Director Tobias Nathan Goes From Copywriter to Behind the Camera

'You have to do and do and do and do without getting hung up on missteps'

Reinventions profiles people who've made big pivots. Meet Tobias Nathan, a former copywriter on award-winning language and creative strategy for brands who's now a director.

What were you before?

A few things, actually. I studied journalism in college and when I graduated was writing for culture blogs about hot new bars and restaurants. It was 2009 and journalism was "dying." I didn't last long. Next, I'm not sure how, but I stumbled into a job as a psychological coach for financial traders. Then I stumbled again, this time into advertising. I worked as a copywriter and creative director in a small shop on Madison Ave. All my Don Draper dreams had come true, but full time employment was not for me, and film was calling.

What triggered your reinvention(s)?

Anytime we were on set, I found myself hovering over our director, pulling strings I shouldn't have been pulling, and probably annoying the hell out of them. So after a while, I felt it was time to make the jump.

What did the first steps look like?

I got lucky. I was fortunate enough to have some friends who had just started a production company in New York, and wanted to make a short. I wrote it, and we shot it upstate over four days. It was the most thrilling experience of my life, and I was hooked. From there, I pitched a three part Miguel music video as co-director with my friend. We won the bid and that was it—I was officially a music video director.

What was one hard obstacle to overcome?

Lack of knowledge. I hadn't gone to film school when I first started directing and frankly, had no idea what I was doing. There was a general lack of knowledge and I didn't have the language or the skill set. I was an imposter. But, I loved movies and I always had and that was enough to get me started.

I was able to overcome feeling like an imposter simply by doing and learning and failing and, most importantly, asking questions to those who know more than me. I learned early on how, where, and to whom it was safe to ask questions. Now, years later, I do have SOME idea what I'm doing. So I guess I've overcome being an imposter and evolved into having imposter syndrome. Progress?

What was easier than you thought?

You have to do and do and do and do without getting hung up on missteps in this business and if you can stick it out, inevitably, you stumble forward. When I look back at a piece of my work, I see what went wrong, every time without fail—what I wish I could've done differently, how I came up short, when we ran out of light, when I had to scrap a shot because it wasn't working as I'd imagined it, when I couldn't get the performance I wanted, you name it.

So each time I watch my work, sure, with some pride, but also with a sense of regret. And yet here I am, five or six years into my career, still working, and on bigger and more interesting projects.

What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?
  • Be egoless but unflappable.
  • This is a collaborative art form and oftentimes the best work comes when you allow others to have input.
  • Don't grow attached to ideas, not only because it can always be improved, but most importantly, because it never NEVER, goes exactly as you imagine it.
  • The art of meditating through the waiting and then at times having your ideas or your talent rejected without crumbling is essential to succeeding in this industry.
Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?

Being on set is always inspiring. It's like a universe unto itself, filled with people whose talents I'm in constant awe of. It's like going back to school every single time.

What has this fundamentally changed for you?

Everything. Ultimately, our work defines a huge part of our lives. How we spend our time, who we spend it with, what we think about, what we invest our energy into.

Do you think you could go back/do you want to?

I couldn't go back, and I wouldn't want to.

Tell us your reinvention song.

When I worked in advertising, I controlled the music in the office. When I got up to quit, I put on Chris Brown's "Deuces." We can call that the beginning of my reinvention.

How would you define yourself now?

A filmmaker in training.

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