Director Phillip Van talks about Xbox, Neighbors & President Obama

Phillip Van is a man of many talents.

When he’s not creating award-winning short films, he’s directing cool music videos for groups like Neighbors and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart or making innovative, tech-savvy branded content and commercials for clients like XBOX (he directed and co-wrote Bright Falls, a prequel to their popular Alan Wake video game), Infiniti (he created the interactive film Deja View for the car company), Blue Cross Blue Shield, and more. Oh, and there’s that little side career as an acclaimed still photographer. 

Despite all that, Phillip managed to find time to answer our questions via e-mail recently. Our exchange is below.

GUM: For our readers who don't know you, can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Phillip Van: I'm a filmmaker. I direct commercials and branded content, mostly. Sometimes music videos. I got into this through directing short films during and after NYU Grad Film. 

GUM: How did growing up in the Pacific Northwest influence your style? I know that in Bright Falls, for example, it played a very direct role.

PV: I love the PNW. It's a place that feels consistently moody, hazy, in some liminal state between sleep and wakefulness. Pretty much how I am most mornings. 

Bright Falls was a 40 minute live-action episodic prequel to Alan Wake, an XBOX survival horror game set in the Northwest. Both are set in the same small town, a made-up Twin Peaks inspired community. The locations in the game were incredibly life-like and reminded me of a lot of places I knew growing up - so finding the real world equivalents to those spots was pretty fun and intuitive. 

Phil Van on VIMEO

GUM: What are some of the big differences to you between directing films, music videos, and ads or branded content? 

PV: Ads and branded content involve agencies and clients. You've got a cavalcade of creatives, accounts people and brand representatives that are very much a part of the process. Short films and music videos are comparatively unregulated and usually pretty scrappy. I came up that way, so it's easy for me to go back to having not much and to make that work. But resources really do make a huge difference.

On shorts and music videos, you're almost always the writer. On ads you're realizing someone else's script and creative. At most, you're collaborating on revisions, but you have to be respectful of a creative team's work before you became a part of the process. I like collaborating, so it's usually a pretty positive experience. 

GUM: When you're creating branded content, how do you balance telling a story and selling a product? In which instances has that been easier or more difficult?

PV: Luckily, I haven't had to do any commercials that are just product porn. For the most part, the campaigns I've worked on have been about telling a story or illustrating a creative concept. And I've had the fortune of working with some insanely great ad agencies and creatives. In those instances, we pretty much all want the same thing. And even though it's a commercial, you're trying to communicate the beats of a story in as concise and dynamic a way as possible, just like you would with something made purely for the sake of art. 

When you come out of art or film school, it's easy to naysay commercial work, but then you realize how much branding is in play on non-commercial projects. In a music video, you're branding an artist, in an indie, filmmakers are branding themselves and actors are championing or playing against their own brands. I'm not saying that everything's a commercial, but I am saying that nothing is uncompromised. People have a way of sanctifying the stuff they like and demonizing the stuff they don't, but I think that's usually based on the fear that their own brand may not come across if they risk certain associations. And that's pretty ironic. 

GUM: For the "Wild Enough" video, the singer has some kind of medically induced or measured mind control. How did you come up with the idea for the clip? How did it relate to the song?

Neighbors music

PV: The clip was inspired by Alvin Lucier's 1965 film "Music For Solo Performer" in which he hooked his head up to electrodes attached to a bunch of musical instruments that he tried to play with his brain. He ended up rattling some symbols, but that was about it. 

Noah Stitelman the lead singer/main scientist in the video and I thought it would have been funny if he tried it with human test subjects. We were really interested in what kind of moves that would induce. Celia Rowlson-Hall choreographed the subjects, all dancers, and came up with some incredibly weird and wonderful ideas. We looked at it as a battle for control - Noah keeps trying to bend them to his will, then failing to, until he literally blows their minds with his guitar solo. I miss solos like that from music videos in the 80's and always wanted shoot one. 

GUM: What was it like to shoot dozens or hundreds of endings and variations for Deja View? How was it different than narrative filmmaking or more straightforward ads?

PV: It was the biggest continuity challenge any of us had dealt with. The concept functioned a lot like a video game: picture shooting all the variations in a game with actors IRL. Anyone who has shot narrative knows that if you change one thing, it can have a ripple effect through your entire story. You can image what changing a dozen things, in every scene, leads to. We had huge flow charts to map it all out. It was definitely unique from any ad campaign I had done before. Bright Falls had similar elements, but the interactivity was new. 

GUM: How did you get the idea to photograph the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy? How did what you saw change your view of the city?

PV: I went with a group of filmmakers on a few different relief trips to Rockaway Beach. We helped residents dispose of waterlogged furniture and dig out their basements. It was a totally surreal, dystopic situation. It looked like the end of times. We made a pact not to get too filmmakery and limited our shoot times to certain windows so that we could stay focused on helping out. The pictures wound up in a New York State ad encouraging further aid when the press had cooled despite Rockaway's need for more help. The videos we took ended up in a couple of different documentaries about Sandy. Hopefully they did some good.

GUM: You re-created the famous “blown away” Maxell ad with Petra Nemcova & James Frey. What was it like to create your own take on something that iconic?

PV: I'm an 80's kid and I loved the era's iconography. It was fun. Petra and James were both really great and easy to work with. The original commercial is surprisingly straightforward. It's strange to look back on effects that blew everyone away and realize how basic they actually were. And it's always great to break them down and try to recreate them.

GUM: In your short film Dunny the mother character is sympathetic to Dunny. Why? What's driving her to act differently than everyone else in the film?

PV: Great question. I think she's the type of mom that would mother the whole neighborhood if given the chance. I doubt it's motivated by selflessness. It's more pride than anything. She's proud of her suburban mom status. Helping Dunny is actually rather selfish in that regard. 

GUM: You did a series of award-winning Blue Cross Blue Shield ads.  How do you make spots like that interesting and broad but not maudlin or fake?

PV: Each of those five spots features a single close-up on either a hand or a foot in one take for 30 seconds. And even though it's just a close-up, we shot each of them on location with actors who we recorded live (rather than in post). This was the most difficult possible way to shoot these. And it drove my producer nuts when it meant that we actually needed to shoot on the side of a mountain for the insert of the rock climber's hand. 

The agency was adamant about the backgrounds being real and I love that they were so specific about this. I think the spots were a lot more authentic as a result, even in subtle and nearly imperceptible ways. 

GUM: You have amazing photos from Obama's first inauguration. How did you get that kind of access?

PV: I was there shooting a documentary with another filmmaker named Ben Mor. He got us all the access. Being right on stage with Obama was hard to process fully. The greenroom was filled with iconic people, many of whom were meeting each other for the first time. It was like a wax museum come to life. 

But everyone was humble and grateful. You got a sense they all felt lucky to be there. Which made it easy to relate. 

GUM: When you are choosing a studio to film at, what qualities are you looking for?

PV: I really hope it fits the size of the set we need to build or production design we need to bring in. I've worked on some cramped stages and it always comes together, but with a little extra room, we can all breath a lot easier. I know my DP is usually on the lookout for a good grid to hang lights from and sometimes a good dimming board. Sound is obviously key on anything with dialog. For music videos with playback, a good speaker system is a plus but not totally necessary. A separate room for hair and makeup and/or wardrobe helps keep things in order. On Dunny we built every interior on a sound stage. I learned a lot from that. A good stage starts to feel a bit like a home once you settle in. The control and focus it provides are incredibly beneficial and can make a huge difference on the outcome of your shoot.

Interview by Shawn Setaro