An Interview with Director Kirby Voss
We conducted an interview with director Kirby Voss. Kirby is a driven, passionate director who we have been lucky to work with over the years. He is particularly known for his optimism on set, clear vision, and an ability to bring out truly exceptional performances from the actors in his films. We were excited for this opportunity to discuss his trajectory and method.
1. Please introduce yourself, where you’re from, and what you do currently.
My name is Kirby, I grew up in Atlanta, and I went to college at Loyola University New Orleans. I’ve directed two features, plenty of (horrible) shorts, and other assorted videos. Because of my incredible success, I have a glamorous job … oh wait, I do business sales for a shipping company. Nice job, but not quite A-list. I do however, keep up a steady stream of respectable and paid directing work.
2. You’ve clearly had your sights set on directing for some time – by the end of your education at Loyola you had directed two feature films – what were some of the hardest challenges you faced in your first features? What were the results of some of those projects/how did those films do once they were released?
I realized I was a director at age 14, so it’s been my goal for quite a while. Like (many, many other) filmmakers, I read “Rebel Without a Crew” and decided that I, too, could direct a feature for $7,000 and go to Sundance with it. Turns out, I couldn’t. I directed the feature for about $5,000, but of the 100 people that saw it, 99 thought it was pure rubbish. Unwatchable. Only one person, Felicia Stallard, thought there might be some talent there, and she invested in “Love Me True,” my second film.
Turns out that my biggest challenge (on both projects) wasn’t a lack of money, or incompetent cast or crew, or whatever else … my biggest challenge was 100% me. I’m young, and conveying a cohesive vision to 50 people isn’t easy. Bringing the passion, the leadership – those are easy to me, because I’m passionate about getting the film done. The film literally is my life. But there’s also the stone-cold fact that I’m a young artist, and I make some bad choices. So my biggest obstacle is getting over my ego, detaching myself from my work, and being able to separate good advice from bad advice.
I recently moved out to LA, and I’ve had the good fortune to meet some incredibly helpful, talented, and successful people. A surprising number of them have offered (or been strong-armed) to read my work, and sometimes you just … don’t hear back from them. And you have to recognize that you’re good, but maybe not good enough. Yet. And that’s just the way it is. The industry seems to have a fascination with “first-time” directors who make a film at 27, then go on to make the next Star Wars film. That’s not me. Each of my films has gotten (significantly) better, but I certainly didn’t come into the world a fully-fledged artist. You just have to hustle, learn, and work.
3. What brought you to New Orleans? What is one of your favorite video production experiences here in New Orleans? Any good lessons you learned here?
Truth be told, I came to New Orleans kicking and screaming. I wanted to go to NYU or Chapman University, but I had a scholarship to Loyola – so I wound up at Loyola. And it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Because I knew, deep down, that there was a 0% chance I would do anything with my life other than be a director. I was going to be a film maker, or I’d be homeless. That’s just who I am. And I feel incredibly fortunate, because I was able to witness, on a very ground level, the birth of next-gen independent cinema in NOLA. I really do feel like just as Hollywood saw young film-makers rise in the 70’s, so too is NOLA seeing a birth of cinema.
The lessons I learned are varied, but I took away a few key axioms: feed your people; you can ask people to work for free once, but not twice; always work harder than anyone else on set; get a really good bullshit detector; don’t try and work on Mardi Gras, no matter how badly you want to; trust your gut – if someone is very “talented” but also an asshole, don’t work with them; trust people with no experience if they’re hungry; be passionate always; always keep learning and creating.
My personal rule is simple: read more than you watch, and write more than you read. Creation is more valuable than consumption, and active learning is more valuable than absorption.
4. There is a lot of ongoing debate about film school vs on-set experience. As a graduate of Loyola’s film program, what were some the pros and cons of that experience?
To clarify, Loyola doesn’t have (or didn’t have, rather) much of a film program when I graduated. I took 1-2 classes on basic video production, but nothing that got into the hard-core rules of film grammar. All of what I know about film-making came from books, actually. I have a list of a few essential books (at the end) that I think are the best to establish a core cinematic foundation for *anyone*, regardless if you’re an AC or a costume designer. Film school gives your connections, but just making your own films and working on sets gives you the hustle. If you can make it through film school, then you can make it through film school (in my opinion). If you can make it working on dingy indie sets, and really learn your craft, and hone that into a job, then you’ve gotten two educations – both necessary. One is craft, and the other is hustle. In Hollywood, from what I’ve seen, both matter equally.
What Loyola did give me was a series of film appreciation classes that I *loved*. I was exposed to film makers that I had never heard of, giants of the craft whose work resonates deeply today: Visconti, Wyda, Brunel, Malle, and so many more. I was forcibly exposed to new cinema, and that was an incredible education. Because as important as reading and creating are, studying film is also a core, essential piece of the puzzle.
Having said all of that, I did attend a film training program called the Global Cinematography Institute (GCI), which was one of the most satisfying educational experiences of my life. It was an intensive 2 week program, full of long days and serious critiques. The program was taught by giants of the craft, from Dan Mindel to Yuri Neyman, Bradford Young to Newton Thomas Segal. We were given the opportunity to study theory and practice, from the nuance of composition and exposure theory to the mechanics of lens flares. A director needs to understand all aspects of her or his craft, and working with some of the best cinematographers I can name was incredibly enjoyable. I think the key is that I was forced to step my game up; I always want to be the least-talented person on set.
5. What’s your favorite thing to do on set? Whether an individual position, a fun practice or tradition you have, whatever. The one thing you always look forward to no matter the production.
I honestly have no idea – I black out once I’m on set. I really do. I am so happy, so ecstatic, and so at home, that I wind up on set (usually absurdly nervous), I blink, and the day is over. I do have something of a superstition – I never eat on set. I’m always up, moving, and jumping around (making an ass of myself). I might have some chex-mix or something, but I never have a real meal. Too many better things to do. For me, a day on set is a full-workout.
I will say one thing I never, ever do is make a shot list. I just won’t do it. I keep it in my head, or I make it up as I block the scene, but I think shot lists are a complete waste. Of course, they’re essential for most film makers. What do I know? Also, I never watch my films. When “Love Me True” played at the New Orleans Film Festival, I was across the street at the bar. I can’t think of anything less pleasant than having to watch my films.
6. If you had to give one piece of advice to someone just starting out here in the film industry, especially if they’re just starting out here in New Orleans, what would be your main piece of advice?
Be the first to arrive, the last to leave, and never, ever sit. Film is a job, just like any other. And I’ve had many jobs, and the one that was closest to film is construction. People respect hard work.
Also, if you’re a director, be ready to die for your actors. Really *love* your actors. When they act, they’re baring their soul to you. No one else. Once the camera is rolling, it should only be you and them. Never betray that, and never underestimate the courage that that takes.
7. What are you working on now?
Whoo-hoo! My favorite part! I’m chest-deep into development on my next feature, a war film called FOLSOM, LA. I have a budget, script, and promo packet, and the big investor search starts up soon. If anyone is interested, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re aiming to film in December 2016 – and we’ll be crewing up in a few months!
8. Anything else you’d like to add?
My recommended book list:
Story by Robert McKee
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch
Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez
(^^ those are trite, but they need to be read)
Picture This by Molly Bang
Lighting for Cinematography by David Landau
Stanley Kubrick and Me by Emilio D’Alessandro
Every issue of ASC magazine you can find
Cinematography for Directors by Jacqueline Frost
Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
NEVER READ On Directing by David Mamet. Hate that book. He should stick to writing.
P.S. I think you can learn just about everything about directing if you watch JAWS, Jurassic Park, and Schindler’s List enough times. Also David Lean. Watch his work often.
P.P.S. If you want to be a film-maker, you should probably ignore all of this. If not, then … hi Mom and Dad!
Recently Love Me True officially received a distribution deal – be on the lookout!