Interview with film director

photo © Sean Kennedy Santos

Caroline Hourquet : You have an amazing career as a creative director, photographer, writer and artist as an auteur’s direction in motion pictures. I am curious about the interaction with the client and the relationship between creative freedom and commercial appeal. Can you tell us which was your greatest challenge and your greatest fear?

Sean Kennedy Santos : I have worked long enough in both advertising and fashion photography to learn that there are careful considerations in balancing the client’s needs and my creative freedom. If I’m asked as a creative & artist to execute ideas in a commercial environment, there is a challenge to have a win win situation for both parties. I want to create something new and better than the previous and this needs to fit with the commercial expectations of the client and their client. On the occasions in my career when I have been able to run with an open brief, the outcome has been the most successful for everyone. Fear is not such an issue with me, there is just the challenge to create work that I can be proud of in a commercial and increasing conservative commercial environment.

Caroline Hourquet : You’ ve been in fashion industry for (ten years?) where you made success. Now you decided to put your love and effort into the film industry “ What came from these considerations, do you ever know that you would get into film industry? Are you in the pursuit of something you haven’t found yet? Is there any connection between what you send in Nikau? I am thing about you quotation in Nikau Mag in 2007. (You were born in New Zealand, left home at 16, took to Australia, lived in a neibourhood full of crime & prostitution… But ever since you were left in a cinema to watch “The French Connection in 1971 at age eight – you just instinctively knew it was ALWAYS going to be New York City)

Sean Kennedy Santos :I worked originally in location advertising skipping the studio based commercial & editorial side of photography – usually you have to go up the ranks by that order and I was lucky to skip that and break into advertising with a one shot campaign. Fashion, through a tremendous relationship with one editor enabled me to shoot with the best designers in locations all over Europe and New York. But changes in the print and publishing world directed me to another, more innate form of visual expression. I love writing, connecting ideas for mood driven visuals, the art form of typography, design, combined with music and photography. All this, mixed with high fashion, enticed me to broaden the bigger picture. FILM. It seemed so obvious to me over the years that this love and desire to do film as an Autuers director is not something out of the blue. My clients always remark about my framing style, being one that is representory of a cinematographers hand – even the lighting has had a dramatic cinema approach. For me it’s been a natural progression of my skills and artistic endeavors.

I think with film it’s not a case of something I haven’t found, more over it’s a case of technology being more accessible to film makers now than it ever has been in the past. This makes for great inspiration that as a director I don’t have to wait or rely upon an army of others to put my ideas into play. Technology and tools can provide you with immediacy. I wouldn’t go as far as to say they are everything in the creative equation, but certainly having access to software and hardware on a prosumer level before making that leap to a Panavision or Arri set, does help tremendously when setting out your ideas for a strong storyline in film.
As to the influence of Interview 2007 / Nikau & comments made in the past – I guess this new path is one of natural progression not change. Yes, it was always going to be New York – that has not changed!

photo © Sean Kennedy Santos

Caroline Hourquet : What prompted you into film industry? When did you decided that film was something you really want to do?

Sean Kennedy Santos : Film has always been something I’ve wanted to do, but now the time is right for me from both a creative and technological aspect. Over the past few years I have been planning, writing and building an original script. As an extension of that I made hundreds of beautifully illustrated and photographic mood boards that detail the emotion and outplaying of the story. I truly believe the more time I take to perfect it, the more sound it’s overall corner stones will have to make a solid piece of film making. The STORY is everything.

Caroline Hourquet : How tough was it to go to film industry, into a “totally” new environment?

Sean Kennedy Santos : The transition from photography into film making as a director was not as hard in my case, I saw as budgets shrank in advertising and publishing, and the growing list of a new generation of art directors became familiar with the tools of a digital age, that things would change. ( The Canon Mark 2 camera is a fine example & the school of Abobe software ).The role of the independent photographer changed. It’s now a more DIY culture where Ad agencies employ in house production and only look for ideas from the photographer. Most of the production or execution can be produced in house and or be manufactured easily enough. Even high end cameras such as the Arri Alexa or the Red Epic can be hired with an operator and the agency can produce their own films and stills for clients without the use of a traditional film crew or photographer. The only issue is that you no longer have a photographer’s eye or a director’s vision over the whole creative process. It’s more of a commercial exercise in production and visual execution. I barely see anything new in terms of visual expression in fashion publishing or advertising anymore.

To avoid what I see as a compromised commercial process in advertising that has increasingly less to do with the art of a strong visual, I made a commitment to put in the hard yards and begin working through film. FILM was the best possible way for me to continue the creative and visual exploration of an original idea and still be behind the camera.

CSH : I am impressed about how you kept being creative, doing new things even in hard times. Financial crises never impeded your creative thinking. In the past 4 years you’ve done projects like: Shufti ( UK mag ) 2008, the book proposal, Scandinavian shots on my site in the Faroe Islands , 2010 with your own money….What else? How can you being creative even during hard times?

Sean Kennedy Santos : I think the most important aspect of any hard times be they financial or otherwise is to keep swimming. By this I mean keep diversifying your talents and keep looking for ways to improve your skills and keep growing as an artist. What I have found in this past 4 years is that now I’m no longer just a photographer. I’m a camera operator on most specialist rigs on film set, a digital tech operator with on set skills to problem solve issues, a creative writer, a designer of layouts that convey simple yet mood driven ideas. An innovator and motivator leaving nothing to chance. It’s very, very much like being a captain at sea in that as master you have to take responsibility all the time and make sure the ideas are realised. This takes me to the next level, which in my case is film.

In 2010 I was commissioned by a fashion client who was trying to expand his company website into something dynamic. I approached the process from a film perspective as opposed to a traditional Ad campaign still’s / fashion shoot . The basic concept was a simple story told beautifully about the birth of fashion in a New York setting that took you from the cutting room floor of a traditional fashion house manufacturer to the streets of the New York City landscape.

This is what tipped the scales for me & I knew as photographer/director I had turned a corner. For me it was going to be forever forwards in this direction – FILM !

Caroline Hourquet: “When you first began shooting, the night was all that was available to you, “therefore all from the light had to be painted in and exposed from darkness and shadows… Mainstream never understood it – exclaiming they had to see more light with more exposed parts of the image… BLACK – It’s essential to anything that has true strength and a quality in this life”
How do you apply that to your film? Do you do it differently?

Sean Kennedy Santos : Applying that skillful art into film is in part something I have learnt over a lifetime of being intrigued by film. In lighting stills it’s a fixed scenario, but in film it’s much more complex because of the rotating camera angles and shots where the camera revolves around an actor / actress in a scene. So rather than lighting a larger area in film I will shoot a shallow depth of field and concentrate of the expression of an actors raw emotion and light for that part as I would in a still – Moody & dark ! But where there is movement in a scene I need to be constantly thinking of where the light will travel as the actor’s move. It will all convey a completely different feeling to the viewer. What inspires me is still the ‘darkness’ of any frame. Whilst the general conception is that dark film is a depressing feeling I think of it in absolute opposites, in that it has a soulful and very calming effect. It’s a place where you can’t be disturbed by the distractions of overly lit daylight. It allows a viewer to concentrate on the subject or actor and draws you in – just that flicker of light is enough of an invite to make a viewer ask questions ……..What will happen next ?

Caroline Hourquet : Do you formulate the ideas you wish to express before finding the forms in which you ultimately develop theses ideas? What about the sounds, do you have a definite concept of the sound for you movies?

Sean Kennedy Santos : A good and fair question . I use experiences as the basis of all things – visuals, interactions, moments in my life, places I’ve been, cultures and people I encounter. I think it’s the same with any creative person – your inherent experiences are part of whatever you create and become part of the bigger stories you tell. I have no shortage of ideas, and translating them into visuals is a multi-dimensional process, each with it’s own contributing momentum.
Sound is an interesting question – Yes ! there is sound, but like the magic of darkness, sound – or lack of it, adds another whole emotion. Silence combined with a haunting score and a powerful image in the framing of a shot can say so much and really carry the story. It gives a dramatization to the conscience soul within us all I think. Not to over think these elements of production, I prefer to keep it simple in every way possible to allow the image to come through.

Caroline Hourquet : Do you encourage interpretation of your work by giving to them titles? “Tribe” “The Vanishing”…

Sean Kennedy Santos : I only like to give titles to my work as a lead in – I think once people are there they can read into it what they want. As is with ‘ Tribe ‘ the book . It began with a really hot New York city summer’s day when all you want to do is sit by the Hudson River. I saw the spark of an idea and suddenly pages of writing for my film came into my head and with it pictures that then formed the basis of the book — ‘ Tribe’ . With zero production I shot what I think this is the best work I have done in my photographic career. As I looked on to continue the series I thought of the subcultures of New York as not just groups of people but a TRIBE ! I gave the post production and colorizing an edgy feel and shot all the later work in full contrast so that it had a primal feeling. For the page layouts, I added font and design that had more of a handwritten calligraphy feel to it than traditional scripted font.

Film Directeur Sean Kennedy Santos New York

Caroline Hourquet : Could you please tell us about the movie you are working on?

Sean Kennedy Santos : I can only say briefly at this stage there are 2 films that are slated for production. One goes in to principle shooting this summer – it’s beautiful tale ( documentary ) about an individual called ‘ Joey ‘, a classic Italian American who has endless tales to tell about the history and celebrities of New York – all from the driving seat of his vintage 1950′s Chevrolet. It’s full of rich, personal stories about iconic people in an iconic city. All set in the magnificent landscape of New York and the open streets. I am incorporating the melodic trumpet of the amazing jazz musician Terence Blanchard and the soulful narration of Terrance McKnight to give the documentary even more depth. I love where this film is headed and feel this it is going to have a solid and positive impact on the documentary genre.

The next film is due for pre production at the end of 2013. This is a full length feature for which I am sourcing locations in New York, Paris and Australia. We are taking a Jane Campion film making approach in that a small crew of dedicated and artistic people with the right talents will make this film unique. I’m looking at Swedish and Dutch cinematographers Italian and German composers a few specialists in Australia that I think have REAL hidden skills .There is a Spanish art director in design that really swept me away with his cinematic work last year and that has made him a place in the films production. It’s a relatively new concept but one he has mastered with remarkable beauty and that to me is very appealing. I cannot really discuss the second feature because so much of it is a protected piece of work. ( Perhaps another interview as we go into principle shooting would be more appropriate then ). These are exciting times to be able to create visuals and share them.

Caroline Hourquet : How does the interaction between yourselves (Or the actors) and the audience differ in a performance as compared to a shooting?

Sean Kennedy Santos : So much more …….. In photography over the past 10 years I have gone to extensive lengths in my preproduction to brief models and crew about the direction of the shoot. I have written mini scripts for all my characters, prepped mood boards and scouted my own locations. Models feel so much more involved and are willing to give more of a performance to the camera if they are prepared before shooting starts. This is a successful formula in the planning simply because there is no time on set. All these singular investments in planning a photographic production are carried over into film making. Once the cameras start rolling, I can then be open to spontaneity and contribution from the actors.

Caroline Hourquet : What do you think about these people “Artists” who are steeling ideas from someone else? Are they in the pursuit of MONEY? How can anyone protect itself from that? I think you are not the only one you have been spoiled with ideas. And you wont be the last one. Do you think that to be successful and have more money, artists should speak louder, know people in powerful places? (I am thinking about theses “artists” who produce the same old stuff you can see everywhere.)

Sean Kennedy Santos I have very outspoken opinions about people who just sit at their desks with a cut & paste tool, copying concepts and ideas from artists and claiming them as their own. I know EVERYONE is in a hurry. But it’s like cheating on an exam at school. Sooner or last you will have to come up with a solution on your own. If you’re smart and committed to the art you will create something original – this is what ultimately becomes recognized as ‘ style ‘.
Are people who plagiarize in it for the money – to a degree yes. I think it just boils down to laziness and a cultural acceptance that it’s OK to steal other people’s ideas and write them off as your own. You can copyright everything and protect yourself legally, but in the end there is little you can do apart from continue to develop your style and focus on the art. Otherwise it just becomes a big negative. This is another reason why I have gone into film. Once it’s on the screen for a global audience there is NO disputing who its original creator is – The Director & Writers !

Caroline Hourquet : When you meet people, do you know at once whether there is a mutual kind of engagement, whether you (will) interpret things in the same way?

Sean Kennedy Santos : Oh God what a question – That depends on the circumstance. In business I just maintain a simple discipline that Helmut Newton always advocated as a ‘gun for hire’. I think in terms of when, where, always how & sometimes how much. It is the best way NOT to get emotionally involved and it draws a clear line between the brief and the creative solutions.

Caroline Hourquet : What makes an image or a film successful?

Sean Kennedy Santos : By very nature I feel it is originality and style. In an image it’s about style or a stylized approach to the subject matter. In film it’s an original story, well shot by a talented cinematographer accompanied with strong and believable performances.
Keep in mind these are VERY early days for me as a director and there will be a lifetime of learning and enhancing my skills. It’s almost preemptive not having a feature out at this point in time for me to render an opinion about what makes a film successful. But in some ways it is only the picture that has become larger, in my case the canvas is no longer a print – it’s the screen in a cinema. That to me is a worthwhile journey, I’ve waited all my life for an opportunity like this.

Caroline Hourquet : What’s make an artist or a film director smart?

Sean Kennedy Santos : I admire an artist / director who has the ability to grow with each film and do it all over again from scratch with every project. I think to stay ahead and be successful is to assess the material in a script in much the same way any artist looks over a commission and makes it their own. I don’t know if this makes them ‘smart’ but it certainly makes for a measured personal satisfaction – and has the potential for great film making!

Caroline Hourquet : Your new film will be about Fashion, Photography, Art & the pursuit of that love”. Is that “the pursuit of that love” is having the courage to follow your heart and intuition?

Sean Kennedy Santos : Yes, the film is exactly about all these things, about life and art, and of course it will have fantastic visuals. But now is the time for me to get to work and make this film as good as it can be….

photos © Sean Kennedy Santos

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