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Oren Kaplan: “If You’re Making Something Without Purpose, Nobody Is Going to Pay Attention”

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The acclaimed Great Guns USA director tells LBB’s Adam Bennett why he’ll never ditch his love of gadgets, what makes diversity such a great storytelling tool, and how to break down the barriers to a career in filmmaking

Oren Kaplan: “If You’re Making Something Without Purpose, Nobody Is Going to Pay Attention”

Behind any great creative mind lies a great origin story. For Oren Kaplan, his path to the director’s chair was an unpredictable one. Having fallen in love with engineering as a self-described “quiet kid” growing up in Israel, a passion for technology eventually morphed into a love of cameras and making movies. 

Today, Oren applies his meticulous approach to his craft to brands such as Jeep, Converse, and Amazon, as well as feature movies such as The Hammer (the moving and critically acclaimed story of the first deaf wrestler to win the National Collegiate Wrestling Championship). Whilst his work has spanned genres, his natural flair for comedy and light-hearted action has allowed much of his work in commercials to cut through the modern industry’s noise. 

Having recently signed up to join the team at Grean Guns USA, Oren has wasted no time in adding to his portfolio with a disarmingly funny ad for the property restoration service Servpro. To find out what makes him tick, and how one navigates the journey from engineer to director, LBB’s Adam Bennett spoke with Oren. 

LBB> Oren, at the beginning - what kind of a kid were you growing up, and when did you first start thinking about yourself as a filmmaker?

Oren> Growing up, I was very shy. I remember my parents sitting me down before high school to tell me that I would need to speak up in class if I had any questions or comments, simply because they were so worried I would never say anything. They were right about that - instead of being loud like the popular kids, I preferred making things - inventions, newsletters, drawings, funny videos, and weird gadgets. That led me to major in engineering. 

I’ve always loved combining tools to build new things that I hoped people would like. I was also obsessed with comedy, especially parodies. My dad had every Mel Brooks movie on VHS, and I would watch them on repeat when I spent the summers at his place in Israel. I’ve probably watched Spaceballs over 50 times. I think that desire to build things and to make people laugh was what eventually led me to filmmaking, and specifically comedy commercial directing.

Above: Watching Mel Brooks’ Star Wars parody Spaceballs ‘over fifty times’ was an early filmmaking inspiration for Oren. 

LBB> Your long-running podcast, Just Shoot It, focuses on the many ways in which up-and-coming creators make their starts. Imagining there’s a young film student reading this now, what’s been the most useful piece of advice you’ve taken from all the stories you’ve encountered through that show?

Oren> The title of the podcast is probably the most useful piece of advice. But to say something more specific, we had a guest once (Abby Fuller, director of Chef’s Table) tell us that “if you tell people you can do anything, they’ll hire you for nothing”. In other words, being a jack-of-all-trades might get you work when you’re starting out, but it won’t create the brand you need for a long-term career in this business. 

Finding the type of work that gets the cylinders in your brain to fire off non-stop is super important. What type of content are you obsessed with? Make that. The directors we’ve interviewed that are very successful have all gone through that exploration.

The last piece of obvious advice is simply to tell people that you’re a director. You have no idea how difficult that is for most new directors.

Above: The latest episode of Just Shoot It, a podcast co-hosted by Oren, features director Jon Wolf as a guest. 

LBB> Having recently joined up with the team at Great Guns USA, you’ve already wrapped on your first project with Servpro. What was the highlight of filming that spot for you, and what’s exciting you most about being part of the GG USA team? 

Oren> For the Servpro campaign we had to invent a Servpro training facility that didn’t exist. The idea was to create a school that teaches you to be ready for any type of disaster - hurricanes, floods, and moldy walls. We had to invent what that would look like. Staying true to the Servpro tone, we channeled a retro-Austin-Powers type vibe and built this training facility inside a warehouse from scratch. Collaborating with a whole new team in Nashville where we filmed was a little scary at first, but we ended up getting all these incredible sci-fi machines out of a rental house in Atlanta and put together a really cool set with so many great angles to shoot it from.

Above: Oren’s work with Servpro takes its many of its comedic cues from Austin Powers movies. 

Working with Great Guns has been great. The team there has years of experience in the advertising world, and it shows. They hold everyone to an incredibly high standard - making sure to surround their directors with the best DPs, Production Designers, Editors, Sound Mixers, Colorists, etc. It’s obvious to see how much of a difference that makes to the final product.

LBB> Your debut feature, The Hammer, told the story of Matt Hamill, the first Deaf wrestler to win a National Collegiate Wrestling Championship. I understand the cast of that film was composed primarily of deaf actors. What’s your approach to representation and diversity in storytelling, and do you think those elements make for a more authentic narrative?

Oren> The Hammer was a true story that delved deep into the struggles of a Deaf athlete trying to accept his role in the world. To get an actor to portray that character with believable depth required a Deaf actor in the role. I never considered or auditioned any hearing actors. Luckily I had access to some of the best actors in the world, who happened to be Deaf.

Whether I’m directing a feature film or a commercial, the cast, just as much as the crew, needs to be part of the team that is building our world. Actors that have experience related to the story we’re telling not only make everything feel authentic, but they allow me to film much faster and with more flexibility. When your actors are pre-loaded with the background their characters would have they are helping write the story on set with you.

Diversity is a part of that - as a filmmaker it’s my job to present characters that are relatable and interesting. The more diverse my casting, is the higher chance someone will connect with my characters. It’s also good storytelling to have a variety of viewpoints, whether it’s dissecting the question of what it means to belong to a community or to comment on how amazing Hidden Valley Ranch tastes, diversity makes for a better end product.

LBB> Before you landed your first directing gig, you had a promising career as a software engineer! Are there any transferable skills you’ve taken from software engineering that apply to filmmaking?!

Oren> Definitely! People are always asking me how I made the total 180-degree switch from engineering to filmmaking, but to me it’s more of a 360-degree rotation - you’re doing the same thing but just presenting it in a different package. 

Engineering, just like filmmaking, relies on getting your audience excited about what you’re making using the latest and greatest tools you can find. Both professions require you to dig into the disciplines of psychology, business, and technology, which are all equally exciting for me.

When I was an engineer I made a lot of short films with my colleagues up in Silicon Valley. My boss was really into optics, so we built a specialized lens for my camera. One of the other coders was an aspiring chef, and did all the catering for my shoots. And one of the senior developers was a musician on the side and scored my short films. From my experience most engineers are artists too. 

But ultimately I found filmmaking to be much more social. As an engineer I spent most of my time working with machines. But as a filmmaker I spend most of my time working with people, which I prefer. The other advantage is that now it’s easier to explain to my mom what I do.

LBB> And, more broadly, are you especially interested in or excited about any tech innovations in filmmaking today? What’s your take on the hype surrounding virtual production, for example?

Oren> I love gadgets - I own way too many gimbals, lights, and lenses. In the past I’ve worked as a dolly grip and an electrician, and even as a VFX artist on a couple of Academy Award-winning films. So geeking out on tech has always fun for me. But nowadays I’m much more excited by the democratisation of filmmaking than by the expensive gear. Virtual Production requires a team of 3D artists, a specialized LED-driven studio, and still has a lot of limitations in terms of lighting and how much you can move in the space. For my money, I’d rather shoot on location where I’m inspired by the actual physical terrain.

By far my favorite mind-blowing piece of tech right now is my iPhone 13 Pro. Last year I shot a tourism campaign for Branson, Missouri on Alexas and Red Cameras with cranes and gimbals and Segways. But for fun, while we waited for the crew to setup, I ran around with the actors and filmed them goofing off on my phone. With the incredible stabilization, cinematic mode, and the ability to place the phone literally anywhere I could reach, I ended up getting some pretty incredible shots. Much to the chagrin of my DP, some of the most dynamic shots in the final broadcast spots were from my phone! That’s the barrier-breaking tech I'm most excited for in the future.

LBB> Comedy is a consistent thread throughout so much of your work in commercials, from Amazon Luna, to Jeep, to Converse to name three examples. But we’re living through a time in which many see brands as more preoccupied by their ‘purpose’ than telling jokes. What’s your take on that, and is it possible to do good for the world whilst making people laugh?

Oren> Comedy has a purpose - to make people smile. Even better if it’s in a relatable way. On a deeper level, we’re bombarded by so much content today that I believe if you’re making something without purpose, people won’t pay attention. Whether it’s comedy or drama or documentary or sports or action, it can all have a unique perspective that resonates with an audience. Look at work from Jordan Peele, or Sacha Baron Cohen, or a hundred other great filmmakers - comedy can be just as impactful as anything else.

LBB> More broadly, it’s hard to deny that we’re living through challenging times today for all sorts of reasons. Do you think that kind of context makes comedy more difficult, or does it make it more essential?

Oren> Both. But I do think it’s important to be more sensitive and thoughtful about what we say with comedy than perhaps we have been in the past. Over the past couple of years there’s been a real awakening in terms of viewing things from different perspectives. Something that might be funny to one person might feel like it’s at the expense of another person. I think it’s important, especially in advertising, to think twice before making fun of someone or something. In general I like my comedy to err on the positive side of things, and to be more observational than critical. There are enough negative things being said in the world that I don’t feel the need to contribute more to that.

LBB> Finally - before moving to the states, you lived in Israel. Do you feel as though you’re bringing an international outlook to your work, and are there any other ways in which your background informs your creativity? 

Oren> I did grow up in Israel and English was not my first language, which is probably what sparked my interest in visual communication. I’m also fascinated by people - I love hearing about other peoples’ backgrounds, where they come from, what their cultures are, and why they make the choices they make. Maybe that comes from having an international outlook?

Once you’re immersed in multiple cultures it’s easy to see that there is no right way to do something. Also it’s fun to steal popular ideas from one culture, and bring them into another culture. I’m not talking about cultural appropriation, but sometimes I’ll hear a funny idea from my Israeli friends and I’ll try to see if I can get it to work for an American audience. Nine out of ten times it fails. But when it works… dammit… it’s beautiful.

To find out more about Great Guns USA, contact MD / executive producer Oliver Fusilier here.

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Great Guns Los Angeles, Fri, 29 Jul 2022 05:00:16 GMT