Whether he’s flying to Miami to interview Lil’ Wayne about his tattoos or hanging with an 80-year-old comic book shop owner in Queens, director E.J. McLeavey-Fisher approaches every project with great passion for the art of documentary storytelling in its purest form.
His work is intimate yet relatable and while at times his subjects require a more serious, thoughtful tone, E.J. is just as comfortable depicting the lighter, more humorous side to life. This ability to adapt to a wide range of projects has been key to his success in both the advertising and short film worlds, and he credits his early years writing and directing in house at MTV for launching his varied and prolific career.
E.J. has created compelling documentary content for a wide variety of brands including Samsung, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Microsoft, Converse, Kellogg’s and Lincoln.
His short films Comic Book Heaven and The Dogist have been awarded with Vimeo Staff Picks and have screened at film festivals around the world including AFI Docs, DOC NYC, and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. His work has been featured on The Atlantic, Slate, and Vice and at the Aspen Arts and SFO Museums.
Constantly determined to push himself in new directions, E.J. recently completed his first narrative screenplay while working on a second. He is also in various stages of development and production on documentary projects about a blue-collar stuntman, an avant-garde saxophonist, and a mass kidnapping in the 1970s.
Name: E.J. McLeavey-Fisher
Repped by: Greenpoint Pictures
Awards: Vimeo Staff Pick, Short of the Week.
LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
E.J.> The most exciting scripts for me are the ones that play to my strengths but also allow me to try something new. It’s no secret that commercial directors can get pigeonholed in terms of the jobs they get called for - clients and agencies want proof that you can execute what they want done, and the best way to do that is to see a very similar piece on your reel. But for us, that can start to feel a bit repetitive and limiting creatively.
So when an agency can see how their creative is a good fit for my overall style but trusts me to shoot something that isn’t already explicitly on my reel, it’s great. I don’t think many directors set out in this industry to get tucked into a specific genre, it just happens, but we’re always seeking out ways to explore and expand.
LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
E.J.> I start taking notes as soon as I get my hands on the first set of boards/deck, and this process continues until we finalise the treatment. For some reason, I love hand-writing my thoughts when I’m building out a treatment, so each step of the way I am printing out my latest draft and taking a fresh look at it, marking it up and adding new ideas that come up as I read through. At the same time as this writing is evolving, I’m collaborating with a designer to pull imagery and build the visual components of the treatment. These images and our discussions also tend to inspire new ideas to incorporate, and I welcome their input. I’m fortunate to have a handful of absolutely incredible artists that I work with who help me bring the treatments to another level.
LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?
E.J.> This is always super important - whether it’s taking a look at the brand’s previous work (to understand how we can improve upon it!) or increasingly I look to places like their Instagram to see what their very latest branding is like, to understand their message and voice. Broadcast campaigns can take six months or a year to roll-out, whereas social media allows brands to be creating content almost instantly, and I find the freshness of that branding to be really valuable when we’re looking ahead to a project in the future.
LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
E.J.> The most important element of a working relationship while making an ad goes back to the first question, and it’s about trust. Trusting that the creatives who wrote the script have pushed to make something the best they can while still respecting the client’s needs. Trusting that the director will keep that core story a priority while translating it from the written page to the screen. And once we get to set, maybe most important is for me to trust the crew I have and allow them to excel in their given roles. I’ve seen directors who think they could do every crew position’s job better than that person, second-guessing everything or steamrolling decisions without any discussion. The beauty of this process is we have 20, 30, 60, however many people coming together to make one single spot or film. There’s nothing better than projects that let these creative specialists deploy their unique, individual skills in a way that creates a single cohesive piece.
LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
E.J.> I got my start directing documentary/real people work and while that is still what I am mostly known for, I’m seeing more scripts that take elements of my style in that genre and incorporate it into a narrative piece. I love finding the humor in small, everyday life and while it’s magical to capture that in a real documentary moment, it’s also just as satisfying to be able to craft those moments in scripted work in a way that still feels grounded and authentic.
LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
E.J.> Related to the above idea, I am mostly known for my documentary work and therefore it’s sometimes a challenge to win over an agency for a scripted project when I’m bidding against more traditional comedy/narrative-type directors. I don’t come from a journalistic background like some doc filmmakers do, though. I went to film school and focused on the foundations of narrative filmmaking, which has informed the way I create my doc work. I just happened to go deep into the doc world based on assignments I was getting as a director at MTV when I first started out. I love doc work, but the projects that really get me excited are the ones that allow me to cinematically elevate and craft the work, whether it’s with real people or trained actors.
Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been? Not personally, no; I just know about cost consultants through my teammates on the production management side of things. We’re always super competitive and efficient with our bids so I’ve never had any huge issues that I can think of!
LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
E.J.> This wasn’t on a commercial job but I think the same lessons apply; I was co-directing a short surf documentary about a surfer named Balaram Stack who was entering his first professional competition in his hometown on Long Island and we planned to follow him throughout the course of it, over many heats and days in the water. Then he drew Kelly Slater in his first heat, and not surprisingly, was out of the tournament after that. We had invested so much time building up this story though and knew there was something there, so we shifted the focus of it to be less about the traditional narrative arc of a contest and more about the impact this tournament - the first time it was ever held on Long Island - had on the small town of Long Beach, using Balaram as our liaison to connect the dots between the locals and the intimidating world of professional surfing.
What this taught me, and what I’ve leaned on many times throughout my branded doc work, is to develop a story with strong thematic elements that will apply regardless of how the story unfolds. Whether this is in sports-related work, following a band on tour or recording an album, anytime I’m leaving a lot to your talent and to chance, I still know I can craft a compelling narrative from it.
LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
E.J.> I make a very deliberate effort in my treatments to state what I think are the most important themes and messages in whatever story we’re trying to tell; this is what I always want to protect. It’s not about some amazing shot that I want for my director’s cut, it’s about fighting for keeping the heart of whatever story we’ve all agreed to tell. When I book a job, I take that as a sign I’m being hired to tell that story. Of course, a lot can change between then and the time we shoot, so it’s an ongoing conversation between all of the parties involved on-set, but the one thing I always fight for is protecting the core of our story.
LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
E.J.> I think it’s incredibly important for anyone who has found success in our industry to not just be open to helping but actively seek out those opportunities. It’s a strange industry with no real roadmap for becoming a director, or any position really. Sure you can go to film school, but it’s not like getting straight As guarantees you anything. Since I graduated from film school I haven’t once had to show my diploma. It’s all about the work you’ve done and, crucially, who you know. I’ve never been shy about asking advice from other directors or people in our industry and so when I get asked for advice from people who want to break into our industry I am eager to share and keep these folks in mind when someone asks me “Hey do you know any upcoming (insert crew position)?”
LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
E.J.> I think the main realisation is that in certain situations, whether or not there are restrictions on travel and personal interaction, I can absolutely direct jobs remotely without it negatively impacting the final product. This of course depends on the creative, but with interview-dependent projects I may not need to travel around to five different cities to interview one person in each place if we don’t have a need for intense B-roll/visuals, for example. This pandemic has also reinforced this idea that I am only as good as the crew I surround myself with. I’ve been lucky to have great crews working on the ground while I direct remotely, but I also very much miss having a full call sheet with everyone in their respective departments having the support and resources they deserve. I think everyone on the production side is concerned that the smaller crew sizes during the pandemic will lead to clients expecting this to continue later on (to keep budgets smaller) but it’s very clear that while we created some surprisingly good work this way this past year, it would always be better with the proper resources.
LBB> 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)?
E.J.> Beyond projects that are specifically asking us to frame for 9:16 or something outside of traditional aspect ratios, I no longer worry too much about where my work is going to be shown. Screen technology/ resolution has improved so much, even on the smallest devices, that the nuances of every composition can be seen clearly, in my opinion. So my goal is always to create the most cinematic and engaging piece possible, no matter where it’s being shown. A great example is with my personal documentary work, which has had an interesting dual-life on big screens in film festivals and online on sites like Vimeo. Two completely different viewing experiences but the same reception/success on both.
LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?
E.J.> I came up shooting my own work and therefore have a really strong interest in cinematograph, and the ever-evolving technology behind it. Some of my strongest film relationships are with my close group of cinematographer collaborators, and we’re always discussing what’s new/what’s next, and whether it makes sense to apply a new technology to the given project we’re working on. But these days I always need to run that through the filter of: does this actually serve the story better, or is it just a shiny new piece of technology that would be fun to play around with? It can be both, but it can’t just be the latter of those two.