"Being a director is all about creating a safe space for actors to be comfortable in. It starts from there. I try to be very nurturing when collaborating with every actor, regardless how experienced they are."
Philip Giancola is a director of short films and branded content. Storytelling is his biggest passion and he spends his days trying to tell ones to the best of his ability. He has worked with clients such as LEGO, Google, LinkedIn, Oracle, Riot Games (League of Legends), Health Promotion Board, and Heritage Bicycles. When he's not directing projects, he often works as a writer, creative director, and editor; bouncing between the United States and Asia.
We had the opportunity to speak with Philip about his journey as a Director and living across different continents. Scroll down to read the full interview.
"When you live somewhere you aren’t familiar with, you appreciate it and absorb things as much as you can. You listen more and surrender yourself to everything."
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who is Philip?
I’m mostly filled with tea and optimism. I use humor to keep things light and try not to let anything throw off my center. Every day is good practice to get better at all of the above. When I’m not filmmaking, you’ll find me at home laying low. I don’t drink, smoke, and I can’t dance. Loud environments are bad for conversation, so I appreciate the quiet.
We have seen that you have worked between Chicago and Singapore. What made you move to Singapore ?
I was offered a job in Singapore working in the video game industry directing and producing content several years back. I was a bit nervous about it, which told me I should do it. I’m really glad I did it, I have loved the journey and all of the twists and turns that has made me who I am. It represented a big plunge for me and helped me grow and gain more life experience. When you live somewhere you aren’t familiar with, you appreciate it and absorb things as much as you can. You listen more and surrender yourself to everything. Your cup is empty with plenty of space for new things to fill in. I enjoy walking because it’s really the nicest way to observe things. Singapore is perfect for that, if you enjoy the heat. I eventually moved away from the game industry and I have been working in branded content, commercials, and docs. I sometimes go back to Chicago to work on a branded project or short film. Plus, it’s always a lovely incentive to see family.
People have a romantic view of filmmaking and I’m no different, it’s one of the reasons I got into it. I still have a romantic view of both filmmaking and life, though sometimes it’s a tough job because of creative hurdles or the endurance in takes to capture magic moments.
Countries are becoming closer now, and its so much easier to travel today (at least pre-covid). What are the main differences you notice concerning working processes, the type of projects available and in general the mood, between US, and Asia?
I think working process is different in some areas and the same in others. Asian culture is very kind and respectful, which are wonderful qualities that fit very well with my temperament. I am not saying people from US are not kind or respectful, but sometimes we can be more aggressive or challenging. I’m laid back and I like to listen to people before sharing my opinions. In a subconscious way, I’m representing where I’m from and want to be as respectful as possible. Productions are mostly run the same way. Some countries don’t have unions to protect them from working conditions so it’s well to know how to take care of your crew and avoid taking advantage of that.
Work can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes I don’t get hired for projects because someone may not think I can do it through the lens or style they are accustomed to, seeing from locals. Other times, I may get hired for that very reason, a client might want my sensibilities because they are different from everyone else’s. I appreciate both sides. I do what I can and stay true to myself.
Being a director, film-maker for over 8 years, what has changed in your perception of this profession?
People have a romantic view of filmmaking and I’m no different, it’s one of the reasons I got into it. I still have a romantic view of both filmmaking and life, though sometimes it’s a tough job because of creative hurdles or the endurance in takes to capture magic moments. There are times where it may be physically exhausting or might not be creatively inspiring. The biggest takeaway is that it’s almost always spiritually fulfilling. It takes everything out of me on every project and I often go through many emotions throughout the process. But when it’s done, I’m almost always thankful for that journey. I do believe an artist has to go through a bit of suffering and emotional hurdles to make better art. It’s a tougher job than I would have initially thought, and you have to be tough to keep going with it.
I’m one of those “first person in the room” sorts, on the first day of classes people would come in thinking I was the teacher. Naturally, I had to tease them.
Where and how did your career started?
It started in Chicago. When I was younger, I was a high school dropout. I didn’t have any direction for a while and felt pretty lost for years. I was a loser for lack of a better term. I didn’t do drugs or alcohol but wasn’t doing much with my time or energy. I’m a night owl who stayed indoors a lot and movies were a nice thing to enjoy during those times. I appreciated the art form and what it took to create them. I started doing research and planning goals to make it happen, so I eventually went back to school.
For me, this meant going to night school in not the best of neighborhoods and learning with people from every walk of life – mothers who got pregnant early and couldn’t finish school, gangbangers who wanted to turn their lives around, people who at one time or another were lost, but plowed through their struggles to be there. I appreciate everyone who takes that path because I’d argue it’s more difficult than going through regular high school.
I received my GED with the intent of going to film school afterwards. I was accepted into Columbia College Chicago where I studied directing. I was older than everyone else in my classes but also more focused than most. I’m one of those “first person in the room” sorts, on the first day of classes people would come in thinking I was the teacher. Naturally, I had to tease them. From there, I made as many projects as I could while also supporting myself and tuition working full-time. It was a pretty tough stint but made it through and have made projects since.
Take us through your creative process of working with models, actors, and other creatives during the shoot. Do you always work with professional actors?
Being a director is all about creating a safe space for actors to be comfortable in. It starts from there. I try to be very nurturing when collaborating with every actor, regardless how experienced they are. It’s not easy to be thrust into timed and pressured situations in unique locations with strangers watching you. I try to give them as much freedom as the role allows. They were chosen for good reason, whether that was something we saw is casting or just their inherent presence, so let’s have fun. It’s all about trust and that’s a two-way street. I have to trust them to carry a scene and they have to trust I’m taking them in the right direction. That starts with communication and getting comfortable with each other. Just being open to conversations about anything, doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be related to the project. Talk to me about life, love, struggle. Let me know where you’re coming from and vice-versa so we can better understand how to talk and work to each other. But let’s have fun and do something memorable. Make the most out of it.
No, it’s not always with professional actors. I enjoy and prefer non-actors at times. There is something refreshing and different (and challenging) about working with someone raw and untrained. They may have something untapped and don’t overthink things. Using that as a strength can sometimes make the performance feel more natural.
What happens when you work for a commercial project? How do you stay yourself and true to the values, when you work with a client?
Story, Story, Story. Let’s focus on what we’re trying to say and how to make it in a unique and refreshing way. I’m always myself regardless of the project, which means I’m giving my all and coming into it with being professional and light-hearted. I like to think I’m laid back with everyone I interact with in any facet of life, and filmmaking is no different. It can be a stressful environment and people are looking at you to steer the ship – the best way to do that is cool and collected.
Directing is very much a position of being able to talk to everyone in a respectful way and communicating a vision. As far as working with clients, it’s almost the same as working with actors – talk to them and find a common center. I’m always trying to understand where a client is coming from and what they are looking for. I was hired to execute a piece but also to elevate that piece. Let’s talk through it to understand what we’re trying to say and how it can be unique compared to everything else out there. It’s important to understand that everyone has different viewpoints and ways to go about things. It’s my job to listen to that, take it in, and respect those perspectives, while also advising the best route. With clients, they might be looking for something in particular, and that has to be respected. If there is a better way to go about it or a way to elevate that, then it’s my job to suggest that. Or, give them options. Take 1 might hit what we’re going for, but we can try this other approach with take 2. Now they have options and variation.
"It’s important to understand that everyone has different viewpoints and ways to go about things. It’s my job to listen to that, take it in, and respect those perspectives, while also advising the best route."
Who inspires you or affects your work? A film director that you love or a movie that inspired you throughout life?
That is tough. There are many filmmakers and many movies that I appreciate and draw energy from. I grew up a big Steven Spielberg fan because of his ability to build great scenes with heart. Sam Mendes is another one. This will snowball and became a dangerous answer. I follow a lot of people in the short film and commercial world now and their work is always a treat to digest.
Which was your favourite place/spot to shoot and why?
This is a very tough question. Every place has its own flavor. I always enjoy filming in Malaysia because of how kind and hardworking the people are there. The people I often collaborate with from there are very laid back and very focused. It feels like family.
Which of your projects/work is your favourite ? What makes it so special?
Hidden in Stars was a joy because I’m such a space nerd. That relates to being romantic about life again, which lent to being romantic with the story. A short film I keep close to the heart called Fairwater, about a sailor aboard a WWII submarine stranded at the bottom of the ocean. The sailor is living his last breaths and remembering a special moment in his life. We were blessed to film that on a functioning WWII submarine. I also created a brand film for a book company in which I got to venture to Houtouwan Village in China – really one of the best places I’ve ever been to. All of them connect with how much I enjoyed the writing process, locations, and the people I was blessed to work with.
I’m very much an in-person type of communicator. I like being close to people and feeling their energy.
How did the lockdown affect your work? We saw a lot to film-makers and directors working through Zoom and other such online platforms to create films. Was it the same for you?
Yes, more virtual calls for sure. It made it interesting to conduct business and made communicating a bit different but that’s fine. It’s all about adjusting. I’m very fortunate and thankful for the people who have to be out during this and that don’t have that option.