An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Seth Gordon '94: Revealing a one-off perspective

September 2016

By Jim Collins

At home in his backyard with his son, Drake, director/producer Seth Gordon '94 focuses on what's important. Photo by Betty Udesen.
Priorities shifted for Seth Gordon ’94 last spring during the intense, monthslong principal photography stage of “Baywatch,” a movie remake of the popular 1990s television show. Featuring Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, the much-hyped movie was being filmed in Florida and Georgia. Gordon, directing his fourth big-budget feature, realized he’d been away from home for too many extended periods. As he put it, he was missing conversations with his 6-year-old son, Drake, that he’d never have the chance to have again.

The 40-year-old Gordon, one of the rare talents in Hollywood with crossover success making independent documentaries and major commercial films, someone with a reputation in the industry for work ethic and long hours and a history of voraciously taking on projects, felt he needed to reset his focus. “I’ve decided I’m not going to travel as much,” he said. “I’ve stopped saying ‘yes’ to everything. I’m getting home earlier in the day.” Which is why, at the end of a busy workweek this past summer, Gordon drove away from Technicolor’s post-production building on the Paramount Pictures lot at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. His wife, Bootsy Holler, was due back at the house soon after picking up Drake at day camp. Gordon wanted to be home when they arrived. “It’s about life/work balance,” he said. “Especially in this business, it’s so easy to lose sight of that.”

Gordon uses language that often includes words such as “sight” and “vision” and “perspective.” “Point of view is one of the most important tools a filmmaker has,” he likes to say. “For documentaries, it’s one of the only tools. Point of view and tenacity.” Gordon’s particular point of view began forming early in his life. The son of academic parents, he constantly moved, to Chicago, New York, London, Chicago again, finally to Seattle. He got used to feeling what it was like to be on the outside looking in. He struggled to feel at home at Lakeside, where he arrived as a junior not knowing anyone else. He developed an empathy for outsiders — and an awareness of perspective. He says the awareness has been a hallmark of his work from the very start.

When pushed to define how his point of view informs his art, Gordon says that maybe he has an eye for finding humor and humanity, together, in just about any situation, whether in real life or a screenplay.

Growing up, Gordon literally saw the world differently than the people around him. He struggled with astigmatism, with vision that was farsighted in one eye and nearsighted in the other. The asymmetric problems weren’t diagnosed until he was 14 (he had been smart enough to fake it until then, even memorizing the answers he heard from classmates taking the school eye tests ahead of him), and they weren’t fully corrected until he had Lasik surgery, just recently. Through high school, Gordon would let one eye work and then the other — constantly aware that seeing was an active, intentional act — and had difficulty reading through a single page of text at a time. He learned about narrative structure in English classes and especially in Gray Pederson’s Cosmic Connections class, where students were taught to see history through the narrative threads running through disparate times and places. He grew comfortable with visual storytelling. He acted onstage and liked the physical spontaneity of improv. He was funny and learned to use humor as a way to fit in. He became fascinated with cameras and lenses.

Between his freshman and sophomore years at Yale, Gordon worked with the late Lakeside administrator T.J. Vassar ’68 and cut a short film for Lakeside Educational Enrichment Program (LEEP), the nonprofit educational program for Seattle inner-city kids. It was Gordon’s first real film. Vassar would show it for years.

On the set of "Baywatch" with Dwayne Johnson, left, and Zac Efron, right. Photo courtesy of Seth Gordon.

Gordon took six months off from college and taught English and math in a rural village in Kenya. While there, he witnessed the bureaucracy and corruption and cultural norms that complicated the project of building a new school, and he felt compelled to tell the story of the project. He brought hours of film footage back and took a documentary film course at Yale to gain more tools. He taught himself how to edit on an Avid video system. He did exactly what he would later advise aspiring filmmakers to do: Get a cheap camera. Tell a story that hasn’t been told before.

He went on to earn an honors degree in architecture — more structure — and a writing fellowship at Oxford University. He attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

He brought all that perspective to his first breakout project, “The King of Kong,” a 2007 documentary about the quirky world of competitive arcade video gaming. The film’s unexpected humor and empathy charmed critics. In Hollywood, people noticed.

Gordon was invited to direct a feature comedy, “Four Christmases,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn, A-list actors who had seen “Kong” and loved it. Vaughn insisted that Gordon be brought on to direct the $80 million project. Then 32 years old, Gordon told The Los Angeles Times that his move from shoestring documentaries to big-budget filmmaking was “an unprecedented, staggering, irrational leap.” The comedy became a hit, grossing more than $160 million at the box office worldwide, and established Gordon as a go-to big-time director. He went on to direct “Horrible Bosses” and “The Identity Thief” before being tapped for “Baywatch.” He worked with 150-person crews, huge casts, and marketing budgets, alone, in the millions of dollars.

I think there’s something with the whole architecture piece. I think of Seth as someone who can distill something complicated into a basic form that people can understand. He can visualize the abstract and concrete at the same time. That’s rare. - Clay Tweel, collaborator

At the same time, he created a small production company, Exhibit A, through which he’s produced serious documentaries such as “Freakonomics” and “Undefeated,” the story of a North Memphis high school football team, which won the Oscar for best documentary in 2012. He added television serials to his credits (“Marry Me,” “The Goldbergs,” which incorporates actual home-movie footage from the 1980s in each episode, blurring the line between documentary and fiction). Longtime collaborator Clay Tweel has a theory about Gordon’s wide-ranging success. “I think there’s something with the whole architecture piece,” says Tweel. “I think of Seth as someone who can distill something complicated into a basic form that people can understand. He can visualize the abstract and concrete at the same time. That’s rare.”

When asked in public about his unusual dual roles of directing commercial movies while producing serious documentaries, Gordon says the formats complement each other, that working in one art form makes him a better storyteller in the other. Privately, he says, “I love docs. Except I can’t make a living doing docs.” Instead, he leverages his big-budget work and his clout in Hollywood to foster the visions of serious documentary makers. As Mary Rohlich, who runs Gordon’s production company, puts it, “To commit his time to directing documentaries, Seth would have to push pause on so many other projects. Instead, he helps other directors do great work. And as producers go, he’s unusually involved in the creative process.”

When pushed to define how his point of view informs his art, Gordon says that maybe he has an eye for finding humor and humanity, together, in just about any situation, whether in real life or a screenplay. That particular perspective might be the deep thread that runs through his disparate projects.

Gordon produced the film "Gleason," the tender, unflinching story of a former NFL player living with Lou Gehrig's disease, which won the audience award for best documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival and had its theatrical release in July 2016. Photo courtesy of Amazon Pictures/Open Road Films.

It is an especially bright thread in “Gleason,” the tender, humor-filled documentary Gordon produced of a former N.F.L. athlete and father whose spirit is unbroken by Lou Gehrig’s disease. The film was shown at the Centerpiece Gala of last spring’s Seattle International Film Festival, where it won the audience award for best documentary. (A knee injury, suffered on the set of the “Baywatch” filming, kept Gordon from attending the showing.)

That point of view will almost certainly animate the fun and deeply human projects Gordon has in the works: a musical adaptation of “The King of Kong”; “Freedom Fighters,” a documentary about the efforts of a group of exonerees from Dallas who have launched their own detective agency to help innocent prisoners; “Antarctica,” a Netflix comedy TV series about an autistic teenager who’s moving out of his family’s house to live on his own. “We’re shooting as much as we can from the viewpoint of the teenager,” Gordon says. “We’re playing a lot with perspective on that one.”

This article was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Lakeside magazine. Jim Collins is a magazine writer whose articles have appeared in Glamour, Outside, and Reader’s Digest, among other publications. He’s the parent of a Lakeside 9th-grader.