Interview: David Bornstein

Interview: David Bornstein

A selection in Film Pipeline’s 1st Annual Short Film season, David Bornstein is a young director on the rise, with several short films under his belt. His finalist short A King’s Betrayal showcased a comedic approach that stunned Pipeline judges with thematic depth presented in a most unusual package. David continues to build a strong director’s portfolio steeped in broad, diverse cinematic influences.

A King’s Betrayal, as we’ve stated before, is the most existential piñata drama we’ve ever seen (no, really!). What was it that made you read the script and say “that’s pretty funny,” while also, through your directorial personality, adopt an indisputably sobering tone? Of course, the joke is it’s actually, beyond the veneer, a philosophical drama, but was there an urge to force the humor? To make it a spoof?

Way before I ever even saw the script for A King’s Betrayal, it was the pitch that hooked me. The writer, Ari Grabb, and I both went to film school at University of Arizona. We knew each other from the same circles, and I was very familiar with his body of work, which largely comprised of animations, almost all of them dark comedies with some degree of an existential twist. I’m an Adult Swim kid with a dark sense of humor, so needless to say his work strongly resonated with me. We were driving back to Los Angeles from Tucson after a quick weekend visit when he gave me the broadstrokes of what would essentially become A King’s Betrayal. Already familiar with his work, even from just the basic details I understood exactly what kind of movie this was and exactly what the tone needed to be, and instantly I knew this idea had serious and awesome potential. I was and am still grateful that Ari trusted me with his idea, it was my number one goal to really deliver the goods in making this film.

The temptation to water this down, or make it some sort of hacky thing, did not at any point cross my mind. I’m not going to be the guy with the obnoxious pie-hole that says “I take comedy seriously,” but I find a lot of excitement in discovering ways to elevate material, in creating something that as an audience member I personally see as stimulating and exciting. If I’m directing a comedy, I’m not the kind of director that’s just going to sit a bunch of actors around a table, put a camera on sticks and point it, have them improvise nonsense for six hours straight, and then just assume that I’m going to find the good stuff in the editing bay. Nobody is doing themselves or a genre a favor by cheapening it.

It’s also beautifully shot–Cuáron should take note. In a way, that also lends to the humor. If you lost the elegant visual quality of the film, would you have also lost the intended effect on the audience? How much emphasis do you place on cinematography? Getting the look just right?

Spot on with the Cuáron reference, man. Y Tu Mamá También was a massive, massive influence on the execution of this film, in more ways than one. But yes, making AKB look good and feel good was paramount. I think in the early early stages I thought about doing this in a black and white Band of Outsiders kinda style, but as things progressed, and in meeting with the minds, I tossed that aside in favor of making this thing bright and colorful, which I think was the right call all along. I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not a very technical director, I’m self-taught and I’m still learning, but I’ve consumed enough media to recognize what my eyeballs like and what stimulates me. I pick solid DP’s who understand the bells and whistles, communicate my vision best I can, and we find ways to make it happen.

If you had to compare the first short you directed and the latest short, what are the biggest differences? Is there a common stylistic thread in all? Curious if that’s innate and can happen right away, even for a totally green director. Nature vs. nurture, essentially.

Aw, jeez. For starters, the first short I ever directed never got finished. While yes, I went to film school, I wasn’t in the production track, I was in the business/theory track, which meant significantly less opportunities to make stuff. But still, I really really wanted to give this directing thing a shot, so I went out to try to make something outside of the school’s safety net. The classic “we have no money but let’s go out and shoot something great anyway and it’ll all work out” kinda situation. As real life tends to do, I found out very quickly how bullshit that all is.

The long story short: I dragged this film kicking and screaming to the finish line, dragging principal photography out for almost a year, only to have the friend I picked to be my editor lose most of the footage and then go AWOL. That’s why I work with my go-to editor Trevor [Davies] consistently despite us living in two different states. I learned hard lessons about naiveté and trust from that project, but I also learned to value reliable people. Stylistically, that short was also a comedy, still oddball and absurdist but more on the over-the-top side. I think I was still in my juvenile stages of writing so a lot of the gags were derivative, from what I can recall.

But even looking back at the technical choices I had to make on the fly. . . I don’t think that film would’ve been very good. It’s probably for the best that my first short vanished into the void. To my credit, I tried very, very hard to know what I was doing, but as with anyone’s first film I didn’t know what I was doing at all, and everyone else I wrangled together was about as experienced as I was, or just slightly more so. AKB is the result of a long string of directing $0 budget shorts with no net and learning the lessons along the way.

*Side note: if any of the cast and crew of Mr. Coffee are reading this right now, wherever you all are. . . yes, I know, my bad, I ate shit on my first go round, and I ate shit hard. Y’all earned your stripes putting up with me on my first thing, my door is always open to you for that.

Every director can name their top influences, and while it’s subjective, you see a lot of crossover. The same names on every top 10 list. As someone in their 20s, you grew up with a far more diverse cinematic landscape—and let’s be honest, access to a more diverse landscape—than the previous generations, when a college kid had one of two ways to discover, for example, Kurosawa: through a film class or The Warehouse. How did you come to find the films you connected with? We’re so saturated with content now, not to mention the noise of the Internet, if I’m a teenager who wants to be a filmmaker, where’s the starting point?

I mean honestly, for me it started with my parents’ cable package.

Watching movies when I got home when I was in high school. HBO, Showtime, IFC, and the usual basic cable trimmings. That was where my film school really began. Netflix was in its infancy, Amazon wasn’t streaming movies yet, so I went to the theater, or I just consumed ad-nauseum that way. And of course, as more platforms came to popularity, my options grew tenfold. So I mean. . . as far as discovering content and what connects with somebody, I think that’s different for everyone. This whole game is one big Choose Your Own Adventure from hell, so I’m hesitant to put definitive markers because there is only so much that can be truly taken as the gospel. But I guess for me, personally, I think of it as following string.

A parallel example: as a white kid in the sterilized suburbs of Orange County, rap music was what was played on MTV and Top 40 radio, and that was all anyone knew. In the early 2000s, it was normal to like rap/rock, and Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park put out their respective remix albums, all the rage with the kids at Morasha Jewish Day School. But those albums put a spotlight on rappers that were not getting airplay on the conventional gateways. This was my introduction to E-40, to Everlast, to 8Ball & MJG, to Cali Agents, Xzibit, Zion I, Pharoahe Monch, cats that sounded different from everyone else they played on the radio, and for the most part, better. I liked what I heard, so I followed the string, dug into their music, found more artists in the process that I liked, followed more string, Xzibit leading to Ras Kass and Tha Alkaholiks, Eminem leading to RBX and Sticky Fingaz, and so on and so forth etc. I think it’s the same principle as with film or media in general: putting a face and/or a name to what you like and respond to, digging deeper into that and following that thread, finding more in the process, and you just keep going down the rabbit hole man—platform to platform.

We live in an information age, and so much rad stuff is at our fingertips, but many people don’t proactively search and seek out content or information outside of their bubble. I’m not going to chalk that up to “you kids and your iPhones” like some Cranky Kongs are quick to do, I really don’t think that’s a new aspect of human nature. What I think is the key to it all, whether it’s film, TV, video games, animation, Youtube creators, social media content, breaking out of the habit of being passive to being proactive starts at the consumer level. But hell, I quote Freddy Got Fingered in my day-to-day life more than most things, so take my thoughts with as many grains of salt as you like.

What do you think you still have to learn? Not only in directing—but that, too. What are the things you wish they told you in film school?

That’s a tall order. I have a lot of catching up to do in life and more to learn about people. I can’t answer that definitively. I learned a lot from both of the film schools I went to, and it’s tough to pin down what exactly I should have learned that they could’ve even taught me.

One thing that comes to mind that I wish I knew out of the gate is that it’s okay to say no to things. That being agreeable and always saying yes and bending over backwards with your balls in a knot for people who would never lift a finger back for you doesn’t get you farther than making noise, blowing people’s shit up, and standing up for yourself. That even if your word is solid and you give unconditional loyalty, that it is not guaranteed it will ever be reciprocated. And at times seldom will be. I’m working on maintaining my self-agency, both as a person and as a director. I’m a work-in-progress I guess, I’m still figuring things out. And maybe, just maybe, that’s okay.

photo by Nicole Prokes

David Bornstein

David Bornstein is a writer and director, and an elusive SoCal native. Born and raised in Laguna Hills, California, he resides in Eagle Rock, the sleepy northeast corner of Los Angeles. An alumnus of Saddleback College and University of Arizona’s film programs, David has directed and written over half a dozen short films and sketches. When David isn’t developing his own projects he works as a set production assistant, and has been a part of countless productions ranging from big network shows to independent shorts and features. David’s short film A King’s Betrayal was released to critical acclaim, screening in over 40 film festivals, including a placing as a finalist in the Francis Ford Coppola Short Film Competition, Film Pipeline’s Short Film Competition, and a Vimeo Staff Pick, among other accolades. His short Unholy Mole, a horror/comedy starring veteran actor Ray Wise, released in 2019. Watch A King’s Betrayal on Amazon Prime and Vimeo.

Follow David: Instagram

*Feature photo by AJ Starzak

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