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In the director’s chair: Klaus Obermeyer on impossible logistics, growth with a vengeance and being related to Katharine Hepburn

For the latest director’s chair series, in which The Drum interviews directors on influences, passions and career highlights, Klaus Obermeyer discusses how Katharine Hepburn influenced his career and how important great stories are, including his own about his funniest moment on set.

An earlier interview in the series saw Andrew Lang discuss funny moments in an Ikea ad and documentary making, while Camille Marotte discussed why the best jobs come from asking to shoot anamorphic and how having many skills, including being your girlfriend’s photographer, can influence a director’s style in another. Mea Dols de Jong spoke about avoiding being pigeon-holed as a female director and making authenticity cinematic.

Who or what inspired you to be a director? (or who are your creative heroes and why?)

I would say that it was my calling from a very young age. I used to ditch school as early as second or third grade and sneak home to watch M*A*S*H at 2:45 most every day. I would get a strange feeling of adrenaline in my stomach when I would watch certain television shows or movies, it was like I was meant to be a part of it, it was my future. My Great Aunt was Katharine Hepburn and she had a profound influence on me. She was very hard to deal with in some ways, she was definitely not easy to impress, and she had zero tolerance for mediocrity or laziness. However, she pushed me not to accept average work or low standards. Her example impressed me the most, later in my life, when I realized the incredible accomplishment her career was, not because she won the most Oscars of anyone ever, but instead because she succeeded in Hollywood based solely on her wit and intelligence. She embodies unapologetic honesty, talent and an unmatched work ethic; she simply could not see herself as a victim ever, which gave her supreme power.

I was raised in Aspen, Colorado during the 80s and was exposed to a lot of wild creativity and characters who were living their lives in original and amazing ways. I was inspired by John Denver’s pure Love of nature and his ability to use his music to have a positive impact. As I grew up I became friends with John and our friendship had a profound influence on me personally, he showed me the power of art to create impact. The person who really made me into a filmmaker was Robert Fulton. Fulton ran the Harvard film department and had an editing studio in Aspen. One day his wife threw all of his film equipment into the swamp along with his saxophones and he ended up knocking on my door an hour later undeterred, nothing was going to delay progress on his film. His world was literally turned upside down and thrown into a swamp and his focus never flinched, that unwavering commitment is what makes a real filmmaker. I had just taken out a bank loan to buy the video production company that I had been working for and the local television station had heard about my purchase and sent Robert Fulton to my door. We partnered in Fulton/Obermeyer Prod. shortly thereafter and I had the incredible gift and life experience of learning filmmaking, flying, writing, music and philosophy from a true genius.

Outside of work, what are you into?

I love the ocean and kite surfing giant waves or free diving with whales and all kinds of sea creatures. I adore surfing, gardening, paragliding, acting and music. It is strange to think about answering this question because my work and what I do outside my work are all linked under one umbrella of passion and continually seem to pollinate one another. I love the adrenaline of competition and continually being forced to learn new things. I am a futurist and spend a lot of time studying tech innovation and science, biology and sustainability. You know, I find that it is all linked and I delight in discovering those connections.

How would you describe your style of commercial/film making? What are you known for?

I would say human storytelling with beautiful visuals, exotic locations, underwater, stunts, action, aerials, excelling at impossible logistics. I hate thinking about having to describe my style and what I’m known for because I’m constantly forcing myself to grow and shed my own preconceptions to evolve as an artist. I will chase down projects that represent an opportunity for growth with a vengeance. I am addicted to the challenge and basically believe that I can do anything I focus on.

Have you got an idea about what sort of projects you’d like to work on or are you quite open minded about what work comes your way?

I am totally open as I adore the unexpected and the challenges and forced growth that it brings. However, I am very clear on preferring projects that can have positive impact. Great stories, stunning execution and at the end of the day something that enriches people’s lives. Even if that is as basic as making them laugh or taking them on some brilliant journey. I believe that no matter what, we have the responsibility of giving people something in return for stealing their time. The very best work in my opinion is telling stories and sharing messages that inspire, I love work that forces me to think and evolve, art can have a lot of power to influence and we have the chance to channel that towards important stories and ideas. The things we create as artists can have a positive outcome that benefits people and I believe that it is the highest calling of our art and the ultimate thrill! I want that!

When you’re looking at scripts and projects that come in, is there anything in particular that you’re looking for?

I’m looking for awesome ideas and it is really that broad. I love storytelling and working with actors on subtle performances and building the details around their characters. I also like crazy logistics, radical action and exciting visuals. The most fun is when you have a great story to tell, one that will captivate people and accomplish something cool and positive. I try to do something revolutionary every time I shoot to evolve the art, so I’m always looking for ways and opportunities to do that.

What's your funniest moment on set?

Hmm, I think on my first big directing job for Fairmont hotels 18 years ago. The script called for a horse to run amongst Arizona cactus and cross in front of a giant sun ball at sunset. In an effort to save money my producer Lance had hired a rancher who guaranteed us that he could get a horse to go from A to B but for a really cheap price, unlike the perfectly trained and expensive horses from Hollywood that have to be hauled out with trainers but come promptly when they hear a whistle.

If you’ve ever shot a sunset with 1000mm lens, you know that you only have about five minutes before it’s over, so the reset has to be lightning fast. By the way, the rancher’s technique for getting the shot involved positioning a mare in heat at the desired location and then releasing the stallion to go directly to her. When we were ready to shoot, it really worked! Perhaps a bit too well as the stallion’s baseball bat-sized manhood swung into frame at 100 FPS, eclipsing the sun and swinging dangerously close to the ground as he headed for the mare and mounted her. At which point, Lance screamed desperately “back to one!” repeatedly screaming over the radio as the sun was setting. Needless to say, that was a pretty tall order, seeing as the stallion was already fully engaged. However, our grip Jackson made a Herculean effort to manhandle the stallion back off and out of the mare but was dragged across the sagebrush in the process and ended up covered in blood and semen. When it was all over Jackson b-lined for video village looking like he was headed to a Halloween party to kill everyone, the crew had to bearhug his arms so he wouldn’t punch Lance for screaming at him over the radio while he was being trampled and dragged, but the best part was, after the horse owner had packed up the stallion and was driving out, he casually rolled down the window to let us know, in complete seriousness, that he could also arrange that with a Water Buffalo if we wanted. I am not kidding. And in true Hollywood style the shot came out brilliantly after a few hours of rig removal.

What's your best piece of work?

I would say most recently my Emmy award winning CNN “Go There” spot.

CNN "Why We Go" from ROCKET.FILM on Vimeo.

Which ad do you wish you'd made?

I like the Samsung VR spot with ostriches. It’s overt product advertising with the product proudly at the center of the story, yet you are completely absorbed and transported by the journey, that takes skill. It was obvious that brilliant creative minds had worked on that.

How well does the information flow between client, agency and production company on a job?

I encourage a very open communication on set. I don’t believe that isolating yourself is an effective way to work. I like to create an environment onset in which anyone can feel free to make a good suggestion that will improve the work and make for a better end product. There’s a lot of dialogue going on with me and my crew and I have that same open-minded approach with the agency and client. I like to talk to them and understand their world, their challenges, the brand history and get a sense of who they are and exactly what they are trying to accomplish and why, because all of that information informs the art, it helps to shape the film.

What's been the biggest change to the industry during you career?

The biggest change is there’s no more barrier to entry. It used to be really hard and expensive to break in and build a reel just because of the cost of shooting 35mm film. Now anyone can get their hands on high-quality cameras and they are easy-to-use. It used to be much more of an art shooting film and not everyone could do it. The very positive side of that is many more people can share their ideas and many more great stories get told.

Have you worked on any client direct commercials (no agency involved)? What's been the difference?

The CNN spot I did was client direct. Whit Freise is a veteran agency creative who now runs all of CNN’s branding. CNN empowered him, and he empowered me to create the spot. I came up with the idea of using a refugee camp which was a completely different idea than their original script. Whit supported all my creative suggestions and allowed me to cut the spot alone with Marco Perez in Rome and then send it to him. It’s amazing what happens when we empower each other. The biggest difference with working client direct is often only one person has the power to make all the decisions, so there are fewer politics and the work can benefit. However, working with great people is the key weather you are working direct or not. The team is always the only thing that truly matters in the end.