Greg Brunkalla is a director based in Los Angeles specializing in Music Video and Commercial content. Throughout his career, Greg has directed for clients including The Avalanches, Uniqlo, and Red Stripe. We had a chance to sit down with Greg and learn more about his story.
How did you first get into directing? What has the process been like from creating your first video to now directing large scale music videos and commercial projects?
I went to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and in school, I really wanted to focus on creating music videos and commercials. I went to film school...I love film, I just felt that not knowing anyone in the film world, music videos and commercials could be the best way for me to get on a set. So, I kind of told my professors that. I remember for one project, they said to turn in a 2-3 minute short film and I asked if I could turn in 2 commercials. Those were on my reel when I went to New York.
When I got to New York, I did a video for $500 in my apartment for this band called Calla. It got on MTV’s 120 minutes, the only place where you could actually watch amazing music videos back then. The first music video that made me question everything was Spike Jonze’s Daft Punk for ‘Da Funk.’ When i saw that, i was like “Woah, There’s concepts. It’s not just people singing. I want to do that. They’re like little films, but bite sized.” Once I could do that, then someone might let me make a big thing.
But, right when I got to New York, that’s when music videos kind of died. It was all reality TV on MTV and YouTube wasn’t working yet. You couldn’t watch stuff online. This was in 2001. I was an editor for a bit at radical media in their post house. I was editing commercials and making them. I did a lot of work for Fader magazine. They had a dvd every month with music videos and I would do the interstitials on them. It just kept going. I still love making music videos, but it’s difficult to find the right ones.
Do you think that there is an overarching theme in your work?
I think, because I’m trying to have fun and try different things… If anything, keeping some sort of authenticity. I like my work to feel genuine. What I always try to infuse… I think… keeping a little naïveté in my work. But also, I think about the medium itself as a playground. That could be a style thing, how you mount the camera, how you film it. I want to have heart and soul and style, all in the same thing.
We absolutely love the ‘Because I’m Me’ video. How did the concept come about and what was the experience like creating the video?
That song is so rich with sounds and samples. I just kind of listened to it and thought: it’s a little boy singing about not being good enough. He’s just trying to be himself. There’s a woman giggling in the song and answering a phone. I wanted that to be her in the booth talking to her boyfriend. There were little sound elements already in the song that I matched on screen. Even at the end the song sort of switches gear, it’s kind of trippy, so I wanted to end with some magical realism.
The original concept I had the girl working in a diner. The boy was kind of hitting on the waitress at the diner and then doing the show outside the window, one she never sees. That was becoming a logistical nightmare, so Max Goldman (DP) had a lot to do with tailoring a new approach. Max and I had been friends for a long time, but had never worked together before that. We would meet for coffee a couple mornings each week for a couple weeks before. It wasn’t going to work with the diner, so we had to think of other places, and we were breaking down the budget. What could we do? That’s a big part of making a music video, working with the money.
We knew the girl needed to be at work at a post that she couldn’t leave. We looked a lot at the NYC street photographer, Bruce Davidson, who shot the subways covered in graffiti and kids with boomboxes. We went to Max’s house, rifled through photography books and decided to do it in the subway, and the girl would be in a booth, and she can’t leave. I ride the subway everyday in New York, I know that world. They can be pretty rude to you from that glass box.
The subway (MTA) has a lot of rules. You can’t use their booth, so we made our own. It worked to our advantage because we could put it where ever. Even the bench in the video was built by us.
I did all of the location scouting myself. One day I rode the D train from the Bronx to Coney Island. They just gave me a list of stations that were usable. We ended up shooting it in the bronx on a Sunday morning for 8 hours.
I’ll never forget it. First of all, the subway floor is disgusting. If your hand touches the subway floor, you gotta go wash that off. But, when you’re shooting, the rules change, the world is a different place. I was laying on the subway floor trying to get the last shot and the MTA woman, comes up and taps me on the shoulder. She’s like “Greg, we’re done, you’re about to get another 8 hours tacked on.” If we went over by even a minute, then we’d be charged. So I went over to the edit, and we needed to work some magic. We didn’t have everything.
I told the editor, Sam Puglise-Kipley at Whitehouse, to just put black if we didn’t have the right shot. I wanted a hard reminder that I didn’t have it. The video was missing close to a minute of footage. So, one night a week later, the whole team gets on the subway and we just went rogue. It was like a heist. We drew a map of the subway platform and we were with the dancers. So, we go in there and shoot the 3 shots we need. Two of the shots were green screen. We made it work.
How do you hope to see your career evolve over the next 5 years?
I’m always avoiding the pigeonhole. I hope for my projects to get bigger, better, longer and reach more people. I want to do films, commercials, music videos, installations. I want to keep questioning formats and figure out new ways to tell stories.
Knowing what you know now, what is the one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
The biggest piece of advice is find a mentor. I wish I had had one. I don’t think I had a lot of guidance, I just got out there and tried to figure it all out, and I still am. As I’ve gotten older, I go to people that I admire, even if they’re younger. So, find a mentor. Don’t be shy about.
Who are your top 3 favorite directors of all time?
1. Robert Altman
2. Cohen Bros.
3. Jonathan Glazer
We loved the Red Stripe video that you directed. What was the process like rigging the shop to create the wonderful display? What was the logistical process like?
For the Red Stripe video, the agency was out of London. They’re kind of an agency/art gallery, KK Outlet. It was their concept. I worked with this other company in London called Hirsch & Mann, and they do a lot of techy stuff. They do really high tech screens and interactive things. That process was interesting. It really felt like, you know, in James Bond when they give him the tour of his new weapons… “this is the briefcase, and this is what the watch does. It looks like a camera, but it’s actually a stun gun.” That’s how they did it. I kind of wrote some ideas and they were like “come in next week and we’re going to do a tour of all the different gadgets.” It was a weird feeling because that’s not how shoots normally work. I remember staying there until the sun came up, and we were trying different things. You need to know if it’s going to work, so you have to see if each idea is feasible since your shooting in real time. You’re almost doing the post first.
Something people don’t realize when you’re doing really stuff with real people is that there is a lot of great footage you’ll never see. Great reactions that aren’t in there because people didn’t want to be in a beer commercial – understandably. People don’t sign off. So, there was a Sikh man who gave us the most genuine, surprised reaction. It was great, and we went through our releases but couldn’t find it. Our producer went back to the store with a print out of the guy and showed it to the cashier. He was like “We’re looking for this man.” The cashier was like “Oh yeah, we know that guy. He works at the market. He has a booth.” So, then my producer is going through the market searching for the guy. I guess the guy found out and they found my producer at the market and confronted him. It got intense. So, we did it for real. That video’s legit.