FYIG recently got to chat with director David Lester about working with his wife, his various projects and much more. Check it out here!
I’ve read that you were a fan of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick from a young age. What drew you to those two directors?
I’ll never forget the trip we took to Universal Studios when I was a kid. We went to the Alfred Hitchcock exhibit and I got to play Guy Haines (from Strangers on a Train) hanging off the merry-go-round while being kicked by a boot on a stick, all against a green screen. It seemed so cool that I had to go home and watch the film. I think that excited my dad a lot because he loved Hitchcock. He started me off with Saboteur, and I then watched every Hitchcock over the next year. I’ve probably watched North By Northwest at least thirty times. I’m not sure if those films have influenced my own work yet, but there is a lot of nostalgia there. Hitchcock taught me to love movies. As for Kubrick, it was the opening frame to A Clockwork Orange that forever changed the way I watched films. I became pretty obsessed with the artfulness and specificity of his frames, the camera movement, the emotional resonance of the music he used, the intensity of his characters. As controversial as his films can be, they taught me what the cinematic experience could be. That’s the kind of power and vision I hope to have as a director.
Did you see filmmaking as a potential career at that time?
Nope! I even dropped the only film course I tried to take at university. It never even crossed my mind it was something I could actually do myself. It sounds so odd in retrospect, but I grew up in a home that was more business-minded than artistic, so I just wasn’t exposed to the possibility that I might be a creative person. It’s funny because my dad, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all in the film business in Toronto running movie theatres, so it’s definitely in my blood. But I suppose I was meant to find this path on my own.
You studied economics. What went into the choice and how did you figure out that you were destined for other things?
Honestly, I really didn’t have the self-awareness or foresight back then to decide what I should do for the rest of my life. I was on the phone with a woman from the university and she told me I hadn’t selected a major and I asked her what my options were. She listed them off and I just randomly selected economics. Seriously. I liked one economics course in high school so I figured that’s what I should do. So it only occurred to me that I might be destined for other things when I flunked out. At the time it felt like I was completely off the rails, but it was a pretty clear indicator that I wasn’t on the right path; a blessing in disguise. Soon after I was booted out of university, I met my wife, who’s an actress, and she really encouraged me to figure out what I was actually passionate about. That led me to initially try to get involved in the business side of film (for a while I worked at a desk at a production company doing rights management) until I met a co-worker who was an aspiring filmmaker and it dawned on me that’s what I want to do as well. I found a job as a production assistant, quit that desk job, and have never looked back. But making my first film was when it really became clear; it’s like finally discovering the person I always was meant to be but never knew. Still, it took time to overcome the imposter syndrome and embrace that I’m an artist.
Your directorial debut Frozen Marbles won the Cinespace Best Director Award at the Lakeshorts Film Festival in 2015. What was it like to receive that type of recognition in your debut?
It was really meaningful to me, especially as someone who came to it late in life. It helped validate that I’m on the right path. And Lakeshorts is such a great festival run by wonderful artists; I really recommend filmmakers submit their work to them. They always attract a huge, full audience, and the best part for me about making a film is when I can finally share it with a crowd and get that real-time feedback. Discovering what parts make people laugh or cry, or being privy to the conversations about it after, is everything to me.
Frozen Marbles was followed up with another short Alison. That film also found success becoming a Vimeo Staff Pick. What’s the secret to creating a compelling short?
Story. It all comes down to story. Creating something that is relatable and has a clear message, asks a question worth asking, and is executed well. The audience is choosing to spend their time with these characters, so you need to be sure you’re casting the right people. I think viewers tend to be more forgiving when the technical aspects of the film aren’t perfect if the story and acting are excellent. And keep it short! My philosophy is: you want to show up to the party late and leave early.
What can you tell us about your next short A Beer With Ella?
I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s about an ageing man that won’t let go of the past who tries to reconnect with a high school sweetheart and find love again. It’s based on a true story.
Your wife was an actress in a couple of those shorts. What is it like to work with someone so close to you?
It’s the best. Knowing someone so intimately gives you an instant short-hand when you’re directing, but we also trust each other implicitly so it creates a very safe, organic space to create in. We also set the bar high for one another because we know what the other is capable of, so we push each other quite a bit, too. I know her so well that I can spot even the smallest amount of bullshit, and vice versa, and we just don’t let each other get away with it. But hopefully, that also makes it more fun! I think we’re a great team.
You’ve also done some Assistant Director work on The Handmaid’s Tale. Tell us a bit about your experience on that project?
It’s inspiring and demanding. It’s the kind of show that makes the long hours worth it, because everyone involved really feels like they are making art, and that they are part of something meaningful and relevant. I pinch myself daily that I go to work every day with the best in the biz, people who work tirelessly and passionately at what they do. Our DP (Emmy-winning Colin Watkinson) has become almost a mentor to me; being around him is like a daily masterclass in filmmaking. Shows like this don’t come around too often, so I’m really trying to soak it all in and bring my best to it.
How do the duties of a Director differ from an Assistant Director?
An Assistant Director’s job is to take the director’s vision and help actualize it, within the monetary and time constraints that the production allows. The AD is the right-hand of the director and they’re in charge of the scheduling of the shoot, the placement and movement of the background in a scene, and coordinating every department. But there’s also a lot of room for creativity. Because it’s the AD’s job to direct the extras in every scene, you are really responsible for building the universe of the show. Especially with a series like The Handmaid’s Tale where the background actors are often going through the exact same experience as our protagonist, Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss). It’s a very specific, nuanced, emotionally complicated universe and every detail matters. I take a great deal of care in making sure every background actor understands the role they play in bringing Gilead to life. It’s so much fun for me.
You’ve also directed some music videos, most notably Citizen Fame’s How does directing a music video differ from a film and how is it similar?
While there does need to be considerable planning of your shots for a music video as you would a film, I’d say there is more room for discovery and spontaneity on the day. The narrative tends to be less linear, if there is a narrative at all, so you can allow yourself to be surprised and go with the creative flow quite a bit. For example, what might be considered a mistake on screen for a film, can end up looking beautiful and deliberate in a music video. There is also both some unique challenges and freedom in not having dialogue and telling a story through visuals alone. The editing process is also very different. Again, there’s room for lots of discovery and experimentation, and you’re editing to the structure of the song (or deliberately against it).
Your career is off to a great start so far, what goals do you have in mind for the future? Is there anyone in particular that you’d like to work with?
I want to be directing features. And there are so many artists I would love to work and collaborate with, but I’m hoping to one day work as a director with Colin Watkinson. Aside from his masterful work on The Handmaid’s Tale, if anyone watches The Fall they will instantly see why…
What advice would you give to aspiring directors?
The simple answer is to just make movies with whatever resources you have, learn from it, and then do it again and again. But it’s also important to really live. Immerse yourself in all forms of art. Get out into the world and observe. While there are obviously many technical aspects of directing that are necessary to learn over time, developing a real sensitivity and empathy for people and their psychology — what motivates them — is critical. My films haven’t all been technically perfect, but my strengths lie in my fairly intuitive understanding of human behaviour, and that has allowed me to capture some amazing performances. I’m trying to strengthen and deepen that part of myself all the time. Also, study story structure. Take or observe an acting class, even. And surround yourself with people who know more than you and pick their brains.
What projects do you have coming up?
I’m in the pre-production stages for my next short film and post-production for my last music video. And I’m starting to write my first feature!
Tell the readers where they can find you online.
You can find my work online at lesterfilms.com, and you can follow me on instagram @thisisdavidl!