There’s a moment in every young person’s life when they feel compelled to have a direction and get on the path towards finding and doing the thing that will ultimately define their career, and to some extent, define them as a person. Some lucky kids know exactly what they want to do with their lives at a very young age, including a few past Off Camera guests who were seemingly born with a clear calling and laser-like focus on their future. Judd Apatow knew he wanted to write and perform comedy when he was eight years old. Matt Damon knew he was going to be an actor before he reached high school, and nothing was going to stand in his way. Tony Hawk pretty much knew the moment he stepped on a skateboard at age five that he was never stepping off.
Me, I wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t that I didn’t have passion or direction, it was that I had too much passion for too many directions. My earliest career ambition was to be a racecar driver (my father built Orange County International Raceway). Then I discovered a book about snakes at the library and spent the next three years wanting to be a herpetologist. Then I saw Star Wars and realized what I really wanted to do was create special effects for movies. Then I discovered Doonesbury and Paul Conrad and knew I wanted to be a cartoonist. Then I found rock and roll, and decided I was meant to be in a band. That, or a professional skateboarder. Those dreams sustained me until my junior year of college, when I discovered there was not technically a major offered in either of those fields.
At about that time, I discovered photography and motion pictures, and began to think I could be a cinematographer or a photographer. I made videos of my band (no longer a major, but still a passion), and was always trying to art direct the shows we played so they looked better on film. I studied the Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense”, and saw how staging and lighting could affect a performance; I still owe apologies to my former bandmates for the “direction” I foisted on them. I started carrying around a still camera, and making pictures of my skater friends at various half-pipes and skate parks. I was the opposite of a directionless kid; I was pulling myself north, west, east, and south simultaneously. I had no desire to pick one thing when I loved so many things.
Those who know me know that not much has changed. I still write and play music. I take pictures. I make music videos and direct commercials. I have a podcast and a television show, and make the magazine you have in your hands right now. And I recently finished a documentary about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Just thinking about all of it makes me a bit tired. But one thing that has changed is that I’ve made peace with the fact that I will probably never change. I will never find my “one direction” to follow doggedly and without distraction. And you know what? I don’t want to. There is something about the possibility of waking up tomorrow with a random new idea to pursue that excites the hell out of me.
That said, the notion that we are supposed to be one thing, easily definable, is still one of the more frustrating side effects of this career wanderlust. I find this to be especially true in the worlds of photography and commercial directing. In both, you create a collection of work, a portfolio or reel, that’s supposed to define the work that you can do. Welcome to your box. This works incredibly well for a lot of people; for me, it’s long been a source of confusion. When I started out in photography, I was trying to learn how to do conceptual photographs with elaborate lighting, so I started getting those types of jobs. But as I quickly grew enamored with the idea of natural light and a looser style of portraiture, it was hard work convincing magazine editors to hire me for those kinds of jobs. In 2001 I decided to make a music documentary, shot in black and white, about the band Wilco. I assumed this would only help my photography career by demonstrating to editors I could also shoot bands. Instead, I stopped getting photography work for a while, because it was assumed I was now a documentary filmmaker. In the commercial world, the result was that I was only hired to direct documentary style spots – and those people were subsequently astonished when they found out I photographed actors for Vanity Fair. Apparently, it was inconceivable that someone who could make a documentary could also handle “talent”.
I’ve come to realize that this is how the world works. If you can photograph men really well, it’s assumed you cannot photograph women. If you are great in the studio, it’s not likely you’ll score a location shoot. If you are good at directing celebrities, your phone will not ring for the “real people” spots. You have to consistently challenge other peoples’ expectations of you by going left while the world’s watching for you to go right. The career I now enjoy required years of going against the grain. It still requires tolerant agents and coworkers who have to accept each new path that I decide needs exploration. It requires saying no to some great opportunities. Most of all, it requires belief in myself, and the conviction to see an idea through, which is the hardest thing of all.
I think the same conundrum holds true for actors. I mean, talk about getting pigeonholed. If an actor has success in a wacky comedy, he or she is not going to be sent dramatic scripts. This month’s interview subject is Chris Pine, who faces that same paradox. His success in the realm of science fiction and action adventure blockbusters would be the envy of almost any aspiring actor. I imagine the opportunities in those genres are numerous and overwhelmingly lucrative – and he’d be crazy not to take them. But I also know Chris has a restless spirit and many passions. He also has the ability to deliver in small, dramatic indie films (see Bottle Shock sometime, you will love it). And perhaps most telling, when I asked him to be on the show, he said, “Can we talk about my other passion, photography?” I believe he’ll surprise us with his choices over the coming years, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
Sam Jones March, 2015