An Interview With Bryan Kowalsky

Bryan Kowalsky
Bryan Kowalsky

Who is Bryan Kowalsky?

I’m a director and I’m a graduate of the Communication, Culture and Information Technology program at the University of Toronto at Mississauga and Sheridan College. I’ve been creating short films and video projects since I was about 12 or 13 years old. I’m currently living in Toronto, continuing to build my portfolio as well as working for titan360 as their in-house videographer and photographer.

How did you get into directing music videos?

I got into directing music videos by chance. I was in my second year of university at the time (2008) and my first music video was ‘Blue’ by Manic Drive. Manic Drive and I had a mutual friend and the director that Manic Drive initially had lined up for ‘Blue’ backed out at the last minute. My friend suggested me as a director and after showing Manic Drive some of my high school work I was thrown into it. For some reason I never really paid much attention to music videos and I literally shot ‘Blue’ by the seat of my pants.  I directed, produced, shot, and edited the project and my crew consisted of my dad and my two cousins. Looking back on it, I had no idea what I was doing but Manic Drive trusted me (for some reason or another) and I just shot with my gut. I used a rain machine that I had built with my cousin during the previous summer and we pumped about 100 gallons of blue Kool-Aid through it. ‘Blue’ was a success. It went on to be nominated for ‘Video of the Year’ on the Gospel Music Channel and finished runner up to Skillet. Aside from the nomination, Manic Drive paid me to do ‘Blue’, which I thought was pretty cool. I then started to pay a lot more attention to music videos and I have gone on to direct 22 of them since ‘Blue’.

Do you have any specific goals for the videos in general? A certain style or appearance? What’s your working style? What’s the process from start to finish?

A goal that I always try to achieve when doing music videos is to try and make the video marry the audio. If I do this, I feel like I’ve done my job as a director. This doesn’t always have to be so on the nose. I did a video in the summer of 2011 for an artist named Stevie T. He sent me the track and it was a five-minute, all instrumental, guitar heavy track. It was epic and it was gnarly. When I was starting to put together some rough ideas and the treatment for the video, I knew that I couldn’t and didn’t want to cut the video at the pace of which the song is played (which for the most part is rapid) and for the length of the track. Instead, I decided to put together a video where the visuals and narrative were loud, epic and gnarly. I drew on the infamous story of Elizabeth Bathory and how she believed bathing in virgin blood would make her immortal. I feel like that video, both in terms of story and visuals compliments the audio really well. It’s one of my favorite videos.

Stevie T | Shadowed By Darkness from Bryan Kowalsky on Vimeo.

I definitely lean towards a more gritty and dark style of story telling. I can’t say that I do this consciously, it just happens. I’m really interested in those types of stories and the characters that inhabit those types of stories. I’ve always been interested in darker themes, even as a kid. I like to shoot with grit and dirt (sometimes literally) to really bring out the raw human emotion. I’m not a fan of videos that are sensationalized or about wealth and fortune. Instead, I’m more interested in the flesh and bones of characters and telling the stories that feel more ‘real’, even if they are quite stylized in terms of the cinematography.

Typically, my process begins (on a music video) with the band or artist messaging me and sending me a track that they would like me to do for them. If it is something that I’m interested in then I get a hold of the lyrics and a .mp3 and throw it on my iPod and listen to it for a week or so (this varies, sometimes ideas come to me quicker than others and sometimes they have to because the video has a bit of a rush on it). I like to listen to songs in the dark or while I’m in motion to just get into the mindset. However, I don’t have a concrete process when it comes to writing and scripting. Something that doesn’t work for me is forcing myself to sit down and write a treatment. Ideas usually just come to me at random times and when they do I run with them. Everybody is different for that kind of thing and this is what works for me. Once I complete the treatment and I’m happy with it, I fire it off to the artist and if they’re game I start getting to work on pre-production. I book the talent, book the gear, book the location, and compile a crew. We set a production date and we stick with it. Once production is done, I move into post and edit the video. When I’m happy with the edit I fire it off to the artist and if they want any changes I make them. Generally, this process, from start to finish, takes about a month or so.

Bryan On The Set Of Purgatory.

What do you hope to accomplish either with music videos/film?What’s your ideal dream?

Every time I make a video I have a really simple goal in mind: to be better than the last one. What I hope to accomplish is not only to make a name and career for myself but also to keep improving and sharpening my craft. I also hope to keep expanding my contacts, both behind and in front of the camera. I try to run my sets with as much professionalism as possible and I want to keep having strong relationships with my cast and crew. I try to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible and I really believe that people work best when they feel comfortable and have trust in me as well as knowing that I trust them just as much. I think when you have this kind of working relationship you get the best out of everyone and you can get people to go above and beyond for you. My ideal dream is to work in film and to write and direct the stories that I want to tell. I would love to keep doing what I’m doing and how I’m doing it but just move on to a much bigger scale.

Do you have any memorable/exciting/crazy stories you can share?

Usually each shoot garners a story that is worth sharing. One thing I have noticed (that isn’t planned) with my work is that I seem to like putting people through extreme conditions (safely, of course). In my final school film, ‘The Umbrella Project’, the end scene called for two women to say goodbye in the pouring rain. I once again used my homemade rain machine and this time we went through about 250 gallons of water. The problem was that we shot in March—and at night. We heated the first 100 gallons of water coming through the rain machine but the next 150 was so cold that it started to freeze once it hit the ground. It was beyond cold and my two actresses went through a wall for me that night. I’ve never seen two people that cold before in my life. In between takes I had crew guys wrap them up in giant blankets (which then went on to freeze a little while later). I kept asking them if they wanted to stop and told them that nobody would be upset if we called it quits but they wanted to keep going and if I ever thought they were in danger we certainly would have stopped shooting. It was a wild night.

The Umbrella Project | Trailer from Bryan Kowalsky on Vimeo.

On my music video ‘Shadowed by Darkness’ by Stevie T, I wrote a scene that called for our lead actress (who unfortunately was also under the rain machine in ‘The Umbrella Project’ as well) to bathe in blood. Our blood concoction was about 50 liters of tomato juice mixed in with a couple of containers of instant coffee. It was both awful and awesome at the same time. She was covered from head to toe as I asked her to go under and be completely submerged. I tried to make this process as painless as possible and we actually ended up shooting all of the bathtub footage in about 15 minutes. She smelt like a giant tomato when we wrapped.

On my short film ‘Tinder’, which I did back in the fall of 2010, the second and final day of filming was one of the most intense experiences I have ever been through. We had everything going against us. Our field monitor broke, it was on the verge of raining all day (awful considering my film revolved around a drought) and we were losing sunlight at a rapid pace. However, ‘Tinder’ is one of the projects I am most proud of. We shot an 18-minute period piece in two days on a $500 budget. It isn’t perfect but it was a student project and I still regard it as one of my best pieces. The second day of shooting featured all of the dialogue scenes. While filming the dialogue scenes in the kitchen, we occasionally had to stop filming because it was raining so hard that our boom was picking up the sound of the rain hitting the roof. This backed up production. As we moved through the first scene in the kitchen and into the backyard (the climax and finale of the film) we were running out of time. The entire backyard scene was shot in a about two to three hours, which is pretty impressive considering it runs at about seven minutes. However, there came a point during shooting that backyard scene where I thought we weren’t going to be able to get it done. The sun was disappearing. There were no reshoot days. There was not going to be any rescheduling. I remember thinking in between takes that a project that I had been working on since the spring of that year was slipping through my fingers. I then decided to take the camera off of the tripod and shot the rest of that scene myself by hand. I couldn’t have done it alone, my whole crew pulled behind me and we all did it together and we got the final shot in just as it went dark. I remember being hit with a wave of emotions and then throwing up as we were wrapping. That day I put myself through extreme conditions but I had to and I wanted to. Sometimes you have to do that to get what you want out of a project and I think by doing that to myself I got some respect from cast and crew and that is why they do the things they do for me.

Tinder | Trailer from Bryan Kowalsky on Vimeo.

Do you have any future projects/ideas you’d like to share?

I’m going to be releasing two new projects at the end of February to go along with the launch of my new website. The first project, ‘Overcoat Club’, is a short film that I initially wrote as a treatment for a music video. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out with the band but it was a treatment that I was really fond of and I wanted to make it anyway. The film is about an underground Russian roulette league in the 1930’s. I contacted most of the actors and actresses that I know and have worked with or have been wanting to work with and we got together for an afternoon and shot. I’m really excited to get it out there.

Overcoat Club | Trailer from Bryan Kowalsky on Vimeo.

The second project that I will be releasing at the end of February is a music video called ‘High Voltage Love’ by Matthaiz. Matthaiz and I have known each other since before high school and we have been talking about working together for quite a while. However, the concept for this project came about when my brother and I started writing the script to a new short film early last year, tentatively called ‘Mother, Mother’. The film is set in the near future in an oppressed society where the value system has been turned upside down (looking good weighs in above all else). Within this society, an underground militia has been forming and conspiring to overthrow the dictator of this society, Mother. As Mother weakens and loses her grip on her dictatorship, she turns to her final option, which is creating and breeding super soldiers to take down the underground militia. I pitched this concept to Matthaiz as the treatment for ‘High Voltage Love’ and he jumped at it. We went to work and the video was shot over two days in August 2012. Working with Matthaiz has been an awesome experience and the shoot was a ton of fun – I had the privilege of working with a great cast and crew. ‘High Voltage Love’ features the creation of the super soldiers and the fight between them and the underground militia. The video is really just meant to be a glimpse into the story world of ‘Mother, Mother’ instead of an entire look, which is being left to be done in another upcoming project.

High Voltage Love | Trailer from Bryan Kowalsky on Vimeo.

My brother and I are currently writing a five-part series that follows the militia or ‘resistance’ in the ‘Mother, Mother’ story world. These will be 5-minute (or so) shorts that dive deeper into the story and into the world of ‘Mother, Mother’. I’m really excited about it and we will be going to camera later this year.

Another project that I’m currently working on is a new short film that I’m writing with my brother. I’m really excited, my last short film (other than ‘Overcoat Club’ but that was more of a side project) was ‘The Umbrella Project’ back in the spring of 2011. When we wrapped Umbrella I was a bit fried. I just finished University and just finished completing ‘Tinder’ and ‘The Umbrella Project’ back-to-back. Both of those projects were pretty meaty and I was looking to take a breather. I didn’t totally turn my mind off of film for the rest of 2011 but I didn’t really start writing until 2012. Last year we didn’t do a short film but my brother and I sketched out a lot of ideas, including ‘Mother, Mother’ (however, that film would require some serious funding so for now we are going to explore that idea in some different formats). So now, in 2013, we are ready to start bringing some of these new ideas to life. We will start with this new short film that I hope we can go to camera with as early as spring. I’m ready to take the next step forward and to dive into a project that is going to consume me once again.

Do you have any advice or tips for someone looking to get into music videos/directing?

My advice for anyone who is looking to get into directing, whether it is for music videos or short films, would be to just do it. Just shoot. When I look back on it I wouldn’t have gotten ‘Blue’ if I didn’t fool around and experiment with projects in high school. If I didn’t have anything to show Manic Drive they would never have given me the opportunity. I think it is important to just shoot and see what you get, see what kind of director you are and see what kind of style you have and what kind of stories you want to tell. The more you do the more comfortable you become doing it and the more confidence you have. When I was in high school and university I tried to shoot as much as I possibly could and now I feel like I have gotten my portfolio and myself into a position where I can be a little selective and do the projects that really interest me.

 If you could scream 1 thing out to the masses what would it be?

Keep at it and don’t give up. I know it sounds cliché but the fact of the matter is that you’re going to make some garbage. I’ve made garbage and I have no doubt that I will one day make garbage again. However, like anything in life, you need to take things in stride and learn from your mistakes. Which is why I said in the previous question that you need to just get out there and shoot. If you don’t shoot then you won’t fall on your face and if you don’t fall on your face then you won’t become better because of it. I make mistakes on every shoot because I’m human but by doing projects and doing work I am giving myself the chance to learn from those mistakes and make the necessary corrections. There are going to be tough days and awful hours and nights where you don’t sleep but all of those things will make you better. Before shooting ‘Purgatory’ one of my good friends and camera operators asked me if I ever get nervous before a shoot and I answered with a resounding yes. I’m pretty much always nervous the night before a shoot and my stomach twists and turns like crazy. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to be sick. He and I laughed but for me being nervous to the point where I can’t sleep is a good thing. It means it is a project worth doing and worth being nervous about. It means all of those long hours and tough days are worth it

ARIA | Purgatory from Bryan Kowalsky on Vimeo.   (back up in late February 2013)

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