John-Michael Triana on Filmmaking, Dating Apps, & the Dance Between Our Digital and Real-World Personas

 

Interview by Lindy Siu

 

LA-based director and filmmaker John-Michael’s work revolves around making objective moments subjective to the viewer. He does this by creating polished, mysterious, and captivating worlds conceived from his deep curiosity in existentialism and love and desire; his hope is that everyone sees a different shade of the same color in his work.

With a sophisticated eye for creating fashion content, his work is experimental in construction but always rooted within a unique point of view, concept, or style. He has directed projects for BOTTEGA VENETA, COACH, VOGUE PARIS, VOGUE JAPAN, VOGUE ITALIA, DAVID YURMAN, CALVIN KLEIN, BANANA REPUBLIC, CARRERA, and NIKE. He recently completed his second short film, ‘DANCE’.

 
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kulturspace’s Lindy Siu sat down with John-Michael for a tête-à-tête to get to know the fertile mind behind the thought-provoking world of ‘DANCE’.

 

LS: Who do you look to for inspiration, whether in filmmaking or life in general?

JM: I look everywhere; whatever catches my eye is what I investigate. It could be someone’s style on the street or an article in a magazine, or the way the light illuminates a room. I’m always taking everything in and certain moments become inspiration, but I usually don’t realize it until after the fact.

LS: Would you consider yourself an impulsive person?

JM: Yes, but I’ve learned to hone my impulsivity into instinct.


LS: Do you usually act on instinct, or are you the type to mull things over before taking action?

JM: I do both; sometimes you don’t have time to mull things over and you have to rely on instinct. There are a million things that can go wrong on a film set and sometimes you are forced to make split second decisions and you just have to roll with it.

For example, one time I was directing this branded film for COACH and we were trying to do a walking shot on the street. We were in downtown LA at rush hour, very behind schedule, and the talent had to make a night flight to Japan. It was super hectic and I had originally planned to shoot a scene in 3 shots but it had to be condensed into 1 shot. So I just made a quick decision on the fly and went with it (and it actually turned out great).


LS: You split your time between LA and NYC—what draws you from coast to coast?

JM: I love both cities; they each have their own unique identity, and it’s rewarding and inspiring to spend time in both. I enjoy the seasons of New York, its fast-paced nature, and overall more worldly vibe, but LA is just more magical to me: it’s more free, I feel like you can reinvent yourself here in ways you can’t in NYC. It must be the light.

LS: So where do you call home?

JM: LA is definitely home for me. I know it because when I’m gone, I miss it.


LS: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far as a filmmaker?

JM: Being able to fully express yourself as an artist while appealing to a commercial market. Sometimes it’s difficult to fully actualize your vision in regards to what the client wants, and sometimes it doesn't get there, but you can compromise. Finding that balance on when to be happy is important. A wise man once told me, “You have to know what sword you want to die on.”

LS: What kind of projects do you find most stimulating?

JM: I love making fashion films, music videos, and branded content because the creative scope is more open and collaborative. These types of jobs are usually for an up-and-coming brand or artist, so the film becomes more of an art-piece. This allows the “message” or “branding” to be more subdued, so viewers can come up with their own meaning. This gives you the chance to create something more unique and different.


LS: As a silent film, DANCE echoes the way most of us live in the digital sphere these days. We communicate via text messages, instant messaging, emails, social media interactions, emojis, GIFs—all this without uttering a single word verbally. On one hand, technology brings the world so much closer, but on the other hand, it’s also creating barriers through these immaculately crafted social media personas. In what way would you like the film to affect its audience? What is the one thing you hope the film will achieve?  

JM: The film is very layered and it speaks to a variety of digital themes. It’s almost confusing at times, which is by design. The same way it’s silent, it’s supposed to be this meta-visual experience, where the film’s construction is meant to bolster its narrative. It’s my hope that the film arouses a reflection within the viewer on what intimacy means and where we look for it in an age where everything has become curatable. I think at its core the film is about identity and the importance of being true to yourself and not being consumed with the need to brand yourself or become more desirable.  The film could be almost like a case study helping people cater their digital interactions to what is best for them. I feel everyone needs to strike their own balance, because if not, the digital has a way of creating a certain chaos or fear within one’s identity.

Read more about the film here.

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LS: It’s a difficult balance to strike when we spend so much time on the internet and social media, where our sense of identity is so often influenced by what we see and read. It gets tricky to differentiate our own voice vs the noise around us. Do you think it would help to limit online interactions and focus more on real-world interactions instead?

JM: I think everyone needs to find their own balance, it’s really the relationship with one’s self that needs to be examined. Couldn’t one argue that real-world interactions can be just as harmful as digital? Some people connect better with others online while some connect better with others in real life. What we need in order to have a fulfilling life is directly correlated with how well we know ourselves. Letting too much of the external world influence your internal dialogue will only lead to a road of unhappiness. Whether the outside influence is digital media or real-world interactions, the need for balance is the same. Interactions where one deviates from their own identity or continually calls it into question are the most dangerous.


LS: Dating apps: Have you tried them, and what are your thoughts on them?

JM: I think dating apps can be good and bad. On one hand I’ve found intense, depthful love and on the other I’ve encountered the most bizarre and confusing experiences. My golden rule for them is the same as the digital: take the good and leave the bad.  

LS: Care to share the most bizzare in one sentence?

JM: Watch my film.

LS: What topics do you think need to be addressed more in films?

JM: Hard to say, I think studios need to put out more independent films like the golden age of the 90’s. I just feel like film back then was more authentic.

LS: More authentic in what way?

JM: Emotion; the digital has eroded the moment and bolstered the “cliche” by creating more of the same,  where everything has already “happened”. Authenticity is now regurgitated on YouTube or social media or streaming, and it destroys the moment because the moment has become so easily accessible, exhausting truth. The theatre used to be a sort of temple where you could go and feel something or experience something, but now that has been diluted with the digital, in an age where everything is on-demand and curatable.

I think this has created a rise of cynicism which prohibits emotion to be truly absorbed. And this skepticism allows filmmakers’ intentions to be misconstrued much more easily. I think authenticity and truth are one and the same, and I would say both are under attack in our current status quo, causing a rise of confusion. I think these elements make it harder for audiences to feel certain emotions and for filmmakers to create it.

 
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LS: What does a regular day look like for you?

JM: I try to stay moving. I usually start my day by working out, and then head to a coffee shop and catch up on emails and try to sneak in an hour of reading, anything from philosophy to a popular novel to a friend’s script. After some coffee, I usually head back to my studio where I’ll work on a music video or commercial treatment. I might have a call or two for a job and then head out for a meeting or a scout. In the evening, I might try to catch a quick squash game before meeting up with another director or writer friend for drinks to exchange notes on the feature film I’m writing. After a good note session I might meander to a wine bar to finish off the night with a glass of red.


LS: That sounds pretty perfect. LA can be a lonely city due to its challenging transportation and sheer size. How do you find time to stay connected and connect with friends?

JM: Hey, I’m a hopeless romantic. I’m not going to lie, the busier you get, the harder it is to stay connected with friends. A friend of mine and I have been playing tag for 2 months just trying to find a time to meet for a drink. LA is tough because of traffic, so I try to prioritize meetings when I’m in different parts of the city. But I guess that’s what makes LA a strange dream; you are always so close but so far.


LS: It’s difficult standing out in any industry these days—we’re constantly surrounded by noise and distractions. How do you stay focused and grounded, and what words of advice would you share with budding filmmakers looking to make their mark on the world?

JM: I think you just have to stay true to your vision and just keep trying, this industry can be difficult and it’s easy to get down on yourself and your ideas. I think it’s key to remember it’s the process that makes you better and allows you to get closer to what your vision really is. It’s also important to “fail” or not achieve what you thought or wanted for a certain project, that pushes you to examine your mistakes and improve on your craft.

LS: If you hadn’t gone into filmmaking, what do you think you would be doing instead?

JM: I would have gone into product design. I’ve always loved making things with my hands. I took an intro design class in high school, but when I went to college there wasn’t a program for product design, so I ended getting a degree in international business. I never went to film school, but I think with the resources today you can learn the technical side easy, it’s finding out what you want to say that is most difficult.


LS: What kind of things do you like making?

JM: Clothes and paintings...and other things I can’t tell you yet.


LS: What are your top 3 favourite filming locations?

JM: LA -- because it’s the epicenter for film, and it’s full of creative people. You can do anything here, the creative bounds are limitless and the people that are here with you feel the same way, so that allows you to achieve almost anything you want albeit budget constraints :)  

Virginia -- it’s where I grew up and the natural beauty there is majestic. In the spring, the light touches the trees and creates the most beautiful shades of green. There is nothing like a humid, rich, green summer in Virginia where you can run through dense forests, swim in natural blue pools, and speed down back country roads.

New York City -- it’s the eternal city, you can shoot it in so many different ways and get something new from it each time. The city is so alive, it has so much character, and it expresses itself so well on film, from the architecture to the street scenes. The beauty of NYC really lies in its people, their style, their originality, and their diversity.  


LS: Is there a location you would love to film in but haven’t had the chance to yet?

JM: Yes: Iceland, New Zealand, South Africa, and Northern Ireland.


LS: What would be your personal mascot, if you had to have one?

JM: I hate mascots, I would never have one. But I like animals, I’d have a monkey if I could.


LS: Why a monkey? Have you seen one up close before?

JM: Lol, no, I’ve just always loved them, maybe it’s because of their mischievous nature.

‘DANCE’ has me pondering on the lengths we go to, to craft a charming digital persona just so we can find someone real to share a genuine connection with. It makes me wonder: “Can we have one without the other?” If you’ve not seen ‘DANCE’ yet, head on over and watch it. For more thought-provoking films, check out The Studio for LAFFF submissions.

Justin Merino