Paul Hairston didn’t think he was cut out to be a director. Not only was he originally more interested in computer science than film, but he was also introverted. “Incredibly introverted,” he told us. Not exactly someone who could comfortably take command of a set or grab the reins of a project or interact with more than two or three people at once. “For a while, I thought I was meant to be a cinematographer,” Paul told us. “But then the first time I walked onto a set as a director, some switch just flipped….”
Paul went on to direct a number of Vimeo Staff Pick documentaries, narrative commercials, and even a few political spots for Bernie Sanders. Point being: sometimes you don’t know what you’re able to do until you try it.
We talked with Paul about his approach to directing, the value of being a good person, and why the word faces is the best advice he’s ever received.
The thing is, I consider myself to be an incredibly introverted person. I’m alone reading a lot, watching films, traveling. Even when I shot weddings, I was alone all the time. So for a while, I thought I was meant to be a cinematographer. When you’re a cinematographer, you have to deal with your crew — which in my experience might be just one other person — and the director. But if you’re the director, especially a commercial director, you’re dealing with clients and script supervisors and assistant directors and the DP and the art director…everybody. I remember thinking that was the reason I’d never go into directing, because I lacked the social skills. But then the first time I walked onto a set as a director, some switch just flipped and I became very authoritative. I had all this confidence I’d never felt before. You can surprise yourself when you get into situations like that.
Some cinematographers have told me I’m more prepped than any other director they’ve ever worked with. I write hundreds of pages in Evernote before every project. That’s the only way the confident version of myself comes out — because I have a plan. Another thing that helps is remembering I’m going to die one day. A director once told me: “In the heat of the moment, just remember that one day you’ll die. It’s a huge stress relief.”
Oh my god, yes. And of course it always turns out fine in the end.
I hope this doesn’t sound overly lofty or pretentious, but what draws me to a story is when the story is, at its very core, human. What I see in a good story is a honing in on what makes us human, which for me is all about relationships. When I’m working on a documentary, one of the first questions I ask a subject is, “What is your family like?” I want to know who they’re closest to. I’m so compelled by that vulnerability. Some of the most powerful films I’ve ever watched or the stories I’ve read have to do with those familial parts of ourselves. That ends up being an essential part of any story I’m telling. I remember this quote from Martin Scorsese. He said so many films — and filmmakers — today don’t have anything to say. They’re making these flashy movies, but they’re not really saying anything. That stuck with me. I want to make films that say something. And I want them to say something about these relationships and how often we overlook the ones who are the most important to us.
One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the difference between a story unfolding as you’re coming into it, and a story being retold in retrospect. Both can be powerful, but I’m more drawn to stories that unfold as I come into them. And one very important thing I’ve learned about telling stories like that is you have to create an environment where things can happen. If you want to tell an interesting story, things need to happen. You can’t force them. So you create an environment where they can happen on their own, and you stay receptive to them. You work on being a good listener. That’s probably the most important skill a director can have: being a good listener. If you’re a good listener, and a good person, you can spend 15 to 20 minutes with someone and get a pretty good understanding of where they’re coming from and their philosophy about life.
No doubt there are great artists who haven’t been great people. Objectively, their work is great. But my opinion has always been that it’s more important to be a good person first and a good artist after that. The nice thing is if you’re engaging with the world as a good person, then in many ways it will improve your art. Especially if you’re doing documentary work — if you’re sitting with people who are being vulnerable with you. If you’re in a mind-set of manipulation, then your art is going to suffer. It’s going to be forced. The more earnest and sincere you are, the more earnest and sincere your work is going to be.
Some of the best advice I ever got was from my roommate. He told me once, while I was prepping for a doc, “Faces.” I was like, “Why are you saying the word ‘faces’ to me?” And he looked at me and said, “Faces. Never forget about faces. Always be on faces.” What he was saying was important and so true. You can make an amazing documentary with sweeping landscapes and kinetic shots and stylized cinematography, but none of that really matters at the end of the day. I try to focus on getting really raw with emotions and stories, and just holding on faces for as long as I can. You don’t have to capture someone tearing up or being in a super emotional moment. The subtleties that rest inside the human face are so telling. So that’s what I tell myself every time I shoot, whether it’s a narrative or a documentary: “Faces. Always be on faces.”
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