“I’ve learned to let the story come to me – not having control over the characters, situation and outcome is what makes documentary filmmaking fun.” – Andrew Loos
Andrew Loos has been telling stories through short documentaries since the late 1990s. As a producer, director, and cinematographer, he has been telling stories for more than 20 years. He’s been able to do intimate interviews with hip hop groups like Blackalicious and Jurassic5. He did a lot of early work with networks like BET during the infancy of reality TV. Over the last decade he turned his attention to creating short documentaries of stories that grab him. His most recent film, This is Kelly, won multiple awards and tells the story of Kelly Gneiting, a champion sumo wrestler, and his quest to run the LA marathon. In 1999 he co-founded Attack!, a lifestyle marketing agency, an Inc. 5000 company, where he is currently CXO (Chief Experience Officer).
We had the chance to talk with Andrew Loos about the kinds of stories he likes to tell, what it’s like to straddle the line between documentaries and marketing, and why he’s made the same movie twice.
Jaman: How do you choose what ideas to pursue and turn into films?
Andrew: These days I wait for a good story to come to me instead of seeking it out. I think you do the same thing with a documentary as you do with a business idea. You basically ask the question: “Does it deserve to exist, right?” If people are going to be giving ten minutes of their time, is it worth it?
When I first moved to LA, we used to do things set up almost for television. We'd shoot short films but we'd be able to try and sell them as pilots. We did one called Hip Hop Hero where we basically followed around two different groups in LA trying to get signed. One was an African American group out of Long Beach doing a gangster rap thing, firing up spliffs at interviews and whatnot. The other was a group of really well off white kids from money in Culver City and Beverly Hills doing a doo-woppy hip hop with a live backing band. We had another show where we took five musicians from five different bands, different genres of music, and locked them in a studio house for a couple of days, and they had to come up with a song. Our producer was also really close with Gift of Gab and some folks from Blackalicious and Jurassic 5, so we got to hang out with them all the time and they were giving us interviews. Great times.
So early on we were doing that kind of reality type stuff where we wanted to control the situation, like we wanted to tell a story by controlling it. I’ve learned to let the story come to me – not having control over the characters, situation and outcome is what makes documentary filmmaking fun.
If it crosses my path and I think it’s interesting, and if it’s interesting to other people, that's the criteria I use for choosing the story. It used to be that I wanted to control everything and stage the venue or put people in certain situations so they would do interesting things.
Jaman: Your most recent film This is Kelly followed one of the top sumo wrestlers in the US as he ran the LA marathon. How did that story come to you?
Andrew: Attack! has always embraced sumo as part of our brand, so became interested through constant proximity I guess you could say.
There are two types of sumo leagues in the entire world. The one in Japan is like the NBA of sumo and people go there to compete from all over the world. In the States, LA is the hub. We met all of the sumo guys in LA years ago. Now they act in commercials we do for Attack! and we go to their sumo matches. We're great friends just by the happenstance of our logo. It's great.
That’s how I first met Kelly Gneiting, and we’ve gotten to be friends over the years. He was one of the only caucasians in the league, this really cool and easy-going Mormon guy from Idaho who decided that he had the build to be a good sumo wrestler. About five years ago I got a call from the manager of the sumo league who said, kind of offhand-like, "You know Kelly, right? Yeah, he's going to run a marathon." I was immediately just like, " Time out, dude. That's a story."
Kelly’s a truck driver and was on his way into LA at that very moment hauling potatoes from Idaho. He was stopping in Vegas, so I scrambled to get a camera guy. We flew out to Vegas at 5:00 in the morning and took a cab 40 miles to a truck stop where he was crashing. We filmed and interviewed him all the way in on the drive.
It was a guerrilla film. We had no clue what would happen. We didn't know if he was going to finish. We didn't know if he was going to die in the middle of it. But he did finish and it was awesome. That’s how we made that documentary. The story was happening and we went for it.
Kelly came back to me about two years later and decided he was going to do the same thing but wanted to do it for Guinness Book of World Records. That’s when I shot the film, This is Kelly.
Jaman: So you’ve made the same movie twice?
Andrew: Kind of. It's basically the same movie, but the only way I agreed to do it the second time is if I got to make it exactly how I wanted it. It worked out great. We shot the second one in all black and white with no words, just a score behind it. It's more artsy, and this time I got to shoot more of his environment. He’s even featured in the Guinness Book of World Records. Guinness loves him and they've taken all of the films.
Watch This is Kelly here: http://www.kelly262.com/team.html or here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNcn0lmFkSY
Jaman: How do you navigate your simultaneous roles as award-winning director and the CXO of a lifestyle marketing agency?
Andrew: I’m able to inject a lot of what I love to do with film into the DNA of my agency through films for brands, case study videos, and commercials. For example, we have a commercial where the top sumo wrestler in the US is jumping out of an airplane. He’s a skydiving sumo, and that’s a great story.
I like to tell stories. Because of what I do, 95% of my life is focused on telling stories for other people. I usually don’t get to tell them my own way, so it's important to my overall journey in life to find balance. I have to do something that is art for the sake of art or I'll lose my mind. My wife just rolls her eyes, but for me to be able to keep sanity within myself and better serve my clients down the line, I have to find time to do my own project.
At this point I make my own films once a year or so outside of Attack! The irony is that the two films I made in the last two years are about the same guy doing the same thing at different times.
A brand film or video has to have that same sense of narrative arc that a film does for it to be watchable for a viewer. Whether the viewer knows about narrative arc or not, it still needs to be there. The difference is that with a brand film is that it’s a component of a larger plan. My crew and I control some of the components, like the sound, the order, and how good it looks, but we don’t control the message itself.
I've been able to quench my film interests while growing an agency, which is nice. I've also been able to realize that I like being an entrepreneur and I enjoy experiential marketing more than I ever thought I did. They cross over.
Jaman: So what’s your next film about?
Andrew: The piece I'm going to direct in October is about wheelchair tennis players.
Jaman: Why wheelchair tennis players?
Andrew: A few guys I know in the Midwest mentioned to me several months back that wheelchair tennis is gaining a ton of grassroots popularity all over the country, especially around the area they live in Kansas City. People just started showing up in droves at these local matches initially out of curiosity, but have continued to show up and bring friends. I love it when something gains interest naturally through word-of-mouth on the community level.
What we're finding is that for a lot of people who’ve gotten involved in the sport, it's changed their lives. They're doing something they didn't think they were capable of and it's giving them freedom and confidence at high levels. It's like Kelly. He thought that, because of his hefty stature, he was limited just to sumo wrestling as a sport for awhile, but then he hit a point where he was like, "No, I'm not. I can do anything I want. I just have to do it a little bit differently."
To me, those are interesting stories. They resonate with everybody because we all have those things. Everybody is told there are things they can't do, so I think showing extreme versions of overcoming and busting down those walls is just naturally interesting.
Jaman: Tell me more about the wheelchair tennis project. What’s the story you're trying to tell?
Andrew: I'm learning about wheelchair tennis right now. I'm learning about who started it, how long it's been around for, why it' amazing. I'm getting to meet some of the most influential people in the sport. I'm trying to piece together a story for people who want to learn it in a short period of time because my goal, my job as a filmmaker with this piece, is to take 7 to 12 minutes and tell a story that basically educates, inspires, and then also introduces a couple key players.
It’s a film for people who maybe are already playing tennis or were already handicapped who were looking for other outlets of physical activity. My thought was, why don’t we make a film for them but why don’t we do it in a way to where it can be for a much wider audience?
I'm learning more about what I'm shooting and that’s the way I prefer to do it. If I shot a movie on pick up basketball or something that I've done for 20 years, I wouldn’t even know how to approach that. I'm getting inspired as I'm making this and hopefully that comes out in the film I’m creating.
Jaman: Are there one or two particular movies or directors you find inspiring?
Andrew: We watched a movie recently called David Wants to Fly about transcendental meditation that I thought was insanely awesome. I had to order it from the Amazon Netherlands because it’s illegal to sell here in the states because of a pending lawsuit (seriously, look it up). Something about having one of the only copies of a movie on American soil that makes it even better.
A director I’m a big fan of is Todd Norris, an indie director based out of Kansas City. He has put out incredible short films for years and did a feature called, “The Paranormal” several years back that was out of sight.