Phillip Lopez is a photographer and filmmaker residing in Southern California. He had always wanted to be a doctor my whole life, until in college, decided he would rather affect a life, versus simply prolong it.
When you are young, you think that you have a plan for life.
"By 23 I'll travel to Italy.
By 25 I'll have a flat on the upper east side.
By 28 I'll have my doctorate."
You lay it out in your head, focusing on achieving that next "thing." But then life really comes at you, with real worries and hardship. Something like cancer for example. And you just watch those plans fall away – seemingly inconsequential. Those are the moments when you really find your path forward, exposing who you really ought to be.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
A lot of reasons. It’s heavy, but…I’ve had cancer a couple of times, so I wanted to be a surgeon to kind of pay back the world. But when I was at USC, I was convinced that I was sick again, I was pretty sure about it and was writing out these giant ideas of why I knew I was sick. I’d go to the doctors and they’d see this young, in shape, healthy, active guy and laugh at me. They’d do the basic tests and people kind of thought I was crazy.
Ended up, I was 100% right and it was pretty immobilizing, mentally. My parents told me I was wrong. My sister – everybody that was so close to me was like, “dude you’re fine, you’re healthy, you’re okay.” And everyone, at some point, was just like “maybe you just need help mentally, maybe you’re just too obsessed with this, maybe this is just something that you’re used to having in your life.”
So then when I was in the hospital recovering from surgery I didn’t know what to do, I found it really hard just to think, I’m a pretty analytical person as is. I remember my mom came in with these VHS tapes. “What About Bob” and “My Cousin Vinny.” It just made me laugh, ya know? Sitting at a hospital where I was clearly given the gift of prolonging my physical life but also given the gift of laughing and letting go, I think I just found that more profound, more helpful, more…I don’t know, just more real. And after that, I just decided that I’d rather tell stories and communicate them through film. It was interesting, I’m not a huge film school guy, but there were a few classes there that were quite inspiring on the creative side and then the film theory side, that I loved.
I’m really into the idea of post-modernism with film, so at first I would latch onto, like, Kubrick. I was this die-hard Kubrick guy, and I probably read every book on him. After that, it was Terrence Malick and then I kind of got into books and read more into Philip K. Dick. I would latch onto these auteurs and authors and writers and want all of that because I don’t like thinking that someone else might know more because I want to be able to say I know the “real” version of them.
It’s very lame and it was very young of me, even the first thing I made was this whole kind of documentary about Tarantino where I went through every reference and everything that he copied compositionally in his writing and just…I hated it. I think eventually I grew up. I think there’s a point for, to use Spielberg, to have that whole idea of the family as a nuclear unit, and to have that be the impetus for these beautiful adventures or to apply Kubrick’s use of dollies, his low angle, his chin-down/eyes-up look. I think every person before us has had their use and I think now it’s sort of a more robotic way of thinking, where you have everything that’s been done and most everything that can be done has been done to a large extent, and now it’s just a matter of, okay, here’s a client or here’s a story, which of these tools, which of these ways of thinking can I apply to best tell that or have the deepest impact.
Big time. One of the things I really want to make, without like telling people my idea, I really want to make a cancer musical. I think I find the hospital equally horrifying and inspiring, but it’s interesting, I’m a huge fan of what Trent Reznor has done for soundtracks, and I also really love diegetic noise or the sounds that you see within a frame, and I think, for example, like an MRI, those sounds and those noises are so intense, like “wom wom”, but to me it sounds just like Reznor’s score for a lot of Fincher’s films.
And having a younger kid, and he’s gone through it so many times, so he’s experiencing what people most are faced with, which is pain, which is the financial burden, which is the problem of telling people you’re sick. All of those things, he’s had that. So now he sees the next layer of all these vignettes and moments that are beautiful and funny that people miss, and I think it can give you a lot of peace and give you a gift in a lot of ways, and I think he’s able to see those. and I think he has these sounds that happen within the MRI room or the waiting room and kind of builds these sometimes operatic, sometimes it’s even cartoonish where he has this lie malignancy waging war on a liver and it becomes this funny thing.
I just, I don’t know, I think there’s a really good message there. I think most people miss the gift that it is. And, I think death in history was, we don’t see it as much now where before. It’s like an ax, or it’s a rope or there’s these physical things and death has become a lot more silent and invisible. But I think cancer…you can say goodbye to people, you can truly die the way you want to and I think that’s… it’s rough, I think the mental battle is way worse, but I think people are missing a lot of things, I don’t know. Sorry, I talked too long about that.
Oh it still is, I mean, I think a lot of what my ideas are mostly projection, where I’ll think about something and then in a very elemental way, it’s a binary thing, you can think, “alright, I’ll do this or this or I’ll think of it as this or this.” To split one thing into two is the quickest way to break things down, and I think I’ll run both sides of it and kind of like, do those different iterations and run through different choices in time and come up with these whole different worlds, but it always starts with projecting it from myself in a very myopic way. A lot of my stories start with me. I just need to find the person that can play me.
I mean, things are changing quickly. A lot of the people that are popular, especially within social media are curators, not creators. It’s tough, because I want to hold onto something and be like, “well, mine is better because I’m actually making things, I’m actually creating things.” But I think there’s some way to fuse them both. But regardless, at least curators can pump out content, they can make a meme, they can take videos that have been shot and re-edit them to make them funny or poignant. Whatever they want to do, but to create just as quickly, puts your name in a different hat. That type of consistency, it’s what I tell most clients, they can do a one off campaign or a one off video, but if they just do one it’s just that quick dose of exposure, but if they can be consistent with what they create then people begin to have an expectation for it and that’s when they develop a viewer base. People will participate and actively search out or anticipate your content and that’s when you’re winning, terrible word, but that’s what I’ve always preached.
I don’t know, I’d rather just take a breath and finish these bigger stories or bigger ideas and execute on that level, versus sort of always being an 85% kind of guy. I love to start getting storyboards now where before I fought against that. I think now I really want to just know what’s in that frame, I want to know what it looks like, how it’s lit. Not to say when it gets to the time to shoot it there’s not room to like improvise, but I think the areas that I want to improvise have changed where before I kind of loved the thrill of being last minute and be cavalier and nonchalant about like pulling shit off and kind of be that guy. I want be more exact I think I want to… I just want to get to the next level.
I think you’ll always see improvement. I think the minute I don’t, it’ll be weird, not in a good way. I think perfection is impossible except in, like, math and weird things like logic, where it just is naturally complete but especially if it comes to anything artistic, not that I like that word.
It depends I mean I started out and I just bartended and saved up enough money and bought a red camera earlier on so I just didn’t have a DP I didn’t know how to find cinematographers and I just found it easy to shoot. I think a lot of it is how much prep there is, because I know I always can get exactly what I want and I know how to be able to interact quickly with the model or the actress or the actor and get what I need.
But I’m starting to relinquish that control, because I think the only way to be the best director is to literally have the best crew and the best people and then have them meet on a different level where they know what they’re doing, each person, and if everybody is being directed then you don’t really need to do too much on set besides the last little cherry on top situation. Like photography I got into because it takes such a long process to write and pre-produce and shoot and get all those components where you can just, in a very therapeutic way, shoot a frame and be ‘ah okay, movin’ on.’ I don’t know, I just have always enjoyed that.
Yeah, pretty early on I think it was two years after I graduated, and I had no idea I mean I never really learned how to do any of that, editing, shooting, all of that, I just bought one of those cheesy Urban Outfitters Lomography cameras and just started shooting and for the first month just got back black film just under- and over-exposed and slowly kind of just chisel, chisel, chisel starting to learn all of that.
I enjoy knowing a good amount of the camera side on set because I think it gives you more control. You get respect from the camera unit and all the crew versus sometimes people show up and they won’t know any of that.
I think so, I mean I think it’s only quite recently, it really was only until I met a certain cinematographer and we were on set, and she said, “I’m operating” and I’m like, “um… okay.”
Yeah, she was just a boss about it, like, “no I’m operating” and I quickly realized, okay we roll a shot and I can talk to her, “I want to come up this way and I want to have the actor move this way and we do this other take,” where before I just keep rolling.
I’m always changing my style like because of what I believe in, I’m always just tinkering. I think the thumbprint you are left with is always some idea of being a motive, and I often joke that it’s my own cathartic thing, since I’m not a very emotional person. I’m just bored by plain, sexy stuff. I’m bored when photographers just get all these followers, and it’s a tough battle because they command more money, they command more jobs and they have that many followers, but I also don’t want to just be boringly sexy and over the top and just be all nudity. I think there has to be something more. Okay, it’s beautiful, even if it’s not sexy, if it’s just beautiful, which, having the camera that I use and the talent that’s there it’s not that hard to make something beautiful.
So what next? What emotion can you have, what rawness is there, what can we do that’s beyond that? That’s what I love. I love to just eat that emotion, that’s so much more interesting to me. There’s something really interesting about like inner monolog and the different worlds of thought that go into every action and I kind of like giving pause to that.
Right, that’s why I think it’s my own cathartic way of speaking. I think that’s what I like I definitely somehow have gotten to this weird dance situation and I love it, it’s just frustrating that now it’s so trendy. Dance is becoming more and more prominent, especially ballet. If you look at Nowness, for example, the content that gets a lot of staff picks, or the most views, it’s all this dance stuff and I think partly it’s just the reality of to have one camera dancer your production value is relatively high because a dancer can do a lot and it just makes it immediately interesting and more kinetic and more appealing. So I think that’s kind of more like a zeitgeist thing like, “oh yeah I stumbled upon that so did everybody else,” so it just makes sense.
But I like it. We did something recently where we built a 600 square foot room on 70 wheels, similar to the old Jamiroquai video.
So the Jamiroquai video, he’s standing and balancing, but then the room would move so it looked like he was moving.
So we did that with ballet and I mean, that was the most difficult thing I’ve done partly because the floor for ballet, they need a certain floor, it’s almost vinyl cloth, and I thought that was only for a jumping portion, so in my head I was going to have all the stuff filming on a regular floor that’s more like a polished cement, just easier to roll for this room that’s literally 600 square feet with lights built up the entire two ends and whole lighting grid system and all these cables are made like an umbilical cord that goes up and pulley across this huge sound stage and there are six people in each corner pushing.
So I thought, great, polished cement, smarter, should be very smooth and easy to push then when we get to a jumping thing, we’ll yell cut, we’ll bring in the floor, have that happen, match it pretty easily. So then, the day of, we got this Russian, one of the only Americans admitted to the Russian ballet, to be our principal talent and she’s saying, “well, where’s the floor?” I was like, “well, we’re not jumping?” Turns out you need that for anything ballet, very much so, especially when a Russian’s concerned.
So then we blew the budget and had somebody come fly in and cover the entire floor with this wood first because you need a subfloor, then the right vinyl over that and we put this huge moving floor, its heavy as hell, on it, then we went to move and this whole thing just rips the whole floor. So that was literally an hour before we were wrapping before we started shooting the next day.
That was the biggest crew I’ve had it, fifty people, and they’re all looking at me like, “what now?” So I basically had to a play a game of Adderall geometry the entire night where I had to figure out, alright if we have the longest strip within 7 square feet, it has to be half so at least you can move the room for at least half and have her move the opposite distance basically make every shot planned out and figure out what shape I need to put it within that. Which is honestly smarter because it forces you to like become that prepared.
Yeah, especially when you’re risking that much money.
Photography wise, I always loved Guy Bourdin. I love all the different types for different reasons, of course, but I love his fashion work and how he’s able to take really unconventional frames where I have a habit of too often being focused like here (frames face) because I’m more of a cinematic guy and sometimes walk away with stills and just go, “fuck, it’s just their face,” and the client’s like, “where are the clothes?”
It’s just like, my bad. So I love him for that reason. I really love Timothy Walker, he uses these ornate beautiful sets and then great color palette that always inspires me. I like the way Michael Donovan’s captures emotion and faces and twists and hands, these weird things that, I don’t know, there’s so many artists out there right now and there’s always one reason that I wish I can sort of find a way to make art like a robot, to compile it, that’s actually one thing I’m trying to make is like an art robot.
It’s cool, it’s pretty sci-fi but I’m kind of making a small version for this next music video I’m doing. We’re doing this weird idea, where it’s the next step in social media, this machine’s basically able to livestream what your head looks like, like, how you think of things, like, the images, which is kind of gnarly.
It’s going to be fun.
I enjoy the digital being tethered with the client. I know that’s really backward but I really enjoy, when there’s a client there, making them happy, because they’re paying me to be there. If we have a conversation and they say, “we want you to just do your thing and we’re totally okay with that,” then I’m like, “great!” Because the most important thing is establishing expectations on deliverables when it comes to like the commerce side of photography. I like getting exactly what they want.
Because it’s never perfect. After this I’m going to film a Pac Sun commercial and it’s hard because sometimes you don’t have the resources, and you know a client wants something, and you know that immediately it’s going to make a product in your head not as good from both an artistic and a business sense, and that can be very frustrating.
But the process of shooting it, I’m just immediately happier when I wake up, and I feel good when I’m working constantly, and I like problem-solving.
An AMEX commercial thing, I think it’s so far the biggest thing I’ve done, from a commercial director point of view. That will be good because it will make getting commercials easier. Which is great because it’s bigger budgets, which means if I make more money I’m going to put it into projects anyway, or if I get more money to shoot with I can play with different things and learn new gimmicks.
Yeah and I think the bigger music video is a good thing, kind of have my name out there in different levels. I just, I don’t know, I want to go slower and going slower usually costs more money. I just want to spend more time really developing and making sure what I’m doing is not just about the content but more about what I want to say, because I think that’s more important.