Giving Yourself Permission — Miniflix Interview With Keenan Newman
Commercial Director/DP And Short Filmmaker Keenan talks about being a professional listener in the director’s chair and why you have to try (and fail) in order to succeed.
Keenan Newman is one of the most exciting and cinematic filmmakers out there. You’ve probably seen his work without even realizing it. Levi’s jeans. Banana Republic. Apple. He’s directed commercials for these brands and more, along with making several short documentaries, directing personal poetry films and even being a cinematographer on many other ads and projects. His career being this multi-faceted should come as no surprise to those who know his beginnings. Starting out as a psychology major at Stanford, Keenan would never take a single film production class during his undergrad. His first job out of college? Sales. Slowly but surely though, Keenan found his way to what he discovered was his true love: writing and directing film projects.
Perhaps it is this very unconventional route to a career behind the camera that has allowed Keenan to so freely make even the most commercial of his projects feel personal, alive and uncompromising. Keenan talks with us today about that strange journey to filmmaking, along with (much-needed) practical advice for aspiring filmmakers.
Miniflix Interviewer: What was the first film or piece of visual art that made you feel like this creative thing was what you wanted to do?
Keenan Newman: I wouldn’t say there’s one piece. I’ve always been a filmmaker and didn’t know it. My older brother and I had a radio show that we hosted when we were six years old. We’d just hang out with a tape recorder and record ourselves coming up with all these wild stories. In some ways I’ve always been playing around with different forms of stories, and realized slowly that the expression I like to experiment with is cinema.
I really started to explore the possibilities of cinema in college. I thought I was going to be a psychology major, but I took an introduction to Cinema class that was all history and theory. I took that class thinking that it would be a really fun thing to explore but I didn’t anticipate experiencing anything remotely related to filmmaking after that. I was completely captivated by this course, because filmmaking for me is really the intersection point of so many different academic disciplines, and I just felt really at home in that space. It offered a very open-ended type of exploration…the first pieces that really inspired me were all shared in that class…I would credit my foundation with a really great professor who got me excited about what was possible in cinema and the films that I saw, like from [Alain] Resnais and [Jean-Luc] Godard and perhaps some of the Italian Neo-Realist cinema.
Miniflix: Do you come at film from a more intellectual or intuitive place? Perhaps there doesn’t even need to be the distinction. I ask because you received your B.A. in Film & Media Studies rather than a traditional Film Production program. How did doing film studies as an undergrad help you prepare for the career you have now?
Keenan: I would never say that one route is better than the other. I can only speak from my experience and say what was appealing to me. For me, it’s always been really important to understand history. To be grounded in history. I was really excited about that path, because there’s so many incredible artists, creators, writer, poets, historians and politicians who have had their hand in the cinema. It’s such a young medium that I felt very fascinated in learning that history, and being aware of all the theory, the experimentation, that’s possible. It’s really influential for my career, because…It only increases the depth of the creative inspirations I can draw up.
M: I want to get into the intersection between the personal and the commercial. You often seem to blur those lines as much as you can in your projects, and you’re not ashamed to put your poetry, essays and photography right there alongside your major ads. Do you see or approach a Levi’s ad differently than, say, The Wallace Stegner video you DP’d or the “Ode To Volcano” film poem you created?
K: I try to begin every project from a place of hope, believing that achieving something unique or something interesting or something moving is possible, and that can have many different forms. So the “Ode To Volcano” poetry film, for example, is 100% personal expression. That means it was a very raw, feeling-based experience. Then something like the Levi’s work, is more about trying to tell an emotional story within the framework of a company that has a specific agenda and a specific audience. So you’re essentially given parameters you can work within.
The easiest thing to do is to cop out and believe nothing creative can be achieved, because it’s commercial work for someone else or can’t be as expressive as it could be because it’s tied to deep pockets. However, I prefer to see it as a job I am being hired to execute, so that means I’m going to do the best job that I can do. All I can do is take my passion and my ideas and desire to take creative risks, put them on the table, advocate for them, and do the best that I can do to maintain the integrity of my work. Hopefully, if I do a good job, then I’m able to inspire the client to come with me on my artistic journey.
M: You seem like a really holistic DP and filmmaker. By that I mean, you have a real ethics and aesthetics behind what you do and you definitely don’t seem in this business just for all the techie stuff. Yet, technological considerations guide every single part of your process. How much do you let yourself get wrapped into the minutiae of tech decisions (what camera, the color grading, the post effects, etc.), and is there ever a point in post-production where you’re worried about letting the digitization of the filmmaking process take too much control? In short, how do you stay a supremely human filmmaker despite the temptation for commercials to be all about the specs and innovations?
K: The reality of filmmaking is that new technology is always emerging all the time. I think it’s critically important to be up to date on what is changing and what is applicable. That being said, I come from a background in poetry. I’ve been writing poems as long as I can remember. So I always start from a place of creating a specific project goal…starting with a feeling and trying my hardest to describe it with words, or starting with a specific story that’s being communicated, and then working backwards to determine the technology necessary to execute that idea. I’m always trying to keep the process simple, but never without technology that could deepen the emotional impact of a certain feeling or other aspect of a project goal.
M: I love how everything you make, whether it’s the Photay music video or the Levi’s “New Californians”, or the incredible Banana Republic experimental work “No Boundaries”, always derives its entire soul from the beat or rhythm you provide. There’s an inherent sense of pacing all of your commercials have, and it always come from the incredible detail you bring to sound bridging and to soundtrack choices. Is sound and music always among the first things you consider when putting together a project, or does it just seem that way?
K: It’s different for every project. Sound is what creates space, so it allows you to feel how big the environment is that you’re working in. Most times, sound is what drives the emotional trajectory of the film. So when you feel happy it’s because the sound is leaning more towards happiness, and when you feel frightened it’s because the sound is leaning in a more scary direction. Having a background in documentary filmmaking makes me really excited about recording on location sound. Most of what is included in all of those films you mentioned is on-location sound.
In the “No Boundaries” video, it’s harder to hear the sounds, because we leaned more into a very dynamic track…but something like the Prada film or the Levi’s “Eureka” film used all on-location sounds mixed in a way that make each one of those pieces in the process feel magical, or extraordinary, or more captivating. That’s done on purpose because that’s how they feel to me. The fact that all of these hands touched this product, and we never really see that, is really interesting to me. How cool is it to honor all of the hard work and creativity that is brought to that environment.
M: The song in “No Boundaries” is so effective and emblematic of the film. Is it something you knew you wanted to use from the beginning?
K: I’m a really big fan of that band, Rival Consoles, that made the score for this film. The producer of the score, his name is Ryan [West], is a super-super nice guy and talented musician, and I was listening to a lot of his music throughout the whole summer. I just dropped in one of his tracks just to see if the feeling would be right. It really clicked for that piece; it felt really good with the footage. So we reached out directly to Ryan’s management and record label to see if he would be up for customizing the track for our short film, and he was totally into it. He re-wrote parts of the song so that it achieved the dynamism that it needed. He was cool to work with; he had some insane ideas that were really creative…
M: Wow, that really surprises me, because the song feels like something you would have wanted from day one. The final cut of this film feels so intertwined with the music, but it makes sense that you and Ryan edited that song so that it would match the footage.
K: I also worked with two sound editors who were great: Ernie Gilbert and Craig Thomas Quinlan. Ernie was the leader in building the emotional trajectory of the piece, and we used the Rival Consoles track to create the skeleton for our entire edit. It was almost like that song unlocked the structure of the film in a way that we hadn’t seen before.
M: What was it like cutting “No Boundaries” into its shorter versions?
K: I think most people know that I made a commercial, not that I made 27 commercials for 1 campaign….with the creative director, Len Peltier at Banana Republic, we came up with 27 unique deliverables that could be customized to many media platforms. We shot 30 hours of footage, and the reason we shot so much was because we had those 27 deliverables. What we ended up settling with was having some of the shorter pieces be more like sense memories…going on a journey of discovery through sense memory.
M: Yeah, I found that to be especially true in the 5-second promos you made.
K: I’m really proud about how those turned out. They were so fun and interesting, and we were able to put in some shots we really liked..it’s great to get shots in that you love that might otherwise have ended up on the cutting room floor…
M: You have perfectly captured that “wandering eye” aesthetic in much of your commercial work. It’s something I find in all of Chivo Lubezki’s collaborations with Malick and all of Christopher Doyle’s collaborations with Wong Kar-wai. The camera strays its human characters to find other intriguing compositions. Or it doesn’t and sometimes lingers on the human face in a way not becoming of most films made by fashion brands. Does your pre-production and production schedule go as spontaneously and organically as these films feel to watch? Do you find films like “No Boundaries” entirely in the edit? Or is this pretty well-planned out beforehand? I’m really curious to know since the impression with more avant-garde filmmaking can be that it was spontaneous when in fact it’s often extremely pre-meditated.
K: I love the idea of having an element of, not necessarily improvisation, but allowing people to be themselves on set. That includes everyone — from the assistant camera man to the DP to the talent — allowing those personalities to come on set and thrive and shine and create something new. It’s something that could never be achieved in a more authoritarian, exclusive project. What I tried to do in those instances [such as “No Boundaries”] was: find the most cinematic locations I could find, build the team that was going to be able to discover those nuances and be comfortable working in an environment that’s constantly changing, then cue direction to all of the team members so that certain feelings can be achieved. It’s very calculated and very loose at the same time. “No Boundaries” was a ton of location scouting and making sure all of the locations had certain elements the talent could play with, but also cinematic elements that could be discovered, or painted…if that makes sense.
M: Do you find the projects you only DP to have “less of you” (less of your visual stamp and style) than the ones you direct and DP? I find a lot of overlap in the style and mood of the projects.
K:. When I started to deepen my practice of cinematography, I was nervous about working in projects where the creative direction would be extremely different than my creative instincts. What I’ve learned, and am continuing to learn, is that those moments are really incredible opportunities. Because I already have my certain ideas about how I would shoot a scene, but the director that I’m working for might have a completely different idea about how to put that scene together. Being able to experiment with that, learn from it, then execute the idea, has really deepened my toolkit….there was a shoot in Mexico with a director that wanted to follow every single piece of live action. My inclination in that moment was that we were overshooting, overshooting, overshooting. But when these really emotional things started happening in front of the camera, it clicked in my head that everything we were doing was by design…and it was working.
M: What camera spec do you believe is the most underrated among industry professionals?
K: When I’m trying to choose my equipment, I first have an idea — a feeling — of the image, of the color space I want to achieve. Then I’ll go and watch a bunch of color tests for that specific set up that I’m curious about. I honestly think what’s overlooked is just the willingness to get out there and try new equipment. There are certainly cost implications to this, but taking advantage of opportunities to go to a friend’s house and use their lighting setup, or bring your buddy’s FS7 out with new lenses, because you’re curious about what the lens characteristics are. You can watch a million and one videos online about what something does and what it looks like, but you’re not going to know how it will work for you. The most important thing is to trust in what you are capable of creating, and letting technology reveal what you’re capable of.
M: For those who see your commercials and think, “I’d love to be at a place where I was shooting commercials for Banana Republic or Levi’s, but I don’t know how to get there…”, what advice or strategy would you give them to follow? Is it a matter of making your own work until the big companies notice you? Do you need to be knocking on doors and networking non-stop? Should you be working up the proverbial ladder? Or something else?
K: Talk to strangers. Put yourself out there. Make a list of ten friends, or friends of friends, that are working in the business, that you respect, admire and feel inspired by. Reach out to all of them. Ask to take them out for coffee and ask them a bunch of questions.
I don’t think I’ve ever had someone reach out to me through my website or Instagram or anything like that to ask for collaboration. All the things I’ve done have come through some kind of personal connection, and most of those connections have been from putting myself out there and having faith in that process.
Also, it’s about taking creative risks and allowing myself space to fail. Like messing up camera settings and having that be part of the process, or trying out a new idea or direction in a film and having it just completely unravel and fall apart. Then learning from those experiences.
I think there’s also just this idea in America that everything needs to be earned and I need to work really hard. Well, I don’t think you need to put that weight on your shoulders; I don’t think it needs to be heavy. Instead, give yourself permission to go out there and do something because you love it and want to create the space for it. Maybe you’re not a professional right now but that’s okay because you’re trying and working at it and allowing yourself grace of expression, the beauty of expression.
M: Both of your short documentaries about the “Youth Local Councils in Palestine” and about “Abel” are taking real-life stories and presenting them in a grounded, realistic style not like your more stylistically-driven work. How did you find these projects to do? Were you seeking these individuals out, or did they come to you?
K: For Abel, I was approached by a foundation in the Bay area called The Tipping Point Foundation that deals with a lot of homelessness in San Francisco. So I worked together with their leadership and their writers and fundraisers to find one of their partners that’s been supported by a Tipping Point program. That ended up being Abel and his family. So we scraped together a little bit of money and went out and filmed for about two weeks with Abel and his two sons in San Jose where they live, and then Susanville, where they were from. That film was actually shown at the largest fundraising benefit for the Tipping Point Foundation. On the day they screened the film, they raised over $12 million. I just felt really proud to be part of that.
I think the film played a small role in providing inspiration and an emotional connection, but it was a way that I could contribute directly to my community just by listening. In the Bay area, there’s a lot of talking going on and not as much listening…when I go into the world of documentary, I feel like it’s my job to be a professional listener. You know, just listening to Abel and his children, hearing what they said and then trying to weave it together in a way that other people could listen to.
So, this last year, I made Youth Local Councils in Palestine with Lana [Abu-Hijleh] who was a Palestinian woman who started a program for young Palestinians to get them to participate in their local municipal governments. And it started as an organization with only 40 students in a small room, and it grew to involve almost 26,000 youth. What’s really cool about it is that actually provides young teenagers the ability to enact legislation inside the state of Palestine.
It’s a really, really difficult area to grow up. Personally, it’s the largest scale of human rights abuses I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s a difficult place to work because it’s occupied by the military. In that environment, as a young person, when your rights are extremely limited and where you’re not necessarily allowed to leave the country, it’s hard to find hope and hard to find faith that your circumstances will change and your opportunities to grow and deepen as a human being. So I think that story was really inspiring for me to learn from young people who are living in a situation that is one of the most difficult on the entire planet. To listen to all the work that’s being done by 14–18 year olds organizing, changing laws, working with their local municipal governments to try to make their circumstances better.
M: What’s your favorite commercial, music video or short film directed and shot by someone else? Why?
K: That’d be a Paolo Nutini music video called “Iron Sky”. It’s a really creative mix of documentary and fiction. It’s also a post-apocalyptic commentary on the current state of humanity. The story is about a fictional drug that takes over this community in Eastern Europe. It’s so cool, because it starts out with this fake documentary that explains the backstory and then it launches into the music video. It also helps that the Paolo Nutini track is emotional. But what the director [Daniel Wolfe] did in interpreting that song and building it and weaving into a landscape that felt alive and real while also fictional, is super inspiring for me. I return to it for creative inspiration a lot.
You can find more of Keenan’s great work, including “Ode To Volcano” and the two short documentaries discussed here, at http://keenan.film/.