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Grayson Whitehurst | SHOOT New Directors Showcase Event
Grayson Whitehurst

Purple’s “Life-Changing Sleep” (spec commercial)

Grayson Whitehurst

Los York

What was your first professionally directed work and when was it?
It was a Mastercard spot featuring big wave surfer Ian Walsh that I co-directed with Jackson Tisi that aired during the Masters Tournament a few years ago–it was an incredible honor. After that, I took a step back from commercial work altogether and focused on narrative projects, both short and long form. That period that really helped me hone my storytelling voice and perspective.

I came to the realization that my work, while high quality, was far too thematically sporadic to be commercially successful…it’s beyond difficult to pitch a director whose work can’t be reduced to a succinct label. I’ve consequently returned to the commercial format with a concentrated effort on crafting a uniform portfolio of strange and surreal comedic spots (what I’m best at).

How did you get into directing?
I was given a Sony Handycam as a birthday present when I was 10 or 11 I think – my friends and I would make really ridiculous (and probably offensive) shorts to pass the time. I never really grew out of doing that; the only thing that’s changed is project scale and the fact that the products of my imagination are (slightly) less juvenile (I think).

What is your most recent project?
My most recent project is the spot that’s featured as the highlight of this section ("Life-Changing Sleep"). It’s been featured in Directors Notes, won April’s Shiny Awards, and placed in the top 10 of Berlin Commercial Festival’s ‘Spec’ category. It was a blast to realize the vision of the project.

What is the best part of being a director?
On a macro level, the best part of being a director is bringing together a close community for a small period of time and living in a world that feels entirely separate from reality. It takes a village to make a great film and the process of constructing the village is fascinating.

On a micro level, I love the casting process. In my mind, 50% (or more) of a great performance relies on a solid casting choice, and sifting through auditions to see the different viewpoints and nuances that actors bring to a role is really compelling to me.

What is the worst part of being a director?
It’s a privilege to be able to pursue directing as a career; I wouldn’t say there’s a “worst” part. Parts of the production process can absolutely be challenging and/or frustrating (as with any career path), but there are no parts that I loathe or lament. I enjoy problem solving and that’s a significant portion of the job.

What is your current career focus: commercials and branded content, television, movies? Do you plan to specialize in a particular genre–comedy, drama, visual effects, etc.?
My current focus is comedic commercials/branded content. My long-term goal is narrative features, but I have slightly selfish priorities right now: I want to see more of the world, make a bit more money than I am now (only directing), and become more business-savvy. Commercial directing is a great vehicle to accomplish these goals.

For a while I was a narrative purist and I couldn’t envision my fit in the commercial world; I thought it was a sacrilegious pursuit as an “artist.” But once I reexamined my priorities and realized that captivating commercials do exist (and that I wanted to make a career out of my craft sooner rather than later), I pivoted to commercials. It’s okay to do what makes you happy.

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?
Regarding my foray into commercials, director Jackson Tisi (who’s also my best friend) has been a great mentor. He dove into commercial work both immediately and fearlessly after we graduated from NYU, and he’s been instrumental in helping me navigate the course thus far.

Seth Epstein (founder of Los York) has also taught me quite a bit about the nature of the beast in a very short amount of time. He’s invigorated by the process of fostering and guiding budding talent, and I’m beyond thankful for the guidance that he’s provided me since I’ve met him.

Who is your favorite director and why?
Choosing one is really difficult. Michael Haneke is up there; his work is exceptionally polarizing and he has no problem waging war on your psyche. I love Paul Schrader’s dialogue, he’s one of the best writer/directors of all time in my mind. Yorgos and Bergman, too–I love morality plays. I also wish that Sylvia Plath could’ve dipped her toes into filmmaking while she was here.

What is your favorite movie? Your favorite television/online program? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
I saw Funny Games (U.S.) in theaters when I was 13 and that had a profound effect on me–not necessarily my favorite, but unequivocally the most influential. My favorite is probably a tie between First Reformed and Come and See–each is a masterpiece in its own right.

My favorite TV show is Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom.

My favorite commercials are “Walken Closet” for Kia (dir. Matthijs Van Heijningen), “Yoghurt Boy” (dir. Ian Pons Jewell) and “Piñata” (dir. Tom Kuntz) for Skittles, and the entire portfolio of Matias & Mathias.

Tell us about your background (i.e., where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I grew up in Virginia Beach, VA and my first “job” was flipping sandwiches at a local restaurant called Taste Unlimited (now simply “Taste”). I moved to New York in 2014 to attend NYU; while there, I held several jobs–I was an AV tech, a TA for Joan Horvath, a junior strategist at Ogilvy, I worked on countless small student/indie film sets as an AD, etc, etc. After graduating in 2018, I freelanced as both an editor and copywriter before making the jump to directing exclusively over the past year.

How has the pandemic impacted your career, art, craft, shaped your attitudes and reflections on life which in turn may influence your work, approach, spirit, mindset?
The pandemic has served as a constant reminder that nothing is guaranteed. It’s ironic because I put my commercial career on somewhat of a hold before the pandemic, and it was only once the entire industry was on pause that I was like, “Shit, I should really try to make more money and build my portfolio in a significant way before the dollar collapses.” It instilled a sense of internal urgency that I may have lost over time (due to a string of personal tragedies) but life is too short to feel defeated. To me, the pandemic was a push–a very harsh one, but a push nonetheless.


Los York: Contack EP, Leticia Gurjao, via email