NYFA New York Filmmaking Faculty: Interview with Jonathan Whittaker

September 20, 2022

Stories have a unique power to inform, to illuminate, to move – and few mediums can harness that power, as well as cinema. Utilizing that power as a tool to effect positive change in the world is what has driven Jonathan Whittaker, Chair of Short-Term Filmmaking programs, over the course of his more than 15 years in the film industry. When not actively working on a film, he can be found at our New York campus educating the next generation on the importance of sharing their stories for the world to experience.

From producing to directing to editing, Jonathan has worked in all aspects of film production, making him a fountain of knowledge for filmmaking students at NYFA.

NYFA Chair of Short-Term Filmmaking Programs, Jonathan Whitaker

Jonathan Whittaker

Jonathan is a partner and founding member of ManInHat, a New York-based production company. He has worked for clients as diverse as Nissan, Sony Pictures, DirecTV, Gillette, Hyundai, and Sports Illustrated, lending a hand in the creation of short films, music videos, live concerts, commercials, TV shows, features, documentaries, and 3D special projects. He has acted as a director on Emilia (2014), Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2011: The 3D Experience (2011), and The 2011 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Selection Show (2011) and as a producer on Train Baby (2015), People We Meet (2014), America, Here We Come (2014), and Trophy Wife (2010). His extensive experience crosses many departments involved in production, an experience he is eager to share as a guest lecturer all over the world.

We talked to him about the beginnings of his career, his views on the world of filmmaking, and his belief in the power of cinema as a means to change the world.

NYFA: How did you first get interested in filmmaking?

JW: Rightfully or not, I have always felt that I had something to say, something that could maybe have a positive influence on society, and at a young age, I realized that there is no more powerful medium for reaching people than storytelling through cinema. The theater is where I went to live another life, to explore the world, and imagine my best self. Stories are what truly instigate change, alter the way people think and see the world, and with such a global reach, cinema, in the right hands, can be a very powerful and positive tool.  

Of course, I also always loved the experience of watching a film, with each new one, it felt like I was adding to my own private collection. I coveted films like most kids cherish their baseball cards. 

NYFA: What have been your favorite projects/productions to work on to date?

JW: I look back fondly on several projects, all for a myriad of different reasons.  

I fell in love with the comradery on set in the early stages of my career when money was not our main goal when budgets were of low to no variety. Those would be the films I produced with talents like Keith Powell and Judy Reyes. 

I have had the honor of being on set with cinema luminaries like Sam Mendes and Martin Scorcese, just to be able to share space with them was such an incredible and affirming experience.  

Some of the documentaries I have worked on have given me the deepest sense of self-worth, as with storytellers, we always endeavored to elevate the stories of those without the power to use their own voices.  

All that said, I think the most rewarding project was collaborating with women in the Middle East, empowering them to show the world their life through their own lenses.  

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NYFA: Tell us about your time at NYFA.

JW: I have been working in some capacity at NYFA for over ten years now, and it has been an amazing experience, being able to collaborate with so many different people from all over the world has taught me so much about different forms of storytelling and forced me to codify my own beliefs about the art of filmmaking. In other words, I often feel that I am learning as much, if not more than I am teaching. 

I have also had the opportunity to travel the globe giving guest lectures and workshops to those without the means to come to us for in-person training. Empowering others to be able to tell their unique stories is one of the greatest joys of my job.  

NYFA: What are your favorite courses to teach?

JW: I love teaching both introduction to the language of cinema and directing actors. Intro to the language because it is so much fun and so rewarding to witness the aha moment when students realize why certain shots, angles, and movements elicit intended reactions. Oftentimes the students know the how behind the craft but rarely the why, which is infinitely more important.  I love teaching directing actors because it’s the number one skill set any good director must master, and it’s where we get to really dig in and explore humanity.  

NYFA: How would your students describe your teaching style/methods?

JW: I would hope they would say caring, patient, understanding, and ultimately inspirational. I know they would say corny and sometimes entertaining (I can’t help but throw in the odd bad joke from time to time). I also always try to teach through questioning, provoking them to come to the intended realization on their own.

READ MORE: NYFA Hosts Master Class with Co-Chair of Filmmaking and Virtual Reality Jonathan Whittaker

NYFA: What are your favorite aspects of the film community in New York?

JW: It’s a very small world, a close-knit community of people who always find a way to get it done in sometimes inhospitable conditions. We rarely have the luxury of time, space, and large budgets, so it’s much more a “make it work” and “lean into your limitations” mentality here in NYC. 

NYFA: Who do you believe have been some of the most significant individuals in filmmaking?

JW: For me, it’s all about the New York filmmakers who have paved the way for the rest of us, I’m talking about John Cassevetes, Martin Scorcese, Stanley Kubrick, Spike Lee, Lena Dunham, and Nora Ephron (side note, I worked a few days on the NYC unit for Nora’s remake of Bewitched). 

NYFA: What are some of your favorite films?

JW: Wow, really too many to list in a format like this, but if I have to select a few from my favorites; Mean Streets, Do The Right Thing, Memento, The Bicycle Thief, Woman Under the Influence, In the Mood for Love, The Hurt Locker, and The Goonies. I love these all for different reasons, sometimes the acting, sometimes the cinematography, and sometimes just for nostalgia’s sake.  

NYFA: What advice would you give a prospective student looking to get started in filmmaking?

JW: Never let any excuse get in the way of pursuing your dreams; never wait for the right moment to present itself, you’ll spend your entire life waiting. Remember that it’s through stories that we understand the world around us, the world needs to hear and learn from your unique experiences, don’t deprive us of that.  

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