HOW TO GO FROM WATCHING TAPES IN YOUR DAD’S VIDEO RENTAL STORE TO CO-FOUNDING A PRODUCTION COMPANY AND MAKING FILMS THAT MAKE PEOPLE SWEAT, with Pedro de la Fuente, film-director and co-founder of Autobahn.
Pedro de la Fuente is a director and the founder of Autobahn. Autobahn is a boutique production company focused on bespoke moving image creation for TV and Online.
Their clients include: Dazed and Confused, Adidas, Converse, Vodafone, Ministry of Sound, Lyle and Scott, Bench and Oakley to name just a few.
Pedro spoke to me about his journey of becoming a director.
From his average viewing of 3–4 films a day in his dad’s VHS rental shop…
To starring in a role just to get onto a film set…
To the proudest moment of his career so far.
Pedro is a super lovely and super passionate guy.
I personally took a lot from this interview.
ES: Tell me about the first hour of your day, what does it usually look like? Specifically any habits or morning routines that you have.
PDLF: I try and do some kind of sport. It keeps my stress levels in control and also allows me to free my mind from work. Also, as I operate the camera quite often, it is incredibly important to keep my body healthy and strong.
ES: Tell me what do you for a living, without using your job title?
PDLF: I tell stories through moving image to help brands communicate with people.
ES: What did you do at work yesterday?
PDLF: We spent the afternoon at an agency’s office discussing a potential project. We were also delivering a TV commercial in the office so had to just keep an eye on that via emails to make sure all happened without a glitch.
ES: Tell me your career story in three 1-stence bullet points.
-I worked in many different positions within the video/film industry
-I moved countries in order to be amongst the best
-I never stop learning new things
ES: Why do you do what you do? What need (other than paying bills etc.) does your job fulfil?
I love filmmaking. It is such a dynamic industry. You can be filming abroad one day, in a studio close to home the other. Sometimes you follow a storyboard and sometimes your job is to immerse yourself in a subculture, live it and then bring it to life on screen.
Of course, even filmmaking requires you to perform some less exciting (at least for me) tasks. But I personally enjoy even the budgeting or the creative meetings and interactions with clients as it is where the films are born.
ES: Tell me about a day in your career that you’ll never forget and why.
Last year we went up on a stage to receive an award and we had been selected to do a short speech. We wrote the speech and I spent the whole day memorizing it only to feel like it wasn’t the best we could do minutes before. I ended up improvising and actually being able to speak from the heart which was much better and also resonated more with the audience.
Whilst is quite common to say awards do not matter, I personally feel they give you a little push. Maybe it is the same as having someone you respect, tell you that you are doing something right.
In creative jobs it is very common to feel lost or to lose your gauge as to whether what you are doing is actually any good. You are so close to the work that you lose your sense of direction, mostly when you are trying to push the boundaries and do something new.
Opinions of others help you navigate this, but do not mistake this with letting opinions change what you are doing. Listen to awards and opinions but be prepared to throw it all away if you disagree.
Trust your own instinct and your drive.
ES: What was your first real experience with what you do now for living? When you thought — I’d like to do something like that?
PDLF: I was always a film nerd. But wasn’t until university (I was doing a course on marketing and advertising) that I thought I could actually make films/videos.
At University we had an extra-curricular ‘TV’ group that used to cover some events and create some videos and I jumped into that. There I started learning how to edit, how to operate cameras and how to direct.
ES: Tell me the journey from that moment to landing your first, paying job.
PDLF: I have to say I was quite lucky. One of my university colleagues knew of a casting test for a feature film and we all went along. I ended being cast (with zero acting experience) for the film. Through that experience I got to see what happens behind the camera and met some of the crew who then got me to work on some smaller stuff.
ES: Where did the drive or the confidence come from to do that? Who or what made you feel like you could do it? Or that you had nothing to lose by trying?
PDLF: It was pure curiosity. I had no idea what I was doing, but I wanted to see how films were done. I was very shy though and I guess that is one of the reasons I feel more confident behind the camera.
I remember once talking to a friend at university when she turned to me and said “you should learn how to make films since you love them so much”. I didn’t flinch or even think too much about it I just said “yeah, you are right”. The next day I was knocking at the extracurricular TV door.
ES: What advice would you give to a smart, driven 18-year old trying to get into your field? If you can’t think of anything, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
PDLF: The first piece of advice is a given because I’ve heard it some many times: “Make videos!”. Everyone has a camera on their phones these days and to try and make videos teaches you so much.
Learn to write good stories. People don’t necessarily know this, but writing is the heart of filmmaking. To learn to communicate and organize your story or concept on paper allows you to understand what you need to shoot and then communicate it to your crew (friends or professionals). Even documentaries benefit from writing as you can develop themes on paper before shooting.
A book cost a lot less than a course. Read technical and theory books before you shell out thousands on a course. You will at least be more prepared if you do decide to go on a course.
ES: If you could put your brain in the body of an 18 year-old who can’t afford to attend higher education, but wants to end up in your job… what might a rough plan look like for getting that first job?
PDLF: I think you should know about movies. This will be a good ice-breaker when you meet like-minded people and will also start shaping you as a professional.
Then you apply to work as a runner (which is basically the person that helps the production with anything, from making tea to carrying stuff and so on).
Parallel to that, I would learn a technical craft such as editing, visual effects or motion graphics using books (you will need a computer for that).
You can then start applying for small jobs on websites like mandy.com or shootingpeople to sharpen your skills.
Then with a bit more money you can buy a camera that is better than your phone and keep learning.
If you know what department you wanna’ be part of you can also just go through the ranks. For example, if you want to be a DOP (director of photography — the guy that shapes the look of the film using the lights and operates the camera) you can start as a runner, then smooth talk the camera department, become a camera trainee, then a camera assistant and then a DOP.
ES: How do you measure the size of a person? What’s your measure of whether or not someone is going to be a good person to work with?
PDLF: I think that the first thing to note is that not all people will gel like best friends and that’s fine. As a professional you sometimes need to work with people that think differently to you. Learning to do that is key to a healthy professional life and mind.
I would say that empathy is one of the most important things. You have to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to deliver information that they can understand, through their world not yours. And you have to be able to trust other people’s abilities. If you have a team that has empathy and trust then you have a team that works well.
One thing I can say is that the best work we have produced at our company was when the agency and the client trusted us. They bought into our vision, our talent and committed to it by letting us create (in collaboration with them of course) what we believed to be the best for the project.
On the other side of the coin the worst, or most complicated projects we have been part of were projects where the agency or client wanted to control everything. They were riddled with fear wanted to play safe and/or didn’t know what they wanted.
ES: In your job, what three things separate the game-changing from the good?
PDLF: In my opinion, it’s guts. You have to be someone that dares. In my experience making films for brands (TVCs, online content) there are all these forces pulling you in the direction of being safe and making good but not great things.
That’s because brands are fearful. They all feel like they have a lot to lose and unfortunately that often interferes with the people working for them.
For you to make a film that stands out and that is truly ‘a game-changer’ you need people to buy into risks.
Just remember the Cadbury Gorilla advert for example.
Someone had to be brave enough to sell that (the agency).
But someone also had to be brave enough to buy it. (The client).
Be knowledgeable. Be passionate. Be committed. Then execute all that with courage and you will make work that stands out.
ES: What is bad advice you hear being given about your job or your industry? What advice should people ignore?
PDLF: People should learn to ignore what doesn’t work for them. Not all advice will work for everyone no matter how good they sound. Including everything I am saying here. Trust yourself. Take all the good stuff that works and discard what doesn’t and keep working.
ES: Tell me about a time in your career that you’ve struggled? Or felt lost?
PDLF: Every day. Creativity is a struggle.
You start with a blank canvas and then what? It’s all on you.
So, you will feel lost many times.
The canvas will remain blank and you will not like what you make.
Learn to understand and embrace these feelings, they are part of the beauty that is life.
And when you learn to relax and embrace failure you are free to create without fear. (easier said than done, but we have to remind ourselves of this).
Every time you face change you might feel lost. I’ve decided to change from fulltime to freelance and then I decided to start directing and then later on to open my own company.
Every time you face uncertainty you feel lost because you don’t have all the answers.
But not having the answers is also great, you will learn new things and that is exciting.
ES: How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?
PDLF: When I left a full-time job to become a freelancer a decade ago I went a few months without any work and that was hard. I mean… rent isn’t cheap and the money wasn’t coming in and I was stressed.
However, those bad times helped me make a decision that made me understand that it was all down to me.
I bought books about new software and literally learned them all in 3-months, which boosted my CV and helped me not only to get hired again, but to raise my day-rate.
Since then, anytime someone asks me what to do to get more work I say, learn something new and study what you do to become better. Make yourself more attractive professionally for your potential clients/ employers.
ES: Tell me about your first year of trying to get or getting your job? What did you do right, wrong? What did you learn?
PDLF: I hustled. I was telling everyone I knew and their friends that I wanted an ‘in’ in film production. I would say I was up for working for free or even ask just to come to set to observe. Eventually I got some internships and then some paid work (very minimalist the time). I am sure a lot of people might have thought I was pushy but I learned that the really good people respect hunger.
ES: Describe the plan, dream or desire in your head at that time?
PDLF: Get in, doing anything really.
I was inexperienced but hungry and ambitious. I just wanted to be in the industry.
Sure, I had desires and dreams such as becoming a director but I knew this was a long journey and to be honest, I am not even close to the finish line.
I am not sure there is one, actually. I prefer seeing things like this. You are always learning and becoming better.
ES: What irrational fears do you have about your job or your work?
PDLF: That I will have to give up one day because Robots can do what I do better.
ES: What haven’t you achieved yet, that you’d like to?
PDLF: To direct a Feature film. But there are a few steps to go through still.
ES: How do you stay disciplined in your work?
PDLF: Discipline and focus should be there because you love what you do. Sometimes however they are not. I think it is important to respect your mind. If you can’t focus, go for a walk, step out of the mindset for a while.
ES: What’s your personal approach for making proactive projects happen and choosing what to focus on?
PDLF: I am always taking notes, writing down ideas, adding to my to-do list. This helps get things done, reminds you of goals and keep projects’ development moving forward. Oh, also put down deadlines to your own project on a calendar. It is fine to break those but they will at least keep you accountable to yourself.
ES: Tell me about a mistake or an obstacle that you wish someone had warned you about?
PDLF: Stop doubting yourself. People are looking for answers, if you have them you will find a market for yourself.
ES: What is the greatest accomplishment of your career so far?
PDLF: I think receiving a Staff Pick for our film ‘Globe of Death’. We watch so many good films on Vimeo Staff Picks and to have that stamp made me incredibly happy.
ES: What does “networking” look like to you?
PDLF: Trying to find the people you click with and that you can create great things together.
ES: Tell me about an event in your childhood or teen years that has shaped the adult you are now? Are there any people who have greatly influenced you? How?
PDLF: My dad used to have a VHS rental shop that had to close when I was around 5–6 years old. All the tapes came to my house so my sister and I literally grew up with a whole catalogue of films around us. We used to watch 3–4 films per day thinking it was a normal thing for kids. I am certain that this has been key to my love and understanding of films as a language.
Then, in my teens, my Mexican grandma got sent a few new films from Mexico. These were ‘Amores Peros’ and ‘Y su mama tambien’. Both caused such an impression on me that I decided to go into filmmaking.
ES: What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why?
PDLF: I think that giving books as a gift is tricky. Books are so personal and some of the books I value the most are either specific to my career or quite self-helpy. But I don’t see that as a bad thing.
However, I have given a book called Lichpin (which is written by Seth Godin) to a few friends. It is a simple and short book but that had a great effect on me. (You can check some of Seth’s talks on TED to get a taste).
Also Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ was my favorite book as a teenager and I got to re-read it a few times. I love the flow and sense of freedom of the characters.
And ‘American Kingpin’ which is an investigative book about the creator of Silk Road (the infamous website) and how all the underground internet was created. It is a brilliant book that talks with all parts involved in the case, from FBI agents, to hackers, family members of the guy and so on. A modern, thrilling story.
ES: What book has most made you question your life decisions?
PDLF: I think Linchpin really changed me. Not alone but it certainly triggered a new way of thinking and acting upon life.
ES: If you had a gun to your head and had to have one phrase tattooed on yourself, what would it be?
PDLF: ‘Here now’, and I will probably do it anyway, gun or no gun. I think that when you are here now and not in the future or trapped in the past you can see life for what it is. Commit to the present, to the project you are doing right now and make it the best you can because you love doing that.
ES: What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)
PDLF: My flight ticket to London. As Hunter S. Thompson said ‘buy the ticket, take the journey’.
ES: When you hear the phrase “against all odds, he/ she/ they prevailed” who or what comes to mind?
PDLF: Humans. We weren’t the strongest, we came from apes and really we should have killed each other many times. We tried at least.
ES: What was the last thing you saw, heard or experienced that make you think or say “jesus… that’s clever”?
PDLF: I went to see Andreas Gursky exhibit and his work makes me say that. In fact so many artists inspire me daily. Art is food. Make sure to pay attention.
ES: Anything you’re currently struggling with or trying to learn or improve?
PDLF: I am always trying to be a better human to my friends and family. It is a constant struggle and there is no ceiling really. You can always be better.
ES: In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most positively impacted your life?
PDLF: Martial arts. I know it sounds corny but it taught me so much self discipline, to be in the moment and to be humble. Also that anything you want to be good at you will suck at to start with and those who stick through the beginning are the ones that get the black belt.
ES: If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
PDLF: I wouldn’t. No matter how ‘better’ it could have been on paper I like who I am immensely and to change the past is to change who I am now and I wouldn’t want that.
ES: Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
PDLF: Many things. One of which I will rectify this year which is to direct a fictional short film I wrote.
I haven’t done it before because I was doing similar things within commercials and life got in the way. But these are just excuses and I don’t like them, so let’s get to work.
ES: If you could enter a time machine that guaranteed return and also made you invincible in the time period you’re visiting, where would you go?
PDLF: I would like to be dropped at the set of 2001 a Space Odyssey, make tea for Stanley and have a chat.
ES: If you could live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30 year old for the last 60 years of your life, which one would you choose?
PDLF: Oh, the body. Provided my brain works well until I am 90 it will only become more skillful. I would have read more books, learned more skills, visited more countries and that will contribute to a wiser brain.
ES: If you could wake up tomorrow with one superpower, what would it be?
ES: Your house is on fire and no person or animal you love is in it. What one object do you save
PDLF: I would let it all burn. Sometimes you need an excuse to start again and I am curious to know how would I do. Not that I have any clue.
ES: What’s your one paragraph idea for saving the world?
PDLF: We cannot save the world or ourselves. We were born with an unavoidable fate but that is what makes it all so special. Enjoy it the best you can while it lasts.
Pedro de la Fuente is a director and co-founder of Autobahn.