Kool Head: Leon

Diego Contreras

1) How did you get into directing?
I’ve always been fascinated with video cameras. Growing up, my brother and I often borrowed my dad’s Handycam to shoot videos with the other neighborhood kids. We’d spoof movies like Saving Private Ryan or write our own stories. We spent hours manually editing on our VHS. It was fun but I never thought much of it. After graduating college I joined CP+B as an art director. I got my hands on a director’s Canon 5D while on a TV commercial shoot and I was blown away. I soon after got a DSLR and began shooting travel videos. One of them, Islands, became a Vimeo Staff Pick. It got a bit surreal when labels started reaching out about music videos. I had to pretend I knew way more about filmmaking than I did, but I’ve learned a lot on the go. I keep learning every day.

2) What is your most recent project?
My music video for Placebo’s “Rob The Bank” launched most recently on Vevo; it was shot last year and inspired by the Turkey “Occupy Gezi” riots. But the last project I actually finished was “Leon,” a music video for the up-and-coming band Kool Head. The video was crowdfunded on Kickstarter, giving us a nice budget to play with; but still very low compared to the average music video. It’s amazing how much you can do with a solid vision and a lot of heart and dedication from everyone involved. It’s rewarding to get positive comments about how cinematic it looks on a shoestring budget.

3) What is the best part of being a director?
While working on an ad campaign for Converse a few years back, Dave Ramirez and I wrote a music video featuring Mark Foster, Kimbra and A-Trak. We hired DANIELS to direct and it was cool to see their approach to filmmaking. The set was this derelict warehouse in L.A. where 200+ people worked to turn our ideas into reality. All of that happened because one late night we wrote a ridiculous story about kidnapped hipsters being forced to fight in an underground Mexican Lucha Libre. That shoot made me want to become a director.

Now as a director, it’s been really humbling to be surrounded on set by talented and passionate people who are willing to lend their skills to tell a great story.

4) What is the worst part of being a director?
Time! It’s kind of evil; always crushing down on you like a bear on every aspect of production. From the point you write your treatment to delivering the final cut, there’s always pressure to keep things moving. Fighting the sun from coming down and dealing with all sorts of small details, all while staying focused on trying to shoot the story you’re trying to tell. It’s hectic but that’s also what makes directing fun. I don’t think anyone is prepared for it until you start doing it. In post-production, time is also important. I’m pretty obsessive with the editing process and I could keep tinkering with it forever. Having deadlines helps me let go and make final decisions.

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.?
Most recently I’ve been doing narrative music videos. I love the creative freedom I get from them. They give you an open canvas to tell any story in whatever world you can dream of. It’s liberating not having to check several boxes on someone’s list. And there’s nothing like putting a song on repeat and seeing where your head takes you.

Moving forward I definitely want to dive into branded content and storytelling. I think there’s so much potential to make ads that feel more like short films than commercials. I also want to experiment more with visual effects. I’m a very visual thinker and I’ve been writing a lot of stories that aren’t necessarily grounded in reality.

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 most with you?
I can’t say I had a mentor but I did learn a lot by studying people’s work on Vimeo. Making a lot of mistakes, often in private, helped me learn and find my own style. I’m thankful for the many advertising creative directors who killed hundreds of my ideas on a daily basis. That helped me understand that you can always push for more, and should never get attached to any idea. That idea carnage forced me to develop an internal filter to cut ideas that don’t make an impact or connect emotionally with an audience.

My wife and family also remind me that in order to lead, you first must be able to serve.

7) Who is your favorite director and why?
It’s hard to have a favorite when there are so many talented directors out there. Recently I was impacted by Cary Fukunaga’s work on True Detective. I was extremely absorbed into that world. I love how he made the location feel as important as the characters. That’s something I’ve always strived to do in my films. Being from Guatemala, Cary’s Sin Nombre was also a huge inspiration since I’d never seen such a cinematic and powerful story shot in Central America. I’m looking forward to shooting films down there in the future.

Other directors whose work I always find inspiring are Aoife McArdle, Martin De Thurah, Romain Gavras and the guys at Variable NYC, including cinematographer Khalid Mohtaseb.

8) What is your favorite movie? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
My uncle introduced me to Top Secret when I was a kid. I don’t think I’ve ever loved a movie as much as that one. Just thinking of it makes me laugh even if it’s not that funny anymore. I’ll never forget the man with the magnifying glass that turned out to have a gigantic eye. I can’t wait to become an uncle and pass it on to the next generation.

On commercials, I’m a huge fan of the Halo spots by Noam Murro, the Xbox 360 “Water Balloons” and “Standoff” spots, and anything Wieden+Kennedy does for Nike Soccer. I don’t know what sort of creative hormones they’re putting in the water at the W+K offices.

9) Tell use about your background (i.e. Where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I was born and raised in Guatemala City. I grew up skateboarding. Many broken bones led to play guitar in metal bands. I loved videogames; don’t tell anyone but I actually turned “Pro” and competed in the World Cyber Games twice!