Quick and Dirty Tips: Your rap sheet of shows and movies you've directed includes notable episodes and films such as #BlackAF, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Office, Malcolm in the Middle, and He Said, She Said. Can you share a few highlights and memorable moments? Would you say any of these movies or films was a gamechanger for your career?
Ken Kwapis: My very first feature film, Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird, is the story of Big Bird’s journey of self-discovery. Imagining he’d be happier living with his own kind, Bird decamps for a small town in the Midwest, where he moves in with a foster bird family. He soon realizes how much he misses Sesame Street, where a diverse group of all kinds—humans, monsters, grouches—live in harmony. It’s a message that’s as vital now as it was in 1985, when I directed the film. Why was this film a gamechanger for me? I connected to Big Bird’s emotional journey on a very personal level; in retrospect, I now see that it took an eight-foot bird to teach me that my job as a director was to become a student of human nature.
QDT: How does your directing style change between movies and TVs and the type of show/movie you're working on (rom-com, comedy, etc)? Do you have to adapt to the genre?
KK: Whether directing comedy or drama, I try to find the humanity in any given scene. Put a different way, when I direct comedic material I look for ways to ground the scene in reality. And when I'm working on a dramatic piece, I look for humor to leaven the drama. There’s always humor hiding in the drama, waiting for a good director to discover.
Working in Hollywood, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you need to measure success on your own terms, not Hollywood’s.
QDT: What content (books, movies, essays, etc.) should college-aged and young adults be consuming if they want to work in film or media?
KK: There are so many ways to answer this question. Let me focus on filmmakers who are noteworthy for their understanding of the human condition. I urge you to get acquainted with directors who have a talent for putting truthful human behavior on the screen. There are many to choose from, but you could do a lot worse than luxuriating in the works of William Wyler, John Cassavetes, Yasujiro Ozu, Ernst Lubtisch, Mike Leigh, Max Ophuls, and Akira Kurosawa.
QDT: What has been the most important piece of advice you've ever received or the most important lesson you've learned?
KK: Working in Hollywood, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you need to measure success on your own terms, not Hollywood’s. You can’t control the outcome of your efforts. You can’t control how many people buy a ticket at the box office. You can’t control what the critics say. What you can control is the process of making a film or television show, and my personal yardstick for success is whether or not I improve the process from project to project.
QDT: Do you have any advice for aspiring directors, writers, actors, or anyone who wants to work in the film industry?
KK: The most important thing to remember is that passion wins the day every time. I can’t tell you how to get your foot in the door, but once you do, the key is to impress upon prospective employers that you are passionate about a given project—be it a prestigious feature film or a commercial for dental floss. Passion wins the day.