Taking Your Project From Inception To Completion: An interview with filmmaker, Matt Jensen

Field Notes Interview #68: Matt Jensen, Filmmaker

We had a conversation with filmmaker, Matt Jensen about the importance of real music over stock and how he manages to cut through the daunting task of searching for the perfect song for his compelling films.


There are two ways of knowing you’ve found the perfect song for your story. One way is the precise science of solidifying the right pacing, arc and instrumentation. Then there’s the other side -- when you just feel it. For Matt Jensen, a co-founder of San Diego-based production agency, Saint West, he’s found the perfect mixture of both. And it all comes down to including music early in the editing process.

Find out how Jensen takes a project from ”inception through completion,” as he puts it, and shepherds the film to go off without a hitch.

M: What was the inspiration to create Saint West?

MJ: It's actually a bit of a long story but I'll try to give you the cliff notes. We started our first production company about 8-9 years ago and wound up being acquired by a creative agency in 2014. Our team spent a year working at the agency and learned a ton about that world and its various disciplines. However, being entrepreneurs at heart, it wasn't long before we felt the call of the wild. We wanted to be in charge of our own destiny again, free to explore wherever our imaginations took us. So, we parted ways with our friends at the agency and launched Saint West. I like to describe our new company as the culmination of everything we've learned over the past decade --  the next chapter of our story.

M: What makes a compelling story?

MJ: From plot structure (e.g. hero's journey, etc.) to pacing, there are so many elements that can contribute to a compelling story, especially depending on the type of story being told! One of our favorite methods of storytelling is the "micro doc" format which has become especially popular over the last few years. In my experience, the key to a compelling micro doc film is honesty and authenticity. Assuming the subject matter is interesting in itself, we want our audience to not just know, but feel that what they're hearing and seeing is authentic. If the narrative is driven by an interview, this means drawing the interviewee out of their shell and making them feel safe enough to respond more honestly and deeply than they would normally. The viewer needs to feel like they are connecting with the subject on a deeper human/emotional level rather than just receiving a producer- or brand-crafted message.

M: How do you feel music plays a role in film?

MJ: Music plays a HUGE role in all our work. It's the emotional sub-current of every piece. Voice overs, interviews and even visuals are often a more direct or blunt force in making the audience feel the way you want them to. Music, on the other hand, is often more subtle, able to gently (or not so gently) shape the viewer's emotions without them consciously registering its influence. Needless to say, we spend enormous amounts of time combing through music libraries to find just the right song for every piece.

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M: When looking for a song, what are the usual processes and pitfalls?

MJ: Searching for that perfect song can be both exciting and daunting at the same time. We often find ourselves spending hours listening to track after track, trying to put our finger on that elusive sound we hear at the edges of our mind. It's that song that we can't quite describe in words but we'll know it when we hear it. Combine that with an underlying perfectionism and you've got a recipe for countless of hours of work. What we've found helpful in combating this problem is the use of in-house curators. Many music houses like Marmoset have staff that know their collections inside and out and are more than happy to help find that perfect track quickly. Use them early and often!

M: When did you know you found the right song for your story?

MJ: When we heard it! I'm sure most creatives can relate to this. It's hard to describe because it's more of feeling or gut reaction when you hear the song and just know that it's the right one. Of course, there are other, more tangible elements, like: does it have the right instruments, the right pacing, the right arc, etc.

M: How do you feel music is misused in film?

MJ: When it's not in sync with the editing. We've seen a lot of films where it was obvious that the music was just laid down over the edited piece and the beats don't sync up with the cuts. When editors do this, they lose so much of the power of the music. Whether it is a custom score or a stock track, use the natural beats and features of the song to accentuate/compliment your cutting.

M: What would be the first sentence in a letter you'd write to an aspiring filmmaker?

MJ: Experience trumps education every time; create early and often and the rest will follow in time.

M: What keeps you passionate about your art?

MJ: The stories. I love hearing and exploring new stories. In particular, conducting interviews. A good interview can be like a nuanced game of chess or a deeply intimate connection, where everything else fades and it's just you and them. It's an art and I love it.

M: What's coming up on the horizon?

MJ: So much! The most immediate is a new show we're working on for a major network….but I've already said too much :)