Musicbed Podcast #013 with Elle Brooks-Tao On Why Real Creativity Requires Conflict

In this episode, Elle Brooks-Tao discusses the value of creating vulnerable work and why filmmakers should never shy away from the comment section.


Whether it’s writing acclaimed narratives or directing award-winning content for global brands like Nike, McDonald’s, and adidas, writer/director Elle Brooks-Tao’s fresh approach to filmmaking prioritizes pushing the boundaries and bringing untold stories to light.

In this episode of the Musicbed Podcast, Brooks-Tao discusses the value of creating vulnerable work, protecting your creativity at all costs, and why filmmakers should never shy away from the comment section.

Show Notes:

Khalid Mohtaseb –

Jon Bregel –

Why We Wake (2017) –

Buffalo Wild Wings “Watching” –

Bardot (2023) –

Alejandro González Iñárritu –

Birdman (2014) –

Free Solo (2018)–

Clair Popkin –

My Octopus Teacher (2020) –

Women Talking (2022) –

Frances McDormand –

Rooney Mara –

Drive (2011) –

Ryan Gosling –

Sundance Film Festival –

Justin Chon –

Blue Bayou (2021) –

Blue Valentine (2010) –

Insomnia (2023) –

Rick Rubin –

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) –

The Lighthouse (2019) –

Diego Contreras –

Samm Hodges –

A21 –

ZeroZeroZero (2020) –

Episode #013 Transcript

Christian Schultz: We’re sitting here with Elle Ginter [Brooks-Tao]. We go way back, but I want to hear what do you do? Like, what is your role in film? And maybe tell us how you got your start in filmmaking and directing.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, I currently direct. Sometimes commercials, and I just finished a feature documentary that has yet to be seen. We’ll see if that comes out. And then narratives for a nonprofit. I guess if you say you direct, you can direct whatever you want to. And then how I got my start… I kind of worked through crew from the ground up. It all started on a whale watching boat.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: And then I got hired to be an extra. And then I went from an extra to PA, and then a PA back to a waitress, which then drove me to go get a job at a rental house and learn gear. And then I worked my way through camera, then I started ghostwriting. And then I saved up enough pennies to do some work that, I guess, made me a director.

Christian Schultz: I always thought it was interesting because I the first time I met you, I think you were just camera. I think you were like 1st AC for Khalid [Mohtaseb] or something.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, here and there. Yeah.

Christian Schultz: And that’s when I met you. Then we kind of we didn’t stay in touch for a couple years. And then next time, I saw you you were directing and it was incredible stuff. And I’m like, where did this come from? How did this happen?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Desperation? Yeah.

Christian Schultz: I didn’t even know that you wanted to be a director. But I think if you’re an aspiring director, you’re not always like, hey, I’m a director, please talk to me. You know?

Elle Brooks-Tao: I was terrified to call myself myself a director.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I think it was probably Musicbed, like an article, the first time that someone in print called me a director.

Christian Schultz: Really?

Elle Brooks-Tao: And I think that honestly gave me the confidence to be like, Okay, I guess I’m a director now since someone else said it. But up until then, I was working under so many people that I was really intimidated by and respected so much. And I was like, oh, I can never release anything. This is terrifying.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. You are in a circle of directors and filmmakers that are some of the best in the world. I feel like Jon Bregel and Khalid and all those guys are like, so good. I am always intimidated every time that I meet those guys. And I’ve known them for a long time.

Elle Brooks-Tao: They are amazing. It was kind of a weird, it’s weird to look back on because it was so long ago. Like such a blur. Especially because we were all like in our early 20s.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. So young.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, it was so long ago. It’s fun to think about how much can change over time. I think there’s a lot of hope to that, actually.

Christian Schultz: What was the first thing that you decided to be like, okay, I’m gonna direct this, I’m gonna go out, and I’m gonna do this thing?

Elle Brooks-Tao: That was Why We Wake actually, that was like, that’s probably still the film I’m most proud of to be honest. I mean, it was based off of hearing a lot of conversations in hushed whispers about depression, or the idea of depression, that a lot of filmmakers in my circle were dealing with.

Podcast with Elle Brooks-Tao

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: And at the time, I don’t think I really had struggled with real depression that I recognize, we’ll put it that way. Now many years later, I would say sure, there’s been definite seasons. But back then, I think I was just like, someone needs to open up this conversation. And that was kind of my hope. And so that was totally in like, an all hands on deck. Did the film for around $3,000 that I didn’t have, and I was terrified to release it. I didn’t know if it was good or bad. I had no gauge of with which to judge. Some people that I really respected hated it. Other people really liked it. That was tough to hear—the people who hate it. But I think that was a good gauge for me. It was like, I think it resonates and I’m gonna put it out anyway.

Christian Schultz: Right.

Elle Brooks-Tao: And I think to this day, honestly, I still get messages about that film being like, oh, I show this to my therapist, or like, you know, I use this to describe what I’m feeling to my wife. And that’s a good feeling. I feel like I haven’t made a film since then that’s actually done that, to be honest. Which is a bad feeling.

Christian Schultz: Do you feel like great art has to be polarizing?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, I think so. I think if everyone likes your film, maybe you haven’t done something right. Maybe it’s too pleasing. But that’s just me.

Christian Schultz: Which is the hard part, especially in the world where you make a short or experimental thing, and one of the only outlets is either film festivals, or Vimeo, Short of the Week, or something like that. I’ve recently put out something that was, for the first time, put out on YouTube through Short of the Week. And it’s crazy—the difference between the people who watch things on YouTube versus what I would consider like my peers, like Vimeo.

Elle Brooks-Tao: the comments are so different. My favorite part is going through and screen-shooting comments. Like, it’s amazing.

Christian Schultz: Yeah, I put out this thing and the comments are mostly positive. And some people were like, yikes, not gonna watch this. And then some people give me a paragraph. Because I think on YouTube, they’re like, thinking that other people are going to need these comments so they can understand what’s going on. Whereas on Vimeo, Instagram, or something, it’s like, great. Heart, whatever. It’s like, just for you. But for YouTube, I feel like people almost want to be a part of the communication of the thing, which I appreciate that more.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, I do too. I put out a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial—the first commercial I did when I started directing commercials. And the comments on that thing on YouTube are so funny. They are all over the board. Like, some people just go on like a paragraph talking about how they just really want some chicken wings and it’s like their life story. And then like, Not To Be A Lady, which was a few years ago, the comments on that are hysterical. Like, people were hating really hard in a few comments. And those are my favorite ones. Like, I didn’t even bother me. I just thought it was so funny that someone would write so much. And like to be honest, I would be sad if there were a few of those comments on a film. Because it’s like, but you watched it.

Christian Schultz: Yeah, like you kind of stick out it almost. But that’s so funny because you get like a hundred good comments, and then you get one or two and you’re like, what.

Elle Brooks-Tao: The haters are my favorites. I hope all the haters watch my stuff.

Christian Schultz: “What’s going on in your life? why are you so angry right now?”

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, my feature doc probably will come out in the spring. And I’ve been preparing myself because it’s about chronic illness. And the medical community is really, really divided about it about how to treat it what it is. And you can’t please everyone in that situation. And when we were filming, I would get text messages from a doctor who was a friend of a friend of a friend of someone that was on my crew and my phone number got given out. And there was like a few times that I’d get texts at around 2 AM just being like, this is Dr. So-And-So and I heard you’re making this documentary. And I just want to let you know that you’re killing people if you release this.

Christian Schultz: No way.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, like some very, very intense text messages.

Christian Schultz: I’m so confused. So yeah, what was it? What’s the premise of it, if you don’t mind?

Elle Brooks-Tao: It’s about Lyme disease, it’s an immune disease that there’s some very conflicting information on.

Christian Schultz: It’s essentially inflammation, right? Of the joints?

Elle Brooks-Tao: It’s a lot like Lupus, like if I could compare it to something. But it’s so much more complicated than that. There’s not an easily diagnosable test for it. So you could have this, or you could have all these other things that it leads to.

Christian Schultz: Okay.

Elle Brooks-Tao: It’s very abstract.

Christian Schultz: Why are they so upset? I don’t understand.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I think everyone has their idea on how its treated, how it’s talked about, the name Lyme disease is super nonspecific. Like, there’s 65 different bacterias that could lead to these symptoms. By calling it one thing, you’re distracting from something else it could be. But then it’s hard to diagnose and treat as well. There’s a lot of people who are experimenting on patients just to get their money. There’s really like a dark side to the disease for sure, medically and with the patients. So we followed three people, all of different income levels and access to health care, in different corners of the United States, trying to go about figuring out what they had, how to treat it, and how to get access to care. Doctors in some states will lose their medical licenses if they treat it. Parents will have their kids taken away if they don’t follow medical advice, depending on what state you’re in. I’ve heard everything at this point. So yeah, I’m mentally preparing myself to be ripped apart come May.

Christian Schultz: From the medical community?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, and who knows. I think in the process of making like you’ve made, I feel like more, more dark than I have, maybe.

Christian Schultz: Maybe.

Elle Brooks-Tao: So you know what it’s like when like you’re trying to do a documentary, you have kind of a degree of like responsible journalism. But then you also can only fit so much into an hour and a half.

Christian Schultz: It can only really be an impression.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, it’s an impression. That’s a great word. For me, I feel like I learned a lot of lessons. Like, the next film I would do differently, of course. So there’s just a lot of practice.

Christian Schultz: Are there any practical lessons that you would share?

Elle Brooks-Tao: So much. I mean, I think the development of a film and taking the time to properly develop a film is important. And I think that for this one, I jumped in headfirst. And I think that due diligence is now I would say like, I’m not in a rush. There’s no rush to go make this particular film. I have no problem in waiting to do it. Maybe not make such finite decisions from the beginning of what a film is. And yeah, just be a little more open to what something can become. Get a lot more opinions along the way.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: There’s so much, let me list the ways. I feel like I learned every lesson.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. I think that the subject is so important. You know?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yes.

Christian Schultz: Because there’s, especially with documentaries, there’s a journalistic, ethical sort of moral line that you’re kind of riding.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: Where like, you could be really in deep with inner city kids and they’re poor. And you’re like, man, I really want to buy this family groceries, but I can’t do that, in order for me to remain sort of journalistically, like, ethically—you know what I mean?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Totally, yeah.

Christian Schultz: But at the same time, you need them to have fun and feel like they’re getting something out of it.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: That’s always hard.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I think that is a tough thing about filmmaking. Films are built on human relationships, whether it’s a narrative or a documentary. But if you’re working with real people… that was a problem that I had all the way through. One of the families was living on, I think, around $50 a month with five kids, four kids, and a new baby. And to watch that and film it for two and a half years, and stand by and feel like you’re doing nothing for the ethical reason of like, if you pay them, there’s rules around that. But also, you can’t twist the storyline. And, I mean, there’s other ways that we figured out how to help once it was wrapped. More on that some other time, but like, I think of all the things in my career, I think that is the thing that probably sent me into a tailspin—a massive, moral, inner conflict, about this career.

Podcast with Elle Brooks-Tao

Christian Schultz: In terms of capturing things like that in the way that you were, or?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, I think I learned that I did not surround myself with enough support personally, to do this film.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: There should have been more people involved, more emotional support involved, more therapy involved. After I finished it, I read that documentary filmmakers have the highest degree of suicide in the film industry.

Christian Schultz: Really?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, of anyone. I read it in multiple articles, and spoke to a therapist who specializes with documentary directors. And it totally made sense to me, because you’re handling subjects that you kind of become their personal therapist without trying to, because you’re trying to get at the story, and like gain trust and get them to talk to you normally. And there’s only so much that one person can handle with that. You know, directing.

Christian Schultz: Especially with the idea that some of it can be perceived as manipulation.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, it’s really hard. Totally. And then there’s that question of how much do you manipulate for a story. We’re all master manipulators.

Christian Schultz: I’m going to put it on camera, and then I’m going to put it on a computer. And then I’m going to move it all around, shake it up for it to make sense, and almost mean something more than it didn’t begin with. That is manipulation.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: But you try to really manipulate for good things. That’s the goal.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I know, I want to do happy work. I want to film happiness because I’m starting to realize if it’s taught me one thing, it’s how much the world needs more happiness. We do like to laugh. It feels good. We like to see ourselves reflected. I feel like I’m drawn to innately telling these deeper, darker stories, but it’s something I’m really trying to pull myself out of, to be honest.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. Filmmaking is so hard, because it’s like, innately conflict.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: Like, every story or screenwriting book you’ve ever read, and every story book you’ve ever read—it’s like, more conflict, more this, more that. Unless it’s comedy, and then you do this.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, exactly.

Christian Schultz: I would love to—and I hope that I can do—stuff in the future that’s like, kind of blending the lines a little bit. Some of my favorite movies are, especially this last year, a film like Bardot or something, like so funny. Iñárritu is very good at blending, especially with like, Birdman.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Birdman is amazing,

Christian Schultz: And then a moment later, you’re just engrossed in a performance, and then it becomes like this emotional thing. I think that kind of blending is really special.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, deep human truth that’s interrupted by reality.

Christian Schultz: Yeah, because reality is funny. Funny things happen all the time, especially beautiful moments, you know? And there’s probably a psychology there to make somebody laugh because it makes it easier to give them some emotional key, you know?

Elle Brooks-Tao: I feel like if we could all tell films the way that we talk at bars, yeah, we’d all be better filmmakers.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. Do you have a good documentary that you saw that sort of inspired you maybe in the last ten years, five years, whatever?

Elle Brooks-Tao: I think I mean, it’s kind of an obvious one, I guess, but Free Solo. Because Clair Popkin, who shot that, also worked with me on my doc. We became super good friends through that. I just appreciated hearing all the stories behind what actually went into that film to make it what it is.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: That just gave me a complete appreciation for how you tell a story, like an entertaining story within documentary. And then My Octopus Teacher.

Christian Schultz: I’m going to cry just thinking about that movie.

Elle Brooks-Tao: That’s to your point earlier: subject matters. I think that’s a huge lesson. I also learned some stories are worth telling, and some stories are entertaining, and here’s why. And My Octopus Teacher was just—

Christian Schultz: For people that don’t know, My Octopus Teacher is beautiful. I think it’s on Netflix.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I think so. Netflix.

Christian Schultz: Where this—I don’t even think he was a documentarian—I think he was just this guy.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, he’s just a dude that went out and shot this film about this octopus.

Christian Schultz: He was like a deep diver, but he would go without any like, you know. He can hold his breath for like, six minutes at a time or something. But he documents his ongoing relationship with this one octopus in this very special cove next to his house. And it’s the most saddest, most beautiful love story.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Love Story. It’s like everyone is a sucker for a love story. Even with an octopus. It’s amazing.

Christian Schultz: Because it engrosses you in the life of the smallest details of this octopus, you know? Like, that’s what I really appreciated about like we’ve talked about The Whale earlier. You’ve seen it, right?

Elle Brooks-Tao: No.

Christian Schultz: So it all takes place in this house. Basically, a single room for probably an hour and 40 minutes. And they don’t really try to go anywhere else. Sometimes you get the porch or this one sort of bedroom thing.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: But they mainly stay in this one living room area because he’s confined to this area. And the smallest things that happen begin to feel like huge story elements.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: Like at one point, he gets a wheelchair. And just the fact of him moving to this wheelchair. The audience goes, oh, like we’re like moving forward, things are things are changing and you get this whole lift in the movie when he gets this wheelchair. But he literally just went from here to there.

Elle Brooks-Tao: But you’re cheering him on.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. The smallest little things. I love stories that are confined like that.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Same. I saw Women Talking. Have you seen that?

Christian Schultz: No.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Okay, I gotta give you the screener.

Christian Schultz: It’s Francis McDormand, Rooney Mara?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, it’s like that. Like, 97% of the movie takes place in a barn.

Christian Schultz: Wow.

Elle Brooks-Tao: And it’s just women from the same community who one night—without giving it all away, or any of it away—don’t worry.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. No spoiler.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah. If you’ve read the description logline you’ll know this, but like a group of women were all assaulted on the same night. Drugged and assaulted, and then they woke up. And they’re discussing whether to stay or leave. And it’s kind of, I forget, a Mennonite or Quaker community. And they’re like, well, if all the women leave then the community can’t exist without us. And it was just banter back and forth—discussing pros and cons, all based around the idea of do we forgive? Or do we leave?

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Or do we forgive and leave? And it all taking place within this one location. It was the first movie in a while that’s made me cry.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Partly because I wish that I had that idea. Just kidding. It was so, so good. And so moving, and it hit you in so many, just deeply human ways. And I think I’ve always resonated with your work a lot.

Christian Schultz: Really?

Elle Brooks-Tao: I feel like we’re drawn to similar nuances that we want to zone in on. And probably that’s why you liked The Whale. And now I want to watch The Whale. And now you have to watch Women Talking.

Christian Schultz: I do. I’m gonna see it while I’m here.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Like, very simple storylines where the small things become huge and celebrated.

Christian Schultz: I feel like life is small things. And a lot of things are gray. Not everything is black and white. But I also think we kind of came up in the same circles. Did you grew up in a religious background?

Elle Brooks-Tao: For sure.

Christian Schultz: I mean, that is so much of your life. Anything in between is like, you know, heaven or hell.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: Just kind of like, okay, I have to choose. So I feel like whenever I sort of broke out of that and started making creative work, I think it’s hard to get out of that headspace.

Elle Brooks-Tao: it is so hard. Okay, straight talk. I feel like we have a lot of friends who work in film, like very much work in film, who grew up in very religious households. And somehow, I don’t know how we’re all together. It’s weird.

Christian Schultz: Yeah, it’s weird.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I feel like when I was growing up in that community, I didn’t even have that many friends who believe what I believed or were taught what I was taught. And now as an adult, in my 30s, I feel like so many of us have also come to this same arc of deconstruction or whatever you want. But I think that’s a good word. We had parents who grew up during this hippie generation, where it was like, either atheism or Christianity, very black and white. And I don’t think we’re really given the opportunity to maybe decide for ourselves and the way that they were. And so now I feel like we’re just exploring it through art.

Christian Schultz: Yes. It’s a weird coincidence, but I think you’re right. When we were growing up in the 90s, early 2000s, there was a major shift in the church world because cameras started becoming available.

Elle Brooks-Tao: That’s true.

Christian Schultz: There’s was a ton of movement in church media and church entertainment.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I’ve definitely got some blackmail videos out there from when I was on the church drama team.

Christian Schultz: Same. I think you’re just getting engrossed in this church sort of ecosystem. Because most people would know this—to be really good at something and have a talent at a church, you were very well respected immediately, and invited in really quickly. You know, if you play the drums or if you can sing or you know how to take photos, or you can perform or in some way, you’re just invited in really quickly, which is amazing. To be able to get stewarded. Here’s your talent, but do it for God.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: And I think that’s why the commercial spheres kind of makes sense to us. I think it’s because we see like, okay, there’s a system over there. You know, there’s a group of people sitting at table.

Elle Brooks-Tao: We get how to work the system.

Christian Schultz: And sort of appeal to and be a little bit of a chameleon. We can interact in different circles, as opposed to like, I’m sure you also know, kids who come out of film school that are just like, oh, you’re like a real weirdo. It’s so sick. You’re just making insane work because you’re weird. Not because you have this traumatic past.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, I think after growing up in church, we’re scared to be weird. A little bit. Or at least don’t know how or something because we spent so much time trying to fit into whatever that look was. Not to crap on the church at all. So many people are doing their best. And many are changing. But I think it’s important to know how to deal with the real world.

Christian Schultz: Yeah, I hope this doesn’t come off church bashing. Like I said, the idea of media in the church is such a new thing.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: I mean, it’s probably like 20 years old by this point. But when I was doing it, it was like, they didn’t realize that they had to work almost like a business.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, totally. And it, honestly, I think should to a degree.

Christian Schultz: Oh totally. I think it’s still under the guise of you know, you’re doing this for salvation. Which is hard to say no to.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: But when you’re pushing 90 hours in a week…

Elle Brooks-Tao: I think I’ve always been a bit wary, but also really wanting to be a safe haven for people who come from that background to be honest. Maybe I’ve done a good job. Maybe not. I guess you could just ask different people.

Christian Schultz: I mean, when I look at your work, there’s all this sensitivity of it. I know that that’s just you. I think you’re right, like what you said earlier, I’m drawn to that work, just because it’s just like, it’s almost like it feels like a specific part in your heart that kind of work just sits in. It’s like a weight. All my closest peers have always talked about my work as having like a weight to it, you know. And I see the same in your work. But I think it’s because of all the things that you go through in your life.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Thank you for thank you for saying that. That’s so nice. I am really glad that comes through. I think there is an empathy that I was raised to have. And also like a childhood that I wasn’t around very many people. I didn’t go to school until middle school, like real school. And my mom had quite a few medical problems growing up, so there was a lot of isolation. And for an extroverted kid, that’s tough. And I feel like I just got used to watching everything, and reading like National Geographic cover to cover many times over. Reader’s Digest cover to cover many times over. And just relying on daydreaming. And I think something comes from that in just like honing in on what people are innately feeling and based on what they look like, or what you see them doing and what you observe them doing. I’m glad that hopefully some of that has been captured. I think there is a degree where I feel like as a filmmaker, what’s in your heart comes out. And you can look at pieces of work that you’ve made over the seasons, and probably recognize themes like the person that you were.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: So I’m kind of excited for all of us in like, 10 years if we were to sit down and talk.

Christian Schultz: I think I’d see a lot of pretension and a lot of soul at the same time. Yeah, it feels insecure. But like you’re swinging for sure.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, you’re swinging for the fences. I know. It’s tough. Because it’s like, the know-it-alls, you know, the young know-it-alls who think that they’re the best filmmaker ever. Sometimes they do make something great because they’re not afraid to just take a big swing.

Christian Schultz: Right.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I feel like it’s important to still access that. And then sometimes I feel like you’ve learned so much that it’s hard to let go of it sometimes.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. I do want to ask you this. I feel like with a lot of commercial directors, or people who do a lot of commercials, I feel like more times than not, it seems rather hard for them to get out of that to do something for no money or for a passion project or something where they’re not spending 100 grand on something, you know what I mean? Like, where do you fall?

Elle Brooks-Tao: I have so many thoughts about this. Where do I fall in thought process?

Christian Schultz: Like where do you want to be, or where does that shake down practically for you?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Like, how many commercials do I need to do to be stable? Or like, what? Like, if I did a personal project, how much would it even…

Christian Schultz: It’s probably less of a question about you and more of a question about the commercial directing game. You know what I mean?

Elle Brooks-Tao: The blessing of commercials is that once you figure it out, you know how it’s done. Yeah.

Christian Schultz: Right.

Elle Brooks-Tao: And it feels fairly predictable. You get to develop your skills on sets that are going to give you money to use tools and hire certain DPs or whatever, and like practice, in a fairly safe world, and meet people that are new and different every day. But I think the problem with commercials, especially if you do them a lot—and I’m talking about myself for sure—is that you can get so sucked into the rigmarole around it, the fear of never being able to take a month off, because that might be two or three months or more of work that you’re going to miss out on.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Which has been a huge for me. This year is actually about allowing for more life to happen. Yeah. And then, in addition to that, I think that sometimes we can spend so much money on personal projects, hoping to get commercials out of them.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: And sometimes that does happen. And when it happens, it’s a great feeling. But I would say more times than not, it doesn’t happen. And then we feel this pressure based on what we’re seeing on Instagram. Or what other people are putting out that we don’t really have insight into how that’s getting funded. What favors they’re pulling. So on that it’s like, did that cost $5,000? Or did that cost $50,000? And are they self paying for it? Or are other people paying for it? And if other people are paying for it? How?

Christian Schultz: Yeah. The mystery is what people like. I feel like people love that sh*t. I see people putting things out.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I’m such an open book about that stuff.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Maybe it sells to keep the mystery, but I just feel like it’s so not healthy. I also all the projects that I’ve done have been under 10K. I have like an issue—unless it’s a short narrative film, or just any short film that you’re making that you are making for your art and because you believe in it, then any investment is great into that. But I think there should be a cut-off point, financially, for how much money gets put in. If it’s only done with the sole goal of getting a commercial out of it. That’s just my personal feelings.

Christian Schultz: l also think the kind of work that you end up making, where it’s like pseudo spec, pseudo passion project is so one thing.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: So narrow of a kind of project you can do that can really work for both, you know.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, and I’m not even sure. Vimeo has changed since we started. The ways that people are watching things and why they’re watching things I think have changed. I rarely go on Vimeo anymore. Short of the Week is still great to get eyes and stuff, but I rarely go on. Yeah. I couldn’t tell you the last thing that I watched unless it was a friend of mine that put it out.

Christian Schultz: Right.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Which I’m not sure if that’s healthy or not. But I guess I feel like the quality, you could do this super stylized quality thing. But we need to figure out different outlets to get it actually seen, if we’re going to spend money on it. Like the most satisfying project that I personally worked on the last few years was this little thing I shot on my phone with my friend Stefania Excelsior during COVID when everything shut down. I was always inspired by the movie Drive. The director and Ryan Gosling, for I think about two months, every night at midnight, would drive around LA together and talk about the movie. And they just vibed LA.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: And I told Stefania during COVID, the first two weeks that New York shut down, let’s vibe this time. We’ve got nothing else to do. And we took our cell phones, because it was all we had, and filmed stuff and interviewed random people that how they’re feeling, and kind of just shot this mood piece of COVID. We recorded phone calls with our parents and families and friends. And I think that it still made people feel something. And like, no, I’m not gonna go shoot a narrative in the same way as I would go shoot that film. But I was at Sundance and Justin Chon—who directed, wrote, and acted Blue Bayou, you know, and a few others. Someone was like, what’s your biggest advice for getting a film off the ground? And he was like, man, just go shoot something. And I don’t think that’s underestimated. I love the people who go and spend $100,000 to prove their skills. And if you’re going to do VFX work, sci-fi and stuff like that, it’s 100% necessary. But like, I don’t know. For me, I’m like, if I can shoot something super stylized that looks like it cost $100,000 and it doesn’t make you feel anything, there’s a problem with me relying on tools that take away from a different tool that I should be developing.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: That’s a long answer.

Christian Schultz: Well, no, I think I mean, Justin is such a good example. You’ve seen Blue Bayou.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I love Blue Bayou.

Christian Schultz: It’s shot in my neighborhood in New Orleans. Like that bridge, right? It is like, two blocks away from our house. So when I was watching, I was so pissed. Because I haven’t shot that stuff yet.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Was at the concept that you wish you had?

Christian Schultz: No, it has nothing to do the concept. Just everything to do with the visuals of my neighborhood. He just got it first. Because it’s like the only this like the only thing that you would shoot in that neighborhood, on that street with that bridge with New Orleans in the background. And I’m just like, I can’t shoot that at twilight because that’s your poster.

Elle Brooks-Tao: If you make it personal…

Christian Schultz: It would be totally different either way, but, but also that’s how that movie feels. It’s very, like Blue Valentine as well. Like, let’s just grab slices of life. It’s more about character and performance and less about being sexy and making the visuals look like a million dollar movie.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah.

Christian Schultz: I love that mentality.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah. But you are asking, I feel like I veered away actually, by accident. You’re asking about commercials versus like, personal projects, right?

Christian Schultz: Yeah, I feel like there’s this game to be that, that I see a lot of people playing that I think is misguided. And whether it’s like them spending a lot of money on a short film, your best chance is to get this amount of views. For something that you’re spending $80,000, $100,000 on.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, I get it.

Christian Schultz: If it’s like, you have an in with somebody who is, you know, Head of Production at Netflix or something. And you’re like, making a proof of concept to send to them—I get that. You’re taking a big swing or whatever. But whenever I see people making $80,000 shorts, like, you could have just made a feature.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, yeah.

Christian Schultz: You could have just spent that money on 15 days with your small crew. And everybody just did a passion project, but you had a movie now. And you could put that movie into a film festival and it could surprise you. The biggest thing that you’re gonna get from a short is like, getting into Sundance or whatever. But even like winning a short at Sundance is probably the biggest thing that you could do for a short in the world, maybe. Or Cannes or something. But like that’s so rare. Or you could just make a feature and just take a swing, you know?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, totally. But it’s hard for directors, especially on the commercial side, who are used to getting paid 15, 20, 25 grand a day to do things any differently.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. Like, what do you mean I can’t have 60 feet of track? I can’t have a Steadicam just waiting for me? Or like a techno crane? Like, no, let’s put it on your shoulder. Or put it on our lazy Susans spinning around like, you know what I mean.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Oh, yeah. We shot a short here in my bedroom. And everything was done in that one room with nine friends and it was the best.

Christian Schultz: Where’s it at? Is it out?

Elle Brooks-Tao: It’s gonna be.

Christian Schultz: Do you like to sit on stuff?

Elle Brooks-Tao: No, honestly, I don’t like to sit on stuff. But I think when you shoot when you take time to shoot something, and then I think there’s this rush to get back to work to make up for time lost.

Christian Schultz: Sure.

Elle Brooks-Tao: And so suddenly, like your priorities, it’s maybe number five in the time of your day to get like a personal project edited and colored and sound designed. And sometimes I think I’ve put things out too fast, and it genuinely has affected the quality. So to some degree, I’m trying to take things a little slower and do things right.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: But yeah, Insomnia will be out this week.

Christian Schultz: Insomnia.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Insomnia. Yeah, it was like one of those confined, trippy. It’s trippy camerawork, but honestly, we did it with almost nothing. Yeah, props to the DP.

Christian Schultz: When did you guys shoot it?

Elle Brooks-Tao: We shot it last year, like almost a year ago. So um, well, actually was a turntable. Okay. It was a turntable. And we did rent that that was like the one piece of equipment that we rented, it’s probably $500.

Christian Schultz: What was the effect that you were trying to do with that?

Elle Brooks-Tao: We were trying to make it just feel it was a closeup on faces, but then we wanted them spinning. And so we put them across from each other. It’s like a couple looking at each other. And then we put weird lights, it’s quite trippy.

Christian Schultz: Are they tripping on acid or something?

Elle Brooks-Tao: No, it’s about a couple going through a kind of unwanted breakup due to not addressing personal issues, one of which is insomnia. So it’s kind of we go into this dream world, where your brain goes crazy when you can’t sleep. It’s like a fever dream. And so this is part of their fever dream, where they’re just like spinning. Everything is moving so fast, and you don’t feel like you have control of it. So it’s like mice in a maze, you know, and like spinning against this abstract background, which is actually just my bedroom with, you know, overblown 360 shutter.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. So cool. How does music affect your creative process?

Elle Brooks-Tao: I always wanted to be a musician, and I’m not a very good one. Like, I always wished I could sing. And my mom tried to put me in singing lessons as a kid and I was paralyzingly shy as a child, which is probably hard to imagine now. But like, very, very shy. And so I never pursued that. But I think that I’ve always thought about films as if I could like pour my heart out in song. What would that look like, as a film, where it’s just emotionally resonant in the same way that music is. But to get there, music zens me out. I have to find music, like when I hit the right music, and I couldn’t say exactly what or why, suddenly ideas just start flowing and I’ll search for days or weeks sometimes just to like find that song that triggers an idea. Rick Rubin actually just did a podcast about this.

Christian Schultz: Really? What did he say?

Elle Brooks-Tao: He was saying that there’s like, legit frequencies or subconscious creativity that like basically matches the wavelength we’re on and it’s real.

Christian Schultz: I love that man. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I watched something on YouTube. Oh, who’s the journalist that has very handsome like gray hair? I think he does 60 Minutes. But he was essentially like, do you play music? He’s like, barely. And he’s like, so what are your qualifications? He’s like, I’m very unqualified. But like, what he has is just curiosity.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah. I think music inspires me. And then music changes your film into what it’s supposed to be.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Like, I know, some people start with music. If I played music I probably would too. But I feel like music can change your film for the better. Because music makes us feel things. Music is a love story to our souls. That sounds cheesy. But something about us connects with it. And as an expression, and sometimes I want to let my films have no music, and just force you to sit and listen in uncomfortable sound. But then, anytime that music does start to come in, what a difference. And music also echoes life. Did you see—what’s the war movie about winter that I’m forgetting the title of…

Christian Schultz: All Quiet Along the Western Front?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yes.

Christian Schultz: I think such a slept on movie last year, man. I know it’s nominated for an Oscar and whatever. But sometimes I feel like Netflix drops the f*cking ball on that sh*t.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah, I don’t understand it. But that score was such a brave score.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: I felt like they were trying to almost emulate this jarring sound of explosions. Or rumbles, at least for me, that’s what I got from it. And it did the trick. Like I felt overstimulated, because I never knew when that waaah was going to come. It’s the same freakin thing with The Lighthouse. I was trying to score my doc the day after I watched The Lighthouse. And I was so mad at my friend Diego Contreras for inviting me because I couldn’t get the sound of the boat out of my head—the boat horn that’s in most of the score for like three hours. It’s just this waaah. And I remember as I was talking with my composer. I was like, you know what we need here? We just need like a waaah. And he’s like, I don’t really think we do. And I’m like, oh yeah, I think I’m just saying that because I just watched The Lighthouse. It was horrible. Anyway.

Christian Schultz: How do you figure out your way through the comparison game?

Elle Brooks-Tao: I have always hated comparing myself to people. And I don’t feel like it’s been as much of a problem for me, because I have this aversion. Like, I’ve given up on you accepting me, because I don’t expect you to anyway. Like that kind of unhealthy bullied kid in middle school attitude. But I think in reality, there’s something in me that tries not very hard not to think about it, because then the work won’t be original anymore. And it’s always at the forefront of my mind. But I think when it comes to opportunity, I honestly don’t care if people like my work. I think that got broken off in my 20s really early, when a lot of people didn’t like my work. And then Rick Rubin, said, he’s always looking for the rule breaker, the person that’s flipping a middle finger off to the world, because that’s the kid that he wants to work with.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: And I’ve always kind of felt that way. You don’t like it? Whatever. I’m moving on. But I think where I do get hung up in comparison is with opportunity given, if that makes sense. Because it’s hard not to look at something and say, I could have done that. I don’t understand why I wasn’t given that opportunity. Or what’s the game that I have to play, if it’s not the quality of your work? What’s the game?

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Like that age-old question that I think all of us wonder about. It’s tough sometimes not to get stuck there. And I think I’ve also had to realize that there’s a humility to be found when you just keep making, and be like, oh, maybe this is why it didn’t happen. Or maybe this is why it didn’t happen. Because if I keep making, I’m being humbled in what I’m learning. Maybe I’m not that good, or maybe I wasn’t right for that. Or thank goodness I didn’t get this opportunity. But no, I’d say that’s the stuck apart. And my response is to go do something that I’m really scared of doing. I don’t write narrative that much. But this last year, I fell in with a group when I moved to LA that does. And they were so open. My friend Samm Hodges really encouraged me consistently—like, you’re a good writer, you’re funny. And it was just enough. Like when you find that older kid in school, who suddenly makes you walk with a slightly better swagger. And then a project from this nonprofit, A21, came along. It was the first narrative that I had. Not the first narrative I had written, but the first narrative that I was going to write and make it that way. And I’m stoked with how it turned out. But I was really intimidated the whole time.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: But then I was like, oh, wow, I have such a bigger respect for these people that I see getting these jobs. And maybe I’ll work my way into it.

Christian Schultz: What are three essential tools for your creative process?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Music. Just listening to music, conversation, and curiosity. I think without curiosity, it’s really hard to make things. I am not an internal thinker, as you can probably see on this podcast. So I feel like I literally cannot develop ideas on the inside of me. That is not how I’m wired. So yeah, curiosity, conversation and music to inspire.

Christian Schultz: What is one scene from a movie or TV show where music elevated the moment?

Elle Brooks-Tao: ZeroZeroZero. It’s a TV show. Mogwai did the score. And it was like, I’m not sure how he did it. It was about drugs and death and family discord. And it felt like there was a lot of razor blade sounds used mixed with violin and it was this sharp, kind of, yeah. It was just like, beautiful violin that kind of sounded like a rusty razor blade at the same time. Like, it kind of evoked this feeling of love and death at once.

Christian Schultz: Yeah. Wow. What is one piece of career advice that you wish you heard earlier?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Try to keep your balance. Everyone told me that you’re going to be working three jobs all at once all the time, get used to it. And that was good advice at the time, because I did for a very long time. And I don’t think I slept very much at all in my 20s. And even now I’m not sleeping much at all. And I think that there is that expectation of like, if you’re in this industry, you better hustle. But no one ever really told me to protect your personal life. And I’ve made such major mistakes with protecting my personal life. And being a workaholic, and not valuing things that really truly are gonna matter in the moment. So yeah, I wish more people had said protect your balance. I just think the nature is people are gonna tell you, oh my gosh, hustle, hustle, hustle. Or, you don’t belong. Yeah, we’re all doing it, so keep up.

Christian Schultz: This subject needs to be covered in film school or something. That and how to navigate a festival or something, you know?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah. There’s so much intimidation. If you take time off, you’re not gonna get work. If you don’t make yourself available, people are gonna forget your name. If you’re not constantly putting work out, then what are you making? How do you know your voice if you’re not making work? There’s all these comments that are meant to be said to us as guidance that if we take it too far, I think really, really destroy our creativity and our happiness. It’s really depressing. I don’t mean it to be depressing.

Christian Schultz: No, I agree though.

Elle Brooks-Tao: It makes me angry and so I’m like, protect your balance. I don’t think we can be healthy filmmakers if we’re not healthy people, although I guess a lot of the poets were.

Christian Schultz: If you had to choose a different career path, what would it be?

Elle Brooks-Tao: I think it’d be woodworking.

Christian Schultz: Making tables and furniture?

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yeah. Or like teaching little kids how to surf. I think it would be nothing to do with film.

Christian Schultz: Yeah.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Maybe an author. But no, I think I would run as far away from the film industry as I could, honestly. I always think about that, actually. I probably would be doing humanitarian work and making like, no money all year and just trying to leave some good behind. Yeah.

Christian Schultz: What’s something you always bring to set?

Elle Brooks-Tao: My coffee. That might change because I just stopped drinking caffeine. But legitimately the cup of joe. Yeah. I don’t I don’t think there’s any other constant.

Christian Schultz: Elle, it’s always so fun to talk to you. Thanks for having us at your house. I appreciate you let us in and chatting with us.

Elle Brooks-Tao: It’s been way too long since we caught up.

Christian Schultz: Let’s make sure to not have it be as long next time.

Elle Brooks-Tao: Yes, please. Thanks, Christian. This was fun.