This Is It

Alexander Engel

1) How did you get into directing? 
I’ve been crewing sets as a gaffer/key grip since graduating film school in ’06. Of course, the whole point of film school was that I wanted to be a writer/director, but being young, it’s so easy for one’s goals and one’s focus to misalign. 
I don’t knock it though. I owe where I am today to all of that experience. I’ve worked everything. Features. TV shows. Music videos. Commercials. Hundreds of productions. I’ve seen lots of mistakes made on set and lots of failure as well— but I’ve also seen some really excellent filmmaking and have worked with some amazing talents. And because of it, I’d say it’s been a pretty seamless transition into directing.
2) What is your most recent project? 
My latest is a narrative short, titled Digits. It’s a comedy about a socially awkward fish enthusiast, who loses the last two digits of a girl’s number and tries every combination to seek her out.
It stars Antonio Campos of Borderline Films (director of Afterschool/Simon Killer). Really pushed him out of his comfort zone with this one. I’d say it’s worth it, if anything, just to see him in an orange cardigan.
Digits just began its festival tour, premiering at the 2015 Aspen ShortsFest.
3) What is the best part of being a director?
How do I not sound like an asshole with this one? It’s watching people get your work—you know, seeing that connection—the idea that not only do people relate to you and your perspective, but that you’ve been able to relate to them. I mean we’re all just trying to figure our shit out in this world—I look at my work’s intent, then I look at the audience’s response—if they’re in sync—then I feel like my shit’s in pretty good order. That’s the best part—shit in good order.
4) What is the worst part of being a director?
I’d say it’s how long this medium takes to execute. I mean, people spend years making features—from inception to print. That’s a long time to hold onto your thesis. As I mature, so do my perspective and beliefs—and the same holds true for our culture. What’s funny today may be offensive by the time a project releases. And so on and so forth.
It’s why I’m so drawn to short-form content. Going from script to screen in two months, or better yet, two weeks, allows us to have a consistent creative handle on the whole thing and throws any fear of the project Frankenstein-ing thematically right out the window.
5) What is your current career focus: commercials & branded content, TV, movies? Do you plan to specialize in a particular genre—comedy, drama, visual effects, etc.? 
I love feature-length content and am currently putting a narrative feature together. But for now, short-form is really my focus— commercials, videos, web content. I’m attracted to fast-paced storytelling with a narrative arc and am totally interested in the economy of content.
Regarding “genres,” really, I’m enthusiastic about so many of them; it’s important to know what kind of story you’ve got and with which genre it’ll best connect to the audience. Of course that being said, I find it difficult not to include comedy in my work. There’s just too much that’s funny in this world— especially with people. I mean we’re ridiculous and with the situations we find ourselves in—sometimes it’s just hard not to laugh.
6) Have you a mentor and if so, who is that person (or persons) and what has been the lesson learned from that mentoring which resonates with you? 
I don’t really have any one person who fits that description. I’m lucky to be part of a talented and hardworking professional community with which I’m constantly seeking advice. Whether it’s from my Screenwriters’ Group or my peers at Greencard Pictures, I’ve learned so much over the years. 
If I’m really lucky, I get to learn from others’ mistakes—that lets me save face. Though there are a few major lessons I’ve had to learn on my own. I’d say the most important one yet, is that as a filmmaker you’ve got two jobs: Find something worth saying— then say it in a language others can understand.
7) Who is your favorite director and why?
Favorites are hard to choose, but someone I’m super interested in right now is Edgar Wright. His style is so dense and kinetic—it’s really exciting to watch. But more importantly, it’s exciting to RE-watch. And that’s impressive. 
Every year audiences grow more and more sophisticated. And as their repertoire of film grows, so does their comprehension of storytelling and cinematic tropes. Wright takes full advantage of this, pushing his visual style and editorial pacing to the limit. He’s also one of the few comedic filmmakers today, who doesn’t rely entirely on his actors for laughs. He plays the gamut of cinematic tools, ranging from blocking to shot-direction to the editorial timing, all to achieve that comedy. I love it.
8) What is your favorite movie? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
In recent years, The Social Network resonates the most for me. Aside from its sharp dialogue, insanely good score, and Fincher’s amazing direction, I’m impressed at how differently people responded to the film. To me there was a generational divide—for some Mark Zuckerberg was the film’s hero. For others—the villain. And no matter one’s stance, it elicited an emotional response.
Commercial-wise, Jonathan Glazer’s Guinness campaign, “Surfer” and “Mad Race,” are my favorites. Each could fill a text book on their own. I’m also impressed by the campaign itself—“Good things come to those who...” It’s risky, but at the same time, turns the product’s chief obstacle (how long it takes to pour a Guinness) into a badge of pride for any costumer.
9) Tell us about your background (i.e. where did you grow up? Past jobs?) 
So I started working in film back in school—but before that, I worked at Gerenser’s Exotic Ice Cream in New Hope PA. Best job I ever had. I was 17. We served 64 flavors of homemade ice-cream, including Ukrainian Rose Petal and Caribbean Tree Bark. We were kids—the oldest manager was 23 and it was here where I met Sylvia Perch— but that’s a whole thing unto its own.
Anyways, Captain Bob, the owner, had this boat out back and did tours up and down the Delaware. Whenever ole Bob-O was in a grumpy mood, he’d take me along to play tour guide so he wouldn’t have to.  That was awesome. I hadn’t a clue, so I just made it up as we went. You ever heard of Boromir’s Crossing? Neither had our customers—but they knew all about it by the end of the tour.