We had the good fortune of connecting with Brenton Oechsle and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Brenton, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
As many freelancers will probably attest to – the concept of a work / life balance can tend to be very elusive. The question of how to establish a routine in a business that is anything but predictable still confounds me to this day. Though I would like to think that I’ve gotten better at achieving that balance over the years.
The first few years I freelanced – I would viscerally experience one of two modes. The first being the times I would work nonstop for weeks and desire nothing but a break & the second being the inverse. Going from one to the other was kind of like driving a hundred miles an hour all the while not realizing your breaks have been cut.
It didn’t take me long to realize that it was up to me to create the balance since it didn’t exist naturally. This consisted largely of being cognizant to not overextend myself & give myself the proper amount of down time in transition between jobs.
The hardest part of the puzzle for me was making sure to keep my mind active in the periods of rest directly after a long period of work. Still making sure to get some solid R&R but at the same time I found keeping active in whatever way I can helps keep me from falling into a creative slump.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
When I was young I vividly remember riding in the backseat of my parents car & whenever another car would pass us – I would think about who the driver was & what their life might be like. This curiosity to learn about the stories of those around me was the fuel to my passion for photography when I was given a Nintendo brand 35mm point and shoot on my fifth birthday.
Growing up a fairly shy kid – I always felt a difficulty with fitting in. Through photography I discovered a way that I could interpret & express my point of view of the world around me. Almost as if I could control what was around me. Of course – as anyone in the creative field knows – control is an elusive concept & I feel that is a huge factor contributing to my growth as an artist.
The only times that I would abandon my little point and shoot was when I would see my Dad operating his Sony Handycam – and I simply had to have my turn. So filmmaking was the logical next step in my progression of storytelling.
In middle school – when I was making little films with my friends – I quickly learned that the people you are creating with has a drastic affect on what is being created & the importance of surrounding yourself with a dedicated but solid team could not be understated. Even though I was born & raised in Indiana – for some reason I had always been convinced that great collaborators could be found anywhere if one were to search hard enough.
Though before I had found those collaborators – I struggled for a long time executing the ideas in my head. Jimi Hendrix would talk about the space between what he would hear in his head & what he would be able to play on his guitar. As time would go by – the gap would become smaller and smaller. Just like with anything really – practice makes perfect. This is especially true with filmmaking – and of course in the beginning that gap was admittedly wide.
When you are young & inexperienced – there is a natural tendency during this period to hold onto every single little thing & control it to the best of your ability. Of course anyone that has been through this phase & come out the other end knows that doing this is tantamount to putting the work in a box. Unless you are Stanley Kubrick – the chances of creating something true & meaningful in this manner are slim. It takes a village to do it right. Even if the village is only a few people in the midwest.
Admittedly after every film I’ve made – I never thought I would make another one. I mean you have to be crazy to make a film. It’s a miracle if anything can be made at all – but for it to be good requires multiple miracles.
Along the course of making anything – there are hundreds if not thousands of decisions to be made – especially in filmmaking. The catch is that only a handful of those decisions truly impact the success or failure of a project & to make matters even more confounding – you might not even know what those pivotal decisions were until after the project is done. This is exactly what led me to burn out after every failure – but at the same time I simply could not help myself from returning to filmmaking to give it another shot.
At the end of college however – my burnouts began to stack up & I found myself at a pivotal crossroads of whether my hobby of filmmaking could become a career or not. Though it was during that time in which my high school film teacher & mentor had essentially given me the bible on filmmaking – Sculpting in Time written by Andrei Tarkovsky. It was in that book where I read the following:
“The aim of art is to prepare a man for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering capable of returning to good.”
Those words were an absolute revelation to me. Tarkovsky had effectively put into words the precise trajectory & purpose that I wanted my work to take all along – even though it wasn’t until then that I knew it. In many ways that book served as confirmation that ultimately – filmmaking was the only path for me.
Out of college I became a freelance filmmaker & rather than subject myself to the notion that I automatically needed to move out to either NY or LA – I held to my belief that the right collaborators were right in my own backyard. Though at the same time I also recognized that moving to a bigger market at the right time can be your greatest asset. So I gave myself a year from the time of graduation to develop any strong prospects in Indianapolis & if nothing materialized I would seek elsewhere.
As fate would have it though it was within that time in which I met two of my greatest collaborators to date – Skyler Lawson & Kassim Norris – the latter of which has shot every film I’ve done since college. We all came from drastically different backgrounds – but somehow managed to meet in the middle on the kind of content we desired to create. Together we greatly bolstered each others careers.
Around that time I also made the decision to pivot from marketing myself as a jack of all trades (writer / director / dp / editor) and solely market myself as a cinematographer. This ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made – because I found that while it is certainly helpful to be able to wear all those hats if you have to – people really desire to know what you are best at & empower you to do just that.
Simultaneously I also made the conscious decision to promote & craft a cinematography reel that was comprised of the work that most closely matched my curated style. This of course meant choosing to exclude more traditional reel components like commercial or corporate work. Though much to my surprise – I still ended up getting commercial & corporate clients from that reel because of the fact that they felt my style was a good fit for what they were trying to achieve.
In other words – dress for the job you want & not just the job you think you can get.
The several years of my life my work took a much unexpected turn as I built a great working relationship as DP in the documentary space with Rodney Lucas who is arguably one of the best doc / commercial directors working today & with whom we created several well renowned short docs including Southside Forever & My Brothers Keeper both of which premiered through Nowness.
Gaining a ton of experience working on documentaries with Rodney in Chicago’s Southside really forced me to change my perspective on how filmmaking could be accomplished. Working in such a way showed me how much is actually possible when you give up control & are open to all the possibilities surrounding you rather than barreling forward with one singular possibility that has been stuck in your head in as Tarkovsky speaks about it – the running movie in your mind.
This is why I don’t sweat the small stuff & try to embrace imperfection – because a perceived imperfection turned on its head is really just an opportunity for you to separate yourself from the work & allow it to grow to be what it desires to be.
This allowed me to begin to start shooting on film again because I was not so afraid of taking risks & operated with much less fear. Turns out that when it came to directing narrative content – shooting on film forced me to disconnect from the usual intimacy I share with the image as a cinematographer & focus on the content & performance.
There is also something to be said for the significance of restriction when it comes to shooting film. Just purely due to the fact that you have limited resources & you can’t shoot like you can digitally – it forces you to really think about what you need & make decisions with a focus that supports the story & the story alone.
Now that is not to say that film should be used all the time. I do not by any means believe it is right for every project – but I have found the workflow of it is right for me & the way I desire to tell a story. In fact I think it is totally possible to shoot digital in the same way you would film – by simply placing those restrictions on yourself and not doing something just because it can be done.
As most people who have stood the test of time in this industry will probably tell you – I didn’t get into this business for the possible money or notoriety. I got into it because cinema which combines the greatest forms of art has the potential of capturing the heart of a viewer in a way that is completely unique. It has the potential of reaching into the soul of an audience & comforting them. Giving them catharsis. Telling them that while everything is messed up in this world – it’s going to be ok. That while they may think that they are the only one going through a particular experience in life – there are others experiencing that very same thing.
To me – cinema is about connection & unity. Sending a message that you are not alone. And hopefully through this enlightenment of the self – one might change the way they treat their fellow man or woman for the better.
I don’t care if everyone likes my work because I know it will connect with at least one person. And when I leave this life – all I can hope people say about myself & my work is that even in some small way I helped them think, wonder, and love those around them.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
If a friend was coming out to LA for a week – there are definitely a lot of things I would fit in. First day after picking up my friend – we would immediately go day drinking at bars around Silver Lake & Echo Park while cruising on the walk of fame at sunset and ending the night at Good Times. A decent introduction to the city. Second day would probably be a beach day at Newport or Venice beach where we would grab lunch & pack a cooler full of beer but we would end the day enjoying fun at Santa Monica pier. Third day would be shopping downtown especially at The Last bookstore and different thrift shops around town & we would end the day having drinks at Spire 73 – the tallest rooftop bar in LA. Fourth day would probably be a more active day where we could go hiking or biking in the hills up towards Griffith Observatory or the Hollywood sign. Fifth day would likely be another beach or surfing & wandering day but with a focus on photography – perhaps up near Malibu with cool rock formations that would be great photo opportunities and end the day seeing a film at The New Beverly. Sixth day would be a chill / flex day – leaving anything open that we didn’t get to do during the prior week. Finally we would end the trip by walking to grab coffee and donuts in the morning and heading down to grab lunch at The Hat before dropping my friend off at LAX.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
There are so many people throughout my life who have greatly impacted my career trajectory. From my high school film teacher, David Trujillo, who originally gave me Andrei Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time which changed my perspective on cinema – to Skyler Lawson from whom I learned how to empower those around you & Rodney Lucas from whom I learned how to let go of control to be open to the possibilities around me.
However – no one has quite bolstered my progress as much as my good friend and confidant – Kassim Norris. Every step of the way in my journey he has been there to encourage me & keep pushing me forward. Over the last decade he has been my closest collaborator & through his counsel has my work been able to reach its full potential. Had it not been for his influence in my life – I highly doubt I would be at the place I am today. He is one of the best people on this planet & I wish everyone could get the chance to know him.
Christian Barreno Kolton Dallas