Creating compelling characters.
For filmmaker, Zak Davis, it’s all about creating compelling characters. Inspired by comics and driven by a need to create moments that are true to character, the co-founder and Creative Director of Juliet Zulu, a Portland-based creative agency, crafts both commercial advertising and personal work, collaborating with a tight knit group of friends and coworkers.
This includes his most recent personal project, Space Bitch, a story with space themes, but one that really centers around its main character, Max, and a few snapshots of her adventures. We were honored to have Davis and his team premiere a short version of this film for the second installment of our A/VEC series -- an event that gave Davis 30 days to complete a 15 minute short film before handing off to Marmoset to discreetly deliver to 1939 Ensemble, who then had 10 days to write a score for the film before premiering it at the event.
We talked with Davis about his creative inspiration, how Juliet Zulu came into form, and what it was like to see his film, Space Bitch, premiered and live scored at A/VEC for the first time. Enjoy.
What was your first project?
ZD: In 2009, I wrote a series called RUN about a guy who is accused of a crime, goes on the lam across country and broadcasts episodes to the internet to prove his innocence. Imagine North by Northwest if Cary Grant had Snapchat. We shot two pilot episodes, got a bit of funding but then bailed to make advertising. Now, we're reclaiming our OG with an exciting lineup of original scripts, a better funding proposition and an ability to share our commercial passion with our independent film passion.
How did Juliet Zulu come into form? What was the impulse to create something instead of joining an existing agency?
ZD: Seven years ago, JZ was a living room with two desks and now is a really strong set of creative and production teams in our HQ in Portland and our office in Salzburg, Austria. Joining an agency would require me to like advertising, which I don't. No one does. Sorry, no one interesting does. Jay and I wanted to build community. Foster relationships. In the fleeting, temporary world of advertising, creating things with permanence is important. It makes the work more substantial. Writing clever copy or a making a memorable 30-second commercial is easiest from a tree house at age 10. Everything after is just a game against the clock and changing tides of reception. However, like a good story, the better you understand your characters, the better each scene is. We try to understand each other and then understand our brands and then the work makes itself. Then, maybe, our advertising work doesn't feel like advertising and someone interesting might appreciate it. I am so confident that the only good advertising is made by people who really don't like advertising.
What makes a compelling story? What's the defining difference between choosing to film something and not?
ZD: I think characters make a compelling story. Being specific and then letting the characters work out the rest. I also think actual stories make a compelling story. Poetry rarely makes a compelling story, though it can make a very compelling poem. I see a lot of films that are poems. Lovely. Impressive. But they are not stories. They are poems. I want to film stories and that means the moment must be true to the character. I'm still learning how to do this. If something is not true to the character it won't be filmed or at least won't make the cut.
How do you feel music can shift story?
ZD: Music is really important to a film. It can ruin a good scene just as fast as it can add a new layer of emotion or honesty to a scene. I think each new stage for a film where a new, smart person can add their layer is exciting. It works when the guiding principle is the film's core insight and the characters. When every layer starts there, the infinite possibilities of tastes, styles and explorations are all correct. Maybe worse or better, but correct. Hearing a score for the first time is one of the most exciting moments in a project.
If you could write a letter to your 20 year-old self, what would be the first sentence?
ZD: Don't ever try a cigarette, don't ever buy a smartphone, don't ever get home late for dinner, don't ever stop reading. That would actually be the whole letter.
You mentioned at the live event that Space Bitch was inspired by comics. Can you tell us more about this? What were the specific comics you looked to for inspiration?
ZD: I think what inspires me about comics is the focus on characters. The plots are unveiled over such a long period of time that the characters have to be extra compelling. So much more so than in other mediums. This idea really inspired the character of Max. I think that Space Bitch is a story about Max. Not the story. Sometimes, characters or stories feel like this and it's really exciting. As far as comics that inspire me, I read a lot of comics. Here are some that I have been enjoying recently: Saga, Descender, 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank, Low, Paper Girls, Sex Criminals, Space Riders, The Wicked + The Divine, Tokyo Ghost, We Can Never Go Home.
Where was the film shot? What did you do to make it feel like the characters were in space without actually being in space?
ZD: We shot the film in various locations around Portland, Oregon City, Vancouver, Washington and at the Oregon Dunes. I don't think we really wanted it to feel like they were really in space but more to find locations that provided some of the same emotions as being in space type locations.
Do you feel that the story evolved throughout the filming/post-production process? If so, how?
ZD: The story stayed pretty true to the script but the actors were so talented that they really added many layers of depth to the story. Also, the community support of the production was fantastic and so the film seemed to grow at each new stage.
How was it watching the film scored with music for the first time? Were you nervous to see the film with music for the first time in front of a live audience?
ZD: I was totally nervous and loved the music. 1939 Ensemble was amazing, surprising and, I thought, extremely insightful. It was really fun and yes, relieving.
Did the score sound how you expected it to? If not, how did it differ?
ZD: On some scenes, I had no expectations. On a couple scenes, I though the band hit upon a tone and mood that fell really close to what I had imagined. It was a tough job to switch between a humorous and serious tone and I thought the band did that extremely well. It was very encouraging to hear.
You mentioned that you are now working on an longer version of the film, how will the longer version differ in context?
ZD: The full film will be quite different than the film we presented at A/VEC. We didn't want to create a tempo that would hamstring the band's live performance, so the A/VEC cut was missing about half of the scenes and was a bit slower in pace. I imagine the full version will be very different and provide a lot more context into the story and characters.
What were some lessons you learned through this project?
ZD: It was a great experience. 1939 Ensemble nailed it. However, it is hard to release something blindly like we did. I wonder if we were lucky that the music was so good and fit so well and pushed it? I think I learned to appreciate how good it is to collaborate with others when everyone is inspired from the same core source.