Last year, Mark Freiburger made a short movie that played before 108 million Americans. This year, he worked on a full-length film that might be seen by 200 million people worldwide.
Now it’s time for the former Charlottean to kick his career into high gear.
The Providence High grad (class of ’01) had directed two features and written another when he submitted a 29-second commercial to a Doritos contest. The company thought “Fashionista Daddy” funny enough to air during the 2013 Super Bowl, and its ratings won him a plum: Director Michael Bay agreed to mentor him while making “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” which opened this weekend.
The result? A new understanding of how vast movies get made, new representation at the heavyweight United Talent Agency, new acquaintances with Hollywood powerhouses and a new dream: to step up to the plate in the biggest of leagues.
The UNC School of the Arts grad had made the 2007 “Dog Days of Summer,” about a stranger’s unsettling visit to a small town, and the 2013 “Jimmy,” about a mentally challenged boy who interacts with mysterious “Watchers.” But trying to swim in the mainstream on the strength of mini-budget indies is like trying to join a NASCAR crew after success as a backyard mechanic.
“I am interested in doing commercial projects,” said Freiburger. “I want to make the kinds of movies that got me excited when I was a kid. I’ve been in the business nine years now, and I realize how little a part of it I’ve been before this. I was so far out on the periphery of the system. For the first time in my career, I’m getting to know the town.”
A whole new world
He came to that domain via the fourth movie in the “Transformers” series. He spent 10 weeks on sets in Chicago and Hong Kong watching Bay direct, while Doritos footed the bill. By the end, his mentor trusted him to shoot inserts.
“He treated me like a colleague,” says Freiburger. “He’d say, ‘Our young director’s going to pick up a shot for us.’ We didn’t talk a lot about personal things. (There’s) an immense amount of pressure on his shoulders every day on the set, but it’s fun for him. (Bay didn’t respond to interview requests.)
“When I got into this as a kid and started making little movies at home in Charlotte, I did it for the love of it. He has all the money in the world, but he still does this because it’s what he loves to do. When you see someone who shares that passion, you understand him.”
Freiburger achieved all four mentorship goals. “I wanted to see how he runs a set, how he handled setting up shots and dealing with various personalities, what his management style was like ... in the middle of the war zone.
“I shadowed the visual effects team from Industrial Light and Magic. I geeked out the whole time; those guys are Oscar-winners from ‘Jurassic Park’ and movies I grew up on. A year ago, if you’d given me a script with an alien crashing through a window, I’d have had no idea how to shoot it. Now I could start to break it down with an effects supervisor to make it look cool.”
He went to ILM’s post-production facilities in northern California to watch actors in motion-capture suits perform for technicians, who create robots in computers: “One guy might work on the rust on Optimus Prime. Another would work on reflections in Optimus Prime’s metal (exterior).”
His third ambition was to learn how 3-D films require different camerawork, lighting and blocking: “If you have a lot of movement in the foreground going left to right at top speed, you can actually make audience members sick in 3-D.” And he shot behind-the-scenes footage for a making-of piece, which led to shooting inserts for the picture.
A rosy-looking future
The biggest life change came after the project, when he signed with UTA. He quickly directed a low-budget TV movie without taking credit, because his reps didn’t want it on his resumé. He directed a pilot for Nickelodeon.
Best of all, his management company has arranged meetings with powerful producers: the people behind the “X-Men” series and “The Blind Side,” people at Shawn Levy’s company (“Night at the Museum”), executives at MGM. Freiburger says he’s attached to a science-fiction project for Original Film (“22 Jump Street,” the “Fast and Furious” franchise). And he’s been hired by State Street Pictures (“Barbershop,” “Notorious”) to direct a movie about Hero, a dog retrieved from rubble in the Iraq War.
“You get attached to a small handful of projects you’d be passionate about, and when one comes together, you move on it,” says Freiburger. “I thought you had to be patient in the independent world, making one movie at a time, but you have to be a LOT more patient here, because so many things are in the balance.
“I’ve learned always to buy trip insurance. My sister in Raleigh and parents in Florida keep inviting me, but I found last year I can never commit to family functions: Dates change for shooting, and you do the job you’re committed to do. I’m going to be swerving and adapting for the rest of my life. Some people are made for that, and I’m one of them.”