Growing up, Stoddard was fascinated by Disney’s villains and would often find himself running around in costume as Cruella de Vil or the Wicked Witch of the West. His films today stand out for taking these typically unexplored characters and turning them into three-dimensional protagonists. As a result, he draws the viewer into their worlds and perhaps even leaves the audience with a door slightly cracked into an alternate universe. Raw and authentic are the two words that fashion tirelessly seeks, but ironically when they’re found, this industry tends to pressure its artists to morph into something that they’re not. As a result, success takes not only talent and grit, both of which Griffin possesses, but also balance. We sit down with the director who has found a way to stay open enough to grow, yet grounded enough to never stray too far from — in his own words — his “zany, weird, flamboyant, [and] witchy” self.
This interview took place between Griffin and Tate at The Freehand in New York
Editor: Makena Gera
TVPS: Starting off, can you give an overview of how you got here?
GS: I'm working as a film director in New York now. I started making movies in third grade with a friend whose dad had a camcorder, so for all of our playdates, we would just make films. We would come up with these loose, weird ideas about really strange characters, we’d build sets, and we'd dress up in costume — there was a lot of dress-up going on.
Through experimenting in movie making with him, I discovered that that's what I wanted to do as a career. So I kept making little short films. Then in middle school or so I decided that I should probably come to New York, so I went to NYU Film School. I really, really hated it.
I was just a little... chaotic and anarchistic as a child and I feel like I've retained a little bit of that. It takes me a while to settle in with systems of authority and stuff like that.
NYU Tisch doesn’t really offer academic support or guidance, which I think I really could have used. None of the professors I had communicated much about what working in the industry would be like either.
I luckily had enough credits to graduate pretty early. I definitely think that I missed out on some of the better classes that maybe would have shaped my experience in a more positive way. But at the end of the day, it was too expensive and I wanted to go out on my own.
But especially for this industry, I feel you can learn a lot more with hands-on work experience than sitting in a classroom.
I think the value in school is in art history and knowing where to look in terms of directors, craftsmen, writers, and movements — things you might not necessarily find without guidance.
Also, the one thing they kept saying to us, which is what I remember most is, "Look to your left. Look to your right. These are the people that you're going to work with for the rest of your life." But I didn't really come out of school with a strong group of friends that were in a similar situation as me — fresh out of school, looking for any way to build a portfolio. That's another thing that I regret when it comes to what I feel like I missed out on. You can't create alone in this industry, and I'm still always looking for ways to build my community.
One of the hardest things to do in New York is to keep up with friends and to maintain what would be called “normal social lives” anywhere else because everyone is so focused and so busy.
But I started to build my group outside of school. I started interning at Milk. I was at Legs, their production company. I really wanted to work there because when I first got to New York I didn't really know that there was this other side of filmmaking. I wanted to make real movies, you know? Like narrative, feature-length films. That has always been my end game. I didn't know that there was this whole fashion and short-form content industry here. I was very attracted to Milk's branding and the work that Legs was putting out at the time. It was compelling to me.
It seemed really fresh. They had Georgie Greville directing, who has gone on to found Milk Makeup, and I was very into her work. She was working with Geremy Jasper who has gone on to do some feature films. Anyway, it was a couple of those pieces that got me thinking, “This is what I should try to do for now. This is how I should try to approach being a director — whatever that means.”
I left Legs when I went to Prague for my last semester of school, and when I got back to New York I started at Art Partner.
While you were at Art Partner, did you learn anything that’s applicable to your work now as a director?
I think the most important thing I learned there was getting real insight into client relations and communication.
When did you leave Art Partner?
After a little over a year. While I was there I was avoiding the things that scared me, like rejection, really going out there and trying to make it, networking. I think I was just telling myself, “You know, you're still working in film. It's fine.” I allowed myself to feel okay about it because I had the security of a full-time position.
Eventually, it just got to a point where I was like, “Wait, I'm not even making good money. I'm not even financially secure here.” So I was just like, “Shit. Okay, I guess I'm just going to leave.” And I did. I had about a month of pretty solid freelance work; I was working as a set dresser, and as an assistant to Mary Howard, the set designer.
Her work is insane, wow.
Yeah, she’s a force.
Then I traveled for about a month and I came back at the end of August. The first night I was home, I was fine. But, then I woke up the next morning and I had nothing to do. I had literally nothing on my calendar except for one shoot a month away, and I totally lost my mind. I was overrun by anxiety. I was so scared and questioning everything I'd done for the past few years.
Then work started to pick up at the end of September, and I started feeling better. I reached a point of clarity where I realized that in order to be happy, I needed to be making work that was fulfilling to me.
Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom!
Oh yeah. When that one shoot I had came up, I was so scared that I was going to get on set and not be able to do it. But I did it and it was fine; I got back on track. But I guess that’s one of the things about not having a solid career path. There might be these moments — sometimes weeks long, sometimes months — where you have nothing but doubt in yourself. Nothing but these big, horrible questions like, “Why am I here? What's the point? There are so many other artistic voices out there, and so many other people doing what I'm trying to do.
It can get really dark, especially for people who are predisposed to that kind of thinking. But what I do have now is clarity.
That's a huge reason why I started the site. Today, you can look at someone's Instagram and think, “He's doing amazing. He's shooting for these clients and has this fabulous life. Look at me. What do I have?” But on social media you’re only seeing a glimpse and that can be really damaging.
Yeah. There are so many people my age who are doing so much better than I am, and it's in your face every single day.
It is really difficult to remind myself that everyone is on their own path. There are people who I went to school with directing huge commercial projects that I see on their Instagrams, but I’ll watch the film and I'm like, “Well, I would never make this. So I guess I can’t be mad.” For the time being, I just have to do what I love and trust that the money will come.
Which is hard because all of those editorial films that I was doing, while I was still at Art Partner, I didn't get paid for any of them. But you kind of have to spend money to make money.
Did they reimburse?
Sometimes. Sometimes the budget would be nothing, sometimes it would be $300, once it was $1,000. But most were still out of my pocket. I used up my savings on these editorial films. So many of those projects, I’m like “What the hell was I doing?”
Yeah, but you need room to experiment and to grow as an artist. It just sucks though when that room is coming out of your own wallet.
Yeah, definitely. As black-and-white as my mentality is, for some reason I’m a fervent believer in the whole “any experience is the best experience” mantra. I am grateful for every one of my experiences shooting.
Also, there wasn’t always this pressure that we have today. Now everyone’s so focused on, “Oh, this 19-year-old is doing X, Y, and Z.” But I think it's impossible to be 19 years old, or 20, or 25, and to really know who you are as an artist, and what you stand for. But since that’s not the mentality of the industry right now, it can be really trying.
Yeah, it is. I had an interesting conversation with the friend who I started making movies with in third grade while I was in the throes of my existential crisis, and he was like, “You know, I think New York may be a better fit for you in terms of your lifestyle, but the value system there I don’t think is benefitting your career and what you want to do as a filmmaker.” Which I thought was a really interesting point. We all have an inherent desire to be liked and valued by other people and I'm no exception. It's been a difficulty for me in fashion — making creative sacrifices to make other people happy.
Do you think performing in drag has influenced your work as a director and in return the way that you see yourself?
I think so. Since I was little, I've always had this intense fascination with very particular types of characters. Now as a director I just want everyone to know those characters, or see them and get something out of it.
I've only been doing drag very casually for about a year, but when I am in drag as Winifred Sanderson from Hocus Pocus, that is when I feel the most powerful and beautiful and cool. I love immersing myself in the worlds of these characters, and it's something I really hope to do a lot more of in the coming year. It's been much more recreational for me, but it took me a really long time to get to a place where I even felt comfortable dressing up.
I was in drag every single day as a kid — black gowns and capes and like Cruella de Vil wigs. But between becoming a teenager and becoming an adult, I was not very comfortable with my sexuality. But I feel like I'm getting there.
What is your role with Totokaelo, and how did that relationship start?
I was in the store looking for a piece to use in one of my films while I was at NYU, and I started talking with someone who was working there. When I landed my first directing gig I brought him on as a stylist. A while later, he brought me on to do secondary content for one of their editorials. They were really happy with it, and when they had a big collab with Comme des Garçons they brought me on to do the secondary video content again. After that, they reached out and were like, “Let's bring you on for the rest of the season.” That's when I think my real relationship with them as a client started, and the next project we did was for Calvin Klein.
Can you take us from pre all the way through post-production? How much are you typically involved in post?
With those projects that I had for Totokaelo, the in-house art direction team comes to me with a deck with references and a loose concept. Then, I’ll meet with their team and the stylist for the shoot and the three of us develop the concept, flesh it out, and talk about what it will look like.
By the third shoot with them, which was Acne Studios, I was feeling a lot more comfortable. Our working relationship was a lot stronger, so I was able to take more direction with the creative. That was exciting for me because it was one of the first times that I felt like I had a legit creative voice with a paying client.
For post, I edit the films myself and will usually work on color with the DP or use the grade I get from the post production studio, Metropolis. A lot of the time in fashion I’ve found that the story comes out in the edit. There’s usually a couple of rounds of feedback from the client and a hasty process of music composition and then it’s posted!
How do you give the clients and the other members of your team what they want while still staying true to your vision?
I think maintaining an open mind is central to working well with a team. A lot of directors swear by this "my way or the highway" way of working, but I just really don't believe that’s sustainable.
I believe it’s my job is to act as a filter for all of these other creative professionals to go through. It comes out looking like something that’s seen through my eyes, but it's a combination of so many different talents. That’s what makes me so excited about each new project, is the opportunity to collaborate with people and learn from others. I feel the best on set when I feel humbled by my crew, grateful they are giving me their time, and excited by what I can learn from them.
My advice would be to avoid working with people that you don't work well with. When I work with people that I don’t work well with all I am thinking about is, “How can I minimize conflict?” as opposed to thinking about my actual work.
For your equipment, where do you spend your money and where do you save?
Making friends with people who own equipment is really valuable for obvious reasons. There are a lot of students or young people who personally own cameras or other vital pieces of equipment, and if you are friendly with them, or you've worked with them before, they may give you good rates. It's kind of a game of favors as a director, and it’s tough because directing isn't really a trade skill you can offer up in exchange. You can't just be like, “Oh, well I'll direct your next film for you as a favor if you lend me your camera.”
Developing relationships with rental houses is also really important. I was lucky to make some of those relationships when I was working as a producer or coordinator bringing in actual money jobs, and now as a freelancer, I get to be like, “Hey, remember me? I have this little passion project, can you do anything for me?” Sometimes they can cut deals, sometimes they can't. But people are generally a lot nicer than you think they're going to be.
ShareGrid is a great resource for rentals as well. It's a website where private owners can advertise their equipment for rent. A lot of people run little mini rental houses out of their homes through that website, so that's a really good resource. But I would say the best way to save money is by making friends and putting work into maintaining good relationships.
What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?
One thing that I am really flattered by is when people say, “You're the same person that you were when you were a toddler.” I think, at the heart of it, that statement is more or less true. I got so much shit from teachers growing up because I adamantly refused to do anything other than exactly what I wanted to do when it came to the way that I was expressing myself. I have gone through phases of hiding or suppressing those things, but I’ve always found them again. I am still a very zany, weird, flamboyant, witchy person because I am very loyal to the things that bring joy. So I would tell someone who looks up to me: try your absolute hardest not to let other people’s standards or values derail your goals or the things that make you an individual.