Project Forte: Mel Soria

High Hopes
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Mel Soria photographed by Kate Feher

 

Mel Soria (he/him) is a two-time VMA winning director now living and working outside Philadelphia.  He cut his teeth in Hollywood, assisting directly to filmmakers who would provide mentorship and mastery over the craft.  Taking that rare and hard-won education, he branched out on his own, developing a niche in music video as a challenge in short-form storytelling.  This week on Project Forte, Mel shares that wisdom of experience with us, along with some chilling anecdotes which diagnose the stark truth behind industry “norms” and how they are perpetuated.  Mel has faced the challenges of immigration with ambition, discernment, and hope.  He has maintained an exuberant charm throughout these hardships, bringing only positivity to set and demanding that the industry recognize excellence over race and gender.

 

 

 

Written and Edited by Kate Feher

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Mel Soria:                  My name is Mel Soria.  I’m known as the greatest… Nah, just kidding – I am a director, primarily in music videos, with a lot of experience in narrative.

Kris Mendoza:         World Famous! How’d you get your start in the industry?

Mel Soria:                   Well, it was kind of accidental even though it makes a lot of sense now…  So, of course, I’m Filipino American. My family immigrated to the States when I was five from Manila. We lived in Queens, New York and as a child, we would sometimes go to this Wendy’s in town where they shot Coming to America – the McDowell’s place. They had a long hallway with photos of stills from the film, and I was like, “What are these?” When my dad told me, it was the first time I understood, A: people actually make movies in real places, and B: we were now living where people made the movies. Cuz when you’re a kid living in the Philippines you always think movies were made in faraway places.

Kris Mendoza:         “Hollywood”

Mel Soria:                    Exactly. I realized, “Oh, America is the place where they make movies. We now live in America.” Later, I learned to love Coming to America because I was old enough to finally understand the satire, and of course, it reminds me of New York – which represents my family’s immigrant story.

Happy Song

Mel Soria

I was very artistic growing up. I could draw, and I assumed I was going to be an architect because that was the ‘legitimate’ job you could do with drawing. I really wanted to be a comic book artist, but I’m sure my parents, being Asian immigrants, thought, “Yeah, we didn’t sacrifice so you could draw comic books.”  So, I went to Virginia Tech which has (I’m wearing the hoodie right now) one of the best architecture schools in the country. I was pretty ambitious and took all the architecture courses ahead of schedule, but eventually, my advisor said, “You can’t take any more classes in the program. You’ve got to catch up and take some of these foundation classes like math, history, and art electives…”  But because it was so late in that semester, there was only one available class that I could get into which fit my schedule, and it happened to be a film class. 

It was the only film production class that the university offered, taught by a man named Jerry Scheeler. He was a National Geographic cinematographer who retired and moved to Blacksburg – where Virginia Tech is located. He was like a real-life 6’3” Indiana Jones.  During his career, he traveled to exotic locations and filmed some groundbreaking wildlife footage. He was so cool. One day he was showing us different film stocks: 16mm, 75mm…  and while we were looking at a strip of 35mm, someone noticed, “Oh, there are some boats in these frames, what movie is this from?”  He said, “It’s a short end from TITANIC. One of my former students is now an assistant editor in LA, and while he was working on it [Titanic] they were throwing these out so he sent me a few feet…”

When we heard that, my classmates and I…well, our brains exploded! We were in the middle of nowhere in western Virginia thinking, “Wait, so you’ve got a direct line to Hollywood? We thought working in movies was impossible unless you were born into the industry?” Even more amazing was that Jerry was so practical and matter-of-fact about it…he gave it to us straight, “Filmmaking is like any other job. You go, you start at the bottom, you apprentice, you work your way up.” 

But growing up outside of Philadelphia, and in New York, you don’t think Hollywood or filmmaking is an option because you don’t live near LA. You’re from an immigrant family. You have no contacts in the industry, so you don’t think it’s a plausible, practical thing, but having that instructor encourage us, saying, “If any of you want to move to LA and make movies, that is 100% doable. You just execute these steps,” so well, that changed everything.

I thought, “Forget architecture. I want to make movies.”

Ted Talk

Mel Soria

Of course, I called my dad later that week and he said, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen. You’ve got to finish your degree. You’ve always wanted to be an architect since you were a kid, that’s what you should be doing.”  But I was already hooked. I started planning to go to film school. I switched my architecture degree to industrial design so I could graduate earlier, and then I went to Florida State for film school, which is a graduate conservatory program. From there I moved to Los Angeles and started my career. 

For a person who didn’t even know filmmaking was a possibility, the minute I found out, I was all-in. I didn’t want to design bathrooms for skyscrapers…I’d rather get coffee for producers, as long as I was on a movie set.

Kris Mendoza:          Once you landed in LA, what was it like starting your career?  LA is a pretty diverse city in terms of the film scene, so what was it like making connections, breaking in, and being kind of a young gun-hungry for work there?

Mel Soria:                   Well, I’ve always believed in the idea of apprenticeship, to learn by the side of a master, someone with experience…I think it’s because I have a background in all these art forms like architecture and martial arts – I know it’s a cliché – that have traditions in passing on knowledge directly from master to student. But to me it makes so much sense, you work with people who have experience and they teach you the ropes so you don’t make their same mistakes. It gets you to where you want to be faster. I was a child of immigrants, so I knew I wasn’t just going to LA and the doors were going to just swing wide open for me – I instinctively knew I needed help. I actively decided I was going to be “an apprentice” and that the closest equivalent for that on a movie set was an assistant to the director – like a personal assistant, not an AD, but a person who got them coffee and drove them around and handled their schedules. With that job, I knew that eventually, whether that director liked it or not, I’d get to know the ins and outs of their process.  As a director’s assistant, I would be a fly on the wall in meetings and rehearsals – learning.  

But let me make it clear – there isn’t a big demand for director’s assistants in the industry, I just told myself, “This is what I’m going to do. This is how I’m going to do it,” and so I started looking for that job to apply for. 

Irresistible

Mel Soria pictured Left

Luckily, my best friend from Virginia Tech called me after I graduated from film school to say,  “My cousin, who’s about 10 years older than us, he’s a Hollywood screenwriter and now he’s shooting his first movie. Maybe he can help you out.”  So, I got an interview with the cousin just for a meet and greet. We got along well and he was like, “I think you’re cool and your bros with my cousin so that’s a plus. But this is a low-ish budget movie, so there’s no money for a director’s assistant. Which I totally understood – I was just happy to meet someone actually working on a movie.

That same day, after our meeting, the director and I were making our way out to the lobby when in walks: the movie’s producer. The director introduces me and as we were chatting one of the office PAs comes in late with everyone’s lunch order, like 30 minutes after lunch. He walks over, gives the producer a sandwich and says “Sorry I took so long, here’s your lunch,” but it was the wrong order. The producer scratches his head and says to me, “You know what, I think I can find the money in the budget to hire you.” The PA comes back out and the producer says, “FYI, man, you’re fired,” because he messed up so badly.  I know this isn’t the nicest story – that I got my first job through someone losing their job – but it also kind of taught me the lesson: Hollywood is “the pros”.

Kris Mendoza:          There’s a very slim margin of error.

Mel Soria:                   Yeah. It’s the equivalent of being in the NFL. Even for the scrubs on the bench – nobody’s slow in the NFL, no one is weak. It’s the best of the best. There’s a baseline standard of excellence, and I guess that ingrained the idea that I have to perform perfectly at minimum and then all these other things will have to build on top of that: friendships, connections, and talent development. 

That’s how I started, and so for two or three years, I was an assistant to five different directors, three women and two men, which also showed me a lot of gender dynamics and what it meant to be a minority as a female in the industry.

Hollywood is run by assistants. Being one taught how the whole industry worked, warts and all. It was a perspective you never learn from film school. That’s how I cut my teeth.

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Mel Soria

Kris Mendoza:           So, talking about apprenticing under someone else, what’s that like in terms of your own development as a director? At what point did you start working on your own projects?  Did other working styles help shape your voice as a director?

Mel Soria:                    So, for three years I was just happy to be going from movies to television shows, then to more movies. I would be assistant to a director while in production, and then when the movie was in post they didn’t need me but would pass me to another director once they were self-sufficient.

That’s really your “in” when a fellow director recommends you.  You get to be known as someone who knows what they’re doing and knows how to act. But after three years I realized, “Oh shit. I haven’t directed anything. I haven’t shot anything in three years.”

I was at a family holiday, I think Thanksgiving or Christmas, and an Uncle asked what I was doing –

Kris Mendoza:           – What are you doing with your life, Mel?

Mel Soria:                 Yeah! And I said, “Oh, I’m a filmmaker,” but my younger brother immediately cuts me off and says, “That’s not true. He doesn’t make any of his OWN films. He helps other people make THEIR films.” And as much as I was annoyed I thought, he’s right… Like I said, at the time the last thing I directed was three years old on Super 16 and all of a sudden everyone was shooting digital on RED cameras. So, that was an impetus to start making my own work again. 

I always had a nagging feeling in film school that they were teaching us how to make movies, but not how to make careers. I knew there were things about the politics of show business we didn’t know…soft skills about navigating the industry which we should learn. By working with those directors for years, I learned those skills and I felt more confident. I got to take a peek behind the curtain, and I understand, Oh, this is how the sausage is made but also, and more importantly, the stuff I know foundationally is, in fact, accurate.

So, I took the leap and decided to stop taking jobs for assistant work, which was maybe super ignorant. It was like I stepped out saying, “Oh, stop the presses everybody. Mel’s ready to direct. You can start hiring me,” which wasn’t happening. Just crickets, you know?

FSU

Mel Soria

Luckily, at the same time, my younger brother was in a rock band that got signed to Columbia Records. They needed a music video but they only had $500. Initially, I was unsure, but my girlfriend at the time encouraged me saying, “If you think you’re good enough to make a full-length movie, then you should be able to do a tiny music video. Like, If you can’t do a music video then you really don’t know what you’re talking about.” That became the challenge and so then I wanted to do it – besides it’s not like I had any other offers lined up.

That was my first music video, and I shot it all myself on rented gear, documentary-style on the road with the band. And from then on, things snowballed and I got other music video gigs because bands know each other, so they see one band do something and if it’s a great video they’re like, “Who the hell did that? How did they afford it? Who directed it?” 

Incidentally, one of my brother’s bandmates, a guitarist named Brendan Walter, retired from music to become a filmmaker.  We teamed up and now we co-direct a lot of music videos together. He has all of the instincts needed to work with musicians and over the past six, seven years, we’ve balanced each other out, learning from each other.

Kris Mendoza:          Who are some of the artists you worked for, and where has that led you?

Mel Soria:                 We’ve made videos for bands like Train, which is contemporary rock, and then for younger audiences, bands like New Politics, Panic! at the Disco, and Fall Out Boy. In 2015, we won Best Rock Music Video at the MTV Video Music Awards for a Fall Out Boy video. And in 2019 we won another Best Rock VMA with Panic! at the Disco for their track “High Hopes”, which was the song of the summer back then. We’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve been nominated for four VMAs, which are kind of the industry mountain top for music video awards, and we won two. The first time we won I was like, “Okay, we’re done!”

Kris Mendoza:          We’ve made it.

High Hopes

Mel Soria directing “High Hopes” with Panic! At the Disco

 

Mel Soria:                 Not only that we made it, but we thought, “We can’t top this. We’re not going to get this lucky again.” But music videos are too much of a blast to give up and each one has its own unique set of challenges – you can never completely master the art form. More importantly, you realize music videos are one of the most difficult forms of filmmaking to consistently get right. It really is a test for the director. Music video filmmakers are like the Navy Seals of film because compared to movies or TV you only have half the time to shoot twice the amount of content, but also at a fraction of the budget from what it was in the ’90s.

You and I, Kris, we grew up in the ’90s. If we were music video directors in the ’90s it would be way more dope. Back then, music video premieres were more of an event – you got to go to TRL at Times Square…

Kris Mendoza:          Make $100,000 for a video.

Mel Soria:                 At least. Back then rates were so much higher – not so much today. But I still love making them [music videos].

Champion 2

Mel Soria on the set of “Champion” for Fallout Boy

Kris Mendoza:           Where do you draw your inspiration from, whether it’s for music videos or narrative?  Is there one source of inspiration or many?  How do you get these concepts?

Mel Soria:                 For me, the secret weapon – which maybe I shouldn’t be saying, though it is kind of obvious – is that I moved back to suburban Pennsylvania and it put me in a different creative mindset. If you’re not living in LA, then you don’t out driving in Beverly Hills seeing Ferraris, you’re seeing mom & pop shops and watching families go to high school football games.  It was a shift back to normalcy from LA, to ‘Americana’.

Being here makes it really easy for my imagination to get back into a “hopes and dreams” mode  – like when I was in high school. This is really helpful, especially since I have a lot of clients who cater to that demographic: high school, early college.  My concepts are heavily influenced by living in suburban America and that sense of place makes it easier for me to connect to them. Sometimes I’m asked to come up with a concept for a song about “leaving the nest, going on some grand adventure, or meeting the love of your life.” And Bucks County is a romantic place, like an Andrew Wyeth painting – amplified by the fact that I first felt those hopes growing up here as an adolescent – – it’s easy to bring myself back to that emotional space and come up with ideas.

Bulletproof Picasso

Mel Soria directing “Bulletproof Picasso” with Train

Also, when you direct multiple videos for a band, you build a relationship with them and get in sync. You get the vibe they’re interested in and meld that to what you’re interested in. So in that sense, coming up with ideas is a lot easier with musicians you’ve worked with a lot.

Maybe it was hard for me to come up with ideas living in LA because it’s a place where people make movies, so your ideas tend to be less about real-life things.

Kris Mendoza:          To an extent, you have to take yourself out of the industry environment to recognize or expose yourself to things you wouldn’t normally see throughout the course of your day or week.

Mel Soria:                 Right. Exactly. They don’t shut down your suburban neighborhood to shoot a film in PA. In the past 15 years I’ve seen a lot more content, be it Film or TV, where characters are actually filmmakers, and I think it’s just because writers in LA see other writers in LA and that’s where they get their ideas from. Here in PA, my neighbor is a long-haul truck driver. My other neighbor is military. Another neighbor has kids in middle school. These are real stories, all around me. They remind me what it was like to play football on Friday nights. It’s all that stuff I think Springsteen still pulls from, you know he still lives only 20 minutes from where he grew up-

Kris Mendoza:           Asbury Park, New Jersey. You dropped a big name, so I’ll drop another: What was your relationship with Ridley Scott and his production company like?

Mel Soria:                 Oh. I was an intern at RSA, which is Ridley Scott and Associates, their music video and commercial arm. In LA, RSA was the building directly next door to Scott Free which is Ridley Scott’s feature-length television arm, and because of that, the interns were just interchangeable. They’d tell us, “Go next door and serve lunch, the intern there is on a run.” I was only there for a couple of months in 2008, but it was my first introduction to how a top-tier production company operated.

Ridley was like this mythic figure.  He would walk by and all the interns would whisper… it was like seeing Dumbledore… 

I remember at the time he was in pre-pro for Robin Hood and as an intern, I was going to different rooms stocking water bottles and cleaning up after meetings or whatever, and upstairs they had this massive model of one of the castles in-

Kris Mendoza:           Nottingham.

Mel Soria:                  For Nottingham, yeah! Because I studied architecture, I was also really interested in the production design, and recognized Arthur Max walking around. He also production-designed Gladiator and a lot of Ridley’s stuff, so I was like, “That’s the production designer!”  in a hushed tone and people were like, “Who?” [jokes]

Production designers don’t have groupies, so he was super accessible to talk to, it was great. But of course, I had to move on because companies like that have such deep benches and just being an intern there didn’t mean they would ever offer you a job. 

Kris Mendoza:           You were almost just as excited when we met, I think you said “It’s refreshing to meet another Filipino in filmmaking…” I share the same sentiment. There are more of us out there than you think. What’s your opinion in terms of the level of diversity, not just on the Filipino end, but how the industry is seeded? How does that affect the product we put out? 

Mel Soria:                 I never saw the hurdles within my education and my career as being linked to race heavily. Actually, I thought of it [my race] as an advantage just because I was raised understanding how competitive I would need to be – that’s just how immigrants think. And that practical mindset is really helpful when you’re dealing with so many dollars going in and out of the bank and that’s what really drives the industry. For a regular Hollywood set it’s 100k a day to operate – just to have people show up, have catering, and to shoot. Whether you get all your shots or not – you still burn 100k. So the ability to be excellent at your job is your most valuable commodity. Whether you’re black, brown, or whatever, you have to be excellent.

Young & Menace

Mel Soria directing “Young and Menace” with Fallout Boy

Now, that being said, I may have been drifting through the world rather naively because I didn’t want to believe that race was so much of an issue – although, we now know through study after study, that it actually is. From my experience, it’s more complex than that, you see a lot of the time it’s not just about race —  the film industry is very old school in the sense of it still being about “who you know.” Not necessarily because they’re trying to exclude people, but because the stakes are so high you hire people who you personally know and have experienced production with.  You trust them because you’ve worked with them before, and there’s not much incentive to risk a job on someone unknown. You think, “Okay, if my head’s on the chopping block this person isn’t going to let me down.” 

And that, in my view, really explains why a lot of past Hollywood seemed to be one color: white.  They were the people from affluent backgrounds, (filmmaking isn’t a cheap sport) who got fed jobs out of film school. They came from families that had the money and security to send their kids to an arts college – or at least they came from backgrounds that were more forgiving if they initially failed at whatever creative endeavor they chose to pursue. It all perpetuates from the socio-economic stratospheres of the privileged – which of course is related to race in this country.

That’s what I saw in LA. You know, interestingly enough, LA has one of the highest concentrations of Filipino in America so I saw a lot of us on the street, but on set, I was like the only brown person.  

Champion 1

Mel Soria pictured Left with Fallout Boy

In truth, I wasn’t aware of any biases until I started working for female directors in the early 2010s. I was an assistant to three female directors and I understood then, just by being a fly on the wall, that they were being treated differently than the male directors. I remember working on a movie, I’m not going to mention which, but I was the assistant to a female director. The producers for that film were these Old Hollywood cats who made all their movies in the ’70s. They were producing this one as kind of a last hurrah, something they thought they’d do with their buddies one more time and “let some broad direct,” you know what I mean? 

Well, during principal photography we would wrap for the day and those producers would go get drinks at a restaurant like in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and invite me to tag along. At the time I thought it was great until they started discussing which scenes to cut or why they shouldn’t spend extra money on a set, and I thought  Wait a minute. The director needs to be in these conversations. They’re not even considering her. It occurred to me that when I was an assistant to male directors, those men would be invited to these outings. 

At the same time, being an assistant to the director, I understood that power meant you could enact change. One or two of my bosses would specifically say, “We’re going to hire more of a minority group,” and nobody would challenge them. All anyone would care about is “Can they do their job? Are they excellent?” 

In America, racism has been one of our biggest legacies. But ironically, if you talk to any soldier who’s fought in combat, race doesn’t fucking matter. You just need someone to cover your back or have a sharp aim. I think that’s true in almost any industry…especially when there’s stress and the stakes are high: color fades.  The problem is, once that stress dissipates, do we continue to see the world with the same sense of egalitarianism, meritocracy, and equality in our hiring practices so those we work with when times are tough are diverse? Probably not. 

Death Of A Bachelor

Mel Soria directing “Death of a Bachelor” with Panic! at the Disco

Once I became in charge of my own sets and my own stories – I mentioned co-directing a lot of these music videos with my friend, Brendan – well, we actively try to layer in diversity with our cast and crew hires, but we just never use it as a rule. Our litmus test is: Is the person excellent at their job? If they are then no one’s going to complain or question why that person has been hired.

Now, I’m going to say something but it’s kind of terrible, still, this really happened so it’s important.  We were casting for a video and a lot of these conference calls at the time were just audio, so you couldn’t see anyone’s race on the call… My name is Mel Soria and for most people, that name has no ethnic associations, so you can’t tell I’m Filipino.  Well, on one particular call we were casting for a Western-themed video, and the female lead we cast was of Indian descent, as in the subcontinent of India, not Native American.  Then one of these executives says, “Hey, Mel. We’re really excited about this video. You’ve got a great cast. It’s going to look amazing, but it’s kind of funny because you picked the wrong kind of Indian for this Western.”  

I asked, “What are you talking about?”  and he said, “You picked an Indian with dots, not feathers.” 

We were just so shocked on the call that when we hung up we were like, “Did we just hear what we heard?” And then I realized this guy didn’t know that I was brown. 

So of course, a week later we get on set. I’m directing this thing and I tell my AD to let me know when the label people show up. They arrive and stand over by craft services wearing suits or whatever, of course. I walk over and I start picking up food and it doesn’t even register in their brains that I could be somebody. I just look like one of the grips or PAs.

Then the AD walks over and pulls us together saying, “Oh great. We’re all here. Here’s our director, Mel…”

I’m like, “Yeah. Remember me? I was on that call,” and I could see their faces go white. They realized they were talking to a brown person on the phone…

Kris Mendoza:           They were like, “Oh shit.”

Mel Soria:                  Yeah. But I did that on purpose because what really has to happen is that they recognize they fucked up and behave better.  I also set up that moment because a lot of times record execs will show up and want to tinker with shit on set by making “suggestions” but this guy just wanted to get out of there. So it was like killing two birds with one stone. Racist exec shits his pants and leaves my shoot alone.

Kris Mendoza:           Hopefully those folks have evolved. For the industry, I think there’s still a long way to go.

Mel Soria:                 Most definitely.

Kris Mendoza:          What are some things that need to happen in order to have more diversity on set, in front of, and behind the camera?

Mel Soria: The one thing I would say is key is: cultivate young and new diverse talent. It’s not enough that you just hire someone who is of a diverse background that you kind of don’t know and put them in charge of a set or department out of nowhere. My life experience in this industry is all about mentorship and being ushered in, and I think that’s really what we should be doing. It might not happen overnight, but the truth is minorities are going to have a much more stable foundation where it’s almost impossible to remove them because you’ve been building them up for a long time throughout their careers.

So, it’s all about hiring a diverse PA and then also making sure that they don’t stay a PA. They need to get moved up to a second assistant or a first assistant or an operator or a production supervisor, and that builds the ranks. More importantly, what matters most to anyone looking to hire a skilled person in the industry is that they/their crew has experience.  You can’t argue with that. They can’t afford to not make money, and they can only make money with people who are excellent at what they do.  The only color that matters onset is green.

Headphones

Mel Soria

Mentor and promote from the bottom up, because as you know, for a lot of minorities, there’s nothing worse than when you hear about someone from your minority group that drops the ball because they were probably brought up too quickly and expected to do way more than they should have, where their white counterpart would have never been forced to grow up so quick. How many times have we heard about a white-straight-male director who’s made flop after flop and they’ve been given chance after chance and they’ve gotten better and better? I think for minorities you can’t have a flop first movie, but if you’re a white person who’s spent years working up the ladder and making friends in powerful places you can-

Kris Mendoza:           There’s a very small window for failure because we’re still proving ourselves in our market.

Mel Soria:                 Proving ourselves. Right. Yeah. So, you can help that by just cultivating the talent for a longer period, and it gives them so much more advantage: knowing how the system works, how to build their strengths and maneuver. Part of cultivating your excellence in the industry is building Institutional Know-How. It’s about maneuvering your way through the network by using soft skills and leveraging social connections you’ve established over time to capitalize on your actual hard skills or talents. 

Kris Mendoza: Thank you for joining us, you did a very good job sharing your experiences.  Those anecdotal stories give us a nice slice of what is out there on bigger sets, smaller sets, and the lack of level of diversity.