Something weird can happen when you start making a film (or start making anything, really). You can get too close to the project, lose perspective, and start writing things that sound good but aren’t actually true at all. It happens so easily, and you often don’t realize it until you look back. For Douglas Gautraud, the filmmaker behind the My RØDE Reel 2014 award-winning short film My Mom’s Motorcycle, telling the truth in his projects is the most important thing.
“It sounds so simple,” he told us during this interview, “but just being honest about your message is everything. Usually everybody is lying to everybody, right up until the moment when somebody finally tells the truth.” We recently chatted with Doug about his film, his career, his grandfathers, and his tireless quest to say something true.
Had you made videos before My Mom’s Motorcycle that you really loved?
I would say I made a lot of stuff that was other people’s vision. This was one of the first videos I made where I got to tell my story, where I put my heart and soul into it. The motorcycle video was the first thing I made that I was really proud of.
How’d you get started making films?
I grew up in Kentucky, very northern Kentucky. I am one of 10 kids. We spent a lot of our childhood watching good movies. Like, really good movies. My mom was really into cinema. Not just Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, but Rear Window. Hitchcock. My older brother and I started making stop-motion animation movies. We entered a LEGO video competition and ended up winning a trip to LEGOLAND. So that was my foray into film. Then in college, I bounced around for about six years, switching majors, trying to figure out what to do with myself. I entered a competition to win a $20,000 scholarship — you had to submit a video — and I ended up winning that.
You have a knack for winning film contests.
Yeah. Three for three. It’s ridiculous, actually. After winning that contest, people started approaching me to do little things for them. I just had a Canon T2i and a 50mm lens. I was doing these little things and making no money — like, $200 for a wedding — and people were still telling me I was charging too much. But then the company I’d won the scholarship from, a clothing company, ended up hiring me to make videos for them. They flew me around to these awesome cities. I was still using my T2i and 50mm lens and a homemade glidecam, like a weight on the bottom of a pipe. I just did the best I could. Then I upgraded to a Canon 6D and a 24-70mm Tamron lens, which is what I still have. I filmed my whole motorcycle video with that.
When you won that scholarship, did you start taking film classes?
I probably should have. But no, I never did. I just kept learning by solving my own problems. I would Google how to fix things. And not just camera stuff, like story stuff — how to direct, how to make compelling cinema, that sort of thing.
Were there lessons that have stuck with you?
I’ve picked up a lot of practical things by following Philip Bloom and No Film School and Film Riot. But one thing I try not to do is pick up other people’s vision. I think filmmakers have a vision and it’s distinctly theirs. I want my attitude toward story and film to be my own, if that makes sense. People compare my motorcycle video to Wes Anderson and Casey Neistat, and I definitely drew inspiration from those guys. But more so I’ve just always loved movies and commercials that treat you like an intelligent viewer, that don’t try to trick you. They tell you what they mean. I wish there could be a car commercial that said, “This is a car. It’s awesome. Jerry here is the best engineer in America, and he designed it.” Something like that where there’s no bullshit.
I hate dancing around. Just say what you mean. That’s what appeals to me in terms of future projects. I want to say and do what I mean. I think an audience can always tell when you’re trying to pull a fast one on them. In my motorcycle video, once I slam down those pictures of my grandfathers, I really am, with every sentence, trying to tell the truth and get to the part when my mom buys my motorcycle. If an audience feels like you’re being honest, if you’re not bullshitting them, if they understand you, they’re willing to listen even it if doesn’t feel relevant.
Have you learned how to tell when you’re bullshitting and when you’re telling the truth? For some reason when you’re creating something, it can be hard to tell.
There are two ways I do that. The first way is I have a friend who is very intelligent, and I show him every script I write. He’s not very creative in a traditional sense. He’s a computer programmer. But I ask him if what I’ve written is true, and he’ll tell me yeah or no that’s not exactly true. That’s the best way of doing it. The second way is I’ll say it, or think it, or write it down. And if I come back to it the next day and it feels weird, then I know it’s probably something that’s not quite true.
An example of this was in my motorcycle video when I talked about social media. I wanted to be careful not to dog social media, which is a very popular thing to do right now — just say it’s the worst thing ever. But that’s an overstatement, you know? There are a lot of good things about social media. But there was still something that bothered me about it, and the thing that bothered me was that social media isn’t real life. I had a lot of trouble walking that line in the script because it was very easy to pick on social media instead of getting to the real point, the real core of what I was trying to say.
The film’s pretty introspective, autobiographical. Has your own life been a source of inspiration?
I’ve never told a story about myself before. I have a big family and a lot of interesting stuff happens to us. I think lot of interesting stuff happens to everybody. When my mom bought my motorcycle, I knew it was weird. Moms don’t do that. And I knew that if something was weird, it was probably interesting. So I just kept thinking about it.
At the time, I was mourning the loss of my grandfathers pretty heavily, and I kept having these ideas and revelations. Slowly the pieces started coming together. It took a long time. I’d be lying in bed thinking, Why are hipster things popular right now? Why do people want handmade cheese? Why do we want things made by people? I kept asking myself these questions. I realized you could trace our desire for real stuff to the emergence of social media and fake realities. We want real stuff because we’re putting fake stuff in our brains all the time.
I think one of the reasons the film is so good is because you make these leaps to big ideas. Was that intentional? Did you know those moments were necessary to make a satisfying film?
It wasn’t a creative decision, to be honest. I’d love it if I were that smart. It was really just what happened in my brain. The reason the video transcends into these bigger ideas is because I was asking these big questions. I think it’s the filmmaker’s job to ask questions and look for answers. The audience wants those answers. That’s what they resonate with.
Comedians do it all the time. They’ll take something you’ve experienced a million times and never thought about, and they’ll make it funny. My biggest role models aren’t filmmakers. My role models are really good thinkers: Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Hildegard Hyson, Gandhi, Jesus, influential people like that. I guess I just compared all of those guys to Jesus. But all of those people said things that resonated. Even in my film, my conclusion that it’s better to give than to receive, that’s not me — that’s a Jesus quote. Whatever you believe about God, that idea still resonates.
When did you decide to approach your story and characters through physical things?
The idea developed very chronologically. I really did go through my grandfathers’ things after they died, and I was like, “Wow, this is a cool thing. Wow, that’s a cool thing.” It comforted me. It told me something about them that I might not have known. Like, I didn’t know my grandfather had 200 armor-piercing bullets. I still don’t know why he had those.
Yeah, that’s weird.
That’s so weird. But that’s why it’s interesting. I started realizing that I was using physical objects as a way of connecting with my grandfathers, and then I sort of jumped from there. I think it works best to tell stories that way, rather than starting out with what you want the audience to know and working backwards. As a storyteller I think it’s really cool if you can work the other way around, come to the big idea through the material.
It sounds so simple, but just being honest about your message is everything. Usually everybody is lying to everybody, right up until the moment when somebody finally tells the truth. That’s why people love hearing the truth, because it’s rare.
Do you worry about being a good filmmaker?
Not really. It’s not helpful to think that way. I try not to think in terms of whether I am better or worse than this person or that person. I try to ask myself, Am I doing things I like? Have I created something I enjoy? A lot of times the answer is no. But I try to compare my product to my vision. Did it work out? Did the video turn out? I mean, would I love to be considered a great filmmaker? That would be great. But I’m not really worried about it.
That’s probably healthy.
I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s a video by Ira Glass about creativity, called The Gap. He talks about how people don’t like their own work for a long time. And it’s so true. The motorcycle video was the first piece where I said, “I really like this.”
Do you think you’ll keep working in this documentary style?
I hope so. I think I’ll make more biographical and autobiographical projects. I have some projects in mind that I don’t even know how to categorize. I want to make a video about why beautiful things are so closely related to painful things. I want to ask big questions and look for big answers. I think people want to hear those things — especially on the Internet where there aren’t a lot of great resources for what things mean. Try to figure out what love is by looking on the Internet.
That could be a cool piece right there.
It’s already in my notebook.
Doug’s passion for finding honest things to say is not only refreshing, it’s inspiring — especially now when everyone seems to not only form opinions instantaneously, but broadcast them instantaneously as well. Doug’s willingness to sit on an idea for a year — to get past the easy answers and dig down into the really good stuff — is a rare and awesome thing. It’s a good reminder to slow down, take a deep breath, think things through, and then be as honest as we can possibly be.