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The Work That Made Me: Nicholas Lam

Asymetric director on why Guns n’ Roses' November Rain sticks with him to this day and the project that changed his career

The Work That Made Me: Nicholas Lam

Based in Los Angeles by way of Hawaii and Hong Kong, Nicholas Lam is a global director, helming international campaigns for some of the world’s leading brands like Google, Samsung, Disney, Viacom, P&G, Timberland, Marvel, Dewars and Nestle. He has worked closely with top agencies as BBDO, Ogilvy & Mather and Iris Worldwide, picking up a Cannes Lions YDA nomination along the way. In the music world, he is an MTV VMA nominated director having shot videos for Nick Jonas, Blink-182, Sara Bareilles, Bastille, Snakehips, JoJo Siwa, Jess Glynne, Monsta X and more.  

Known for his cinematic, emotional and dynamic visual language, Nicholas' films often center on character-driven stories deeply rooted in humanity. His work has been featured in The LA Times, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Variety, The Telegraph, The Independent, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, Forbes, Booooooom, Shots Creative, Director’s Library, Little Black Book and many more.

When not on set, Nicholas will be found tearing through the canyons in his cars or motorcycle, creating new recipes in the kitchen or talking watches and sneakers.


The ad/music video from my childhood that stays with me…

This one’s easy. 'November Rain' by Guns n’ Roses. The sets. The clothes. The melodrama. The audacity of scale. Slash’s iconic solo shot by helicopter outside a dusty church. The bold storytelling and the courage to rip the carpet out from under the viewer’s feet. Still the greatest music video ever made, if you ask me.

 

The ad/music video/game/web platform that made me want to get into the industry…

While there’s no singular piece of work that 'did it' for me, I do recognise a pattern in the kinds of material I’ve always responded to. Films like Terminator 2 and Braveheart; videogames like the Final Fantasy and The Last of Us franchises; TV shows like Breaking Bad and Foundation.

Despite seemingly disparate, far-flung worlds, the common threads here are poignant human stories that explore loyalty, morality, sacrifice, identity and 'outsiderness'. And, of course, with the occasional injection of humour to break up the depravity or a good chunk of action thrown into the mix. It doesn’t matter if the story calls for world-building visual effects or just good old fashioned drama, if it forces us to examine our own character flaws, why we choose who we do to love or to leave, or who we would actually take a bullet for when staring at the business end of a barrel, then that’s something I’ll go all-in for.

These are the themes that burst inside my soul. These are the kinds of stories I wish to build upon as I develop as a filmmaker.


The creative work (film/album/game/ad/album/book/poem etc) that I keep revisiting…

This may seem out of left field, but I always return to the music of Jay Chou, a huge mandopop star in China. His albums span the gamut – from crushing ballads to hip hop; traditional Chinese operatic to glossy pop – but on a purely fundamental level, listening to his music takes me back to my days growing up in Hong Kong. It takes me back to my Chinese roots, heritage and memories, reminding me of who I am at my core.

 

My first professional project…

Define 'professional'. My first big job? The first job involving an actual ad agency or record label? The first job somebody 'paid' me for (and pay is a relative term – who else remembers the ol’ 'meals, copy n’ credit' form of compensation)? 

The first projects with any sort of significance I can recall were ultra low-budget music videos shot for friends. In many ways, these are still the purest filmmaking endeavours of mine to this day. The creative autonomy and trust in the artistic process when not weighed down by external considerations cuts back to the heart of what we do – creating films to experience, to feel.


The piece of work (ad/music video/ platform…) that made me so angry that I vowed to never make anything like *that*…

The latest instalment in the Fast & Furious franchise, 'F9'. Let me preface this by saying I’m a gearhead, through and through. I’ve built cars, I’ve raced cars and I often say that if I wasn’t a director, I’d be a race car mechanic. 

F9 was a prime example of unbridled filmmaking laziness. It was a film so bloated with money and drunk on past success that it took the audience for fools in every way. It was a blatant cash grab where nobody in the room stopped to ask, “wait, does this actually make sense? Is this actually, you know, a good idea?” For a movie franchise that was literally made for people like me to now simply piss off people like me, I’d say it was a colossal failure. But it made money, so…I guess I’ll see you at F10!


The creative project that changed my career…

Back in 2016, I directed my first major label music video. It was for Swedish/Bosnian DJ Salvatore Ganacci and his single, “Dive.” This was before he absolutely blew up the internet with his hilarious and wacky videos that became meme goldmines. People in the comments still semi-longingly refer to my video as “when Salvatore was normal.” We shot this video in the south of France on a tight budget and small crew for two days, but it remains one of my proudest films to-date. Here is where I genuinely found my narrative voice through all manner of film craft: directing seasoned actors, plot subversion, non-chronological editing, match-cuts to suggest passage of time, and finally landing on an overall color palette/tonality that carries across to my work even today (which has been identified by numerous colorists as “a bit European”). Both Salvatore and Warner Records really gave me the creative trust to “do my thing,” which is rare these days. 

On the back of this project, I booked my video for Blink-182, which led to my getting signed in the U.S., and from there one thing led to another and now here we are, in Little Black Book! 


The work that I’m proudest of…

Surprisingly, what I’m most proud of isn’t a film I directed. It’s my sobriety. To say I overdid it a touch in the past is an understatement. I’ve been sober for eight years now, and what that translates to is the ability to always be present. Present for my family, for my friends, for the work and for the creative muse to hit anytime, anywhere. Being of clear mind, body and spirit has fundamentally changed the foundation I stand on.

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