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Uprising: Jonatán López on Simply Living a Life to Maintain Originality


Bryght Young Things’ new director on combining Colombian and American cultures, battling imposter syndrome and taking inspiration from outside of the industry, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

Uprising: Jonatán López on Simply Living a Life to Maintain Originality

Even as a child, Bryght Young Things director Jonatán López couldn’t resist shoving a camera in people’s faces, keeping all his film and tapes in a dusty shoebox - including a homemade adaptation of the novel ‘Holes’ with ‘awful in-camera editing’ that earned him a B+ in sixth grade. Despite this early venture into filmmaking, he never considered it a career possibility until being shown 2001: A Space Odyssey at school: “I was hooked. I couldn’t believe my eyes.” 

A naturally ‘shy and geeky kid’, Jonatán immersed himself in make-believe, world-building and creating with LEGO bricks, which his mother has kept until this day: “She even took photos of my creations, which were mostly spaceships and starbases. Thinking back on that, they still look pretty tight.” Born in Cali, Colombia but growing up in Florida, the young director says that being a ‘first-gen kid’, straddling the two cultures of America and Colombia, had a great impact on his worldview: “I like being ‘in between’, perhaps it’s why I’m drawn to what some may call ‘outsiders’ or people on the fringe. Strange things happen on that borderline.” Now, Jonatán considers himself a homebody and a ‘student of cinema’ who appreciates solitary time at home with films and music - although his ambition and restlessness also lead to a desire for social interaction and collaborative work with friends. 

Taking his first steps towards becoming a director, Jonatán studied film at the University of Texas, in Austin. He loved the course and enjoyed the ability to create and make mistakes early on, recounting a particularly painful experience: “I once made a strange pre-thesis film that was critiqued by the public. I think the professor invited people to provide feedback on our shorts and I got back a single sheet of paper saying: ‘Start over.’ It hurt me so bad. The professor grabbed it from my hand and tossed it, but I took it home after.”

However, something positive arose from this slightly embarrassing experience, as Jonatán was offered an internship at director Terrence Malick’s production house during the making of his film ‘To the Wonder’. His time there taught him about the subjectivity of film and the importance of self-belief: “Though people may not always understand what you’re trying to make, someone out there will. It reminded me to keep trying to express myself purely.” He says that working towards your dream isn’t a straight line for most and he relied on a combination of hard work and luck to get into the industry, landing his first professional job as assistant editor for a Hulu series in 2012. 

Later, Jonatán’s directorial debut was for a Google project - a branded film about a non-profit organisation providing internet to remote locations: “I got to travel to Guatemala, spend a week near the base of a volcano and witness firsthand how many people live around the world. I did my best to not be exploitative of them. I was very protective of the people featured.” He thinks about the project regularly and ruminates on the difficulty of ‘finding that balance’ in a branded piece of content. A project that he feels changed the trajectory of his career, however, is the music video for the artist - and his close friend - Tei Shi, called ‘See Me’. The music video currently sits at almost 1.8 million views on YouTube and helped Jonatán gain recognition from other artists and labels at the time. 

Honing his skills is an ongoing process, he says: “I try to be better than yesterday, and get a little closer to the purest version in my mind.” Some of his most valuable learning experiences have come from his work on these music videos but, regardless of the project, he always tries to keep one key lesson in mind: “I have to be reminded of this lesson every few years by wise and talented people, but it’s to have fun. It’s so easy to get singularly focused and forget to enjoy what I’m doing.” What brings him the most joy is the act of realising an idea from paper to screen, although he reveals he is not free of insecurities. Like many creatives, the young director’s bouts of  ‘Imposter Syndrome’ can result in feelings of self-doubt when projects don’t go perfectly to plan. He says: “I immediately blame myself. I go to therapy to work these things out, and I’m learning to tolerate that tiny voice.”

This internal conflict can also provide inspiration for his work, especially in his documentary work, where he likes to discover the stories of inner struggle that he believes everyone experiences and can learn from. In his more narrative work, Jonatán aspires to create stories about people coming together and finding happiness, in part to ‘satisfy his inner kid’ and show him that he’s not alone - an emotional touchstone that follows through into his commercial work: “I simply try to leave audiences with an incredibly strong feeling, whether that’s excitement, curiosity, laughter, or a lingering thought about themselves and the world around them.”

Looking around at his fellow creatives and the vacillating trends in the industry, the director feels that he’s always kept on his toes and is excited by the prospect of increasingly ‘interconnected, global cinema’. However, Jonatán makes a point of avoiding the influence of his industry contemporaries, in order to preserve his own originality and stand out from the crowd: “Sometimes I do see a trend of similar-looking styles without ever saying anything new. Sometimes clients ask to see an exact example of what you’re describing, and that can lead down a troubling path.” As well as protecting originality, he highlights better working conditions, fairer credits and acknowledgements and stronger inclusivity as larger problems in the scene which he hopes will change, starting with his own sets: “I intentionally work with diverse, multi-cultural crews, it’s how I grew up in Kissimmee, Florida.”

One contemporary who he does look up to, however, is Jason Harper, director at Park Pictures, who has been a friend and mentor to Jonatán. He says: “I admire him because he didn’t originally study film, yet has such a natural handle over the form. He’s also an editor, photographer, and cinematographer and has no ego when it comes to his art. Whoever steps in front of his camera - talent or subject - becomes instantly at ease. He speaks his ideas with incredible grace and warmth, and cracks jokes when you least expect it. I don’t know if he gets stressed, at least he doesn’t show it.” On several occasions they have formed a successful creative partnership, with Jason ‘DP-ing’ some of Jonatán’s music videos, offering his craft for very little money, purely out of passion - something that Jonatán is extremely grateful for to this day: “I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Now based in Los Angeles, Jonatán was fortunate enough to utilise the solitude enforced by the pandemic - partially thanks to the advice and knowledge of his epidemiologist partner - to get back to nature and grow a garden, as well as flex his creative muscles by writing a TV show and practising his photography. When he’s not being professionally creative, the director enjoys exercising, exploring LA’s vibrant food scene and unwinding with anime and computer games. However, he can’t stay away for long - immersing himself in more creative pursuits such as photography and writing. Photography especially holds an important place in Jonatán’s heart, he says: “A single image can challenge your entire worldview, or reveal a hidden truth of being human. I can stare at photo books for hours, hoping to walk away a little bit changed… I have to resist buying a new one every time I visit a book store.”

He admits that he could be more ‘tapped in’ to the industry sometimes, but he prefers to ‘simply live a life’ - whether that be enjoying his new Imogen Cunningham photography book or an anime show - the stories and observations of which he says: “Really do spark ideas.” Music is also a significant part of Jonatán’s creative world, praising artist Yves Tumor as ‘the next to carry the mantle of an iconoclast’ in a world without Prince. As well as expressing his love for Japanese anime studio Science SARU’s ‘incredible work’ on their series ‘Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!’, Jonatán’s love for Japanese artistry and culture is apparent as he is currently working on a TV show called 199X that focuses on “a retrofuturistic 90s where Japanese domestic street racing is a global phenomenon.”

Summarising his career thus far, Jonatán says that his success and involvement in the industry is larger than himself. The director says that he feels lucky to have the opportunities that he does to create and be part of the industry, and he hopes to open the door for those from a similar background to himself that follow in his footsteps: “Not everyone that looks like me or comes from my background gets to have these opportunities. As long as I can be part of a community that includes folks like me, then the next kid is going to have, hopefully, an easier time. We all have something to say about the world, and I hope to share mine, and someday theirs too.” 

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BRYGHT YOUNG THINGS, Mon, 10 Jan 2022 17:06:00 GMT