Joris Debeij

Dutch filmmaker / director from Los Angeles

Joris Debeij is a dutch director who lives and works in LA. On his blog I am Los Angeles he tells the story of inspiring Angelenos. We talked to him about his work, future plans and Los Angeles itself.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up in LA.

In the time that I was here I did different things that I really didn’t have the specific ambitions for, things such as ‘RTL Boulevard’. I am not really a journalist, that wasn’t really my thing. I actually enjoyed telling stories more. At a certain moment you start to love Los Angeles and then it’s kind of hard to see how other countries are depicting the country that you are establishing yourself in. This, because it’s often one-sided and stereotype confirming. And this while you can tell 101 stories in Los Angeles that actually deserve attention and much more interesting.

At that moment Nalden was pretty huge with his website and that was definitely an inspiration. For me it was a good example of what the power of a blog can be in the digital age. I continued then to write a plan of approach, because I didn’t know much about directing and making movies, let alone holding a camera. Eventually I just started and slowly it was all slowly rolling and growing, the well known snowball effect. Now we (the cameraman, soundman, composer and myself) make different kinds of films about different subjects. I say ‘we’ because in the meantime it actually became a whole team with different people that want to work on it.

Our newest movie is premiering now on Dazed Digital, next to that I’m working with broadcasting company, The Atlantic, who also asked if the series could be on their website and next to that I also get support from Vimeo, who also find it cool. All the work that I do as a director comes from people who saw the movies, who think it’s cool and then ask me if I want to make something for them. This is how I also worked for the broadcasting company and I also made my first full feature documentary (Invisible Cities) that won an Emmy straight away.

I am not really a journalist, that wasn’t really my thing. I actually enjoyed telling stories more.
— Joris Debeij
The ‘I am series’ network is pretty impressive nowadays. How did that evolve?

This is actually something that came to be organically. It started in Amsterdam, a friend of mine went to L.A. once and helped work on a movie and then he brought up the idea to start the Amsterdam version. I Am Berlin is run by Bart Hendriks who I met through the internet which also might be a thing of the now. He works for a beautiful production house in Berlin, he saw it and he proposed to start ‘I Am Berlin’. I said ‘Sure, why not?’. He made a very beautiful movie and the second one is also finished now.

Because you’re in a foreign country as a Dutch person, you might also get in contact with other people easier. Peter Scheffer, who’s located in Buenos Aires – I also met him through Facebook and sometimes we Skype. So I told him “Do you think it’s cool to start a ‘I Am Buenos Aires’?” Currently we’re talking with several people, and the concept is now also pinned down at the copyright bureau. Next to that we’re working on the concept and the copy some more, and it’s the intention that it will be a network of several cities.

Next to her own work, my wife does some graphic work and she did the graphic style. I use Cargo because I’m not really good with websites, but this way we have a good solution to have an identity for everything. Eventually there is supposed to be an own site, but then there needs to be money. Once in a while we do pass out a license and more movies are made in in assignment, so all the films that are coming now actually do have a budget. So you see that people not only find it cool, but actually believe in it and are willing to invest money. Because they dig it, they also give me to do the thing that I’m good at. Of course, once in a while, they do want an update on how it’s going and which way the story is going – and things like that are not more than logical.

This short documentary profiles the champion bull rider Gary Leffew, whose insights on rodeos apply far beyond the sport.

You also direct all the productions from other cities?

I always informally get to see the first cut and then I give my views on that. In my eyes, this ‘I Am’ series is a ‘passion project’ and I think that the movies become the best when you look for subjects where your personal affinities lie. I do try to get it going in a certain direction, that it’s about social economical or social cultural subjects from the city that eventually inspire people from other cities. Eventually, they’re all just stories, told from the perspective of one person about an experience from of out of his life, actually, a view into someone’s life. If I speak for ‘I Am Los Angeles’, I also hope that the news movies also open your eyes a bit more. In the beginning, it was mostly an exploration throughout LA, where you, as a Dutch person, are still surprised by a man in a Speedo at Venice Beach. Now you don’t look at that anymore. The newest movie is about a boy that’s from the ‘ghetto’ of South LA and has a heavy depression.

When a murder goes unsolved for some time, Sal LaBarbera will commonly receive the phone calls from a victim’s friends and family, inquiring about a case on the birthday or the anniversary of their loved ones’ death. Sal is a detective in the homicide division of South Los Angeles, one of the most infamous urban areas in the United States. He’s seen thousands of cases since joining the division in 1986. At that time in the city’s history, Los Angeles was experiencing a crime epidemic brought by rock-cocaine. The area still comprises about 40% of the homicide activity in Los Angeles, but these days the number of homicides is at a record low owing in part to the LAPD’s gang intervention plans and work with the community.

How much work is involved in a ‘I am’ production and when is it ‘done’ from your point of view?

It kinds of depends on the subject, but it’s increasing. I work from the philosophy that I want to get to know someone better first, before we start production. For example, the movie about the boy with a depression, it’s not easy for him to talk about it with a stranger. I saw that Vice had a similar topic, but you could clearly tell that they met the boy in the morning and that they started shooting in the afternoon. In that interview, he also said that he didn’t feel comfortable talking about everything. It’s not about that being the goal, but that you start understanding him better and why he doesn’t want to talk about certain things.

Because the subjects are becoming more complex, there’s also more research required and eventually that also takes more time. It’s not about getting that ‘specific quote’ that someone actually doesn’t want to say, but because you know him a bit better, he is willing to say that – but it’s purely about about depicting someone’s personality as well as possible without abusing the trust. I always tell people that they should only tell the things that they are willing to tell and then when people say yes to that, then they are eventually willing to share the story and then the right intention is there. We are not looking for sensation but honest portraits of people that have a special life of people in a strange situation or the other way around.

For example, I’m also working on a film right now which is about two animators and that is purely about creativity because obviously LA is a city where the creativity energy is really high. You need to go looking for those circles, but once you find them, they’re very inspiring.

You recently won an Emmy, a pretty big achievement indeed! How did that happen?

It started with a couple of smaller projects for the broadcasting company and at some point they said that they wanted to do a bigger project, and if I was interested in it. Obviously, I was interested, and that’s how it started. Further than that, I was free to do it in any style that I wanted to do it in. Clearly, when you place that next to other American television, it’s not really comparable. But it was really awesome that I got that opportunity. In January I got a phonecall from the producer that they were also going to send in this project. When the nomination were announced I was also in there, which was a very pleasant surprise. On the evening itself I didn’t really expect that we would win, because it’s not really something American.

So now you have non-stop job requests?

Yes, there are more requests and that really puts me on the map as a director. Next to that, it’s also confirmation that you’re doing the right thing. That gives a level of confidence, because I think that any creative doubts himself and his work sometimes, if it’s good and how other people think about your work. But I think that the confidence is the most importance. That is eventually need to persuade the ‘client’ that you’re a professional who can make something beautiful.

At what age did your interest in moving pictures begin?

I always had an interest in film. My father works for a library and he would also come home during Christmas holidays with all kinds of videotapes. Western films but also Bad Boys for example, so I was always a ‘movie go-er’ without really thinking too much about. Now my view on that has obviously changed. Since I am developing myself more as a director and also view other work and how other people do that and also have my own idea of how I want to make movies, that’s changed. When I go to the movies now with friends, we basically have a beer after that and talk about it some.

What is your best ‘move’ so far?

Going to LA was a bit of a gamble, a gamble of love. In the meanwhile we’ve gotten married and we also have a child now. So that was a really good move (haha). Starting ‘I Am Los Angeles’ was kind of out of frustration or some kind of need, creatively speaking, and when I look back upon it, it was my best move. Of course, you think about what you can accomplish with it. And there there are enough people who consciously make spec shots. Something that looks like a Nike commercial for example with a logo and the end and maybe people and then that. There are 101 ways that lead to a certain goal. Of course, I also think about that. With only ‘I Am Los Angeles’ it’s not enough and then you also start looking at how could people still find me interesting as a director or or for commercials or for feature documentaries that have a nice budget.

Name some of your favorite spots in LA that you visit regularly.

I find it very relaxing to just drive around in a car (or on a bicycle) and cruise through LA. LA is actually a big treasure map for which there is a not a specific route, but at some point you find a (as they say here) ‘hole in the wall’ and then you find great food or you bump into a small photo studio from a good photographer – that’s LA. And that is one of the fun things, but you can also drive down the ‘Pacific Coast Highway’ towards Malibu in the north and then you have very nice beaches where it’s nice and calm and the dolphins jump around in front of you in the water. That is obviously very beautiful and romantic about California. But the diversity is actually the most beautiful thing and you just have to surrender to that. I don’t have any fear to go to certain places, because there might only be one type of ethnicity, because they also enjoy it (most of the time) when you go to ‘their’ place and experience things. Every kind of person of every kind of ethnicity is around here. Of course, there also the cliches, a ‘concrete jungle’ – even the river is made of concrete, but that’s mostly just on the surface. But if you can hang around in LA for a while, then you eventually run into the beauty, even though you need to search for it a bit to see that side.A friend of mine recently mentioned East LA, where mostly Latinos live, but there you have sort of underground restaurants where a woman cooks great dishes from ‘home’ for 10 dollars. And then you eat that in the backyard.

Starting ‘I Am Los Angeles’ was kind of out of frustration or some kind of need, creatively speaking, and when I look back upon it, it was my best move.
— Joris Debeij
Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

Hopefully, still here – telling fun stories and doing fun and diverse projects. Basically, the same, but then better – not so much bigger because I also like small(er) projects.

Who should we interview next?

I really think Gregory Bojorquez would be a great artist to interview next. He is a photographer from the east side of Los Angeles. He has been living there pretty much his whole life and started taking photographs as a teenager. He has an amazing collection of street photography. I think it is really great when somebody finds a passion, in this case for photography, and dedicates himself to it. Really an inspiring gentleman!

All photos by Lee Citron (Tumblr)