The Directors: Jonny Mass
Growing up in the heart of the Arizonian desert, Jonny Mass was raised on a diet of - as he puts it - “high octane fuel and rock n’ roll”. After spending adolescent years riding his dirt bike through the arid scenery of his home state, Jonny recaptures that same spirit in adrenaline-powered film work.
The RadicalMedia director’s purpose in film is to tell engaging stories, most often with roots in the action genre. Refreshingly, Jonny’s work also doesn’t take itself too seriously - his stated goal being to ‘blow sh*t up and make you laugh in the process’. A versatile filmmaker who can write, direct, shoot, edit, and manage post, here Jonny reflects on his creative process, his greatest filmmaking challenges so far, and why being ‘too young’ has never held him back…
Name: Jonny Mass
Repped by: RadicalMedia (US, UK, Germany)
Q> Hello, Jonny! Thanks for taking the time to chat. To start, what type of script normally gets you excited to work on a project?
Jonny Mass> Hello! The types of scripts I generally prefer are ones that have really great ideas behind them. I’m very comfortable attacking whatever comes my way, but the ones that get me the most excited are when there’s a level of ambition and planning around it.
I’ve always said that, when working with a creative idea, you have to consider the work of the creative directors, art directors, and writers - as a director you’re really coming in to execute their vision and bring a unique perspective to it. So when there’s really, really great creative, I try not to change it too much. When I’m pitching on a project, I like to come in, take a look at what they have, and try to understand how I can make it stronger. I want to open up a conversation with the agency and be able to add my own ideas, but not radically change everything. I understand that good people could have been sitting on this script for six or seven months, and it’s my job as the director to come into the situation later in the game. And at that stage of the process, when you’re shooting in three weeks, it’s my objective to understand the heart of the idea I have in front of me.
Q> And how do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Jonny> It’s totally different every time. Broadly, my process is deeply rooted in music so I’m heavily influenced by that. I’ll read the script a few times, but try not to dig into it all that much. I go into calls understanding the concept and everything they’ve written, but I want to leave everything open to interpretation. You won’t understand the real heart of an idea until you talk to the agency and start to understand the way that they’re pitching and a little bit of the backstory.
Following that, I’ll get off the call with the agency, sit down, and immediately get into my Google Docs. I’ll note down bullet points and try to build on them in meaningful ways, as I think it’s super important to try and offer up ideas. If you’re silent and don’t have any questions, that’s a big red flag to them. So I like to ask as many questions as I possibly can.
Q> When it comes to being influenced by music, how does that process work? Are you consciously thinking about what music to apply to a project from an early stage?
Jonny> Something like that, yeah. On each occasion, I let the project directly influence the music I listen to and, by extension, the world I live in for the next week. More often than not, I’ll play music that I feel directly influences the outcome. I have such a vast taste in music, and will start putting together Spotify playlists so that I have 10 or 15 songs that I can listen to on repeat for like, five or six days in a row while I’m writing. It helps give a foundation and a shape to a project in my mind.
Q> And how do you then build on that foundation for the treatment?
Jonny> In terms of treatments, I’ll always start with the story. The story and the characters are the two most important parts, because the characters directly influence the story and vice versa, so it’s always one of those two sections first. So I will completely polish the story on the first pass, and won’t touch a single other section of the treatment until I have a grasp on how it’s actually all going to play out. Then, I reverse-engineer the story, and build out the rest of the treatment.
It’s only after I have the story and characters settled in my head that I’ll go right into the treatment intro. It’s so important for me to narratively attach myself to the project and craft something that then connects with the story we’re trying to tell - rather than just writing ‘oh, I’m so excited to be on this project.’ Of course I should be excited!
Q> Is there anything else you’re looking out for, or conscious of, when heading into a new project?
Jonny> At the end of the day, if we’re going to work together, it’s important to have an understanding of what I’m going to be doing. Because once I attach myself to something, I'm not the type of person to water something down just to get the job. I'm going to give you my approach to it, and if that approach is something that you’re interested in working with then that’s fantastic. And if not, that’s okay, maybe we can work together on something else. But that’s my approach.
I have my own voice, and I like being part of a pool where there’s three separate directors with three completely different styles and voices, because then I feel really empowered. I’m allowed to take it in my direction and other directors can take it in their directions. While it makes it easier to lose projects, it feels so much more empowering when you win them.
Q> So you’re never left with any regrets?
Jonny> Yeah, if I lose a job, I'm not upset about it. I know that I will have given it every last ounce of attention and energy I possibly could have. I think what's great about that is you invest all this time into it and if it works out, it's incredible. You feel like you were justified in putting all your time into it. And then if you lose it, you know you gave it everything and it just puts you in a better position to move on to the next one and still carry that positivity.
And equally, I know that if I had won that kind of job it would have been down to some kind of compromise I never intended to make. I was talking to someone the other day about whether you’d prefer to win a project, but have lied and compromised in the treatment just to fit it. You could have a good reel and be a clear choice, but would you want to win a project where you weren’t fully transparent with what you wanted to do. If you end up winning, you’re now going to have to do that - and it’s really hard to change stuff too much afterwards. It’s just not for me. I like to be transparent with it and say ‘if you’re interested, that’s incredible. If you’re not, then no hard feelings and if you guys have a project in the future where you want to blow stuff up and launch cars off ramps, then I’m your dude.’
Q> If the script is for a brand or sector that you're not familiar with, what steps do you take to ensure you’re up to speed?
Jonny> The best thing to do is talk to people. I’ll go and talk to people that know about the brand, and the people that use the product. I think it's important to always get direct to the consumer on anything. You can do as much research as you want and look at the products and the website, but if you don't know someone who uses it it's very hard to understand the little tiny nuances of why you buy that product.
Cars are one example, but you could look at something like guitars. The type of person who plays a Stratocaster is very different from the type of person who plays Les Paul. It’s only by talking to fans and people who use the product that you learn the history and all the context around it. You could just browse a website and read about it, but that’s no substitute for talking to people who live and breathe it.
Q> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter, and why is it wrong?
Jonny> Maybe the most common one is that I’m ‘too young’. People have been saying that since I was 19 years old, and I'm still here proving them wrong. It’s interesting because when you're young, you can be perceived as not understanding the technical or storytelling aspects of directing. But the thing is that storytelling is deeply rooted in our psyche. We all understand storytelling - although not all of us know how to unpack it and to address it to a certain project. We all grow up watching movies and television - things that directly influenced our culture and also our understanding of how a story is meant to be told. And I think that some people just have this innate ability to understand how to speak to an audience, and that's something I feel like I've been blessed with. I have this innate ability to understand what an audience is going to think and feel.
I started a production company when I was 17. We did music and sound, and honestly we were way in over our heads at the beginning. But I was able to learn so much from all these different stages of the process. So now, when I go and approach a project, I'm writing auditory cues - I know what's possible with sound design, I know what's possible with scoring original music. I can produce, I can direct, I can write. So when I get that ‘oh he's kind of young’ comment it's frustrating - but it’s equally satisfying to upend those expectations. I might be young, but I've been around the block.
Q> Over the course of the projects you’ve worked on so far, what’s been the craziest challenge you’ve faced, and how did you overcome it?
Jonny> That’s a tough one. I’ve had some terrible luck with weather problems, so there are plenty of examples that come to mind. I guess the big one was a 2019 shoot I was working on for Toyota. I had taken inspiration from Mad Max, in particular a shot in which a bunch of buggies pick up a load of dust which flies in front of the camera. You then push through that, and there’s a semi which comes charging at you - and you suddenly start getting pushed backwards with it. It’s a totally seamless cut which goes against all laws of physics but looks absolutely incredible.
So I wanted to try and create a shot like that for the ‘Toughest Field’ spot. I brought along a tonne of dust and laid it all out in such a way that it would linger on-camera for long enough to make the cut and have it be seamless. The trouble was that, on the day, we had these sixty mile-per-hour winds that had the potential to cause havoc with the dust. Fortunately, we were able to shoot in a crevasse and I had this giant grey screen up on one side so that we were as protected from the wind as it was humanly possible to be. In the end, we got the shot - but I can’t recall my heart beating faster than it did on that day, knowing we couldn’t recreate this in post if we didn’t nail it.
Above: ‘The Toughest Field’ spot for Toyota: the shot referred to by Jonny can be seen at the 9-second mark.
Q> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work in the longer term? Have you picked up any new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
Jonny> The short answer is no. I’ve been fortunate in that projects I’ve worked on have generally been set up to run smoothly - notwithstanding the initial few months where there were simply no projects at all. But all it’s really brought about is more hoops to jump through before you get to make films. I don’t see anything really good that’s come of it.
One by-product of it which is enjoyable, however, is how happy everyone is to have human interaction again. There’s this profoundly positive energy on-set when you are working with other people - where safe and permitted - which is great to be around. Long may that last.
Q> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)?
Jonny> Yeah, that’s a good question. Often I’ll get told to make sure that I’m shooting for all of these different formats, and my response is always to try and add a shoot day and focus on those formats. Because with how much time we have, it’s possible to work to the detriment of the main spot. But I can also provide solutions, and say ‘okay, well if we have this broadcast deadline, we have to hit these days and this is how much we need to ramp up production’. And, at times, we’ll have different cameras shooting simultaneously to make sure we hit those different formats.
So it’s doable, but what you can’t do is just say ‘oh yeah that’ll be fine’ and try to figure it out after the fact. That’s a recipe for disaster - you need a plan.
Q> Finally, what’s your relationship with new technology? How do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?
Jonny> I’d say I have a really good technical understanding of what’s possible and what’s not possible. My vendors and crew that I work with tend to keep me fresh - I’ll be speaking with them pretty much every day and I collect new ideas for using tech in a notebook.
At the same time, however, there’s a skill in knowing when not to fall back on technology. There’s nothing worse than using pieces of kit to tell a story in an inferior way to something that could be very traditional. I think traditional filmmaking is kind of getting lost in the industry right now, and we’re missing out as a result. For example, one of my favourite things as a filmmaker is physically shaking the camera to give energy to a scene. It’s guaranteed not to fall flat if you’re doing that.
Having a good level of technical knowledge and expertise helps with that. It’s not the solution for every situation, but it’s fantastically useful at times. Just like everything else - if it doesn’t fit the story, it serves no purpose.
Featured Companies: RadicalMedia Europe