Speechless

Martin Rodahl

How did you get into directing?
I was born and raised in Norway and have early memories of watching my grandfather’s 16 mm film on a projector in his study. He was one of the last pioneers of the north, exploring new territories in the Arctic region and documenting vast portions of these journeys. The images on those reels were so exotic that I think the legend of traveling to remote destinations and capturing a slice of the world on film will stay with me forever. I found an unlikely outlet for this filmmaking passion in extreme sports during my teens, spending countless hours on my skateboard with a handycam and fisheye lens. I later graduated from Northwestern University’s film program with a commercial spec reel, which opened the doors to a few ad agencies in Chicago. Those initial projects quickly snowballed into larger productions and created the foundation for the clients I have today.

What is your most recent project?
We are currently wrapping up postproduction on my first feature-length documentary titled, Our Longest Drive. Three retired 60-somethings drive an RV from Chicago to the northernmost golf course on the American continent with the ashes of their dead friend. Their goal is to reach the course in Inuvik, NWT, Canada, by the summer solstice for one final game with their deceased buddy, who used to complete their golfing foursome for over twenty years. The trip itself took almost a month to complete and we drove close to 10,000 miles there and back. The project represents the kind of work that I find most engaging: a compelling story, epic in size, complemented with stunning visuals. We hope the festival circuit feels the same way.

What is the best part of being a director?
For me, it’s all about the people you meet. As a director you become the focal point of this incredibly complex process within which hundreds of people interact to bring a single production to life. This cross-disciplinary aspect, and consequently the wide array of people and personalities you have to deal with, is the most enriching to me because it immediately reveals your ability to understand different walks of life and communicate effectively based on those observations. From celebrity athletes in Chicago to taxidermists in northern Canada, everyone has their story to tell and capturing that story seems to be what my work is all about.

What is the worst part of being a director?
The inability to “flip the switch” is definitely the worst part. In your head, you’re always working and it’s odd that the better the job, the worse it gets. You can pretty much forget about getting proper sleep or having a daily life routine whenever a “fun” project comes around. It can actually lead to procrastination, because prior to getting started you know how intense that mindset will have to be and the impact it will have on your life–friends, family, health–for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, coming out of that process with a successful product is the best feeling in the world and obviously it’s worth it. Otherwise all of this would be kind of insane.

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.?
My work to date has crossed several formats, including traditional broadcast, music videos, online content and long form documentaries. While some directors make a conscious decision to master a certain format, I admire directors who are successful within a wider array because it constantly tests your creative range. I’ve also found that selecting your format is as much a practical function of the project at hand as it is a director’s reel-minded decision. Within genres, my starting point is usually real people. From there, it’s a process of identifying the best visual storytelling techniques to heighten the production, whether it’s borrowing elements from other genres like visual effects or shooting with a very specific editing rhythm in mind.

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?
No one can come closer to being a mentor for me than veteran agency producer, Pat Douglass. Probably best known for her long-standing relationship with Cramer-Krasselt in Chicago, Pat was introduced to me while I interned on the agency side of the business in college. Aside from opening my eyes to the fundamental dynamics of the industry, Pat has really been an amazing business resource. She knows what agencies are looking for and continues to give pointers on how to improve a treatment and present a bid. On top of that she’s an excellent creative sounding board, oftentimes bringing me back down to earth with her famously direct approach and, at times, brutal honesty.

Who is your favorite director and why?
David Fincher has to be the current favorite, mostly due to his ability to balance the worlds of branded content and feature films. Maintaining a unique voice and visual style across those formats over the course of an entire career is incredibly difficult and something that I hope to emulate in my own way. He seems to get the most out of his commercial work, walking that fine line between coverage for the agency and experimentation for himself. It’s paid off and I continue to see instances where the best of his techniques discovered in his commercial work has been repackaged and finessed in his features.

What is your favorite movie? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
At the moment, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line has to be my favorite film. The way it is adapted and its use of narration and montage has served as excellent references in preparing for my feature film projects, which is probably why I’ve seen it so many times. Of non-traditional work, Yuriy Norshteyn’s Tale of Tales is a staple in my collection. This animation masterpiece has to be one of the most impressive, and perhaps also underappreciated, works of art in existence.

Tell us about your background (i.e. Where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I grew up in Norway and still consider that home. For the last 10 years, however, I’ve been living in the United States, first attending boarding school in Connecticut and later moving to Chicagoland where I attended Northwestern University and eventually started my commercial directing career. I knew very early on that I wanted more control over my life than any desk job would allow, so in the spirit of breaking the cookie-cutter mold I started my own production unit and have been running that for several years now. It’s been a great mix of creative and business interests, but also a workload stretch as I’m the single director/producer/editor. Moving forward, I’m hoping to find the right business partner and concentrate solely on directing.