Marco Grandia / Filmmaker: "Never stop challenging yourself."
Skateboarding, film and magic are the cornerstones of filmmaker Marco Grandia’s life. Inspired by American skate videos, the young Marco borrowed a camera to film his skateboarding friends and thus was born a career. From music videos for Brainpower to the viral TV commercial "Kobe vs Messi” for Turkish Airlines, the autodidact filmmaker has simply followed his nose in search of magic. "Performing card tricks, like filming, is tinkering with reality."
Interview by Daphne van Langen
Photography by Jerome de Lint
When did you first begin to take an interest in capturing things on camera? By the age of 10, I was already obsessed with how things were shot on TV. I remember wondering how they managed to capture overhead shots of the audience on game shows, for instance. It was only later while watching a documentary that I found out they used cranes.
And thus began your fascination with filming? Not entirely. It began via another interest: skateboarding. As a teenager, I used to skateboard all day everyday with friends. And when I was about thirteen, I borrowed a camera and began filming the others, taking inspiration from American skate videos. I learned to experiment with angles and positions, and to build a narrative. For instance, if you shot someone skating off a bridge followed by a shot of him landing next to a shopping centre, it looked as if he’d jumped from the bridge to the shopping centre. That’s how I discovered that you could shape reality, which I found really interesting.
Shape reality? What do you mean? One of the things I love about film is that you can elicit an emotional response simply by altering reality, creating moments that never actually occurred. With just three shots, ten fragments of music and an editing programme, I can evoke seven different emotions in an audience. I’ve also performed card tricks for the past twenty years, and that, too, is a form of tinkering with reality.
Really? Where did you learn that? One of our neighbours in Ridderkerk was a Chinese guy who had performed card tricks in a circus. He’d occasionally treat me to a show when I got back from school, but wouldn’t tell me how he did it. But when he fell ill, when I was 17, he gave me all of his books and then explained everything.
What significant memories do you have of your childhood? I remember the construction site for the new shopping centre, which had this big stack of timber that my friends and I promptly used to build a makeshift skate park. It became our own amusement park. Skateboarding wasn’t common in the Netherlands at the time, so we imitated what we saw in American videos. It really shaped who I am in terms of creative thinking, making something from nothing and creating opportunities.
As a human being or as a filmmaker? Both. It's an individual yet social sport. It’s competitive, yet you wipe out alone. It also shows you an alternative way of seeing the world: marble steps at the town hall or the new bannister at the police station become part of an obstacle course. The videos also played a role; they taught me a lot about music, for instance. The incidental music was often from a variety of genres, and we’d watch these clips up to forty times each.
"One day, someone asked what my day rate was; they just assumed I had my own production company."
What about your parents? How did they shape you and what were they like as people? My dad made chocolate logos, and my mum helped with packaging, because he’s colour-blind. He’s 75 now and still makes logos, in a tiny chocolate factory in the garden. What he really wanted was to be in entertainment, but my grandfather advised him to get a job at the local bakery for the steady income. My dad gave me the same advice as a teenager when I told him I hoped to do something with cameras, so I got a retail management degree and then broke the cycle by doing what I'd wanted to do all along. Through an odd chain of events, my father eventually got his break in entertainment and now works occasionally as an extra on (my) shoots.
And doing “something with cameras” meant shooting videos. How did you take this beyond skateboarding clips? A friend who liked my skateboarding clips asked me to make a video about a snowboarding event he was involved in. Some people from the Dutch commercial television channel Veronica were at the premiere, and asked if they could use some of my shots in one of their items. I said sure, provided I could watch while they edited. After two days of editing I simply showed up on the third day, and every day for the rest of the month, and offered myself as second cameraman.
You offered yourself, just like that? That takes guts. Well, the director Andre Freyssen took me under his wing and allowed me to operate the second camera on news-item shoots. Then I began accompanying the crew to snowboarding events and on travel programme shoots. I spent my days in the editing suite with Andre, and was allowed to edit my own skate videos at night. Then one day, someone asked what my day rate was; they just assumed I had my own production company. So I quickly set one up; that was in March 1996. I remember the official at the business registration office questioning the wisdom of my plans; he thought I was likely to fail. I found this highly odd.
Particularly as you did succeed as an independent filmmaker. What was your first assignment? Through Andre, I was given the chance to direct a clip for the Dutch rapper Brainpower. This was to be my first time shooting on film; the cameras used for TV used video. I arrived on the first day of the shoot and froze upon realizing I didn’t understand the crew’s industry jargon, as I hadn’t been to film school. It left me feeling like a self-conscious amateur for quite a while, but then you start figuring things out by trial and error. Getting my start with such a high profile video opened doors, and I ended up making over 50 videos, using each one to learn more about the role of colour, background and location. It was a really cool and experimental period for me.
So you’re an autodidactic filmmaker. What have been the pros and cons of this? It would have been useful to know the basic rules of shooting; I had to learn about angles and camera positions the hard way, which took me quite a while. Formal training would have given me time to experiment with all manner of equipment and build a network. On the other hand, doing everything according to the rules probably makes it more difficult to trust your intuition, whereas four years of learning by trial and error taught me to trust mine.
You now run Grandia Enterprises Inc. Bit of an odd name. The name is a sort of joke, actually; officially, you’re not allowed to attach “Inc.” to your company name, but it sounded too cool not to do so.
How did you pick up the business skills necessary to run your company? I didn’t feel the need to acquire additional business skills, as I don’t really see myself as someone running a business. I shoot, and I take care of my admin. That’s it.
Ok, what qualities make a good director/filmmaker? There are lots of different qualities necessary to being a good director. Enthusiasm and sincerity, for a start. You should also be able to explain what it is you want and make people feel like they’re an integral part of a team, so you generate a positive vibe on the set.
Any qualities you lack? I'm terrible at on-screen design and typography: positioning text with pack shots at the end of a commercial. Writing treatments is not my strong point, either; it requires a clear description of what you intend to do, which I can do, but not in the lyrical way that some clients need. And I find it difficult to write a treatment if I don’t already have an image in mind. David Lynch said in an interview something like: I know the idea exists, but it’s in another room and I have just one piece of the puzzle. So I focus on this piece until all the others gradually reveal themselves and I can complete my picture. That pretty much captures the process of writing a script. It comes to you naturally via a process of association.
"Dior’s “Sauvage” ad with Johnny Depp was a wasted opportunity."
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have of the film industry? That it’s a lot more work than people realise. A one-minute commercial might involve two hundred people and take three months to complete. There are so many things to consider with every shoot: the client, the actors, the details, the brand image ... and we’re not even talking about feature films, where things take even longer!
A director’s style distinguishes them from everyone else. How would you describe yours? Difficult one. I don’t think my style is easy to define. I have a rough idea of what people mean when they say, “Hey, I saw one of your ads and recognised it immediately as one of yours,” yet I can’t quite offer a neat description. It’s defined mainly by a combination of things: the choice of lenses, my use of colour and music, the way I edit, and a sense of humour. Loose and nonchalant, perhaps?
But presumably your style has evolved over the years. I used to refer to what I did as “documercials” but when I look at some of my more recent work, especially the football ads, that description no longer suffices. Those ads are more structured in nature, to fit the brand. Whereas with documercials, I can wander about with my camera and rely on happenstance to provide some unexpected surprises that nonetheless fit within a predefined framework, with the football ads I storyboard every shot in advance, and derive satisfaction from the fact that even within the tight confines of a major brand, it’s possible to create something real and cool with top athletes. So my style hasn’t changed so much as broadened.
Which aspects of making ads, films or documentaries demand the most of you, be that favourably or unfavourably? Besides writing treatments, re-editing can also be quite draining. For example, say you need to replace a shot because the actor’s smile wasn’t convincing enough in the original take, well, that has implications for the shots that come before and after the insertion. On the plus side, I love the pre-production stage. You get to visualize the entire thing before seeing all the pieces fall into place on set three weeks later. I also like the variety: one month you’re in Turkey and the next you’re in a studio in Spain. I need things constantly changing around me as a person.
Is it hard to compromise, which you must do sometimes? Obviously, it’s unrealistic to expect to get your way on everything when you’re spending someone else’s money. It’s not always easy to shrug off the compromises, but you often end up with something quite cool anyway. I also turn things down to avoid having to compromise too much. If the script is silly or I don’t have a good feeling about a project, then I can’t generate any enthusiasm about it.
Your clients are quite diverse: sports brands, musicians, governmental bodies, car manufacturers. If you could have your pick, what would that be? I’d love to be given the chance to give perfume advertising a new spin by way of storytelling or technique. Perfume ads are always the same: moody and associative. Dior’s “Sauvage” ad with Johnny Depp was a wasted opportunity. I still wonder what happened during its making, and I’m dying to know what JD himself thinks of it! I’d also like to work more with actors.
But don’t you already work with actors? On the ads I’ve made, I mostly worked with famous athletes or shot in a documentary style. But I’d like to shoot something with a strong idea that demands real acting, such as you see in Dutch director Bram Schouw’s work. The emotional impact of such work derives more from what you’re able to get from the actors than from the music, the editing and the choice of shots.
One of your ads for Turkish Airlines went viral. Isn’t that every filmmaker’s dream? It was great fun – one hundred million views in three weeks. Now whenever anyone wonders if they might have seen my work and I say the ad with Messi and Kobe on a plane, they know exactly what I mean. It opened lots of doors and brought me more international clients. That’s how I ended up making an ad with FC Barcelona for Lassa (Bridgestone) and more recently a two-minute commercial with Cristiano Ronaldo for a Turkish telecom company.
You won Best Short in 2015 for your film Unforgettable, which you made for the 48-hour conception-to-screening contest. Your film was about a man with dementia recalling his daughter’s wedding. What made you choose this idea? Mental disorder is an interesting subject – what it does to our perception of reality. My grandmother suffered from dementia, and it led to some strange incidents. It’s possible to convey this strangeness with confusing imagery in a way that nonetheless makes sense. I’d been thinking about making something about someone who saw the world differently, but had never got round to writing a script. So when I heard that the theme for the 48-hour contest was “fish out of water”, I had my green light.
This must have opened even more doors. Funnily enough, not one. I sent it to a bunch of film festivals before our win was announced, but they weren’t interested. It’s been screened a few times at cinemas in Amsterdam, but that’s about it. I did make lots of new contacts because of it, though, and I’m now writing a script with some of the people I met. Amazon and Netflix have set aside billions for new content, so we hope to approach them with an idea for a series.
Interesting. Can you tell us a bit more about this? We’re trying to come up with something with a narrative structure that interweaves fiction and reality in a logical way, as we did with Unforgettable. It's about the transience of fame and the romantic appeal of old media versus the innovative, fast and hard nature of new media. We’ve got lots of ideas; we just need to distil them into a coherent whole. It’s going to take years to develop, so it’s something nice to work on between other projects.
YouTube has made everyone with a camera a potential filmmaker. What’s you view on this? It's double-edged. It’s great that it’s become easier for people to shoot and edit their ideas, and there are some talented people out there, along with the many churning out crap. But it’s led to a situation whereby some film school graduates can’t get work while people like the vlogger Ismail Ilgun who went around taunting and bullying people is now being paid to make videos for the Dutch tabloid newspaper Algemeen Dagblad.
"I can’t believe some of these people are earning millions with their videos on YouTube."
You sound irritated? Well, I am. It might strike you as strange coming from someone who’s similarly self-taught, but there’s quite a difference between a filmmaker who puts his heart and soul into a month-long edit without knowing if he’s even going to earn a cent from it and someone getting paid by a newspaper for vlogging with his phone. I don’t think that’s fair on people putting in the effort because they actually care about the craft. I can’t believe some of these people are earning millions with their videos on YouTube, and I think selfie sticks are one of the most narcissistic things ever created!
How does the future look for film? Promising. There’ll be a greater demand for content via channels like HBO. I don’t think movies will vanish from our screens, but TV series will command a greater and greater share of the money going into visual content. It’s even possible that movies will increasingly be made for on-demand viewing, bypassing cinemas altogether. People want control of what, where and when to see whatever they choose to see.
What advice would you give aspiring directors about to leave film school? Get as much practical experience as you can. Don’t stop challenging yourself or taking risks. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
What would surprise someone who knew you as a teenager if they saw you today? That I'm a lot more sociable and confident than I used to be, and that I’m doing well, despite doing nothing with what I studied.
Finally, could you tell us something that hardly anyone knows about you? I like doing other things too, like theatre stuff, magic tricks and altering reality, things that are close to my heart. I’m in a group called At World's End made up of about a hundred people with whom I put together theatre experiences at festivals. Last summer I directed and played one of the three roles in a magic show called Lestica, which played at the Parade [a festival in Amsterdam]. We projected an old circus film onto the wall at the back of the stage, while characters from the film performed tricks on stage. It was a dream project and one of the cooler things I’ve ever done.