Ian Schwartz is a director based in Los Angeles. He tells visually compelling, human stories that speak to the emotion, oddity, and surreal nature of our shared experience. Throughout his career, Ian has worked with artists and brands including Portugal The Man, Leon Bridges, and Nike.
How did you first get into directing?
It was something I was always drawn to I think. In third grade, we had a year long class project called Who Am I? that was kind-of an exploration of self and how we envisioned our futures. On a timeline of my life, I wrote that I would be a director and win an MTV VMA at 27, and be nominated for (but lose!) an Academy Award at 31. I guess I was really into awards at the time. So, I’m in the general vicinity of that timeline but lagging behind the expectations of my 8-year-old self. I hope he’ll forgive me. I went to university for film, but really had no idea how to get a job afterward. Someone suggested I look into music video / commercials, and after sending out a lot of cold emails, I landed a gig as an office PA at PRETTYBIRD. After a year or two, I started working in development there (creating other director’s treatments). At the same time, my cousin Cooper Roberts and I self-financed a music video for an artist called Boom Bip. That was really a key moment. I had thought a lot about directing and how to get into it, but ultimately I just had to take the leap and do it. Soon after, we directed the video for Joel Compass “Back to Me” which was very successful and launched the career in earnest, so to speak. I’ve been a repped director at PRETTYBIRD since then.
Is there a certain director that inspires you?
Of contemporary filmmakers, I’m drawn to the Coen Brothers’ sensibility, humor and embrace of the absurd. Lynne Ramsey is a master, to me, of edit and sound design. I’m inspired by her ability to create poetry within narrative structures. I look at Cuarón’s films and how he captures humanity and crafts empathy. Looking a bit further back, I love Sidney Lumet. I think he’s often overlooked as one of the great directors because he doesn’t have a distinct auteur style but I admire his range and versatility. Not a super controversial take, but Kubrick was a pretty good director. Some of my commercial / music video inspirations are Jonathan Glazer and Martin De Thurah.
What’s been your favorite project in your career and why?
While I’m not sure it’s the objectively best thing I’ve made, the music video for Mr. Little Jeans “Good Mistake” is a special project to me. I got to make it with some of my closest friends, and we were all up-and-coming in our careers at that point. We spent weeks together scouting every truck stop within a hundred mile radius of Los Angeles and ate at Wendy’s every night. Value menu only—junior bacon cheeseburgers and spicy nuggets. We pulled every string we could muster and didn’t take fees, and shot the whole thing in one rainy night at a working truck stop in the middle of the desert. I think it turned out weird and compelling, and the song is great. Really fulfilling experience.
What has been the most challenging project?
A couple come to mind.
I don’t think this is on my reel, but I directed a commercial in Madrid for a barbecue sauce that featured a bull. I don’t recommend working with bulls. They’re assholes and they’re not good at acting. This particular bull was just livid the entire time, and had only two things on its mind: kill our [skilled and experienced] stunt team and destroy our camera. It very nearly did both. It was a situation where we did as much due diligence as possible, we had a solid plan that involved arming a technocrane into the beast’s pen among myriad other safety precautions—and our bovine friend just didn’t want to cooperate. We ended up with some nice shots, but the safety of the crew was a very real concern throughout and we [rightly] stopped the shoot early as soon as our stunt coordinator / bull expert started to feel uncomfortable. My spot for Nike China Basketball was a challenge in a different way. Shooting in China is just taxing, physically and emotionally. At least in my experience. There’s a chaotic energy carried throughout incredibly long days, which can be inspiring in one sense but it also takes a toll. It was also a very ambitious script with tight prep and a tight budget that we shot over 2.5 days—and we were constantly losing locations and resources because of government policies or bureaucracy. And part of that, I’m sure, is being foreign to the language and culture and a different filmmaking ethos in terms of how crews operate and how a set is run. Ultimately though, I think those challenges and constraints helped create rewarding work and it’s a project that I’m really proud of.
What was the inspiration behind “Across the Room?”
“Across The Room” was initially just about feel for me. Leon’s vocals have so much warmth and soul—I felt that this video should be emotionally brighter than work I had previously done. Something more joyful. The lyrics are very present in the track in a storytelling sense, so while I don’t typically love to use lyrics to shape narrative, it was hard to ignore them in this case. I tried to make it more about externalizing his inner dialogue, rather than just a video about meeting a girl. That was the impetus behind the lighting shift and abstraction, contrasted with the more documentary-style daytime scenes. We also changed formats from 35mm (day) to digital (night) to heighten that shift. Visually, I was loosely inspired by photographers like Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks, and Todd Hido for the night sequences.
“Feel it Still” was SUCH a hit song… what was it like working on that project?
We had no idea “Feel it Still” was going to explode the way it did because it hadn’t been released yet when we were filming. I definitely thought it was a bop at the time though. And I’m super happy for the guys in the band that it has had so much success because they’re great dudes. I should mention too that I collaborated with PRETTYBIRD directors fourclops ::) who are multi-talented and geniuses at interactivity (the video has a big interactive tie-in at www.feelitstill.com). The shoot itself was wild. I think it was about one week from treatment to shoot day, so there was a fair bit of improvisation within the process. The basic idea was that John (lead singer), in a psychedelic party stupor, hallucinates a surreal world in which he’s some sort of apocalyptic dancing megastar. How that world manifested itself had to tie into the interactive elements and we were constantly adjusting to resources (or lack thereof), so it became a somewhat complex challenge. We shot just outside of Portland, Oregon at a beautiful salvage yard surrounded by forest. One night to shoot everything. It snowed unexpectedly, which was a pleasant surprise for the video and probably less pleasant for the crew.
What types of projects are you drawn to? Do you have a preference in regards to shorts, music videos, or commercials?
Right now, I’m enjoying doing them all. Music videos are a great creative outlet for experimentation, and visualizing music is such an interesting challenge to me. I like making a living, so commercials are nice in that sense. But seriously, I think commercials can be incredibly creative and fulfilling in the right circumstances. Some of my favorite work, both as a filmmaker and a viewer, is in advertising. I’m looking to get into longer form projects as well. I have a huge interest in documentaries, and I’m working on developing some short doc projects. I have some ideas for a narrative feature kicking about that I’d like to write, as soon I get over my crippling fear of writing a narrative feature.
Knowing what you know now, what’s one thing you wish you had known back when you started?
To trust my ideas. It’s sort of audacious to ask a bunch of people to help create something you’ve made up in your head. Being a director might be inherently narcissistic in that sense. And I don’t mean that negatively; it’s a form of [creative] courage. That kind of confidence didn’t always come natural to me. Trusting yourself is so vital to every step of the process—from writing to pitching to communicating your vision and executing it on set. Of course, it’s healthy to have doubts too, and to constructively grapple with them or have collaborators challenge your pre-conceived notions. For me at least, it’s about finding the right balance between neurosis and fearlessness.