Max Joseph is probably best known for his role in front of the camera as Nev Schulman’s salt-and-pepper-haired sidekick on MTV’s Catfish. But behind it, Joseph has mastered the snappy, digestible art of the web video. Take his short, Follow the Frog: A whip-fast, entertaining clip with a strong message that reveals itself in the final moments—tailor-made for generation ADD (the video won TED’s Ads Worth Spreading challeng). The New Yorker has also helmed award-winning ads for Nike, Pepsi, Starbucks, and just released his latest digital effort, the 13-minute documentary, 12 Years of DFA: Too Old To Be New, Too New To Be Classic, about the legendary New York record label. Joseph is currently working on his first feature film for Working Title, but before he leaves the web behind for big-screen glory, we asked him to leave us with his essential tips on the way to achieving viral success.
Well for starters, who am I to write about the steps to making yourself a better director? I haven’t made anything longer then 20 minutes, I haven’t won an Academy Award, and I haven’t directed an episode of an HBO series. To this point, I have been pretty much a web filmmaker, which I guess is a new breed of director. You can’t really even call it “directing,” since you are generally writing it, shooting it, and editing it by yourself or with a small team. That’s filmmaking. It is also worth mentioning that I am addicted to the game of getting views, likes, and shares. I want people to see what I make. I want my films to go viral. And if the film has a strong simple concept and is well-executed, chances are it will. I have not by any means perfected the art of making web films, but I have found that these tips make me better.
1. It’s got to be better than porn. Let me explain. Someone who owned a bottled water company once pointed out to me that he considered Coca-Cola to be his competition. He needed to think that way in order to build a product that could hold its own on the beverage shelf where Coca-Cola dominates. Well, the most watched films on the internet are porn films. The experience of watching your film has to be better and more stimulating (intellectually at least), then watching the most depraved sexual acts ever to be caught on camera. Good luck.
2. Comedy is king. If you can make people laugh they will pass your movie around. One of my problems is that I am not a comedian (although my films generally do have a sense of humor). In my mind I am competing against porn AND really funny people. That’s stiff competition.
3. Simple Concept + Great Execution = Good Web Film. I think this is the winning formula for any good web film that’s not comedic or pornographic. You need one simple clever concept that you then must illustrate extremely well. A concept my buddy Casey Neistat came up with was: instead of making the Nike commercial he was hired to direct, he would use the budget to fund an adventure around the world with his buddy Max. Very simple to understand and immediately intriguing. But a clever concept is not enough. It’s just a promise you’re making to the audience. Now you’ve got to make good on your promise by showing the most interesting and exciting aspects your concept. This involves good storytelling. Giving it a good beginning, middle, and end.
4. Figure out the A to Z. For a story to have a beginning, middle, and end, it must start somewhere and end somewhere else whether that distance is emotional or geographical. In order for the viewer not to get bored she has to feel like she knows exactly where she is in the film—or more specifically how far she is from the end. If she doesn’t, she’s lost and bored. Present a clear track at the outset of your film so that the viewer knows story-wise when the film will end. In the example of my film for Nike with Casey the viewer knows the film will end when we make it all the way around the world.
5. Before making your movie tell your idea to lots of people. Don’t get nervous they will steal it. The more times you tell it to people the better your delivery gets. And the better your delivery gets, the better your story gets. As you’re saying the words you begin to change things, add things, omit other things just based on the other person’s reaction. As you get better at telling your idea notice where people smile or seem engaged. That will give you the basic blueprint for how to tell your story.
6. As you’re shooting always be willing to throw out your plan and improvise based on what you discover on the day. Sometimes that’s where the best moments come from. As I was shooting a scene for my Follow the Frog film, there was a huge wildfire in the desert and no one was there. So we walked right up to it (foolishly) and found a way to incorporate it into the movie. Then the fire trucks showed up and we bolted.
7. Keep it short. 2:30 for me is the golden number for internet films. But that’s just a guideline. The longer a film is, the better it must be. Be brutal and cut everything that’s not necessary.
8. Grab your audience right away (and never let go). If a video doesn’t grab me in the first three seconds, I click on something else. Hit me with your best shot.
9. Make Mix CDS. The emotional flow of a movie is the most important thing. If I ever taught a class in filmmaking I would have everyone make a mix CD as an exercise. Because a good mix CD is actually a perfect movie. The mix CD is designed to seduce its listener. Inherently, we all know to kick off a mix cd with something fun, light and fast. Then as it goes on, you vary it up. Three fast songs in a row can be exhausting. So you throw something a little softer in to break it up. Eventually you’ll want to drop that soulful love song that’s going to make the other person start crying about you. But you can’t just put it anywhere. You’ve got to lead up to it. It’s got to feel earned, like a logical step from the song before it. And then end strong. A song that feels like it has a sense of finality. A good mix CD maker can make great films.
10. Get better haircuts. As you grow beyond the do-it-all-yourself method of filmmaking, you realize that you have to rely on and work with other people. This is not art, it’s leadership. When I got into filmmaking I didn’t realize that to make films you have to basically lead a small army. But you learn quickly how to work with others to get the best product. The best analogy I’ve found to collaborative filmmaking is getting a haircut. Most people can’t cut their own hair so they go to someone who can. If you sit down in front of a hairdresser who has never cut your hair before, it is your responsibility to tell them what you want. The same is true if you are working with a cameraman or an editor. This is a creative partnership and it can go in a few different ways. You can say nothing (“make me look good”) and let them have their way with you, oftentimes resulting in profound bitterness and no tip. You can micro-manage their every snip until you both hate each other’s guts and made worse by the fact that you still don’t like your haircut; or you can give them a clear and specific direction leaving enough space for creative freedom. I oftentimes find that showing a hair-dresser a picture of a haircut I like is the best way to go—a common visual reference (there was once a time where all I had to say “Tom Cruise. Mission Impossible” and not a word more). If you can’t get a good haircut then you’re going to have a hard time making a movie.
11. Find your voice. Make something only you could have made. To put it in more cliched way: be original. Everyone has a very specific way of looking at the world and nothing is more exciting than hearing a new voice. Don’t emulate your favorite filmmakers, figure out what you can do by doing it fast over and over again until you can see the patterns shining through. That’s your artistic voice. Embrace the idiosyncrasies and own it. Everyone will want you and while you may inspire impersonators no one will ever be able to do what you do.