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george watkins: director

You would be hard-pressed to come across any individual in the film industry in Atlanta today whose “big break” wasn’t somehow connected to George. His passion for people, for his work, for his life come together to form this unbelievable Generosity of Spirit.

George Watkins started his career sweeping the cutting room floor. From there, he managed to work his way onto set as a Director. His first big break was directing the Rich’s Christmas commercial with people dancing around a tree, a project he was invited to be a part of because of his musical background. His career took off–celebrities, Clios, national campaigns. This was in the time when a shoot actually was “in the can,” when the only way to see through the lens of the camera was to stick your eye up to it. It was a time when working with film was PHYSICAL–you could measure a minute in your hands, you hung up the clips you wanted to keep over a tub with muslin in the bottom, you wore gloves to make your cuts, shipping took actual time–days! It was a time when freelance commercial film directors were a new and exciting thing in the South. As George put it, “Sure, well, there were a couple of us.”

I started working with George 3 short years ago. We instantly connected–his zest for life, his encouraging spirit, his incisive creative eye, and his warm heart absolutely captivated me. And I’m not alone in that: he captivates everyone he meets, everyone he works with. He’s known for carrying a boom box with him on set to get everyone back on their feet after lunch or to lift everyone’s spirits as we push through a tough shot.

When I started landing commercial work as a creative director, I knew Synergy Films, George’s production company which he owns with his wife Dory and his son Chad, would be our wing man. To have him be a part of my creative work from the very beginning of my creative career is an absolute JOY and honor. Every lunch we have, every job we wrap, I am humbled to get to have this incredible person–my best friend, my mentor, my inspiration–by my side.

He graciously agreed to be my first creative portrait. I interviewed him last week over brunch, and as I was recording it, I knew that these would be words I will keep coming back to when I feel discouraged or when I just need to hear his voice, which has become such a touchstone for me these past few years.

So… Creative Portrait Numero Uno: Here ya go!

On working with creative teams:

The creative process is primarily co-creative, I think, to begin with. When you’re working in concert with another creative group, creative writer, or whatever… you’re charged with bringing that vision, or their vision, to the screen. That’s what you’re hired for. You have to find a way to immerse yourself into their initial concept, because what they’re hiring you to do is to expand and enhance that. So you have to walk into the process knowing you’re playing the part of the mid-wife position. Now, to be able to sustain that and to work at length at that, you have to find something in the project that resonates with you personally. And if it’s not there, you have to dig for it or create it. So that you, not unlike an actor, can become inspired and energized by what you’re doing. So that you’re involvement is a passionate expression that can be sensed and captured on the film. You ferret out what gets you excited. Concentrate on that. And maybe from that point of view, you enhance the thing, bring in the collaboration of the creative team, and say, “Here’s what I saw in it. Here’s what get’s me excited about it. Here’s where I think I can make my contribution.” And so you state that…

I think you definitely have to get emotionally invested in (anything you take on). You have to find a way. And it has to be genuine and authentic. Once you get that, then it really starts to sing. You can be in the dance with the creative team.

On the connection between loving what you do and being successful:

I’m fortunate that I’m in a business that combines my vocation and my passion. It all merges together in filmmaking. I had a music background initially, and that certainly is paramount in how I direct–my pacing and rhythm–and how I make editorial choices.

I really, really love what I do because there are so many facets to filmmaking. It embraces everything that excites me about life: from the artistic expression, to poetry, to literature, to music, to people, and the human condition. I love exploring the human condition. All of these things can be found in and around telling stories on film.

On the importance of having a life that isn’t just your work:

Again, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been married 42 years. I have a beautiful wife and a family and two lovely grandchildren, and I know how important that is. All throughout my career, I’ve prioritized and maintained a life that keeps me balanced because this business can be very challenging. And the time when you’re really, really so involved and your compass turns toward yourself and you can become so self-serving because this is the type of business where you need to be there in that moment. Having relationships, both personal and extended friendships, are very important to keep me balanced. And I search those out. So that’s part of it: (my family and friends) give me equilibrium. And so I can get refreshed again and go on to the next project. Prevents a lot of burnout.

On personal stumbling blocks:

I think, really, I am reserved with my expression because I am so concerned with not offending people. I was raised in a small town with small town values. (I) came up that way. And a lot of that still lingers with me. I do not like confrontation or adversarial points of view. I really resonate when I am in a state of joyful exchange with friends and associates. So, if I have all of these things that I want to say or do or express, I’m still working in relationship with the other creatives. I’m reserved in overstating my own selfish opinion, if that’s the way to say it. Sometimes, I wish I were more aggressive. I wish I had more courage to be more expressive with my own ideas. And so, that’s the other side of working in tandem with creatives. You do get in a role of co-creation. And you have to monitor yourself, allow yourself, to have personal projects that let your own values be expressed.

On having passion projects:

I’m now turning toward a lot of non-profit pro-bono work. I feel that’s very gratifying. It really brings a lot of joy to me. My career is pulling in that direction now, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve done that all along, but now it’s more focused.

On his love of people:

I have a deep sense of honoring people. I really approach everybody from a receiving standpoint… I believe that (with everyone you meet), you’re receiving that individual. You’re looking at them in an honorable way, you know that they’re there for a purpose in that moment. And so I delight in that! I delight in the differences. And I delight in seeing someone else make achievements! It makes me feel good when that happens. It’s something I really relish and I feel in sync with in that moment. When I feel like I’m giving or attending to that part of me, I feel that I’m in sync and life is good.

On the secret to life:

Oh, shut up! (laughing) But seriously: love. Love!