Trish Sie is an American film and music video director, and choreographer, best known for directing Pitch Perfect 3 and Step Up: All In, as well the highly creative and recognisable music videos for the alternative rock band Ok Go. Lift-Off caught up with Trish to find out where her passion for film started and her advice to aspiring directors.
Interview by Lauren Macaree
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in directing and how did you go about making it a reality?
My career has been a series of happy accidents. As a choreographer, I spent years shooting dance so I’d have a record of my work. Video was easier than keeping written notes! And it left me with tangible evidence of the performances I created. Dance is such a fleeting art form, you live it fully in the moment, and then it’s gone. So I loved having footage of my dances to look back on. Over the years, I got better and better at shooting, simply because I did so much of it. I learned how to use angles and tell stories…. I discovered how flat and slow many actions look on camera…. I developed a respect for the way a camera sees things versus the way a person in the room experiences the same event…. I played with levels and layers and rhythms. Eventually, I even began to pay more attention to lenses, lighting, and more technical aspects of filmmaking. When my direction and choreography for the band ‘OK Go’ got me noticed on a bigger scale, thanks to some very fortuitous timing in the early days of YouTube, my opportunities expanded. I was asked to direct other music videos, online films, and then TV commercials. Those experiences, in turn, landed me a theatrical agent who helped me get my first feature film, a dance movie called ‘Step Up: All In’. Directing a dance movie made sense for my first film; it was so comfortably in my wheel house. But after that experience, I really wanted to do more with comedy, character, and storytelling. So when Pitch Perfect 3 came along, I was really excited to flex my comedy muscles a bit more.
What was the film that sparked your interest in the industry?
On a purely visual level, I’d say Umbrellas of Cherbourg! This movie, a French-German musical, directed by Jacques Demy, came out years before I was even born. But I saw it when I was in college and was instantly smitten. It’s so lush, juicy, and stylized. The use of color and geometry is brilliant. And from a storytelling perspective, I’d have to cite Pulp Fiction as a game-changer for me. Again, I was in college when I saw it. Tarantino’s taste, his pacing, his characters and his dialogue was like nothing I had ever considered at the time. I hung on to every frame and every word of that film.
What makes a film and script stand out to you, inspiring you to direct it?
For me, finding a project is like shopping for a home. I know it immediately when I walk into it, but it’s so hard to describe how I know. At the beginning of the process, I can identify what I’m looking for, I can lay out my priorities and make a wish list, etc. But at the end of the day, I read a certain script and simply know if it’s something I can work with. I know if it fits my current needs, even if it wasn’t what I planned. I know if I can bring it to life. It’s sometimes the story that hooks me, but more often, it’s in the tone or the details, the characters, the nuances. And the people, too. Who am I going to be teaming up with to make this happen? Is this a good collaboration? Like a house, a script is something I’m going to inhabit for a while, so I need to be able to see its possibilities, the ways that I can make it mine and fall in love with it. It may not be perfect, but can I picture bringing in my furniture, so to speak? Can I set myself up inside this thing? Can I paint the walls and put down a carpet and will my kitchen table fit? It really feels the same way to me.
What is your favourite film and why?
My absolute favourite movie of all-time is ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (Baz Luhrmann). It changed my life. I love the campy humor, the bold colors, the stylish way it’s shot, the outlandish (and yet not inaccurate) portrayal of the bizarre world of ballroom dancing. The soundtrack is fabulous. The dance scenes are pretty much perfection. It has so much heart, yet so much balls. I think it’s Baz Luhrmann’s best film.
What was the transition between directing music videos and a feature film like?
A very steep learning curve! A music video is like a high-powered sprint, whereas a feature film is like a long-distance run. The stamina requirement is very different, staying focused, keeping your eye on the ball, not allowing yourself to get snowblind or exhausted and lost inside the thing, month after month through prep, on set, and in the edit and finishing stages. Of course, there are technical skills I had to learn on the job, as well. Compared to most of my music videos and commercials, a movie requires a lot more attention to things like eyelines, edit points, matching coverage, continuity concerns, scheduling, script details, transitions from scene to scene. And on top of all that, there’s the challenge of helping actors establish, develop and grow their characters and story arcs over time. That’s my favorite difference between short-form work and feature film, I love brainstorming and workshopping with the actors over the long haul. It lets you really sink your teeth into their process with them.
Congratulations on your recent success with Pitch Perfect 3! It is a fitting and bittersweet ending to the story, (you could say it hits all the right notes!) what was the experience of directing the final chapter in such an established and adored franchise like? Any obstacles?
THANK YOU SO MUCH! It was a daunting scene to walk into, this big, sprawling, beloved franchise. But I loved it. I was welcomed warmly by the cast, who were excited to get some fresh blood. And I had a fantastic crew who supported me at every turn. To refer to my analogy above, I may have been walking into a house built by other people, but it was my job to make it MY home. So my #1 priority was to create and protect a Trish-flavored bubble around the film as we made it, to nurture an environment where people enjoyed coming to work and felt they could take creative risks, where they brought a sense of joy and inventiveness to the project. We are so lucky to work in this industry, especially on a fun frolic of a movie like PP3. If we didn’t laugh and have a blast making it, what would have even been the point?!
What would your dream project to direct be?
I’d love to make a super smart horror movie…. or a film about a heavy metal band. Or maybe tackle animation someday?
If someone wants to pursue a career as a director, how would you recommend they go about it?
Just make stuff! Write and shoot and edit and act and do it all! Do it on your phone, on your friend’s phone, on your mom’s phone… enter 48-hour film competitions… Help your friends make stuff and ask them to help you. Get a network and a team together and MAKE STUFF ALL THE TIME! Don’t overthink it, a lot of your stuff will be awful, that’s true for ALL OF US. So do it anyway. If a certain percentage of your s*** is gonna stink no matter what, then make A LOT OF IT so you have more GOOD stuff when all is said and done. And give yourself deadlines so you have to finish. You’ll get tired of projects and sick of them before you finish. You’ll shelve them and say you’ll come back to them someday, but you won’t. So turn it in, to someone, someplace. Even if no one sees it, commit to releasing a new video to your YouTube channel every Wednesday night, or enter a new film festival every month. Or whatever. The deadline doesn’t matter, only that you have one. That means you can’t be too precious or take too long. And be nice to people. Be empathetic and kind and make real friends along the way. Stand your ground creatively, protect your work and your process, believe in yourself and your instincts, BUT DON’T BE A D*** ABOUT IT. Enjoy the ride and savor the adventure.