Field Notes: Russell Brownley, Filmmaker
"I just love being invited into other people's worlds. And treating that with lots of respect. And then, hopefully, eloquently trying to tell their stories."
Russell Brownley was drawn to filmmaking by his love for surfing and storytelling. Combined, the two have led Brownley all around the globe, capturing waves and hours of footage, and sharing them with the rest of the world. Recently, Brownley made a short film called My Saturday Morning, about professional surfer and friend, Mikey Temple, who doesn’t let a little snow -- or a serious heart condition -- stop him from doing what he loves.
Drawn to this inspirational story and his impressive collection of work, we caught up with Brownley to talk about My Saturday Morning, how to build a career out of what you love and where it all began for the adventurous filmmaker.
What's your story and how did you first get into filmmaking?
Russell Brownley: I got into filmmaking in the early 2000s -- I went to college for documentary storytelling. I just had a real passion to travel. I've also been a surfer my entire life, so, I think that those two things kind of came together. And, I found that with surfing I had a really unique perspective on stories in different countries and things like that.
And then from there, it went into more of a pure documentary filmmaking kind of approach, then it turned into some branded content, commercials and things like that. I love telling stories about interesting people, my friends, inspiring people, the whole nine yards. That's where it comes from and is kind of translating into a lot of the work I do now.
I feel like you being a surfer directly ties into some of the projects you've worked on, specifically Mikey Temple's story. You probably had to be in the water with him and be able to keep up with him while you were filming, right?
Yeah, yeah. It's funny because I work as a commercial director a lot. We also do a lot of cuts for branded content, like short documentary kind of projects. There are a few projects I've done over the years where being familiar with the ocean has definitely helped me out.
I actually used to surf in contests with Mikey way back. He's really created a great surf career for himself and finally we got the opportunity to not only work together, but creatively tell his story. It was so much fun to get back in the water with him, float in 40 degree water for three hours. I'm from the east coast originally, so it was kind of nostalgic to be freezing my butt off. I definitely prefer the warmer waters of the west coast and the tropics, though.
With surfing, so much of it is weather dependent. Ironically, when you shoot in the winter, you kind of want the nasty weather. The last day we were slated to fly out and we actually changed our flight because we saw a snow storm coming in. So, that's how we kind of got the snow story put in as well..we made the most of it.
How did you take a long story like Mikey's and consolidate it into just a few minutes?
I actually got into filmmaking more on the editorial side. Nowadays, I have some great editors, like Pat Stubborn -- who I've known probably since I was 15 -- who edited the piece. I like to work very closely with editors, but I also like to hand off the a lot of the creative, because, I’ve found with documentary work, is that when you're directing in the field, sometimes it's not a good idea to stay too close to it in your edit, because you might try to cut it the way that it really happened.
I like to work with a really great editor because I feel like he or she can see things that I can't -- they're not as emotionally attached because they weren't there. That's kind of the way that we can meet together -- I come to him with a vision and then he can help me bring it down to where it needs to be.
As far as finding the best moments, it's the hardest thing about editorial. We have probably close to an hour of really beautiful, cinematic water footage of Mikey. But maybe that'll surface someday.
A lot of your work has been outdoor and action sports focused. Is that just by coincidence?
Well, I grew up watching surf videos and skateboarding videos and going to punk rock shows. That's kind of the background that I come from. I looked up to guys like Ty Evans and Taylor Steele -- all these surf and skateboard filmmakers. So I think that's where I learned to do a lot of what I wanted to do. I never wanted to make Hollywood movies or anything like that. I wanted to go in the direction of shooting our world.
I did also go to school for documentary storytelling, so I wanted to be able to tell a story beyond the visual. That's what I'm still most passionate about. I love shooting surfing or skateboarding, or any kind of action sports, because it's going to be part of a bigger story.
Even though I love these really grandiose snowboard movies that come out, I'd much rather tell a story about an interesting person that maybe just so happens to surf as well.
How do you find the subjects whose stories you tell? If you're working with a brand, do they come to you with a story or do you have the freedom to choose your own subjects?
It's right down the middle. I work with a lot of creative agencies in the commercial world. A lot of times they'll have a great casting setup. Or, sometimes, it's just people that I really admire or think have really interesting stories.
For instance, I did a story about my barber, Brett Ferris. We did a series called The Craftsman Project. He's a barber, a surfboard shaper, a father, a surfer. He's just a really interesting guy.
That was just somebody who I really liked that I wanted to give a voice, because I felt like no one had really done something interesting about this very, very interesting person. So, it's both. Sometimes, I'm given subjects to work with, and on the other side of it, I get to pitch people I think are worthy of a story to clients.
Do you feel like you're at a point where you're able to choose which projects and brands that you work on?
Not quite. I do pass on work from time to time, but I also kind of look for the best case scenario in a lot of jobs. Jobs will come through that aren't crazy interesting or maybe what I'm most passionate about, but I love working with the people that I work with. So, maybe if we do something that's not as interesting on the surface, we can make it up with the experience we create on set. So, it's kind of a balance.
I’ve definitely come into a place now where I want to do work that I'm interested in because I feel like the work just comes out better. However, I love what I do. So even whether it's a bank commercial or a film about a surfer, at least I get to make something, you know?
What was your first film project?
RB: Well, my first film project, I wouldn't actually call a full film project. It was a Civil Rights documentary. I was the DP and co-director with my friend, Jeremy Dean. We both went to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. He realized that Dr. King had spent a lot of time in St. Augustine and nobody really knew about that. So, we spent about a year or so making this documentary, straight out of college.
I just screened it the other day. Jeremy's still screening it. It’s basically a sociological examination of this small town in Florida, the Civil Rights Movement and then how it translates into the modern day...It's called, Dare Not Walk Alone.
If you could create your dream project, what would it look like? Or, have you already done it?
I haven't done my dream project. I've had some incredible experiences in my life. But, I know that the dream project for me would be telling a story that is going to inspire and spark passion in people, but then also involve some of my favorite people, causes and passions. It's kind of convoluted...I'm still kind looking for that. I've written treatments for some projects that haven't happened. I do know that the dream project is still out there.
What is one of the most memorable projects that you've worked on?
This past year, I did a short film with my friend Kahana Kalama. He's a Native Hawai'ian friend of mine who was going through a pretty tough time in his professional and personal life. He had decided to take a big part of his business back to Hawai'i -- his dad is also Native Hawai'ian, speaks Hawai'ian, and is really just an interesting person -- so, we went back and shot a film about Kahana going through this process of bringing his company back to Hawai'i, and he actually asked his dad to sing in Hawai'ian for the soundtrack.
That was a passion project. A lot of great friends helped me out on it to make it happen. For me, to catch someone in a very timely manner, in a very compromising time of life, was really, really awesome. I think that was probably one of my favorite jobs I've done in awhile. It wasn't a job, it was just a project that I was really passionate about.
If you could pinpoint the one thing that you love most about filmmaking. What would it be?
You know, I think getting out of my comfort zone and feeling vulnerable and having to work in that vulnerable place to tell a story is one of my favorite things. Whether that's freezing cold water in New York in the winter or a village in Rwanda, working with people who have overcome a genocide. I just love being invited into other people's worlds. And treating that with lots of respect. And then, hopefully, eloquently trying to tell their stories. I'm very passionate about that.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to make a living as a filmmaker?
Yeah -- don't try to make a living at first. Just do it, just grab a camera and go. Man, when I started, we didn't even have YouTube. We were barely on DVDs. You can just post videos every single day right now, it's amazing. And that's what I told a lot of guys, “Don't try to start a business, just shoot.” Grab cameras, shoot, shoot, shoot. And, don't take a vacation. Film your vacation. Get out there and just do as much as you can.
I'm going to Vietnam next week with my family and I'm more excited about taking photos of our adventures. Just document and tell stories as much as you can, that's my biggest advice. I think that if you want to make a career out of it then that'll just happen naturally.