The first time Michael Maxxis directed a video, he was so overcome by nerves and migraines, he threw up. “I put so much pressure on myself because it was so important to me to succeed,” he says, recalling the shoot for Edmonton rockers Murder City Sparrows, three years ago.
Through sheer drive, the 25-year-old Edmontonian has since conquered his queasiness and is well on his way to success. He’s shot two more Murder City Sparrows videos, another by Toronto alt-punk act The Cliks, and three with his favourite band, New Jersey’s melancholy merchants Ours – two of which he convinced the band to film here. Earlier this year, Maxxis put his nerves to the test during a shoot for Addicted, by San Diego-based “spiritual” hard rockers P.O.D. (Payable On Death), his biggest directorial gig to date. As Sony bigwigs monitored the proceedings, Maxxis created foreboding visions of luminescent orbs darting between band members and sequences with an anorexic stripper, homeless folks, and a hayseed writhing on a bed of fish.
“I think you need to capture the essence and energy of the song,” says Maxxis, who eschews computer graphics for a mounting inventory of “top-secret” lenses, and conjures many of his visions while dozing on a couch. “My ideas come from my own life experiences, because I’m not classically trained and I don’t have a film degree. I haven’t seen as many films as most directors, so I try to live as much as possible.”
If reaction from Addicted is any indication, Maxxis – who spends up to six months in the U.S. each year to rub shoulders with musicians and industry movers and shakers, while maintaining a loft in Edmonton overlooking Chinatown – is ascending the fast track’s on-ramp. The P.O.D. video has already amassed more than 135,000 views on YouTube, enjoyed high rotation on MTV2 in late April, and prompted major acts with deep pockets to request his services. Surprisingly, he turned down at least 10. “You have to be particular about who you work with, because if that artist isn’t very innovative it really affects your chances of working with more interesting acts.” Instead, he shot for Berlin techno act Boys Noize, and pitched concepts to Scars on Broadway (the band formed by two System of a Down members) and British power metallurgists, Dragonforce.
L.A.-based manager and executive producer Randi Wilens signed Maxxis the moment she saw his demos. “His reel just spoke to me,” says Wilens, whose agency has been involved in shoots for the likes of Shania Twain, Lenny Kravitz and Beyonce. “He has a very unique cinematic style, a very interesting and hypnotic type of shooting, and possesses an abstract sense of storytelling.”
Maxxis has a future in feature films, too, says Wilens. His third effort with Ours, Worst Things Beautiful, shot in Spain, looks “just stunning, very epic and colourful with lots of landscapes and street scenes.” In fact, this month Maxxis is in Memphis, writing a feature film with long-time video director David Hogan (Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews Band, Goo Goo Dolls).
For all the fuss, Maxxis seems well-adjusted as he relaxes in an Old Strathcona coffee shop. With his laptop and BlackBerry always within reach, his square-rimmed glasses and a wool cap evoke only a subtle sense of hipness. Between sips of cappuccino, he talks rapidly but humbly, as if trying to keep his enthusiasm surrounding his career in check. He’s busy, he says, but “there’s also a lot of debt that I’ve accumulated by building my own resume. I’m not about to start buying condos and expensive cars until I’ve settled my debts.”
He’s no financial rookie, thanks to his father, a successful construction company owner in Edmonton. (“I’d ask him for a toy and he’d ask me to write him a business plan in return,” recalls Maxxis.) That taught him that if you want something, you have to give something. So to learn about directing, he hired accomplished local cinematographer Peter Wunstorf for shoots – and then picked his brain.
Maxxis’s first big taste of capitalism came while working at Sorrentino’s as a busboy, when he persuaded his boss to start a valet service. It quickly expanded across the city – and then to the Dominican Republic, where Maxxis was a work-experience intern for Gold’s Gym.
He believed entrepreneurship would be his calling card, until he dropped out of business school at the University of Western Ontario five years ago. Setting his focus on a cinematic career, Maxxis planned to parlay his valet earnings into film school, but lacked a requisite portfolio. That’s when he stumbled across Halo, an independent film project starring singer-actor Alfie Zappacosta. Maxxis signed on as executive producer, raising most of the film’s $300,000 financing through his valet earnings and investors he found via the business. Although he landed video-on-demand deals with Shaw and Rogers, and worldwide distribution through a U.S. firm, Halo lost money. “I’m hoping at some point I’ll be able to pay those people back, because I really owe so much to them,” says Maxxis.
He’s a few high-paying gigs shy of that, but Wilens sends commercial shoots his way and sets up L.A. meetings that generate 20 to 30 songs a month looking for video concepts. For now, Maxxis lives in the moment – frame by frame – throwing himself into projects here and in the U.S. that seem like anything but work. “I’m very lucky because every day is kind of like a day off,” he says.