We recently spoke with director Alex Horwitz (“Hamilton’s America”) about a few of his recent projects, including Bon Jovi’s concert documentary “On A Night Like This” and the “Unbroken” music video featuring the Invictus Games choir.
While Alex is primarily a documentary director and works with a dedicated DP, he’s found himself shooting more and more in recent years. As he notes, “I just felt like a fifth wheel on set when I wasn’t (shooting). When I was interviewing, I certainly liked to be hands-free and attentive to my subject. But when we were shooting verité — either actively following a subject or being a fly on the wall — I was an extra body in the room. I was losing an opportunity to get another angle and a lot more coverage in the moment.”
Since Alex is usually directing and producing at the same time that he’s shooting, his camera needed the right balance of light weight, intuitive menu and image quality; something that he could carry around and that he could take out whenever he wanted to shoot, but that still delivered cinematic images. “I had my eye on the Pocket Cinema Camera 6K for some time, and it hasn’t disappointed,” he said.
PH: How are you, Alex? How has your work and how you work changed this year?
Alex Horwitz: I’m surviving as well as one can these strange days, thanks. Can’t complain. My work life definitely has changed a lot. I was just starting a documentary feature when COVID reared its head and killed the project. Right before lockdown, I shot a Bon Jovi music video in London. By the time we landed back in New York and set up editorial, we were bracing for remote work. But the relationship with the band was fortunate, because lockdown is what inspired Jon to film his audience-less concert special in Nashville. By the time we filmed, there was precedent for how to manage production with relatively safe protocols. I can’t say I enjoyed having to work with masks and strict distance, but it’s the right way to do it, and our crew was incredibly gracious and professional. Honestly, I think we were all just happy to be making something. Since then, the industry has opened back up a bit more, and I have some new projects on the horizon. But the silver lining of all this has been time with my family.
PH: How did you get into the world of directing? Can you recall some of your first works (breaks) in the industry?
Alex Horwitz: I suppose the short answer is “editing,” but the longer one is that I did lots of different jobs on lots of different projects, which was all invaluable education. Before I got into post, I worked very small production jobs on big Hollywood movies, produced a small movie you’ve never heard of, and made a short horror film of my own. Eventually, I got my foot in the door as an editor at RadicalMedia in New York, where I became one of their regular cutters. A few years later, in my spare time, I started shooting what would become my first documentary feature, Hamilton’s America. As the musical became a bigger deal and my doc grew, Radical came in to develop it with me, and the film eventually premiered on PBS in 2016. Since then, I’ve been a director, mostly on documentaries.
PH: You typically work with a dedicated DP, but lately you’ve been shooting more. How did that happen? How have you liked experimenting with this side of film?
Alex Horwitz: Editing had been my world for so long that I think I was intimidated by the camera, even though I had spent time on sets and operated camera in my undergrad days. But my fingers were itching to shoot, I think. There’s an old production joke that if you want to know who the director is on a set, they’re the one sitting around doing nothing. I think that can be especially true on a verité documentary set, and I started feeling the truth of the joke in my work. In an interview, I could be very engaged and focused on my subject, but in verité mode, I felt like a fifth wheel. It seemed like I was standing around with the occasional opinion of where we should go next or in which direction my DP should point their camera, but I was wasting an opportunity to get another angle. So then it was just a question of building up confidence as an operator. I’ve always trusted my instincts for what to shoot and I have a steady enough hand, but I needed to build up my technical acumen. I’ve definitely grown a lot as a shooter over the years, to the point that I even trust myself to get some moments as a single camera. It’s definitely helped my projects to have that extra angle and sometimes it’s nice to have fewer layers between my brain, the lens, and my subjects. But I usually prefer to consider myself a 2nd or 3rd operator whenever I’m in the field, trusting the many fantastic doc DPs I’ve worked with to make me look good.
PH: Let’s talk about some of your recent projects. How did you get the opportunity to work on “On a Night Like This?”
Alex Horwitz: Well, that doc feature I mentioned that fell apart with the pandemic — that was going to be a film with Bon Jovi about their 2020 tour and album. Jon was a fan of my Hamilton film and we had a great concept for an issues-based look at America in 2020, as seen through Jon’s eyes and his music. Then the world fell apart. But, never one to accept defeat, Jon had the swell idea to put on a one-time-only concert in Nashville, and I was game when he asked me to film it. It’s not the doc we had planned, but we leaned into the circumstances and brought the pandemic front-and-center. The opening shots are the band with COVID swab tests up their noses, which I think is a great way to start a rock concert. No audience allowed, but Jon talks to the camera as though the home audience is in his living room with him. So On a Night Like This is a case study in making lemonade, and it was fun.
PH: You also worked on the “Unbroken” music video. What was that experience like?
Alex Horwitz: Easily two of the best production days I’ll ever have in my career. To be filming in Studio 2 of Abbey Road, where so much of the world’s favorite music was made, was a surreal thrill. There’s this beat-up piano against the wall and you realize that it’s the “Hey, Jude” piano, and there are Paul McCartney’s cigarette burns in the wood. It’s just a working room with so many wonderful ghosts. Then there was the crux of that video: Jon performing a song about soldiers’ trauma alongside the Invictus Games Choir. They’re all disabled or injured British war vets who have lived the lyrics of the song, and they could not have been a more warm, gracious, or humble group of performers. We wanted to feature the vets and not distract with any bells or whistles, so it’s a simple concept for a video, shot exquisitely by my friend Bryant Fisher. Panavision London threw us all sorts of goodies because it was a charity video for a cause they loved. And the London crew was probably the most professional and impressive group of strangers I’ve ever been thrown into a professional situation with. It was one of those gigs where you think, “I can’t believe this is my job today.”
PH: Throughout your career, what have been some of the most challenging aspects? Can you recall a certain time(s) you had to change course or face a challenge that stands out?
Alex Horwitz: Production during COVID certainly stands out as a memorable curveball. It’s been highly limiting in most respects, but there’s also a silver lining in that I think it’s forced us all to think very economically and simply. “What do I need? What’s the simplest way to get this?” It focuses you in an interesting way. During the pandemic, I shot a short film in the woods with my two little kids. Just me, a crew of one. And apart from the frustration of directing actors who don’t take direction, it’s honestly some of the most fun I’ve ever had making a motion picture. Back to basics.
PH: Since you typically direct and produce at the same time, the equipment you use must be extremely versatile. What are some of your go-to cameras/equipment and why?
Alex Horwitz: Since I got my hands on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K, it’s been my go-to for my own operating of B camera. It’s the perfect balance for me of lightweight footprint, intuitive use, and robustness of image. There are some other cameras on the market that probably fit the same bill, but I don’t like relearning interfaces and camera bodies if I can avoid it. As for other gear on set, I don’t presume to tell my DPs what A camera should be, but we always have a conversation about what the job calls for and what the look should be. Back in the day, the Canon C300 was a real workhorse for me on lots of jobs. More recently, I’ve made a couple projects on the Sony Venice and really love it. And the Alexa Mini always treated me well. As for post, I haven’t done much editing since the death of Final Cut 7. But when I do tinker with offline, I prefer Premiere.
PH: How has the role of documentary director changed? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
Alex Horwitz: Well, film history teaches us that doc directing has never been one thing. Formal style and the relationship to subjects have always varied so much. I’m a big fan of Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall camera but I also love Ken Burns’s highly constructed and tightly-scripted films. I’m also a sucker for Werner Herzog inserting himself as a character in his worlds. As for what’s changing recently, I think it boils down to two concrete things: access to tools and the industry’s appetite. Cameras are becoming so much better and cheaper than I could have imagined when I started making movies with my buddies in high school. I learned 16mm film as an undergrad, but I was already playing around with the first home versions of Premiere in my spare time. Now, decades later, consumer cameras capture amazing results, and you can have a pretty robust, professional post suite on your laptop. That democratization of the tools and the process can mean that we’re flooded with a lot of stuff — not all of it good — but ultimately it’s a good thing if virtually anyone who wants to make a film can do so. And then there’s the market aspect. Documentaries have always captured audience’s hearts, but they were considered a fringe market, so very few got seen. It used to be PBS, HBO, and a handful of theatrical docs each year. Now the streamers have finally caught on to the fact that people like high quality documentary films just as much as rinse-and-repeat “reality” TV, so they’re pumping it to our eyes more than ever. Sure, it can still be challenging to get your films made, but the good news is that if you can figure out how to make it, it will find an audience, and that wasn’t always the case.
About Alex Horwitz
Alex Horwitz is a director, writer, editor and producer with experience on films large and small. He directed and produced “Hamilton’s America,” the Peabody Finalist documentary that explores America’s founding through the creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” His recent film “Autonomy” is the first comprehensive documentary about self-driving cars, created with author Malcolm Gladwell. Horwitz’s other work as a director includes a music video and concert special for Bon Jovi, a short film starring Blue Man Group and “Alice Jacobs is Dead,” which won Best Horror Film at the San Diego Comic-Con. He edited and directed second unit on “The Legend of Hallowdega,” a short by renowned filmmaker Terry Gilliam. Horwitz’s other credits as an editor include “Iconoclasts,” “Oprah’s Master Class” and Joe Berlinger’s acclaimed feature documentary “Whitey.” He graduated from Wesleyan University, after which he worked as an assistant for director Julie Taymor before learning the ropes of film production with jobs on the Spider-Man and Bourne franchises, as well as Martin Scorsese’s “Shine a Light.” He lives in New York City with his wife and two sons.