Sean Wainsteim is a writer, director and animator whose work spans a broad spectrum of formats and media. He’s also a friend of mine, and when our editorial team at Toronto Film Scene announced that we’d be dedicating an issue to looking at the relationship between film and music, I immediately pitched an interview with Sean, a music video director who’s been working on narrative films and is developing several TV and feature film projects. In the course of regular friendly interactions, we rarely get a chance to grill our talented friends about their work and influences. This was my chance, and I jumped at it.
Though he’s worked in film for years, it turns out that it wasn’t necessarily the path Sean always saw himself on. “I went to art school to create robots that chased people around galleries,” he tells me. “Four years later I was making films. Although I was always a movie junkie, I never set out to be a filmmaker. I’ve recently thought a lot about that change.”
I start by asking Sean about his work in music videos, which have garnered a lot of accolades. In 2008, he was nominated for a Juno award for his video for Tokyo Police Club’s Cheer it On , and he’s won and been nominated for various awards for his work with Wintersleep, Skye Sweetnam, Nathan Wiley (a video he shot in Cuba) and others.
“Music videos are wonderful and evil. Beautiful and frustrating,” Sean says. “I got into videos because it seemed like a great outlet for creating somewhat collaborative art. You’ve already got the soundtrack done. You only have to add the visuals. You get to take something that someone worked on and build upon it, hopefully in a non-literal way.”
That the videos Sean has directed are all so different is a sign, perhaps, of the fact that the collaborations with those artists have been successful. “At the end of the day, videos are commercials for the band,” he says. “I’ve always tried to take that into account, balancing where the band is currently, their image, trajectory, album art, philosophy and brand, with my own need to try and explore something interesting either narratively or visually. There’s always room to play, but a musician who is willing to trust is a precious thing, which is why I’ve been so selective about who I work with. Along the way I’ve collaborated with fantastic musicians, artists and filmmakers. Which is probably why I love film so much. The rush of creating and collaborating with like-minded individuals.”
There is also a strong sense of narrative in much of Sean’s music video work. A recent example is the one for which he won the MMVA Director of the Year award in 2011: You Say Party!’s Lonely Lunch , a surreal sci-fi adventure that he shot on location in India.
“Thinking back, the art that I was engaged in creating always had a narrative component to it. Art tends to strive for a dialogue, either between the work and the audience or the work and the artist, but I think there was always an unconscious narrative component to the work. Even if it was interactive sculpture and installation there was a dramatic arc, tension and even stakes, often for the work itself. Although I only saw that in retrospect.”
Of course, Sean’s work extends far beyond just music videos. He’s done commercials, docs, TV (such as the History Channel’s Canadian Made ) and film work as well. “I just finished a doc about inner city high school basketball for MTV2. We filmed in Harlem and Oklahoma City. I love docs and that was probably the most fulfilling project I’ve been a part of due to the subject matter and the kids we were working with. I think I’m good at documentary filmmaking but my heart is really into making narrative feature films.”
Sean’s work incorporates animation, puppets, incredibly creative art direction and design to tell his stories. When I ask him about the evolution of his style, he says “Yargh! Style? What style?” But of course, he’s being too modest. In a short film he recently directed, Lost for Words , puppets, fantasy elements, and humour are all expertly deployed. There are some remarkable set pieces in the film, and it evokes the mood of spooky children’s literature, or the films I remember existing when I was a kid, that were aimed at kids but didn’t shy away from giving them a few real scares ( The Neverending Story gave me nightmares for weeks). And anyone who can make this kind of ad for Bud Light clearly has a distinctive style. “My work is fairly diverse, which has occasionally been a bit of a negative when looking for commercial work. I like playing and exploring new territory. I’m sure I have similar themes in my work but I don’t like to repeat myself visually.”
In 2011, Sean’s short documentary, Esther and Leib, a loving portrait of his grandparents, was one of the finalists in the RBC Emerging Filmmakers Competition. When I press him for the other influences that have shaped his work, he mentions, “Tracing back, a big core of my work is rooted in fairytales, folklore and fables. As a child I was drawn to the darker stories that I found in the library. The root of that fascination can probably be traced to growing up with grandparents and family that survived some terrible ordeals in Europe during the second World War. Horrific stories, that probably weren’t suitable for young ears, were told casually at lunch in a mix of broken English and Yiddish, which only added to their mystique. Most nights I went to bed thinking that Nazi stormtroopers were going to race up the stairs in my North York home and bayonet me in bed. I lived in constant terror. Wait what are we talking about again? Oh yeah film. Film is good.”
Film is good, indeed. Full disclosure: I’ve known Sean for almost 20 years, and we both remember some wild screenings at the old Cinematheque Ontario space in the AGO’s Jackman Hall that my parents nudged us to attend, which blew both our minds and expanded our cinematic horizons. Everything from Ingmar Bergman to Andy Warhol was on the menu, and undoubtedly, those early days spent watching art films in the dark influenced us both onto the paths we now find ourselves on.
“If I had to look at my work and boil down what I do,” Sean muses, “I’d say there’s always a handcrafted or human nature element to the pieces. Something imperfect is generally embraced. Not to be a cheese-turd, but that’s what makes life special. The beautiful imperfections.”
But back to music for a moment. I ask Sean whether his work in music videos has affected his approach to the use of music in his own films. “When I hear music for a music video I generally react to what I hear and try to shape something that works in a complementary fashion. I love that. It avoids the blank canvas syndrome,” he says. “When I’m writing from scratch or working on a specific project, be it commercial, experimental or documentary, I probably have an idea of the musical tone, not a specific song or even a band,” he continues. “I think in terms of instrumentation and mood instead of working a hit song into a piece. Does that answer your question? Music adds a ton and can totally shape and change a scene. But everyone knows that. I like leaving the fine tuning of that to the editorial stage. Playing with different pieces can change the meaning in a scene.”
And what drives him now? “When I was younger I realized that if I studied hard I could probably be a lawyer, but I didn’t know if I could be an artist, so I went to art school. I had a successful effects and animation company but I didn’t know if I could make films, so I left to head down that road. I can always go back and take the sure path. For now I’ll keep pushing forward. I’ve got a variety of film projects ranging from western horrors to children’s fantasy films to sci-fi graphic novel adaptations to other personal projects. This summer is all about recalibrating and approaching the next season with a project that I can take to screen.”
From India to Cuba, Oklahoma to Japan, Sean’s practically circled the entire globe on his cinematic adventures. I can only imagine what he’s got up his sleeve next, but he doesn’t reveal much about the specific of what’s bubbling in his creative cauldron. When he’s ready to announce his next big endeavour (or his first feature film?), maybe he’ll post the news at seanwainsteim.com.
Stay tuned for TFS’ featured topic this month. We’ll be exploring music in film, celebrating the upcoming North By Northeast Festival and introducing you to some of the people who make films that are truly music to your ears.