If you were able to follow Matthew for a few days straight, you may think that there are innate periods of heavy film study, separated by time away from the industry. That is true on the surface, but it is in fact all cohesive. Whether on set, writing a script or taking personal time to travel abroad or skate the local spot, MJT's experiences build upon an ethos that flows through his films. To take a step away from film, to have raw experiences, allows the true essence of life to be portrayed on screen. His recent signing with ArtClass confirms our belief that the journey is only what you make of it.
Navigating the film industry can be a tricky one, and yet at times things just seem to line up and fall into place. How has your journey thus far impacted your career and personal ambitions? From not attending film school to now being signed with ArtClass is an inspiring path!
It's definitely a tricky world to navigate, and I've spent my fair share of time feeling rudderless. I've always tried to name my goals or make lists in an attempt to plan for the future, but it rarely happens the way I think it will. I think it's still a valuable exercise to track where you are and where you want to go – but being too rigid with it is a recipe for disappointment.
So it's hard to say exactly how my journey has impacted my career... If I'd known of a quicker way to get here I certainly would've taken it! But I recently found an old hard drive of some of my first music videos and short films, including behind the scenes edits of us making them! It's crazy to think back to everyone showing up, getting paid nothing, and working just for the fun of making something together. I'm dating myself but this was also before instagram / sharing was so immediate and constant. So you were really doing something just to do it. And I think that's the key; remembering how fun it was to make things with your friends when there was no monetary pressure, no worries about social media clout or cachet, and try to bring that to every project. When you really love it I think it always shows in the final piece. It's also a lot more fun along the way!
What do you enjoy most about your process of bringing stories and images to life?
Wow that’s a tough question. It’s funny but I think I actually enjoy pre and post production as much or more than shooting. Production can be fun of course and especially when you’re on location somewhere cool. But in pre-production you get to visualize everything – taking your time to focus on what could be. It’s all new and anything is possible. I remember seeing old footage of Alfred Hitchcock working with models and toy sets to plan out precise camera position and blocking on The Birds. I often make diagrams for staging and process especially when Choreographing Camera movements. (Chipotle BTS)
Then in post, things are set, you have a set amount of raw footage – like a raw material – and start to carve out the best bits like a sculptor. This is sort of an aside but I think editors are the unsung heroes of filmmaking, they should get as much credit and ownership for the final product as anyone.
[Chipotle 'Follow the Order' shot diagram]
As with any position there are ebbs and flows of busy periods of work but as a director there can often be longer periods between gigs. How do you use any down time to reconnect with your craft and stay creative for the next opportunity?
I do find a lot of downtime as a director. During the pandemic when we all had ample time, I got in the habit of writing more and so now I welcome the down time because it leads to really productive writing periods. I’ve finished a couple feature length scripts and there’s never a shortage of work to be done on them. In addition I just try and see everything. I’m lucky to live in New York so I’ll frequently go to Metrograph for some classics I’d never seen on the big screen or IFC / Angelika etc… There are a good amount of independent theaters around so I try and take advantage
I also find some of my best spent down-time is completely away from film. Surfing, skateboarding, playing an instrument, traveling... I think there’s such a rush in our culture to achieve that often people try to be an artist and get famous without having any life experience. I believe it’s important to get out of that mode and experience the world separately. It always ends up leading you back to and influencing your work.
"Some of my best spent down-time is completely away from film. Surfing, skateboarding, playing an instrument, traveling... I think there’s such a rush in our culture to achieve that often people try to be an artist and get famous without having any life experience.."
How has the role of director afforded you a special connection or ability to connect deeper with a subject whether it be a person, place or even an inanimate object?
I think being a director is being an observer. As much as you’re dictating what the image will be, you also have to observe everyone on set to see what's working, how to adjust, how to improve… Beyond just on set I think trying to be an observer of human nature has strengthened all of my relationships. Practicing empathy which in turn affects your work since the goal is always to try and pull that feeling from an audience.
What feelings do you try to evoke through your direction?
This really depends on the project. I’m as equally drawn to slow burn thrillers as I am to a fun comedy. I think I want most to evoke empathy, especially with an unlikeable character. Because if you have a flawed character but the audience can understand where they’re coming from you have the push-pull of emotion that I find leads to the most engaging experience.
The weight of a film falls heavily on the shoulders of the director. How do you handle the pressure and stresses of leading a production?
I always think of film as a highly collaborative process. If things are going well then it’s a team effort that gets you there. But you’re right that the weight of a project is often on your shoulders, if it doesn’t go well people will look to you as responsible.
In terms of handling it I think this comes back to my emphasis on pre-production. There are always unforeseen elements on shoots out of your control. But the more I’m able to plan something out the better chance I feel of getting everything I need. If I’ve done as much prep as I typically do then once I get to the shoot I don’t really feel any pressure at all.
"Trying to be an observer of human nature has strengthened all of my relationships. Practicing empathy which in turn affects your work since the goal is always to try and pull that feeling from an audience."
Matthew James Thompson is a director based in NYC