Matt Lambert is the LA-born, Berlin-living filmmaker and photographer whose portfolio spans from X-rated films on one end to campaigns for Gucci and Covergirl on the other. With this juxtaposition, he proves that as long as your work is created with "the same love and humanist approach" it's possible to balance both. He started directing TV commercials in the US, before re-discovering his fine art roots in Berlin. The city taught him to value the human aspect of filmmaking, and as a result, his work is now a celebration of sexuality and queer intimacy.
This interview took place over the phone between Tate in New York and Matt in Berlin
Editor: Becky Burgum
TVPS: So how did you get into filmmaking?
ML: I grew up in LA and studied fine art. Fine art lead me into the world of design animation and that's where I started getting into moving image, but it was really more animation and design based work for the first few years before I started shooting people. Then I went on to study in Germany for a little bit, majoring in mixed media. Filmmaking in Germany took me to London, where I began working as an art director in an animation studio. That's when I started to direct and later moved to New York, where I began directing TV commercials.
For me, that's the boring part of the story, but it shows at least how things started - from drawing, to moving the drawings, to deciding that I wanted to put people in front of the camera. After spending a few years in New York directing commercials, I realized that was absolutely not the thing that I had intended to do. I was really fucking burned out from the incredibly commercially driven way of working and the intense level of productivity that was expected of me. It was a world where the brands that you worked with and your commercial output defined you and for me, that wasn't anything of value. I decided that I needed to get back to the roots of what I was working on when I first got started, and I came to Berlin to do a little hiatus. Eight years later, I’m still here and it's been about finding a sustainable way to do the work that I want to do the majority of the time.
The first few years in Berlin were really like starting from scratch. Giving up a relatively stable and healthy salary in New York City to go back to the basics of being an artist again and making work without any kind of strategic or commercial trajectory. I was just making things that I wanted to make, expressing ideas, creating images, and telling stories that I had bottled up over the years of being stuck in this commercial US, UK space.
I started taking photos because my budgets were limited - as in none - so it was a way for me to document stories, characters, and start to engage with subjects and subject matters that were interesting to me. Photography became part of my image-making practice, and the two careers overlapped but they had parallel lives as well. It was interesting to have two different practices at different points in their growth.
For the few years, I was on the verge of giving up and going home with my tail between my legs. I just didn't think that what I was making mattered. I didn't think there was a way to sustain the work that I was making and I started to feel a little foolish, selfish, and a bit short-sighted. Then all of a sudden the fashion industry came calling first and started commissioning me to do projects, which, financially allowed me to survive. Also, not that brand relationships are everything for me, but it was nice to know that there were human beings who - despite having the ability to work with any number of really talented people - were reaching out to me. It was a nice thing when you felt like you were in the dark, making work for who?
I made my first X-rated film last year, so it was interesting to be shooting that within two weeks of shooting Covergirl, but I’m always very transparent about the work that I do. Even if I'm doing work that's super explicit, it's done with the same kind of love and humanist approach. It's about finding ways to present the most intimate, honest, authentic, and celebratory version of someone that you can.
It’s been an interesting range of projects and I obviously work a lot with queer musicians, which is how I spend the time that I'm not producing commercial work. I've probably done music videos for about a dozen queer musicians. It’s a really important thing for me to support artists who don't necessarily have the means or the resources to tell stories or create images, that are as large as their work is. My husband is a producer as well, so we work together a lot on those more family projects.
When you first came to Berlin, one of the first films that you directed was Paul und Jakob. When you look back on that film now, can you see how Berlin has played a role in shaping who you are as a director?
Well it’s shaped everything, for sure. Paul has become a really good friend and we invite him and his girlfriend out to things all the time. Different directors work in different ways, but the relationships are, at least for me, a really important part of how I work. I don't feel comfortable directing a scene if I don't feel comfortable with the actor and if there's not an existing relationship of some sort - that can even mean a couple of hours having a coffee the day before. I'm not a director that you can just drop on set and just be like, “Let's do a scene. Hi, nice to meet you.”
I've watched Berlin change, but when I first came here there was an intense openness from the people that I met who blindly trusted what I was doing without judgment, without skepticism. I think the ability to build relationships with people who trust my vision allowed me to push things so much further than I ever would have been able to.
It's not about billable hours, it’s about whatever it takes to get where you need to get with a scene and I think that that goes hand in hand with valuing the human side of filmmaking. That relationship building is something that takes time. In New York, it would be seen as a distraction or a speed bump that you have to go and have meetings with the cast because you're too busy doing other shit, but here you have time and space to be able to build those relationships. The nuance of performance has really shown through because of that.
What were your initial fears for creating the work that you wanted to, and how did you overcome them?
I think I never made work that explored my sexuality because I was consciously aware that that was going to somehow jeopardize my commercial success – like that fucking matters anyway. That was why I didn't really make work that was autobiographical, but of course, how can you make anything that matters in an art space that's not indirectly, or directly autobiographical at least at its start? That limited the work that I made because I had all of these filters of what you can and can't do. Now I'm at a point where there are zero filters.
When my husband and I had just first started dating he couldn't understand why someone would ever be ashamed of the work that I wanted to create. I would tell him, “Well, you don’t do that.” He would ask, “Can you please explain to me why you wouldn't talk about this in public, or post this, or publish that?” He wasn't even trying to be confrontational or challenging, he genuinely didn’t understand. I would try to articulate the reason why, and then I’d realize that there isn't a reason, but instead I was so built into this puritanical subconscious coming from America.
There was this fear of of self preservation, privacy, and what would happen, but then I’d run the scenario in my head and realize how illogical it was. That’s when my work became very autobiographical; it became, my relationship, my sexuality, and sexual encounters. I hoped that I could, or that the work could start to help unblock that filter for other people who felt the same things, and it has. I do get letters, well not letters, DM's, there's never letters…
[Laughs] I’ll get messages from, well not always people making work, but more people saying that my work has affected them on a personal level. They saw that there was this expression of sexuality and intimacy, done in a way that was playful and celebratory, done without shame, but with humor. I think that they had never seen queer intimacy presented like that before, and that allowed them to humanize those stories, experiences and get through that block.
Is it challenging to create work that focuses on intimacy, as it’s such a fragile state?
It’s about shooting people with love and respect. Intimacy is a very subjective thing, and sexuality is a very objective thing. Even when it comes to lighting and camera angles, we’re constantly asking, “What is going to give that feeling of the subject, versus an object.” And when we're editing, we are ultra-conscious of body language, people's eye contact, the way their shoulders fall and that sense of safety, trust, and warmth that is intimacy. For me, it’s about breaking down the DNA of what's the difference between these two.
Have you learned anything from past subjects?
Always. For me, I wouldn't make a film with someone if I didn't feel like I had something to learn. When I moved to Berlin, taking photos was a way to engage and have conversations - it was an intermediate to sit down and understand people’s personalities and the worlds that they came from. For me, engaging with anybody, there's always going to be a curiosity or there’s no point. Especially in the queer universe where people are constantly questioning their identity. It's an ever involving conversation, from one week to the next the same person could potentially have a different perspective. I’m learning weekly, absolutely.
One of your latest documentaries is Out of This World for i-D. How does your approach vary from shooting more artistic films to a documentary?
In the more artistic films, there's still a level of documentary approach to how I create things. There's this really blurry division between where reality, and where acting, starts or stops.
For the more experimental films, a lot of times it's all to do with building a scene that is part of a broader scene; giving a motivation, setting some subjects, setting some themes, setting some actions, but then allowing people to take it and make it their own. Then the camera really starts to document the world that I create.
When it comes to documentary, I step back more, because the scenes are already alive for you. You don't have to engineer things as much or micromanage. It's about just sitting back and enjoying, watching a scene unfold and relinquishing the control. It's a really beautiful thing and you become more of a spectator rather than an active participant. But even in documentary, you're still stopping to give notes because someone walked the wrong way, and you need to get them going this way to make the shot work.
For Out of this World, we still chose all our locations and we still decided what the scene was going to be. We allowed those scenes to completely drive themselves, but there was a level of construction. When we went to the party, that was a real party, but when we did the Mykki Blanco concert at the end, we threw a concert, and I produced an MB concert with i-D. Of course, it was a real concert, but we knew we wanted to do it at this particular venue, and we knew what we wanted to have, so it was a blurry line between fiction and documentary. But I think that blurry line is something that exists in all of my work - I’ve never done anything that’s pure documentary or pure fiction.
One of the main themes for Out of This World was visibility, and while I think that is incredibly important, have you ever been concerned for the safety of your subjects?
It's always a conversation that's had, for sure. I’ll explain where the film is going to live, how it's going to be, and although this is something that can get you in trouble - I almost always show edits to people before we release things. It's very different being on set, then seeing how you’re presented in a film. If they feel comfortable, then it's their decision, and safety has not been a problem for anybody in any project that I've ever done.
What was the story behind your film for Charles Jeffrey?
It was Charles digging into his Scottish heritage. There was this thing called waulking that used to happen in old Scotland. Women would take buckets from the village filled with urine, pour it on the table, and they would knead tweed into the urine because it would help the ink set into the fabric and help the weave tighten. These women would sit around the table and for hours on end and chant.
But it was all really dirty, limerick kind of stuff. They'd basically just talk shit about their husbands and tell dirty jokes. The men would be in the other room drinking and the women would be really fucking loud doing it, to pretend that the guys couldn't hear them, but obviously wanted them to hear it. It also became very cathartic and spiritual because the fumes plus the exhaustion would take you to this transcendental meditative space.
Charles Jeffrey used to make his first collections in the basement of Vogue fabrics in London. It was him and all his friends sitting around a table communally making the clothes for no money. So it was a parallel between his circle of friends making his early punk rock queer collections in London, and paying homage to his Scottish heritage.
The lead older woman in the video is a good friend of his mother, and she came down from Scotland to teach us the song and we worked with the Theo Adams Company to remix and rewrite it. We ended up casting her in it because she was so great, and she became the head waulking figure, while the rest of the cast were part of the Theo Adams Company.
What are the main differences between shooting commercial work and your independent work?
For traditional commercial work, there is a pitching process where you're presenting up to a 50-page treatment, and within that, you're getting your ideas embedded intensely. By the time the treatment has been revised, presented, revised, and accepted, the film is pretty much set and then you enter pre-production. Especially when you get into this huge budget territory, the clients want to know exactly what they're getting. So there’s no room to experiment, even if on the day of shooting the people in the room believe you have a better idea - often they don’t want to go back to a client who has already seen and signed off on it. When I'm in LA, my sets can be up to 100 people teams. One little tweak, such as a lighting adjustment, can take half an hour and that's time you don't have when you're on the clock, with a dozen agents and clients over your shoulder.
Whereas, with more artistic projects, you're constantly evolving. Of course, you're going in with a treatment, but there's a lot of room to be able to change things last-minute because you found a better solution to experiment with. Those tiny budgets mean that there isn't going to be oversight, there's a hell of a lot of room to play and explore, and that's when the great ideas tend to happen. Later on, you can then take those ideas into the commercial space and refine them, and do bigger, better versions. But in commercial spaces, at least for me, there's almost never a new idea happening there.
A client might say, "Oh, I love that short film you made," or "I love that music video you did," or "I love that fine-art photo book thing you did, can we do something like that?" Then you can take and elevate the craft of that small-budget project for a commercial client. It's always a constant dialogue with your independent work and your commercial work. Commercially to elevate the craft, and play with toys, and play with equipment - things that you wouldn't be able to afford on the independent projects - but the real innovation happens in those editorial, art, music video spaces.
What’s one thing that you wish you knew when you were just getting started?
So much. I wish I understood that it was a human business more and that there wasn't this one specific way that things happened. There are so many different ways to make connections and to find projects, but most importantly, the way that you work needs to mirror who you are as a person.
One director might show up on set, really serious, and it’s all action, action, action, and then you have other directors who are the total opposite. If you don't know who you are, then you're just mimicking the ways other people do things - it's not going to feel genuine, and I think people can see through it very quickly. On the other hand, if you believe in what you're doing, especially if you're the one who's leading the show, people will follow. As long as you're happy, healthy, and productive, there's no right or wrong way to do things.
For sure. My last question is, what advice would you give to someone who looks up to you, but I guess you answered that! Is there anything that you’d like to add?
Find out who you are, all of our trajectories are super different. Sometimes I’ll hear, “Oh, I’m coming to Berlin to be like this person or do what that person did.” But, you’re never going to do a one-for-one replication of another person’s career, it’s more about what's your journey? What do you have to say?
Or some people don't have something to say artistically, but want to work in a creative space. And that's totally fine. Producers help facilitate other peoples' visions, which is an amazing thing, and they get to be a collaborative partner. I think everybody has it stuck in their heads that they need to be a director, a photographer, the singular source of creative thought.
If you just like the idea of being a director, that's not really enough. Everybody loves the idea of being a director, I guess. It seems like a cool thing to do. But you better have something burning inside of you that you want to express, or visualize, or say that’s going to keep you motivated to work the hours that you're going to work.