LA Film Festival Mon 8.17.2015

How First-Time Feature Director Mathew Cullen Almost Landed Disney’s Maleficent

Music Video and commercial director Mathew Cullen has accomplished a lot in the last 20-odd years. At 18, he took a sample reel from an LA-based ad agency—the now-defunct Pittard Sullivan—back to his boss at the small movie poster company Moving Pictures and convinced her that they could move into that arena. At 18, he started his own production company, Motion Theory. He’s directed music videos Weezer and Katy Perry that have set Youtube records. But when Disney called him in to pitch for their upcoming villain origin story, Maleficent, he still hadn’t directed a feature film.

And this one was budgeted at nearly $200 million dollars.

“I went in and I took some storyboards and a little bit of work and I thought it was a good presentation,” said Cullen. “I was like, ‘They’re going to like my stuff.’”

But then Disney came back saying they were “disappointed,” in him and his pitch. “I was really hard on myself because there was an opportunity and I dropped the ball.”

So Cullen asked for another chance.

“I told myself I was going to push myself harder than I had ever pushed myself to imagine what this could be.” He spent the next three months putting together what Disney executives would later call “the best presentation they had ever seen from a director.”

Cullen was offering this anecdote as part of a master class at the Los Angeles Film Festival called Boundless Visual Storytelling with Mathew Cullen. He brought with him a table full of models and materials that he used in that pitch. Included in the package was a 100-page, handmade, hand-illustrated book so large it took two volunteers to hold it up and show it to the audience. “We wanted to make a storybook, with really beautiful poems that go into every subject, every character, and fill out backstories and all sorts of really great details.”

It wasn’t the first time Cullen had delivered an outstanding pitch. Cullen said when he first started Motion Theory, he and his partner Javier Jimenez had to do a lot of work convincing clients that they weren’t just a graphic design company.

“People didn’t consider motion graphics people to be directors so you had to prove it.” In this case the project was a spot for DirecTV with farmers harvesting basketballs. DirecTV was already a client, but because the new spot was largely live action, Cullen had to do a lot of pitching. “And we pitched the concept so well, we worked so hard on the stories, that they fell in love with it and they had no choice but to use us.”

Make it personal
Cullen said delivering a good pitch is all about having a good idea. As for how to ensure you present that idea to the client as well as you can, Cullen said one of the keys for him is to make it personal.

“Have as many touch points as you possibly can,” said Cullen. “Bring in as many influences as you possibly can, and don’t be afraid to copy. We’re all copying from each other.”

He gave the example of a video he did for Beck’s song “Girl.” The video incorporates the concept of fold-ins, images that when collapsed or accordioned out become all new images. He got the idea from the Mad Magazine fold-ins that he’d loved and collected since childhood.

Cullen, who was born and raised in Inglewood, also called the video a love letter to the Los Angeles that he knew growing up.

Cullen said his pitch for that particular video was so strong, the video commissioner forced Beck to do it.

“It’s so necessary to have believers,” said Cullen. “You have to have people that are willing to back your creativity.”

Take the projects no one is looking at
But Cullen didn’t always have such ardent supporters. He attributes his early success to seeing potential in projects that no one else is paying much attention to. Cullen mentioned a project he did in Japan for Nike.

“The idea of seeing potential in something, that’s key. If no one wants it, maybe you should want it. If there is no money, maybe you should take it. Because if there’s money, I guarantee you they’re not going to want the person that doesn’t have experience,” said Cullen. “Take something that no one’s really paying attention to and just blow it out of the water. And then you give them more. In the age of digital media, you can always give people more.”

Cullen said that ultimately where your career goes is a combination of the opportunities you’re given, and how you use them to get where you want to go.

“I never imagined that I was going to be doing super-pop videos,” said the director of Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” and “California Gurls.” “But people give you opportunities that direct where your life is going to go, and then you can sort of pivot…‘I like doing this, but I want to do this.’”

Give yourself permission to fail
And Cullen’s latest pivot has led him to feature films. In the end, he didn’t get the Maleficent gig, but he said the pitch process was still a success because of how he chose to define it.

“I told myself, the first level of success for me is going to be I push myself harder than I’ve ever pushed,” he said. “And if I can do that, I’m going to be happy, even if I don’t get the job.”

His second level of success was making connections and getting to work with great people at Disney. For the Maleficent pitch, Cullen worked closely with Don Hahn, an Oscar nominee for Beauty and the Beast.

Cullen didn’t achieve his third level of success, directing his first feature film, but he since has. His adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel London Fields, is currently in post-production.

“Becoming successful—and I don’t even consider myself successful—it’s always a series of failures,” said Cullen. “It’s about endurance. It’s about having a vision for something and not giving up. It’s about not settling and evolving.”

Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger