MTV Video Music Award-winning director has trouble disappearing in New York
Interview | Isabella Hiew
Photographer | Gavin Rea
Shoot concept and styling | Isabella Hiew & Jon Jon Augustavo

In the time that I sit and interview the director Jon Jon Augustavo, we’re interrupted three times: once by a man with his arm in a sling asking Jon to open a bag of chips for him, again by a pack of youths filming a recreation of the Rocky stair scene, and then by a stranger yelling compliments to Jon for his Hundreds shirt from across the street for several minutes. It was the kind of afternoon I had come to expect with Jon. Since filming a branded music video together, during which we recreated the American Beauty rose petals scene with a giant pile of cheese, I had come to understand Jon’s kind of normal. And despite my carsickness, a photo shoot with a giant golden egg, navigating the subway with an orange deck chair, and handing out helium balloons to children in Chinatown, somehow we managed an actual normal conversation.

Jon Jon would revert to self-deprecating claims that he is a boring person, but the twinkle in his eye says otherwise. It was his original comical video “Thrift Shop” that introduced the world to the Seattle-based Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) and producer Ryan Lewis just over a year ago—Jon Jon hadn’t even graduated from Film School. Since then, the young director has hit the ground running, with recent MTV VMA wins for his “Same Love” and “Can’t Hold Us” videos, as well as a new short drama, “How to Disappear Completely”, currently in final stages of post-production. 

In New York, a day before the MTV Video Music Awards, people are taking notice of Jon Jon to the point of stopping him in the street. And whether it was for a hand to open a bag of chips, ask for a pastel colored helium balloon, or to direct a six-times-MTV VMA-nominated music video, the affable Jon Jon Augustavo seemed pretty happy to be there.

What first drew you to films and directing?
I just really like movies and… I just think I like making things. I grew up drawing and painting a lot. My Dad bought me a camera and I started making lots of videos of me playing basketball and stuff. I just always had a knack for wanting to show people things that I’m making. I think that just grew into wanting to make stories and music videos and commercials and even films.

What was your biggest struggle starting out, carving a career as a filmmaker?
Starting out, the hardest part was finding people to let me do stuff for them. I’m not shy about making things, I’m pretty confident that I’m making the right thing, it’s just… selling myself. I’m not very good at selling myself. So I think the hardest part is convincing people to invest their time, their music, their money or their life in me. And allowing me to do what I want to do. Other than that, I think it’s been relatively good, I just work hard and it’s been a lot of fun.

I imagine that’s changed since Thrift Shop…
I equate it to baseball. I was in the Minors, you know. I was doing independent music videos and little promo videos for people here and there. And then I went straight to the Majors. I literally didn’t get to work up; I jumped way up to the top. There’s a lot more pressure. You know, I enjoy it, I’m making a living out of what I love to do, but it’s definitely a lot more stressful, and people expect a lot more of me. I’m not just playing with my friends anymore.

Up to now, you’re mostly known for your music videos. Was that a path you chose or are you seeing where saying yes to projects takes you?
I don’t think I set out to make music videos, I just saw it as the most viable way to create things. I mean, I love painting and drawing, but I didn’t think it was enough. So I tried making videos, but I didn’t think I had the wherewithal to make a narrative film. It’s a whole different thing. I’ve done it now, but it’s just one of those things where I was like, “OK now I’ll make a video,” and if another video comes along, yeah I hope it keeps up. I don’t know that there’s another way to do it. Because you can’t always protect what you’re doing or choose what you’re doing or be scared to go out there, I think you’ve just got to do it. That’s my attitude.

So what is it about a project that makes you want to direct it?
I used to be of the attitude that I would do everything and anything that came my way because I just wanted to learn to get better. But I think I’m getting to a place where I have established my style. I know what I like. I know what I do. So only recently I started to slowly curate what I’m doing. I realize there are ramifications, where it can go towards getting a commercial gig or a film gig or as I said a bigger video. You just have to be a little bit choosy. Just a little bit. Not too much.

You have a very cinematic, conceptual style of storytelling. Who or what are your influences here?
Visually, I do know the way I like to shoot. I grew up studying painting and stuff like that so the way I frame things, I love making it look cool and epic. But as far as narrative or with story, I’m not entirely sure when that happened. I’ve always loved movies, but I never thought I was going to make them.

Are there any directors that you studied in film school that influenced you?
My favorite movie is Good Will Hunting. I love Gus Van Sant’s work. I’ve watched all his movies but I don’t feel like I study them. But I do know that I probably mimic some of his work, like the cerebral storytelling style. And like David Fincher, I love him. Aronofsky.

Tell me about your Kickstarter project, the short film ‘How to disappear completely.’ It’s a different kind of film than what you’re known for…
I’m known for something that I don’t know that I am. The video [Macklemore’s Thrift Shop] that got me known is the only time I’d ever done anything like that. It’s cool, people ask me to do something I can do it, and I love comedy stuff but I never took it seriously. People say, “oh you’re funny, why don’t you do comedy,” and I say “No I like serious things.” My Kickstarter project is definitely more who I am as a director. It’s very cerebral, character-driven drama. It’s really sad and it’s happy, but it’s not funny. After Thrift Shop came out I got all these offers, people wanted me to do pilots and anything in film, and they would say, “you want to do comedy right?” And I’d say, “no, I don’t want to do comedy”. I realize now I do like it, I just never thought I would do it. So it’s definitely one of those things I have, now that I have a little notoriety, to show what I really like to make as far as storytelling. But I also don’t want to be pigeonholed into one style. I’m just hoping I can do everything and I can do well at all of it. Maybe not romantic comedy. I don’t know if I’d be good at that. It’s [How to disappear completely] just a twenty-minute film and it’s almost done. I’m excited.

One of my favorite scenes in your work was in [Macklemore’s] Can’t Hold Us - the hairdressing scene on the beach. It has a disruption to the flow of the rest of the story. Was that intentional? Do you purposely set out to break up or parody the music video genre?
That scene is just part of the randomness that is working with those guys. I don’t think there’s anything to it other than, we wanted to do another performance shot and we wanted it to be different than his first one and we figured, let’s make one that’s super funny. And what could be funnier than a haircut on the beach? It’s so simple. It’s just a conversation like that. We just wanted it to be funny, and have a little Thrift Shop vibe to it, a homage almost. Same as Ben [Haggerty] on the trailer when he’s getting pulled. It breaks up the epic feel of it and it brings you back to the funny part of it.

What’s the one thing you’ve produced that you’re most proud of?
I would have to say Macklemore’s Same Love video. I mean I love the things I did in school and I’m proud of them. Those are about me as a filmmaker. The thing I like about Same Love, not to say like I’m overly important, but it was important to more people than just me. And at the time when I did it, I honestly had no idea, I was super naïve and they asked me to do the video, and I wanted to make a video. I wanted to tell a story. That’s it. And it wasn’t until later, the vote happens, I have people emailing me and in the summer with the other votes it built up steam again, with DOMA… I’m pretty happy because it’s one time in my life I did something that had a little effect on society, could maybe change someone’s life, just a little. I’m not thinking I’m this important, but people have expressed to me that it was important to them and it felt real to them and people were like, “that’s my life.” This is their life and they’re not allow to love each other and be married and do everything I’m allow to do, just because they love this person who’s the same sex. I’m not gay but it’s nice that I was able to make something that gay people appreciate, that it didn’t feel forced. I think as a filmmaker, even though it’s a music video, it’s successful for me. I don’t know if a lot of people in their life get to do that when they make films so it’s definitely my favorite achievement.

How did you concept for that? How did you put together the story?
We wanted to try and just make a love story that anyone could relate to, make it epic and big, like you would live your whole life with this person and we referenced The Notebook a lot. It was just a love story. That was it. So we just thought of everything we could. We shot a lot of stuff that didn’t go in there. I mean, a wedding needed to happen, this beautiful moment. But it was all about making a love story that felt real… it just happened to be a love story between two men.

How important is music or dialogue in your videos?
This next one has a lot of dialogue. It’s brutal, ha-ha. Obviously music is the most important thing. When I do film stuff dialogue is important. But I do notice that I write stuff that doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, because I don’t like to hear a lot of talking. As far as music videos, music is everything. I get a song; it’s how I decide what I’m going to write. I listen to it. I heard of a director, I won’t say who it is but he said, “I don’t even listen to the song when I get it. I just talk to the people.” He talks to the people at the label like, “what do you want?” I listen to it because I want something that I feel relates to it or what that song says to me. I think that’s a romantic way of looking at it but at least it makes you feel more like an artist I guess, and less like just a person who’s executing something. But in films it’s everything.

What do you hope people will remember about you as a filmmaker?
As far as filmmaking, I never really thought about what people are going to remember about me because I’m so in the moment right now. I guess I have a very specific attitude because I’m just a really hardworking type of person, I’m not thinking so far down the line. I’m just hoping maybe I can make something important to someone. I never set out to do this to be a moneymaking thing. But it feels good when people tell you they like something of yours. It’s almost like a drug. For me it just seems, not easy, but it’s simple. I just wanted to do it and I started doing it. And I feel like everyone can do that, you just have to accept failure and keep going. If you’re good you’ll go. Some people can’t deal with failure or putting themselves out there. And I’m pretty confident; I thought “if I screw up, I’ll do better.” I just got here. I want to do it.