Knowing When To Let Go: An interview with Filmmaker, Nicholas Leopold

Field Notes Interview #44: Nicholas Leopold, Filmmaker

In any creative process, there comes a time where we have to improvise and throw all plans out the window to overcome roadblocks along the way. This moment is filmmaker, Nicholas Leopold's favorite moment when filming. By going off the beaten-path, Leopold's work is innovative and unique.

Aside from running barefoot in the woods and climbing trees, Nicholas spends the majority of his time observing, soaking up experiences and pulling inspiration from them. After working in the commercial world for a spell, he started his own production company Skinny Empire, where his films gather raw, intimate moments and present them through creative pieces of art and at times humor. We were blown away by his recent reel and picked his brain on how he chooses music to aid his creative process.

M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

NL: I don’t think I ever really knew filmmaking was the path I would be taking. As a kid I was pulled in too many direction with interests in classical piano and theater to architecture and graphic design. I had a weak moment and decided to take some online surveys in hopes that they would give me some direction. They all pointed me towards filmmaking because it seemed to be all inclusive. Anyone can find a place in the movie biz, and for that I am thankful.

M: What's your favorite moment of the filmmaking process?

NL: You know that “oh shit” moment when you’re on set and everything you’ve been planning for weeks sort of falls apart all at once? And everyone is standing around waiting for you to pick up all the pieces… and your blood starts bubbling up and it’s hard to think clearly and your words are sort of a jumbled mess and the hair and makeup girl starts eyeing you from across the room with a curious look like “This guy has no idea what he’s doing”. That’s my favorite moment. When everything goes out the window and you have to rely on what’s sitting right in front of you. So you strip it down and you try something new. And most of the time you end up getting something so much more powerful because it’s raw and unexpected. It puts all the rest of your overly-planned trite scenes to shame. I live for those moments.

M: What do you think defines a filmmakers' voice?

NL: Connection with the audience. You can build a film with great ideas, visuals, VFX, sound design, stunts, drama and theatrics but it doesn’t amount to anything if you can’t create a connect with the audience. And that connection is very personal. For a few moments the audience gets to feel a piece of what is in the filmmaker’s core and that connection is what gives your film power and consistency and presence. You can watch movies from the same director back-to-back and they can all be of different genres and moods but you know they were made by the same filmmaker because you could feel them all the way through. It’s hard to define what you can’t see but that invisible connection is your most powerful ally and it defines who you are and what you’re trying to achieve.

M: Tell us more about your process when creating your reel.

NL: To be honest it’s quite crude. I think of it like sculpting clay. I pull all my favorite moments from my work and slap em down on the timeline and then I begin to mold it. It’s actually quite exhilarating because you start finding these small connections between your very separate and often contrasting pieces of work. But then you see them all laid out next to each other and you realize that there is a consistent voice in all of it and you try and bring that to the forefront. You create an energy and then you try and weave it all together so that it’s consistent and purposeful and (hopefully) meaningful. And then I give myself a time limit or else I’ll edit and reedit it to death. At some point the buzzer must go off and you drop your pencil and call it quits or it has the potential to drive you mad!

M: What's the toughest decision you've had to make as a filmmaker?

NL: Letting go. We work so hard at building expectations and creating worlds in your mind and planning it all out on the back of your eyelids. But if everything goes as planned it’s probably going to be a pretty boring and mundane piece of work that you won’t be happy with. So I’ve learned to let it go. Assemble all the pieces but let them fall in place when you get to set. Let it organically evolve when you’re all there together combining your energy and talents and trying to bring something to life. It doesn’t always work out but when it does you have something so much more interesting and dynamic than if it had all gone off without a hitch and the actors had delivered their lines at the right moments and the camera dollied in just perfectly and the single tear ran down his face as the sun sank behind the mountains. Blah. Let the elements play a role in the whole song and dance instead of trying to play God and control it all.

M: What role do you feel music has in film?

NL: Music plays a different role for everyone. Personally, I let music dictate a majority of what I put in the can. I tend to have a new song or score of the month that I am obsessing over and it dictates my mood, the way I interact with people, the stories I am interested in telling as well as the tone on set. This can be very risky because you don’t want someone else’s voice to cloud your own. So I have learned to step back a bit and loosen my grip on the music that is currently effecting every fiber of my being. But when used correctly it becomes the skin of your intricate creation that gives it color and texture.

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

NL: As I touched on above, the use of music is a careful balance of elements. It’s easy to let it run away from you and let it cloud your original intent. You have to take control and let it assist. Find that sweat spot where it dances hand-in-hand with your work instead of blasting it’s way through.

M: When do you know that you have something ready to show the world?

NL: I don’t think you ever really know. I never feel completely satisfied. As soon as I’m done shooting I wish I could go back and make changes. And then when I’m editing I have to create a time limit or else I’ll tweak it to death. And then once I add music and FVX and sound design I wish I could become re inspired and find something new I never saw before. So I give it my best and I try not to hold onto it too tight or I tend to suffocate it. Once the buzzer goes off I hand it over and move on.

M: What's coming up?

NL: I have recently begun work as the Chief Creative Officer at The CSD Group, and talented collection of young artists and businessmen working out of Santa Monica. We are prepping for new media campaigns with Lexus and First Five California as well as a some upcoming social media apps. On the side, however, I have taken up a new hobby that allows me to get down and dirty and work with my hands. I have been collecting vintage televisions, radios, gum ball machines and computers and am converting them into aquariums! I call it The Electric Guppy. I am taking my love for creating worlds and developing them into small magical fish tanks! Check em out:

What do you think about all this? Agree? Disagree? Comment below and share your thoughts.

Feel free to also share your recent work and reels to us at: -- we'll feature our favorites on the journal this week. Featured filmmakers will get some sweet sweet swag.