Tuesday, February 19, 2019

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  • Originally published on
  • Monday, Mar. 27, 2017
Chad Howitt
Up-and-Coming Directors: Assembling The Spring Collection
Promising talent poised to break new ground for many seasons to come

SHOOT’s spring ensemble of up-and-coming directors includes a pair of duos—one which recently scored a major coup at the Sundance Film Festival; the other creating and helming spec fare that’s opened assorted industry doors.

Also in the mix is a solo filmmaker whose branded documentary fare and entrepreneurial spirit bode well for his directorial career in the ad sector.

And we additionally look at intriguing talent that recently gained major exposure at Commercial Directors Diversity Program’s (CDDP) first showcase, held in January. The CDDP initiative was born out of contract talks between the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA). The debut showcase was held at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles.

So here’s our spring collection of some promising directors to watch:

Dan & Antonio
To say that the duo of Dan & Antonio—Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini—is up and coming doesn’t do the directors full justice. In fact, they have in some respects already arrived, a status punctuated at the recent Sundance Film Festival which bestowed its Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary upon their feature Dina, which tells an unconventional love story between two people who have autism spectrum disorder. This neurodiverse couple consists of a free spirit named Dina and a Walmart door greeter some 20 years her junior, Scott.

Sickles has known Dina since he was a kid. His father, a special education teacher, taught Dina, and started a neurodiverse group which brought many people together. "I’ve known Dina and other characters in the film pretty much my entire life," recalled Sickles whose dad passed away three and a half years ago. "Antonio first met Dina at my dad’s funeral." 

From that meeting, Dan & Antonio sprung into action to breathe life into an idea that had been lingering in Dan’s mind for some time—that the neurodiverse community and specifically Dina were worth exploring in a film. "We learned that Dina was getting married and from that, a film about Dina and that relationship started to take hold," related Sickles who’s long admired Dina, noting that she taught herself to read when teachers gave up on her in the third grade.

Director Santini noted that as he and Dan have done in the past, they took an atypical approach to the documentary. In the case of Dina, they treated her as the star of a movie about her own life. "It’s almost a romantic comedy about her—the kind of rom-com film she watches and loves," said Santini.

Dan & Antonio’s unconventional brand of documentary filmmaking was first evidenced in Mala Mala, which delved into the lives of transgender women in Puerto Rico. Sans voiceover and interviews, the feature plays more like an indie narrative film. For Mala Mala, their first documentary, Sickles and Santini drew inspiration from not only the protagonists but also music, TV, music videos and other art forms. Mala Mala went on to earn nominations for both a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary and the Best Documentary Jury Award at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Also at Tribeca, Mala Mala took 2nd place recognition in the Audience Award-Documentary competition.

While it’s invisible to the audience, Dan & Antonio work painstakingly to attain an intimacy with their subjects. "For both Dina and Mala Mala, Dan and I spent a great deal of time with the people whose lives we were exploring. We get to know them, have a sense of what projects them best to the camera. Sometimes Dan or I will connect better with a person so we go with whomever has the best rapport with the subject."

Both Mala Mala and Dina were produced by Moxie Pictures and Killer Films. Moxie recently brought Dan & Antonio onto its directorial roster for commercials and branded content worldwide. The directing duo has some experience in shorter form fare, having done a music video based on Mala Mala.

Dan & Antonio feel a kinship to Moxie. "We found the company serendipitously. Working on Mala Mala early on, we wound up in a room with director Danny Levinson [president of Moxie Pictures]," recalled Sickles. "Danny approaches things with an open mind—which is rare yet good to find. We were doing a film about trans Latinas in one of the last colonized places in the Western hemisphere and Danny’s reaction was ‘that’s kind of interesting because I’ve never seen it before.’ He’s not intimidated by new ideas."

From then on, noted Santini, the directors’ relationship with Danny and Moxie has become "familial." Santini added that Levinson and the people at Moxie "understand our interests and eccentricities. There’s a lot of mutual trust there. They support what we do."

As for exactly what they do, Sickles related, "We work with polar opposite intentions at the same time—resulting in intimate universality. We are presenting an intimate personal experience that can speak to everyone." Some 90 percent of the people in Dina are on the neurodiverse spectrum but they seem like anyone else, like friends of yours, someone you know and can care about."

This ability to spark empathy is all the more essential in what today seems an increasingly divided world. Dan & Antonio met as students at NYU. Sickles studied acting while Santini was schooled in sociology and the visual arts. The two went to a festival in Austin where they met a woman who inspired Mala Mala. "We wanted to tell that story about community and have been working to build community ever since," said Santini. "We’re looking to highlight stories we think are going to help us as a whole to connect to each other. We see this disconnect going on between different groups of people. We are spending our lives trying to fill this breach. We believe in the value of connecting.

"That’s what makes the Sundance award gratifying," he continued. "Getting recognition from an institution like that and its people is inspiring, telling us that we are moving in the right direction. People are responding to Dina and that shows that what we’re doing is working. Showing the bravery to reach out to others is being recognized."

The Coles
RSA’s Hey Wonderful recently signed The Coles, a directing team consisting of 20-something siblings Sophie and Walker Cole. They gained industry recognition and a slot on the Hey Wonderful roster largely on the strength of some smart, sleek spec commercials they created for Fiat, Nike and Evian.

Yet they hadn’t considered directing careers—or for that matter spec fare to showcase their talent—until a friend was fashioning his own spec work. "We grew up in the business but hadn’t thought of becoming directors," related Walker. The siblings’ dad is veteran commercial director Charlie Cole while their uncle is prominent ad creative Charlie Miesmer, a former ECD at BBDO New York. Initially Walker established himself as an art dealer. Sophie enjoyed a successful tenure as a costume designer on films and commercials. 

"We were both trying to find a way to sort of create worlds in different ways," related Sophie. 

But when a friend came calling for some spec concepts, Sophie and Walker started writing scripts and began to see that their calling was to work together as filmmakers.  "With our dad and uncle’s backgrounds, we naturally gravitated to commercials as our target so to speak," explained Walker. "We never had an issue on the writing side of things and that seemed a great way to conceive of some specs and begin directing. We hit the ground running and didn’t see anyone for eight months as we just focused on the work—ranging from light-hearted to more mysterious."

Fiat’s "Wingman" features a tireless good-natured bachelor bending over backwards to land a date without success, until he finally dangles a ride in his new Fiat to close the deal. Nike’s "Symphony" is strikingly black and white with graphic composition to spotlight both tennis balls and a man’s sneakers in a crescendo of motion. And in Evian’s "Live Young," we observe a leathery older gent in real time as he bakes poolside. He convincingly rejuvenates himself by spritzing himself with the mineral water.

Marked by tongue-in-cheek comedy moments, the Evian spec, said Sophie and Walker, included a nod to the features Sexy Beast (directed by Jonathan Glazer) and The Graduate (Mike Nichols).

Sophie said she learned a great deal from the directors she has worked with over the years. Her costume endeavors had her collaborating with the likes of directors Bryan Buckley, Craig Gillespie, Tim Godsall, Stacy Wall, and Jaci Judelson. Sophie described the latter as "a powerful female director" who inspired her. Sophie’s work for Gillespie includes his feature film Million Dollar Arm (Disney).

Meanwhile Walker’s pursuits as a writer and art dealer also laid the groundwork for this new chapter in his and Sophie’s career. Several years back, Michael Di Girolamo, who’s now founder/managing director of Hey Wonderful, came to an art show where he met art dealer Walker. "He bought some art," recalled Walker of Di Girolamo, noting that the industry vet made a lasting impression with his zest for new talent. "When we got into directing, we reconnected with Michael. He was one of the first meetings we had. We showed him our spec work and he totally got us. He’s created a creative boutique with a hands-on approach to the work and helping to build careers. He and [EP] Sarah McMurray were the reasons we joined Hey Wonderful."

Sophie added that by being part of the RSA family of companies, Hey Wonderful is well positioned to develop directors with high-level support and firepower.

Just prior to officially joining Hey Wonderful, The Coles took on their first officially commissioned project, an online film—slated to debut later this spring—for Tory Burch’s new sport line featuring the Tory Sport Fall/Winter 2017 Collection. The directors were also at press time bidding potentially their first job via Hey Wonderful. Additionally, The Coles are wrapping some new spec work for Apple.

"We see a lot of young and new talent at Hey Wonderful, but we were particularly blown away by the sophistication and style of Sophie and Walker’s reel," said Di Girolamo, "Their work has shades of Wes Anderson and Autumn de Wilde, directors I respect and admire."

Hey Wonderful EP McMurray added, "The Coles bring a nimble process to their filmmaking which is resoundingly Millennial. Michael and I are very excited for The Coles to put their unique stamp on our business."

Josh Franer
After first establishing himself as a photographer and cinematographer working on varied assignments including music videos and charity projects, Josh Franer felt the need to direct, adopting a narrative documentary-style approach. He made his first major splash with This Built America, an online branded series he co-created with Sasha Koehn, selling the concept to Ford via AOL, working with agency Team Detroit. Franer directed 13 episodes of the series which took us to varied companies that exemplified a resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S. The first season garnered more than 18 million media impressions and four million unique views.

Ford’s made-in-Detroit F150 pickup truck serves as a natural tie-in to the series which features homegrown American businesses from all 50 states. Franer said his business mindset helped to bring This Built America to fruition. "I’m consistently trying to reverse-engineer my filmmaking. Often people make a film not knowing what they’re going to do with it. In this case we saw the potential of this series up front. Part of our angle in selling the show was its tie-in to the American-made values and ideals of Ford," 

Franer then took the helm in developing substantive content to demonstrate how U.S. business is viable and making a positive difference in society at large. In addition to higher profile companies like Airstream trailers in Ohio and McIlhenny Co.’s Tabasco in Louisiana, Franer explored and found the inner stories of lesser known businesses. "One of my favorite episodes involved filming at Chance Rides, an American amusement park ride manufacturer in Kansas," said Franer. "Not only were the people friendly but their story as a post-2008 comeback company was amazing. We filmed at an amusement park and shot at their huge manufacturing facility The place is so big we got lost several times. I think the episode touches a nerve, its nostalgia tugs at the heartstrings. We found out later that Terry, one of the craftsmen that we featured [he worked on building historic trains] passed away shortly after from cancer. We later found that they used our film as a tribute to his life."

Franer formed Man Made Content to produce This Built America, a show which garnered broad attention, including from executive producers Robin Benson and Richard Goldstein of CoMPANY. Last year CoMPANY signed Franer for spots and branded content. He currently has some irons in the fire at CoMPANY, including an upcoming docu-narrative style Visit California campaign from agency MeringCarson, San Diego and Sacramento, Calif., which depicts the state through the eyes of a fashion designer. Also via CoMPANY for Detroit agency Commonwealth/McCann, Franer is directing a documentary for Chevrolet highlighting a breakthrough camera rig designed for capturing automotive footage. This project has entailed lensing in New York, Detroit, L.A. and San Francisco.

Franer’s earlier alluded to business mindset has yielded several entrepreneurial ventures—not only Man Made Content but at one point Franer was a creative partner in Buck Mason before selling his stake in the fashion company. He also creative directed a recently launched fashion app called POURED which connects high-end fashion brands with talented staffers. Franer’s filmography includes directing some short film fare, including Homeward, for Buck Mason, Billed as a short about finding your way back to what matters most, Homeward won recognition at the La Jolla International Fashion Film Festival, the Chicago Fashion Film Festival, Milano Fashion Film Festival, Miami Fashion Film Festival and the Berlin Fashion Film Fest.  He also directed a short for Tumi luggage chronicling three business people using travel to enrich both their business and personal lives as global citizens.

Franer teamed with producers Koehn and Justin Bain, producers at Man Made Content, on both Homeward and This Built America. Another key collaborator on both of those projects was Ari Schneiderman, who went on to become head of production and branded content at CoMPANY. Schneiderman connected Franer with CoMPANY, which immediately embraced the director. 

CoMPANY EP Goldstein said that he and Benson signed Franer based on the "fresh look" he brings to documentary filmmaking, "something that would be relevant to both agencies and clients. His work is a modern approach to telling brand and people stories."

Sonia Malfa
A self-taught female Puerto-Rican American filmmaker, Sonia Malfa was one of a select group recently making the AICP/DGA Commercial Director Diversity Program (CDDP) cut based on a promising body of work which includes: "Leyohmi," a video that takes us on a fantasy experience propelled in part by a stirring performance from classical musician Carolina Eyck and members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble; and Espere, a short documentary about St. Boniface Hospital in Haiti, which helped raise funds for the facility, bolstering its neonatal care unit. 

The Eyck music video premiered on NPR’s First Watch. And Malfa worked in collaboration with a small boutique agency, Fancy NYC, on Espere, a pro bono project,

The exposure of her work at the CDDP Showcase and on its website (www.cddprogram.org) has already resulted in Malfa getting a meeting with a high-profile commercial production house EP whom she’s respected for some time. "Just getting the chance to talk with someone like that about my career development represented a new door opening up for me," said Malfa who hopes the next step will be her landing a substantive affiliation with a commercialmaking/branded content house.

Malfa broke into the industry by moving up the production food chain, eventually becoming a producer spanning commercials, branded content and such notable projects as an MTV feature documentary on rapper Drake, Better Than Good Enough, for RadicalMedia, and an indie narrative feature, Down The Shore, starring James Gandolfini. In-between her producing gigs, Malfa would write, develop and direct her own projects, making a major initial splash wit Close Her Eyes, financed by her personal funds, a $5,000 New York State Council grant, and $10,000 raised through a Kickstarter campaign. Close Her Eyes tells the story of a visually impaired girl’s first kiss. The narrative short was shot on 35mm film, premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and went on to play at more than a dozen other fests (including Woodstock, the Los Angeles Shorts Fest, Way Out West, and the L.A. Latino Film Festival).

Tempering her joy at having Close Her Eyes screen at Tribeca was Malfa learning at that time that her father had cancer and required hospitalization. In recent years, Malfa lost both her parents to cancer. Their passing reaffirmed Malfa’s commitment to pursuing her directorial dreams. "It became clear to me how short life is and how important it is that we make every effort to do what we feel most passionate about."

Malfa’s other directing credits include music videos for such artists as Del Patio, Little Fish and MayaNicol. Malfa is currently in post on two projects: Detachment with actress Trae Harris; and a short with the working title Water Whispers, which explores the letting-go process for a woman after she has lost a loved one.

Malfa cited cinematographer Lisa Rinzler as being an invaluable mentor. Malfa worked as an assistant director on a feature being shot by Rinzler and the two struck up a rapport. Rinzler saw promise in Malfa as a filmmaker, offered her encouragement, and wound up shooting Close Her Eyes, Espera and "Leyohmi." An accomplished DP, Rinzler has won a pair of Best Cinematography Independent Spirit Awards (for Menace II Society in 1994, and Three Seasons in 1999) and a primetime Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God in 2013). Rinzler also earned a Camerimage Golden Frog nomination (for Pollock in 2000).

"To have a strong woman and a great artist like Lisa as a mentor has meant everything to me," said Malfa. "She saw a talent within me and agreed to shoot my work when she could. Lisa has been a great help to me."

It’s that brand of mentoring that Malfa wants to extend to others. "On one hand it’s a great honor that the CDDP exists," she related. "Yet in a more ideal world my wish is that at some point there won’t be a need for showcases like this. I hope to get established as a director and to  mentor other women and people of color. If more of us progress to be able to do just that, perhaps there will be less of a need for diversity programs. Inclusiveness will just naturally evolve as we help and mentor others."

Chad Howitt
Also making the CDDP grade was Chad Howitt on the strength of his short narrative film From 35,000 feet/Praise Aviophobia, based on a poem by Geffrey Davis. Howitt connected with Davis’ work via the Motionpoems organization which looks to bring poems to life by matching filmmakers with poets. This year, in its initiative to encourage diversity, Motionpoems focused on African-American poets. Howitt, who is part Thai, Chinese and Persian, related to Davis’ poem, which tapped into the fear that even the most experienced travelers can feel on—or just in anticipation of—a plane flight. From 35,000 feet/Praise Aviophobia premiered at the Walker Art Center Museum, Minneapolis. The short gained industry exposure at the CDDP showcase in L.A. and can currently be viewed on the CDDP website.

In terms of backstory, Howitt took a circuitous route to the director’s chair yet his journey naturally evolved. He studied graphic design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. There he developed a desire to create graphic design that moved, that had a timing, rhythm and pacing to it. This segued into his later getting into visual effects, including 3D work and compositing in commercials. Howitt even served as a creative director at a small post house. As clients began seeking one-stop shopping where they could shoot, deploy live action, effects, CG, handle sound, edit and finish all under one roof, Howitt too found himself branching out into all areas. He became drawn to live action, so much so that he took on a personal passion project on the side, directing a short documentary, Welcome to The Last Book Store, which told the story of not only the downtown L.A. business but also its owner and operator Josh Spencer, a father, husband, entrepreneur and paraplegic.

Howitt made his first significant directorial mark with Welcome to The Last Bookstore, which played to acclaim at Academy Award-qualifying film festivals, including the AFI Doc Fest and Cinequest. He tabbed a cinematographer he had enjoyed working with on several low-profile commercials to shoot Welcome to The Last Bookstore. That DP was James Laxton who went on to shoot director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight which won this year’s Best Picture Oscar. Laxton earned nominations for both an ASC Award and a Best Cinematography Oscar on the basis of Moonlight. And shortly after wrapping Moonlight in Miami, Laxton came back to L.A. where he shot Howitt’s 35,000 feet/Praise Aviophobia.

"James is a great collaborator and such an unassuming person, a joy to work with," said Howitt. "He didn’t hesitate to take on my short film following Moonlight though I tend to think he now may have more booking conflicts after his ASC and Oscar nominations."

Meanwhile in his young directorial career, Howitt has shown his proficiency and talent on several spots, a well received docu short and now a narrative short film inspired by a poem.  Howitt is in the market to land a production house affiliation for commercials and branded content, hopeful that CDDP might prove to be a catalyst in that regard. 

The CDDP recognition looms large for Howitt. "Being part of the first round of directors to get into the program is a fantastic honor," he said. "To gain this kind of exposure and meet people in the industry has been a wonderful, gratifying experience."

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