Getting creative within constraints

This interview is part of the third issue of Featuring, a newsletter celebrating creative entrepreneurship. Read more and sign up here.


Photo @MaxJoseph.

When it comes to constraints, few know them better than filmmaker Max Joseph. From small budgets to short timelines, Max has had to get scrappy to get his films out the door. His work has paid off, however. Now based in Los Angeles, the filmmaker co-hosts MTV’s Catfish, a reality series about online dating based on the 2010 film of the same name, which just finished its fourth season.

He recently found himself on set with Zac Efron for his latest project, directing his first feature film, We Are Your Friends.

We spoke with Joseph about how constraints shape his projects, the value of feedback, and his biggest project yet.

How did you get started in film?

I have been making movies since I was fifteen. I got a video camera and I started making movies for school projects. My dad was always worried that I wouldn’t be successful or make any money in film. He convinced me that studying the art of telling stories would be a better education, so I decided not to go to film school, studying English and creative writing instead. He was right.

I met a guy named Ben Goldhirsh (who would eventually become the Founder and CEO of GOOD) in one of my screenwriting classes at Brown. Ben was a year older than me and when he graduated, he went out to Los Angeles to enroll in producing school. He loved what I’d been writing in class, so he invited me to come out and stay at his place and write a screenplay with a friend of mine.

When I first got to L.A., I got a job cutting directors’ reels. I was good at editing — probably the thing I was best at — it’s my favorite part of the process anyway, so making that reel led to me getting more directors’ reel work.

TV directors are like chameleons. They come onto a television show, direct an episode, then leave and another comes in, making it hard to really carve out their niche. The point of these reels was to highlight their mark across everything they’ve done. It was the best job for a new kid in Hollywood because I was able to develop a one-on-one relationships with these really experienced, talented directors and their work

I got really good at making two to three minute videos with an emotional payoff at the end. It would be an intense three minute montage — it would make you laugh, change direction then make you cry — ending on the director and their signature. I became the go-to guy for cutting directors’ reels and met a lot of directors this way. Many of them became mentors.

Around that time, Ben started GOOD Magazine and they had just released their first issue. YouTube had just sold and we had a conversation about how we could leverage all the content GOOD had already produced and turn it into web videos. The skills I’d developed cutting directors’ reels translated directly to making these short web videos. I made two quick videos and they both went viral — one even went to Sundance. I kept making videos for GOOD and eventually started running their video department full-time.

It seems like a lot of the work you’ve done has been about not just telling a story, but doing it in a way that is authentic to the people and subcultures you’re highlighting.

The challenge at GOOD was creating something that was culturally and socially relevant without being preachy or boring. It was a burden because it had to be smart, clever, and authentic. And those things sometimes get in the way of creating something that will easily go viral. I managed to carve out a weird little niche between documentary and creative non-fiction.

What do you look for when you’re approaching projects now?

Making anything is really hard.There is no easy project. If anyone comes to you and says, “Oh it will only be a couple of days and all you need to do is this…” Never. It will alway take everything out of you, always goes on a lot longer than you wanted it to, and it’s always intense.

Knowing that, I have to be really passionate about whatever it is, because it’s going to take up a lot of my life. Craig Shapiro actually said once to me: “You shouldn’t do any project that you’re not completely into because you’re not going to give it your all.” And I like that. I am all or nothing. If I’m going to work on something, I have to be really excited about it.

I ask myself if I can do something new with this, give it a lot of energy. That’s what makes it fun and fresh and exciting and different. If it looks like I’m just supposed to do something that a lot of people before me have done, I know I won’t be into it. There’s no point trying to do something that’s already been done a hundred times.

I saw a recent tweet of yours that said watching Inside Out made you realize “the smartest movies are made for kids and the dumbest are made for adults.” Why do you think that is?

I think Pixar is an amazing brand. They kill it every single time because they have a lot of intelligent people crammed together needing to make something that’s educational, wholesome, and completely entertaining. Kids will tell you right away if something is boring, exciting, or entertaining. You have to be good.

There are more constraints to making stuff for kids. You have to make something that’s entertaining for them. At the same time, you have to get the parent interested, so you have to make it work on a sophisticated level, too. There are more constraints, which push you into a more creative space where you have to be clever and have to adapt. Maybe that’s why kids’ movies, often times, are more sophisticated and smarter than adult movies.

How do you apply constraints to your own work?

Filmmaking is creative problem solving every step of the way. The more money you have and the more freedom you have, the less creative you actually have to be — and the project can suffer because of that. Oddly, sometimes people will work harder when there’s less money on the table. If it’s a passion project and everyone knows that they’re not doing it for the money, and all that stands between the project being good and bad is the amount of effort being put into it, you’re going to work a lot harder. You need to welcome constraints.

What were some of the constraints working on your latest film, We Are Your Friends?

Money and expectations. The budget for We Are Your Friends is certainly the biggest I’ve ever had, but we were still struggling with how to make things work.

When we first started making the film, we didn’t have domestic distribution. Warner Brothers came on after we had already started shooting the movie. It was a tier one movie by union standards, less than $5.5M.

The project was about making something focused about the subculture of electronic music, and doing it in an interesting way. We wanted to create a story that was set in this world, but didn’t exist on the big screen yet. But because it involved a big movie star, Zac Efron, all of a sudden there were a lot of expectations for what the movie needed to be. So, we didn’t have a lot of money, we didn’t have a lot of time, but we had a ton of expectations and pressure to make it seem bigger than it was.

Tomorrowland, Electric Daisy Carnival, Coachella, and all these giant festivals — there hasn’t been a movie that tapped into that subculture.The big challenge was how to do this story in a way that was both acceptable to the insiders, but also to outsiders. How do we not alienate people who are very protective about their subculture, but also teach outsiders about the subculture in a way that lets them in without watering it down or diluting it?

It’s a tough thing to do, especially for a film that might get widely released. It’s even tougher to do when you cast someone like Zac Efron, who is still somewhat polarizing to a lot of grumpy haters on the internet.

The internet is full of haters.

Yes, but there are even more haters when you start talking about a subculture that a lot of them are a part of.

I made a little documentary about DFA Records, which was maybe the most pressure I ever put on myself to get something right. I really looked up to these artists and wanted to make something that was true to them and true to the spirit of who they were, but also wasn’t so insider that it alienated anyone who didn’t know who they were. I wanted to help spread their music and what I loved about them to other people. Which is a tough, I mean, you’re serving two masters.

With this movie, that was a major challenge. How do we make a movie that is authentic and real? Every step of the way you’re trying to get things right. You’re trying to tell an emotional story over the course of an hour and a half that the audience can go on.

If you’re not concerned with getting it right, you’re unfettered by the constraint of needing to be authentic and true to that. This movie would’ve been very easy to get it wrong. On paper, this movie could be the worst movie you’d ever see in your life.

What would you tell someone looking to make something authentic and true to their subject. What advice would you give them?

You need to ask for feedback. I love feedback. Almost too much. I ask too many people what they think and it’s a painful process. I think that getting a ton of feedback and knowing how to process it is maybe one of the most important skills of being in the creative field.

You need to surround yourself with people from the world that you are portraying and constantly ask for their input. Am I getting this right? Is this authentic? Is this not authentic? With We Are Your Friends, we had DJ advisors who helped every step of the way. One met with Zac three times a week for months leading up to the movie to make sure that Zac had these movements down to second nature. He also sat with me while I was editing the movie.

You have to gauge how you respond to feedback and which pieces you respond to. Not everyone knows the right answer. Learning to process feedback is tremendously important and is applicable to whether you’re creating a film or launching a company.

I see a lot of similarities between the two. Operating within constraints and having a feedback loop both seem to apply to any project with a human audience.

Yes, in film, you’re crafting an experience for someone else and need to take into consideration how you architect that journey. I think that people go to the movies or watch entertainment because they want the catharsis. They want to expel emotions. You can leave and feel lighter, better, happier, with a new perspective on the world. And I think that that’s something that movies and feature films can do in a way that short films can’t, because of the time constraints.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to giving yourself constraints and editing to them. Your life is a constraint. You only have a certain amount of time, so you have to make decisions about what stays and what goes. That’s editing.