Stephen Snavely is an American director, cinematographer and writer who has recently created the short film, Think Lovely Thoughts which is now hopefully headed off to film festivals. This film follows on from his successful career as a director of commercials. Stephen and l had a great conversation about his life and career, getting into filmmaking, directing, making commercials, mental health and much more.
Read on to find out lots more about Stephen Snavely, director.
DB: What is your earliest memory?
SS: My earliest memory is sitting in front of the TV and watching Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones cartoons. When I was young I couldn’t hear very well so I would sit right in front of the TV, as close as I could get. I remember being fascinated with what was in front of me. I was probably a little too young to fully understand all the stories, but the bright colours on the screen and the fun characters are what really grabbed my attention. I eventually ended up having several minor surgeries and now I can hear just fine, thankfully.
DB: How old would you have been then?
SS: Probably four or five.
DB: Amongst your friends and family are you known as Stephen or Steve?
SS: Growing up, I wanted to be called Steve, I thought that was cool for some reason, so my parents and my brother still call me Steve to this day, to everybody else I am Stephen. I don’t feel like a Steve and if I meet someone for the first time and they call me Steve, it is always strange to me; I have a little bit of an adverse reaction to it, I suppose.
DB: Where and when were you born and what was it like where you grew up?
SS: I was born in Hampton, Virginia in December of 1982, but I’ve lived all over the country. My dad was in the Air Force and we moved every 2-3 years. It was rough but you don’t know any better as a child I suppose.
DB: A lot of being the new kid?
DB: What do you think the effect of that was on you?
SS: I became a “chameleon” of sorts: I became very good at blending in with whatever groups of people were there. As a result, however, it took me a long time to figure out who I really was. I think that’s played a large part in shaping who I am today – an introverted extrovert. I love being around people but I’m a little shy at first.
DB: Do you find that you have the habit of standing back slightly and watching to work out what’s going on and what the dynamics are?
SS: Absolutely! I’m interested in people. I think if I wasn’t a filmmaker, I would probably be an anthropologist because I love people watching – understanding how they work, how they operate, why they do the things they do, and examining how we’re all different. I think that a lot of that is probably a byproduct of standing back and watching others as a child. Looking for ways to “fit in.”
DB: Do any of those postings particularly stand out in your mind?
SS: There’s both good and bad. Some great memories of places that I’ve lived and some incredible friends that I made along the way and then some places that weren’t so great, more stressful and truthfully, a bit traumatic. The older I got, the tougher it got. As a young child, it’s easier to just move with your family, do something new, and make friends, not judge or be judged. The older we get, the more we tend to define people by what they look like, what they say, who we think they are before actually getting to know them. That certainly made middle school and high school tough.
DB: Did you live on base, or in the community?
SS: We rarely lived on base. When I was younger we did a few times but the older I got, the more we lived in neighbourhoods. My dad would go to work, he didn’t even work on base a lot of the time, and it didn’t feel like we were a military family. He wasn’t your typical military father either, in respect him being hardline and rigid.
DB: What was his specialism?
SS: He was in defense contract management. He had a wonderful career and worked extremely hard and I’ve always looked up to him. He wasn’t around a lot when I was younger as he worked very hard, long hours. We’ve had some conversations as I’ve gotten older and I know there’s a part of him that, if he could go back and do it again, he would make a conscious effort to spend more time with us as we were growing up. I think his work ethic was a by-product of his father – you often do what you see your parents do. And when you’re in a military family like that, moving from place to place to place, your family is a pretty tight unit, as that’s the one constant thing that you have everywhere you go.
DB: Was his dad military?
SS: He was in the Army during World War II, and later became a three-star general in the Air Force. He lived a pretty incredible life.
DB: What did your mom do while your father was working?
SS: She was working with us. Bless her, she had a rough go of it because she was raising two kids, pretty much on her own, as my dad was working so much. Raising two young boys, moving from place to place, doing all the little things to keep our lives as normal as possible – that’s more than a full-time job. My hat’s off to anyone who stays at home with their children. I have a much greater appreciation of it now as a parent. And I am so grateful for all the time my mom spent with us. Really helped shape the men we are today.
DB: Did you have favourite subjects or staff that stood out in your mind?
SS: I always gravitated towards English and history, I loved those two subjects. I was never a fan of math or science. I loved creative writing and always loved to tell stories.
DB: Do you think you’ve always had something of an artistic eye?
SS: I believe so. Growing up I made home movies and was always behind the camera, trying to recreate movies with my little brother. I remember any time we were playing, I would always be the one to coordinate what we were going to play, who everybody was going to be, and what we were going to do.
DB: What did you do after you left school and how did you work your way through to when you made your first film?
SS: It’s been quite the journey. My dream, when I was younger, was to play in the NBA, but with my height, that was short-lived (pun intended). I had to shift my focus onto something else, I just didn’t know what that was going to be. I remember telling my dad that I wanted to be a filmmaker and he said, “Okay, great. What does that mean?” “I want to make movies” I’d say. “Okay… how?” he would reply. I had no idea. His perspective was that I could go to school, get a degree and a “real job.” I think he was just trying to be practical given his limited knowledge (or lack thereof) of how to break into the industry, and didn’t want me to be disappointed. I don’t hold any of that against him, but I’m glad I didn’t listen either.
While I didn’t end up going to film school, I did go to university and graduated with a degree in Communications. After that, I travelled around the world for a year or so, soaking up as much culture and as many experiences as I could. Travelling abroad helped open my eyes to how big the world really is, how different people are, how many different ways of doing things there are; ultimately, helping me have a better understanding and acceptance of others and their ways of living. That was a pivotal moment of my life.
When I finally returned home, I knew that I didn’t want to go back to working a “normal” job, so I moved in with a buddy of mine and bought a copy of Final Cut Pro off Craigslist. I taught myself to edit, spending day and night learning from included tutorials. Then I started taking little projects – anything I could get. Eventually, I convinced the church that I was attending at the time to let me edit some videos for their youth services. From there it snowballed to the point where they hired me to work for them full-time.
Fast forward a bit – I got married, moved to Los Angeles, bought a DSLR camera, and thought I was a legitimate filmmaker. I learned very quickly that I knew nothing but I had the good fortune of meeting some amazing people who gave me opportunities to come on to sets and learn by doing. That was my film school, learning from others in real time. I am forever grateful to those people that took a chance on me and allowed me to go onto their sets and learn.
Looking back, the story of my career has been the result of having a passion for something, not knowing how to do it, and finding a way to do it anyway. Anything that I’ve ever wanted to do, I’ve taught myself, or put myself into a situation to learn how to do it. There were some lucky breaks along the way, but you still have to have the talent to make it all work out when you get the chance.
DB: I’m guessing there’s nothing quite like being on set.
SS: No doubt about it! I’ve made incredible friends on set, many of whom have become family. That’s one of the most amazing things about this industry, it’s a small community and when you’re lucky enough to find good people to collaborate with, you try to keep them around for as long as you can. You end up celebrating each other’s victories and commiserate when things don’t go as planned. You find ways to help one another succeed and grow and when you do something for someone they’re going to help you, in turn.
This has been the foundation of how I’ve built my career. I gave a lot of my time to others, learned a ton along the way, and then received the favours back. It’s not all about that, but it sure does feel good when you’ve given your time and people return it to you in turn.
My answer to this question has been incredibly longwinded, but I’ll say this, you have to be a good person, that’s important. There are a lot of assholes in this business, and you don’t want to be one of those people. Egos are big, and you find when you can leave that stuff at the door, your career is going to be so much better off – you’re going to enjoy your time and the process much, much more.
DB: It will be more fun if you haven’t got somebody on set who is making everybody’s life a misery.
SS: Like any job, you don’t want to work with jerks. Unfortunately, there are a lot of egos, especially when you move out to Los Angeles, but you learn quickly and get good at detecting the people that are out for themselves. That’s why when you find good people, you stick with those people and you end up collaborating with them often. I think it’s important, especially for young filmmakers, to understand that you have got to pay your dues and put in your time. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, make sure you have the right priorities and perspective. Your time will come. You will get your opportunities.
DB: How did you get into working on commercials?
SS: It all started when my wife (girlfriend at the time), who is in advertising, connected me with a creative director at her ad agency. I had no business taking this meeting because I didn’t know what I was doing, but you take opportunities and say “Yes,” even when you may not be totally qualified. He saw potential in me while understanding that I didn’t have a lot of experience. That relationship grew and we did some work together over the years. I think relationship building is an extremely important part of this business and it helps to be a kind, genuine person who people like, then people will want to work with you.
DB: With advertising how does it work from when you initially meet through to the end product?
SS: It depends on the project and the agency you’re working with. Sometimes you have the good fortune to work directly with brands, which cuts out the middleman (agency). This is nice because there’s typically more freedom. Working with agencies is great too, just a different ballgame. You typically don’t have as much autonomy when it comes to the creative process, but the experience is generally (at least for me) still a very pleasant one.
DB: Do you find when you are working with people who you have worked with a lot you tend to save a bit of time with a kind of shorthand between yourselves?
SS: Absolutely! When you have worked with the same people several times, you begin to understand how the other works, and as a director it’s nice being able to have that shorthand and have them know, more or less, what your style is, what you like to do, how you like to shoot, and what you’re looking to accomplish.
DB: Have you got any favourite commercials you have made, or that you are particularly proud of?
SS: I have done a lot of work within the travel and tourism industry, which has been my bread and butter for a long time. It was a niche thing that I got into early on in my career and its afforded me the opportunity to meet some wonderful people and to put food on the table when other work wasn’t coming in. Truthfully, a lot of my favourite work are pieces that most people would never see unless you are looking to travel to these certain destinations.
One of my favourite pieces was a public service announcement [PSA], not a commercial, and the reason being is because it was something that came out of necessity. A few years ago, there was school shooting after school shooting here in the United States and, quite frankly, for me as a parent, that was hard to sit back and watch happen. I had a child who had just started going to school, and the idea that you might not ever see your child again… I can’t even imagine how those parents suffered. I saw this as an opportunity to use my talent, my gifts, and my resources to be a catalyst for change, so I wrote and directed this gun violence PSA with the help of some amazing theatre students from a local high school in Los Angeles. We ended up working with amazing sponsors like Kodak, Arri, CineMoves and MPC (a colour house based in LA, NY, and London) who came together to give up their time, talent, and resources to help make my vision a reality. I wish we could have done more and made it even bigger/ better, but we were limited on time and budget. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to have been able to do that.
DB: That was one that I thought was particularly affecting but it’s always a delicate balance isn’t it, you don’t want people just to “switch off” from it, you want to make the point.
SS: I think is important, especially on a piece like that, that you’re not worried about what people will think or who will disagree with your POV. It wasn’t meant to be a political piece or a rally against gun rights or anything like that, it was simply a cry for change, to say something isn’t working, something needs to be done, to ask what can we do – a conversation starter. Speaking to those high school students who had to worry about potential school shootings every single day was one of the most incredible, yet humbling parts. Listening to them tell the stories of what it was like to show up to school and go through the metal detectors every day, to be patted down, and practice active shooter drills – my heart went out to them.
DB: Moving on to short films I thought we should look at Think Lovely Thoughts. What made you decide to make this film?
SS: It was originally meant to help me find some kind of catharsis. Ten years ago I discovered that I have generalized anxiety disorder, chronic depression, and panic disorder. I was going through a lot of mental health battles, some real struggles. I wrote a poem about what it was like going through these things and contemplating suicide. It was serious stuff. It took a long time to understand that while those things are part of who I am, they don’t define who I am. Through therapy, faith, medication, and meditation, I’ve come to find acceptance and some form of healing. Thankfully, I can now say that through a lot of hard work, I genuinely feel like I have a wonderfully happy, healthy, and “normal” life – whatever that means.
Once I was able to get to a stable place, I began to look at the world around me and the more I paid attention, the more I saw how many people around me were struggling with the same things I was, especially men and people of colour. There’s a real stigma around talking about mental health. Sharing your experiences, and being open and vulnerable with the things that you’ve struggled to get help with. This is what really drove me to want to make this film. I wanted to speak up, share my story, and be an advocate for those who aren’t ready to share their struggles but are still in desperate need of help.
DB: How did you start the ball rolling?
SS: As I mentioned, at first it wasn’t even a film. I sat on the poem that I wrote for some time and eventually decided I would just make a nice video, put some beautiful images with it, and read the poem as a VO myself. Luckily I had some good friends who challenged me to do more with it. They said, “Hey Stephen, you’ve always talked about making a film and getting into narrative filmmaking – this seems like an opportunity to do something more.” I’m so glad that they did because I feel like I might not have otherwise. Imposter syndrome is no joke. I realized that I wasn’t doing it out of fear, feeling like I wasn’t worthy or capable. I had always been able to say, “I’m too busy. There’s too much work.” Always an excuse as to why I couldn’t do it, and with the pandemic, there was none of that. Productions shut down and I was sitting there twiddling my thumbs, trying to figure out what to do and I felt like this was the time.
DB: How did you go about casting for the film and getting your crew?
SS: I brought on a few important crew members early on that I knew through previous work, but everything else was done online through Zoom. It was such an interesting challenge to not only have to cast virtually, but also have to work with the actors virtually up until the day of the shoot. Certainly an experience I’ll never forget.
DB: How did you go about filming during the pandemic?
SS: It was a lot of planning. I self-funded production and brought on a lot of folks who I had worked with in the past that I knew would have my back. I also reached out to a DP [Director of Photography] who I knew through acquaintances, and admired, but had never worked with before. I sent him the script and thankfully, he came back and said he loved it. From there, we were off and running. We filmed at my house and had a relatively small crew that included a COVID compliance officer, making sure everybody was tested daily and that everything was done safely and “by the book”. I feel fortunate that I had a such solid crew come on board during that time. I’m obviously biased, but I think we were able to make something pretty special.
DB: For how long did you film?
SS: Filming took two and a half days. It was an aggressive schedule.
DB: Is the film in post-production now?
SS: The film is now complete! We just wrapped post and I’m excited to get out into the world.
DB: What are your hopes once it is finished?
SS: More than anything, I hope this can be a conversation started, a catalyst for change in the mental health space. An opportunity to show people that you don’t have to be scared, embarrassed or worried about what other people are going to think about you. We’re all going through something, but together we can make a difference. We’ve also recently submitted to a handful of festivals so fingers crossed you’ll be able to see it on a big screen in near future.
DB: Did it help or hinder being both the writer and director?
SS: It was a new opportunity for me to be able to do something in the narrative space so I’m glad I wrote it as well. I did a lot of studying before, read some great books, and talked to peers with lots of experience. I tried to prepare myself as much as I could while understanding that a lot was just going to be trial by fire, so on the day, I was prepared and ready to go. I do feel that writing it was probably imperative to making sure that I fully understood the scope of the story, the subtext of every scene, what was going on in the characters’ minds, their pasts and futures. For any first-time filmmaker, I think it’d be tough to direct not having a full grasp of all of those things.
DB: Did you have certain images in your mind that you wanted to capture on camera?
SS: I feel we were able to capture a lot of what I had initially envisioned, translating it into the moving image and I think that’s a testament to a lot of the hard work that was done ahead of time. We didn’t have a storyboard but there was a rough shot list. A lot of it lived in my head and there were a lot of discussions with my cinematographer beforehand. Creating a “mood board” also really helped paint a picture of exactly what I wanted this to look like and going into that everyone had a clear idea of what I was looking for, and where the story was supposed to go. I think that was part of the key to our success.
DB: You must feel a sense of pride and achievement from having created this from scratch.
SS: Absolutely, it’s something that I’ve always dreamed of doing. There have been plenty of times where I’ve made something that didn’t always translate to exactly what I had in mind or at the level I wanted it to be. I think we’re always our worst critics but with this piece, I can honestly say that I’m very proud of what we captured. Most importantly, while there have been strides in recent years to de-stigmatise the topic of mental illness, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. I’m proud that we were able to tell a story like this, in a medium like film, that has an opportunity to inspire people, change hearts, change minds, and change perspectives.
DB: From what you’ve just said about it you have produced something positive and important from a time in your life when everything was negative and extremely difficult.
SS: Just turning lemons into lemonade. One of my favorite things to come out of this project is the number of people who have reached out to me personally and messaged me to say “Thank you so much for sharing this. I struggle with this and I haven’t told anybody. I didn’t know what to do or how to get help.” It’s sad but I’m glad when people are talking about it because that’s the only route to things improving.
DB: What would your advice be to anyone who is considering entering the industry behind the camera?
SS: Do it! Go for it! If you want to work on a film set, and you don’t know what you want to do, get on any set you can and find a way to do as many different jobs as possible. Learn what the different departments are, how they contribute to the storytelling process, because I think that’s when you get a full understanding of how important every single person is to making a film come to life. And it’s beyond just the people on set, it’s everybody before and afterwards in pre-production and post. You don’t have to go to school for this. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way.
DB: In your life who have been the most influential people and in what way have they been influential?
SS: I think the most influential as far as my career goes is my wife, hands down, no doubt about it. She’s not just my partner personally but also professionally. I’m incredibly lucky to have somebody like that. She doesn’t have the same passion for film and filmmaking as I do but shares in my excitement for wanting to pursue this as a career and understanding what that is. While it doesn’t resonate with her in the same way it does with me, she’s always been fully supportive. She has been the one that’s pushed me from the beginning. I think it’s so important to have somebody like that in your corner, backing you up.
DB: Outside of your career, apart from your wife, is there anyone else that you would say has been particularly influential in the way you live your life or the way that you think?
SS: My parents. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great set of role models that early on established for me a set of values and morals and a general understanding of what it means to be a good person and a kind person. That’s something that has stuck with me and carried me a long way. I know not everybody is fortunate to have that in their life, and I don’t take it for granted. While we don’t necessarily see eye to eye on everything, I still owe them so much. I wouldn’t be where I am without them, that’s for sure.
DB: When you are not working what are your hobbies, interests and passions?
SS: Fitness is a passion. I think it’s come out of necessity in helping myself stay mentally sharp and focused and in a good place. Certainly, my family. Truthfully, I love spending time with my kids. I think it’s maybe a by-product of the fact that my dad wasn’t around as much when I was a child. I do have wonderful memories of spending time with him playing basketball, they are my most cherished memories, however, I want to be able to give more of myself for them. I love sport so basketball (one of my first loves), European soccer and Formula 1 are my go-tos.
DB: What could you not live without?
SS: Besides my family, music. Music is something that feeds me daily. I struggle with sitting in silence – my thoughts are just too loud, so it helps quiet them down. There’s a certain quality about all types of music that can speak to you and help you whenever you need it and whatever state that you’re in. I think that the beauty in it is in understanding the world and others around you by what you’re listening to.
DB: Final question, if you could have one wish granted right now, what would it be?
SS: That’s a tough question, but my answer is relatively simple. I’d wish to let love win. If it truly did, I believe we’d have less division between us. Less fighting. Less hatred. Less war. I don’t think things would be perfect, but if we could all be kinder to one another, imagine how incredible life could be.
Link to Insights from this interview with Stephen Snavely:
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Stephen’s Website: http://www.stephensnavely.com/
Find further details about Think Lovely Thoughts here: