FILMMAKER/DIRECTOR - BRANDON DERMER
"It's scratching this itch of making people laugh and making people think differently and watch and seeing that reaction and getting a reaction." Brandon Dermer, writer, director, filmmaker
ABOUT BRANDON DERMER:
Brandon Dermer joins the podcast for episode 39 of season 3! Brandon is a man of many hats - a filmmaker, writer, producer, cinematographer, director and more. We talk about how he got his start in the industry and how his career has changed and evolved in the last few years. From creating content for Comedy Central and Viceland to working on music videos for Panic! at the Disco and Nekrogoblikon, Brandon has done a lot, including making some of the first commercials ever for Death Wish Coffee. We also talk about the origins of the series What Would Diplo Do? starring James Van Der Beek.
Jeff: Brandon, thank you so much for welcoming me into your home and talking with us today.
Brandon: Welcome to my home.
Jeff: Yeah. As someone who wears a lot of hats, you are a writer, a director, a producer, a filmographer. I can go on and on and on. I'm always curious how you kind of fall into something like that. What drew you to the industry? Was it something in your childhood or did you kind of fall into it later in life?
Brandon: Yeah. I mean, I was always... I played in bands all through... My first band I was in was in the fifth grade.
Jeff: I got to... I love this question. What was the name?
Jeff: Because I was in bands, too, as a young kid. The best thing is those names that you come up with when you're a kid.
Brandon: Oh, we were Waterproof for two weeks. We were [Framunda 00:00:47] and then after that, eventually we were Ender, and then Cellar Door, and then Morning Scene, and then Football Weather. We went through the gamut.
Jeff: Football Weather might be my favorite.
Brandon: I loved that one. That was my band in college.
Jeff: That's amazing.
Brandon: But so I was always playing music and then also, I just loved comedy and making sketches with my friends. I mean, as long as I can remember, my friends and I would get cameras and just make, especially in the Jackass era, like skate videos and just hurting ourselves, dumb videos. Random stuff. Not hurting ourselves like cutting ourselves. I mean, our friend throwing a skateboard at another friend or whatever.
Jeff: Right. Right.
Brandon: And then when I got to high school, I played in this band that we played shows every weekend. That was the jam. I also had a radio show that me and my friend had at six in the morning. We'd get stoned. Sorry, mom and dad. And do this radio show. And then also, we made commercials for... So I went to a school where we had TVs in the classroom. I know that's now everyone has that. And the aughts, the early aughts. And there were morning announcement videos, and clubs could make commercials to promote their clubs.
Jeff: Oh, cool.
Brandon: And my friends started Xbox Club and we made, me and my friends made commercials for Xbox Club, which we took sketches from Amy Poehler's UCB and just basically repurposed them to be about the Xbox Club. So I was doing all that. Then when it was time to go to college, I went to Columbia College Chicago, and my first semester I did music business. And I was like, "Why am I doing this?" I didn't like school to begin with and I don't know why I'm doing this. I'm going to transition to film. And I got into film. And I had a job waiting tables, and me and my friends split a Panasonic DVX100A, this camera. And we just filmed sketches every month. Through school, I was only required to make three films, but we made 25 and an unwatchable feature. But I really learned everything through that. Does that answer the question? I've just kind of been always doing it.
Jeff: Yeah, no, that totally does. Because it's really interesting because now and you even kind of talk about this a little bit, too. You even said it, now there's a TV in every classroom. Now technology is so much where, because of YouTube, because of the smartphone in your pocket, you can go out and make your own content pretty much on the regular.
Brandon: Oh, yeah.
Jeff: And it's interesting to hear how people get into this industry, especially today because there's so many more opportunities.
Jeff: Do you think that the film industry, specifically, do you think it is becoming oversaturated because of that, or do you think it's being helped because of better access?
Brandon: I think it's just giving more opportunities, right? Because you can be discovered from YouTube or Instagram or whatever medium you find. I popped through YouTube and Reddit, that's what got me going. And maybe back, if it was 20 years before that, being a music video comedy guy, maybe it would have been MTV. But I think it just gives a more direct opportunity, but at the same time, there's so much clutter you have to cut through. So there's more opportunity, but I still think the... You have to make something that's going to stand out and cut through. Even though there could be all these platforms, you can be doing everything, but if you're not doing something true to yourself that's going to cut through, it's just going to be cluttered.
Jeff: That's good advice. And then, so you go to school for this.
Jeff: And you're working, like you said, you also have a job. You're working through it and all that.
Jeff: And since, I mean, your career is incredibly awesome. You've worked with Comedy Central, you've worked with a lot of different bands, you've done commercial work, you've done all sorts of stuff. But when was the point, when... Was there a point, let me ask it that way, where it was like, "Oh, okay, I can do this for a living now"?
Brandon: Yeah. So at the end of school, my last semester was this semester in LA. Out of Chicago, you'd come to LA. And every day it was basically different people in the industry, from assistants to high level writers, would come in and tell their story and trajectory. And it was apparent right away, there's no right way to do this. You just got to believe in yourself and put in the work. I got five internships. I was waiting tables. One of my internships turned into a full-time gig as an assistant to a producer and a manager. I didn't even know what that really meant and I wasn't super qualified. I wrote, there's this thing called script coverage where basically, you take a script and write a mini book report. You make it like two pages. I did really specific script coverage and the guy I was interning for was like, "I want someone to be my assistant who is an aspiring writer. Who can work with scripts with me and be very involved."
Brandon: So I did that for four and a half years and while I did that, I really learned the business. And also I kept my head down. I was writing nights and weekends. And I met this guy, Jonathan Lajoie, who was a client there. John played Taco on The League, but before that, he just moved out from Canada. And he and I started talking and we realized we had very similar sensibilities and he was... I told him, I was like, "Yo, man, I went to film school. I love your stuff. Maybe we could work together. I can maybe be behind the camera." And we started filming together and making these videos and then eventually he got on The League and his profile rose and these videos rose and then my boss, both my bosses... I've worked for three guys. I was assistant for three guys. It was nuts.
Brandon: They were like, "You got to make something without John in it, that kind of showcases the cinematic eye that you have and what you want to do." So I made a short film that sort of... It was a fake trailer for the dumbest idea I could think of that sort of tricked everyone to thinking it was a real movie. And through that I got an agent, a lawyer, and I sold a script. I'm trying to think if that answers your question.
Jeff: Yeah, no, that's definitely the point when you're-
Brandon: That that was it. That's when, so when I sold that I was like, "Okay, I can do this." And from being an assistant for four and a half years, I mean, it was like film school, part two. Like I saw careers go in a good direction. I saw careers go in a bad direction. I saw, because my boss, I had a boss who was a producer and two who were managers, so they were working with writers and directors, developing projects, developing their careers. And I sort of watched the do's and do's not of this industry. Yeah, but I think that was the moment probably. Because I was an assistant for four and half years and I was going nuts at one point. You know what I mean?
Jeff: I bet.
Brandon: It was 24/7. It was intense. I learned everything and I loved those guys. But it was really nuts and I was like, "I got to get off this desk." And making that short film was the moment where I was like, "Okay, I think I can do this."
Jeff: So wearing all those hats, do you have something you gravitate towards more? Do you like being behind the camera more than actually sitting down and writing or do you just love it all?
Brandon: I think it goes directing, writing, then producing, you know what I mean?
Brandon: I love being on set. I love directing, but I also love writing in the sense of like coming up with the idea and then cracking it. Sitting down and writing is hard for me because I'm a little ADD. So to sit down and write, I get really excited to develop and come up with the idea. But when it's like time to sit down and write the pages, it can sometimes be tough for me.
Jeff: And I've seen some of the stuff that you've done. I mean, you've worked with bands like Panic at the Disco and Diplo and also on the comedy side, working with people like some of my favorites, like Jonah Ray and like [crosstalk 00:08:10] and stuff like that. Is there a difference shooting, directing, writing, something that's more comedy based as opposed to dealing with a band?
Brandon: Yeah, I like to lean into whoever's aesthetic and style I'm working with. So my approach to Panic at the Disco would be completely different to like a Jonah Ray. You know what I mean?
Brandon: And the best thing about making videos and making TV and making content is it's so collaborative. Like I always say like I'm nothing about like a good idea on a sheet of paper without the people around me. Like I'm not a good cinematographer, by any means. I'm not a good editor by any means. It's like coming up with these ideas and working together. So I like to work very closely with the talent that I'm working with, whether it's a Jonah or a Panic. So it is a different approach, but there's always that through-line of want to be hyper-collaborative, like the best idea wins.
Jeff: Awesome. Awesome. And that kind of leads me into currently you have a show with Diplo. Correct?
Jeff: Can you talk a little bit about that? How that came to be?
Brandon: We'll the long but short version of it is I made a death metal video for a band called Nekrogoblikon.
Jeff: Nekro. I was going to bring them up, too. Love those guys.
Brandon: And that's how I met Death Wish. So I made that video and Diplo tweeted the word Nekrogoblikon like a week later. And then I was put in contact with him and he's like, "I want you to do a video for Major Lazer." So I did a video with him and that was in 2013. So he's been this force in my life that I've worked with on and off. And then in 2016, his manager, Kevin Kusatsu was like, "Hey, we have this tour coming up. We want to make a tour promo. Write me up some ideas. We want it to be something that can be a standalone funny piece and then also promote the tour." And at that time, I came off of a bunch of EDM videos and I was taking meetings in Hollywood and a few folks were like, "Hey, we want to like crack an EDM TV show. We want to be like Entourage or Ballers." And I'm like, "That's totally not what this is."
Jeff: Right. That's totally not what they did-
Brandon: "These guys truly aren't that." At least the ones that actually like walk the walk and make music. So I wrote, though, what I thought everyone wanted me to tell them Diplo would look and sound like. He'd be like, "'Sup, fam. It's lit." And there's like money and women and it's over the top. And then I thought, I was like sitting on this couch. I was like, maybe James Van Der Beek can play him. He looks like him. He had played himself on a B in Apartment 23 really well and did that deconstruction. So my management sent over some of my music videos to his management and he agreed to do it. We sat down for coffee, his only thing was like, "Can we add a fight scene to this promo? Because I'm training." And I was like, "Of course."
Jeff: Of course. Like yes.
Brandon: So we made this promo. It came out. I never thought anything else would come of it. I'll never forget. I was in Chicago shooting a Showtime special for Andrew Santino, this hilarious comedian. He's got a podcast called Whiskey Ginger. It's awesome. And Kevin called me being like, "Hey, Nick Weidenfeld who used to be at Adult Swim is now at Viceland. He thinks this could be a show." And I was like, "The commercial that we made with James Van Der Beek, what do you mean?" And he's like, "Yeah, he thinks it could be like, you basically take the image of Diplo and flip it on its head and use James as this sort of character."
Brandon: Because at that time, especially in 2016, Diplo had all these giant hits. He had songs with Beyoncé and Bieber and all this but a lot of people just don't know what he looks or sounds like. But he has such an online presence. So we used his online presence to sort of heighten who he is and made this character and then, yeah, then we made that show. So it was like I had to call Van Der Beek and be like, "We want to develop this into a show." And then that turned into James and I had to fly to New York to pitch Spike Jonze because he was sort of the last guy to say yes at Vice. He said yes. And then we got make that show and it pretty great.
Jeff: And it's still going, right? Correct?
Brandon: Yeah. So it's on Hulu right now.
Jeff: What a cool little story.
Brandon: So random.
Jeff: It's one of those moments in life where it's like, it's not like you planned that.
Jeff: It's not like you were like, "I'm going to join this industry and I'm going to make a... I want to make an EDM show."
Brandon: Oh, it would have been the last thing I would have. You know what I mean? And especially at that time, like I was in Chicago, making this Showtime special. I had a contract at Comedy Central where I owed them a short a month and I was gearing up to shoot my first TV pilot for MTV that was going to get me in the DGA and like I was focus, focus, focus and then this came in. Yeah, you just can't predict anything. And that goes back to that semester in LA when you've heard all these different stories of assistants to big writers to agents telling their trajectory and you're like, yeah, you can't predict any of this.
Jeff: That's incredible. And you talked about it little bit because I don't know the actual story of how you got connected with Death Wish Coffee.
Brandon: This was in 2012-
Jeff: Right at the beginning of the company.
Brandon: Right at the beginning of the company, which is wild. So I had the fake trailer. I sold the script. John and I are now infusing what I'm doing in music videos to his work. So we're making bigger sketch comedy. I'm writing scripts. I'm doing development and commercials here and there. And I just love music. I'm genuinely like a music lover. My neighbor was like, "Hey, I work at this... " Well, he's not, "Hey, I work... " I knew he worked at this record label and he was like, "This kid is an assistant at my company. He's playing a show tonight and Canoga Park if you want to come check them out." They're called Nekrogoblikon and I was like, "All right, we'll see." I went out to dinner with some friends and I just listened on YouTube on the way to dinner to a song of theirs.
Brandon: I was like, I have to see what this is. So I like left dinner early, jumped in, got back home, went in my buddy's car. We drove out to Canoga Park and we're listening to the album. And along the way I'm like, this is either going to be like one guy and a computer, like seven pretentious dicks. Like it's so technical. And we walk in and it's just like dudes. They all look very different. They don't look like a cohesive band, but they're playing. Like my whole thing that I love is like no matter how dumb the idea is, you treat it with the utmost sincerity. And they were doing that musically. And I thought it was hysterical, but also I loved it. The music was like so rad and there was like maybe 10 people at the show. And I walked up after. I was like, "That was incredible. I want to do a video for you guys." They're like, yeah, you know, "We don't trust all those goblins. We've heard like people want to do stuff." So I was like, "All right, let me like go away and try to come up with something."
Brandon: So I actually took a trip back to Chicago and I just lived with the album for two weeks and then I was at this bar and it just like hit me. And I wrote this John Goblikon character, blah blah blah. And then I sat down, I came back to LA, pitched them the idea. They were in. They had 10 grand. That's all they had. And I knew in order to make this video with the prosthetics involved and everything, I had to get more money. So I went, I looked at the script and I was like, okay, what could I use for product placement in this video organically. I was like, what happens? So he goes to work. He's drinking coffee. He smokes weed. He's drinking beer. And then I went online and just looked for brands that I thought would align with the video. And I was on Facebook and I saw an ad for Death Wish Coffee. And I mean, I was a hustler. I am now, but I was a hustler. Like I reached out to 75 brands and I got three to commit. Death Wish was like, "At this time we just can't."
Jeff: Yeah. Because we were like, I mean, that was before I was even part of it. There was two people or three people working for the company in a basement. Yeah.
Brandon: Yeah. Yeah. So they're like, "Thank you for the interest." And then the video came out and like six months later they're like, "Yo, we loved the video. We'd love to work with you on some visuals." So then this was huge for me, too, because at the time the commercials that I were doing were like very, very small. They gave me enough money to make two spots for them and do them right. And I still use them on my reel to this day, especially that janitor one. And it was a nice exercise, too, of like most commercials that I do, it's like there's already a creative in place. It's like big ad agency and client, they have a thing. They're just looking for a director to execute.
Brandon: This was like, "Hey, we want to make a spot. What do you think?" And we worked together, came up with these ideas and executed and then I've just been tight with John and Mike ever since. I helped them get some of their products in writers' rooms and this, that, and the other. And they'll hit me up. I helped them when they were, before winning the QuickBooks thing. I did some social media stuff with them to help push that.
Jeff: That's excellent.
Brandon: And they were just good dudes.
Jeff: They really are.
Brandon: They came out to LA and we hung out and I set them up with meetings at like Comedy Central, Adult Swim. Where else? We did a video with Makers Studio. At the time, I set them up with Makers. I just dug that they were so like punk rock and hustlers.
Jeff: And we still are to this day.
Brandon: Yeah, totally.
Jeff: 100%. Can we talk a little bit about, though, because I mean, again, this is before I even started working for the company. But some of the first stuff I ever saw for the company were the videos you made for the company.
Brandon: Yeah, it's wild.
Jeff: The skateboarder video and the janitor video are like some of my favorite stuff that the company's ever done. Can we talk about how that kind of came to be?
Brandon: Yeah. So it was like the janitor one was after Nekrogoblikon. They're like, "We want to do some more traditional spots but still have that punk flair." And I just thought, I was drinking Death Wish because I'm a coffee addict and I drink it every morning. But I was like, who else would really benefit from this? Like what are some jobs that you'd really want to fuel yourself? And I thought about like the night shift. We thought about the janitor and then also a lot of my friends will make fun of me on set. No matter what we're shooting, if it's EDM, country, whatever. I listen to metal like throughout the day in my headphones to kind of keep me going.
Brandon: So that's like what inspired the janitor. I was like, this guy is like about to pass out. He's on the night shift cleaning toilets and then he drinks the Death Wish and it like infuses metal and then that song's Nekrogoblikon. And the skate video was, my buddy Andrew Harris is a filmmaker and a musician. And he was trying to get more stuff into his reel and I introduced him to John and Mike. I'm like, he's tight with these skaters. They should do a skate video. I'll produce it. Andrew will direct it. And they shot it all in this neighborhood. Like all up and down-
Brandon: Yeah. Yeah.
Jeff: That's so rad.
Brandon: They lived like right up the street. And that was just another one where it was like they just wanted to put out cool content.
Jeff: Yeah. So really rad.
Brandon: Yeah. John and Mike are like the best.
Jeff: They really are. And I've said it before on this very show. And actually, it's funny because I'm even going to have Mike on this very show-
Brandon: Oh, nice.
Jeff: ... in a little bit again, because I always love talking to him about the company, but this company and it's mentality of fueling people's passion and being very punk rock about everything would not exist without someone as, and I say this in the most loving way possible, crazy as Mike and John.
Brandon: Oh, yeah, totally.
Jeff: 100%. And it's really interesting as we've grown as a company, just to see what they come up with and how they kind of push the company forward.
Brandon: 100% and so fast. It is wild that they were just starting in 2012.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. Cut to seven years later. And I mean, we're now, this year is the first year that we're really doing a lot in retail market. Doing a lot internationally. We've been to space. It's nuts to think about where we've been. And that kind of brings me to the theme of this show, which is fueling your passion and also being fueled by death. We all want to leave this world a little different before we inevitably leave it for good. And I think you are doing an incredible job of doing that-
Jeff: ... and leaving your mark on this world. What fuels your passion to keep moving forward? To keep going?
Brandon: It's scratching this itch of making people laugh and making people think differently and watch and seeing that reaction and getting a reaction. It's really like, I know how much music and comedy meant to me growing up and still does. It is a huge escape for me. And being able to create stuff and share that, it's just what I love. And there's that part. And then also just the collaborative nature. I don't know what else I would be doing. No matter what job I had, even when I was like making sandwiches in high school at Potbelly, I would just try to make people laugh and have fun and be like, "What weird things could we all do here together?" Like we created like... I don't know if you know Potbelly-
Jeff: Oh, yes.
Brandon: It's a Midwest chain. Maybe they have them the East Coast now-
Jeff: I think they're just Midwest.
Brandon: But we would like invent our own sandwiches and all make.... Yeah. I don't know. It's all I've ever known. It's all I've ever wanted to do and it like gets me high, I guess.
Jeff: That's awesome. That's inspiring. And then the obvious question is, is for someone who's listening or watching you and seeing your career trajectory and wants to do that, what would you advise to someone wanting to break into this industry?
Brandon: It sounds so cliche, but get a camera and start making stuff. I mean, even in college, I didn't know what role I was going to play. Because it was me and my five friends and we're all working in this industry in different capacities. These same guys. We bought a camera and we would make a short every month and we would all write it together. Sometimes I would direct. Sometimes someone else would direct. We'd all act in them. None of us wanted to be actors and aren't actors, by any means. But we just wanted to make stuff. We'd ask the guys and girls that we waited tables with to act in our stuff and we just started making stuff. Yeah. And your previous question, I think it is just that drive to like tell stories, share experiences, make people laugh and make people think a little bit differently. And through comedy and subverting things like maybe having a little more empathy or maybe taking a break and not taking the world so seriously, which I need all those things.
Jeff: For sure. Me, too. That is really, really awesome. And your journey is really cool to follow.
Jeff: Finally, what's next? What's coming up for you that I know you can talk about? Because there's obviously stuff.
Brandon: Yeah, totally. I mean, part of this industry is development. I've had projects, some that had been in development for five, six years. Who knows if they'll ever be shot or see the light of day, but that's the beauty of music videos is that A, they're a passion of mine, but B, they're constant and they're quick turnarounds. I'll get hit up for a music video on a Monday. I'll pitch on it on Tuesday and then shoot it the following week or the week after.
Jeff: Wow. That is quick.
Brandon: I've done like six music videos and five commercials this year, so I'm actually taking a break just to write. But as far as what you'll see coming out, yeah, I can't even... I'm writing, I'm working on a feature that I have set up. I'm really pumped about.
Brandon: I have a couple TV shows in development and then soon they'll announce it. I have a music doc that I'm really pumped about, that has a really awesome cause around it that I'm going to be filming from like August through October. That'll be out next year.
Jeff: Excellent. Well, when that is announced and everything, we'll obviously push it-
Brandon: Oh, yeah, definitely.
Jeff: ... on our channels and everything, which is great. What's the best way for our viewers and listeners to follow you? Do you use social media? Do you have a website?
Brandon: Oh, yeah. I do all of it. Because I get, even meeting Death Wish, that was he way I got in touch was I went on Facebook, saw that ad, and then I went to their Facebook page, clicked the about section and got an email. So I'm a kid from the internet generation and like internetted my way into Hollywood, so I'm on all of it. So my Instagram's Brandon Dermer, just my full name and it's basically like my website. It's just a collage of everything I'm working on and when it comes out. My Twitter's BrandonDMOB, which was our sketch group in college, I still have.
Brandon: And then my website is just BrandonDermer.com on which you can see everything.
Jeff: Yeah. And I'll put all that at the end show. I can't thank you enough for taking time to talk with me.
Brandon: Oh, I can't thank you guys enough. Death Wish has been like a huge part of my career. Has been a touchstone every... Every year I've worked with you guys in such a different capacity from commercial to producer to social media. I worked social media to now this, it's really cool to have this like constant. Because most brands I work with, it's like I don't even meet anyone involved from the company. You know what I mean?
Brandon: It's like I'm working with an ad agency and maybe someone, I don't even know. There's so many people on set. I have no idea who's who. Right. And I make the commercial and then it's, that's it. It's cool to have this relationship with a brand that really aligns with the same sort of ethics.
Jeff: Well, I can definitely say that we're going to continue to caffeinate you through your career.
Brandon: Yes. Yes.
Jeff: And that we're so excited for everything that you're doing.
Brandon: Thanks. Same.
Jeff: Yeah. Thanks, man.