Where are you from?
Where do you live?
New York City
What was your first job? What did it teach you about business?
I cannot recall my first job. My first job in “films” was as a production assistant in Berlin. I was studying communications at the University of Arts. It taught me that I had a natural understanding of the filmmaking process. It was clear right away that filmmaking was “my thing”
My first job as director was to direct a 30 second MTV promo that was a spoof on the shower scene from the movie “Psycho”. When the camera looked down at the bloody water disappearing in the drain, the audience saw a sponge with blood shaped like an MTV logo. It was quite popular and the promo, seen by a billion people, ran on all continents.
Directing this spot for MTV was not planned. I was working with music video director Marcus Nispel (now a Hollywood movie director) at the time. We typically worked on concepts together or pooled the ones we both came up with. This particular one I had come up with and Marcus was scheduled to direct it but was overbooked. I didn’t really want to do it alone but was talked into it by Marcus and MTV didn’t mind. After that day, I knew I had to become a director.
What's your background, did you go to school for this?
I studied at the University of Arts in Berlin. The program is called Social and Commercial Communications and finishes with a master’s degree.
When did you first realize you had a passion for cars and racing?
I grew up in Germany, the land of the Autobahn where the most people are passionate about cars. The Germans view their right of driving without speed limits as an expression of their personal freedom like Americans view the right to own a gun.
When I was very small, I remembered that we (my older sister and I) could earn some money (50 Pfennig) if we could spot a Volvo P1800 and point it out to my father. That very rarely happened. One day I was lounging around near the living room window when a red P1800 pulled up and parked right in front of our house.
As I was still contemplating the disappointment that my father was not around at the time, thus me not being able to earn the money, he himself stepped out of the car. I could not believe it. It made me so happy, knowing how much he had wanted that car. And he looked so happy, too. Today I believe that the joy I felt then - that my father treated himself with this very cool car started my passion.
When did you first discover videography?
As a commercial director I came from shooting proper film, 16mm and 35 mm. For most of my career I had been a die-hard film guy, contemptuous of anything video or digital. I originally planned to shoot motor-racing documentaries “on film”. However, for years I was not able to raise the required budget. When historic Aston-Martin racer, collector and supporter George Miller stepped in with financing, I had to find a creative and economical solution.
At the time I was discussing the project with Jeremy Braben, fellow Aston-Martin enthusiast and friend living just around the corner from me in London’s South Kensington neighborhood. He’s a famous director of aerial photography with blockbusters under his belt such as Titanic and the Bourne Trilogy. Fortunately at the time he was just testing all kinds of HD video cameras to match 35mm cameras for Bourne Ultimatum. It was Jeremy who advised me exactly what cameras to use and how to shoot with them in order to get this wonderful cinematic feeling that I was after and that the GT RACER Series has delivered ever since.
We had some technical issues on the very first shoot and I was not able to screen the in-car footage during the shoot at all. I could only look at the other footage through the tiny monitor we had with us. When I finally loaded the material back in my editing suite in New York City and was able to see it on my HD screens, I was blown away. Just blown away! I need to credit my initial shooter Mark Barrs here as well. He really got the most out of the equipment. He has such talent. That day, while looking at my HD screens - 35mm film died for me.
What did you use?
We have always shot with Panasonic VariCams. I have done many more camera tests with other cameras but I always come back to the VariCam. People have huge arguments and debates regarding resolution, numbers and what not. In the end (for me) only the look matters and the look can only judge by, well, “looking” at the footage.
Inside the cars we use Sony HVR-A1U Camcorders that record HD onto Firestore hard-drives, uninterrupted for up to six hours.
What do you use now?
We are currently testing new technology. It’s too early to say what will pan out.
What's different about your early stuff and what have you learned?
You learn constantly on every shoot. You streamline your production process and how you work with your crew. The in-car-shooting aspect needs constant improvement. At the same time, new technology is constantly available and not all of it improves things! We are pushing the technological and the creative envelope. I am never satisfied. At the same time, there is a material reality to things. I am talking about budgets. It is just so hard to scrape up any financing today. In fact, budgets are getting smaller but I do not want to deliver less next time around. It’s a big and constant headache. You always learn.
Have you always chosen to film vehicles and races?
I have shot all sorts of topics and formats.
Why are you so fond of cars?
Cars and in particular luxury, sports and classic cars or racecars are three-dimensional art forms. They can captivate all of your senses. Running them successfully requires teamwork between owners and makers and mechanics. At the same time, you can have your very private moments with cars while driving them. We are living in a three dimensional world and its premier features are distance, gravity (G-forces) and time. Few things can give you the most direct experience with all three.
Where are some of the places you have filmed?
GT Racer has been shot in California, New England, ‘Old’ England (aka UK), Germany, France, Mexico, Belgium and Portugal. As a commercial director, I have also shot in South Africa, Brazil, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and several other countries.
What's the farthest you've ever traveled to do a shoot?
Sao Paulo and Cape Town were equally far away from where I was at the time.
Is this your main profession?
No, but if I tell you my main profession I’ll have to kill you.
Do you do business related to still photography as well? Explain?
Usually my photography is also car related. Sometimes I take stills at a Concours, as I have done for the Fairfield County Concours d’Elegance over the last two years (http://www.fairfieldcountyconcours.com/gallery.html). Sometimes I write the review that goes along with the photographs as I did for the New York City Concours d’Elegance, (http://www.classicdriver.com/uk/magazine/3700.asp?id=12674). Sometimes I shoot events for manufacturers and car clubs such as the Open Day at Gaydon, Aston- Martin’s Headquarters. I have also shot other race events i.e. the AMOC (Aston-Martin Owners Club) race meeting at Lime Rock, Connecticut (http://www.classicdriver.com/uk/magazine/3700.asp?id=12164). I shot the 2009 event for the club for their magazine, The Vantage Point. I also sometimes jump in last minute when a shooter is needed: For Audi I photographed soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer arriving by private jet in New York. A fleet of brand new Audi Q7s escorted him to the Ritz Carlton at Central Park. Stuff like that. Some of my photography has been exhibited. I had a couple of shows a few years back in the UK and in the US. I sell limited edition prints to collectors from my website www.AlexanderDavidis.net
Where have your films appeared?
In the USA my films have appeared on Treasure HD (VOOM) and Discovery HD Theater. In the UK they’ve appeared on UKTV’s channel Dave (right after Top Gear). My films pretty much always land prime time slots. Worldwide they run on Discovery HD in countless countries as well as on a number of other networks.
How hard was it to get your films picked up by a network/other?
Getting picked up by the networks was not the problem. Finding the initial financing for the first one was difficult. People would just not believe that owners and drivers of rare, historic racecars would let me fiddle with them in the middle of a race.
I tried without success for three years. As so often in life you need luck and in this industry that often comes in form of one single person that believes in you and has the means to float your project. In my case it was Aston-Martin Club racer and collector, George Miller from England, formerly owner of First Choices Coffee. He made the first show Shaken & Stirred – Racing Astons at Spa possible. Once it was done Discovery HD bought it.
Another instrumental believer was George Lansbury, Director of Programming and Executive Producer at Treasure HD of VOOM HD Networks. VOOM sadly folded as a result of a $2 Billion lawsuit with the Dish Network and no longer exists. At the time, George commissioned six more episodes and the series was born. After VOOM’s demise, my agent David Piperni of Cargo Film & Releasing and I (http://www.cargofilm-releasing.com) went back to Discovery. They commissioned Season II.
What was the biggest challenge?
Was? Is! Times are very bad. No one has money. People love my work including the networks, but nobody has any money. Everybody says, “Hey Alexander, don’t you want to shoot this event here or that over there? Why don’t you come over and shoot this?” I say, “Sounds great. Shall I put a budget together for you?” Boom! Silence. What needs to happen is that some people from the car and motor sport industry need to come forward as investors and/or sponsors. It’s perfect for them.
My films are not like motor sports reports that are shown once during an event or shortly after. People buy the DVDs and collect the stuff. They watch them over and over and lend them out to their buddies. The car and motor sport industry would get a super long-form commercial that stays on the shelf for years. The films don’t need to be forced on the audience because the audience is already asking for them. We’re running a very lean operation in terms of budget. I have spent two, three times the money that one show costs to make a 30 sec. commercial. It makes much more sense for someone to support one of my films as a sponsor rather than invest in a commercial. It’s much more cost-effective and the exposure lasts and lasts.
On the other flipside, most networks (with the exception of Discovery, Speed and VOOM which no longer exists) still view my shows as “niche”. What the protagonists in my films do is “niche”; racing historic cars. But the show itself clearly has mainstream appeal.
What kind of reaction do you get when people first see your films?
They go nuts. People call it the best stuff on television. I’m not making this up. It’s all out there on the net, on the car enthusiast forums and chat rooms. There is a consumer driven poll website in the UK called www.TVGuide.co.uk Shows are rated from zero (worst) to 10 (best). For the last two years, my show constantly ranks above 8, recently approaching 9. If you look at the top-rated shows you see that only the really big smash hits ever go beyond 8! (http://www.tvguide.co.uk/reviews.asp?title=GT%20Racer&)
What haven't you filmed that you want to film?
There is so much going on. One particular event I really want to shoot this year is part of the “Le Mans Classic”. It’s called “Little Big Mans”. I just got a glimpse of it two years ago when I was busy shooting the real races. A parade of children were driving seventy mini vintage race cars powered by combustion or electric engines around the Bugatti track. The kids in their suits and helmets and the whole nine yards where all super focused on driving their beautiful machines. It was completely off the hook, like in a surreal but wonderful dream. I would LOVE to shoot that for a children’s program.
Can people purchase your films? Where? How much?
Yes, on DVD. Prices vary but are average DVD prices. Inspired by some customers of the pilot-film and Season I we gave Season II two soundtracks. With the remote control of your DVD player you can - on the fly - switch the background music on and off. Some people really love to blast themselves with engine noises of 50s and 60s GT cars. It’s pretty cool. The mastering quality is excellent. Season II looks as good as HD on TV even though it can be viewed on all formats on all players! Depending where you live you can get them here:
Have any networks discussed a seasonal show with you?
There are a lot of concepts in development right now: Historic racing, modern GT racing, the American Le Mans Series, car collections. The classic car and racing world is very much alive but money is tight. We will see.
What's your business goal over the next year? Five years?
For DVD (and any form of downloadable-media) I am working on building out a Concept Market for luxury, sports and classic cars and historic racing related titles. My films have yet to reach the tipping point. Having them shown on major national and international networks has helped a lot and the potential is clearly there, looking at feedback from audience and available TV ratings. Hopefully it will not be long before the car and racing related industry recognizes its positive image-transferring potential and decides to step in with financing of which not much (in relative terms) is needed. I am also working with some leading figures in the historic racing and car-collecting world on a new concept that is rather exciting but I cannot talk about it yet. All I can say it’s going to be very exclusive.
What do you personally drive?
I am a New Yorker. I ride the subway. It is very good to stay grounded and in touch with the real world and your surroundings. I am fortunate that I sometimes get offers to drive fabulous cars to great events. Personally, I like to keep it real. I think that comes through in my work and people appreciate it. I have to admit that I was in love with my ’89 Aston V8, which was perfect except for being a right-hooker (I was living in London at the time). I’m looking to replace it eventually with a left-hooker of equal standard. But I’m in no rush. It’ll come to me when the time is right. Due to the economy, there are more V8s from that area up for sale than ever. Prices are still high but some are now sitting around for a year or more so prices will definitely drop.
Do you have any classic or racecars or have you ever had any?
I had my V8 for 6 years driving it 50,000 miles across Europe. That choice was also determined in my youth. I totally remember it. I was in my early twenties, at night in my Beetle, at a red light in the rain. Before I heard it I felt this low frequency vibration in my stomach. And before I could see it I heard this unbelievable, solid, rich and intimidating rumble of a V8. In the rear-view mirror this big black muscle car, hugging the wet and shiny street pulled up right next to me. (Think John Carpenter movies). It was an Aston Martin V8 Vantage. When idled, the engine sounded like Berry White slowly giggling, "Huhuhuhuhuhuhh..." Nevertheless, it felt like my Beetle's door was about to fall off.
I peeked into the interior and since it was night I could only catch the highlights on the wood and the size of the cushioned leather headrest. I couldn't make out the driver, only a silhouette. The traffic light switched to green and the Aston pulled away. Just in a normal lawful fashion, nevertheless with incredible pace. Ahhh... and the sound was amazing. Rising now from giggle to full blast laughter, never ever had I heard anything like this before. I followed the sight of the fat, wet rear tires and the two straight tail pipes coming out from under the car emitting this divine noise. Right there and then I told myself: "This is my car! This is definitely me!"
Later in life I ended up frequently traveling back and forth between Europe, the States and South Africa and finally started to sample some Astons; A DB6 in Cape Town, later a DBS in Hamburg, which seemed to be going in the right direction. One day in Geneva a V8 Vantage was smirking at me out of a classic car showroom window. A test-drive followed the next day. The salesmen got quite pale as I pushed the car through all gears on the highway. The way the car felt was right, heaven in fact, but it did not have the right specs! I called up the factory to ask how much it would be to do a little paint job here and there, and to get rid of the brown piping. The answer was astronomical of course! I came up with a new approach: I thought: If I want the perfect V8 why not ask the factory to sell one to me directly?
Mr. McCloskey who initially answered my first call and to whom I have been speaking ever since, politely replied: "Well, we are not really in the used-car business but I am more than happy to make a few calls to see if any of our dealers has a car in stock with the specs you have in mind." I liked that. And amazingly two brief weeks later the car was found. A manual 1989 V8 Vantage, X-pack with 435BHP from 5.3 liters - in Cumberland Grey with black hide and dark wood. Through cost efficient re-conolising grey leather to black I got rid of the gray piping, and later on, after a fortunate little accident due to another motorists fault, the Vantage’s air-dam went as well and was replaced with a P.O.W. spec-type spoiler. The result was a car in its original V8 shape, true not to the factory's add-ons but to the pencil strokes of genius William Towns himself, combined with the final technical incarnation of the X-pack '89 Vantage”. Encouraged by AM Work Service and members of the Aston-Martin Owners Club, I took the V8 to the track and almost totaled it. That was when I decided to shoot racing rather than race myself. I am still pretty happy with that choice.
What do you like best about what you do for a living?
I tried to answer that question before. I really love the entire process from thinking up a concept for a film or a documentary, planning it, putting it together, shooting it, crafting the editing with sound design, music, graphics etc. to arriving at the final piece that others enjoy. Naturally, sometimes during shooting you have golden moments when you just know (mostly through pure luck) that you have something special. That is always the highlight. And I love when I learn that I made others happy with it. This is brutal, very hard work and acknowledgement makes it worthwhile.
Who would you consider your heroes in the film industry?
John Frankenheimer, Claude Lelouch, as a photographer Michael Cooper, whose sense of framing and composition inspired Frankenheimer. Outside the car genre I love some contemporary directors who understand how to roll serious documentary subjects into feature films like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck who did “The Lives Of The Others” and Fernando Meirelles. His company represented me in Brazil in the 90s and did “City Of God” and “The Constant Gardener”. But I think on the top of the list are still the Wachowski Brothers with “The Matrix”, “V For Vendetta”, and of course the 2008 “Speedracer”!
Do you automatically dissect movies when you watch them?
GOOD movies draw you in and you forget the reality you exist in and you live for some hours inside the movie, therefore I do not dissect them when I watch them. I dissect the really good ones for weeks and months afterwards….I dissect the bad ones immediately regarding their shortcomings.
How has the Internet affected your business?
Like with all new emerging computer based technology, my business benefits from it tremendously.
How can people contact you?
Phone, email or through my website. Google me!
Do you like owning your own business? Why?
Independence gives freedom, which has to be paid for with a huge amount of uncertainty. That is not for everybody. I think that certainty (or the anticipation of it) is an illusion - wishful thinking. So for me it is difficult to imagine anything else.
Special Thanks to Alexander who took the time to work with us on this interview.
Please enjoy the production stills from GT Racer below. Of course to really get the feel for the show you must experience it on DVD.
Photography: © by Alexander Davidis
Stills from the TV-Series: © by John Galt Films Inc.
Media Inquiries: Cindy A. Meitle CAR PR USA LLC firstname.lastname@example.org
[Interview by By Cindy A. Meitle]