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On Inspiration And Directing And Everything In-Between

Hannah Pajo-Bickley

October 4, 2017

Growing up in Chicago, Sarah Koteles was obsessed with music videos and Tim Burton films from a very early age. She got her start as a motion designer at various TV companies while pursuing a career in directing on the side. Since then, she’s gone on to direct numerous short films, music videos, commercials, and web series. Sarah is on the roster at LaLaLa Productions and has also founded her own production company (L’ouest).

Sarah recently teamed up with ReKon to produce her short film WHITE WOLVES. I got the chance to speak with Sarah about her background, career, and experience working on this project.

You mention loving music videos and Tim Burton films as a child. What drew you to them?

I think the reason music videos and Tim Burton films had such an appeal to me as a child was because of the fanciful nature of both of them. They took you into this magical world and made you forget about the mundaneness of real life. Back in the 90’s, music videos were epic! I mean, you had David Fincher and Mark Romanek, two brilliant visionaries, making these stylistic, high-concept pieces for Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, and other huge artists. It felt like no idea was too weird, dark, or taboo in the world of music videos. The same goes for Tim Burton’s work. His films are so visual and dream-like.

Do you have a favorite Tim Burton film?

If I had to pick a favorite film, it would have to be Beetlejuice…not because I think it’s the best film of all time but because of sentimental reasons. This movie got me thinking about how I wanted to tell stories with a camera and create alternate realities.

In what ways do your childhood loves show up in your current work?

There are a couple themes that seem to surface in a lot of my recent work: alienation and discovery. I think the idea of feeling isolated from everyone or having a “weirdo” or loner as your protagonist is definitely a Tim Burton-esque influence. His films almost always have a character that is the outcast, trying (or sometimes not trying) to fit in with the rest of the world. The concept of discovery and finding yourself in unfamiliar surroundings can be linked to some of the bizarre music videos I’ve seen as a kid.

Your production company, L’Ouest, means “The West” in French. But you’re originally from Chicago. What first brought you out west and what kept you here?

I came to LA as most people do…to be in the film industry. However, I was pretty naive when I first got here. I thought I’d show people my directing reel and BAM! I’d get hired right away. Definitely not how things work. I realized very quickly that although being a director is a respectable position, it’s not a very technical one. Learning a technical skill seemed to be the way to actually make money or prove my worth. So, through a series of lucky coincidences, I was put in touch with a guy named Justin Harder who happened to be one of the most influential motion designers in LA. I visited his studio and told him I was interested in being an animator. Six months and one AfterEffects class later, he gave me my first internship at Lambo, his motion design company. The reason this job was so significant wasn’t just because it was my first step in the door of the design/animation world, but because it was there that I started appreciating SoCal culture and considering this city my home. The west coast slowly became the wonderful cliché that it is known for being: the place to make dreams come true and reinvent yourself. So despite my loyalty towards my hometown of Chicago, I have so much gratitude towards Los Angeles for giving me the opportunity to do what I love. I’m not sure I’d be where I am now if I was back in my hometown.

So you got your start in the film industry in motion graphics but have always pursued directing simultaneously. How did your first directing opportunities come about?

As mentioned earlier, directing wasn’t exactly an easy field to jump into (especially when you’re a 24-year-old female with a very limited body of directing work). Motion graphics was a more technical field that seemed to have a high demand for people. For one motion graphics project, you may need anywhere from 2 – 20 animators. For one film, you only need 1 director. It was pretty apparent to me which was easier to get into.

In regards to pursuing directing while also doing motion graphics, that was another lucky accident. While working at NBC/Telemundo, my boss needed a director for an opening title sequence and all the usual directors they hire were busy shooting other things. He asked me if I’d like to do it, and of course, I jumped at the opportunity. Because I felt the stakes were high, I busted my ass to make sure that was the best damn opening title sequence anyone had seen. And that was the beginning of my directing career in LA. At that point, I had been here for 5 years doing only motion graphics.  I had pretty much given up hope of becoming a director. But this one opportunity led to many more directing projects at that company. And I also continued doing various passion projects on the side that helped build my directing portfolio.

How do you see your expertise in design informing your directing and vice versa?

Being a designer has made my work as a director more clean and precise. When I was in film school, I made things that were very rock ‘n roll. That was my aesthetic at the time. Once I got deeper into design things got glossier and, in a way, more minimal. I’m glad this happened because it stripped things down to what is truly essential. I still love handheld camerawork, jump cuts, and lens flares, but I’m more exacting when using these elements.

What do you know now that you wish you would have known when you started in your career?

I think writing every day is essential for every director. When I was in college, I used to write fiction all the time and when I look back at the stuff I used to write I’m impressed. I’m pretty sure my writing was stronger back then. Also, it came so easily. When writing White Wolves, it was hard. I would get stuck and then go surfing to help get rid of the writer’s block. I told myself that I’d start working on my next script right after filming this movie. And I am!

What is so inspiring to you about surfing and surf movies?

The ocean is so powerful and mesmerizing. There is something about being in the middle of this huge body of water, away from all distractions and humanly possessions, that makes you feel tiny and happy at the same time. Being tossed around in a wave is an experience I think everyone should have. It’s extremely humbling. I know it sounds cheesy, but surfing is a religion…it’s a way of life. In Kauai, Hawaii people aren’t respected by how much money they make or what kind of car they own. They are respected by how well they surf and how they handle themselves in the ocean.

How long have you been surfing?

I’ve been surfing for about 8 years. I should be a better surfer for the amount of years I’ve been doing it. I have come to terms with the fact I will never rip. A few years ago I actually got private lessons from my actor, John Philbin. When I was getting lessons with him, I was pretty good!

Sarah and actor John Philbin on the White Wolves set.

Where do you currently find yourself drawing the most inspiration from?

Honestly, my own life. I feel like my last two projects are just a very long, drawn out therapy session for myself. I’ve either incorporated people I know or made it specifically about myself. People always say “write what you know” and that’s what I try to do.

When did you first get the idea for this project?

Well, I used to know someone who was the real-life version of the main character Josh. When I first met him, he had just gotten dumped by his long-term girlfriend and I think she really broke him. In the beginning of our friendship/“relationship” he seemed withdrawn but over time I witnessed this level of isolation intensify. I did care about him a great deal and, perhaps for selfish reasons, I always wanted him to bounce back from the heartbreak. But he didn’t. He went further and further off-the-grid and eventually, we no longer stayed in touch with each other. He was an avid surfer and I guess I over-romanticized his relationship he had with the ocean. In my mind, I thought the ocean/Mother Nature was like his substitute girlfriend…the only thing he could commit to. I often wondered what might have happened if he did choose to open up and love again and that’s how White Wolves came to be.

Where did the title come from?

This is actually a very random story. Back in 2013, I was loosely brainstorming this idea for a film that revolves around a woman hiring an assassin on the dark web to get revenge on her brother. At the time, I had been hearing a lot about the dark web and it really intrigued me. I learned about this site called White Wolves that was supposedly like an “Assassins-R-Us”. I’ve never seen it, but there were a bunch of articles written about it and I found it fascinating. Anyway, long story short, I decided not to make that film (at least not at this time) but I always loved the name. When writing this new script about a lone wolf, surfer guy I suddenly realized the title really fit. And the scene with the older man (John Philbin) and Josh (Ricky Rojas) was the first chunk of the script I wrote. That line, “There’s not many of us. We’re the lone wolves, man” quintessentially summed up the film in my opinion and White Wolves just made sense as the title.

What was something new you learned from this production that you’d like to apply in the future?

I realized that if I ever shoot in the water again, I’m going to be super careful with the actors. For instance, there is a scene in the film where Josh teaches Marra how to surf. Originally we were going to shoot the two of them out in the water, just having fun on their boards. However, the beach we were shooting at was not ideal for beginners and the day we went out to shoot that scene, the waves were way too intense. At one point, while trying to enter the water, Kat David’s board was taken by a wave and came back at her, injuring her wrist. I saw the whole scene play out and realized very quickly that this was a bad idea. Luckily her wrist healed in a couple days, but it was black and blue. She was such a trooper! She even said she’d get back in the water, but I decided to alter the scene because I didn’t want to risk it. I was just so thankful nothing worse happened to her.

What has been your favorite part about working on White Wolves so far?

The cast and crew have been my favorite part of working on this film. I feel like everyone that was drawn to this project really gets it and is so invested in the story. And they are just amazingly talented individuals! I’m so lucky to have found them. This was my first time working with a lot of the crew. I usually bring the same people I’ve worked with in the past back, but a lot of friends were unavailable for our shooting dates. Gareth Paul Cox, the D.P., was such a pleasure to work with. It’s perfect when you trust your cinematographer 100% and he (or she) trusts you. That’s how great things happen.

What do you love most about directing?

I heard Steven Spielberg once say, “I get paid to dream” and that’s exactly what it’s all about. Directing is making your wildest visions, craziest ideas, and breathtakingly beautiful scenes in your head come to life. It’s about sharing stories and hoping these characters you’ve created will connect with other people and entertain them for a brief moment of their time.

Sarah, thank you so much for sharing about yourself and this film. We’re excited to see White Wolves when it’s complete! You can expect to see the film in April of 2018. In the meantime, check out Sarah’s other work by visiting her website:

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