On the outside, Jonathan Bregel was at the top of the industry, directing commercials for some of the biggest brands on the planet. But on the inside, burnout and depression were taking their toll. This is his story getting back up after being knocked down, and learning to love the art of film again.
I first connected with Jon in late 2018, and we immediately hit it off because our dedication to pursuing film in a way that leads to a fulfilling life. Through each of our individual journeys, we’ve learned how important it is to understand your values, and use them to make decisions. That way, this notoriously difficult industry doesn’t lead you astray from a life worth living.
Anyhow, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Jon yet, he's a super accomplished filmmaker and commercial director. He co-founded a rad production company called Variable, and has done loads of freelance directing for some big-ass brands. The dude is the real deal.
Chances are good you’ve seen some of his and Variable’s work, as they’ve had more Vimeo Staff Picks than you could count on your two hands. Some of their videos, the slow motion ones in particular, have racked up millions of views.
In addition to fun projects like these, Jon and the Variable crew worked on commercial and branded content for some of the world’s biggest companies, ranging from Nike to Cadillac to National Geographic.
But these days, after a prolonged period of burnout and depression, Jon has largely stepped back from the commercial life, and is now focusing on his passion projects, and doing work that leaves him fulfilled instead of depleted.
One of those projects is People’s Park, an observational documentary chronicling the activity in the Shanghai park in which he and his wife had their first date. It’s a meditative, contemplative approach to filmmaking, one that helped Jon get back in touch with his creative side.
Here’s the film.
In addition to doing a great live Q&A for the Freedom Fighters community, I shot Jon over a list of written questions so he could share his journey and insights on this site.
Anyhow, that’s enough context for the time being. So without any further ado, here’s my interview with Jon Bregel.
How'd you initially get into filmmaking? What drew you to it, and what kinds of projects were you most passionate about?
I initially got into filmmaking through skateboarding with my friends and making skateboarding/lifestyle videos. It also helped that I broke my arm a few times pretty consecutively at that time which sorta made the transition from “skater” to “filmer” more seamless.
It’s hard to say what exactly drew me to filmmaking at that time… I was like 11 years old. If I had to guess, it’s because it gave me something to do and it was a new and different way to connect with friends.
We just had so much fun making the most ridiculous little videos and skate films. I also recall never liking being bored when I was a kid… so again, it just gave me something to do that looking back, I became passionate about.
Walk us through your journey from skate videos to directing commercials.
There is really no short way for me to answer this so I’m just gonna start writing…
As I mentioned above, starting out, filmmaking was strictly my hobby. There was no pressure, just fun and lots of learning.
Flash forward a handful of years to when I was attending film school in Florida. I was fortunate to create content with close friends and we all just went on a journey together making videos/films/content/etc.
While I was in film school, I got a call while I was in class to produce a $5,000 music video for a local band. From that experience, I realized that together with my friends, we could produce high quality content and do so in a really smart and efficient way.
This for me was really the genesis of how I managed to transition into commercial work; working hard, with friends, and trusting that our best work would always be created when we had our own little team at the core of each project.
Flash forward a couple years and filmmaking was my full-time job while living in NYC. Many of us from my film school in Florida moved to NYC primarily so that we could feed off of one-another’s energy and network as a unit.
We were doing our own things in the industry, but always came together at least once every few months to create passion projects or music videos. Plus, several of us actually lived together, so we would always be sharing crazy stories from our shoots. It was such an exciting time.
After living in NYC for a couple years and freelancing with a lot of different companies, I reached a point where I wasn’t feeling fulfilled with the standards in which most of the productions ran.
I felt like every shoot I was a part of lacked a lot of respect and communication for its crew members. I was DP’ing at the time, and even I felt like I wasn’t a part of the team on a lot of the shoots. It was a very isolating process that often left me feeling disappointed and yearning for deeper, more meaningful connections.
It was around this time (2+ years after moving to NYC) where I expressed my own feelings to a couple of close collaborators who were also facing their own career & industry frustrations.
The three of us started meeting weekly to discuss how we could build a company of our own, with our own rules, and our own values.
We all wanted to be filmmakers, but we wanted to do it our way. So that’s what we did. We each put our savings into a bank account and started a production company, which was then called “Variable.”
With the money we put aside, we shot a few passion projects, and every one of them got a Staff Pick back in those magical early days of Vimeo. Together, those videos accumulated millions of views.
Things escalated quickly after that. Along with a lot of hard work, the commercial and branded clients just started kinda rolling in, and that really marks the beginning of what was a 7 year roller coaster ride of learning the ropes of how to direct commercials and build a commercial production company with some of my closest friends.
But there were some dark times as well, right?
So basically my whole commercial journey was trial by fire. There was no real mentorship for me… just passion, naivety, hard work, and a lot of idealism. And while that combination can generate some great opportunities and awards, it can come with big personal consequences.
That’s at least what happened to me three years ago. I had no boundaries…I was a slave to my own passion. So I burned out. Bad. Depressed bad.
I was never a depressed kid so I didn't know what to do. I just knew that I didn’t feel like doing anything… and that I was in my bed watching WAY too many Youtube videos for WAY too many months.
After a lot of soul searching and money spent on therapy and life coaching (and probably driving my parents and close friends nuts), I decided to take a two-month, solo road trip around the USA. I spent every day in nature and created a very dedicated spiritual practice. It was a beautiful time in my life.
Upon returning to NYC, I believed I was recovered so I almost immediately jumped into a big commercial directing job. Snd then... BOOM, depression hit, even worse than before my road trip.
I was suddenly in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis. I started questioning my own motives, and the classic; “who am I” was echoing through my mind on a daily basis.
For the first two years of what I then considered a "crisis", I felt like I was crawling out of a deep hole filled with molasses. Things that once came naturally to me were no longer interesting.
The biggest challenge for me was the painstaking attempt to sound genuine when pitching commercial jobs for products and brands with which I had zero connection. I was checked out in my mind and soul but did not have the clarity or strength to tell my team that I was finished until quite sometime later.
Ultimately, a year ago, I ended up leaving my own company because I just needed to take care of myself more full-time… as well as find my passion and love for filmmaking again.
So how did you rediscover your love for filmmaking after that period of burnout?
There has been a big shift in energy for me this past year, in many great ways... but certainly not without its challenges. I have been working extremely hard at reconnecting with my soul and passion for life, which has meant saying “no” to opportunities that my values don’t align with and as a result, living a much more minimalistic lifestyle.
My love for filmmaking started to show up again once I started to get my priorities organized, although I definitely had to push myself A LOT in the beginning phases of shooting my own films again.
It continues to be a constant battle, but I know that I always feel better when I am engaged in the act of creating, so I continue to do so as if my life depends on it.
Now, I’m focused on sustaining my passion and love for filmmaking so I don’t burn out again. And that means having boundaries, a creative process, clear goals and values, and generally a higher consciousness surrounding my relationship to my passion for filmmaking.
I’d love to hear about the actual process of making People’s Park. You capture so many ordinary, but beautiful human moments, and all of it feels so natural. Did you have to coach people not to pay attention to you? Were you just super stealthy?
My approach to this project was more of a mindfulness practice then anything—one that dealt with surrendering fully to the present moment.
The process of filming was intended to get me back in the rhythm of shooting personal projects again after being burnt out for far too long, so I didn’t want to put any additional pressure on myself. Because of that, there was no expectation with the outcome. I just showed up for six days over the course of a couple weeks and surrendered control.
As far as capturing people in a ‘stealthy’ way, I shot most everything with longer lenses so I could capture an honest look at the people in the park.
For the shots where I am closer to the “action” I would just frame up my shot, push record, and then typically turn the other direction and fake being on my phone or something.
The thought running through my mind was always “how can I get as close as possible to this action without distracting the person/people from what they are doing?”
I will say, as the shooting went on and my energy started synchronizing with the environment and people, I started getting closer and closer, and really started to feel invisible after a while. I continue to learn big lessons about the role my energy plays in capturing honest interactions and moments.
What did you learn about yourself and your creativity through the making of this project?
That making films is a very important part of life for me, on the most personal and fundamental level. It’s a mirror into my self that I receive more clarity from than journaling or any other expressive practice.
What are you most proud of in regards to People’s Park?
That I just went out and shot a film without much of a specific outcome in mind… the same way that I use to when I was a kid. It just feels good to reconnect with that pure level of creativity and self expression for me.
Do you have any fears/anxiety that people might find this film boring or misunderstand it? If so, how do you deal with that element of your psychology?
None. Thankfully. This film was strictly a creative practice for me and a necessary part of my development as a human being.
For me, anxiety in relationship to a film release comes from the desire to be accepted by others. Right now, I’m just trying to be true to myself and my values, and this film my expression of those things at this point in time.
How can other filmmakers start using the craft of film for personal discovery? What practical advice would you give them?
I think one of the best ways to learn about who you are is by actualizing your own vision and ideas in the form of passion projects. Creating passion projects is also character builder because you are essentially saying; “hey, this is me,” and that takes a lot of courage. In that act alone, you are learning so much about who you are.
As far as practical advice, I suggest simply starting by creating a low-stakes/low-no cost passion project for the pure sake of practicing expressing your own unique voice.
“Practice” is the key. Just like people who play sports practice and become better… it’s a very similar concept with filmmaking.
The best thing about making low-stakes/low-cost passion projects is that if you truly are unhappy with the outcome, then there is zero pressure to release it… and at the very least, you learned big lessons about yourself as a filmmaker and human being.
Anything else you really want to share about People’s Park or the whole idea of using film to explore yourself?
I think the key is to keep experimenting.
Filmmaking is such a part of life for us that it’s important to find a way to enjoy the process and not always put so much pressure on the end results. Life can become so painful if that’s the process for every project you get involved in (at least it did for me!).
Not every film needs to be a hit. Go into each passion project with an intention to learn & take-away something specific, so worst case, if the film comes out not to your liking (or anyone else’s liking!), the knowledge you gained during the filmmaking process cannot be taken away from you.
If you could go back and share some career/life wisdom with “10 years ago Jon” what would you have told him?
It’s hard to say, because looking back I’m so grateful for the lessons I’ve learned by my own “trial by fire” method.
I suppose I’d just whisper something like “slow down” or “be patient. Or maybe, I’d suggest to ‘young Jon’ to go on a meditation retreat once every other month or something.
What’s next for you in your filmmaking journey?
Next for me is continuing to focus on my one-on-one coaching work that I do with other filmmakers. I’ve dedicated this next year to working with small handfuls of filmmakers who are interested in thriving holistically; in life, and their filmmaking careers.
Outside of coaching, I am getting married soon and settling into a new city, so I’m trying my best to be present to this transition and not just let it fly by in blur.
So creating healthy habits and staying true to them is what I’m working hard at, daily. And that includes working on passion projects as frequently as possible!
Where can people stay up to date with your work, coaching, etc?
My Personal Website: www.JonathanBregel.com
My Personal Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jonathanbregel
Or if you connected with anything in this article, shoot me a note at Jbregel@gmail.com
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