Handmade Portrait: Chain Reaction

James Mann

How did you get into directing?
I grew up playing bass and drums, and in high school I discovered funk music and, by extension, Blaxploitation cinema. In my senior year, after a semester long study of the genre and its cultural and historical significance, I decided to make my own Blaxploitation film—which was a ridiculous idea for a bunch of suburban kids from New Jersey to pursue. While we were shooting the climax of the film, the entire cast and crew was arrested at gunpoint by a S.W.A.T team. Yet somehow we managed to finish the project, and to my surprise it didn’t end up being the worst film ever made. That was really all of the encouragement that I needed to continue exploring filmmaking.

What is your most recent project?
I recently completed a web commercial for an “underground” boxing gym located in the penthouse of an abandoned high rise in downtown Los Angeles. The only way to get to the gym is to climb up the fire escape of the adjacent building and shimmy along a narrow ledge that connects the two buildings. It was a little bit of a dangerous shoot, but it was a whole lot of fun.

What is the best part of being a director?
Directing enables me to explore a wide range of things that I am passionate about: photography, writing, music, architecture, interior design, graphic design, fashion, food, fine wood working, and home brewing (to name a few). It is also an opportunity to meet talented and inspirational people, as well as a chance to travel to far off and mysterious lands.

What is the worst part of being a director?
Airport food.

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.?
Lately I have focused on making commercials and branded content, working in that sweet spot between narrative storytelling, documentary filmmaking, and advertising. My style and approach might be described as heightened realism: a more beautiful, concise, compelling, and yet authentic version of everyday life. I am always looking for the soul of a project; that unique spirit that will help the message resonate. It is important to me that the work makes people feel something and that it gets them thinking – that is my goal regardless of the genre, format or medium.

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 do not have a mentor, but I always seem to get my lessons (whether I learn them or not is another story). Some of my greatest teachers have been people that I never would have expected and I have also learned many things from some of my brilliant collaborators. Recently, I spent a year making a series of films about artists and craftspeople living creative and successful lives as they pursue their passions. Getting to know these people, watching what they do and helping tell their stories, has had a profound effect on how I approach my own career and work as a filmmaker.

Who is your favorite director and why?
While I don’t love all of his films, I find Steven Soderbergh to be an incredible inspiration. Throughout his career he has remained relentlessly prolific, moving effortlessly between genres and cinematic styles, making highly polished and visually innovative films within a wide array of budgets. In addition, his ability to work as both a director and cinematographer without sacrificing performance or visuals is endlessly impressive.

What is your favorite movie? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
My favorite film is Desert Son—partially because I wrote, directed and shot it, and partially because I’m not sure where else I can mention it here. You can and should watch it on Netflix.

Tell use about your background (i.e. Where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
Growing up in suburban New Jersey I had a lot of terrible summer jobs, including selling knives door to door. In college, I drove an ice cream truck around St. Louis for a year. Someday I’m going to make a film about all the madness and heartbreak that I saw from that truck. In 2000, I moved to Los Angeles and lived in a friend’s walk-in closet while I pursued a career in film. I worked as a set lighting technician, camera operator, and 2nd unit director of photography for four years before returning to school to get an MFA in film from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. For the past seven years I have worked as a cinematographer on a variety of feature films, TV shows, web series, commercials, and music videos. I began directing commercials and branded content after the completion of Desert Son in 2010.