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The Directors: Phillip Montgomery



The Revolver Films director on why he never dials it in, and why a choir is only as strong as its worst singer

The Directors: Phillip Montgomery

Raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul, writer and director Phillip Montgomery now resides in sunny Los Angeles. He came to the Golden State after receiving his film degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has directed numerous critically acclaimed films, TV, and music videos, along with award-winning commercials for brands such as Lexus, Jack Daniel’s, Guinness, Uber, IBM, and more. Most recently Phillip has directed some TV for the likes of Paramount+ and HISTORY. His 2019 short film, ‘Big Boy Pants’, starring Emmy-nominated Finn Wittrock (Ratched, Versace, AHS), premiered as a Vimeo Staff Pick. In 2018, he received the Cannes Silver and Bronze Lions for his commercial work with the 60th Anniversary Grammy Awards. That year, his genre-bending dance/horror film ‘Child of the Sky’ had a busy festival run and premiered at the 2018 New York Film Festival.

Name: Phillip Montgomery

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Repped by/in: Revolver Films/Canada


LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Phillip> As we all know, scripts come in all different shapes and sizes. Agencies and clients jump crazy hurdles to get their ideas off the ground and approved. So, by the time it comes our way, we should be there to serve that story. Within that, what excites me is elevating those boards and sneaking in some wild ideas that everyone can be stoked about. 


LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Phillip> When fortunate enough to be in the running, I like to write the tightest vision possible, avoid mincing words, get some epic imagery (and/or flashy gifs) that convey the feeling, and then harness the power of ‘Greyskull’ to make it something undeniable. 


LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

Phillip> My thing with any brand - regardless of relationship or familiarity - is to never dial it in. As mentioned, an agency and client will have already gone to great lengths to get an idea to a place where we can even talk about filming it. It may not be my baby, but it is someone’s baby. Respect that. Still, come with a strong point of view and push them to something uniquely yours, but also have some humility and give them the love and care they need… especially since they’re paying you! 
As for research, of course! I research everything, and within that, the important part is to ask myself ‘why is this product and/or message important to me?’. By asking what makes this important, I can justify why I’m the right person for the job. So, even if it's not my baby to begin with, it becomes so. 

LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Phillip> This is an important question. I was in a choir once, and my music teacher said ‘We are only as good as our worst singer’. This wasn’t said to bring us down, but was meant to lift us up so we would support each other - to lift each other up to become a better collective whole. This applies to all things including relationships - especially professionally and on-set in anything film related. Everyone is important, and while yes, the EPs, sales teams, agency creatives, cinematographers, and ADs might be the more immediate relationships we (directors) deal with, I want everyone to feel a part of the process and heard. 
Here is another pearl of wisdom commonly said: ‘A great leader serves those who follow’. As directors, we are leaders through the whole process and when everyone from the PAs, drivers, grips, electrics, all the way to the agency producers, clients and everyone in between are all hugging it out at the end of a great shoot, that's when I know I did a good job. 

LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Phillip> Two things. Firstly, I am most passionate about socially conscious, forward-thinking messaging. What a treat it is to do something meaningful! Secondly, I love smiles. I don’t do it enough in my day-to-day routine. So, I’m passionate about work that is a little bit funky, a little bit wild, a little bit gritty, and somehow, some way, can put a smile on my face (and hopefully others’ too!). Oh! I lied. There is a number three. Cars. I f’ing love cars, motorcycles and anything with an engine. I have very few cars on my reel, but bring it on! 

LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Phillip> I’m not sure. Usually, it's friends and family who watch my stuff and tell me how great it is. I know they are lying, because seriously, I can do better! Major misconceptions though… I’d have to say budget. I think people tend to think I’ve done big things. To be fair, I’ve done some, but not a lot. Most of my reel was done with pretty small budgets comparatively, but am proud of having made a lot out of a little. 

LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant, and if so, how have your experiences been?

Phillip> I have worked with cost consultants, and I can say unequivocally that they are some of the most gracious, thoughtful, and intelligent people who will always put the creative ahead of the bottom line. 


LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Phillip> I won’t say the brand, but we were shooting this beautiful beer spot. The focus was on the brewers, barley farmers and people who make it. We scouted an amazing barley field that would be our main location. It was a stunner of a place - full of lush grain. I mean, God herself looked down on us and said, ‘Here you go. You’re welcome’. It was perfection… and a week later when we showed up for the sunrise, all the barley was gone. Just dirt. It was no one’s fault, as we paid to keep it untouched (well, maybe some blame goes to the land owner who harvested the damn thing), but I must give a huge call out to the art department. Within an hour, we had two four by four bushels of beautiful, standing barley in sandbox-style pots. Then, my amazing DP pulled some great skyward angles using the vegetation as foreground, and all be damned, it looked like our farmer was walking straight off the set of Malick’s ‘Days of Heaven’. Long story short, I didn’t solve it - our amazing crew did. 


LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Phillip> I sort of covered this in my other long-winded answers, but my process is to remain 100% collaborative. They hired me for a reason, and I’m there to deliver on their idea. As such, in doing so, I push them with colour, shot design, performance and all that. And, if on the shoot we need to pull back to make them happy, we pull back… and if we pull back too far, then once their happy and ready to move on, we turn off their village monitors and say ‘let’s do one more take the wild and crazy way’, because that's the one we’ll end up using (they just don’t know it yet). 

LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

Phillip> It’s necessary. I am a staunch champion for diverse voices in front and behind the camera. In pushing ourselves creatively, it is imperative to include, nurture, and lift those who come from a different place or have a different life experience, and mentorship as part of that is crucial. 
It’s actually tough to find any kind of mentorship in this competitive game of directing. There are a finite number of jobs and we are all vying for them, but I do believe we can all win. But, we only win if we are supporting the voices who have not been given the opportunity to speak. It means we all get to learn from each other and find more empathy and understanding, which makes everyone's vision stronger. 

LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Phillip> Things are mostly back and better than ever. I think the one big change since covid-19 is doing most pre-pro calls now via zoom. Kind of annoying that I have to brush my hair and ditch the PJs for early morning meetings, but hey, it’s the price we pay to see everyone’s beautiful faces. 

LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

Phillip> Well, I love me some old-school wide-screen 2:40 cinematic scope. But putting that on a 16x9 TikTok vid? Yikes! Watch out for some major pan and scan. Don’t get me wrong, I love 16x9. I’d be a huge hypocrite if I said I don’t stare at and view content on my own phone way too much. So, we adapt! Shoot one for the big screen, and then put those frame guides on and do another take for the small screen. Options, options, options. In the end, awesome visuals, great performance and story reign supreme - no matter the format. 

LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?

Phillip> My relationship with new technology is unhealthy, unless you ask the Apple Store (which takes way too much of my money and thinks things are just fine). As for future-facing tech, bring it on! Remote villages, VFX anything, VR/AR, it’s all great. Whatever the format, they are just new and different tools, but in the end, some things can’t ever change. Namely, the need for a great story. So keep it tight, make it look great, and make sure your actors/subjects have a great time and deliver awesome performances. 

LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why? 

Phillip> 'Game On' - IBM: Great lighting, a little humour and grit, and awesome camera work by Billy Pena (DoP). This is an example of doing a lot with little. This was a one day shoot in Mexico City. I LOVE Mexico City. 

'Every Questions' - JobCase: The performances are fire! Love the look and vibe: sincere with a little levity. It’s also a brand that is doing great things - connecting the blue collar, working-class community to lift themselves up to their fullest potential. 

'Take Your Seat' - Uber: I love working with real people and showing the diversity and fabric of our country, as well as people working to better themselves. 

'The American Presidency': This was a docu-miniseries, but wanted to push the envelope into something more experimental with the deconstruction of the presidency. It was all shot on one stage. It was an awesome opportunity to do something in the long form - bringing the tricks and tools I’ve learned in the commercial game to elevate the series.

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Revolver Films, Fri, 11 Nov 2022 18:06:00 GMT