Stephen Steelman


1) What was your first professionally directed work and when was it?

I was creating tour visuals for System Of A Down in 2017. Shavo and I came up with a bunch of different ideas for 12 of their songs, and then we did a proper video shoot to create a bunch of different vignettes to use for visuals. It was the first time I was actually hired to be a director.

The craziest part of it is, when I was 15, I was a big fan of SOAD. I had my mom drive me to LA (from Vegas where I grew up) to be in their music video for Chop Suey. If you squint hard you can make me out. Who would have thought years later I would be working with them?

2) How did you get into directing? 

It was a natural progression. I moved to LA to pursue acting in 2006. A few years later Canon released the 7D, and it finally felt possible to create something that looked cinematic. I purchased one, thinking I would get people to film me, but started to realize that I preferred being on the other side of the camera. I never formally went to film school, but I started interning at a production company to learn that side of the business. Then I would go home and spent hours going through online tutorials, learning FCP7, and later After Effects (thanks Andrew Kramer!).

I had a friend in a band who needed a music video but had no money. I said I would do it for the experience, and I have been directing whenever I get the chance to do something that speaks to me creatively.

3) What is your most recent project? 

Juiced is my most recent short film. I have a few other projects in the works. There are two screenplays I’m developing, and a documentary I shot a few years back that I’m aiming to have finished next year. I produced a short film for some talented people over the quarantine, and I’ve spent a good deal of free time in the quarantine diving deep into virtual production workflows. I can’t wait to incorporate that technology into one of my projects.

4) What is the best part of being a director? 

I love the people I get to work with. When I see talent, be it with cinematographers, actors, makeup, sound design, et al., it’s awesome to give those people a chance to flourish. It’s so cool to have other people passionate about something I’ve come up with, and then their artistry makes it so much better than what I initially conceived. It’s truly collaborative, and I love that.

And when a moment “works,” it’s the coolest thing in the world. Totally worth the lack of sleep and uptick in stress.

5) What is the worst part of being a director? 

Having a caviar concept and a tuna fish budget. However, I’m sure that no matter how big the budgets get, there will always be that thought of “I wish we had X amount more, we could really use the super techno for that shot” etc. I imagine there is no there there when it comes to a big enough budget...but I’d be down to find out.

6) 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.? 

For the personal projects I create, I am more drawn towards film. Specifically, I find myself more interested in genre pieces, horror and sci-fi.

The past few years I was doing a lot of content creation for musicians and live events. Obviously, a good chunk of that has gone away and the industry is adapting. I am highly focused on coming up with new ways to create engaging experiences with the new tools that are developing…going deep down the rabbit hole with virtual production and XR. I’ve been playing around with Notch for a little bit over a year.

I am extremely interested in how I can inject storytelling into some of these new technologies. The next medium is out there.

7) 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 am super lucky that I have a few people who take the time to hear me out, check out my work, and give me honest feedback. Tom Nunan and Marc Bienstock are two great guys I will single out here, who have been integral in supporting my creative journey. They are both guys that have achieved great success, but they have been open with me about the challenges they have faced throughout their careers. They are incredibly hard workers, and they approach their work and their lives with a humility that I try to emulate. You do not have to be an asshole to be successful.

8) Who is your favorite director and why? 

If I had answered this two weeks ago it might be different, but I have gotten back into Soderbergh in a big way. His output and his willingness to experiment, be it shooting with new actors or shooting on an iPhone. He’s done huge blockbusters and then smaller pride projects, and it really seems like he never stops working. If I could emulate one career, it would be his.

9) What is your favorite movie? Your favorite television/online program? Your favorite commercial or branded content? 

Movie: Fight Club, was the first time I saw a movie and thought “holy shit, I want to do that.”

TV: Deadwood.

Commercial: Jonathan Glazer’s Wrangler Jean ad ("Follow The Yellow Brick Road") and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Hennessy ad.

10) Tell us about your background (i.e., where did you grow up? Past jobs?) 

I grew up in Vegas. Went to college in San Francisco (USF). Moved to LA immediately after finishing. I did standard LA actor work for a while. Waited tables, DJed. I made enough money to get a 7D and started shooting. Then I had an experience acting in a big Super Bowl commercial and realized it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I hated working for five hours and then leaving. I wanted to be in the creative huddle. I took the money from the commercial and got a camera with it, then I took an internship with Marty Katz, and started making my way through the business. I did not always want to direct; I think it’s only in the past few years I’ve felt like I have something to say.

11) 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?

I had BIG plans for 2020.

As Al Swearengen from Deadwood said, “Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh.”

All the live event work I had lined up evaporated, and that’s probably changed the trajectory of my life somewhat. And that’s probably all OK. I’m grateful I had the time to finish the short, as it was completed during the pandemic. I’ve gotten to work on other creative projects I would have claimed I didn’t have "time" to do in a normal year. I’ve gotten closer to people in my life who matter. It’s augmented the type of stories I want to tell, and it’s changed the perspective I’ve had on how important a tool storytelling is in today’s society. There are positives in my life because of this time, and I aim to move forward from this doing better work than ever before.


Contact Stephen Steelman via email