58. Brendan Davis: Creating impact through the lens of filmmaking

Brendan Davis Sue Stockdale talks to Brendan Davis, a writer-director-producer working internationally in film & TV about what his work involves; what makes an award-winning film, and how filmmaking can transcend some of these silos that people find themselves in.

Brendan’s career began his entertainment career in Atlanta in 1990, moved to Los Angeles in 2002, and has split his time between Beijing and Los Angeles since 2013. Davis has been a producer on films premiering, competing, or winning at Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, and other festivals. In 2013 Davis produced the first Los Angeles-based season of Chinese TV hit “Jia Pian You Yue” for CCTV-6, featuring Stan Lee, Justin Lin, M. Night Shyamalan, Sean Astin, and others.

He is a former Producing faculty member at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, served a year as Chairman of Adamas Film International in Beijing, and has guest lectured at the Beijing Film Academy. In 2018 he wrote and directed the documentary “Yibin: An Elemental Journey” for CCTV. In 2019 he and director Eric Raine completed a 5-year journey making feature documentary CRAZYHOT, about the world of ultra hot chile peppers, now available on VOD worldwide. Davis is currently in pre-production on Paris-based feature film MY FAVORITE SEASON and producing a documentary on US-China relations with writer-director Larry Sullivan, cinematographer Naeem Seirafi, and partners.

Find out more about Brendan Davis:  https://www.crazyinagoodway.com or the podcast “How China Works”  on Instagram  and Twitter

Brendan Davis Quotes

‘Film is a way for me to connect with greater experiences outside myself, but also have my internal interpretation of it.’ 

‘Film is as much driven by the use of sound and music, as it is the visual’. 

‘The most successful films in general have a sense of cohesion internally. It feels like a finished piece of work’. 

‘A lot of things inspire me. I think that overcoming long odds is, something that’s very relatable to people in general. I think that especially moves me’. 

‘I feel like there is interest in how can I benefit my family and my society, my cohort. I think that’s a generic difference between the Chinese culture versus the American culture. But I do think it’s changing’.

‘I have a lot of hope and faith and confidence in filmmaking to transcend some of these silos that people find themselves in. And I feel like that’s what is going to be even more necessary than ever before, as we move forward’.

Brendan Davis Transcription

Sue: Welcome to the podcast, Brendan.

Brendan: thank you, Sue. It is very nice to be a guest with you today.

Sue: And I know that you were recommended by one of our previous guests from episode 53 where I spoke to Ronald Paredes on rediscovering creativity, and he recommended you. How do you know him?

Brendan: I know Ronald from my years, living in China. Ronald as you talk about in the interview with him, he’s based more in the Nanjing area and I was in Beijing, but we met through some sort of small world circles via we chat, the kind of all in one social connection that everyone uses. And we have worked together a lot. We’ve been on each other’s shows. I used to do a bunch of podcasts myself, as you know,  Ronald is a really great guy and super talented I’ve been able to I’ve been fortunate to hire him a few times for some things that we needed done and yeah, he’s great.

Sue: Oh, fantastic. Well, I’m sure we’re going to hear a lot more about your connection to and interest in China as we get into the conversation. Today’s the first time though, I’ve spoken to a film producer, so I want to kick off with learning a little bit more about that, Brendan. What got you interested in film in the first place?

Brendan: I love the question and it made me really think about it when we were chatting prior to recording. And I think what really first sparked me both film and also music, which were kind of my twin passions, really since childhood is the interesting connection and the way that film and also music in its own way, of course can communicate and transcend even language. Especially with film, of course, with the visual aspect of that, and being able to create subjective responses in people. Although the finished product on screen is the finished product, but you and I can see the same piece of work and have a different take on it. Although we would both understand the basic story, the same way. And I think I was always, I was a bit of a weird kid and very philosophical, and then I’m very introverted. And I think that, with film, it was a way for me to connect with greater experiences outside myself, but also have my internal interpretation of it. And I don’t know of an art form that is as immersive as film that lets you do that. So I think I was drawn to the idea of communicating across barriers as I interpreted it later, I didn’t have that analysis as a kid. Of course,

Sue: And did you have any, favorite movies when you were a youngster?

Brendan: I sure did. I remember quite a few things from being small and the first big event film that I remember seeing was Star Wars. I guess I was 11 and I saw the original Star Wars in the theater with all my friends, from my boy scout troop. And that [00:03:00] was wonderful. And a theater full of other people. I also saw something. That was wildly inappropriate for a small child, and probably scarred me a little bit, but in later years I studied it more academically, which was the Exorcist, the William Friedkin horror film, and oh, wow. Did that make an impression, you know.

Sue: it didn’t have really any scary music and that’s sometimes the thing that’s really frightening.

Brendan: and what’s interesting about that. That’s actually exactly what got me into studying it academically. When I was in college I came across a book in the library at, I want to say the University of Georgia that’s where it would be, where I was at the time. And it was all about the sound design of that film as opposed to the score and the music. Now, the music, Tubular bells by Mike Oldfield is the classic theme that’s been reworked a lot, but the sound design. I could do a two hour podcast just on that. So I’ll leave it there. But if somebody is interested in the effect that element of filmmaking has, that’s a great place to start because they did some really revolutionary and groundbreaking things that made it so scary and probably the most impressive part about it and why I’ve been able to work in film in music and my interest in film is as much driven by the use of sound and music and film as it is the visual. And the textual part is that they managed to create these moments. That, again, the music wasn’t either absent or super scary. It was underscored, it was very low. Or it just wasn’t scary per se. And even what you’re seeing on screen isn’t necessarily scary, but they did things in the sound design that were very subtle, Friedkin and his sound team were very much into using subliminal audio and provoking a response. There would be moments where you’re not seeing anything visually horrifying yet, but yet you have this horrible sense of dread and unease, and it’s just the way that they approach creating all that, it’s, it’s pretty cool. Somebody is interested in that. That’s a great place to dig into it.

Sue: so already, I’m getting a sense of your, your passion and your interest in this genre. I want to get a better sense of understanding in terms of the whole creative process for filmmaking. At what stage does a producer get involved?

Brendan: well, the producer or the person who’s doing producing functions, is really at the inception of it becoming a project and not just say a script. And often times also in Hollywood, which I mean, as a concept, more than a place, although it applies to the place, sometimes the producer will have an idea and then decide to find a writer. If they’re not a writer, they will hire somebody or they’ll find something similar that exists.  And the producer is essentially the person who says, Hey, let’s, let’s make this a thing. Now, a writer director listening to this might take exception, but also if they’re working writer, director, they understand what I’m saying because even if that’s their only producer real function, the act of saying, let’s make this into an actual thing and start to put it together. How do we build a team? how do we budget it? How do we, how do we make this a reality? Where does it fit in the marketplace? Those are all producing functions. So someone like Steven Spielberg, who everyone knows as a director, he’s much busier as a producer than he is as a director, because if you’re directing you can pretty much direct one thing in a given moment because you can’t physically be more than one place at a time. Although he has done two at once where he had a video set up on set of the terminal while he’s directing the terminal in between takes on that he’s directing like pickups on another movie, some on another location with another crew, but that’s, that’s its own story. But the producer is the prime mover of it as a, for lack of being less crass about this as a piece of business, So if a writer director decides that he or she wants to start to make it a reality and they pick up the ball and try to raise finance or trying to attach some kind of star talent or creative talent, that helps move it forward into reality those are producing functions.

Sue: And in terms of how you got into the producer role from your interest in movies and film, how did that happen? Because I guess like in any career, people can have an aspiration to perform a certain function, but they don’t always find an easy route to get into it.

Brendan: True. And I don’t know how much easier it gets, no matter how long you do at, because I’m, of course you, you learn a lot of things not to do. And, but you still face some of the same challenges continually. for me, starting in film. I worked on the technical side. I worked as a production sound man. And I also worked as a picture editor a few years after, getting some, some experience under my belt. And I would alternate between those two jobs. But in school I was drawn to it from writing and directing. So initially my primary focus was writing and directing became the natural extension of that, because then you’re writing the piece that’s on screen as opposed to the piece that’s, that’s just on the page and producing, develops out of that because as I was saying, the producer is ultimately the person. Whose responsibility is to take these different pieces and aggregate the talent and the resources you need to make it something that, that we can all press play on, television or Netflix or YouTube or whatever.

Sue: And the Oscars is one of the ceremonies that, we all have heard of that gives recognition to the film industry. From your perspective I know you’ve got a number of accolades in terms of some of the films you’ve been involved with Brendan over the years that have been seen and presented at some of the film festivals. What do you think makes a film award worthy?

Brendan: I think this is a great question and it could be any number of things it could be. Is it of such a stunningly high level of originality that it’s very fresh and it breaks through with people. It connects in a way where, while I’ve never seen quite that same spin on the ball before, and it’s really done at a very high level, technically artistically. So, it can break through in that way. It could also be something that we’ve seen a million times, and it’s not that much of a fresh spin on the ball, but by gosh, we love it. It’s just, it’s something that’s a deeply rooted archetypal connection to a classic story that everyone loves. And it’s a perfect example of it. Maybe it’s not reinventing the wheel. And when you use all my cliched metaphors to make the point, because that’s what we do, we look for ways to find relation, but I think when, especially on the film festival circuit and that world, what people who judge those and what audiences you attend those and buy their ticket and go to festivals to see those films that may never be seen outside of a festival. They’re looking for fresh, original voices more often than not. And it’s a way to try things that may or may not, or absolutely are not commercial, or maybe they could be, you know, it could show talent for filmmaking in a way that then studios, networks, bigger producers than me who have a deal, say with a studio, and are looking for a really raw commercial talent that’s developing, that’s a great place to find filmmakers, writers who have the potential to do things that are very commercial, but it’s also a place just to do art for art’s sake. The most successful films in general are have a sense of cohesion internally. It feels like a finished piece of work. Right. And, and we all have this as an audience member where sometimes we’ll see something and we absolutely love. And if you’re someone with background in this world, you can put on your teacher hat and sort of talk about why it worked. But, I’m no different than any other audience member in terms of, does it move me or not intellectually philosophically, emotionally? Does it move me when I experience it or, or not, and then I can dissect it where I can talk about it to fellow film nerds.

Sue: We often think our head is really our decision-making and it’s our heart. And then our head eventually has to catch up and give us some logic to that innate gut feel that we have about whether something moves us or not, which kind of brings me nicely onto this question of inspiration, Brendan, or obviously our podcast is Access to inspiration. I’m wondering, I’m wondering what inspires you?

Brendan: A lot of things inspire me. I think that overcoming long odds is, something that’s very relatable to people in general. I think that especially moves me. as a business, this is not an easy business to get into. It’s not easy to get started because you can, you know, you can make something with your iPhone or whatnot these days, but in terms of really having an impact and breaking through and becoming recognized even to a small degree, the access to that opportunity has never been greater, but at the same time, there’s so much content. There’s so much noise that it’s hard to find the signal. So for me, what’s inspiring are things that I haven’t seen before, which of course in this day and age, there are fewer of those since we’re all. So darn sophisticated, thanks to the internet. We all seem to know so much more. The general base of knowledge is so much higher than when we were kids. I’m really inspired when I see something that makes me think about something or feel, in a way that I had not before that challenges assumptions in a way that that actually lands and connects with me, even if it doesn’t say change the way I think or feel about a given topic, it, it adds that layer of perspective. It adds that nuance of what that other person’s experience is.  I really love film and TV. I’ll just say film generically for, the moving image  any kind of visual representation like that, if it’s transformative, And it doesn’t have to take me to another place and transport me into another realm, outer space or something deeply philosophical. Although I love that. I mean, I’m the guy for those films as well. The rise of a Christopher Nolan as a mainstream blockbuster commercial filmmaker, who’s still doing mostly original works, often written with his wife and or his brother, Jonah. It’s amazing. You think of a film like Inception or Tenet, which criminally underrated  it’s an extremely philosophical film while also having tons of action and a bunch of movie stars and amazing locations. You know, there’s a lot of eye candy. There’s a lot there for anyone to enjoy, but wow, it’s a head bender of a concept. And I mean, I was a philosophy major for a couple years in college until I ended up switching into film. And that was a philosophy and psychology, double major, which probably says a lot about me. But,it’s an extraordinarily philosophical film and then you think of, wow, Warner brothers spent this much money. Tell it, Christopher Nolan make a philosophical think piece with big movie stars. it’s extraordinary. I mean, he’s, he’s absolutely a modern hero for me because of what he’s doing and why he does it. He doesn’t just care about checking boxes and tickling the fancy of the audience as they expect. He’s all about grappling with big issues and delivering a lot of food for thought within a very palatable presentation. I feel like it probably went a little off the reservation on your, on that answer, but, I got all inspired thinking about how much I, I love his work and there are a lot of people I could go on about in this similar way.

Sue: Well, I think you’re, you’re reminding me of that sense of emotion and how something can inspire us when it really catches us in the heart. You mentioned in what you said there, Brendan, the word culture, which takes us a nice segue into thinking about China. Because I know you’ve done a lot of work in relation to China. Tell us about what makes China of interest to you as a country, as a culture.

Brendan: I think I first got interested in China. And that region of the world. I can’t pin down exactly when it was, but I was fairly young because I read a lot and we learned so much about Western culture and civilisation from the states. And I imagine it’s similar in the UK, but we grow up knowing so much. About north America and Western Europe, and a little bit about Eastern Europe, but we don’t learn that much about Asia. And the fact that, that there, that it’s so removed and of course doesn’t even use like a Roman language system with writing it’s symbolic language and wow that’s fascinating. So I think that’s what planted the seed and over the decades since being a child. I developed a love for travel and have been fortunate at this point to travel a lot. And I was always really interested to immerse myself in that culture and to see what I could learn from experience and engagement. And I’ve traveled some other places prior to ever going to China that also were an absolute culture shock. Some places like in north Africa. I’ve been lucky to travel through Tunisia. And be in an environment where I don’t, I don’t speak Arabic and I’m learning French. Now. My French is very bad, so they don’t test me. They do speak some French there. My travel companion, he luckily spoke French as well. So we were able to get around a little easier.

But in terms of China specifically, I would say that, given that as a background that’s been there for a while, there was also the reality that the rise of China Hollywood being interconnected as a goal and a reality that was really sort of in the late aughts in the late early two thousands. And it continued into, the 20, 2010s and teens. And I wasn’t exactly a bandwagon jumper. I think the people who are trying to jump on that bandwagon started three, four years after me. So I was kind of late stage of the middle of the pack of the people between projects, I found myself teaching in a NFA program in Los Angeles at, in teaching, in the producing and filmmaking program specifically and very international school and a lot of the students there from all over the world. But. roughly 20, 25% of a given class would be from China. So, I also got to know a lot of Chinese people, a lot of young Chinese people who were working on a graduate degree in film very specifically. And that’s a very narrow slice of the whole population, but I got to learn about their perspectives and their stories with the ones who I would engage with deeper if I was an advisor or just watching their films.

And so, I became more and more fascinated and along the way, I became partners with a Chinese producer and she, and I developed several projects and in 2013 I made my first trip over there. But before that, I had helped a former Chinese student connect to some executive producers in China who were friends. One of them was a mentor of his, and I helped them develop an idea that ended up being the first US season of a big Chinese hit TV show that I produced with my partners and team in Los Angeles. And so, we did that in early 2013 through the summer. And that was very successful and quite a learning experience. But after that, I went to China for the first time with my Chinese partner who was based in LA also. And started meeting people and because of the connections that she had and connections I developed, we were able to meet a lot of people who are really at the top of the industry on the business side and the governmental side. So I never had the experience of someone who say decided they want to get teach English in China when they’re 20 years old. That’s not my experience. I mean, I went as a grown person trying to do some business. So, it was fascinating. And, and again, I’ve done probably 300 podcast episodes when I was doing that, myself, that in various ways, touch on what I learned about the business and the culture.

Sue: From your perspective in film. I’m thinking about how you almost compare the two different cultures. How does the Chinese community view the Western world and vice versa?

Brendan: That was my stock and trade for the most part, because all the business I was doing over there was in attempting to develop co-production projects or to unite the business. And the cultural aspects of their industry with our industry, which, I won’t say that it was a fool’s errand because there have been some people who’ve had a lot of success in that. I had moderate success in that, but the world has changed a lot. So that, that is its own follow-up to this, I would say. But in terms of the primary differences, well, you have to start with the high-level generic really cliched answer that everyone understands, which is the differences between a collective culture versus an individualistic culture. And then go from there. That is the right starting point though, I think, and I created a podcast that I’ve since retired called How China Works with a Chinese partner who is a cross-cultural communication specialist and she and I spent a lot of time talking with business leaders, cultural leaders from all over the world who somehow deal with China and, and the other, whether it’s the US or the UK or Australia. What I found from having the Chinese students in LA, especially was that the kinds of stories they were interested in telling were often different than their counterparts from a Western culture. There tended to be a less of a sense of exploring who am I out in the world on my own, versus how can I make something happen for my family or for this other group I care about. And I think that that orientation. I see it remotely from, from being online. Cause I haven’t, I left in late January 2020 because of COVID unfortunately. So I feel like it’s probably changing a bit, there has been a push back in China against the oppressive work hours, especially in the tech industry, the 9, 9, 6 culture of working 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM, six days a week as a standard. You know, there’s been a pushback against that. There’s been controversy that has been exemplified in the laying flat movement in China, which is the idea of basically I’m going to lay down. I’m not going to subject myself into this intense, live to work mentality which, being still a developing country in, in many ways, there’s a massive emphasis on you must work harder than anybody longer than anybody. And you must achieve as much as possible almost to justify your existence and this newer generation. And I’ll say kids not pejoratively because they’re the younger generation. Although there are people probably up to my age who feel this way, they don’t really have the luxury of laying flat, but that’s, that’s actually a term that’s blocked on Chinese social media in Chinese and English, which is essentially like I choose to disengage from the rat race. And so there’s been this re-examination just in the last few years and I think that, I think this is part of the global response to COVID and the restrictions and quarantine gave people a lot of time to think.  We’ve seen a lot of people lose their minds with a little too much time on their hands and various places. And that’s, its own podcast, but I think that’s a generic difference between the Chinese culture versus especially the American culture. But I do think it’s changing.

Sue: Well, it certainly, we’ve seen a lot of people re-examine what work means to them in Western world. And as a result, leaving their jobs and moving to something that’s more meaningful for them. It strikes me Brendan, listening to you speak that you’re a pretty deep thinker and being a great observer. Observing what you learned about China, about the Western world, about filmmaking. And having a chance and an opportunity to think and reflect. Where does that leave you and what your contribution is to the world?

Brendan: I love the question and thank you for the compliments and insights. I would say, I feel like I don’t have a choice except to be thoughtful especially in my business, but just for my own sense of self in life. And, you know, I think that what we’re seeing now in so many ways around the world, we’re seeing the wheels come off of so many preconceptions and expectations people had for how things are going to go. The status quo was being blown up or revealed to have issues to say, it fairly generically in so many ways. And the pressures, as I was saying about the pandemic have exacerbated tensions. And so, in terms of how I process all this, it’s my ongoing. In my own meditation time. And before I go to bed, it’s, it’s absolutely what’s on my mind because I’m in the middle of several projects right now that were one has been delayed and was kneecapped to use that expression, because of the pandemic and we’ve managed. Keep it together and reconfigure it multiple times. And we’re pending launching that, any moment, but it’s also why I’m talking to you from California as opposed to Paris right now that we talked about offline about this setting, this recording date in time. So, I feel like for me, it’s, you know, why am I doing this? Why am I continuing to torture myself sometimes with this career. Well, I’ve been in this business either technically or creatively or in an executive or managerial sort of role. I’ve been doing this for 30 odd years. So. I like to say I’m old, but I’m trainable. But at this point , I’m old enough that, that I don’t think I can really do much else. I could do this or I could teach it or talk about it that’s my skillset, basically. But I have a lot of hope and faith and confidence in filmmaking to transcend some of these silos that people find themselves in. And I feel like that’s what is going to be even more necessary than ever before, as we move forward. And as we try the reckoning and reconciliation or, or whatever, the process that has to happen specifically here in America, I mean, we’re nowhere near there yet. There’s still a lot more. I think there are a lot more people who have a lot more steam that they have to let off, there are a lot of people that still need to figure out how they fit in the world and what they think that even means to be part of a collective. I think all that has gotten exploded and, and it started pre pandemic of course, with our political situation. So for me, I feel like film as a transcendent medium that can cross barriers and cultures and even language. Squid game is one of the most popular shows as bleak and dystopian as it is. It’s something that travels across, despite the language people will read subtitles to, to follow something that they’re interested in that speaks to them. So for me, that is what motivates me. To continue to develop and create work that hopefully achieves those lofty goals. The Paris project that I alluded to is a classic underdog story. And that’s the element. That’s the most appealing to me. It has a lot of shiny flashy or elements that will make it, you know, it’s meant to be a movie movie, a commercial movie in theatres. and it’s set in the world of Paris fashion and music. And everything about it should be exciting and engaging to audiences. But to me, what interests me about it in the first place is that it’s fundamentally this underdog fish out of water story, about someone from a different culture going there and trying to pursue her dream and against the longest of long odds, you know, spoiler alert, she she’s able to do it, but it’s not, it’s not a Disney fairy tale of, of a process. I mean, she has some real scars along the way of achieving her goal. You see how you see how she actually has to apply the work. It’s not just hand of God making everything okay. In the end, it’s her, her initiative, you know, catching the right breaks. But applied effort and I think that that is something that I relate to the most because I didn’t grow up with any connection to this business. And, the arts entertainment in general tends to attract people who feel like they need to build themselves on their own or find their own community, create a world where they actually can fit.  I relate to that. I relate to that really strongly. And so I hope that that things that I work on from here on out, whether it’s a fictional piece like that, or whether it’s a documentary, which is my other passion for filmmaking, I’m really about one half narrative, one half documentary in terms of my development and my, interests and orientation. I want things to be connective and thought provoking and at least serve as some kind of a reference point that people can engage in a dialogue and not be so divisive if possible. Again, lofty goals are, I think are the only ones worth having.

Sue: I think how you’ve described, what’s important to you there, Brendan about connectedness, helping, people who have got a desire to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. So to speak, to overcome. Low expectations, the limited odds, whatever it might be and make things happen. And to do that in a way where they’re working with people, perhaps rather than against people, it is very similar to the ethos of this podcast. And I think the story you’ve told us today in the conversation really illustrates your sense of values and important about these kinds of bigger goals. I find it fascinating and, and I’m sure we could go on much longer apart from the aim that we always have it in this podcast is to try and keep it to around 30 minutes or so for our listeners. So, as we close, I guess my final completely random question to you if there was a film made about you, who would be in the starring role, who would be Brendan?

Brendan: That is a wonderful and terrifying question to contemplate. Huh. wow. You threw me a curve ball here. I love it though. Yeah, I have, I have something that I developed that’s a TV show that I’m going to rework because post pandemic reality, it needs some updates. And it’s caused me to re-examine some of the things I was on about when I was in the original. But the central character, he’s got a lot of my issues basically. And so, it’s a way for me to explore those things. So I would say, I don’t know of an actor to say who would be, but, you know, hopefully somebody handsome and charismatic as I would hope to be you know, reality be damned, but someone who is struggling against long odds, but overcoming them and maintaining a sense of humanity and grace under pressure, which I can’t say I always do that, but I can say that’s the goal. And,  again, this business will remind you to be humble if less, you forget very quickly. So, I think something about someone who’s who chasing an ambitious pursuit and, and overcoming, I think that’s what I relate to the most in terms of storytelling. And so, thats what I would like to see if someone were to do a story about me as long as, as long as he actually wins in the end. And he doesn’t hurt a lot of people along the way that would be.

Sue: Fantastic Brendan. So it’s been fantastic to speak to you today. We can put a link in the show notes to some of those podcasts series that you’ve done in the past. I’m sure our listeners might want to find out more about those.

Brendan: know, that’s a great point. I would say that, the, if someone’s interested in the China/ US/ the world the How China Works podcast.com would probably be the best link. And that’s the show that I did with my friend Yingying Li and that when we get into the weeds of every kind of issue related to those questions, and also my personal website, which is sort of a bio site, but other things are linked from it is a crazyinagoodway.com because my philosophy is. You need to be a little bit crazy to survive in this world, but hopefully it’s in a good way.

Sue: Fantastic. Thanks again, Brendan. It’s been brilliant to speak to you.

Brendan: Thank you so much, Sue. This was a treat.

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)

Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)