For filmmakers, merging creativity with commerce is no easy feat. Too often are artists faced with the ultimate compromise: to put accessibility before art. Vancouver born, New York City based filmmaker Miles Jay is a master at both, seamlessly combining his passion for emotional storytelling with stunning visuals and tasteful mass appeal.
“I was location scouting today in all these crazy places, and it was all boring,” he says. We’ve reached Jay by phone from Cape Town, South Africa where he is currently shooting a commercial. “Then I saw something that was like ‘ooo.’ I don’t know what it was that made me react like that, but I try not to think about it too much. No one, when they’re watching or listening to something, is just in their head. They’re feeling it. I try to be more in my body with my creative process.”
This is Jay in a nutshell, and while you may not know him, you’ve likely been moved by his work. For the past few years, he’s been tugging on our heart strings with his emotionally powerful commercials for the likes of ESPN, World Vision, Facebook and many more. He has an Emmy, a Grammy nod, and his first short film that he both directed and wrote premiered to critical acclaim at Tribeca in 2015. Aside from being an ad-world rock star, he is a master of storytelling, and passionate about finding what he calls the “emotional truth” of human nature.
How did you get into directing?
I failed at a lot of other things! My dad is a television director, so I grew up on set watching him direct, but then I was like “I don’t wanna be a director, I wanna be a musician!” I was trying to do everything else because I realized how hard it was to be a director. Not that it’s easier to be a musician, but the amount of sacrifices I saw first hand to do what he did… I tried to do other things, but I didn’t like them or wasn’t good at them. I made my first film in high school and got addicted to it.
Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I was probably twenty-five before I started doing it for myself. Filmmaking is different than music because it isn’t as personal. You’re making other people’s stories, and you can go pretty far without being that self-reflective. It wasn’t until I was about twenty-five that I asked myself “Why am I actually doing this?” As soon as I started focusing on things I liked and cared about, my career started taking off.
You’re aesthetic is incredible, but you’re equally amazing at storytelling. Does that come naturally to you?
I think weirdly we’re all born storytellers, that’s how we communicate. In film, people perceive that people care. You have to tell people a story like you’re telling it to a two year old, and because I make a lot of advertisements, I take this approach where I think it still has to entertain somebody. They have to get something out of it. I think I’ve had success because I don’t assume people care!
What is more important: aesthetic or storytelling?
I’ve made a lot of shit that was superficial but really cool looking when I was starting out, but I didn’t feel anything from it. [Then I started] making character documentaries of people and I was really feeling what I was making, and people were emotionally responding to it, so I felt like I was getting some truth. Then I started merging those things where my work became very documentary-like, but I wanted to be more narrative-driven, so I’d take these documentary skills into my narrative filmmaking. This sounds fucking pretentious, but I think filmmaking is like a symphony, and all of these notes have to be on point. If one note isn’t working, it ruins the whole thing. You want people to be immersed in something. The aesthetic is super important, but if the story isn’t good, people don’t give a fuck!
Let’s talk about your work in the world of music videos. Where did you get your start?
I was doing music videos awhile ago, but I didn’t like what I was making. I was making shit for the wrong reasons, emotionally. The Leon [Bridges] thing came really randomly. I wrote a treatment for this commissioner who liked a baseball commercial I did. I had also just pitched for this feature Will Smith was producing, and I’d spent all summer in Baltimore. I lost but I had already done all this research and felt really connected to this community. When I pitched the video it was perfect timing. It worked out politically with what they were trying to do and what I was trying to do.
How did you get hooked up with Jay-Z? Did you feel a lot of pressure telling his mother’s story?
They wanted me to do this other video and sent me the idea. I was like “woof.” So I turned it down. They asked me to listen to the album and see if I liked another song. It wasn’t totally my thing, but then found out Jay Z’s mom is gay and was like what! That’s the story. The song, I don’t have a deep connection with it, though I think the actress [from the video] does. I don’t think the song is the best fit for the story we were telling, but the story is just so insane. It was really tough because there were so many sensitivities with his mother. I wanted to be respectful. Especially being a Canadian caucasian male: if I don’t do this right, people are going to be mad! Ultimately, I want to tell stories. It was an opportunity to tell a story that I like, so that’s what I went for.
You’re currently living in New York. As a Canadian, do you find being based out of a major American city helpful?
New York is a small town when it comes to filmmaking, because you’re not in LA, basically. London’s got its own thing, Berlin has its own thing. I felt like Canadians didn’t want to hire me until I moved to the US. It’s the same in music. I’ve been in New York for four years now, and as soon as I landed my career started taking off. Because I live in New York, it’s kind of punk in the film scene, we’re all like “Fuck LA!” I don’t feel the pressure of the industry in New York. I don’t feel the machine of the film culture. I don’t feel the industry pushing me in the corner to write something that is market-driven. What I love about New York is that my weird ideas are so not as weird as other people’s. That provides a lot of comfort. I go to LA every couple of months, and a lot of people say you should write in New York and do your work in LA when you have something to show. Also, most of my friends in New York don’t give a fuck about what I do! I think that’s so great, because you can get so tunnel-visioned. As a director, everyone around you is paid to make you feel good about yourself, and that can make you an asshole really quickly.
It seems like the long-form commercial and documentary style advertising have become popular in recent years. Any thoughts on why that might be?
Broadcast television is slowly dying, but people have marketing objectives, and it’s still the fastest way to get your message out. With digital media, everyone is online. With this [current campaign], it was going to be this long spot, but now they want twenty short things for online. Basically everyone wants these ten of fifteen second spots for online and what I say is cool, shoot your fifteen second spot, but of that scene, I’ll also do a ninety second version of it. I always say that if its online and its over fifteen seconds, it’s just whatever it needs to be. I don’t want to make something that’s longer than it needs to be because I respect people’s time.
The long-form commercial has become pretty masturbatory for some people (laughs). There’s a lot of advertising people and directors, and I’m a culprit, who want to make it longer and make it like a film, but people don’t fucking care! It’s a tricky balance.
In the world of advertising, do you find it difficult to balance the commercial appeal and what the client wants with artistic integrity?
There is such a culture of bullshitting because people want jobs so badly. Usually when I pitch a job, I say this is the one way it’s gonna be good. A lot of the time you don’t get the job, then they make it and it’s not good, and come back to you and say hey, you had the right idea.
I don’t try to pitch to win things, I pitch only if I think the idea is really good. Say you pitch ten jobs a year, they might all turn out to be just ok. Say if you pitch three jobs a year to make something really good, you might actually go on to win an award or something. That’s kind of my career. I don’t do a lot- I do less, but they tend to strike a bit harder.
It’s like being a musician. You make so many songs, and you may love eight, but people really fucking connect with three, and you didn’t think those would… But they did.
You wrote and directed a short film that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival back in 2015 called The Statistical Analysis of your Failing Relationship. Any more on the horizon?
The long-form stuff is the goal. I’ve been writing a sci-fi movie, more of a nature sci-fi movie if that makes sense. Very non-Blade Runner. I’ve had offers to make features earlier but I just wasn’t ready. I think I’m pretty close to being ready, and once you feel you are ready, it’s kind of too late. If someone gave me a big music video opportunity or a big commercial opportunity, I’d be like… I don’t know! I think that’s where you have to be in your career to keep progressing creatively. When I know what I’m doing, I get bored. When I don’t know, I’m scared as fuck, and that’s good.
Do you have any advice to young filmmakers out there?
When I first started out my taste was ok, but my craft was really strong. I could make things that looked great, but they weren’t connecting. Then I realized that taste is like a tennis ball. You throw taste in front of you and your craft chases it. As soon as you feel like your craft is getting close to where your taste is, you gotta throw it further. The best advice I ever got was that the director who stops developing, stops working. As soon as you think you’re there, your career will end. Keep developing. It’s a life long process, you never really make it and it takes the pressure off to keep doing it. Also, just keep making shit, and get better. A lot of people will keep making stuff and ask themselves “why isn’t this catching? It looks good?” Well, what the fuck is your shit about? What’s the universal thing you’re trying to connect to? You really gotta be like, what am I connecting to that everyone can feel. Ultimately that’s what you have to respect.
You can find more of Miles work on his website, or whenever you open your computer or turn on the television.
*cover photo by Alexis Stember