moxie reached out to Werner and he was immediately attracted to the company, particularly company partners Robert Fernandez and Danny Levinson, “their philosophy, way of doing business, how much effort they put into getting directors work that is suited to their style. They were the only company I met with that I felt I could fit in with pretty organically, that my work and sensibilities didn’t conflict or compete with other directors there. They have an incredible roster.” 

Werner’s path to the director’s chair was DIY. “I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t go to college. I was terrified of student loans and debt. I saw too many of my friends struggling with it. I just said, ‘screw it, I’ll try to do it on my own.” 

Werner started making short films that “didn’t get me anywhere.” Then he began working as a PA, which eventually led to full-time work, at one point directing and producing re-enactment segments for a true crime show on the Investigation Discovery network. Later came a gig on HBO’s First Look, which took viewers behind the scenes of movies. Through that endeavor and a connection he made on the true crime show, Werner got his foot in the door from the outset of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. “I was hired for my logistics experience, then started producing field segments,” he recalled, eventually convincing the powers that be on the show that he could prove useful as an in-house director who didn’t have to be brought up to speed like outside directors hired for individual assignments. 

Werner said that Oliver and the EPs were supportive and gave him the directorial opportunity he had coveted. The result has been a mix of comedy and topical issues fare that has gained critical acclaim. Werner has also had occasion to take flights of fancy to the charmingly absurd, a prime example being a season five finale segment, “The Wax & The Furious.” Werner described the piece as “absolutely stupid, and I mean that as a complement. Arme Hammer leads a team of wax figure U.S. Presidents to steal Russell Crowe’s jockstrap worn in the movie The Cinderella Man. It was comedy, had action, explosions, gun fights. And though it was crazy, it was an incredible opportunity to do something of that scale, working with artists from the DP to the production designer to pull it off and make it look and feel right.”  (“The Wax & The Furious” recently won a Best Picture Editing Emmy Award.)

Werner observed that he’s learned that an important key to comedy is “committing to the bit, committing to what you’re doing, taking it seriously no matter how outrageous the premise--like Arme Hammer having a serious conversation with William Henry Harrison as a wax character.” The director has also enjoyed infusing comedy with a visual style. And of course, he’s had the opportunity to create many different styles given the wide range of projects, issues and premises taken on by Last Week Tonight.

The show has also been a great training ground for working with actors--both new and star talent. “Actors want you to be prepared--prepared enough so that you can give them room to be able to collaborate with you,” observed Werner who first and foremost noted that he is able to do good work because the material is so stellar. “The show won its fourth consecutive Emmy for writing. From John to the executive producers on down, the talent is incredible and so supportive.”

Glenn Clements
Glenn Clements’ filmmaking chops span such genres as comedy, variety and musical as well as the disciplines of directing, writing and producing. 

Directorially he made a major mark this year, earning his first DGA Award nomination for The Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Primetime Special. Shared with Tim Mancinelli, the DGA nod came in the Guild competition’s Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Variety/Talks/News/Sports Specials category.

An acclaimed late night television director and writer, Clements has worked on such programs as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and currently serves as the staff field director for The Late Late Show with James Corden. For the latter, Clements directs Carpool Karaoke, Crosswalk the Musical and various sketches.

Now Clements is bringing his talents, particularly in comedy, to Chelsea Pictures which recently became the first production house to handle him in the ad market. Right out of the gate, the day he signed with Chelsea, Clements was put in the running for a Lysol job which was ultimately awarded to him. He recently wrapped the spot which at press time was scheduled to start airing soon.

Landing the comedic Lysol assignment reaffirmed Clements’ original assessment of Chelsea and what drew him to the company to begin with. “I met with (Chelsea president) Lisa Mehling and was impressed,” he said. “She’s very smart and experienced. They have a very talented, deep roster of directors. They work with people like me from different fields--documentary filmmakers, film directors, still photographers--and no matter their backgrounds Chelsea does an excellent job of shepherding and bringing them into the commercial space.”

While he loves and is continuing his late night TV exploits, Clements is also looking forward to extending his comedy reach into commercials and branded fare. Part of the attraction, he observed, Is “You get a little more time and budget, the chance to put a little more craft and painstaking attention to details in the commercialmaking world than as compared to late night.

Clements honed his comedy and filmmaking sensibilities through formal education and varied experiences. He studied film and TV production at NYU where a short film he did in his junior year hit the festival circuit, was sold to a distributor and actually made money. After his formal studies, Clements worked in commercials as a PA, took a job as a night dubber at VH1--all the while looking to position himself to eventually realize his aspiration to become a writer/director. He took on a field EP role for the series Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, getting his comedy feet on the ground. This led to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart where Clements passed a do-or-die test in the form of making a film for the show. If the piece played well, he’d be hired. If not, he would keep pounding the pavement for an opportunity elsewhere. Clements got to team up with show correspondent Ed Helms who was “funny, kind and generous.” The piece was a hit, with Stewart reacting by laughing so hard on camera that he was unable to speak. Thus began a three-and-a-half-year stay for Clements on The Daily Show, an experience which he credits with teaching him how to make comedy. “Every two weeks, I had to deliver a piece, which really got me to hone my skills. The opportunity to work under someone like Jon (Stewart) who’s incredibly brilliant, to see how his mind works, how he approaches a topic, was invaluable. It helped me develop my own process. The cast we had back then was the best--Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, Samantha Bee, John Oliver.”

Clements left The Daily Show in New York to head out to Los Angeles when he sold a sitcom to CBS. A pilot was made that didn’t go to series so he found himself looking to make the most of what L.A. had to offer. For the next three years or so he wrote mostly, then started directing some of the projects he had written. Then he began directing pretty much exclusively, taking on some late night, primetime special and pre-taped bits for award show assignments.

A producer colleague he had worked with previously asked Clements if he’d be interested in The Late Late Show with James Corden. “I hadn’t worked in late night in awhile but James is an incredible talent so I joined. The team is brilliant and the show has grown so much.”

Fast forward to the present and he’s now a DGA Award nominee for a Late Late Show special, with his first commercial at Chelsea under his belt. “I’m excited and eager to do more commercial work,” related Clements. “In short or long form, I love working in comedy.”

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