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Alek Keshishian is best known as the director of Truth or Dare, a no-holds-barred documentary that follows Madonna on her 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour. At the time, the film was recognized as the highest-grossing documentary on record. Keshishian’s foray into the convergence of film and music first began as a music video director for stars like Bobby Brown and Elton John.
A Harvard graduate, Keshishian turned to cinema and released With Honors, the story of an Ivy League undergrad who nearly loses his thesis but learns a valuable lesson. In 2006, Keshishian returned to the silver screen with Of Love and Other Disasters, a film about an American intern who works for Vogue UK that reflects Keshishian’s own love affair with London. Again revisiting familiar territory, Keshishian partnered up with Madonna, this time joining the singer behind the scenes as the writer for Madonna’s 2011 directorial release, W.E.
With a diverse film career that has spanned over 20 years, Keshishian’s Beaulieu 8mm camera is a symbol of the unwavering power and passion behind his craft.
We team up with Braun to talk to Alek about his favorite Built to Perform possession.
What directors or films inspired you to chose this career path?
I’ve been drawn to film from a very young age. I love how transportive it is; how for two hours I can lose myself in other people’s lives and worlds. Unlike a novel, where that other world exists only in words, or theater, where the world is replicated and represented on stage, film has an immediacy and reality that seems so much more powerful. Whether I find myself in Bertolucci’s post-war Italy, Woody Allen’s black and white New York, David Lean’s Arabia or George Kukor’s Philadelphia, I am transported and transformed.
You have directed music videos, documentaries and feature-length films. Do you prefer one over the others?
These days, I prefer to direct commercials or shorter viral films. Directing a movie is like running a marathon or a triathlon. It requires singular focus for several years on just one thing. By the time you’re finished a movie, you’ve not only filmed every scene from 10 angles, you’ve edited and relived it for another 10 months. Movies are a marriage. Commercials are like dating.
What is about the cult of celebrity that attracts you as a subject?
It’s not celebrity per se, but the contrast between the public and private that intrigues me. This is perhaps more obvious with celebrities, since we have built up an industry trying to peek into their “private” lives. But all films, in a way, are examinations of the private, secret world of their characters.
There had to be a lot of interesting stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor that will never see the light of day from the Truth or Dare tour. What are some of your most vivid experiences from that time that didn’t go into the film?
We shot over 250 hours of footage. So the amount of film on the cutting room floor is tremendous. My goal was to pick the two hours of footage that could convey the totality of the tour and of Madonna as I knew her then.
Your Built to Perform prized possession is an 8 mm camera. What is the model/type? Where were you when you first bought it and how long have you had it for? Why is it your Built to Perform possession?
I bought my Beaulieu 8mm camera when I graduated college and first came to Hollywood. I figured it would be my only way of getting to “make films” when I first arrived here. I never had time to use it, as I found myself directing music videos almost immediately, and then, at age 24 directing Madonna in Truth or Dare. Still, I consider the camera a kind of touchstone of where I came from and what I love.
Do you prefer working with vintage equipment film or digital?
Digital. I’m not sentimental about process, the means to the end. Today, digital actually gives you freedom to do more for less money, and the latest cameras actually allow you to do things you couldn’t dream of on film.
In one sentence, tell us why you couldn’t live without your Built to Perform possession.