You're creative. You love to tell stories. You want to make films. But wanting isn't enough. You need a way in. So, like many, you hustle and grind and scrap and claw.
But unlike many, you don't give up.
Until one day you get MTV Video Music Award nominations for Best Direction, Best Visual Effects, and Best Choreography for the LSD (Labrinth, Sia, and Diplo) video No New Friends.
And much to your surprise, Call You Mine, a music video you directed for The Chainsmokers, featuring Bebe Rexha, wins a VMA.
Sound like a movie script? It could be.
But it's not.
Instead it's the story of Dano Cerny, a writer and director who turned a dream into remarkable critical and audience success. His resume also includes directing Closer by The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey (2.4 billion YouTube views). Hollow by Tori Kelly (19 million YouTube views). Runaway (U & I) by Galantis (331 million YouTube views).
So how did a self-described "kid who didn't know where I fit in" turn doing what he loves into a thriving career?
Let's ask him.
I imagine the question you're asked most by aspiring filmmakers is: "How did you break in to the business?"
Absolutely. We all want to realize our dreams. That's fundamental to being human.
I was always a storyteller. As a kid, as a child actor... I wanted to be creative. I felt I had something to express and share.
So in high school I started writing scripts, making short films with friends... but even though I grew up in the belly of the industry, in the middle of the Hollywood system... I didn't know where I fit in.
So I moved to Czechoslovakia and got accepted into FAMU (Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague). Which is actually where my parents met. And I kept making films.
Moving to from Los Angeles to Prague might have seemed stupid -- since so many people are dying to come to L.A. in order to become filmmakers -- but it me the freedom to develop my artistic voice without the business pressure.
So why go back to L.A.?
It was a great experience, but I craved more. So I applied to AFI (American Film Institute). Even though I didn't even have a B.A. (Laughs.)
But so many wonderful filmmakers I admire have gone there: David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky... and I ended up getting accepted based just on my body of work.
Which rarely happens.
It was great. And I got to go through the Master's program, get all that class experience... and when I graduated I thought, "Cool. I have a degree. I'm going to be a filmmaker!"
And nothing happened. (Laughs.)
You have this degree. You think it will automatically open doors. But it doesn't.
You also have to learn how to build a career. I had to learn that the hard way, but because I had a background of picking up cameras on my own, I decided I didn't want to wait around for someone to give me permission to make something.
So I went back to the old school system of picking up a camera and making stuff. I had friends at record labels, I would hit them up for small projects I could take on... which led to my very first music video gig for TV on the Radio. They said, "We have $3,000. If you can produce, direct, edit, everything... it's all yours." (Laughs.)
So I did.
And it ended up opening more doors.
Unfortunately, working for free (or close to free) is sometimes the only way to get your foot in the door and show what you can do.
It sounds like such a cliche, but the biggest factor in success is persistence: Literally just doing it and doing it and doing it without knowing that you're on the right path.
Doing it because you have to -- and there's nothing else you want to be doing.
And getting really good at failing. (Laughs.) I'm an expert at failing, and getting up again, and not letting failures turn into defeats.
So many times I thought I was so close to something happening. I was so close to making my first feature film, was doing all the casting and prepping... and a month away from shooting the financing pulled out.
The key to the whole "failing" thing isn't just getting good at failing, it's getting good at moving past each failure. How do you?
Honestly, I allow myself to sink for a few days. I give myself permission to dwell on it... because otherwise you're fighting those feelings. You drag them along with you.
So I give myself three days to sit around and feel sorry for myself -- and then after those three days, I force myself to get up and move on to whatever is next.
You've basically created a routine for overcoming failure.
Absolutely. And the great thing is, failure starts to affect you less over time. You won't need three days. You may only need two. Or one. You start to see failure as just a part of the journey. process.
That's where thick skin comes from. Getting thicker skin doesn't mean failure doesn't affect you at all -- thicker skin just means realizing that one failure doesn't equate to your downfall.
You mentioned picking up a camera on your own and just making stuff. As your career has developed, was it hard to transition to working with a bigger team?
Hard transition? Absolutely not. It's a welcome transition. (Laughs.)
When I finally had two or three videos I felt were good enough to send to all the music video production companies I admired... I knew the only way for me to continue having success was to be a part of a great team.
You can only do so much by yourself. While you do need to rely on yourself when you're starting out, it's important to surround yourself with amazing people.
And of course it helps that I was used to wearing a lot of different hats. You know enough to be able to recognize truly talented people... and that you need to give them the freedom to do what they do best.
So many elements go into making a video... how do you decide when it's "done"?
With music videos, the record lable tells you. (Laughs.)
Seriously, though. You're on a deadline. There are so many times I wish I had eight more hours or eight more days... but music videos are fairly unique. You have a small pocket of time to create something from inception to production to post-production, sometimes as short as two weeks... so you don't get the luxury of sitting on it and and "perfecting" it.
And that's okay: You should have such a strong vision going into it that you know what you need. If you're still "exploring" midway through the process, you're in trouble.
Plus, no matter what your creative vision, you serve a larger purpose: Your job is to create a visual for the artist and the label. So your vision does matter... but ultimately your job is to serve the artist and the label.
Speaking of artists: Is it harder to direct musicians as opposed to actors?
The approach really isn't that different. It's all about creating an atmosphere where people feel like they can step into whatever role they need to. It's all about setting up that "reality" for them and helping them feel comfortable.
But keep in mind they're performers. They're used to performing. Even though some artists really need your help guiding them: How to stand, how to look, when to move... just because you're a talented musician doesn't mean you know what to do in front of a camera. Others are so good aat it they already know their angles, they tell me their best side...
Which is why directing requires technical skills and people skills.
The people side is actually more important than the technical.
As a director, it's not a one-person job. Instead you're at the helm of this ship -- from crew to actors to musicians to record label -- and a big part of it is being able to work with different personalities, to communicate your vision, and to figure out how best to work with people as individuals.
That all starts with having a really clear vision for what you want to do -- because if you have that, communicating is a lot easier.
After years of knocking on doors... was there a moment when you felt like you had "arrived"?
No, because I havn't felt that moment yet. (Laughs.)
But maybe a little bit. I was probably three years into directing music videos, had spent almost two years of pitching every week, every month, never hearing anything back, just constantly hitting the pavement... and then somehow things started to turn.
When I started working with Galantis and became the director for their entire album... there was a small sense of security: An artist had seen what I was worth and was willing to bring me in to deliver their visuals.
That trust, that relationship, gave me an opportunity to to take greater creative risks... and in those risks, you can show yourself a bit more. And that opened up more doors.
By the time I got to doing Closer, The Chainsmokers video with Halsey, it dawned on me that the plates were actually spinning.
But that doesn't mean the plates will keep spinning.
With music videos, it's such a roller coaster. Which is why there really hasn't been a moment where moment where I think I've "arrived."
Even with the VMA nominations and award, I'm still anticipating the ebbs and flows of the industry. I know how it works. You can be on top and then suddenly not work for a while.
So I refuse to give myself permission to think I've "arrived." (Laughs.)
You're also a big supporter of We Direct Music Videos, an organization working on behalf of thousands of music video directors to help make the industry more respectful and transparent... and to minimize free work.
I'm an active board member of We Direct Music Videos (WDMV), which Daniel Kwan (one half of the Daniels) created as a community resource for music video directors. It started as a forum where directors at all levels of the music video industry could voice their frustrations, especially about the "pitching process."
As I mentioned earlier, when I first started out I spent weeks if not months pitching three times a week and not booking anything. WDMV has evolved into an advocacy group for music video directors with the goal of implementing industry standard pitching guidelines to minimize free work and reinstate transparency and fairness throughout the process.
Traditionally, record labels reach out to a handful of directors and expect 5- to 10-page pitches with photos and text.
Imagine doing three of those a week (for free) without ever getting the job.
The new guidelines will roll out in phases, starting with a one-page concept. Although the music video community is still new in many ways, it's very similar to film, TV and advertising... yet so many directors struggle financially trying to make a living off low budgets, long hours and high expectations.
Working for free or very little has become a way of life for many music video directors. WDMV is trying to bring back some respect and fairness to the art of music video making -- and that starts with how we treat ourselves as filmmakers.