The Egotist Interviews Award-winning Directing Team The Coles about Sibling Repartee, Filmmaking Lineage & the Human Emotion Driving their Aesthetic
By thelaegotist / /
The Egotist talked with Hey Wonderful’s The Coles about their brother and sister dynamic – on and off set – their goals for 2020 and the creative choices driving their style and success thus far. Over the past three years at Hey Wonderful, The Coles – Millennial siblings Sophie and Walker – have emerged as versatile filmmakers. Their commercial work – including spots for Bank of America, Evian, Johnson & Johnson and Tommee Tippee – and original content – creative short Present Day Athens – reflects an ability to tell stories grounded in reality and amplified through art direction and production value. Adding to that distinctive style is a mise en scéne more typically seen in feature films – everything from cinematography, art direction, costume design, props and shot-making. The Coles have been recognized by industry benchmarks such as SHOOT New Director’s Showcase and The Kinsale Shark Awards.
The Egotist: You two were born in Manhattan and grew up in the Connecticut suburbs. Growing up, how did you get along? What was the dynamic and does it still characterize your relationship today?
Sophie: We always got along, but I would definitely not describe us as absolute best friends growing up. There’s almost a four-year age difference between us, so throughout school we were doing our own thing. That said, we are siblings and there are only two of us, and there’s a really intense bond there. Our parents are divorced, so we were each other’s constant. Most people say they could never work with their brother or sister, but I think that our sibling dynamic is actually a real strength for us. We can have huge fights, but we don’t hold grudges. We are family, and really have genuine fun with each other. I’ll also always be protective of Walker, since he’s my little brother. He knows he can take advantage of that at times, but that’s what little brothers are for!
Walker: I really don’t understand how there are so many husband / wife duos.
The Egotist: How did growing up on set with your Dad, commercial director Charlie Cole, influence you both?
Walker: I’d say it’s really manifested itself in two ways. First, we both PA’d from a young age in a bunch of different departments, which was an incredible education, and an opportunity to experience a lot of the different roles on set firsthand. And having that sort of deeper understanding of what really goes on in each department, be it pulling smalls at prop houses or food styling, has helped us when communicating with our crew and creatively problem solving.
The second was much more a subconscious education. We did not grow up wanting to be directors, so we were never actively trying to learn from our father, but when you spend so much time on set around your parent, you absorb quite a lot. Now that we are directing our own work, those lessons and things we saw watching him have really risen to the surface. Early on in our career, when we’d be struggling with a setup, or something like the blocking just wasn’t working, I’d have flashbacks to our dad, who was always so good at pivoting, and rolling with the punches.
The Egotist: What was the first thing you were creative partners on?
Sophie: We’ve had so many ideas for creative projects that we’ve worked on together. Just before we got into directing we were going to open a store, and then that idea became a restaurant – we were drawn to the idea of creating a world, curating and architecting experiences for people. We just ultimately discovered that film was such a better and more comprehensive medium for that and haven’t looked back since.
Walker: I was working for the restaurateur Keith McNally at the time, helping to open a restaurant of his, and he was such an auteur with the way he crafted a restaurant, and an experience. He grew up wanting to be a filmmaker, and I think that really shows in his restaurants. He told me to never get into the food industry. I listened.
The Egotist: What was the catalyst for you two to say ‘let’s stop what we’re doing and become directors together’?
Walker: We helped Sophie’s boyfriend, a cinematographer, shoot something for his reel. At the time, he was just beginning to transition from his job as an AC and was looking for some help with a project. We got really involved. Probably a little too involved. But something, as they say, just clicked for us. About a week later I was back in NYC and I called Sophie up and was like, ‘OK – forget all this other stuff. We need to direct.’
The Egotist: What drew you to Hey Wonderful as your first production company?
Sophie: 100 percent [Founder] Michael Di Girolamo. We love him. Our great mutual friend Helena Brown introduced us, and we were very taken with his energy and approach to things. He’s a very charming individual, and we wanted in on him and what he was doing. We had a bunch of other meetings lined up and canceled them all after our first meeting with Hey Wonderful.
The Egotist: With directing duos or teams, it’s sometimes the case that one director focuses more on technique and craft, the other on performance. How do you two work together on set? Does being brother and sister give you a shorthand?
Walker: The prep process for us is very collaborative, very back and forth and 50/50. That is the stage where we bounce ideas off each other, push things in different directions, and work through our vision of what we are seeing for a particular project. On set is much more divided for us – Sophie tends to sit by the monitor absorbing and assessing, and I tend to be up front working with the actors. After a few takes or a series, I check in with her and we discuss what is working and what we still need to get. That said, there are plenty of times where something isn’t clicking and we swap roles to bring in fresh blood, or just change up our approach.
The Egotist: Sophie, you worked previously as a costume designer, and Walker, you worked as an art dealer before turning to directing fulltime. Does that experience influence your attention to detail as directors?
Sophie: Yes I think that our previous experiences, as is the case with any artist, have heavily informed our approach to things. Before costume design, I worked at Ralph Lauren – Ralph is basically a filmmaker who just happens to make clothes. Cinema is such a massive inspiration to him, and his all-encompassing approach to things really influenced me early on. We are both incredibly aesthetically minded people with a real passion for art, culture and design, but it’s definitely the added element of human emotion and story that makes film the ultimate medium for us – all that style without the substance is fluff. We don’t want one without the other.
The Egotist: Your musical choices are entertaining and fun … as seen in Present Day Athens and Evian. How do you decide upon a track?
Walker: We absolutely love the presence of music in film – it’s such an incredible and important element that can fully inform the tone of a scene, or even completely change it. I wouldn’t say we have a golden rule for how we pick our music, as it changes so drastically depending on the message we are trying to send, but generally it’s got to be something that feels right. We are suckers for juxtaposition. The way they use “Singing in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange – I mean, are you kidding me? If that isn’t genius, I don’t know what is.
The Egotist: Do you have a favorite genre of music?
Sophie: Our tastes are very eclectic, though we usually shy away from ultra-contemporary music. We are also both big fans of classical music and love a great score. We aren’t very zeitgeisty or trend-driven when it comes to our personal preferences here, or really anywhere for that matter. We do both really love Grimes. She’s ultra-contemporary, almost futuristic. That’s cool, too.
The Egotist: Your performances are very relatable – for instance, in the B of A commercials. What are some of the things you do working with actors to ensure this result?
Walker: Every actor is different, so there’s no universal rule here, but to us being a good director is really about being a good people person. You have to be able to read the unspoken subtleties that an actor is giving off and create the best environment for them to perform in. We believe that the vast majority of great performances come down to great casting. There are tricks of the trade you can employ to get what you want, but picking the right individual is without question the most important step to getting a wonderful performance. The only thing we consistently try to nail is a realness of performance and ease of blocking. It’s the little moments, the idiosyncratic and specific stuff that make a character relatable, and ultimately make the audience care.
The Egotist: How does the male/female, older/younger sibling dynamic influence your directing? Do you interchange a lot of the responsibilities on set or do these things actually inform how you typically work together?
Sophie: At this point we are so familiar with how each other’s brains work that it’s more like a conversation between two best friends. We understand each other, listen to each other, and most importantly trust each other. There’s such subtlety and nuance to filmmaking, which means there’s a lot of space for misinterpretation, so it’s really advantageous to have two heads and two sets of eyes that are 100 percent aligned on the case at all times. One of us can be handling X while the other is focused on Y- we don’t like things to fall through the cracks. Our personalities are a bit different, so we do have our division of roles on set. This keeps things compartmentalized and communication clean, which is great, but to say “Oh Sophie only deals with the look and Walker only deals with performance” would be a vast oversimplification. We could both be directors in our own right, we just prefer working together.
The Egotist: What directors have influenced you most in your career thus far (commercial or feature)?
Walker: Always such a tough question. There are so many. We always reference Wong Kar-wai, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, Hitchcock. We are obsessed with Jaws. Some of Tarantino’s films are fun, the Coen Brothers, Woody Allen. Mike Nichols’s The Graduate is probably our favorite film of all time. I’ve been enjoying Luca Guadagnino’s work recently – he has such a beautiful visual point of view. Robert Altman. Antonioni. Fellini. Bergman – all of the obvious cinema greats. I think in general we are influenced by a ton of different filmmakers, but identify most with the auteurs and artists who aren’t total chameleons the way, say, Spielberg is, and instead work within their worlds, their chosen vocabulary. There is something appealing to us about having a real point of view and exploring stories through that specific lens.
The Egotist: What kind of stories do you want to bring to life in 2020?
Sophie: I’d say that we want to broaden the scope of our work and incorporate a wider range of emotions into our reel. People know us for our humor, and for our “look,” and that’s great, but we know us as something more. Storytelling is incredibly important to us, so the more narrative driven work we can create over the next year, the better.
The Egotist: Where can we find you kicking back on a weekend?
Walker: We are both homebodies and workaholics – we live in Venice Beach so we are usually around there working. Our mom’s a chef, so we both really love to shop at the farmer’s market and cook big meals. I go to the local hardware store a lot. We have a great one here with what seems like around seven employees in one tiny shop who all look like characters straight out of a Coen Brothers film.
Sophie: We do like to go into “town” occasionally for dinner with friends. We love the classic, almost cheesy, Hollywood haunts. There’s a taco truck in Boyle Heights that we go to all the time.
Walker: Basically we are eating. Or we’re in New York.
The Egotist: Do you have more original content in development?
Sophie: We are working on a feature script, as well as a couple ideas for shorts. It’s exciting!
The Egotist: Where do you see yourselves in 10 years?
Walker: Directing features, commercials, television and whatever else we can get our hands on.