ARTISTS WHO BRUNCH
A conversation with Paul Alvarado-Dykstra at Counter Cafe in East Austin
What energizes you?
In fact, I met Paul standing over a dessert table at a SXSW closing party, and we’ve been friends since. I greatly admire his intellect, wit, and kindness--and I’m excited to share them with you. He’s worked in film, marketing, creative direction, production, consulting, and more. He is currently an executive for a massive YouTube channel and formerly an assistant to Guillermo del Toro. He is the Co-Founder of a fantastic film festival, Fantastic Fest, and he put Grumpy Cat on the Iron Throne at SXSW.
Or when someone does something different and unexpected.
NT: How so?
I mean it could be all sorts of things, like there’s this gelato place called Dolce Neve. They were like, “We’re going to do this our own way”. On the one hand is very traditional and even quaint and antiquated--but yet updated in terms of their flavors and ingredients--I like that combination of doing something unique.
There’s also stuff like Black Panther which is a completely different approach to that genre and blending genres. But also in the unscripted space I’m in now, I’m paying more attention to things like ya know whether it’s Master Chef Jr or Japanese games shows, how are producers and creatives playing with these formats and genres and moving them forward and doing something different, and then what sort of possibilities does that open up?
I’m loving what you’re bringing up about doing things ‘differently’.
Yeah sometimes it’s incremental differences so it’s not necessarily like throwing everything out and saying there’s no value in the way things are done, but it’s finding ways to make incremental, iterative improvements that add something new and move things forward--rather than keeping things the same over and over again to where they get boring.
So in this new space you’re researching, what kind of problems are you looking at people solving differently?
A lot of it has to do with how to work within very specific constraints, such balancing resources or commercial imperatives or budget or schedule, and then finding ways to be creative within that. And then those constraints sometimes spark ideas in and of themselves.
Totally. Like necessity is the mother of invention.
Yeah exactly. That I’m always fascinated by. And also artists finding ways to repeat but not repeat. Sort of the dichotomy of like here’s this thing you want to do or series of films you want to do-- and we want to have a consistency so we don’t lose the audience, but we need to keep refreshing it so we don’t bore them and so hopefully we also attract new people and have a different way to sample it.
There’s a filmmaker I really admire Christopher McQuarrie who is a writer/director who was the first one to do a repeat on Mission Impossible. And he basically was like I’m going to change out my crew and take a different approach to the writing, and basically pretend like I’m a different filmmaker.
NT: How do you do something that is that thing but a new enough version of that thing?
Part of it is just reframing your thinking of what’s possible.
Another great example that can unfortunately only be viewed on import bluray until it’s released in the US, is one we showed at Fantastic Fest last fall called One Cut of the Dead. It’s a low budget Japanese zombie movie about a ton of independent filmmakers making a zombie movie, and it became this box office sensation in Japan. No name actors but it blew up after opening in two theatres and it’s just this phenomenon. It doesn’t have a US release yet that I know of.
At first glance, well I’m generally predisposed to watching any of the Japanese movies we show because they’re usually great, but on the other hand I’m like we don’t need another zombie movie. That genre has been done to death and it’s been reinvented and I’m like do we really need another zombie movie? And just when you think the answer to that is a resounding ‘absolutely not’, along comes this crazy Japanese filmmaker who does something that the most genre literate movie going audience in the world, which I think is what Fantastic Fest is, did not see coming at all. It blew away our audiences, our team, everybody involved. No one could see where it was going to go, and it walked this highwire act that kept escalating and stuck the landing in a way that was just euphoric.
And what’s particularly amazing, for that movie, everything I was hearing was that you’re going to watch this and for the whole first act you’re going to say “this is boring why do I care whats the big deal why is everyone raving”, but the payoffs-- I hate overhyping things--but it’s hard to overhype the sheer ingenuity of this film. And especially in the confines of a genre that has been done to death, and with very limited resources, how do you do something new? And that’s still possible. Every time I see someone do that. I mean there ya go. It’s just so satisfying and inspiring.
I want to show it to our team, not that it’s in any way appropriate for our channel or audience, but in terms of inspiration and of doing things that are working within your constraints and unleashing the power of narrative and editing that don’t cost any more or less than a 200 million dollar Marvel movie but can take your audience on a ride and somewhere they haven’t been and experience something they haven’t experienced--anyone can do that.
I mean you’ve got brands out there spending so much money to make the most engaging content, but it’s a video of a mom laughing at herself in a Chewbaca mask that goes viral. It has nothing to do with having a huge budget--it comes from being able to see something no one else saw or do something in a way that no one else thought of.
I’m curious then, what about the miracle of a one hit wonder--would you say it’s a really great teamwork or a strong vision or trying to solve a problem in a new way, is there a way to make that magic so it’s not just magic?
Yes and no. I think that it takes a strong foundation in understanding the form of the genre and having a cultural literacy to know what has been done. Informed--but also have this weird balance of arrogance and humility. Where on the one hand there are no truly original ideas, but on the other having the force of will to say, “I can find a new approach or spin that is personal and unique to me, and if it speaks to me and gets me excited then hopefully if it will get someone else excited.”
When you’re consuming something someone made, it’s fair to ask, “Ok when they were making this, were they making this for themselves, were they making this for their audience, or some combination of both?” And sometimes you’ll see people that clearly don’t care about the audience, and sometimes it’s brilliant and resonates with people, and sometimes it’s naval-gazing and not accessible or resonate and seems indulgent or inconsiderate. But the other end of the spectrum is you can’t make something purely to please other people because it’s usually artificial or pandering.
You can smell that from a mile away.
And there’s a whole other issue of timing, and this is something the industry gets caught up in a lot, chasing what that most recent hit is. But ten years from now when it’s going to come out you’ll have missed that. So you have to find the balance.
Like pirate movies were dead as a doornail until Pirates of the Carribbean came out, but on the other hand that did not open the floodgates to other pirate movies. You can’t just say “oh they were able to do something different that resonated, how can I be like that?”
Right. They made the thing; you don’t need to do it again. So what do you think about how that applies to ideas in general?
A couple things. There’s a talk I’ve given just a few times I call, “Three Things I’ve Learned”, and one of them is related to that. It came up just yesterday.
The thing that a lot of people don’t get and would be well served learning sooner rather than later: ideas are a dime a dozen. Everybody’s got a great idea. No one cares. By and large 99.9% of the time the idea isn’t what matters--it’s the execution that matters.
It’s about your ability to demonstrate that you can successfully execute. Because if you can’t do that--your ideas are worthless and probably not original any way. So instead of focusing on the great idea, come at it from the other side. Which is: with the resources I have, with the knowledge I have, with the team I could put together, what can I execute? Because that will narrow down from the pie in the sky “oh I have to come up with an idea”--it will give you structure and limit your scope and process into not wasting time on ideas that are unexecutable but on the things that could actually move you forward and be put into the world. Having a drawer full of ideas does no one any good, and it’s a waste of time.
Would it be then a good idea paired with a way to get it made?
Does that still land in “idea land” though?
I think ideally. I’ve done a lot of development, worked as a producer, and now I’m an executive overseeing production and development. There’s something to be said for the writer to ideally have unconstrained creativity and freedom on the page to explore and discover. But I would say that’s what novels are for. If you don’t want to be concerned with issues of production, schedule, budget, props, whatever. Write the novel. You don’t have to answer to anyone. That’s what that form is for.
The goal is not just for you to have a cathartic, artistic, expressive experience, but to create a work that can be made and shared, and that people will see. And so how do we connect those dots?
If you’re trying to make something, no one makes a screenplay. It’s a blueprint to the final product which is the film or the show. On the one hand there are few things I enjoy more than a beautifull\y crafted screenplay, but it’s just that until and unless theres a path to get it made manifest.
I think the more a writer can learn about production and understanding the ramifications of anything they write on their page, their odds immediately magnify. And listening to people who know those things and have those considerations. You want to be protective of your approach and creative vision, but you have to balance that with the practicalities of we live in the physical world and someone is going to have to pay for it or believe in it enough.
So say someone isn’t lucky enough to meet you by the dessert table like I was, how do they go about finding the right opinion on something? There’s plenty of bad advice out there.
Ask for more than one set of opinions and notes and often you'll find commonalities. And don't be afraid to break out of your own circle. Because sometimes, if you're just keep getting feedback from friends and family, there can be an impulse, even if it’s subconscious, to just be nice. And encouragement is good! But look for someone who's willing to tell you something that is not easy to hear--but who can back it up and be very specific.
How do you go about following your intuition? Going with instincts--going with your gut?
There's a side of me that wants to believe it--that's like the optimist, imaginative and open. And then there's the skeptic, which is like, prove it, show me. And those are constantly having a healthy discourse.
But I but I try to approach things with an openness to like, let's not close the door on the possibilities. The skepticism saying convince me that I should come in or that I should let you in.
I think you have to be willing to have your mind changed. And to not see that as a lack of strength or intelligence. And to have that healthy balance of being willing to commit and being invested in something--but also the flexibility to say we need to adapt to changing conditions or evolve to make it better.
A formative experience of mine after working for Guillermo--a $30 million film for New Line--and he was just like, you don't know what you don't know until you are actually in the thick of production.
And seeing how the machine works from the inside of all those departments and all those things that have to happen. There's no way to know or even begin to contemplate all the things you don't know.
And it totally sucks for someone starting out, because it's like such a big disadvantage. But the number one thing you can do to help yourself is recognize that reality. Lose any arrogance, and just embrace the willingness of like, there's always going to be stuff I don't know, then seize every opportunity to learn and understand more.
This is another of The Three Things That I've Learned, it's that “no” is easier to say than “yes”. And that generally the default, like status quo and inertia position, is “no”.
So the challenge is, how do you overcome that?
You make the perception of risk that its riskier for them to say “no” than “yes”. If you’re pitching something, what you’ve got is a binary choice, yes or no. And the decision maker by and large is confronted with risk all the time about the matter. And any decision to say yes or no is a risk assessment not only for their company, but for themselves also.
So why would you go out on the limb? Generally the default position is that I'm safer saying no-- convince me I should say yes. Make it seem like it’s riskier to say I had the opportunity and I didn’t take it. That’s the magic trick.
When it comes to breaking into the industry, one of my favorite things Guillermo ever said, I believe it was actually at a SXSW panel or something, was that “Opportunity is a bridge that burns behind you”. So it's like it basically means like, everyone's path is unique. It's kind of a, it's a very specific intersection of time and place and circumstance and opportunity. That almost never can be exactly replicated for anyone.
So the best advice is like, yeah, be aware of how people have found their way in the past, but apply that same creativity in your work, and find your own path to building your own bridge.
NT: Which goes back to what you were saying is the secret sauce of pitching. Making it seem riskier to say no because it comes down to that one incredible thing about you and what makes this project so different from Jo or Jack or Susan’s. People want to feel significant.
My dad told me about this study that was done over three generations that measured what people really valued in work and made them want to show up--and it was significance.
That's a big reason why I took this position and left a great content marketing agency I was at for years. Lots of joy with Grumpy Cat and many other things. But after several years, I was feeling underutilized.
Not feeling useful--is death. It’s like, why am I here? What am I doing?
Well--be careful what wish for. But I'm very grateful. I, every single day, any given moment, in dozens of different directions, I’m feeling as useful as I've ever felt. And it's awesome. But it's so important, especially in a leadership position, to make sure to take the time to empower your crew, your team, whatever, that everybody on there is feeling useful.
I think that it's an interesting distinction you make--feeling useful. Like you can have someone in a business doing something useful but if they don’t see the scope or feel the power of what they’re doing in the whole then they’re not feeling useful.
Yeah, I mean, the obvious big asterisk caveat is that, obviously, everyone, like, especially the team that you're running, needs to be useful. Otherwise, cut them loose. I mean, give them a chance, and then try to mentor and nurture them, but at a certain point, yeah, they're slacking off. And under the delusion that they're useful, that may be great for them, but it's not good for anybody else.
But I do agree that you've got like, a functioning organization, it's so important that not only people are useful, but that they actually feel the scope of this. And that can make an enormous difference in morale and productivity and just in quality of life. And just in people enjoying working together. And sensing that you uniquely and specifically adding value, contributing value that is recognized and appreciated. We can’t put a price on that.
And I, you know, there's a long history of the school of thought that like, great art comes from pain and suffering. I'm like, if you're going to be a painter or a novelist, like, go for it, that's on you. But if it's a team environment, if it's a collaborative art, that is not acceptable. You do not get to inflict pain and suffering on other people for your art or your process.
No, there's a whole toxicity, especially in tech industry culture. As brilliant and amazing and miraculous an innovator and human being Steve Jobs was, he also like, did a lot of horrible things to people. And yeah, everyone's human and no one's perfect or whatever. But there definitely has been an infection where that behavior has been misunderstood as the whole ‘correlation is not causation.’ And it's like, just because those things coexisted in that one remarkable circumstance doesn't give you license to then say, “Oh, I'm going to adopt those worse tendencies and behaviors. Because I think that that somehow is going to lead this similar success.” No, that’s insane. That’s psychotic.
People want to work with people who they like working with, who are nice, and talent will only get you so far. Like, there's so much evolving, especially in the industry, but our culture at large in terms of how we treat people, especially how we treat people who are not white straight men. I'm encouraged by the radical change in tone and conversation and tolerance for inappropriateness and meanness.
We still have a long way to go. There's a lot of work that needs to be done. But I think it's sort of on everyone, especially people coming up. Like reset that bar. And that standard and model behavior for themselves and each other and the people coming up after them. I see that happening.
It's something we try to do in our little corner of the world. It's something we try to do in our little corner of the world. And I'm supporting and cheering on people who are doing it in theirs. And, and maybe that makes it a little less fun for you to try to make an effort to make it not as unfun for other people. And you want people to want to work with you again.
Not that that’s the only reason you should be nice. But it's this sort of school of thought that's like, even if you're an atheist or an agnostic, don't rule out the possibility of an afterlife. Be a good person, just in case. Yeah, which is kind of a horribly cynical, but it's also kind of like, if that gets you to be nice, then take that motivation. You should just be nice for the sake of being nice. But if that's not enough for you--consider the long term ramifications in the years to come that it’s to your net benefit to treat people well.
I mean, the other thing too, that I look at it is, as a creator, as a member of a team--writers or any creative process--your art, your creation is not just the finished product. It is the process of making it. Like that is also creativity, it's also art in and of itself. And it should also be an enriching experience.
Just like you want the final work of art to be an enriching experience for the audience, you want the process to be enriching and inspiring for the artists, ideally. And I think you'll get better art that way. And then I think you'd get happier and more productive that way. Like when someone makes you a dish that was made with love, like that comes through. And I think that's the truth in almost anything you make, whether it's a piece of furniture that's finely crafted by an artisan or a movie, if people love what they're doing, and they really care-- I mean, worst case scenario is it's not gonna hurt-- but best case scenario, it's gonna be better. And it's gonna come across, it's gonna be felt. On some level.
NT: I mean, the first question I asked, ‘What energizes you’, right? You're saying that’s how you can make something different.
Paul: If it's artless, if it's just an exercise or artifice, then I'm not moved by it. We experience art to be effected, to be moved, to be a changed in some small way so that we see the world in a slightly different way than we did before.
It's showing something that hopefully matters to you, and you think might matter to somebody else. And yeah, and that can be your favorite TV show that survived only one season, or, you know, anything.
I think back to my favorite dessert I've ever had in my life. I had twice and I will never have again. And every time I travel and I find a chocolate bread pudding on a menu. I'm hoping, ‘Oh, I'll try it because maybe it'll be like that last love!” But was this magical? Transcendent?
And then we realized we’d been there for an hour and a half. Will Paul ever reunite with his chocolate bread pudding? I hope that’s not the only thought you’re left with after reading this conversation.
Be kind and fun to work with, creating from your heart for expression and connection. And to make the process enjoyable. I love how George S. Merriam puts it:
“Whether any particular day shall bring to you more of happiness or of suffering is largely beyond your power to determine.
Whether each day of your life shall give happiness or suffering rests with yourself.”
Enjoy the process and solve the right problem.