Nicholas Lam is a Director based in Los Angeles, CA specializing in MUsic Videos, Short Films, and COmmercial work. Throughout his career, Nicholas has directed for videos for artists including Nick Jonas, Elton John, and Blink-182
How did your career in directing come about? Was it something you have always dreamed about as a kid?
It started with The Lion King. Up until then, I wanted to be a children’s author and illustrator, but it was Disney’s animated feature that struck me on a profoundly emotional level that even as a kid, I understood. I’ve always wanted to tell stories, and I’ve always created intricate worlds in my imagination (just ask my mom about my G.I. Joe action figure battles—they had epic backstories and subplots), but seeing that movie on the big screen told me that moving pictures and sound had the absurd power to affect people like no other medium could. From that point on, I decided I was going to be a director and have never looked back.
Did you make a lot of connections through USC that you still have today?
Yes and no. The majority of my graduating class—and from what I’ve heard, even among the generations above and below—are no longer in entertainment. Many have instead become doctors, counselors, teachers and full-time parents—arguably more noble and important professions! The harsh reality is “the industry” invariably weeds good people out over of the years, and certainly not for lack of talent. For those of us who survived the trenches, we’ve become a tight network of creatives, and try to work with each other as often as possible.
You are represented by a couple of production companies now. How has representation helped your career? And what was life like directing before representation?
Life before representation is like its own film school. As a freelancer, you quickly learn by process of attrition what works and what doesn’t. You discover who talks the talk and who walks the walk. Jobs that are confirmed will inexplicably vaporize. “Friends” reveal their true colors while strangers evolve into your greatest allies. I got chewed up and spat out more times than I can count. Most importantly, I stopped measuring my success against my contemporaries, and realized we’re all trudging our own path.
A great piece of advice I received from an early mentor was that everybody eventually gets their break — you just need to stay in the game long enough for yours to come. And for many, myself included, one of those breaks is when an agent, manager or production entity decides to rep you. It’s not only a matter of optics from a client perspective (i.e. other people now vouch for you, so therefore you must not suck), but by being brought into the fold, you benefit from their expertise, network and hard-earned reputations. One must be careful to honor and respect that. Having recently signed with Hound Content, my horizons have expanded a great deal.
Was there a particular turning point in your career which propelled you to where you are at now?
There hasn’t been one singular project that I look back on and think, “that changed everything.” It has more so been the evolution of work across time that grew me as a filmmaker by refining taste, sensibilities and to an extent, moral compass. There’s a great tale that my husband often reminds me of—two pottery apprentices must deliver a vase by the end of the year as their final test. One apprentice spends all his time contemplating and calculating what makes the perfect vase, so that he need only construct one. The other apprentice spends her every waking moment creating vase after vase, experimenting and ceaselessly refining. At the end of the year, who do you think molded the perfect vase—the boy who spent all his time theorizing, or the girl who actually got her hands dirty? Moral of the story: you get better by doing.
What are your favorite projects to shoot, music videos or commercials?
Both. Most directors working in this space will tell you they’re two sides to the same coin. Music videos are great because anything goes; they’re “street” like that. You can be insanely creative because labels and artists are usually very open to letting directors execute their visions. However, the budgets aren’t what they used to be. On the flip side, commercial budgets are far healthier. But, in a certain sense, multi-billion dollar corporations have more at stake, and as a result the entire creative process is far more regulated by committee; more “buttoned up.” I love doing both, and there’s obviously crossover, but in general—one feeds the soul, the other feeds you.
What has been your most challenging project thus far into your career?
Every project that has ever been worth it was immensely challenging. In this moment, a couple come to mind: first, my music video for Salvatore Ganacci feat. Enya, because from the moment I got the call that it was green lit, I had a week to find a production company in France (where we’d be filming, and which I had never been to), crew up, location scout, cast, sort out all logistics and then deliver the video two weeks after that! I was also unrepresented at the time, so had no shoulder to cry on. The 2-day shoot was brutal—including a grueling overnight shoot where I remember telling myself at the craft service table, “I’m not gonna make it...I’m not gonna make it...”, but somehow we pulled through. In the end, the artist loved it and Fury, the production company out in France, ended up signing me.
The second one that comes to mind is the “Famous in Love” series launch promo for Disney and Freeform, but for entirely different reasons. This was one of the largest sets I’d ever worked on (about 200 people in total) and the time windows in which we had our main talent were incredibly tight. Between that, juggling the huge art, camera and VFX teams and rotating cast across three sound stages for interstitial and social media bits, I still marvel at how we fit a 3-day shoot into a single day. I absolutely have to give a shoutout to NuContext for handling the colossal operation, cinematographer Joe Labisi, ASC, for not slapping me when requesting no reflections in a glass cube set, and 1st AD Jason Lombardo for reminding me to breathe when I was legitimately ready to puke.
When put on a project, as a director, do you prefer to have complete creative control or set boundaries? What do you think is more challenging?
I greatly value creative territory and collaboration, which on paper seems like an oxymoron. While I certainly have an overarching vision, I set that more as the north star and then enlist my team to help get us there. I try and surround myself with the best possible experts in their field, as it would be ignorant and presumptuous to think I know it all. Rather, I know what I want, but understand there isn’t only one way to achieve that. The golden rule in art is that there is no right or wrong; there is only interesting, and less interesting. Well, it’s definitely less interesting to only ever do it my way. I’ve learned to trust my gut over the years, and my gut always tells me to listen before speaking.
What’s your ultimate goal as a director?
To direct TV and feature films (drama, action and sci-fi, specifically), though I never want to stop working in music videos and commercials either. The underlying current through it all is that regardless of medium, I want to tell daring, sincere human stories that resound with pathos and heart. I’m particularly drawn to underdog characters as well as grounded narratives that explore identity, family and redemption.
Do you feel that more life experiences throughout your career influence your work as a director?
A good director should unquestionably lead a full, varied life. No work of surpassing brilliance was concocted by someone who lived a sheltered or insulated existence. It’s like when people ask me what all my tattoos mean. To me, the real juice isn’t necessarily in the tattoos themselves, but the drama between sessions of needle and ink. If you’re going to craft stories with impact and authenticity, you need to have gone through at least some part of it, or else you honestly don’t know. Wander the world. Soak in cultures unlike your own. Fall in love. Have your heart broken. Listen, observe, appreciate. Notice the color purple, so to speak. For that is what will make life, and your work, so much richer.
Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
I’ve got an international commercial campaign coming up that will reunite me with some of my favorite collaborators, and I’ll be directing a spot involving a music icon and a bunch of travel, which is very exciting. I’m also diving back into a feature script I’ve been writing about an ex-hitman and retired detective who team up, which I’m hoping might be a vehicle for my debut feature.