Director Max Sherman has found glowing success in the film and commercial realms with a distinct voice sharpened by his short films. Max’s shorts have all been awarded Vimeo Staff Picks and led to a courting by production companies including Anonymous Content where he is now rep’d in the US. The shorts have also helped propel Max into a string of commercials for Google, Axe, Microsoft and Snickers. Resulting in awards from Cannes Lions, CLIOS, ADC Awards a Webby for Office Depot/Office Max and a Super Bowl campaign for Tide. Max is also represented by Blink in the UK, Division in France, BWGTBLD in Germany, and OPC in Canada.
Read on as we take a deep dive into Max’s short filmmaking process and how it’s lead to his growth as a director.
Zack Seckler: How did you get into filmmaking?
Max Sherman: My Dad was a producer. And growing up I couldn’t have told you anything about what that meant. But one thing was for sure in my mind, he had a really fucking cool office downtown, filled with really fucking cool people that I didn’t know.
Dad now long gone from the industry, I stumbled my way into the glamorous world of PAing. I worked on sets. I knew nothing. Learned what I could as fast I could. But ultimately didn’t feel like I was where I wanted to be. But then I met a woman by the name of, Edie Weiss, or the reigning queen of production in Canada. And with my rousing rap sheet (read: college dropout with less than nothing to show for himself), I somehow tricked her into letting me work in the production office. Ok. Cool. Back to hauling sand bags and bobbling intricate coffee orders. But this time it made more sense. In the office, as opposed to being on set exclusively, I was able to see the process in the motion. The prep. The creative development. All of it. And I was suddenly surrounded by directors and producers of all ages and walks. And now it all felt just a bit more at my fingertips.
What was your first break into directing?
I started to make whatever anyone would let me. A behind the scenes shoot of a big commercial production. A “making of”. Talking head interviews. You name it. And the little branded gigs got a bit bigger and bigger. But all of a sudden, I was working in advertising. And I was having the time of my life, but I didn’t feel as though I had any sort of a real identity as a filmmaker. So I decided I wanted to make a short film. And I was really fortunate to have now done so much work with this production company, or more like a family to me by this point, OPC. And they wanted to be involved. I developed a script from a short story that I came across online. I cold called actors. And before I knew it I was making this movie. I had no expectation for how it would be received. I made it for myself more than anything else. But I did it. And then I put it up online and the next day it received the famous, “Vimeo Staff Pick”. And without question this changed everything for me forever. Production companies from all over the world were reaching out to me. And needless to say, this was completely blowing my mind.
Next thing I knew I was on a plane to London, and for lack of better way to describe it, have been riding the wave ever since…
Can you walk us through the process of conceptualizing and writing your shorts. Let’s talk about But I’d Really Have To Kill You for example…
Making this film was an exercise in “figure it the fuck out”. And at the core of it all, that’s what so much of this business is all about. Just go make it.
Now like I said, I was fortunate to be working with a Canadian production company already when I set out to make But I’d Really Have To Kill You. I was shooting Canadian ads. And I was building relationships with producers and craftspeople and the likes. So once I felt ready with my script, I started reaching out to everyone and seeing who might be keen on an adventure with me.
How did you create such a high dollar look with a modest budget?
I had a world-class production team and what I thought was a manageable (read: delusional) plan to go out and get it all done in the time we had. But I also had a lot of pretty incredible resources at my disposal as a result of a constantly working from one advertising project to the next. So of course there were a few twisted arms and a couple of cameras and lights that may or may not have fallen off the back of a truck conveniently onto our production’s first morning shooting location.
What about casting?
I literally found these people on the internet and cold called them. They were both first choices of mine. They read the script and they told me they were in. A bit of a boring answer, I guess. But the lesson here is that anything is possible, and I think a lot of people just don’t even bother trying.
I love your short Nowadays. How did this one come together?
Nowadays was just a little love letter to how fucked up we all are today. I wrote the first one and had a few of these actors in mind that I was keen to work with. And it was honestly just more of an excuse to go out and make something fun with my friends. It’s so essential for me to mix the personal projects in with the advertising work. It keeps me excited, and fresh, and it’s an opportunity to try things that I might not get the chance to do in other parts of my job.
What did the production look like?
Production grew and shrank on this project based on what we were doing and what we needed. The first act was just a few people in a school. And our crew mirrored that. There couldn’t have been more than ten of there that day and more than not were acting as professional pizza-eaters. We shot for a few hours. We laughed. We shivered (it was really cold). And that was that.
Then it wasn’t until probably six months later that I organized some time to shoot the second act. And this one was written a bit bigger. We had a few locations, the main one being a diner. But suddenly that means more people, more time, more moving pieces. But more or less the same process. Lots of laughs. But this time burgers and fries instead of the pizza.
How did you approach casting for this one?
On my advertising projects in the US, I work with a casting director based out of NY called, Beth Melsky. She’s an institution. Simple as that. And I knew I wanted to work with Aaron Serotsky and Joel Hurt Jones as the father and son, these are guys that I was familiar with through working with Beth and her seemingly infinite network of genius comedy talent. So she was kind enough to make a couple phone calls on my behalf and help put that all together for me.
I especially love Aaron Serotsky’s performance. What was it like working with him?
Aaron is a gentleman and a scholar. And he responded best to being lashed repeatedly between takes. Joking. To be honest, I wrote the part with him very specifically in mind. I knew his work well. And I’d also had the good fortune of working with him in auditions prior. So we had a bit of a rapport. And once we got on set it was just my absolute pleasure to kick my feet up and watch him make me look good.
How do you make doing shorts worth the crew’s time when they’re taking home a small, if anything, paycheck?
The best thing you can offer them is money. But sometimes eternal gratefulness and room temperature pizza is all you have. In my experience, people work in film because they want to. So you do what you can to surround yourself with likeminded people, and you take care of each other. This business demands a hustle, among other things, but it’s not such hard work to make set a fun environment. Shooting schedules might only get tighter, but there’s always time for a laugh, if you ask me.
Moving to commercials let’s chat about your Amstel Light spot, one of my favorites from you.
I was just happy to be there. The scripts that came in from the lovely team at Carmichael Lynch were really clever and simple from day one. Then throw Phil Mickelson into the mix and let the good times roll. I had a sense of him as a character based on seeing him interviewed and knowing some people who had worked with him. But it really couldn’t have been a more pleasant surprise how truly dry and funny and perfectly collaborative he was. He told me first thing in the morning of that shoot that he really wanted to get it right, and if you ask me, he most certainly did.
Music plays a big role in a lot of your work. What’s your process for working with music? How much have you thought through music selection in advance of the shoot?
Music is so often my first inspiration for a project. I like to try and find the “tone” of the film before I start. And music has always manifested as my way into that. I like to write to it. And so I’m sure it always finds its way into the work in some capacity. Be it as a soundtrack to the visuals or a reference for the actor to learn more about the character.
But more typically, in advertising, it’s me thumbing through some decades-old catalogue of all-time great instrumentation that is referenced constantly, used throughout an edit, and then scrapped entirely before the final cut by the client as a result of budget or off-brandedness. But here’s to trying, right…?
A common thread I notice in your work, which is really effective, is creating these MOS moments (filmed without sound) where extended reactions play out as VO and music fill in the story beats. How did this style develop? Is it something you plan for entirely in pre-production?
I suppose I’m just fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of people. The little moments that we all too often experience and share. But they happen fast. And they’re habitually internalized. Or never noticed at all. So it’s been funny for me to turn the camera on those moments, slow them down, and really allow for the audience to relish in them together. Because to me, there’s just nothing funnier than the painfully honest truth.
You have representation in Canada, Europe and the US. Can you talk about the differences in working across these markets?
I’ve learned so much about the industry and the craft from working in the different markets. And of course there are differences in the process. Both cultural and practical and everything in between. But ultimately, everyone’s running the same race. I probably have a slight bias having gotten my start in North America, but I do think that there’s this incredible trust and respect for production in the UK and Europe that seems to have been preserved from an era past. But that said, I’ve also worked with some of my favourite talent on some of my favourite work in the US. So what can I say.
In one market, they might be a bit more trusting and ‘hands off’ once the job is underway. But in another market, they might be so talented and so highly collaborative that it leads to equally exciting work, it’s just a different path to the finish. But I feel so lucky to be doing this at all that I’ve found it rather easy to discover the small pleasures in all of it.
Advice for young directors?
Surround yourself with people smarter than you (which was never very hard for me). And then exploit their extraordinary talents. Ask questions. Know what you’re looking for. But keep an open mind while you do it. And above everything else, go out and make something.
Best advice you’ve received?
You are paid for your patience.
My short game. I’m kidding. I don’t golf. I just always thought that was a slick way to end an interview. Was it?
Interview by Zack Seckler.