Film is an art form that itself encompasses other art forms. It is an alchemy of music, photography, fine art, writing, acting and design.
I grew up in a creative house. My dad was a painter who eventually got into advertising. Throughout his career, painting was never far from his heart. My mother was a florist who was constantly working with her hands.
My parents never tried to talk me out of chasing my creative dreams. They let me know it would be an arduous, often solitary journey. Still, they were always supportive in pushing me towards a life in the arts.
One day, my dad brought home a mini DV camera from work and I instantly began shooting with it. It didn’t matter what I was shooting because I was now seeing life through the filmmaker’s lens. My entire sophomore year of high school, I recorded and re-recorded over the same tape so much that old digital images bled into newer ones. I used that camera to record everything, from my hoop games to football to friends just hanging out.
Growing up in Seattle, a lot of my friends were rappers. And since I had a camera, naturally folks would often ask me if I wanted to shoot their music videos. Why not? I was a fan of the playful, irreverent, boundary-pushing work of music video directors like Chris Cunningham, Hype Williams and Spike Jonze. Maybe I could actually do this.
The Seattle hip-hop scene is fairly small; if you’re not from there, you’re not going to know a lot about it. It was an independent-minded DIY scene where everyone was competitive, but ultimately if you were good enough, the scene welcomed you and lifted you up.
In terms of filmmaking, the movies of Gus Van Sant became an immeasurable influence on my own burgeoning aesthetic. Gus is a poet with a tender eye. He lets images breathe. He consistently resists formula. Films like Elephant and Paranoid Park taught me atypical ways to look at structuring a frame and story.
I was also very much into the “Spikes”: Spike Jonze and Spike Lee. I aspire to be like Gus Van Sant the human, but I don’t share his sensibilities. The Spikes treat cinema as a means of pushing the limits of what’s possible. They’re playful storytellers. They taught me the significance of fostering a youthful spirit, even as one ages.
I was still making under-the-radar rap videos by the time I arrived at ArtCenter. I have to say, I think the folks at the College were confused by me at first. They couldn’t understand why I was directing my friend’s lo-fi videos for $500 a pop. Eventually, I graduated to working with major artists like Macklemore, Shawn Mendes and Trombone Shorty. I began working with proper budgets. At that point, the challenge becomes: how do I take this artist’s song and make it mine, somehow?
There aren’t a ton of people who look like me directing films. Our numbers are growing, but it’s still an uphill battle. If I’m going to be fortunate enough to succeed at doing what I love, I want to put stories out there that feature protagonists that look like me, and perhaps even inspire people who have the same background as me. I want the younger version of myself that’s out there somewhere to see my work and feel like anything is possible.
For a kid who used to sleep in the same bed as his brothers, the idea that I get to do this for a living still blows my mind. Having said that, I feel an obligation to my Filipino-American community. It has to be about more than your career. That gets old after a while.
It's now been 11 years since I graduated from ArtCenter. I still come back occasionally: to talk to the students, to chop it up with alumni. These days, I still work with my crew from ArtCenter. My DP Mego Lin and my producer Adam Leeman are the same DP and producer I shot my ArtCenter projects with. We began as scrappy students and are now working professionals. We share a spirit that I don’t share with many other people in this profession. It’s a shorthand; we’re willing to get it done, any way we can.
I’m currently getting ready to direct my first feature film, and I am proud to say that it will be a collaboration between me and Mego Lin, my regular ArtCenter DP. The truth is, I’m nothing without my team. Simply put, I need them.
Jon Jon “J.J.” Augustavo
MFA 12 Film