Oberlin Blogs

What if an Oberlin alum directed an online smash hit?

March 12, 2015

Ma'ayan Plaut ’10

We're not talking about that one Oberlin alum today, but I'm here to talk about another person I went to college with! Patrick Willems '10 and I were cinema studies majors together here at Oberlin, and the highlights reel of our Oberlin friendship includes:

  • Having a class together with that one other recent Oberlin grad filmmaker you might already know about.
  • Creating a director's cut commentary of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark with classmates Chris and Jake for a Pat Day cinema class.
  • Photographing the makeup effects in use during Patrick's senior cinema project.
  • An introduction to OCircus (starring me, shot and edited by Patrick).
  • A large-scale viewing of The Room, AKA the best/worst film ever made, during senior week, with my recently-accepted-to-Oberlin brother in tow.

Since graduating, Patrick's been paving his own way as a freelance filmmaker. After his most recent film "What if Wes Anderson directed X-Men" completely overtook the internet after its release last week — let me tell you, it's amazing to see your friend's project TRENDING ON FACEBOOK — I've been thinking a lot about the culture of Oberlin and the ethos of Oberlin people as an environment that's really encouraging and, in some ways, eye-opening for people who want to make stuff. I was ever-so-thankful for the outside of class exploration of writing and photography that put into action many of the things I was studying in my courses, and Patrick took a very similar route focusing on film. Finding the kindred spirits who create because it's deeply rooted in their being was a revelation for me at Oberlin, and it's been awesome to watch Patrick's very public path as a filmmaker over the past few years since we've graduated.

In honor of the video that put him on the radar of millions of people over the past few days, I interviewed Patrick for this Oberlin blogs exclusive.

While Patrick did not appear magically on the internet because of The Uncanny X-Men (more on that here), this film is the reason you're here reading today. Enjoy, and don't forget to watch the behind the scenes video too!

You're sort of living the dream in my mind: living in NYC, making movies, accruing all kinds of Internet fame (and presumably soon, fortune). Was this the aim all along post-Oberlin? What does A Day in the Life of a Freelance Filmmaker look like?

The aim since I was in high school was to make a living by making movies. Unfortunately, there's never been a clear path from studying film in college to suddenly having a job directing stuff. So after I graduated, I moved home and started figuring out that by making content independently and putting it on YouTube I could build an audience and get attention that might lead to real directing jobs. And now, after doing this for almost four years, it really seems like it might be going somewhere.

An average day is probably more boring than you'd expect. I make a living doing freelance video work, so there are times when things are busy and times when things are really slow. Sometimes I'll be locked in my apartment for a week, spending every waking minute editing and doing visual effects to hit a deadline. Other times I'll be running around the city all day trying to shoot a whole video before the sun goes down. But most often, a day is a mixture of writing, video editing, e-mailing, and getting distracted by the internet.

When did you realize that you wanted to make movies?

Around seventh grade. Before that I wanted to be a comic book writer, but I realized that whenever I had an idea for a comic, I was more interested in skipping ahead to think about how I would direct the film adaptations. I started out making stop-motion animated movies with Legos, and then moved on to live action in high school.

Nerdy question: what's your tech setup like? How did you build up your collection?

I shoot on the same Canon DSLR I've had since 2011, although I'm hoping to finally upgrade soon. Most of my post-production work is done on a MacPro I bought during my senior year at Oberlin. Last year I bought a 3-light Arri kit that I really love, and then I've got a bunch of cheap battery-powered LED lights for fast on-location shooting. Then there are tripods, monopods, audio equipment, green screens, blue screens, lenses, and all that stuff. I have an "Equipment to Buy" list that's set up in order of priority, and whenever I can afford the next item on there I get it. Making a to-do list out of it makes me feel like I'm accomplishing something by spending all my money.

Another nerdy question: how did you land your professional Comic-Con attending gigs? What kind of preparation goes into attending these events for work purposes?

I'm not sure I would call them "professional gigs," since in the case of San Diego Comic-Con I still have to pay for the flight and hotel. For the past few years my videos have appeared on Bleeding Cool, which is one of the major news sites in the comic book industry. Through them, my video team and I get press passes for conventions, where we then make several videos for the site. I always go in with ideas for more videos than I can realistically make, since it's an insane environment where obstacles and distractions are always going to come up. The preparation consists mostly of making as detailed a plan as possible: deciding what videos to focus on each day, contacting comic creators to ask if they'll guest star in videos, contacting publicists to get into various events, and of course figuring out how to get into the exclusive Hollywood parties.

You have a core team that works on many of your current online projects, not unlike Wes Anderson, actually. Where did you find these folks? At what points in the process are they involved?

The core team is Mike Curran, Matt Torpey, and Jake Torpey, who are friends of mine from high school that I dragged to New York to work on these videos with me. The four of us meet every week to work on the scripts and ideas. They're all heavily involved in the writing, and they're most often the primary cast. Our mutual friend and fellow Oberlin cinema studies major Kendra Pettis '10 works with us a lot. She's done the costume design for several projects and is going to be producing an upcoming web series. Beyond them, there's a big network of friends, usually Oberlin alums or friends from high school, who I'll pull in to act.

Maybe it's the inner film geek in me, but my favorite of your videos are the genre/director explorations (Point Break directed by Terrence Malick, Lars Von Trier, and Michael Bay, Sergio Leone directs The Punisher, Tommy Wiseau directs Batman, Ingmar Bergman directs The Flash, and most recently, Wes Anderson directs X-Men). How did you decide on these directors and films? What's your research and scriptwriting process for these projects? (I distinctly remember your research for our senior project where you watched as many heist movies as you could get your hands on — I nabbed that list from our class discussion and watched almost all of them!)

These are a lot of fun because they're basically little filmmaking challenges, where I have to break down a director's style to its core elements and themes, then figure out how the technical side works so I can imitate it accurately. This whole thing started because I heard Point Break, a movie I love, was going to be remade. I thought, I still think, actually, that this is a really dumb idea, so I figured if it had to be remade it should be a director who would never make a movie like that. So we made a video where we imagined how different scenes would look if made by different filmmakers. We selected them based on who would be funny and who we had the resources to imitate.

A year later I had the idea to apply the concept to comic book movies and make a series out of it. Much of the selections really just come down to us asking, "What pairings are the funniest?" We've had some long brainstorming sessions about this and there's a long list of ideas we haven't made yet. These are supposed to be ridiculous pairings that would never happen, so the choices are generally designed to clash as much as possible. The research usually involves watching a lot of trailers and clips for that director's films to figure out what key elements need to be included. The writing process isn't much different from other videos. We'll have a loose structure and a list of key elements we need for that director, then we'll send drafts back and forth until we have it as tight as it can get. It's like a weird psychological exercise, to try to embody a filmmaker and imagine how they would adapt something.

Talk to me about Film Students Getting Punched. Do each of these quotes originate from people you've interacted with before? Have you said any of these quotes yourself?

Between the Oberlin cinema department and my semester at the Prague Film School, I was around a lot of film students who said a lot of insane, pretentious things. I would write a lot of it down in the hope that one day I could use it for something. Pretty much every line in that video was either a direct quote or inspired by something someone said or did. I clearly had a lot of frustration with film students built up, and that video was the perfect outlet for it.

What was the most valuable non-cinema class you took at Oberlin?

I'm not sure it's the most valuable, but the one that immediately comes to mind is the squash phys ed class I took my senior year. I learned that I really enjoy playing squash.

(Note from Ma'ayan: funny, I also learned senior year that I liked playing with squash!)

Beyond attending Oberlin at the same time and graduating with the same major, we have something else significant in common: both of us have parents and siblings that also attended Oberlin. What film projects have you involved them in?

My sister, Mary, has been an extra in plenty of videos and despite having no interest in acting, has appeared in small speaking roles whenever I've asked her. She also served as the wardrobe consultant on "Wes Anderson's X-Men." She's a great sounding board for ideas, since she's really smart, has great taste, and we have pretty similar interests and sensibilities. My dad, another Oberlin alum, has appeared in a couple videos. I think he's hilarious, so I should really put him in more. Ever since I became interested in filmmaking, he's been jokingly telling me to make a documentary about him called "Hank Willems: Greatest Guy Who Ever Lived." One of these days I kind of want to freak him out by actually doing it.

You've made a number of videos about things I think that others around our age are dealing with (student loans, getting rejected from things, all your friends getting engaged, jury duty, getting conned into joining LinkedIn), which I've personally found very cathartic. Has making these videos been an effective coping mechanism? How do you go about making something so mundane into a cinematic event?

Thanks, I'm really glad you enjoyed those. Over the past year I've been trying to do more personal videos, where the idea is to take something that's on my mind, usually something I'm anxious about and make a video about it. If I was a vlogger, I would make a video where I talk about it, but instead I filter it through a weird, genre movie filter that's more appealing to me. It's still saying something, but it's more fun this way. I was really nervous when I made "When Your Friends Get Engaged," since I was making this strange, dark 10-minute-long thing about how I'm an emotionally-stunted weirdo, but people responded to it in a huge way, so I realized that there's an audience for this kind of thing, and I should make more. The creative process involves selecting the topic and then trying to find some weird visual metaphor for it, and then pushing that as far as I can while making sure the commentary doesn't get lost.

You and I were both in a class together with another Oberlin person who makes serious waves in the film industry. If you were pitching an HBO show about a recent Oberlin graduate who moves to New York City, what would it be called? (If you're so inclined, describe the pilot.)

It's funny you ask. Thanks to the success of the X-Men video I have some very cool meetings coming up, and I'm planning on pitching this idea I've had for a while that's kind of like that. I don't want to say too much about it, but while it involves people in their 20s living in New York, it also has more robots and anime-style fight scenes than that other show.

Would you rather make TV/episodics or movies/self contained narratives? Which do you prefer as a watcher of film things?

I love both mediums and I want to create both TV shows and movies. I get a bit more anxious thinking about TV, since I don't consider myself a very good or very fast writer, the idea of having to write so many episodes on such tight deadlines terrifies me.

You were rejected not once, but twice from film schools. What parts of your post-graduate filmmaking path have been unexpectedly enjoyable? What advice do you have for film majors who want to continue making movies after college?

I have to say, I'm really, really glad I didn't get into film school. I applied for all the wrong reasons and it just would have been a bad move and a huge waste of money. I didn't expect to fall in love with the medium of YouTube videos the way I have. I love the immediacy of it. You make something in a week, put it online, get immediate feedback, and then it's straight on to the next one.

For continuing making movies after college, it's always seemed to me like there are two paths: work on sets in various crew positions, spending a lot of time doing grunt work and slowly work your way up over the years until you meet someone who knows someone who might look at the script you wrote, or the other path is to make stuff on your own with whatever resources you have available. I'm really glad I chose this one. Yeah, it's hard and frustrating but at least I can feel good that I've been creating stuff and improving, and people actually watch the stuff I make.

What video are you the proudest of in terms of creative process? What video are you most proud of in terms of final product and audience response?

I'm really happy with what happened with "The Fake Geek Girl." I edited the video and realized I'd lost track of the tone and instead of being satirical as I'd intended, it had become a straight-up horror thing. So I showed it to some friends, discussed it, wrote a new voiceover and shot some extra footage, and got the video to where it was supposed to be. It was the only time I've radically altered a video like that, and it was really satisfying.

In terms of the final product, there are a few. "Wes Anderson's X-Men," since I've had that idea since this time last year, and I would always say, "If any video is going to blow up and be a huge hit, this is it," so it's nice to know I was right all along. "When Your Friends Get Engaged" was a big departure for me and a lot more personal, so it was a huge relief when people responded so positively. And I need to bring up "The Hob-Bot," just because I think that's the closest I've come to a perfect YouTube video. It's one joke, executed well, in exactly one minute. I'm not good at keeping things short and simple, but that one time I managed to do it.

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