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5 Minutes with… Sam Spiegel

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The producer/DJ-turned-director discusses doing music for iconic skate films, adding directing to his skillset and filming Wu-Tang in space, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

5 Minutes with… Sam Spiegel


“I’m driven by the joy of the process. My happy place is being immersed in making something special.”

Sam Spiegel is a creative that has truly explored and pushed the boundaries of his own imagination. Like his brother, filmmaker/director Spike Jonze, everything started for Sam with the skateboarding scene of the ‘90s and early 2000s. He began by producing music for skate films, including the much-celebrated classic ‘Yeah Right’ - which his brother co-directed - drawing attention to both of the siblings’ talents in their own rights.

As eyeballs turned to Sam, who was making a musical splash in LA’s cool, underground skateboarding scene, he went from strength to strength - becoming known as a DJ and producer for his own projects, N.A.S.A, Sam i and Squeak E. Clean, as well as for other artists like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Fatlip. He later would collaborate with Kanye West, Doja Cat, Childish Gambino, Lizzo and more. Teaming up with Spike once again, Sam took his first steps into the commercial space, finding almost immediate success with a 2005 adidas spot that launched a song he produced with Karen O to number one on iTunes, earning a Gold Lion award in the process. 

Naming it after his producer handle, Sam went on to found global sound company Squeak E. Clean Studios, and has continued to create in both the music and ad worlds, as a producer, DJ, composer and now… director. Directing clearly runs in the family as in 2016, Sam joined the roster at Hey Wonderful, with whom he has directed a number of projects, including a sci-fi-inspired web series with his friends from Wu-Tang Clan. Even outside of the commercial space, he enjoys combining his passions for music and filmmaking - utilising both when creating music videos for his latest musical project 'TRY', with his creative partner Shmuck the Loyal.

LBB’s Ben Conway caught up with Sam to discuss his entry into the creative industry, his varied and exciting career so far, and shooting Ghostface Killah in a spaceship. 



LBB> What creative content inspired or interested you most when you were growing up? Do any TV shows, films and ads stand out to you?


Sam> I loved Saturday morning cartoons: ‘He-man’, ‘Voltron’, lots of stuff coming out of Japan at the time, but the American shows on network TV. Of course, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Willy Wonka’, standard stuff for a kid of my age. Then when I was an adolescent, ‘Beavis and Butthead’, and Liquid Television on MTV was a huge inspiration for me. When ‘Kids’ came out, I loved that. I think that’s influenced me too. Harmony Korine is a special artist. 

 


LBB> When did the possibility of working in the advertising world appear to you? How was your journey into this industry? 


Sam> I started by doing the music for skate films. One called ‘Yeah Right’ was a big hit, and people started checking for me in advertising. A lot of people from the skate world were moving into advertising at the time, and they knew me from Yeah Right, and the other skate films I was scoring. Then, I had a couple of big commercials with Spike, notably one adidas commercial for which I wrote a song with Karen O called ‘Hello Tomorrow’. The song blew up in advertising and won a Gold Lion, but it also went to No. 1 on iTunes. As for directing, I made short films in high school, too, but didn’t start directing professionally until 2016, after I directed my own music video for a song called ‘Jihad Love Squad’. Soon after I got signed to Hey Wonderful, and I’ve been directing ever since. I love it! 




LBB> After you joined Hey Wonderful, what were some of your main goals with the company from the start? Have these changed or been achieved?


Sam> I joined Hey Wonderful in 2016. They’re a class act, great people. I joined for the opportunity to direct more because I get so much joy from it, and I’ve had the luck of being able to direct some very unique branded projects with them, for instance, some short films for National Geographic, as well as a branded sci-fi series for Impossible Foods with Wu-Tang Clan. I’d love to continue doing more inspiring and fun work with them.



LBB> Which came first, your passion for composition and music, or your passion for directing? Do you get to direct and compose on the same project, or is that creative overload?


Sam> Music was the first thing I connected with. Since I was a kid, I sang and played multiple instruments, then started DJ’ing when I was a teenager for parties and school dances. I sold mixtapes at school, too. I started producing hip-hop beats and assembled a band when I was 15. When I was 18 I moved to LA and started DJ'ing at clubs even though I was under age. I kept making beats and started to connect with some rappers and artists with whom I started working. 

I first started working to picture making the skate films I mentioned earlier. I always loved visual storytelling, and so much of the music I was writing was to picture. Sometimes I’d just throw up a favourite scene from a movie and compose the beginning of a song from that vibe, capturing that feel. As I kept growing as an artist and musician, I think it was only natural that I’d start directing, too, because I spent so much time around great filmmakers composing music for them, as well as watching so many movies and soaking up the medium.  

I’ve always been a cinephile. I love watching movies more than maybe any other activity. And when I’m directing, I almost always compose the music, but very occasionally people will get music from elsewhere. It’s only happened once actually. I was surprised because I always have the sound in my head when I’m dreaming up a directing job. 




LBB> What’s the most important lesson/piece of advice you received early on in your career? How does it influence you and your work today?


Sam> People told me don’t focus too much on the money, focus on the art, follow your heart. That’s been great advice and has led me well. The money comes when you’re making the stuff that excites you, but it’s never been the focus. 



LBB> You’ve been very successful with the company you founded, Squeak E. Clean – what are some of your proudest memories and accomplishments from that journey?


Sam> I think the greatest thing for me with Squeak E. Clean has been all of the great people I’ve been able to work with and get to know through the company. Squeak E. Clean is my extended family, and as the company has grown, I’ve gained so many family members, both current and past employees. It’s gratifying knowing that this company started bare bones in a tiny house which I turned into a studio called Crack Alley and it’s grown into a global music company with many studios providing a home to artists and music enthusiasts worldwide.

 


LBB> Who in the industry/in your field inspires you?

 

Sam> I get inspired when I see people taking risks, being bold, and approaching advertising as an artistic endeavor. There are a lot of people out there who are working from a place of fear, not wanting to be criticised or stand out and do something different. When I see creatives/brands/agencies who are breaking the mold, trying something different, or just saying ‘I stand for creativity’, those are the brands I’m attracted to as a consumer and as a creative. 



LBB> What was your first professional project and what are your memories of that? And what was the project or piece of work that you felt really changed your career?

 

Sam> My first professional project at 19 was producing for Fatlip from the Pharcyde. I had been sending him beats for a while, and he never liked them, but I finally sent him one that he messed with and wanted to record on. I had just gone through a heartbreaking breakup, and I poured all of it into writing this song with Lip and singing the chorus on it as well. It was a powerful and fun experience. 




LBB> What’s your favourite part of what you do – both in directing and composing – and what’s the most challenging aspect for you personally?

 

Sam> I love that I get to dream something up and then work with some of the most talented people in the world to make it a reality. I’m literally turning my dreams into reality. That’s beautiful. The toughest thing is when you have a really strong vision, and the client doesn’t see it. That’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow when you feel like you’re compromising your vision. 



LBB> You worked with Wu-Tang Clan on a web series for Impossible Foods – what was that experience like? How did you get involved with that, and what were GZA and Ghostface Killah like to direct?


Sam> ‘Wu-Tang in Space’ was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever done. Sasha Markova was head of creative at Impossible Foods at the time. She knows I’m a space fanatic and approached me about making a series that takes place in space, but was about earthly love. I’m friends with Wu-Tang Clan and have worked with them a bunch, so I reached out to encourage them to be part of it, knowing that they’re mostly vegan and would be stoked. It was so fun and just crafty and full of love. I remember we had this totally unnecessary title card we made for the very end of each episode. It wasn’t part of the official shoot at all, but me and some friends spent an entire weekend crafting out this bucket we rigged with electric drills, paint, spray paint and a heat gun. I was going between the edit and the parking lot and working with everyone. 

There were a lot of aspects to that project that were like that. Just fun and extra and unnecessary, but we all wanted it to be so special and full of little details and nuggets for the viewer to enjoy. Also, Pat Brown, the CEO of Impossible told us he didn’t care if it showed his burgers. He just wanted to make something people enjoyed. That guy is awesome. 



LBB> What is a recent project that provided an interesting creative challenge for you? How did you solve that problem?

 

Sam> I recently had a wildly ambitious idea for a music video for my new music project TRY. We have a song with EARTHGANG that’s about being optimistic during these crazy times. My idea was about shifting perspectives, how confusing the world is now, how tough it is to figure out what’s up and what’s down, but ultimately holding onto your hope. 

The idea included lots of water, reflections, rain, the ocean, and tons of very expensive and difficult special fx and techniques. We worked on it for months to figure out how to make it work - and changing, shrinking, and refining the idea, to make it shootable. Ultimately, we ended up shooting on stage for the biggest pieces, but shooting the rest of the video run-and-gun with a tiny crew out of a minivan that I rented. We drove all over LA picking up shots. There were moments when I thought we wouldn’t be able to make the video, but through lots of hard work and reiterating the idea over and over, we figured it out. Ultimately, I think the budget restraints helped to make it even better, more creative, and more fun.




LBB> Looking at the broader industry, what gets you really excited and what frustrates you? What could the industry be doing better?

 

Sam> I was really excited about all of the immersive and live work I was able to be a part of leading up to the pandemic. In a time when everyone is staring at screens all the time, I love how much people were thinking outside the box and doing things that people could go experience in person. I got to work on some amazing projects, particularly in fashion, that were super fun and inspiring. 

 


LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to decompress or stay fresh? And what drives and motivates you, in work and outside?


Sam> I love surfing, going to the movies, hanging out with my family, snowboarding, breakdancing, listening to records, and going to museums. Last night I saw a beautiful ballet performance that had me buzzing all day. 

I think I’m driven by the joy of the process. My happy place is being immersed in making something special. 

 

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Hey Wonderful, Fri, 29 Jul 2022 16:27:00 GMT