Film director Max Joseph, the co-host of MTV show Catfish and the editor of Casey Neistat‘s viral Nike advert, has made a new documentary series with new social network Vero which asks whether you need to be a dick to be a successful leader. GQ spoke to him about Trump, his round-the-world trip with Casey, and how you create engaging films for an internet audience.
Your first film on Vero is called Dicks. There seems to be a resurgence of dicks at the moment. Why is that happening in the US?
I don’t know if it’s just the US. I think that there are dicks everywhere right now. What’s actually interesting is that in the book by one of the guys I interview, Aaron James, he wrote a book called “Assholes”, and he’s actually since written a spin-off of that book about Trump, specifically as the, kind of, asshole par excellence.
He explains in this book that there is a culture of creating more assholes than ever. He ties it to something to do with capitalism and the embrace of ego-driven entertainment. He breaks down all the different kind of assholes there are. There’s the cable news asshole, there’s the pundit asshole. It’s funny and it’s worth looking into. But I think that what naturally happens in politics especially, is that the pendulum swings one way. We’ve had Obama for eight years, who to me is a model of integrity, sensitivity, empathy, he’s wise, he’s patient, he maintains his composure, and I would have voted for him again. But now I think the pendulum naturally swings to the other side where they’re tired of the stately, patient leader who’s not an asshole, and instead want someone who’s fiery, unstable, impatient, intolerant. I don’t agree with that and I don’t want that, but I think that in part explains the Donald Trump phenomenon.
How many more episodes are you making and what are they covering?
The next one will not be about leadership or dicks. Each one is kinda of about something that I am questioning or struggling with personally. An anxiety I have or a question I’m dealing with, and what’s great about these is that it’s an opportunity. What’s great about these is that with a feature film, especially a narrative, you need to write the whole thing and then you need to execute it. There’s not a lot of room to deviate, or let the thing reveal itself.
In documentaries the process is that you film a lot of things, and out of what you’ve shot something organically reveals itself, and there’s a discovery process. This is not quite a documentary and it’s not quite scripted either. What’s nice about it is that I can start by asking a question of stating an anxiety about something – which is a question. “How do I get beyond X, Y and Z? How do I be a leader without being a dick?” One of the next videos might be about content.
I was an English major. I love English literature, but I am the slowest f***ing reader you’ve ever met. And book stores – I love them, I love books, I love the way they look, I love the designs on the covers, I love what’s inside of them. Book stores drive me insane because I know that I will never be able to read everything I want to in my lifetime. And then when you compound to that the incoming avalanche of content that is daily, whether it’s the news or Tweets or great shows on Netflix or Oscar movies I want to see, or features in the New Yorker that I want to read, features in GQ, whatever it is. how am I supposed to find my way through this mass of s**t that’s constantly coming at me? So that might be the next video. How am I going to find my way through this? And how are we supposed to, as a civilisation, find our way through this current onslaught of content?
Can you talk a little bit about how you came to make this with Vero and what the process was there?
I met Ayman and Wayne from Vero in 2015, and we sat down and we had a very casual, honest conversation about what was happening in the world, what was on my brain. I’ve always made a lot of short-form content: where I come from, the world of internet videos, and then I got into commercials and then I started doing Catfish and then I did the feature. And so between Catfish and We Are Your Friends for three years, I was in these very long-term marriages. And when you’re in a long-term marriage, often you fantasise about these little flings that you want to have. These one-night stands you want to have with other. Other ideas and other projects. And so, I fantasised about these short videos that would take on subjects that were a little brainier and not quite as big as a subject needs to be to make a feature about.
Leadership was one of them because I had spent so much making movies and studying movies, and I’m obsessed with movies and I love the discipline. But I had never studied or taken any classes in management or leadership. And it turns out that management and leadership is just as, if not more, important than studying film making. So, I learned that on day one of the job, and then I was thrown into the deep-end of the pool, and I needed to figure it out. Through trial and error I found that some things worked, some things didn’t.
But I kind of emerged from that being like “I really want to understand leadership.” Because all I really understand from the bits and pieces I’ve gleaned from pop culture is that some guys are real jerks, but they have these great visions, and if have a great vision and if you’re a jerk and you don’t care about people’s feelings you will succeed. Which I was like “I hope that’s not the way it is. And I want to find a middle ground through that.”
I expressed that to [Vero] and I also told them about my anxiety with book stores and all of these little anxieties I had that I wanted to make movies about. And they, kind of, naturally took to them – which was great. It wasn’t expected. I didn’t expect them to be interested in that stuff, and they were. And I think it kind of speaks to what the Vero community is right now. It’s young. Vero is a young social media platform, and what’s nice about it is it’s like an utopian social media community right now, especially compared to the other forums where the second you put something up, there’s a backlash, there’s a lot of hate slung at you, people are saying negative things and it’s not the place you necessarily want to be so vulnerable anymore.
And what’s been nice about Dicks is that in the comments, if you look at the comments on Vero, people are really sharing their own stories of dealing with this question. And they’re opening up in a way that I haven’t seen people do since the early days of Facebook and Twitter when it was more intimate and it felt like a safer place. And so I like that, I like sharing something that I’m dealing with and seeing other people sharing their experience as well, and us all finding a common ground to find our way through it.
You know Casey Neistat, who was our Men of the Year New Media Star last year. Did you help make the Nike advert with him? Was that actually that real? Like you literally took the money and left?
Yeah, 100 per cent. Literally on my 30th birthday, I was out to dinner with my family and my wife and I got a call from Casey. We had just done two other Nike pieces together, and that was the first time we ever met and collaborated were on those other Nike pieces. We had friends in common, and then we were in the trenches together making them, and we ended up having a bromance and it was great. I had just come back from finishing them and it was my 30th birthday, and I was like “finally” after weeks and weeks of being in the editing bay, getting these Nike pieces out, he calls me and he goes “I’ve got one more video I want to make, I want you to come with me, I want you to come up with a bunch of suggestions of the craziest most visual places in the world where we can go. Can you be in New York in two days? We’re going to go around the world to each one of these places.” And that was it. And I was like “I’m in.” So I flew to New York, the day I got there we went to lunch, we came up with a bunch of fun ideas of what we would do. We had only gotten the ticket to go to, first Paris then London… and then the rest of it was not planned yet. We said “oh we’ll get these shots and these places, and it’ll be strung together in this way.” And that’s it. That same day we jumped on a plane.
There’s a common thread through the stuff that you’ve made that is very hyper-real. The editing includes lots of jump cuts, it’s really in your face, it surprises you and breaks the fourth wall. Why does that work so well on the internet?
When I did We Are Your Friends, I brought some of those elements into the film, and I saw it as an experiment in a way to see how would this internet aesthetic work on a big screen, on a bigger canvas. And I don’t think you can get away with it for as long in a feature film. You think “oh a feature film is longer, so of course the attention span would be longer to hold more of that dense, hyper style.” But it’s actually the opposite. Features are slower burns. And you want to be put in the mood, and you need to be kinda of lulled and seduced into following a protagonist and really seeing the world through that character’s eyes. And so you can do some of that hyper stuff, but ultimately everything has to serve the character’s journey.
On the internet there are no rules and there is no practice/conventional way of consuming content. And so it’s a free-for-all, still, of finding what works and what doesn’t, and for some reason when you start watching a video online you can see exactly how long it is, just by the progress bar. It’s the first thing I look at. When you open a video you’re like “how long is this thing?” And so if you don’t hook someone right away with something strong, you’ll lose them. Whereas where you sit down to watch a movie you give it the benefit of the doubt for at least 20 minutes. You give it a lot more leeway. With an internet video it’s got to be immediate. You’ve got to work that much faster to hook them with something – whether it’s a character or premise, or an idea or a visual, you have to grab them and not let go.
Now a filmmaker doesn’t need an army
And I think where Casey’s work really shines – I was a big fan of his before working with him and I continue to be a big fan of his and be inspired him – is the authenticity, right? Dicks starts out with this line, from Orson Wells, which that “a writer needs a pen, a painter needs a brush, a director needs an army.” But now a filmmaker doesn’t need an army, necessarily. A filmmaker needs their phone and a computer, and I think Casey is the example of that. He doesn’t need an army of people to direct, he can really do it himself. It’s so honest and it’s coming directly from him, when you watch these videos and you know there’s not some boardroom of executives who said “hmm, maybe you shouldn’t be wearing that shirt, or maybe you should’ve cut his hair, or we should get that product in there.” And I think that there’s so much cynicism in the world right now, and that we constantly feel like we’re being sold something and we’re skeptical about that. And I think when you see something that’s from one person’s point of view, especially on the internet, it’s very fresh and it’s disarming because you don’t feel that they’re trying to pull one over on you. And I think that honesty and authenticity works on the internet.
You’re making a series for Vero, you’ve got Catfish, you’ve made a feature film; what’s the next thing?
I’m writing a feature right now, I’ve developed some other TV shows, I’ve got at least two more of these videos that I’m doing with Vero right now, and perhaps more after that. It’s somewhat open-ended. And the new series of Catfish comes out, at least in the US, on 1 March.